Why Did God Give the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil? 5 Reasons

forbidden-treeAs the fountainhead of the story of the Bible, some of the most complicated questions in theology are densely clustered in the first few chapters of Genesis. After hearing the story as a kid in Sunday School, one of the first ones you end up asking is, “Why would God put the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the middle of the Garden? I mean, given that it could derail the whole project so quickly, why put it there at all? What’s the point? What reasons could God possibly have?”

Leave it to Turretin to tackle the issue with his usual, rigorous clarity, to come up with, not one, but five reasons for planting the tree in the middle of the Garden. Before laying out his answer, though, it’s important to set a bit of background.

Locating Adam

First, you need to know that Turretin treats the question in his section dealing with human nature in its originally constituted state. That makes a big difference when it comes to a couple of his reasons. See, earlier on in this topic he points out that when you’re dealing with questions of anthropology in theology, you need to recognize there are four states you need to think about (Vol. 1, Top. 8, Qu. 1.I-II). There’s:

(a) human nature as God originally made it

(b) human nature after we made a mess of it through sin

(c) human nature after God has regenerated it as it goes through the process of sanctification

(d) human nature once God has ultimately perfected and glorified it in the future

Much confusion results when theologians don’t distinguish these states in their discussions of human nature and they end up heatedly talking past each other.

Second, you have to know that, along with all the other Reformed dogmaticians of his time, Turretin considered Adam to be entered into a covenant of nature or works, with God. Strictly speaking, it’s a covenant only by God’s condescension. God isn’t an equal party, being an infinite creator, and is only under obligation according to his own Word. All the same, Adam was given a law with curses attached for disobedience and blessings by way of reward for obedience. For more on this, see here.

From there, we can move on to discuss the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In his section on the topic (Vol. 1, Top. 8, Qu. 4), he quickly dispenses with the idea that we can know what kind of fruit tree it was. Instead, we must discover why it got its name. Turretin’s suggestion is that the tree’s name revealed its nature as both a sacramental tree as well as pointing ahead to its experiential reality. In other words, by eating of it, Adam and Eve would know by experience what it means to know the good of obedience and the evil of disobedience.

This command to not eat of the Tree was what we might call a “positive” law in that eating the fruit wasn’t inherently good or evil, but only became so by the command of God. It’s wrong “because God said so.” Still, it symbolically represented the whole of the natural law and became a test, a trial, where the obedience of Adam would be “explored.” Would he cling to God’s own word in love and obedience, or prefer his own will by heeding the voice of the tempter? (Incidentally, for those puzzled by the reference, yes, classic Reformed theology had a robust, creational doctrine of natural law).

Making Things Explicit

So then, now we are prepared to hear Turretin’s five reasons that God placed the Tree in the Garden as an explicitly, “exploratory” command, on top of Adam’s natural obligations:

  1. In order that God, who had granted the dominion of all things to man, might declare himself to be the Lord of man and man might understand himself to be a servant bound to obey and adhere to him. Although the natural law had already clearly declared that, yet because someone might think the natural law to be a property of nature and not a law, he wished therefore (by a peculiar law about a think absolutely indifferent) to declare this more clearly. Thus on the one hand, the dominion of God might appear…on the other, the duty of man.
  2. That sin might be made the more conspicuous by that external symbol and the evil of the concealed ulcer be dragged to the light (or the virtue of the obedience be far more clearly exhibited). For the virtue of obedience would have been the more illustrious as the evil was because forbidden of God…
  3. To declare that man was created by him with free will; for if he had been without it, he would not have imposed such a law upon him.
  4. That by interdicting the fruit of a beautiful tree, he might teach that his happiness does not consist in the enjoyment of earthly things; otherwise God would not have wished to prevent his using it.
  5. To teach that God alone and his service must be sought before all things as the highest good and that we should acquiesce in it alone.

Now, many might seek to add further reasons to Turretin’s here. Indeed, one of the most interesting and compelling suggestions is that the Tree was ultimately to be a gift to Adam after passing his test (his probationary period, if you will) and entering into the blessings of obedience. All the same, at this stage in the narrative, Turretin’s answers are instructive for us.

