Mayors and Prophets: Both Servants of the Lord in Tricky Times

kingsAhab’s reign in the Kingdom of Israel was one of the most godless in her whole history. And that’s saying something. Queen Jezebel has instituted worship of the Baals and ordered all the prophets of Yahweh slaughtered. The godlessness is so rampant that Yahweh has the prophet Elijah proclaim a drought and a famine in the land of Israel, in response. If Jezebel and Ahab want the word of Yahweh to dry up in the land, they will suffer the consequences.

What does it look like to serve Yahweh faithfully in this context? In the first half of 1 Kings chapter 18, right before Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, we’re given a portrait of two quite distinct servants of Yahweh: Obadiah, the household manager in Ahab’s court, and Elijah, the iconoclastic prophet.

In his absurdly insightful theological commentary, Peter Leithart sheds some light on the distinct roles they play in the Yahweh’s retinue:

As “mayor of the palace” Obadiah holds a high position in Israel, with responsibility for Ahab’s palace, estates, and livestock. Both Elijah and Obadiah (whose name means “servant of Yah”) are faithful servants of Yahweh, the God of Israel, but radically differ in their position and mode of service. Elijah confronts Ahab from outside the court, while Obadiah works for the preservation of the prophets–and hence the preservation of the word of Yahweh–from within Ahab’s court, subverting the official policies of the court even while acting as chief steward. Not every faithful believer is called to be an Elijah. Many are called to the tricky work of remaining faithful in a faithless context, to the business of serving Elijah and Yahweh as “master” (18:7) and serving Ahab as “master” (18:8) Obadiah’s position is not merely tricky; it is dangerous. A false shepherd, Ahab tolerates Jezebel “cutting off”…prophets (18:4), but is reluctant to “cut off” any of his cattle…(18:5). Jezebel the Baal worshiper is willing to tolerate golden calves and other forms of idolatrous worship, but she cannot tolerate the intolerance of Yahweh worshipers.

1 & 2 Kings, 133-134

Elijah is obviously the hero of the whole narrative and one of the central figures in both 1 & Kings. Elijah has the word of Yahweh come to him personally. Elijah courageously calls out Ahab, the king of Israel in the name of the true God. Elijah faces off with the prophets on the mountain, calling down fire from Yahweh in the heavens. Elijah is a model of prophetic faithfulness, the willingness to stand outside the compromising systems of empire and power, depending solely on the Yahweh’s protection and preservation to carry out his task.

And yet, there stands Obadiah–the skittish, possibly compromised, bureaucrat. Because, think about it–wouldn’t many of us on the purist end (a rather exaggerated Neo-Anabaptist, possibly), be tempted to consider him compromised? Isn’t he working for a godless king in a regime that seems actively hostile the will of Yahweh? Aren’t followers of Yahweh to remain pure and set apart from evil-doers and the systems of power that they run? To avoid colluding with Empire? Doesn’t running Ahab’s household count?

Well, according to the political theology of 1 & 2 Kings, it’s only because of Obadiah’s willingness to stay within the regime that he was able to successfully resist it and save some of Yahweh’s prophets, ensuring that when Elijah’s showdown happens and the prophets of Baal are overthrown, there’s someone around to preach God’s Word. Obadiah is able to exercise wisdom and rebel from within, only because he stays within.

In times of trial like those facing God’s people in the times of Ahab, the danger is the Elijahs and Obadiahs God has called to serve him might not recognize each other’s distinct calls. Elijah might be tempted to scorn the cowardice and compromise of Obadiah’s wisdom in difficult places. Obadiah, meanwhile, might be tempted to bemoan and begrudge the “trouble” brought on by the rash words and confrontational stance of Elijah, who seems to paint everything in black and white with no shades of grey. And yet that would be a mistake, for God’s wisdom can employ both prophet and bureaucrat to preserve and proclaim his Word, each according to the gifts and privileges that God had given them. In a sense, we need Paul’s theology of the body and the gifts (Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 12). applied outward into the worldly vocations that the citizens of the Kingdom must engage in.

