‘Plain Readings’ of Scripture, Job, and Other Assorted Thoughts on the #CalvinismDebate

debateLast week Zondervan hosted a live-stream debate between some Calvinists (Daniel Montgomery and Timothy Jones) and some Non-Calvinists (Austin Fischer and Brian Zahnd). Now, while I was excited to watch, it just so happened that my internet was slow that day, so I only caught snippets and twitter commentary while it happened. Immediately afterwards I had a trip to get prepped on so I didn’t get to watch it until this week.

Still, because a few people in different theological wings have asked me to comment on the debate for some reason, I figured I’d give it a shot. I tried to keep this brief, failed, but even with its length, I’ve limited it to some focused observations and reflections on a few issues with the first section of the debate, because that’s all I really have time for. This is by no means exhaustive and I won’t even try to comment on all of the issues. Indeed, I’m sure many will find this utterly dissatisfying. If that’s you at the end of this, I have to say I entirely agree, which is probably why I won’t argue in the comments section under this. I’m far too busy this week in any case.

To begin, a word about the players.

The Players And Confirmation Bias

I’ll be honest, going into this, I already had some ideas about it. For one thing, I knew very little about Austin Fischer. I knew he wrote a book about no longer being Young, Restless, and Reformed, but not much else. I thought Kevin DeYoung had a pretty incisive review of it, but honestly, I haven’t had time to read it. As for Brian Zahnd, while I was blessed and challenged by his book on beauty (which I still highly recommend), I’ve criticized him heavily before on other issues. Based on his online writing, his rhetoric towards positions with which he disagrees, especially the Reformed, is honestly, kind of belligerent and prone to violent caricature. He’s a powerful preacher who’s got a way with words and a heart for Jesus, but I wasn’t expecting much of a fair shake there.

With Montgomery and Jones, I was predisposed to root for them. Not only do I find myself in their Reformedish camp in general, I’ve favorably reviewed their book PROOF, and have been impressed with them even in their handling of serious brotherly criticism. Though I’ve never met them, I consider them friends.

I go into all of this simply to make one point: I definitely had a side going in, and that affected the way I watched the debate. Indeed, I think that’s likely the case with anyone who was interested in the event, even if you didn’t know any of them. With the subject of Calvinism, like the subject of God, you’re never neutral about the arguments. One of the most perceptive comments on the whole thing came from Mike Cosper: “If you want to see some wonderful examples of confirmation bias, check out the hashtag.” A lot (most?) of us went in pumped to see Montgomery school Fischer, or Zahnd lay down his linguistic hammer on Jones.  We already knew the right answer, we just wanted to be publicly vindicated.

Debates

Which leads me to the format of debate. I’ll be honest, in my view public debates are pretty limited. Not enough space or time can be devoted to the various pertinent issues involved, so most of the time both sides come away thinking of the other side, “Is this the best you’ve got?” To which I’d respond, “No, of course it’s not.” I know for sure that’s not the best Montgomery and Jones have. I’ve read their book. What’s more, I’m sure it’s not the best that Zahnd or Fischer have. They hinted in the direction of some more serious arguments beyond the rhetorically-freighted, oneliners they were throwing out there. Indeed, Fischer actually did some serious, responsible, exegetical work in his response to Jones on Romans 9, which made me suspect there’s more where that came from.

Calvin and Calvinism

Next, I’m going to say something that may shock most non-Calvinists, and indeed, many Calvinists as well: Calvin did not invent ‘Calvinism’.

Whether you’re speaking solely of the doctrines concerning election and salvation as they were defended and codified at Dordt (which Calvin was already dead for), or the broader complex of thought with respect to covenant theology, ecclesiology, etc, referred to as the broader Reformed tradition, you have to know that it goes beyond him. There are many other stars in the Reformed sky such as Bucer, Vermigli, Ursinus, Knox, and a host of scholastics who delved into these issues at length. I love Calvin, but as Kenneth Stewart has demonstrated in his 10 Myths About Calvinism, his exposition of election is not the only standard or normative one for the confessionally Reformed. Indeed, most of these theologians could point back to a number of top medieval theologians including Thomas and Augustine as representatives, or precursors to their own expositions.