First, it’s helpful to realize Turretin doesn’t limit himself to one reason. Oftentimes we consider and discard answers in theology because we presume there must be only one correct answer to any situation and neglect the fact that multiple answers or multiple dimensions to a single answer might be true. We shouldn’t be hasty or reductionistic, especially when dealing with the purposes of God.

Also, it’s worth mentioning how well this account comports with Paul’s illustrative retelling his/Adam’s/Israel’s situation in Romans 7 when it comes to the entrance of the Law:

What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. (Romans 7:7-13)

I would be surprised if Turretin wasn’t explicitly engaged in some intertextual interpretation here.

Finally, if we could sum up all these reasons into one basic thought, it’s that God wanted to make things explicit. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil clarified humanity’s relationship with God, set expectations, held out promises and threats, and instructed Adam in what his truest and deepest good was. God is not arbitrary, cruel, or unclear. He declares his law explicitly for the good of his creatures. Unfortunately, we very explicitly botched it.

Thankfully, he declares his gospel by an even clearer word: Jesus.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Man’s Got To Know His Limitations

do ya punkFor some reason, theologians don’t often get associated with the Christian virtue of humility. It’s ironic that studying the infinite Creator of all things, when undertaken without prayer or community, can lead to a puffed up and inflated sense of self. The greater the subject, the greater the pride when you feel you’ve mastered it, I suppose. In any case, this is one of the reasons I so enjoy running across encouragements to humility in theological exploration.

Yesterday I ran across a particularly fantastic example in Augustine. In one section, he takes up the question of whether God’s sovereignty implies an eternal creation. In other words, if we say God is eternally sovereign, does that require him to have been eternally creating something alongside himself to be sovereign over? Wouldn’t that be another co-eternal? Or how does the fact that God created time itself affect the question? In other words, if God created time along with the world, there’s a way in which you could say there’s never been a time where he hasn’t been sovereign Creator, but that’s because there was no time “before” he made time.

Confused yet?

At the end of a couple pages of this, Augustine wraps up his discussion like this:

And so I return to what our Creator wished us to know. What he has allowed wiser heads to know in this life, or has reserved for the knowledge of those who have reached their fulfillment in the other life, that I confess to be beyond my powers. But I thought I should discuss this question, without reaching any positive conclusion, so that my readers may see what questions they should refrain from tackling, as dangerous, and to discourage them from thinking themselves capable of understanding everything. Instead they should realize that they ought to submit to the wholesome instruction of the Apostle, when he says, ‘In virtue of the authority given to me by God’s grace I say this to all your company: do not be wiser than you ought to be; but be wise in moderation, in proportion to the faith which God has allotted to each of you.’ For if a child’s upbringing is adjusted to his strength, he will grow, and become capable of further progress, but if he is strained beyond his capacity he will fade away before he has the chance to grow up. (City of God, BK. XII.16)

There’s so much I love about this passage.

First, the fact that he did all of that in order to sum up and say, “Don’t try this at home, kids.” Now, this can sound a bit arrogant. But what have to see here is a humble vulnerability in the theological process in which Augustine is exposing his own finite understanding in the process of stretching himself to the limits of his own powers. It’s not easy for a teacher to say, “I don’t know.” All too often, the temptation is the fake a certainty you don’t possess, or hastily land on a conclusion just to have an answer for those who look to you for insight. Augustine refuses to play the expert at the cost of the truth.

With a pastoral heart, he decides to engage the difficulty that he knows might trip up some of his more inquiring readers should they wander down certain paths. The flipside is that he still discusses the issue. It’s this odd movement of saying, “Alright, I’ll go here with you if only to show you that going here might lead to trouble.” It’s not the simple wave of the hand that dismisses such questions as foolish or entirely off-limits, but one that humbly acts as a guide to the theologically perplexed.

Finally, Augustine’s example at the end is one of both caution and invitation. If you press too deep beyond what it is given to you to know at this point, beyond your spiritual and intellectual powers, you might hurt yourself. But the point isn’t to warn against theological study, but about taking care so that you may continue to proceed at the pace of growth the Lord himself intends. There are times when, for the sake of growing in a healthy knowledge of God, it is okay to say, “I’ll put this question aside for now and return it at some future point. I trust that God will continue to reveal himself to me in ways that are appropriate to me in areas that I can handle right now.”