Texts like this are obviously releant in the face of a culture that is increasingly intolerant of the “intolerance” or exclusivity of Christian values and truth claims. Don’t worry, I’m not breaking out the “p”-word and claiming that Christians will have to face firing squads soon, or something like that. All the same, let’s not be naive in the other direction. If there are Chicken Littles running around proclaiming the imminent descend of the heavens, there are also ostriches with their heads in the sand. Or worse, those who refuse to see any difficulties ahead because, well, you know, Jezebel “has a point.” Trouble will come and, indeed, has always come for the people of God.

For that reason, we need deep, biblical wisdom like that of the book of 1 & 2 Kings, read with an eye to the horizon. As Paul says, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). These things happened back then and there, but since the patterns of the world’s sin repeat in history, these texts are still used by the Spirit of God “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Soli Deo Gloria

Abraham Kuyper on the Sovereignty of God As Political Limit

Kuyper Our ProgramDutch Theologian and Statesmen Abraham Kuyper had a particular knack for taking high-level political theology and–instead of keeping it at an academic level–putting it into popular form for the benefit of the Dutch masses, the middle-class citizens he was burdened to shepherd and lead in both church and state. In many ways, that’s the burden of his work Our Program: A Christian Political Manifesto, the first volume of the beautiful collection of Kuyper’s works recently translated by the Kuyper Translation Society in collaboration with the Acton Institute and Lexham Press.

In this manifesto, he attempts to comprehensively lay out a political program rooted in the Calvinist worldview in contrast to the secular, liberal, Modernists inspired by the French Revolution. Through a commentary on the platform of his political party, Kuyper winsomely and popularly articulates a vision of the political life of the nation moving easily from depth-level political theology to the specific policy proposals needed for the good of the people.

Witness, for instance, this rather homely explanation of the concept of sovereignty:

Sovereignty in an absolute sense occurs only when there is an authority that has no other authority over it, that always commands and never obeys, that does not admit of restrictions or allow competition, and that is single and undivided for all that has breath.

I am sovereign in an absolute sense only over that with which I can do what I please. Since as a human being I never possess such unlimited power over anything, it is out of the question that I shall ever possess original sovereignty.
Just because I can draw or write anything at all on the piece of paper in front of me still does not mean that I am a sovereign over that piece of paper. For that paper is hard or soft, fibrous or smooth, of a certain thickness and length, and so on, and I am bound to all these properties. They restrict my power and force me to conform to them. To be sovereign in this case I would personally have to be the maker of that paper, this pen, and that ink, and I would have to make them each time again in order to have them serve my purpose and remove every impediment to my will.

But even if you think that this would be conceivable, I still would not have sovereign power over that piece of paper, since in making it I would find myself bound by the materials and the tools commonly used for the papermaking process, and I would often bump up against the limits of what is possible when I try to introduce still one more improvement or remove one last flaw. I would have to have complete control over those raw materials and those instruments. Assume for a moment that even if that were possible and that in the making of pen and ink I disposed over the same creative freedom, then just to be sovereign in the mechanics of writing I would have to be able to freely determine or alter the laws governing the adhesion of the ink to the nib and the flow of the liquid onto the paper.
-Abraham Kuyper, Our Program: A Christian Political Manifesto.  (pp. 16–17)

From this basis, Kuyper carefully and clearly moves on to establish the limits political power whether of the ruler over the state, the father over the family, or man over beast, and even between the nations. Any who tries to cross these natural boundaries, is transgressing on the only absolute sovereignty of God from whom all natural power is derived and who alone has this power over all and stands as a limit against all authoritarianism. From there, Kuyper contrasts what this understanding of God’s sovereignty means for political sovereignty and the varieties of political visions on offer, and even the specific challenges of Dutch national life.