In other words, it’s okay to be Reformed and then think you may have to adjust your exposition of election according to Scripture with respect to double, or single predestination. Many have, even while remaining non-Remonstrant (Arminian), and so forth. So, trotting out a Calvin quote doesn’t mean that Montgomery isn’t really being a good Calvinist, even if he’s cutting things in a way that Calvin wouldn’t have agreed with. Quite frankly, I don’t think anyone’s going to say Herman Bavinck isn’t a good Calvinist because he humbly pushes back on the fairly common claim that the decrees of election are definitely about the revelation of God’s glory.

As a side-note, speaking of “Calvin’s system” as “beginning with philosophical theism” is, to be blunt, a blatant absurdity to anyone who’s read the current secondary literature, and knows about Calvin’s humanistic and vocally anti-speculative approach to the doctrine of God. One of Calvin’s most common targets were the theologians of the Sorbonne who engage in abstractions instead of the God revealed in Christ. Indeed, unlike most modern systematics, the Institutes almost doesn’t have a doctrine of God philosophically considered, but instead treats the Trinity, and the nature of God as revealed in his works as Creator and Redeemer. To assert otherwise is only possible through ignorance of the subject, or in the face of the evidence.

Which brings me to the next point.

Jesus Rules and Philosophical Systems

Most Reformed are not intentionally twisting texts to get to a conclusion we’ve already decided on when it comes to the doctrines of grace. I certainly wasn’t. I still feel the weight of the arguments against it. I’ve said it before, but over the years I have only slowly inched closer to the Reformed side on this issue, quite reluctantly and usually through the side door of some alteration in my view of regeneration, providence, or something else that has a role to play here. Why? Because of a struggle to affirm all that Scripture affirms about God’s sovereignty, our choices, his decrees, our responsibility, his grace, and so forth.

See, despite ‘pervasive interpretive pluralism’, most Calvinists don’t give ourselves the option of affirming an “internal conflict” within Scripture, as Zahnd talks about, and then using a very specific Jesus Hermenuetic to pick which parts of the Scriptures got it right. Because of the way we see Jesus approaching and affirming all of the Scriptures, we believe Jesus as the Word of God Incarnate affirmed and inspired the Scriptures as the Word of God written. All of it. So we’re trying to get it all in at once. I’ve made this point against Zahnd before, but if your so-called “Jesus-theology” causes you to shunt to the side texts that Jesus affirmed, or dismiss as ‘biblicistic’ efforts to incorporate all the texts to which Jesus constantly appealed, you might be doing it wrong. (Now, this isn’t to say that most Arminians do this, or even that Fischer would have done it, but still, coming back to my earlier point, this is the kind of important methodological dispute that a debate like this doesn’t give space to address.)

Plain Readings and Finding the Wright Escape Hatch

Easily the most commented on line of the night was Daniel Montgomery’s about a “plain reading” of Ephesians 1.  It was provoked by Zahnd’s earlier invitation to make sure we’re paying attention the “best” scholars, such as N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, Karl Barth, and so forth when we make these theological judgments. Montgomery, in a response section, later said basically, “Yes, I understand we need to read Wright, Barth, and characters like that” but really, it’s hard to understand Ephesians 1 as speaking of anything else but unconditional election on a ‘plain reading’ of Paul, which is what we ought to get around to doing more often. To which Zahnd’s retort was, “Sure, it’s plain in your theologically-rigged ESV, with your horn-rimmed Calvinist lens, translation isn’t it?” At which point, I have to admit, I laughed. Touché, Zahnd.

Now, all of the twitter commentary about this was explosive and apoplectic. And to some degree I get it. Even though Zahnd kind of came in kind of waving his hands about “scholarship” and so forth, seemingly writing off scholarship like that and referring to Wright & Co. as a bunch of ‘characters’ rubs me the wrong way. Still, I suppose I heard it differently because, I mean, I’ve read their book. Of its 200 pages their were nearly 40 pages of endnotes showing their work in the Greek, the commentaries, and so forth (including a number of citations of Barth! in the German!). They did their exegetical and theological homework. Certainly Jones is no academic slouch. So maybe we should think Montgomery’s advocacy of a ‘plain reading’ isn’t quite what it initially sounded like. If it was, though, his practice is certainly a lot better than that.

