‘I Am of Christ’, or Jesus-Juking for the Gospel

thiseltonI appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” (1 Corinthians 1:10-12)

I’m preaching through 1 Corinthians with my students this year and after only a couple of weeks, it appears this is going to be a transformational study for me. At least I hope it will. Unfortunately, while I’m trying to preach the flow of the text, and not rush through the letter, I don’t actually to examine each verse in the kind of detail it could be, or would satisfy my own interests. (As a college pastor you slowly learn that you even need to be careful to die to yourself when it comes to preaching in the way that would please you, but might not really edify the students.)

Case in point, after preaching through 1:10-2:5, the natural section, I realized I was still fascinated with that little phrase in v. 12, “I am of Christ.” What’s going on with that? Why would Paul treat someone claiming that they “follow Christ” as a problem? Isn’t that the point? Generally speaking, yes, but it appears there’s something more subtle at work here.

After his initial intro, Paul dives right into the problem of divisions in the Corinthian body (1:10-17). Apparently these young, ex-pagan Christians had imbibed (or failed to leave behind) their surrounding culture’s status-obsessed ethos. In his massive commentary on 1 Corinthians Anthony Thiselton says that among these new believers, many of whom had gone from ‘rags to riches’, or were hoping to, the issue of “status inconsistency” loomed large (pp 12-13). And so, per the shame-honor society they inhabited, they had brought their attitudes about social advancement through the right patron-client, or teacher-student relationship into the church.

Whether for reasons of style, initial relationship, or some other quality, people had begun picking teams. “I follow Paul” say the loyalists who remembers Paul as the man who planted the flag for Christ in Corinth. “I follow Apollos” say the newbies impressed by the guest lecture series he gave when he was in town. “I follow Cephas” say the old-schoolers who like following one of the original disciples. And on it goes. Like sports fans who have taken a harmless preference and turned it into an identity-marker and are ready to knife each other in the parking lot, believer is dividing against believer over who preaches the Gospel better.

But who, then, are those who say, “I follow Christ?”

The Suspects

In a special section, Thiselton lays out six proposed options for understanding the “Christ” party in Corinth (pp. 129-133):

  1. Judaizers?  F.C. Baur suggested it was Judaizers opposed to Paul’s anti-law party on the grounds that he wasn’t one of the original 12 disciples, but it appears there’s little exegetical support for this, especially when you understand that the parties here aren’t theological, but politically-motivated.
  2. Ultra-Spirituals? Other think it is hyper-spiritual gnostics who appeal to “Christ” as a way of getting around human means of revelation or authority structures. Think the hyper-Pentecostal who says that he doesn’t need pastors, or seminary eggheads, but Jesus just speaks to him. This would make sense with a lot of the themes in the letter.
  3. Interjection from a Copyist? Some think it’s just a inserted phrase that got copied in by accident when one dude indignantly wrote “I follow Christ” after reading it, and a later copyist mistook that marginalia for Paul. Quite unlikely for textual reasons, though.
  4. Misreading for Crispus?  A couple think maybe Kristou (of Christ) was originally Krispou (of Crispus), and that got misread. Again, highly unlikely for textual reasons.
  5. Pauline Rhetoric: Hypothesis and Declaration?  Paul likes using irony, sarcasm and other rhetorical techniques to drive points home. Couldn’t this be an example of this? On this reading, the phrase is supposed to be contrastive and that it’s not part of the critique, but is Paul’s own solution. But again, the construction of the phrase gives no sign of that.
  6. Pauline Rhetoric: Irony? Again, Paul’s creative, maybe he’s suggesting a “Christ party” just to show how silly this whole approach is. This works theologically, but again, the Greek construction makes it less likely.

So Thiselton says that option #2 is the most likely and I’m inclined to agree with him. Essentially, you’ve got a group of semi-Gnostic types, critical of authority, skeptical of the claims of teachers, and “men” have claimed to be able to go directly to the source via the Spirit, or whatever, without having to depend on authorized carriers of the traditions and so forth. “I follow Christ” turns out to be just another fleshly slogan, a Jesus-Juke used as a cover an all-too-human way of finding your identity outside of Christ.

Now, of course, the point of knowing all of this isn’t mere historical curiousity, but spiritual edification and practical application in the present.

Boasting In Not Boasting

Right off the bat, whatever you end up making of the Christ party, it’s obvious that the critique of personality-driven ministry and celebrityism in the church, especially in Evangelical circles, is worth meditating on. Far too many of us, like the Corinthians, have bought into our current culture eerily similar status-obsession and have sought to define ourselves via our party, our tribe, and their respective figureheads. “I follow Keller”, or “I follow Warren”, “I follow Wright”, or “I follow Driscoll–er, I mean…let me get back to you.” Young Reformedish guy that I am, I’ll be the first to confess I fall into this trap far too easy. I mean, it’s not just that I know you’re wrong when you disagree with Keller/Vanhoozer/Bavinck/Calvin, it’s that all-too-often your disagreement feels like a fundamental rejection of my way of being. And my brothers and sisters, this clearly should not be so.