Obviously, the work shows its time and place. Many of the specific policy proposals of Kuyper’s program are suited only to the Netherlands, with its unique governing structure, national character, and geo-political position at the turn of the century. For one thing, forming an explicitly Christian political party in the United States is simply unworkable. All the same, Kuyper’s program stands as a model for current political theologians in a number of ways.

First, as can be witnessed in the sketch above, much of the theology stands the text of time because it is rooted in the trans-historical truths of the gospel, such as its unique anthropology and eschatology. Kuyper shows time and again the way–without desiring or advocating a “theocracy”–specifically Christian theology ought to inform our political engagement.

Second, Kuyper has a strong sense of both what the program is for as much as what it is against. This is a welcome change from so much negatively-framed political discourse flowing from Evangelical theological camps today. Kuyper’s program was not a retreat, nor a merely conservative reaction, but a positive vision for the common good of the Dutch people.

Finally, as already mentioned, its specificity to the time and place in which Kuyper wrote is an obstacle towards its immediate application. All the same, it can serve as a model for those looking to make their political theology concrete. Upper-level theory is good and necessary, but so is actual policy implementation. Obviously, this is not the step that most of us will be looking to make, as that requires a certain level of technical proficiency in policy matters most do not possess. Still, for those who do, Kuyper’s work will be a stimulating and challenging historical voice to engage with.

From all that I’ve read so far, I’m quite looking forward to the rest of the Kuyper series. And you should be as well.

For more info, go ahead and go to AbrahamKuyper.com. Also, for electronic types, the whole set is available on Logos.

Soli Deo Gloria

On “Moving The Conversation Forward”

conversationI don’t know how often I’ve heard the phrase “moving the conversation forward.” We could be talking sex ethics, church and culture, science and faith, or whatever. Every subject has a conversation around it and it’s always supposed to be going forward. Now, I have to say, I don’t always know what that means. Of course, it’s very simple to say what the string of words mean together. There is a “conversation” between interlocutors on an issue, and it is to be “moved forward.” But meaning is also a function of use. So there’s a question of “how is this being used?” Well, I can think of three senses.

First, there’s the idea of “growth in mutual understanding.” When you start a conversation between people who disagree on an issue, it’s possible to be separated from each other in at least two senses. First, you can disagree on the issue. I support A, and you support B. Second, we can disagree about what the issue even is. I might support A, but you think I support C, and while you support B, I suppose you support D. In this case, the conversation can “move forward” when we grow to understand each other’s actual position, even if neither of us actually move away from our original position.

Second, there’s the sense of “new, intellectual ground being broken.” In this usage, it could be that while you support B and I support A, in the conversation, it’s possible that in the course of the conversation we find that E is an option that neither of us had been considered before that deals with both of our concern. In this option, an impasse is broken and we both move forward together.

Third, there is the sense of “you move to agreeing with me.” In this case, I support A, which is further beyond B, and so the conversation moves forward when you catch up with me. And this, I take it, is actually the most common use.

Here’s the couple of interesting things I’ve noticed about the these senses:

First, the third sense is usually somewhat hidden, or parasitic on the first or the second uses. In other words, when many today suggest we try to “move the conversation forward”, the idea is we’re to be open to find a new middle ground, or move towards greater mutual understanding is implied. And who doesn’t want that? But the problem comes when you enter the conversation, under the guise of the first or second sense, yet what you really mean is the third.

Second, we often don’t notice that in inviting people to “move the conversation forward” in the second sense, you’re already asking them to accept the premise that whatever position they currently hold is unworkable and like ought to be moved beyond. But even there you’re subtly begging the question.

Of course, I don’t think most people don’t do this consciously. Rather, we subconsciously assume that “if the discussion is properly had, once you actually understand my views, you’ll end up agreeing with me.”  Or, “if the discussion is properly had, once we actually talk it all through, we’ll end up with some third position that’s not yours.” We have trouble imagining that at the end of the conversation, at least one or both of us will remain in the same place, or that it “moves forward” only in the first sense.