As Dirty Harry put it, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

Soli Deo Gloria

When the Trinity said, “Let there Be Light”

lightOne of the problems with reading Augustine as a blogger is the pain at not being able to write about every little choice tidbit or argument you run across. Unfortunately, it’s not possible without simply turning your blog into a commentary on City of God (a not unworthwhile proposition). For now I simply want to highlight one fascinating bit of trinitarian theology Augustine does in his discussion of creation in book 11.

In this section, he begins to treat the truth of the Christian faith against the pagans and so moves to discussing the reality of the world, God’s creation ex nihilo and the fact that creation had a beginning. At one point he sets himself to meditate on the statement, “God saw that it was good” after declaring “let there be light.” He argues that this doesn’t mean that God found out after creating that he’d managed to do a good job. Scripture indicates God’s delight in what he has made according to his own eternal wisdom and will. God’s thoughts are not successive or time-bound like ours. He knows all with a perfect knowledge we cannot imagine. After some elaboration in this vein, he concludes by reflecting on the way Scripture communicates the truth of God’s creation in Genesis 1:

For this reason, if we were merely being asked, ‘Who made the light?’ it would be enough to answer, ‘God.’ If further information regarding the means by which it was made had been intended, it would have sufficed to say, ‘And God said, Let there be light, and there was light,’ that we might know not only that God had made the world, but also that He had made it by the Word. But there are three things above all which we need to know about a created thing, three things we must be told: who made it, how he made it, and why he made it. That is why the Scripture says, ‘God said, “Let there be light, and there was light.  And God saw the light that it was good.”‘  If, then, we ask who made it, it was ‘God.’  If, by what means, He said ‘Let it be,’ and it was.  If we ask, why He made it, ‘it was good.’  Neither is there any author more excellent than God, nor any skill more efficacious than the word of God, nor any cause better than that good might be created by the good God. (Bk. XI.21)

Three questions give three answers. Who made the world? God. How did he make it? His Word. Why did he make it? Because a good God makes good things. Where is the Trinity is all this? Well, just a couple of chapters later he concludes a section critiquing Origen by asking:

As I suggested above, there are three questions to be asked in respect of any created being: Who made it? How? and Why? I put forward the answers: ‘God’, ‘Through His Word’, ‘Because it was good.’ Now whether this formula is to be regarded as a mystical revelation of the Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, or whether there is anything which prevents this interpretation of the passage in Scripture is a question meriting extended discussion; and we are not to be forced to unravel every question in a single volume. (Bk. XI.23)

So it seems he might be shutting the question down. But then he moves on to discuss the revelation of the divine Trinity in Creation in the very next chapter, suggesting an answer to the question. He begins that section by affirming the Father’s eternal generation of the Son and the Holy Spirit’s procession from both so that we have these three who are co-eternal and consubstantial with each other, one, undivided, distinctive according to the persons, but inseparable according to the divine nature and action. He then begins to connect some interesting dots by way of examining the Holy Spirit’s relationship to the Father and the Son. He says this:

As for the question whether the Holy Spirit of the good Father and the good Son can rightly be called the goodness of both, as being common to both, I should not dare to hazard a rash judgment about that. I should however be more ready to risk the statement that he is the holiness of them both, not as a mere quality, but being himself a subsistent being — a substance — and the third person in the Trinity. What lends probability to this suggestion is the fact that although the Father is spirit, and the Son is spirit, and the Father and the Son are both holy, it remains true that holiness is the distinguishing attribute of the Spirit, which suggests that he is the holiness of both, in substantial and consubstantial form. Now if the divine goodness is identical with the divine holiness, it is evidently not a rash presumption but a reasonable inference to find a hint of the Trinity in the description of God’s creative works, expressed somewhat enigmatically, so as to exercise our speculations. This hint we may find when we ask the questions. Who? How? and Why? (Bk. XI.24)

Now we come to the heart of Augustine’s speculative investigation of whether God’s act of creation points us to God’s Trinitarian being.