Still, I wonder about the modern-day “Christ” party among us. It’s pretty easy to spot that sort of thing on the progressive wing of things: people who boast about being anti-power, anti-empire, anti-celebrity, anti-Evangelical-entertainment-industrial complex, all the while getting “I am of Boyd” and “I am of Hauerwas” tattooed on their firstborns. (You Anabaptists know I still love you, right? Well, some of you at least.) Deeper still, though, are the theological approaches that tend to relativize formal teaching structures in the name of the some vague, ‘way of Jesus’–modern-day heirs of those that Luther and Calvin deemed the “enthusiasts” during the Reformation.

But criticizing other tribes is too easy. What does this look like among the Reformed? This is maybe a little harder as there usually isn’t any obvious gnosticism, or telltale anti-authoritarian signs to pick up on. The “Christ” party is a bit more subtle. Now, As a young whipper-snapper, I suppose I have to be careful here.* Let me say clearly that I really enjoy Carl Trueman’s work–both academically, and his stuff over at Reformation21. As a young guy who is in very clear danger of falling into the kind of name-veneration and proxy status-seeking, I really take his warnings against that sort of thing to heart, even when it’s a bit uncomfortable. What’s more, I appreciate that he lives his anti-celebrity approach. When you email him, no joke, he really is his people.

Still, among the Reformed, or at least the internet-Reformed, there’s a dangerous tendency to boast in the fact that you don’t boast in men. Which, incidentally, is not quite the same thing as boasting in the cross of Christ alone. What I mean is that a lot of people have adopted the “I don’t follow celebrities to get my identity” ethos as their own, inverted-mirror way of constructing their identity. Is a pastor too popular? Might be a sellout. Did he write a book? Probably a sellout. Did it sell well? Definitely a sellout. Unlike me. I’m never gonna write a book, or if I do, I will make sure that nobody likes it. In other words, it’s still a way of being that is far too concerned with human estimations of associations, power, and rankings, and isn’t completely resting in the fact that it is “because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30).

To reiterate, I know I’m probably still far too stuck in the ‘I am of Keller’ phase of things to sit comfortably under the preaching of this text, as are many of my friends in the wing of things I seem to be landing in. That said, for those of us looking to move beyond it, be careful you don’t confuse a fleshly Jesus-Juke with a true confession of Christ alone as the object of your faith.

Soli Deo Gloria

*As a side-note: Being fairly new to this wing of things, I’ve often thought it would be helpful for someone to create a map of the American Reformed world: “Thar be Kuyperians! “, or “Land of the Theonomists, watch for stones”, or “Here reside Old-Siders, quote none before 1700″, or “Beware Reformed Cannibals: They eat their own!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–ibid, pg. 204

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

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

–ibid, pg. 205

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

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

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

Soli Deo Gloria

Does God Let His Kids Lie About Him? A Thought (or Two) on the Enns/Bell Interview

enns

Look that face. What a friendly-looking dude. You almost hate disagreeing with him. Almost. ;)

Does God let his kids lie about him? That’s the question I found myself asking after reading this interview of Pete Enns by Rob Bell. Enns has a new book on the Bible coming out, and it promises to be the new progressive-Evangelical handbook for scrapping your old doctrine of Scripture, so, of course, Bell pulled him onto the blog to chat. Unsurprisingly the issue of ancient science and Old Testament violence came up.  I’ll quote Enns said about it at length, because why not?:

OK, so can we focus on one specific issue here that troubles a lot of people? In your book you do a spectacular job of explaining those violent passages in the Old Testament. Can you give my readers a bit on that?

I spend a chapter on in my book on God’s commend to the Israelites to exterminate every Canaanite man, woman, and child and take over their land. This is the go-to example many point to of God acting more like Megatron than a God of love. 

This is a huge issue that has bothered people ever since there’s been a Bible. It’s nothing new. It’s hard to find Christians or Jews that don’t have at least some problem with this. When we hear of modern genocides, where perpetrators claim that God is on their side, we just call that ethnic cleansing at the hands of crazy people. So how can Christians say God opposes genocide today when he commanded it yesterday? That’s what we call a real theological problem.

Well, that and the fact that Jesus said, “Love your enemies” and “my kingdom is not of this world” rather than “Let’s kill all the Gentiles [Romans] and take back our land.” So, on top of the moral problem, Jesus doesn’t seem to be on the same page with what God says in the Old Testament. 

This issue is involved enough that you can’t Tweet an answer. You really need to walk through the paces of discovering the Bible’s ancient voice. We take a step back and try to understand the Israelites as ancient people with ancient ways of thinking. They weren’t like the “nice Christians” we meet at church picnics and who listen to gospel quartets.

The Israelites lived at a rough time, the Iron Age, when nations fought tooth and nail over land and resources and the gods fought right along side of them, leading the charge

The nations that won had the mightier gods, and victory (slaughter, pillaging) gave gods honor. Losing meant your god was either a wimp or he was mad at your people for some reason and wanted to teach them a lesson in obedience. 

The Israelites were part of this ancient Iron Age world of warring, land acquisition, and destroying the enemy. They fit right in, and to expect their God-talk to be on a totally different page is to start off on the wrong foot. 

