A Political Non-Pacifist Reading of The Sermon on the Mount

constantineIt’s often alleged that any reading of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount that doesn’t result in a pacifist ethic is a depoliticized and de-historicized one. Jesus’ commands against retaliation and of neighbor-love, (Matthew 5:38-48) set in a context of Roman oppression and violence must lead obviously one of non-violence lest the politics of Jesus be lost. Leithart notes that for John Howard Yoder without pacifism Jesus’ ethic loses its political force because Yoder believes that Jesus’ teaching offered no instruction for his disciples in political power because his followers were never to have that sort of power.

In a striking passage Leithart moves to counter that contention by offering a brief, non-pacifist, “political” reading of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus’ words for his disciples can shape the governance of those disciples who happen to hold political authority; for a way in which the “Eucharistic city” of the Church can offer guidance to the City of Man based on the teachings of her King:

  1. “Turn the other cheek” gives instruction not about self-defence but about honor and shame. To slap someone on the right cheek, you have to slap back-handed, and back-handed slap expresses contempt, not threat. Is this relevant to political ethics? Of course. The Roman Empire was built on a system of honor, insult and retaliation. Before Rome, Thycidides knew that wars arose from “fear, honor, and interest.” Remove retaliation and defense of honor from international politics, and a fair number of the world’s wars would have been prevented. There would have been a lot of slapping but not nearly so much shooting.
  2. The Eucharistic city would teach rulers to agree with their adversaries quickly, to defuse domestic and international disputes before they explode.
  3. What if rulers were instructed not to look at a woman lustfully? That would also prevent some wars, keep presidents busy with papers and things at their desks, protect state secrets, save money and divisive scandals. The church would insist that rulers be faithful to their wives and not put them away for expediency or a page girl (or boy.)
  4. The church would insist on honesty and truth telling, urging rulers to speak the truth even when it is painful.
  5. The church would insist that a ruler not do alms or pray or fast or do any other good things to be seen by others, especially by others with cameras—a rule that would revolutionize modern politics.
  6. Rulers would be instructed to love enemies and do good to all. Obama would be seeking the best for the Republican Party, Ms. Anonymous Republican would be doing her best to serve the president. A ruler would have to stand firm against the antics of tyrants, not out of hatred but out of love, to prevent the tyrant from doing great evil to himself and others. If the tyrant attacked, the rule would have to defend his people out of love for them and out of love for his enemy. Punishments would be acts of love for the victims, the public and the punished, just as a father disciplines his son in love. The church would insist that the ruler not use his legitimate powers of force for unjust ends, on pain of excommunication.
  7. The church would urge rulers to beware their own blind spots and remove logs from their eyes so they can see rightly in order to judge.
  8. The church would remind a ruler that she will face a Judge who will inquire what she had done for the homeless, the weak, the sick, the imprisoned, the hungry.
  9. At the extreme, a ruler might place himself on a cross, sacrifice his political future and his reputation, for the sake of righteousness. In certain kinds of polities, he would be the first soldier, the first to fly against the enemy, because being the leader means you get to die first. In great extremity, he might follow Jeremiah’s example and submit to conquest, defeat, deportation—endure a national crucifixion to preserve people for future rebirth.

Defending Constantine, pp. 338-339

Whether you’re in full agreement with this list or not, Leithart demonstrates that one doesn’t have to be a pacifist in order to give “an earful of the politics of Jesus” to any ruler.

Soli Deo Gloria

Jesus Went to the Cross For Me–Now What?

crossI’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the Cross–what did it accomplish, why did it happen, was it planned, what should we think about it, etc. I don’t regret any of it. A good atonement theology is at the core of any good understanding of Jesus and the Gospel. If your understanding of the atonement is narrow and weak, so will be the salvation Jesus offers. The more efficacious, broad, bold, and beautiful you see the Cross to be is the measure of how efficacious, broad, bold, and beautiful you will find Jesus. And that, of course, will determine the character of our discipleship and our churches.