It was, of course, the Father of the Word who said, ‘Let it be made.’ And since creation was effected by his speaking, there can be no doubt that it was done by means of the Word. And the statement, ‘God saw that it was good’ makes it quite plain that God did not create under stress of any compulsion, or because he lackes something for his own needs; his only motive was goodness; he created because his creation was good. And the assertion of the goodness of the created work follows the act of creation in order to emphasize that the work corresponded with the goodness which was the reason for its creation.

Now if his goodness is rightly interpreted as the Holy Spirit, then the whole united Trinity is revealed to us in its works. Hence comes the origin, the enlightenment, and the felicity of the Holy City constituted by the angels on high. If we ask whence it arises, God founded it; if whence comes its wisdom, it receives light from God; if whence comes its bliss, it rejoices in God. It receives its mode of being by subsisting in God, its enlightenment by beholding him, its joy from cleaving to him. It exists; it sees; it loves. It is strong with God’s eternity; it shines with God’s truth; it rejoices in God’s goodness. (ibid.)

All of this may seem a bit far-fetched and strained to modern readers and exegetes. And that may be. Staring at the sun too long can strain the eyes, and Augustine as known to strain a bit in his ardent desire to see the glory of the Triune God in all things. Of course, we might stop and consider that it is our eyes are weak from lack of effort to penetrate beyond the shallows into the depths of Scriptural texts by reading it in light of the broader confession of the Canon and the Church.

In either case, Augustine has given us hints at a rich vision of activity and purposes of the Triune God in creation. God does not create in some impersonal, mechanistic fashion, but via his powerful, personal Word. Father and Son are good with the goodness that is the Holy Spirit. For that reason, God does not make in order to fulfill some existential gap in his own being, but because the good God makes good things. It is from the fullness of his own Triune life that God says, “Let there be light” and rejoices in the good work of his Word.

Soli Deo Gloria

Sacraments in Space and Time

lord's supperFollowing Paul’s argument first letter against the licentious Corinthians (10:1-13), Calvin makes an interesting comment on the work of the Holy Spirit worth briefly exploring.

Apparently many were hiding behind the efficacy of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as a sort of prophylactic against judgment, or temptation to sin in spiritually dangerous situations like eating meat in pagan temples. Paul challenges their comfortable assumptions by reminding them that the Israelites had those same sacraments in their own Old Covenant form as well. Just as the Christians were baptized into the name of Christ with the Spirit, Israelites were baptized into Moses through the cloud and sea. Just as Christians ate spiritual food in the Supper, the Lord fed the Israelites with spiritual food of manna and drank water from the Rock that is Christ. And yet, as Paul will go on to point out, through their sin, the Lord became displeased with them and many of them were struck down in the desert. In which case, Corinthians ought not sit too easily in their lax approach toward temple idolatry.

Towards the end of his comment on verse four, Calvin takes up an interesting objection:

There remains another question. “Seeing that we now in the Supper eat the body of Christ, and drink his blood, how could the Jews be partakers of the same spiritual meat and drink, when there was as yet no flesh of Christ that they could eat?” I answer, that though his flesh did not as yet exist, it was, nevertheless, food for them. Nor is this an empty or sophistical subtilty, for their salvation depended on the benefit of his death and resurrection. Hence, they required to receive the flesh and the blood of Christ, that they might participate in the benefit of redemption. This reception of it was the secret work of the Holy Spirit, who wrought in them in such a manner, that Christ’s flesh, though not yet created, was made efficacious in them. He means, however, that they ate in their own way, which was different from ours, and this is what I have previously stated, that Christ is now presented to us more fully, according to the measure of the revelation. For, in the present day, the eating is substantial, which it could not have been then — that is, Christ feeds us with his flesh, which has been sacrificed for us, and appointed as our food, and from this we derive life.

Assuming the relationship of type to antitype between Old Testament and New Testament, Calvin says that believers in both are partakers of the same spiritual meat and drink, the flesh of Christ. That they drank from the rock that was Christ, means they participated in the sacraments of Christ. But the problem is that Christ wasn’t incarnate, sacrificed, risen, and ascended in the time of the Exodus. So how can that relationship hold? Here we get an interesting glimpse into the all-important role the Holy Spirit plays in Calvin’s view of the sacraments.