Here’s the thing that struck me, though, with Zahnd’s earlier call for attending scholarship: Wright, McKnight, Hart, and Barth won’t necessarily save you from a Calvinist reading of Romans 9 or Ephesians 1 (or indeed, the rest of the Biblical witness to God’s sovereignty.) I mean, take myself. I’ve read D.B. Hart, and you know what? He’s mostly great, but I’ll be blunt and say he also seems to never know what he’s talking about when it comes to what Calvin or Reformed types actually say about things. When it comes to Barth, I’ll be upfront and say that I haven’t read his full doctrine of election in the Dogmatics. It’s several hundred page (600-700 at least), and it’s Barth so I haven’t had time. Indeed, I’d be surprised if Barth had the time. Still, I’ve read the Epistle to the Romans, as well as competent, sympathetic distillations of the Dogmatics, and so forth and, you know, I’m not convinced Paul is teaching us Christ is the only Elect or Reprobate one ruling out individual election. 

Beyond that, I’ve actually read McKnight on the warning passages in Hebrews, and pretty much everything what N.T. Wright has to say on the subject, including his big Paul book. I’m a huge Wright fan, in fact, and back when I was very hostile to Calvinism, I dug into Wright’s big Romans commentary, especially his stuff on Romans 9-11 hoping to find an escape hatch from election. I even dug into James Dunn’s commentaries, just about everything he’s written on the New Perspective, and waded through the readings like those offered by Walls and Dongell in Why I Am Not a Calvinist looking for a way out of my Reformed friend’s articulations.

Now, In the process I found a lot of good stuff. After that, I was much better able to set the passage in the broader framework of God’s purposes for Israel, Paul’s vindication of God’s name when it seemed that his promise to Israel had failed through their unbelief, and so forth. That said, none of these things rule out, or necessitate a non-predestinarian reading. In fact, I think they largely fit well with the older insights. And that’s a conviction I came to hold when I was fighting tooth and nail in my soul to write off more classically Reformed readings.

Finally, more positively I’ll just say there’s a lot of good, top scholarship out there that disagrees with Zahnd’s top scholarship on the issue. For every N.T. Wright and Scot McKnight, you’ve got a G.K. Beale, or a Michael Bird. For every Barth, you’ve got a Bavinck. For every D.B Hart, there’s a Kevin VanHoozer whose trinitarian theology in Remythologizing Theology just as philosophically-sophisticated, aesthetically-appealing, and, I think, more Biblical than Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite (although there’s much overlap). So inviting us to consider the great, “the best” scholars of our day, and then ripping off the names of top scholars who you think agree with you doesn’t really get you places–Calvinists have plenty of names too.

Job, Lewis, and the Creator/Creature Distinction

Finally, one of the big issues of the night was the challenge by Fischer and Zahnd to explain why God would intentionally pass over, or create someone in order to be passed over for salvation. Now, leaving aside the problem that unless you’re a Universalist or an Open Theist still faces a similar situation, I was fascinated by the response on twitter, as well as by Fischer to the appeal to Job and mystery.

Faced with that challenge, Montgomery recalled what happened when Job challenged the justice of God’s judgments, or his wisdom in allowing Satan to torment him. What is God’s answer there? Well, read Job 38-42 and you’ll see it’s basically a long way of saying, “I’m the infinite God. You are a very finite, sinful human. You don’t have a scale for the difference between us. I was fine-tuning the galaxies, hanging up the Milky Way in the vast reaches of space, before you were even a twinkle in your father’s eye. Why would you ever think yourself competent to understand my secret judgments?”

Ironically enough, Lewis makes a helpful point in this direction arguing for God’s rationality in the risk of gifting humans with free will:

Perhaps we feel inclined to disagree with Him. But there is a difficulty about disagreeing with God. He is the source from which all your reasoning power comes: you could not be right and He wrong any more than a stream can rise higher than its own source. When you are arguing against Him you are arguing against the very power that makes you able to argue at all: it is like cutting off the branch you are sitting on.

-Mere Christianity, The Shocking Alternative

To some this sounds like a cop-out and I can get that. Still, I do find it interesting that Reformed theology gets dinged for being a too rationalist system, with a cold logic that leaves no room for mystery, and yet, when the Reformed do argue from Scripture that God himself says we ought not to expect to understand the mystery of his judgments, they’re charged with obscurantist irrationality.

This is why I’ve almost come to see this as sort of theological-aesthetic judgment. You either think it’s plausible God might have some reasons for doing things you couldn’t possibly fathom, or you don’t. Or rather, you may believe that he does, but you either see it covering election, or you don’t.