We shouldn’t cheer the Israelites and emulate them, which is what Christians with a violent streak throughout history have done—Spanish conquerors of the “West Indies” or European settlers of “America” treat the “new world” like it was Canaan and take over. And neither can we sidestep or minimize the violence, which is another strategy Christians have had for handling these passages.

They are what they are, and the Bible looks the way it does because God lets his children tell the story

Children tell stories of their parents from their point of view as children, which is not the whole story. Think of boys bragging about their dads on the playground. I loved my father and I defended his honor. He was a mighty man who could lift heavy objects, was a sharpshooter, brilliantly smart, and as strong as any man anywhere. 

Not everything I said about my dad was fully and objectively true, but this is how I saw my father, a description born of love, from my youthful perspective, that followed the “rules of the playground.” 

Eventually, looking back from a later vantage point, I realized how much my dad-talk actually limited my father, but that was how we talked and I wasn’t able, obviously, to take a step back and tell my father’s story some other way. 

And even if I could, if I had said things back then like how hard he worked to support us, how he stayed up when I was throwing up at night, and how he never missed my Little League games, I wouldn’t have gotten across to the other guys how awesome my dad was, how much better he was than all the others.

The Israelites described God according to their “rules,” how they and the people around them understood gods in general. And here’s a huge lesson in there for us today. 

We always perceive God from our vantage point, according to ways of thinking we aren’t even aware of most of the time. In these stories, the Bible gives us a glimpse of ancient Israelites doing that very same thing. 

So, when we read these stories, we don’t read them as absolute rules to live by or the final word about what God is like. Christians believe that in the Gospels, we get a deeper understanding about God from Jesus. The Gospels don’t allow us to remain where the Iron Age Israelites were in their understanding of God.

In other words, the Bible isn’t a rulebook for Christian living. It is a narrative that has movement and a trajectory. 

And while we’re at it, archaeologists are about as sure as you can be that the mass extermination of Canaanites that the Bible talks about didn’t happen—which is good news, I think. This helps us see these stories are stories that tell us how the ancient Israelites, at least at some point in their history, understood God.

And that, I realize, is a very long answer, but it’s as short as I can make it.

Alright, there’s a lot going on in there, some of it good and some of it bad. It’s kind of a variation on the Jesus-Tea-Strainer theme we’ve chatted about before. But like I said, the main question I’m left with is, “Does God allow his kids to lie about him?” Because that’s the basic thrust of Enns’ answer, right? The Israelites are young kids, excited about their dad, who told tall, pretty violent, tales about him in terms their kid conceptions of reality could grasp. And God looked on smilingly, letting it go because they meant well.

Now, to some degree I go along with a theology of accommodation in revelation. Most Reformed do. Calvin used to say that God used a sort of baby-talk to tell his children about himself, using terms they would understand to communicate. Bavinck developed this way of thinking at length. Isn’t what Enns saying kind of like that? Kind of, but where they part ways is the issue of truth. Does divine accommodation mean that well-meaning lies are okay about God? Calvin, Bavinck, and most of the Christian tradition would probably say no.

Indeed, looking at the thrust of the Old Testament revelation, God doesn’t seem to take lying about him too well. What are the first few commands?

And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. “You shall have no other gods before me. “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. (Exodus 20:1-7)

So:

  1. Don’t worship other gods.
  2. Don’t make idols or false representations of me.
  3. Don’t misuse my name and cheapen it.

Well, it seems to me that making up stories about God, saying he did a bunch of stuff he didn’t really do, like commanding a bunch of stuff he would never command because it’s clearly abhorrent to him, would probably fall afoul of 2 and 3, don’t you think? I mean, if Enns’ reading of the New Testament is right, and Jesus really is uber-pacifistic to the degree that all judgment or violence is just completely foreign to the nature of God, then these stories aren’t just tall tales, but pretty big whoppers. In fact, they’d seem to be blasphemous.

Now that would be odd wouldn’t it? For God to deliver commands to us about not falsely representing him and taking his name in vain, through narratives that falsely represent him and take his name in vain? What kind of confusing father is that? A little exaggeration here and there is one thing, but to fundamentally miss a key component like that is kind of a big deal. I mean, especially when God seems particularly picky about the “no false images” thing (Ex. 32-33).

In fact, in his helpful little work Against the Gods, John D. Currid has argued that when the OT picks up images from the surrounding culture, there’s usually a polemical edge. In other words, the OT revelation is often-times taking up cultural ideas and then subverting them, or explicitly opposing them through ironic use. I’m not that convinced, then, that God would inspire, or semi-inspire, or even simply ‘tolerate’ texts remaining in Scripture, his covenant documents, that grossly misrepresent him to his covenant people, the nations, and future generations of believers. It’s not just about inerrancy, but about having a trustworthy God. Accommodation is one thing, but if your accommodation includes aggressive falsehood, it’s actually not accommodation but misrepresentation.