It’s more commonly known that Calvin’s view of the sacraments is a “spiritual” one, in that the Spirit is the one who makes Christ present to believers in the Supper, or rather, makes believers present to Christ. Lutherans leaned on the idea of Christ’s ubiquity, or the idea that even Christ’s physical nature became omnipresent because of its hypostatic union with the divine nature. Calvin, however, emphasized the importance of the ascension of Christ’s physical, glorified body that has occupies a particular space as a body, seated at the right hand of the Father in the heavenlies (wherever that happened to be). In other words, “where is Christ?” is a question that can legitimately asked.

If they were to be present to the Risen Lord, it would be by the action of the Holy Spirit who “makes things which are widely separated by space to be united with each other, and accordingly causes life from the flesh of Christ to reach us from heaven” (Calvin, quoted by Michael Horton in The Christian Faith,  pg. 814). So the Spirit unites things in space, bridging the distance between the Ascended Lord and his people who depend on him for heavenly life.

What is so fascinating about this passages is that apparently the Eternal Spirit also bridges the distance between the ages and unites them across times. For Calvin, believers in the Old Testament were fed and sustained by the benefits of Christ’s future life, death, and resurrection as the Spirit miraculously applied it to them then. There was an eschatological dimension to the sacraments for Old Testament believers then, just as there is one now.

Remember, every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we proclaim his death until he comes again. And not only that, we must also remember that the Christ who is present to us now through the power of the Holy Spirit is the Risen Christ. We participate by faith in the receiving the life of the age to come now, but also by entering into communion with the Lord who is the age to come in his own person.

Soli Deo Gloria

Augustine Against the Gods and the City of God For a New Age?

course of empireAs I’ve mentioned recently, I’ve finally taken up Augustine’s City of God in my reading and after the first seven books (of twenty-two) have been finding it immensely enjoyable and intellectually stimulating. I’d been exposed to small sections in my undergraduate courses, but now I’m finally taking in the full sweep of the argument and it’s quite a different experience. For those of you who don’t know, most of the first ten books (roughly 4oo pages), is caught up with Augustine’s polemic against the pagans. They had charged Christianity and Christ with the sack of Rome by the Goths, so Augustine launches a sweeping counterattack against the official theology of Rome as well as its most “enlightened” interpretations via Varro and some of the philosophers such as the Neo-Platonists.

Though not quite through the polemics, I thought it might be worth highlighting a few observations worth reflecting on briefly.

Augustine Against the Gods

First, on the material critique of the gods, it’s fairly amusing to read Augustine pick apart the official state religion and the popular iterations presented in Homer and the poets on its own terms. Augustine takes the time to comb through the writings of the poets and point out the various internal inconsistencies and between common Roman morality and the lecherous, shameful gods that are celebrated as ‘select’ among the pantheon. And then he goes on to document in detail the licentiousness that’s passed off as the proper worship of the gods: prostitution, castration, drunkenness, and countless other abominations. The gods weren’t simply non-existent for Augustine–whether figments of the human imagination or demons masquerading as gods–they were positively dehumanizing.

Looking at the practice and reality of idolatry, one Augustine’s main lines of attack is that it’s all rather untidy. Why the multiplication of so many gods to various functions? Why one god for the planting of seeds and another for their growth? If Jupiter is both father and mother of all, why the profusion of feminine and masculine deities? At one point he quite humorously points that there were about six different gods supposed to be invoked at weddings in order to ensure the consummation of the marriage, making things a bit too crowded for the Bride and Groom to get any of the work done themselves. The spirit of Elisha against the Baals on Mt. Carmel stalks Augustine’s work.

Beyond this, it’s not just that polytheism is metaphysically untidy. Augustine points out that the idolatrous spirit, once it begins down the road of multiplying deities, has no natural way of stopping. The logic of polytheism takes over and gods and goddesses begin to pop in the places that you’d least expect them. Indeed, that’s one of the problems with it. As soon as you lose the one God who creates, redeems, directs, and orders all things, you begin to need more and more gods to keep the system going. It’s not as if idolaters simply switch out the True God for another main deity. This creates the perpetual duty to please and propitiate all of them, or the anxiety that comes in making sure you pick the right one for your needs. There is no rest in polytheism.