Now, to this, Fischer may reply “I still can’t see how anyone could argue it’s beautiful.” Sure. But most of us don’t initially see the Cross as beautiful, or wise either, until our hearts have been shaped and conformed to the paradoxical logic of the gospel. I’m not saying you have to buy election to see the beauty of the Cross. I am saying it’s not surprising that things which initially seem puzzling, weird, or terrifying to us, could eventually become beautiful to a mind submitted to the logic of Scripture.

Which is why I’d have to say I found Zahnd’s little line about rebelling against a Calvinist God a la Ivan Karamazov–returning God’s ticket, so to speak–so unhelpful. Back when I was an anti-Calvinist, and even now, when I shudder to live in an Open Theist’s world, I have this thought: “Well, either God is that way or he isn’t. If he is, then that’s God and God is the standard of goodness.  In which case, I’m wrong about the nature of reality, and for me to refuse to worship, love, and acknowledge his goodness, to call him a devil, and so forth, is frightfully close to explicit blasphemy light of my own fallibility and sin.” Best to articulate the God of Scripture as faithfully as I can and leave hypothetical moral stands against the Creator to those atheists who have the time to fantasize about such things. My heart is rebellious enough without such a morally tempting exercise, despite its rhetorical force. (For more on the same topic, I’d suggest Wesleyan theologian Fred Sanders piece here.)

At this point I’ve said far too much and yet not much at all. I hope I’ve not been too persnickety. I really do understand the trouble people have with these issues. What’s more, I have a terribly high amount of respect for the many thoughtful Christians who see this another way. At the end of the day, though, let me just say this: our basic posture here must be humility–to God and before the Scriptures which he has inspired by the Holy Spirit to testify to the saving Son who reveals the love the Father has decided to lavish on his children since before the world began.

Soli Deo Gloria

Two Instances of NT Judgment (Or, Apparently Luke Didn’t Get the Memo)

sapphira-leclercEverybody knows that God allegedly struck people down in wrath in the Old Testament. We find dozens of instances in the Torah of God dealing out judgment in the form of illness or death, both on foreign enemies (Pharaoh & the Egyptians) as well as his own people (Sons of Korah, the snakes, etc.) for their sins. The pattern continues on through the historical prophets, as well as the the literary prophets. In text after text we see God prove that he both “kills, and makes alive” (Deut. 32:39; 1 Sam. 2:6), as he executes his righteous rule over the earth.

Of course, that’s the Old Testament. It’s now quite common to assert something along the lines of “Well, though the OT was really inspired (to a point), the fact of the matter is the OT authors were confused on some realities when it comes to God. How do we know this? Well, Jesus. I mean, Jesus is the fullest revelation of God, who does whatever he sees the Father doing, right? So Jesus never killed anybody nor did he teach anybody to kill anybody. Therefore, we know that God’s not the kind of God who would kill anybody or ever command anybody to be killed like we see in a number of OT narratives and legal passages. Now that Jesus came, we can overlay Jesus’ picture on the OT and see clearly which parts get God right and which don’t.” Or something like that.

This is the sort of thing Andrew Wilson has dubbed the Jesus Tea Strainer hermeneutic. I’ve dealt at length  with this sort of logic before in a few places myself, dealing with the problematic theology of revelation, hyper-pacifism, and it’s contradiction of Jesus’ own views of the Old Testament. Once here with respect to some unfortunate things Brian Zahnd said, and a second time with respect to Steve Chalke and Sabbath Sticks. Still, it’s worth pursuing the line of thought from another angle.

You see, it appears to me that if this logic were true, then the New Testament writers who had seen Jesus wouldn’t have gotten God wrong, right? I mean, they’d seen him face to face and received the New Covenant blessing of the Holy Spirit in union with Christ who would reveal all things to them, right? And anybody being discipled by them in subsequent years who also wrote inspired Scriptures should have that gift as well, right? So then, if any biblical writers might be expected to get the totally non-violent nature of God right, it would be the New Testament writers.

Except for it seems that they didn’t get the memo. At least Luke didn’t. Observe:

But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last.