Beyond that, the issue of culture and chronological snobbery pops up again. Enns makes the point that we always view God from our vantage point, thinking of God in terms that our culture finds amenable and understandable. But if that’s the case, then shouldn’t we slow the train down on judging the stories the Israelites told? Shouldn’t we be careful about our own modern, therapeutic ideas of parenting, democracy and such creeping in to our theology? Why is our culture’s judgment about the divine, or violence, or whatever, obviously more trustworthy? Because it’s ours? I don’t think Enns wants to go there.

Finally, yes, the passages in question can be pretty troubling. Still, I think there are answers that are helpful. I’ve got my own article on the issue of the conquest of the Canaanites trying to treat the issue in historical and theological context. But again, I’d point people to the work of Paul Copan in Is God a Moral Monster?or this helpful piece by Alastair Roberts. I’d also argue that even if Jesus does point us to a pacifistic ethic (which I doubt), there are ways of relating the Old and New Testaments in such a fashion that you don’t have to argue the OT was false in certain ways.

Because I’m lazy, I’ll quote myself from a post on a related subject:

So what do we say instead? I…would say something like, “Well, looking at Christ, his affirmation of the OT, as well as instruction to the effect that he has fulfilled and we’re moving on now, let’s look back and see how this command was functionally-appropriate for the time.” It’s a way of accepting all of what Jesus says when he affirms:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”

There’s both an affirmation that it’s all true, it was all valid, and yet, at the same time, now that Christ has come, we aren’t going back there. God spoke it all and did it all–every single law, judgment, story, and so forth–to somehow point forward towards a climax of grace and justice in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But of course, if you just cut bits out, or say the Israelites or Moses were confused at such & such point when the text says “the word of the Lord”, then you’re actually leaving out some of the testimony to the Glory of Christ.

Well, there’s more to say, but I suppose I’ll end my ramble here. Do I think God accommodates himself to be understood by his children? Yup. Do I think that includes lies about him? Nope. And neither should you.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. I like Pete Enns. He seems like a fun guy and I’d love to consume a sandwich and beverage with him at some point. So, though we disagree, please don’t be a jerk in the comments.

8 Reasons the Resurrection Matters

resurrection jesusOne of the things I love about reading Bavinck is that he continually disabuses me of the notion that recent challenges to the faith are really all that new, or that the sound, biblical theology that forms an answer to it was only recently discovered by a few insightful, North American (or British) scholars in the 1990s or something. Instead, Christian theologians have been taking up the charge to defend the faith, and pass on the richness of the biblical vision for a long time.

I was reminded of this when reading through Bavinck’s lengthy treatment of the Resurrection. In it he discusses various alternative, modern hypotheses, that would turn the Resurrection appearances into mere, subjective visions, or even divinely appointed projections of the risen Christ. Or, again, more agnostic accounts that would say the physical resurrection is really of no theological import as long as we affirm Christ’s current Lordship in either case. Besides not being historically satisfying accounts, Bavinck says they’re also theologically disastrous being a rather gnostic, dualist approach to the gospel.  He then goes on to explain how the Resurrection presents us with thick, rich approach to salvation that is indispensable or Christian faith and quickly lists 8 reasons it is absolutely crucial to affirm:

Scripture, however, proceeds from a totally different view. It teaches that both heaven and earth, spirit and matter, have been created by God; that the body belongs to the essential being of humans and in its way exhibits the image of God; that death is a consequence of and punishment for sin. For Scripture, then, everything depends on the physical resurrection of Christ. The that is integral to the how: if Christ did not arise physically, then death, then sin, then he who had the power of death has not been defeated. In that case, actually, not Christ but Satan came out the victor. According to Scripture, therefore, the significance of the physical resurrection of Christ is inexhaustibly rich.

Briefly summarized, that resurrection is

(1) proof of Jesus’ messiahship, the coronation of the Servant of the Lord to be Christ and Lord, the Prince of life and Judge (Acts 2:36; 3:13–15; 5:31; 10:42; etc.);

(2) a seal of his eternal divine sonship (Acts 13:33; Rom. 1:3);

(3) a divine endorsement of his mediatorial work, a declaration of the power and value of his death, the “Amen!” of the Father upon the “It is finished!” of the Son (Acts 2:23–24; 4:11; 5:31; Rom. 6:4, 10; etc.);

(4) the inauguration of the exaltation he accomplished by his suffering (Luke 24:26; Acts 2:33; Rom. 6:4; Phil. 2:9; etc.);

(5) the guarantee of our forgiveness and justification (Acts 5:31; Rom. 4:25);

(6) the fountain of numerous spiritual blessings: the gift of the Spirit (Acts 2:33), repentance (Acts 5:31), spiritual eternal life (Rom. 6:4f.), salvation in its totality (Acts 4:12);

(7) the principle and pledge of our blessed and glorious resurrection (Acts 4:2; Rom. 8:11; 1 Cor. 6:14; etc.);

(8) the foundation of apostolic Christianity (1 Cor. 15:12ff.).