Augustine’s polemical vision is broader still, though. He takes aim not only at popular piety, but even the more sophisticated and academic attempts to save or reinterpret the worship of the gods by Varro or even Cicero. Poet or philosopher, it didn’t matter. Augustine aimed both high and law. Actually, one of the more interesting features of his polemic is to show the way that even the more sophisticated constructions of Varro and others eventually fall prey to the same faulty metaphysical assumptions, or else fall prey to others that, while possibly less crass, are no more plausible. Idolatry is idolatry is idolatry. Of course, in order to demonstrate that, Augustine had to be familiar with both popular piety and it’s more academic variations.

In modern polemics, if it’s engaged in at all, theologians and pastors tend to stick to one level of discourse. Some love to get into the thick of more street-level apologetics, whether it be Mormons, skeptical Dawkinsians, or your run of the mill “spiritual-not-religious” critic.  Others enjoy the high-level “apologetic” conducted in academies–the kind of apologetic that doesn’t like being called an apologetic–with conversations centered around “modernity”, deconstruction, critical theory, and abstruse ruminations about the hope of a Christian theo-ontology. Usually, the two modes of discourse don’t mix. For Augustine that wasn’t an option. Chapters skewering the lewdities of the Bacchanalia or the foolishness of multiplying principles of being, give way to an examination of the metaphysical shortcomings of the Neo-Platonists.

One of the other features of note is that Augustine’s critique is conducted at the historical level as well. Indeed, after an initial defense of Christian providence against the pagans, Augustine’s critique of the gods begins there. If Christ and the worship of Christ is allegedly responsible for historical evils, for the loss of the blessings of the gods, Augustine will go to history to answer them. If the gods were such great protectors, why had the Romans suffered such great military losses in the ages when there was unquestioned Roman devotion? What of the horrendous civil wars that cause tumult and death? Or how about the various “natural” tragedies and plagues that this pantheon was responsible to deflect? Had not every god they ever worshiped failed them? Indeed, if Virgil’s press and spin-doctoring of history was to be believed and Rome was supported by the old gods of Troy, why did they have any hope in them? Why should the gods that failed Troy be expected to be the salvation of Rome?

Finally, in terms of material content, Augustine’s critique always contains an appreciation of the true desires contained in Roman values and attempts to show their ultimate fulfillment in Christ. Though his judgment is almost unrelentingly negative in terms of the actual worship or philosophical positions of those whom he engages, he has a knack for recognizing those noble elements in Varro, Seneca, or some of the heroes of Rome such as Regulus. Some of them are clearly groping towards the truth, but they are unfortunately weighed down by tradition or a lack of courage to recognize the truth. In some cases, he looks at the gods they worship and points out that what they really  ought to worship is a different one like Felicity, who offers all that the Romans seek. Of course, that’s merely a set-up to point out that true felicity comes from the one God in Jesus Christ who is the source of all good in this world and the next.

A Modern City of God?

As I have read and reviewed Augustine’s work, I’ve been wondering what it would take to write a contemporary City of God for the current age. As the West enters (and in Europe has been in) a post-Christian era that increasingly resembles an earlier, more pluralistic and pagan age, what would a full-dress assault on the “gods” look like? Does it already exist? There are a number of good apologetics works out there, but I’m not sure I know of something engaging in as far-reaching, or exhaustive examination of the philosophies, popular spiritualities, and secularized idols (ideologies) that compares to the City of God. Possibly the David Bentley Hart duo of Atheist Delusions when paired with his more recent The Experience of God could be thought of as a contender in that way.

One of the challenges to reproducing Augustine’s work in the contemporary period is that there is no recognizable “religious” system on par with the Roman cult in contemporary Western culture. Thinking about the systems of worship we tend to call religions in the West, the pluralism involved seems to be of a somewhat different sort than the variegated worship of the pantheon in ancient Rome. To take on the “gods” of positive religions like Hinduism, Islam, and so forth, would be a massive undertaking, and in the West, is probably largely beside the point. No, the only comparable reality would likely be the sort of secularized idolatry of the deification of the goods of modern culture. In other words, the sort of “hyper-goods” Charles Taylor talks about like freedom as autonomy, unfettered choice, or more obvious candidates such as money, sex, power, celebrity. In that sense, something like Timothy Keller’s Counterfeit Gods might just do the trick, only on a bit of a grander scale (and I say that loving that book).