And great fear came upon all who heard of it. The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him. After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things. (Acts 5:1-11)

In this dark and disturbing story we see the judge of all the earth disciplining his church. Ananias and Sapphira greedily and foolishly conspired to lie to the church about their giving and in doing so lied to God himself, bringing down his judgment. Now, of course, it’s possible for you to try and speculate as to whether both Ananias and his wife both just so happened to have cardiac failures on the same day, in the same situation, (shared eating habits & whatnot), or you can accept it in line with the revelation of the OT as the hand of God.

Still, if that’s not convincing enough, jump ahead a few chapters to Acts 12:

Now Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon, and they came to him with one accord, and having persuaded Blastus, the king’s chamberlain, they asked for peace, because their country depended on the king’s country for food. On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. And the people were shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.  (Acts 12:20-23)

Just as in the Old Testament, the Lord strikes down a tyrant who has been oppressing his people for his pride and arrogance. If in the last story Luke left the author of judgment anonymous, here he explicitly names him: “Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down…” Now again, if you want to go about speculating as to whether this was a rogue angel, prone to disobey God, who nonetheless goes about defending his name…well, that’s your prerogative. It seems clear enough from the context, though, that this is to be taken as a divinely authorized judgment–angels are “messengers” bringing God’s righteous message here.

Of course, it’s worth pointing out that in both cases Jesus’ followers are not the ones executing judgment. A pacifist reading of these texts is totally possible; I don’t mean to settle that issue here. What I will say is that unless you want to go around calling into question the New Testament’s revelation of the character of God as well, then you have to have an amazing level of confidence in your ability to distinguish the really inspired bits from the not-so-inspired bits–one that I’ll admit I simply don’t share. This is especially the case when I consider that the inspired author of Acts is also the inspired author of one of those Gospels I’m relying on to get my picture of the non-violent Jesus who points us to a God who never violently judges people.

Now, this may not be enough to convince you, but I do hope it at least slows you down from the overhasty judgments about Jesus & the OT we’ve been seeing lately. Buying into these claims means biting off, chewing up, (and eventually spitting out) a bit more than you might have anticipated.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

The Cure that Killed the Patient (Or, Sorry Zahnd, Marcionism isn’t a Better Option)

tumblr_mr9zzaTmj01rj8v6zo1_400A while back John Piper put out a video that defended God’s right to judge the Canaanites by the hand of the Israelites in the conquest narratives of the OT. He said something along the lines of “God is God, he made you and doesn’t owe you jack, so if he takes your life, you really have nothing to complain about. Also, God can use whom he pleases to do so.” Roughly.

Predictably, some people got mad. I mean, I get that. It’s a tough subject and any answer is going to be kind of awkward (although, honestly, at this point Piper could say that God loves kittens and somebody would snark, “But only elect ones, right?”). Beyond just general Facebook furor when it hit, it recently provoked a frontal-assault/response from author and pastor Brian Zahnd. For those who don’t know, Zahnd has been a rising voice on the Evangelical/Post-Evangelical Left since his book “Beauty Will Save the World” came out last year. I actually read it and loved it, even if I did have some qualms about the pacifism peeking out here and there.

Well, pacifist though he may be, Zahnd came out guns blazing with accusations of voluntarism against the monstrous God of Calvinism, and, just the slightest bit of Muslim-baiting in his provocatively titled, “John Piper and Allahu Akbar.” As you might have picked up, I didn’t love this post quite as much as the book and I’ll get to why in a minute. But first, a few quick caveats.

To be clear, I don’t particularly care to defend Piper’s views here as he is a big boy who can defend himself. Nor is this is denial that the OT narratives involving the conquest and destruction of the Canaanites require some serious consideration. They do. Actually, while we’re on the subject, I’d commend Paul Copan’s work on the subject in the book “Is God a Moral Monster?” or this summary article paying attention to historical, genre, and canonical considerations here. Finally, I too am very concerned about the misuse of Scripture to promote violence.

What I do want is to look at is Zahnd’s reponse, which, to mind, left something to be desired in terms of theological honesty as well as, well, ‘soundness of teaching’? (I don’t want to say orthodoxy, given his clear, robust Nicene and Chalcedonian faith.) Yes, I’m putting on my argumentative Reformed hat again, which I do try to stay away from, but, in all fairness, Zahnd shot first.

Well, without further ado, here are a few points in no particular order.

Yeah, never taught that.

Yeah, never taught that.