This is caught up with another phenomena I’ve noted before, which is our tendency to think that everyone holding a position on an issue (atonement, salvation, etc) must be in the same place process-wise as we ourselves are. So, if I’m only now discovering the other side’s view on a subject, and I’ve hitherto held my position naively, then I tend to assume that all of my interlocutors must be in that same epistemic boat. It fails to occur to me that others might have had those “conversations”, made their judgments on the issue one way or another, and have now justifiably moved on to a different conversation entirely.

In any case, this equivocation on the sense of the term “moving the conversation forward” is a peeve precisely because of its rhetorically obscuring quality. Instead of openly proceeding with the very understandable and commendable goal of trying to debate or persuade someone into a position you hold as true, or out of one you believe is false, we falsely move under the more “humble” guise “moving the conversation forward.” In which case, if you don’t want to be “open” to a new way of thinking because you’ve already given it due thought, well, isn’t that still so “narrow” and backwards and stultifying to the conversation which ought to be going “forward”? It becomes a rather disingenuous rhetorical tool to move the conversation in your direction without owning your intended aims.

I have no solution here other than to commend a greater sense of self-awareness regarding our speech and intentions. There are times when you enter the conversation in order to learn, or in order to move beyond current paradigms, or, quite legitimately, in order to persuade others of a position you honestly hold.

Soli Deo Gloria

Are We Really Just Like Those Who Embraced the Gentiles?

Dr. J.R.D. Kirk says he has finally “come out” as fully accepting and affirming of non-celibate, gay and lesbian Christians within the community of the Church. Which, he himself seems to note, should really come as a surprise to no one after reading his recent posts or his scholarly work on the subject.

As it turns out, his arguments for this decision are fairly unsurprising as well.

To his credit, Kirk says that none of the verses in the Old or New Testaments go his way on this issue. They’re all fairly against same-sex erotic activity in a general way, not merely with reference to specific practices like idolatry or pederasty. So, he had to find another paradigm for making theological decisions that takes us beyond, or even formally contrary to Scripture. He did that in the paradigm of the inclusion of the Gentiles.

In inviting in the Gentiles to the Church, the apostles and early Jewish believers had to transgress and go beyond a lot of clearly written commands. In a nutshell, they did so because of their experience of the Spirit in the lives of these Gentile believers who had been “washed” and made pure. Think Peter and Cornelius (Acts 10). This is really not a great summary, so you should go read the article, make sure I’m not misrepresenting him, and then come back for the rest of this.

I bring this up, not because I have any particular beef with Dr. Kirk–he seems like an amiable fellow. Still, his argument has been shared widely, and likely comes as a welcome novelty to some looking to rethink their position on this existentially challenging issue. So, I figured it would be worth commenting on.

Now, having written on this very argument before, I suppose it’s alright if I begin by just quoting myself on a very similar argument a while back. Then, I’ll add a few points just to deal with some of Kirk’s additional materials. Finally, as always, this is far from an extensive treatment of the issues involved. I’m trying to do the very limited work of seeing whether Kirk’s argument does what he says it does.

Six Reasons For Thinking This is Not Like the Gentile Thing

I’m not convinced Peter’s encounter with Cornelius is an adequate model for Christians reconsidering their position on same-sex relationships within the Christian body. Ironically enough, it highlights a number of reasons for caution against breaking with 2,000 years of the Church’s scriptural teaching on this point:Peter Baptizing the Centurion Cornelius by Fra...

1. No New Revelation – One clear distinction between the two situations is that no special revelation has happened with respect to same-sex relationships. Peter wasn’t transformed by a mere experience of the “sincere faith” of the Other he had despised, but was given a supernatural revelation and confirmation in the form of a vision and the Spirit empowering Cornelius with visible, supernatural signs, so that as an authoritative apostle, he could testify to God’s acceptance of the Gentiles by faith. As far as I know there aren’t any apostles, witnesses of the risen Christ, walking around having experienced new, authoritative revelation on this issue. We should be careful not to act is if there has been.