I suppose, then, that the elements are probably all there in works that are out on the market, simply chopped up into smaller works and spread out, devoted to tackling more specific, niche issues. Perhaps City of God simply isn’t meant to be rewritten and the age calls for another kind of work altogether. A more impatient age can’t take the time to work through a thousand page onslaught on idols of the age.

I wonder, though. Maybe there’s space yet, for another Augustine to meet the current challenges.

And I suppose that’s where I’ll end this ramble. If you have any thoughts, opinions, ruminations, or recommendations, feel free to weigh in through the comments.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

The Nonviolent God of the Exodus?

sacrificial lambI keep returning to the issue of the consistency between the Old Testament and the New Testament in it’s portrayal of God because the issue keeps getting brought up in popular (and academic) forums. Driven largely by a particular hermeneutic and reading of Jesus’ revelation of God, atonement, and nonviolence, a significant drive towards screening out large sections of the Old Testament portrayal of God is afoot. The basic argument is that while the Old Testament is fine for what it is–a limited, timebound telling of God’s dealings with his people according to their lights–Jesus came along and corrected that view. So, we need to go back and look at the Old Testament in light of Jesus and judge it according to his standard of non-violent love. By that standard, much of the Old Testament’s depiction of God’s activity falls short and we ought to gently set it aside as a bit of revelation of who God is.

We can call this the “Nonviolent God” premise or hermeneutic. Note, this is not the “Christian nonviolence” position. Though this is inevitably a form of nonviolence, there are many like Preston Sprinkle, or even my Mere Fidelity companion Andrew Wilson, who would advocate for nonviolent practices as a part of the progressive ethic revealed in the New Testament, while still accepting the full truth and authority of the Old Testament.

Still, if we set out the basic argument in logical form, it flows something like this:

Nonviolent God Premise 1: Jesus shows us what God is like in a way that supersedes and corrects all prior conceptions.

Nonviolent God Premise 2: Jesus’ nonviolent practices show us that his God would never perform acts of violent judgment, because he would rather die for his enemies on the Cross than kill them.

Nonviolent God Conclusion 3: Accounts like those of the Invasion and Conquest of Canaan are inconsistent with the God revealed in Jesus Christ, therefore God did not command them or perform them.

These narratives, then, are highly-accommodated tellings or permissible falsehoods allowed in God’s benevolence. But thankfully we have Jesus now, we can see clearly that this is wrong, and we can move on, applying a Jesus-hermeneutic and still appropriating the OT Scriptures as they fit.

But here’s the rub that occurred to me when I was reading Psalm 78: acts like those are the chief events by which the God of Israel is identified and identifies himself in the OT. They are ineliminably at the core of Israel’s narrative understanding of the Lord with whom they are in covenant: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt” (Exod. 20:2, Deut. 5:6; cf. also, Lev. 26:13; Ps. 81:10). Indeed, one of the main OT confessions of faith is found in Deuteronomy, where worshippers coming to celebrate the festival of the firstfruits. Worshippers were supposed to respond to the priests as they brought their offerings to the LORD:

“And you shall make response before the LORD your God, ‘A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. Then we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O LORD, have given me.’ And you shall set it down before the LORD your God and worship before the LORD your God. (Deuteronomy 26:5-10 ESV)

The “great deeds of terror and signs and wonders” are precisely those events which our nonviolent God hermeneutic ought to lead us to reject as less than appropriate for the God of Jesus Christ.

Which leads me to posit couple more premises and a logical entailment that isn’t usually accepted by more Evangelical advocates of the Nonviolent God hermeneutic, but I think follows naturally.

OT Data Premise 4: The Exodus from Egypt and Redemption of Israel was accomplished by similar, if not more aggressive divine acts of violent mercy and judgment such as: the 10 plagues (rivers of blood, sickness, deadly hale, economic devastation, etc) , the drowning of a massive Egyptian army in Red Sea, and finally, the execution of the firstborn in all the land as an act of Judgment on the gods of the Egyptians (Exod. 12).