Calvin’s “Ism”

Zahnd found a cute short-hand for Piper’s theology of sovereignty, or rather, that of “Calvin’s disciples”, which he dubbed “Calvin’s Ism.” He then proceeded to rail on it, lamenting the way Piper and others would go to such great lengths to defend the “Ism” to the point of creating a monstrous voluntaristic God whose will is what it is, simply because it is, and so forth. Don’t you know that we should look at Jesus, not what Calvin thought about Jesus?! Away with such Greek-philosophy-influenced, metaphysical barbarisms!

scumbag girardIt’s typical anti-Calvinist boilerplate that fires up the troops and so forth, so I get it. As one of “Calvin’s Disciples” though, I simply wanted to stop and point out that, as a matter of historical fact, Calvin strongly repudiated the overly-voluntaristic tradition popular in his day at the Sorbonne flowing from theological giants like Scotus and Ockham. (Incidentally, I always find it funny when guys who basically riff off of French social theorists like Rene Girard’s scapegoating theory when it comes to the Gospel, have the gall to call out “Greek philosophical categories” in more traditional theology.)

Calvin explicitly rejected a view of God’s unrestrained will, or absolute power, divorced from God’s justice or God’s goodness. While he unabashedly defends God’s complete sovereignty over human history, he simultaneously condemns “that absolute will of which the Sophists babble, by an impious and profane distinction separating his justice from his power.” (Institutes 1.17.2) That’s just one among many examples.

Again, it’s a fun phrase, and when you’re driving the punch-line home, why not pick a baddie to rip on your fanbase already doesn’t like? Calvin’s perfect for that, especially since most people haven’t actually read him much. But, in this case, Zahnd should probably find another whipping boy to pin the voluntarism charge on.

Killing is Not Always Murder

Moving more to the point, Zahnd tells us that God could never have ordered the conquest and judgment of the Canaanites in the way the narratives portray it because that would involve killing which is murder and God would never order murder.

So for some this next point might seem basic: while all murder is killing, not all killing is murder. For others, this is a basic false distinction that they rejected as un-biblical a long time ago.

I’ll just say that a prima facie reading of the Scriptures, especially the OT legal code (Exod. 21), shows that while God hates human death, the law that he handed down seemed to recognize a distinction between killing and murder. Actually, very early on in the narrative of the Torah, we find out that the reason he allows for some killing is precisely because he hates murder (Gen. 9:6). Murder is unjustifiable, but executions and judgments seemed to be accounted for and even commanded by God himself in various places in the OT law and the subsequent narrative. Of course, that raises the issue of the reliability of the OT on this point.

Which brings us to the really big issue with Zahnd’s post.

Marcionism isn’t a Better Option 

See, Zahnd says we shouldn’t let something like the Old Testament slow us down when we’re thinking about these things:

And don’t let the Old Testament work you into a corner. You don’t need to defend the Old Testament to the extent that you find it necessary to justify genocide. God forbid! We can simply say this…

The Old Testament is the inspired telling of the story of Israel coming to know their God. Along the way assumptions were made and they didn’t get everything right. Keep reading the Bible until you come to Jesus and then center your reading of all Scripture in the light of Christ.

This is a perfect example of what Andrew Wilson has called the “New Marcionism“, which, while not explicitly repudiating the OT the way Marcion did, insists on seeing such a radical discontinuity between the God we see testified to in the OT and that of the NT that it has much the same effect.

Let me unsympathetically paraphrase Zahnd for you to see the problem: “The ancient Israelites who wrote the Holy Scriptures got some stuff wrong, but we know better now that Jesus came. We know that Jesus would never order something like that, so we know that God didn’t order something like that, so just don’t trouble yourself about it. The verses are just wrong. I mean, sure, Jesus said that the Scriptures all pointed to him (John 5:39), and the law is to be perfectly fulfilled (Matt. 5), and we can assume he read those parts, but he couldn’t possibly have meant all of it. Sure we have parallels in the NT with Revelation and God raining down judgment, etc. not to mention Jesus himself casting down judgment of his own, but again, don’t let that trouble you. Nevermind the deeply pervasive theology of God the Warrior who goes before Israel in battle that informs much of the OT, and depends on some of those “mistaken assumptions”–just try and skip those bits. I mean don’t worry that this even figures into Luke’s telling of Acts as a conquest narrative. Just squint until you see it properly. God wouldn’t do anything like that. I mean, don’t bother trying understand the difference between God’s administration of covenant justice in Israel v. the Church because of Christ’s ushering in a new phase in redemptive-history. It’s not that the same God can manifest his eternally good and beautiful character in consistent, but historically-distinct ways. We have the much easier option of saying the Israelites just got it wrong. Simple as that. Don’t worry about what that does to undermine the authority of the OT and its ability to actually point to Jesus Christ. Please don’t trouble yourself with the way this sort of crypto-Marcionism might spill into the subtle anti-Semitism of viewing the Old Testament as an inherently inferior text like the old-school German Liberal scholars who made this sort of argument popular back in the early part of the 20th Century. I mean, no big deal.”