I’m sure we could all think of more reasons. Indeed, Bavinck himself does in other sections as well as this one. Still, even this brief list demonstrates how inextricably the benefits and accomplishment of salvation, not only of individuals, but the whole cosmos is tied up with the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. This isn’t only about the coming back to life of one particularly good, holy man, but literally the redemption of the whole world. All of this only serves to confirm Paul’s affirmation that the totality of Christian faith rises or falls with the Resurrection of the Son:

For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.  Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:16-19)

Which is why I thank God for Paul’s next pivot–it’s one of my favorites in all of Scripture:

 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. (v. 20)

Take some time to meditate on the Jesus’ glorious resurrection today. Maybe work your way through Bavink’s 8 reasons. Stop to think about each for a minute or two, and just praise him for what he’s done. More than that, praise him for who he is: the Resurrected Lord of All Creation.

Soli Deo Gloria

‘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

Different Dimensions, Not ‘Theories’ of Christ’s Death

Truly dominant-looking theological man. It's a win for Reformed beardliness everywhere.

Truly dominant-looking theological man. It’s a win for Reformed beardliness everywhere.

It is very common in modern theology to talk about different ‘theories’ of what Christ’s death on the Cross accomplished. Indeed, a couple of weeks ago I talked about the way this was really a mistake that leads us to miss the various angles or aspects of the one, grand work of atonement Christ accomplished on the Cross. Just as there are various, equally important dimensions to God’s character, so there are to Christ’s salvation.

Back in the day, Herman Bavinck was also dealing with a context where a proliferation of atonement ‘theories’ were being offered up to replace older conceptions. This often provoked a sort of agnostic response that the New Testament only provided some facts about the death of Christ upon which various conflicting interpretations could be easily offered and chosen. Bavinck, instead, responded that, “Holy Scripture does not relate to us the bare fact of the death of Christ in order then to base the interpretation and appraisal of it to everyone’s own taste but from all angles puts that fact in the light of the Word.” Essentially, all of the different theories of Christ’s death find their basis in the New Testament alongside each other and ought to be maintained side by side, mutually determining each other, not ruling the others out in our theology as well.

Bavinck then goes on to show us what he means but that, and what solid, biblical atonement theology ought to look like. (Yes, this is a longish quote, but worth every minute):

The first thing this study teaches, we may say, is that the Scriptures continually view the suffering and death of Christ from a different perspective and in each case illumine another aspect of it. Like the person, the work of Christ is so multifaceted that it cannot be captured in a single word nor summarized in a single formula. In the different books of the New Testament, therefore, different meanings of the death of Christ are highlighted, and all of them together help to give us a deep impression and a clear sense of the riches and many-sidedness of the mediator’s work. In the Synoptics, Christ appears on the scene as a preacher and founder of the kingdom of God. That kingdom includes within itself the love of the Father, the forgiveness of sins, righteousness, and eternal life; and Jesus, in his capacity as Messiah, ascribes to himself the power to grant all these benefits to his disciples. Just as he has power to heal the sick, so he also has the authority to forgive sins. By this combination of powers, he proves that he is the complete Savior of his people. For that reason, too, there is no way of gaining admission into that kingdom and no participation in those benefits except by faith in his name. For it is he himself who gives his life as a ransom for many and who, in his death, breaks his body and sheds his blood to inaugurate and confirm the new covenant with all its blessings (Matt. 20:28; 26:28). In the Acts of the Apostles, the death of Christ is especially presented as an appalling crime that was inflicted on Christ by the hands of lawless men but was nevertheless from eternity included in the counsel of God (Acts 2:23; 4:28; 5:30). Therefore, God also raised him from the dead and exalted him as Lord and Christ, Ruler and Savior, in order, in his name, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:36; 4:12; 5:31).

For Paul, Christ’s death on the cross was originally the great offense, but when it pleased God to reveal his Son in it, that cross became for him the crown of Jesus’ messiahship and the only means of salvation. For on that cross God made him to be sin and a curse for us in order that in him we would have wisdom and righteousness, sanctification and redemption, salvation and eternal life (Rom. 3:24; 1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13). The Letter to the Hebrews describes Christ especially as the perfect and eternal high priest who was not only himself sanctified (perfected) through suffering (2:10; 5:9) but by his one perfect sacrifice put away the sins of his people (7:27; 9:26; 10:12) and is still continually at work as high priest in heaven, continuing and completing the purification, sanctification, and perfecting of his own (7:3, 25; 8:1; 9:14; 10:12ff.). Peter pictures Christ’s suffering as that of a lamb without blemish or spot; and in that suffering he not only bore our sins and redeemed us from our futile way of life but left us an example that we might follow in his steps (1 Pet. 1:18f.; 2:21f.). And John makes Christ known to us both as the lamb and the lion, as the life and the light, as the bread and the water of life, as the grain of wheat that, dying, bears fruit, and as the good Shepherd who gives his life for the sheep, as the Savior who gives life to the world, and as the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last, and so on.

So, indeed, one can find in the New Testament different appraisals of the person and work of Christ, which, however, do not exclude but rather supplement one another and enrich our knowledge. Just as in the old covenant there were diverse sacrifices and the promised Messiah was repeatedly presented under different names, so this many-sidedness in the description carries over into the New Testament and even markedly increases. The death of Christ is a paschal offering, a covenant offering, a praise offering as well as a sacrifice; a ransom and an example; suffering and action; a work and a ministry; a means of justification and sanctification, atonement and consecration, redemption and glorification; in a word, the cause of our whole redemption. Similarly, in theology various “theories” occur side by side, and in the preaching of the church, now one and now another aspect of the work of Christ is in the limelight. None of the above-mentioned mystical and ethical views, accordingly, are untrue as such; on the contrary, they are all based on data contained in Holy Scripture.