Often-times we don’t get to that second part. We stop at theory and don’t move to practice–to response. We pour over all the verses that talk about what Jesus did, and we don’t think about what the Bible says our response should be to it. So how should we react to Christ’s love-provoked, justice-satisfying, holiness-creating, devil-defeating, guilt-blotting, righteousness-fulfilling, self-giving on the Cross?

Leon Morris helpfully lays out 8 New Testament responses to the Cross:

  1. We have faith in the efficacy of his blood, Romans 3:25
  2. We are to glory alone in the Cross of Christ, Galatians 6:14
  3. We should determine to know nothing save Jesus Christ and Him crucified, 1 Corinthians 2:2
  4. We are to look upon Christ’s offering of Himself as an example, and to follow in His steps, 1 Peter 2:21
  5. We are to overcome by the blood of the Lamb, Revelation 12:11
  6. We are to reckon ourselves crucified with Christ, and continually seek to be made conformable to His death–Romans 6:3, 4, 5, 8; Galatians 2:20; Philippians 3:10; Colossians 2:12; 2 Timothy 2:11; 1 Peter 4:13
  7. We are to preach Christ crucified, 1 Corinthians 1:23
  8. We are to “proclaim the Lord’s death till He come.” in our observing the Lord’s Supper, 1 Corinthians 11:26; cf. “a communion of the blood of Christ,” 1 Corinthians 10:16

–Leon Morris, The Cross in the New Testament, pg. 426

We could easily find more, but that should be plenty to keep us, both as individuals and as churches, busy for a while.

Soli Deo Gloria

Are You a Dualist? Is that Bad? Just ask N.T. Wright

I was a sophomore in college when I found out that there was more than one kind of dualism. I was sitting in my class on St. Augustine (it was my medieval philosophy class) when a fellow classmate brought up the issue of dualism and how interesting it was given that nobody believed it. I piped up and said, “Oh, yeah, I’m a dualist.”

Looking at me with surprise, “Oh really? I’ve never met one. That’s odd.”

I didn’t think it odd at all: “Well, I am a Christian so it’s not that weird.”

“Really? I thought the two were kinda not compatible.”

At this point I was truly confused. Turns out we both were.  See, I had been talking about mind-body dualism and he was referring to theological dualism a la Zoroastrianism where you have a good god and a bad god facing off. At that point I started to realize that the subject of dualism was far more complicated than I thought. In fact, I didn’t realize how complicated it was until I read N.T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God (NTPG)In that work he lists 9-10 different kinds of dualism that you could speak of when discussing the views of 1st Century Pagans and Jews.

I was reminded of this little discussion when reading this article by Wright on anthropology, or the theology of humanity, in the Apostle Paul’s thought. In it, he offers this helpful summary of his own discussion in NTPG.

So let’s run through these types of dualism or duality, beginning with four types that would be comfortably at home within ancient Jewish thought:

  1. a heavenly duality: not only God exists, but also angels and perhaps other heavenly beings;
  2. a theological or cosmological duality between God and the world, the creator and the creature;
  3. a moral duality between good and evil;
  4. an eschatological duality between the present age and the age to come.

All of these dualities a first-century Jew would take for granted. But none of them constitutes a dualism in any of the following three senses:

  1. a theological or moral dualism in which a good god or gods are ranged, equal and opposite, against a bad god or gods;
  2. a cosmological dualism, a la Plato, in which the world of space, time and matter is radically inferior to the noumenal world; this would include, perhaps, dualisms of form and matter, essence and appearance, spiritual and material, and (in a Platonic sense) heavenly/earthly (something like this would be characteristic of Philo);
  3. an anthropological dualism which postulates a radical twofoldness of soul and body or spirit and body (this, too, would be familiar in Philo).

Then there are three more which might be possible within ancient Judaism:

  1. epistemological duality as between reason and revelation – though this may be problematic, since it’s really the epistemological face of the cosmological dualism which I suggest ancient Jews would mostly reject;
  2. sectarian duality in which the sons of light are ranged against the sons of darkness, as in Qumran;
  3. psychological duality in which the good inclination and the evil inclination seem to be locked in perpetual struggle, as in Rabbinic thought.