In a dispute with the Pharisees in John 10:35, Jesus tells us that the scriptures cannot be “broken.” The Greek word there is luo which can be translated “to destroy, to tear down, the break to pieces” (Louw-Nida 20:35).  Essentially, it can’t be ignored, released, explained away, or rendered null or void. Except, that’s exactly what Zahnd suggests we do with those uncomfortable bits.

On ‘Christocentric’ Readings (Or, The Cure that Killed the Patient)  

Here’s the thing, when your “Christocentric” reading of the Scriptures leads you to ignore or deny parts of Scriptures the way Christ says shouldn’t happen, you might be doing it wrong. Realize that this isn’t about whether we’re going to read the Bible in light of Jesus, but about how. Does the revelation of Jesus Christ crucified and risen shed light on and transfigure the testimony of God’s dealing with Israel, or simply deny, or downgrade its validity by cutting chunks out?

Of course, this goes to the deeper theological question who we’re going to allow God to be? Will we allow him to reveal himself as a God who, though simple in essence, is narratively-complex in his self-rendering in the history of Israel?  “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exod. 34:6-7) Do we let Jesus be both the one who longs to shelter Jerusalem under his wings to save them, all the while forcefully proclaiming God’s impending, violent, judgment on their sins (Matt 23:29-39)? Do we allow for the full picture of Jesus to emerge, or the one we’ve shoved into our pacifistic Procrustean bed, and shave off the verses that don’t fit?

Tom needs a drink after that.

Tom needs a drink after that.

While some of us are tempted to take Zahnd’s path of essentially rejecting prior revelation as the mistaken assumptions of our spiritual fathers, Might I suggest a surer, admittedly less comfortable, course? It is a route that N.T. Wright offers up in his answer to Wilson on the issue of the New Marcionism:

“There are many many things that God does, has done or will do which are not waiting for my approval or sanction before he does them. You know that line, “Many people want to serve God, but usually only in an advisory capacity.” Bonhoeffer said that putting the knowledge of good and evil before the knowledge of God is the primary sin in Genesis 3. They go for the knowledge of good and evil rather than what God says. Now that could just be an escape; it could just be throwing up our hands and saying we don’t know anything about God (when the whole point of the gospel is that we do know who God is, because of Jesus). However, if it’s the crucified Jesus, and if the cross means what it means in the light of the whole history of Israel, which is focused onto that, then … these narratives are the way in which all of those horrible, puzzling ambiguities, and all the awful things that happen – like Jesus saying, “what about those eighteen on whom the tower of Siloam fell?” – there’s a sense that the cross gathers up all those puzzling, tragic horrible fragments of life, and says swoosh this is where it’s all going.

“I hold this within the framework I articulated this morning, which is to say: from the call of Abraham onwards, what God is committing himself to do is to act to bring about the restoration of the world, but to act through deeply flawed human beings, who constantly need to be reminded that they’re deeply flawed. That then produces all kinds of (to our mind) ambiguities. And I see all of it coming together in the cross. The cross is the moment when I see Israel’s God performing the salvific event, which is simultaneously the worst and most blasphemous act of judicial, theocidal murder than one can ever imagine. And somehow the cross itself says: these things are now reconciled.”

Of course there’s more to say, but I’ve already said too much for what’s an allegedly short blog post. (May God forgive my lies.) The end of the matter is that while Zahnd may find Piper’s alleged voluntarism to be a gross misrepresentation of Jesus by distortion, his own neo-Marcionism leaves us with a highly-abridged Bible, and therefore an abridged Jesus, which is hardly an improvement. While offering a solution to the Bible’s problematic texts, Zahnd is inadvertently administering the kind of cure that kills the patient.