Christ, by his incarnation, in his person indeed brought about the union of God and humanity and is, as such, God’s representative to us and our representative to God: the Immanuel who as prophet makes God known to us and as priest consecrates himself on our behalf to the Father. He is the Son, the Word, the Image of God who shares with the Father in the same essence and attributes, and at the same time the Son of Man, the true human, the head of humankind, the second Adam who became like us in all respects, entered into our community of sin and death and bore our sorrows and diseases. He came on earth to fulfill a vocation, to found the kingdom of heaven, to confirm the new covenant in his blood; and in order to do that, he submitted to the will of the Father, became obedient unto death, and pronounced the “Amen” on the righteous judgment that God executed upon death in his suffering and dying. He became the faithful witness (Rev. 1:5), made the good confession before Pilate (1 Tim. 6:13), and became the high priest of our confession (Heb. 3:1). His suffering, therefore, was not only an atonement for our sins and a ransom for our redemption, but in his death the believing community was crucified with him, and in his resurrection this community itself arose from the grave. Christ was never alone; always he stood in fellowship with the humanity whose nature he had assumed. Just as all die in Adam, so they are again made alive in Christ and called to follow in his footsteps. All these elements, which come one-sidedly to the fore in the above-mentioned conceptions of Christ’s death, can be found in Scripture. What matters above all, now, is not to neglect any of them but to unite them into a single whole and to trace the unity that underlies them in Scripture. We can even say they are all inspired by the commendable ambition to link the suffering and death of Christ as closely as possible with his person. For this suffering and death were in fact not “something objective” that can be separated from his person and life and put in a category by itself. Christ’s suffering and death were not his “lot” but his deed. He had power to lay down his life as he did to take it up again (John 10:18). His death was the consummation of his obedience (Phil. 2:8).

Reformed Dogmatics Volume 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ, pp. 383-384

Of course, for those who know the atonement theology, even this still doesn’t exhaust what Scripture (or Bavinck himself) says about the death of Christ in terms of the defeat of Satan, the powers of sin, and so much more. All the same, you can see Bavinck drawing out dimension after dimension of Christ’s accomplishment on the cross on our behalf, laying them side-by-side in a beautiful, seamless whole.

After reading something like this, I wonder at our tendency to want to single out, separate, or deny part of Christ’s great work on our behalf. No, instead, we must strive in our preaching and teaching to maintain every thread of the marvelous tapestry given us in the New Testament so that the glory of Christ Crucified and Risen may be gloried in, experienced, and wondered at all the more.

Soli Deo Gloria

Love, Hate, and A Counter-Intuitive God

love one anotherThe Bible’s a funny thing sometimes. It doesn’t always say what I expect it to. I mean, for instance, we all know that the Bible teaches us to love and not hate, right?

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him.”  (1 John 4:7-9)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” -(Matthew 5:43-44)

Texts like this could be multiplied a dozen times over. It’s pretty basic. God is love, so Christians love and don’t hate, right? Except for there are these other types  of verses I run across in the Bible (that could be multiplied) too:

The boastful shall not stand before your eyes;

you hate all evildoers. (Psalm 5:5)

Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?

    And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?

 I hate them with complete hatred;

    I count them my enemies. (Ps. 139:21-22)

Let love be genuine. Hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good. (Romans 12:9)

Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. (Revelation 2:6)

Welp. I guess it’s not that simple now is it?

I mean, with Psalm 139 you could point out that they have to do with Old covenant expressions of loyalty to a covenant Lord. He ‘loves’ his Lord, therefore he ‘hates’ his opponents in the sense that he will  oppose them insofar as they oppose God. Also, this could be the kind of thing that Jesus overturns in the Sermon on the Mount quoted above. That’s harder to do with Psalm 5 talking about God’s ‘hate’ for evil-doers, but you could write it off as hyperbole, or again, OT stuff. I’d be careful about that, but I can see the move being made with some plausibility.

But what about those next two? I mean, in Romans Paul explicitly tells us to let our love be sincere. Later in the very same passage he tells us to forgo vengeance and retaliation against our enemies, even quoting Jesus about ‘blessing those who curse you’ (12:14-21). So he clearly knows Jesus’ teaching. But here, in the same earlier verse, he tells us to ‘hate what is evil’ as a way of describing how we ought to love. Apparently the inspired witness to the Risen Christ saw no contradiction there.

And what about Jesus? Because you know that’s who is talking in Revelation chapter 2. Jesus is giving a message to the Church in Ephesus (the same church that is receiving the letter of 1 John, by the way), and the one thing that he commends them for is ‘hating’ the works of the Nicolaitan, “which I also hate.’ Evidently hating the right things was the only way they were properly imitating Jesus.

So what gives? Which is it? Love or hate? Because it’s not just Old Testament versus New Testament. The question is sharper. Is it Paul or Paul? Is Jesus wrong or is Jesus right?