It’s important to know about these different sorts dualisms in order to keep a clear theological head on your shoulders wading into these discussions–which I know you do everyday. But seriously, for Christians wanting to understand reality out of a properly Christian worldview, or theological framework, we have to keep in mind what Wright underlines here:

The radical rejection by most ancient Jews, in particular, of what we find in Plato and in much oriental religion, and the radical embrace of space, time and matter as the good gifts of a good creator God, the place where this God is known and the means by which he is to be worshipped – all this remains foundational, and is firmly restated and underlined in the New Testament. Creational, providential and covenantal monotheism simply leave no room for those four dualisms in the middle. In particular, I argued that such dualisms tend to ontologize evil itself, whereas in first-century Judaism evil is not an essential part of the creation, but is the result of a radical distortion within a basically good created order.

While we might not all agree with his judgments on Plato’s dualisms or body and soul, it’s important to keep distinct the things that ought to be distinct (God/creation, good/evil, present age/age to come, etc.) while avoiding tearing apart those things that should be kept together. That basic creational framework of a good God who creates a good world that gets distorted by sin is the backdrop of God’s redemption of all things in Christ. This is what the ancient gnostics missed when they created a Jesus who was simply a redeemer who saved people’s souls from their bodies–in which case, who cares what you do with your body? This is what is absent in pantheistic theologies that drag God into the world, who end up giving us a “compassionate” God that, in the end, is just as trapped in the world’s agony as we are, instead of being the distinct, but sovereign redeemer who can fix it. This is what modern Evangelicals sometimes miss with their tendency for evacuating from the world, despising creation, and simply waiting for Jesus to come back and rapture them out of their nicely air-conditioned churches they hide in most of the week.

God freely created the world distinct from himself, he loves it–he’s going to save it. He wants his people out in the world, in it, but not of it, proclaiming that good news, and working for it out in the world.

The bottom-line is: if you don’t keep your dualisms straight, you might lose the Gospel.

Soli Deo Gloria

The temple and the Church's Mission

G.K. Beale on the difference between a “Literal” and a “Biblical” Hermeneutic of Old Testament Prophecies

G.K. Beale is quickly becoming one of my favorite New Testament interpreters. He has a long list of impressive works including authoring what is likely the new standard commentary on the book of Revelation, editing the New Testament Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old Testament, and delivering the recent tome that is A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New. Needless to say based on the titles of these last two works, one of his specialties is the problem of the interpretation of the use of the Old Testament, especially prophecies, in the New Testament.

One of the main issues in this area of study is whether or not certain interpretations, both by the NT authors and their later commentators, seem to illegitimately “spiritualize” the fulfilment of a “literal” prophecy. Beale has a helpful passage on this very problem with respect to his interpretation of the Antichrist (“the man of lawlessness”) and the Temple in 2 Thessalonians in his work The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God.  One of the central contentions of his book is that in the NT, the Temple is replaced by Christ and in Christ by the people of God.  Therefore, the reference to the Temple in 2 Thessalonians is a reference to the church. On this basis and many other exegetical insights he claims that the prophecies of Daniel being alluded to in the text about the man of lawlessness setting up his rule in the Temple are ultimately taking place in the Church, not in some reconstructed Temple in Jerusalem as is commonly thought in popular Dispensationalism.

Obviously, for those advocating a strictly “literal hermeneutic” this will be a hopelessly spiritualizing interpretation that violates the principle by which all Scripture is to be interpreted. His responses to this charge are instructive both for general biblical hermeneutics as well as the specific problem of prophecy:

First, a ‘literal hermeneutic’ is not the best way to describe a biblical hermeneutic. Perhaps a ‘literate hermeneutic’ that aspires to the broad literary meaning in the canonical context is the better way to put it. We should want to follow an interpretive method that aims to unravel the original intention of biblical authors, realizing that that intention may be multi-layered, without any layers contradicting the others. Such original intentions may have meaning more correspondent to physical reality (hence so-called ‘literal interpretation’) while others may refer to ‘literal’ spiritual realities…”

So, there is a difference between reading something “literally” and “literately”. Kevin Vanhoozer has elsewhere said that if we want to talk about what the Reformers meant, and we ought to mean, by the term “literal interpretation”, we should speak of a “literary interpretation.” Basically, if the author intended a statement to be taken as a straightforward description, “the tree is outside”, we should understand it that way. But, if the author says, “the tree was a skyscraper”, we shouldn’t understand him to be saying that the tree is actually “scraping” the sky.  So, if a text is meant to be taken spiritually, then to read it appropriately is to read it spiritually.