2. Sexual Attraction is Not Race – Without fully elaborating on this point, the analogy problematically presumes a Biblical equivalence or adequate similarity between sexual attraction and race or ethnicity. I’ll just say that even when inborn, sexual attraction is not equivalent to race or ethnicity. My Arabness is not something I act on in the same fashion as my sexual and romantic inclinations. That is an increasingly common category mistake that does injustice to the complexity of both race and sexuality, especially within a Biblical framework.

3. There Was a Plan For Cornelius – What’s more, the Scriptures have always testified to the future-inclusion of the Gentiles as Gentiles within the covenant people of God. Passages could be multiplied ad nauseum, but Isaiah presents us with a vision of God’s plans for the nations:

It shall come to pass in the latter days, that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. (Isaiah 2:2-3)

Being a Gentile was never sinful per se, but only as it was connected to idolatrous practices that inevitably went along with being outside the covenant. In other words, the Israelites were commanded to be holy, different from the Gentiles because of election and the unrighteousness of Gentile actions, not because non-Jewishness was inherently unrighteous. What’s more, within the Old Testament, there were covenantal purposes for Israel remaining distinct and separate from the Gentiles precisely because the election of the Jews would eventually be for the sake of the Gentiles (Gen. 12:1-3).

Peter’s experiences with Cornelius then, are a personal, experiential confirmation of a movement already foreshadowed in Scripture. So any modification revealed does not come as a radical disjunct, but comes as part of the surprising fulfillment of what is already written.. As difficult as it is to accept, there is no such prophecy, foreshadowing, or hinting that homosexual behavior is something that will one day be sanctioned and blessed for God’s children.

4. The 1970s Were Not Eschatological – Following this is an insight from Kathryn Greene-McCreight: the Sexual Revolution is not a new eschatological event. Cornelius’ inclusion, along with the rest of the Gentiles, was brought about by the eschatological turning of the ages. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the particular covenant with national Israel was fulfilled, pouring forth into the always-intended blessing of Gentiles joining Jews in being built up into Christ. (Rom. 4; 15:8-12; Gal. 3; Eph. 2:11-22) Nothing similarly climactic has happened in salvation history to suggest a new administration of God’s covenant is in place, which includes behaviors clearly forbidden to God’s people in both Old and New Testaments. In that sense, unlike Peter, we’re not standing in a eschatologically-new situation calling for a radical revision of Christian theological ethics. The 1970s were a big deal, but not that big.

5.  About Those Conversions… –  Which brings me to the theological repentance of Paul, Augustine, and Luther. Paul’s conversion of attitude towards the Gentiles was, as with Peter, the result of scales falling from his eyes in light of the Risen Christ, to see past his own religious nationalism. It was an authoritative revelation that shifted his perspective, not a new experience of diversity. Augustine changed his mind on a number of issues, but in his Retractions you see that it’s constantly a process of going back to the Word and letting it correct his earlier Manichaeism and Neo-Platonism. Luther’s theological reformation was an attempt to recover what he believed had actually already been revealed, but was covered over by years of scholastic teaching.

While Paul’s conversion was qualitatively different from Luther’s and Augustine’s, all were transforming encounters with God’s Word, Incarnate, written, or both. Paul’s was inspiration, and we could say Augustine and Luther’s experiences were illumination of what had already been said. We need to make sure that when we change our minds about something on the basis of “new biblical insights, movements of the Spirit, and new friends” we don’t turn God into a confused deity who contradicts himself because he’s changed his mind.

6. Already Included–In Christ – Finally, and this one is probably the most crucial to understand, the New Testament already includes those with same-sex attractions on the same grounds as it does everybody else–union by faith with Christ whose shed blood purchases forgiveness and whose Holy Spirit sanctifies us from all uncleanliness. The Gospel is for everyone. Really. God’s family is open, adopting new sons and daughters with all sorts of struggles and backgrounds. I too shudder at the idea of calling impure that which Christ calls clean. I too think the grace of God extends far and wide–if it didn’t, I wouldn’t stand a chance.