Dead-End Distinctions?

The issue came up for me as I read an interchange of articles between Jonathan Parnell over at Desiring God and Micah Murray over at Redemption Pictures. Parnell made the argument that our love for sinners and enemies must, paradoxically must include a hate for sinners. It’s not so simple to separate out sinner from sin and so precisely because their sin contributes to their own destruction and self-damnation we must lovingly, in some sense, hate them. Murray then pointed to the clear testimony of God’s love and lovingness in Scripture and said that this is basically the kind of logic only a Calvinist who’d put system ahead of Jesus’ could embrace. The idea that love could include hate is such an obvious dead-end that should tip us off we took a wrong turn somewhere.

Now, initially I get Murray’s apprehension. Aside from the fact that he’s definitely not a Calvinist and predisposed to disagree with anything coming out of Desiring God, it’s initially an off-putting thought. For the most part, it seems like people don’t need to be taught to hate their enemies. That sort of comes naturally to sinners. Also, Parnell’s piece was rather a short, undeveloped article liable to confusion. Lord knows I’ve written a couple of those. I’m unsurprised there’s maybe some cross-talk going on. Still, both are good men trying to love Jesus, honor the Scriptures, and live the Christian life well. So what are we to think?

Given the biblical evidence I surveyed above, it seems worth analyzing the dispute at a few levels. One is how we understand the different senses of the term ‘hate’, how we understand God, and how we understand the nature of love itself.

‘Hate’ and Hate 

Jesus talkingOn the first point, it should be unproblematic to say that that the term ‘hate’ is used in different ways at different times for different situations. I mean, one of the most troubling texts in the Gospels has Jesus saying:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)

Most commentaries will point out that Jesus is using a hyperbolic idiom here that means something along the lines of “if you don’t love these things less than you do me.” It’s forceful, and shouldn’t be minimized, but Jesus isn’t straightforwardly commanding hate of our parents.

Still, much of the time when God’s hatred is mentioned in Scripture it is a much stronger understanding than merely “like less.” It is his strenuous, moral disapproval or opposition to. It is his righteous, judicial displeasure at evil, often involving his desire to remove the object of his displeasure. Louw-Nida describes the word for ‘hate’ that Jesus uses in Revelation, this way:

μισέω: to dislike strongly, with the implication of aversion and hostility—‘to hate, to detest.’ οἱ δὲ πολῖται αὐτοῦ ἐμίσουν αὐτόν ‘and his fellow countrymen hated him’ Lk 19:14. [1]

The implication is the whatever the Nicolaitans are teaching, it’s detestable and the only appropriate response is the same extreme displeasure that Jesus has with it. James Dunn notes that Paul similarly uses a very forceful word in Romans 12:9, implying a clear, forceful rejection of evil in our use of the gifts in the community.

While we need to be careful about taking sinful, human ideas and experiences of hate into things, it appears that the Bible gives a place for it. Even Jesus does. So, I guess an appeal to language doesn’t quite get us off the hook.

God and ‘God’ 

One other part of the problem is that we have trouble thinking about God having anything more than a strict, black or white, love or hate relationship with creation. We have trouble thinking of him in more than one role at a time. We are people with flat imaginations and so we try to come up with a flat God that suits us.

Thing is, the Scriptures give us a multi-dimensional God, with multi-dimensional relationships to the world and his creatures. I mean, we see this right we when open up the first few pages of the Bible. We find out right off the bat that God is a Creator, one who speaks all things into existence out of love and delight (Gen 1-2). We also learn in very short order that God is also a Judge, discerning right and wrong, condemning and cursing rebellion and sin, while at the same time proving to be a merciful Redeemer (Gen 3). Creator. Judge. Redeemer. Three dimensions to his relationship to his Image-bearers right there in three short chapters.

I hold to at least some form of the doctrine of God’s simplicity. God isn’t something we can chop up in parts and say, “this is his love, and that part over there to the left is his holiness” or something. God’s love is holy; God’s righteousness is merciful; God’s power wise. Is it really that hard then to think describing the infinite God’s attitude towards us might require a more than one or two words, some of which might seem initially contradictory? As I noted the other day, God used more than one name to describe himself and we need all of them.

The other factor at work is that we must remember that God’s emotions are not strictly like our emotions. God is impassible, which means that his emotions are more appropriately thought of analogically as expressing his judgments about certain states of affairs, rather than adrenaline-laced flare-ups of the divine blood-stream.

Love and ‘Love’

Typically modern culture thinks of love in terms of total acceptance and affirmation. To love is to accept and affirm the beloved totally and without reservation. Following off of what we’ve seen above, the more we think about it, the more plausible it is that God’s love includes his intense displeasure towards some things in the world he loves. As I’ve noted before, Miroslav Volf  (not a Calvinist, btw) writes about the appropriateness of God’s wrath because of his love:

Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandparently fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.

-Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace pg. 139

Christina Cleveland made much the same point in talking about the rage of some in the black community over the recent injustices in Ferguson, MO: “the rage they feel is the rage that God feels towards injustice. In a sense, they are imaging forth God’s justice to an unjust world.” It’s entirely appropriate to feel that same intense displeasure towards systemic racism that God does–to hate what God hates precisely because God is love.