“Second, the progress of revelation certainly reveals expanded meanings of earlier biblical texts. Later biblical writers further interpret earlier biblical writings in ways that amplify earlier texts. These subsequent interpretations may formulate meanings that earlier authors may not have had in mind but which do not contravene their original, essential, organic meaning. This is to say that original meanings have ‘thick’ content and that original authors likely were not exhaustively aware of the full extent of that content. In this regard, fulfilment often ‘fleshes out’ prophecy with details of which even the prophet may not have been fully cognizant.” (pg. 289)

So, a prophecy about the Temple, the dwelling place of God on earth amongst his people, can ultimately fulfilled in the church, who are now the dwelling place of God on earth amongst his people. For a prophecy to be fulfilled this way is not disruptive or illegitimate because the essential, organic content of the prophecy is preserved and grows naturally out of the original. Beale uses the example of a father in the year 1900 promising to buy his son a horse and buggy when he gets married, but by the time the son has grown up 30 years later, he ends up buying him a Ford. (pg. 291) The essential content of the promise is fulfilled even if the form is somewhat altered in a way the original utterer of the promise was unaware of.

I found these insights helpful. I pass them on to you with the hope that they will aid in your understanding of the scriptures and the surprising way that all of God’s promises “find their Yes in him.” (2 Cor 1:20)

Luther

The Gospel According to Luther

So, another confession I have to make: Martin Luther’s a favorite of mine. So sue me, I’m a Protestant. He’s an atrociously flawed man, but the more I read him, the more I love him despite the flaws. He is easily one of my top 5 “Dead Guys I’d love to have a Beer with.”

Despite the fact that he’s been dead for over 500 years and he’s a favorite whipping boy in many wings of Biblical studies, he’s kind of a must-read for anyone trying to get a handle on the New Testament or the Gospel. This absolutely brilliant passage on the Gospel is one of the many reasons why:

One should thus realize that there is only one Gospel, but that it is described by many apostles. Every single epistle of Paul and of Peter, as well as the Acts of the Apostles by Luke, is a Gospel, even though they do not record all the works and words of Christ, but one is shorter and includes less than another. There is not one of the four major Gospels anyway that includes all the words and works of Christ; nor is this necessary. Gospel is and should be nothing else than a discourse or story about Christ, just as happens among men when one writes a book about a king or a prince, telling what he did, said, and suffered in his day. Such a story can be told in various ways; one spins it out, and the other is brief. Thus the Gospel is and should be nothing else than a chronicle, a story, a narrative about Christ, telling who he is, what he did, said, and suffered-a subject which one describes briefly, another more fully, one this way, another that way.

For at its briefest, the Gospel is a discourse about Christ, that he is the Son of God and became man for us, that he died and was raised, that he has been established as a Lord over all things. This much St. Paul takes in hand and spins out in his epistles. He bypasses all the miracles and incidents [in Christ's ministry] which are set forth in the four Gospels, yet he includes the whole Gospel adequately and abundantly. This may be seen clearly and well in his greeting to the Romans [1:1-4], where he says what the Gospel is, and declares, “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the Gospel of God which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the Gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord,” etc.

There you have it. The Gospel is a story about Christ, God’s and David’s Son, who died and was raised and is established as Lord. This is the Gospel in a nutshell. Just as there is no more than one Christ, so there is and may be no more than one Gospel….

- excerpt from Martin Luther, A Brief Instruction on What to Look For and Expect in the Gospels’