What I also don’t want to do, though, is blunt the Gospel and its promise of new Creation that says, “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:11) I would hate to look at my brother struggling with same-sex attraction and say, “Yeah, that’s true of everything except your sexuality.” No, the Gospel gives us a better, if not always easier, hope than that.

On the Presence of the Spirit

Alright, what else is there to be added?

A few points. First, it needs to be reiterated that–to my knowledge–a great defenders of the traditional view of things have no objections to acknowledging the presence of the Spirit in the lives of LGBT people. I also don’t object to talking about them having been cleansed in keeping with the New Testament. The difference, I take it, comes with our understanding of what that means and what theologically follows from that reality.

For instance, as we’ve already noted, Paul said the young, ex-pagan Christians in the church of Corinth had been cleansed. They were holy, saints of God. Now, given the sweep of the letter, do we think he believed they had nothing yet to repent of? Does having the Spirit automatically mean that every desire you still have even with the presence of the Spirit is blessed and cleansed by the Spirit? Reading the rest of the New Testament authors (John, Peter, James, Hebrews?) ought to disabuse us of that idea fairly quickly.

Acknowledging someone has the Spirit doesn’t mean ruling out the reality that there are sins, brokenness, and areas in their lives in need of further spiritual growth, healing, strength to endure through, or outright repentance. I can probably name about 10 in my own life right now that I can only pray don’t rule out the presence of the Spirit.

I suppose what I’m getting at is, Kirk’s arguments in this respect don’t seem to overturn our older understanding about the meaning of the presence of the Spirit.

On the Sabbath

Next, we come to the Sabbath parallel. Now, the problems with this one are legion. First, let’s remember there are Sabbatarians. But really, there is a long history of interpretive disagreements within the orthodox tradition here, with sophisticated hermeneutics attached them (skipped over by Kirk) that stems from one main difference between the Sabbath and the same-sex issue: we seem to have verses written by apostles in the inspired New Testament witness as well as the practice of the early church that points to the, at least partial, restructuring of the Sabbath command because of the change in the covenants brought about in Christ. In other words, the debate about altering our understanding of the Sabbath comes from a feature which Kirk notes the same-sex relationship issue doesn’t have: New Testament warrant.

The New Testament apostles who very firmly reiterated the Old Testament’s restrictions on sexual ethics, were also the same ones who saw a change in the administration in the covenant on the basis of it’s fulfillment in Christ (Hebrews 4; Gal. 4:10;  Col. 2:16). Which means that it’s fully possible to do our theologizing about these matters as most Christians (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant) without explicitly extending ourselves beyond, or rather against, the logic or the clear text of the New Testament, as Kirk suggests we ought to in respect to sexual ethics. For a fairly classic treatment of the issues, here’s Calvin. For a more contemporary treatment, Michael Horton has a helpful article.

Of course, I forgot to mention Jesus’ own comments about being the Lord of the Sabbath in his own controversies with the Pharisees (Mk. 2:27-28).  I suppose, though, it makes sense to remind everyone that another feature of Kirk’s logic on this position is holding that Jesus himself actually got his theology of divorce and marriage wrong. So, maybe Jesus’ words don’t help much there, either. Which, for most Christians, is probably enough reason to be hesitant about accepting Kirk’s invitation.

Soli Deo Gloria

Reading with the Principle of Charity in the Republic of Language

charityReading is an activity which, common as it is, requires some reflection to be done well. This is especially the case when dealing with reading arguments in difficult or possibly indeterminate texts. While many technical principles can be developed in connection with various kinds of texts in different genres, some principles can be seen to apply across genres, especially since they concern the morality of reading texts.

Many of us haven’t stopped to consider reading as a moral act, but it is deeply so. Reading is a communicative act involving author(s), text(s), and reader(s). While I can’t delve deeply into it, one helpful image from (surprise, surprise) Vanhoozer is that of being a “citizen” of language. Language is our common realm, the kingdom, the republic within which we live and move and having our social being. As such, there are rights and responsibilities within it for both speakers and hearers, in order that we do justice to one another as fellow citizens. Once the image is in place, it’s fairly intuitive to begin filling it in.