Let’s push further, though, because the reality is that this injustice isn’t some abstraction floating off in the ether; it makes its dark home in our hearts.

God made us in his Image and so he does love us. And yet, there’s a point where it makes sense to say he hates what we’ve made of ourselves. It’s as if you knew a young man with scads of artistic potential, training, and a natural eye for beauty, who could reach the heights of a Rembrandt or a Picasso, and yet, because he took up with drugs, addiction followed and he’d be reduced to ravaged shell of his former self, barely able to scrawl out a stick figure. You still love him. You’d pity him as well. But there’s a very real, honest sense in which you could say that because you love him, you hate what he’s made of himself.

Or again, it’s like a master painter who works tirelessly on on a work of art, leaves it on a trip, and upon coming home he finds that it’s been smeared and torn up. He loves what he made, but he hates the smears and the tears that now form a part of it. Augustine says something similar here:

‘God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us’ [Romans 5:8]. Therefore, he loved us even when we practiced enmity toward him and committed wickedness. Thus in a marvelous and divine way he loved us even when he hated us. For he hated us for what we were that he had not made; yet because our wickedness had not entirely consumed his handiwork, he knew how, at the same time, to hate in each one of us what we had made, and to love what he had made.

God loves us as his Image-bearers, and yet God is right to hate the way we’ve destroyed the Image. Think of it this way. Imagine God speaking to a young man in this fashion:

“You know little Johnny, that part of you that lies, is racist, and leads you to abuse women? You know what I’m talking about? Well, I want you to know it’s precious to me. I love it because I love you–all of you, just the way you are.”

Wouldn’t that be terrible? Does anybody imagine that a good, kind, gracious, just God would ever love the part of me that leads me to self-destruction? Can he? Can we? No. It’s precisely because he loves little Johnny that he is completely and bitterly opposed to that part of his character that is abusive to women, lies, and loves violence. He loves Johnny though he is racist, though he deplores the reality of his racism. Precisely because he’s good and loving he has to deplore that part of his current character. Most moral education presupposes this. I may love my little son, but I hate that he lies and will lovingly discipline that lying streak out of him if I can so that he doesn’t ruin his own life.

C.S. LewisC.S. Lewis (also not a Calvinist) says something similar in The Problem of Pain about what we know to be true in our own experience of guilt:

Now at the moment when a man feels real guilt – moments too rare in our lives – all these blasphemies vanish away. Much, we may feel, can be excused to human infirmities: but not this – this incredibly mean and ugly action which none of our friends would have done, which even such a thorough-going little rotter as X would have been ashamed of, which we would not for the world allow to be published. At such a moment we really do know that our character, as revealed in this action, is, and ought to be, hateful to all good men, and, if there are powers above man, to them. A God who did not regard this with unappeasable distaste would not be a good being. We cannot even wish for such a God – it is like wishing that every nose in the universe were abolished, that smell of hay or roses or the sea should never again delight any creature, because our own breath happens to stink. (pg. 51)

Or again, I love my wife soul and body and because of that, I would hate any cancer cells that were a part of her threatening to destroy her. In that sense I could say that I hate her body that was destroying her. But I only do so because I love her and her body. Actually, my wife has said that during the years when my body had been breaking down and was causing me a good deal of pain, stress, and was a continual burden, she hated my body as it currently was precisely because of her love for me.

Take Care

We need to take real care about these things and a blog post, even a long one, can’t treat the subject with the patience it deserves. A full discussion would need to address ideas like the jealousy of God as well as the very prominent theme of God’s particular love for his people Israel.

That said, language about hate and God are both dangerous when taken out of their proper biblical context. Whatever Paul means by ‘hate’, he is very clear in the passage that he doesn’t mean it to lead to retaliation or violence, but rather prayer and good in response to evil.  What’s more, I don’t really see much in the way of Scripture commanding Christians cultivating hate in their heart for persons. In fact, most of it, quite intuitively, runs the other way. The real danger of distortion and abuse means we need to tread lightly here.

At the same time, we need to take care that we don’t dispense with proper biblical teaching because of over-quick reactions to counter-intuitive truths. Some might be sniffing saying, “Really? This sounds like a roundabout defense of the despicable old ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’ canard.” And you may be right to a degree. Separating sin from sinner is a difficult business. But are our other options much better? “Hate the sinner and the sin”, full stop? No, that’s not right. Or, even more foreign to biblical thought, “Love the sinner and love the sin?” You can hear Paul crying from heaven “May it never be!”

I suppose I’ll end where I started: the Bible doesn’t always say what I expect it to, even when it comes to love. Then again, I’d be suspicious if it did. My love is so weak and so paltry at times. It’s really a tired, half-hearted thing if I’m honest. When I come to the love of God, the surprising, counter-intuitive love of Jesus displayed on the cross, the cross which exposes all my darknesses and shames, should I not expect to find some edges I’d never imagined?

[1] Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996). Vol. 1: Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: Based on semantic domains (electronic ed. of the 2nd edition.) (762–763). New York: United Bible Societies.