Soli Deo Gloria

Quick-Blog #6 – Some Things to Do on Election Day

Aside from some silly, live, Facebook commentary on the debates, I haven’t spoken much about the election this year. I had a few reasons for this:

  1. My job makes it so that people automatically connect my personal judgments with an endorsement by my church and I don’t want to do that. I am sick to death of people conflating the Gospel with some particular political program. If I hear one more pastor, or church perverting the good news by making it about some lordship other than Christ’s, I’m going to snap.
  2. I am a recovering political junkie, so I decided to take this election off.  (I am still voting, though. More on that below.)
  3. Let’s be honest, I’m too busy otherwise.

Still, I figured it’d be appropriate to very quickly jot down some things you might try this Tuesday:

1. Calm down and remember that no matter who wins, Christ remains Lord.

Seriously, this is not some cheesy “Oh, God is still in control” shtick that doesn’t acknowledge the real, political implications of these elections. I get it, there are serious issues at stake. Still, at the heart of the Gospel is the acknowledgement that Jesus “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead.”(Rom 1:4) This is what you confess in order to be saved: that Christ is the risen Lord. (Rom 10:9) The good news is that he is risen and reigning over all things in heaven and on earth, even now, no matter who wins. Michael Horton reminds us that, “United to Christ, we should be the most responsible and the least fearful people at the polls on November 6, 2012, because our King already achieved his landslide victory in Jerusalem during Passover, AD 33.” So, no matter who wins on Tuesday, keep your head, Christ is Lord.

2. Pray for your leaders like the Bible tells you to.

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”(1 Timothy 2:1-4)

Paul instructs Timothy to makes sure the congregation at Ephesus was praying for “kings and all who are in high positions.” If you’re going to claim to take the Bible seriously, then pray for your leaders no matter who they are. Paul was writing this about the Roman Emperors, not godly, Christian kings, but pagans who were persecuting Christians. Peter similarly tells Christians to “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.“(1 Peter 2:17)  In the context of great persecution, Peter tells them to “honor the emperor.”

Instead of freaking out and bemoaning the election, or re-election, of “that guy”, pray for him. If you’re really interested in being a witness in our culture, lay off of the conspiracy-theory emails about a take-over of the country by “them”, whatever that group consists of in your mind, and pray that God would give wisdom, grace, and salvation to whomever comes into, or remains, in office. Remember, we are to lead a “peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way”, not a panic-stricken and hysterical one.

3. Vote.

I’ve got a buddy who’s got some decent reasons for casting a blank ballot this Tuesday. I hear him and respect a position like his. Still, I do think that part of our responsibilities in being a good neighbor is voting for the common good, seeking the welfare of the city. (Jer. 29:7) We don’t do this to give our allegiance to the candidates because, in the end, our ultimate allegiance is to Christ alone, the living Lord of the universe. We do this in obedience to Christ, for the same reason we pay taxes, in order to live quiet, peaceable lives, giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s. (1 Tim 2:2; Mark 12:17; Rom. 13:7)

4. Ask Forgiveness, Repent, and remember the Body of Christ.

Let’s be honest, too much of the American church has jacked up on this election. Far too many of us have been quick to tear apart the unity of the body of Christ for the sake of a political program. Christ made us one in himself. This was his prayer for us (John 17:21), and instead of living out that unity, we’ve been quick to vilify, reject, oppose, and refuse to recognize the Christian identity of those we disagree with politically. Echoing Paul, Brian Zahnd asks, “Is Christ divided? Was Obama crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Romney?” No. Christ is the only one who has done these things. He is the hope of the world. He is the light in the darkness. His kingdom is the one that will never fail and has no end. His reign is the reality on which our lives depend. His life is the one that draws us together, in himself, and made us citizens of a better country. (Heb. 11:16)

So, after you vote, or before, or maybe even today, take some time consider this truth. Stop, ask yourself if, in the heat of the election, you’ve forgotten that, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Eph 4:4-6)

If so, you need to stop, repent, and ask forgiveness. Remember that in Christ you all are one, no matter how you vote–so ACT LIKE IT. Love each other. Treat each other with respect. You know–act like you believe the Gospel.

Bottom-line is this: don’t forget the Gospel this Tuesday.

Soli Deo Gloria