In his recent work Reading Barth with Charity: A Hermeneutical Proposal (pp. xii-xiii), George Hunsinger draws our attention to the recent appeal to one such principle, the “principle of charity”, in reading texts in recent analytic philosophy. Hunsinger says there’s no single, definitive account of it, but he helpfully summarizes the main lines of it for us:

  • The principle of charity seeks to understand a point of view in its strongest form before subjecting it to criticism. A suspension of one’s own beliefs may be required in order to attain a sympathetic understanding.
  • One assumes for the moment that the ideas under consideration, regardless of how difficult they may seem, are both true and internally coherent. The emphasis falls on seeking to understand the texts as they stand rather than on picking out difficulties or contradictions.
  • If apparent contradictions are found, an active attempt is made to resolve them. Donald Davidson has suggested, for example, that the principle of charity means attempting to maximize sense and optimize agreement when it comes to doubts about the inner coherence or factual veracity of the viewpoint under consideration.
  • If it is possible to resolve apparent contradictions (or ambiguities) through a sympathetic interpretation, a presumption exists in favor of that interpretation. A presumption exists by the same token against any interpretation that resorts to the charge of inconsistency without attempting to resolve apparent contradictions.
  • Only if no successful interpretation can be found is one entitled to conclude that a viewpoint is inconsistent or false. Critique is always possible but only after an adequate effort has been made for an interpretation that does not call a viewpoint’s truth or coherence into question precipitously.,
  • The attempt to maximize intelligibility through the resolution of apparent contradictions is related to a corollary, which is called “the principle of humanity.” As Daniel Dennett explains, one should attribute to the person whose views one is considering “the propositional attitudes one supposes one would have oneself in those circumstances.”

That about sums up what I’ve seen of the principle, especially in analytic discussions. This is true both in philosophy and theology. I can recall a number of sections in Alvin Plantinga’s work where he’ll consider an opponent’s position in two or three possible forms, at times even strengthening their arguments, before going on to refute them nonetheless. This principle can also be seen Oliver Crisp’s habit–which has proved confusing to some–of considering and strengthening a number of positions he doesn’t actually hold.

For myself, I think there’s something deeply Christian and honest about the principle of charity. It’s a form of Christian virtue; an exercise in loving your neighbor as yourself within the republic of language. We would want others to extend to us the benefit of the doubt, strenuously work through our arguments, and imaginatively attempt to enter into our concerns and intuitions in order to come to understand why we’ve come to hold what we hold. This is an angle on what Matthew Lee Anderson has called “intellectual empathy.”

What’s more, considering arguments in this manner can help clarify the actual issues at stake in a given conversation. Doing your interlocutor the favor trying your best to make sense of their position means that when you do actually get around to arguing against it, it can only be that much stronger of an argument. Or, it may be that it’s only then you see the person actually has a solid point!

That said, a friend of mine has also argued it’s important that this principle be weighed or balanced against the principle of accuracy. In the picture above, there is a danger that in your attempt to actually be charitable, you end up inadvertently misrepresenting your opponent anyways. Due to your own unavoidable intuitions, it may be you end up saying, “Well, they couldn’t possibly mean that, because that doesn’t make sense,” when, in fact, that’s exactly the position they do hold. Sometimes the benefit of the doubt becomes dubious. And that is a case where, despite your charitable intentions, the truth is not actually served.

All the same, I know for myself, consciously striving to be charitable in my pursuit of accuracy curbs my natural tendency to read with my own blinders on. In other words, striving for charity slows me down enough to achieve accuracy. Of course, I struggle and fail–quite spectacularly, at times. Yet I would propose that principles of moral interpretation such as that of charity have become all the more pressing to adopt and practice as our internet age has pressed even more of our communication to be textually-mediated. We are constantly reading, interpreting, and engaging with the texts of other authors, other citizens of language like ourselves. If we fail to practice charity in interpretation, one of our most socially and morally formative practices, it can’t help but bleed out into other areas of our thought and life.

So then, to wrap up another post that’s gone far longer than I had intended, practice charity in all your reading. Beginning with this post.

Soli Deo Gloria

Uniting Body and Soul, Truth and Righteousness, with Ireneaus

apostolic preachingI recently had the pleasure of revisiting St. Ireneaus’ brilliant little work The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching for a course. It’s this magnificent little summary by Ireneaus of, well, the apostolic preaching through the Scriptures. It’s an account of redemptive-history, the work of God in salvation through Christ and the Spirit, to redeem his cosmos. Sort of like a less-polemical, little brother to his massive work Against Heresies. It’s really one of the classics of the patristic period and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

In any case, I was struck by a passage in the introduction, where Ireneaus is commending the importance of having a unified approach towards truth and life. He roots it in the nature humanity as a compound of body and soul. Humans are necessarily composed of both; we are not just souls with bodies nor bodies with souls, but soul-and-body-wholes. As such, sin and impurity can come by way of both routes. We can defile ourselves in spirit as well as in the flesh.

This leads him to this brilliant little bit:

For godliness is obscured and dulled by the soiling and the staining of the flesh, and is broken and polluted and no more entire, if falsehood enter into the soul: but it will keep itself in its beauty and its measure, when truth is constant in the soul and purity in the flesh. For what profit is it to know the truth in words, and to pollute the flesh and perform the works of evil? Or what profit can purity of the flesh bring, if truth be not in the soul? For these rejoice with one another, and are united and allied to bring man face to face with God.

Irenaeus highlights two dangers we face in our walk with God. We can err in pursuing truth at the expense of righteous living or in pursuing righteous living at the expense of truth. The two cannot be separated.

The first seems particularly threatening to me as I begin my program at Trinity, diving headfirst into academic texts, lectures, and the bowels of the library. It’s easy to become impressed with a knowledge of the ins and outs of the history of theology, or be tickled by the latest, new idea about God, and become confused into thinking that’s actually a growth in holiness. But the reality is that you can add more books to your shelves and not an ounce more of moral character or depth in your actual communion with God.

And this is part of how you get that seemingly inexplicable moral failure that haunts so many pastors down the road. Some build up academic theological knowledge or practical ministry know-how in seminary while bracketing it off from a growth in the spiritual disciplines of prayer, gathering with the people of God, submitting yourself to the ministry of the preached Word, and so forth. That leads to a top-heavy, shiny theological structure without the foundational character that can support it. This is why Barth warned that prayer is the main attitude with which to undertake the study of theology.

The flipside of this is the sort of pursuit of righteousness that tends to downplay questions of doctrine and truth in favor of “just living like Jesus”, or “doing good.” Of course we want to live like Jesus and do good, but there is a way of pursuing it that cuts it free from their deepest logic and motive power—the reality of the gospel. Paul talks about this when he condemns those who have the “form of godliness while denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:5).

Of course, this easily falls into soul-sucking moralism. One form devolves into a Pharisaic self-righteousness because this righteousness is cut off from the gospel of grace. Or maybe it turns into a hopelessness that eventually robs us of our moral energy because “doing good” has been cut off from the hope we have in Christ that all things will be put to rights. The extreme at the end of this road is not the failed pastor, but the social worker who retains Jesus as—at most—a cipher for their own best moral aspirations.

Here’s the irony: Both approaches turn Jesus into something less than a Lord. In the first, he’s treated as an object to be studied. In the second, he’s a model to be followed. But neither treats him as a person to known, or loved, or obeyed.

This is why only when the two are united—the pursuit of truth as well as the pursuit of holiness—are we led to the face of God. Only as we acknowledge Jesus’ Lordship over soul and body, truth and practice, do we encounter him as whole persons, given over in worship.

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