OT Data Subpremise 4.5: It is clear from the narrative that each of these acts of divine violence was not ancillary to process of redemption. It occurs precisely in and through these acts of divine judgment. There is simply no way to read out God’s activity (even those who distance God via the destroying angel must admit that it is by God’s permission, will, and command that the angel goes out).  

OT Data Premise 5: Yet, the God of Israel willed to be known primarily as the God who accomplished the mighty acts of mercy and judgment in the Exodus and Redemption of Israel (cf. Exodus and the hundreds of celebratory references in the Prophets and Psalms). Indeed, the foundational Passover celebration and meal memorialize an act divine violence and mercy–the death of the firstborn–which is surely as problematic as the accounts of the Canaanites (though I think there are better approaches to contextualizing that). 

Logical Entailment of the Nonviolent God Premises: Jesus reveals to us a fundamentally different God than the God of the Exodus and Redemption and therefore a different God than the God of Israel.

At this point, my question becomes, “How is this not some form of Neo-Marcionism?” Note, I don’t mean full-blown Marcionism. That would require a gnostic rejection of Creation, materiality, and whole lot more. But I am asking, how does this hermeneutic not slowly, but surely lead us to the conclusion that the God of the Old Testament is a significantly different being than the God of Jesus Christ? How can we continue to narratively-identify them when the chief liberating acts of the one allegedly deny the chief liberating acts of the other?

Again, I don’t really have as much of a problem with the kind of nonviolence approach that says God has a multi-stage plan in which his people can participate in warfare in one stage (Israel) and then move away from it in another (the Church/New Israel). I actually do believe there are significant discontinuities as well as continuities between the Old and the New Testament. Thank God for that, or I, a Gentile, wouldn’t be here. I don’t think the OT Law in its entirety is for applicable, or even advisable to today. I think Jesus has changed some things. Still, the problem comes when we arrive at a “Jesus”-hermeneutic that ends up retooling our entire doctrine of God, the cross (atonement), and entire telling of salvation history.

Let me be clear: most of the Evangelicals flirting with or advocating the Nonviolent God hermeneutic have not gone this far. I am not call them Marcionites straight out or even all Neo-Marcionites. What I am saying is that unchecked or ungrounded by other concerns, it logically flows into something like this. That’s something that ought to give us pause.

Losing the Exodus means losing the God of the Exodus. And that’s a bridge too far.

Soli Deo Gloria

Predicting the Moral Weather 16 Centuries Early

crowdContinuing his defense of Christ against the charges of the pagans who attribute the fall of Rome to abandoning, the old Roman gods, in Book II chapter 20 Augustine takes a brief chapter to discuss the preferred moral ethos of the pagan critics. As I read his, obviously unsympathetic, exposition of the “kind of felicity the opponents of Christianity wish to enjoy”, as the title of the chapter goes, I couldn’t help but note the numerous parallels to be found in the reigning ethos of our contemporary, capitalist, liberal (in the classic and modern sense), democratic culture. At the heart of Augustine’s critique is how little they care about the actual moral character of their citizens. As long as they are materially okay and everyone is broadly freed to do whatever they want, then they’ll be happy.

What I’d like to simply do is quote and then comment, drawing out links to the present.

‘So long as it lasts,’ they say, ‘so long as it enjoys material prosperity, and the glory of victorious war, or, better, the security of piece, why should we worry?

I mean, right off the bat: material prosperity, military victory, and peace. What’s more American than that?

What concerns us is that we should get richer all the time, to have enough for extravagant spending every day, enough to keep our inferiors in their place. It is all right for the poor to serve the rich, so as to get enough to eat and to enjoy a lazy life under their patronage; while the rich make sue of the poor to ensure a crowd of hangers-on to minister to their pride;

An increasing gap between rich and poor, with varying responses to the problem, at once sounding like liberal and conservative solutions to the problem.

if the people applaud those who supply them with pleasures rather than those who offer salutary advice;

There are any number of examples here but can we stop and think for a minute about the glorification of celebrity culture for a minute? Name the last ethicist who got serious air-time or public accolades? Now, how many film, TV, and music awards shows do we have every year?

if no one imposes disagreeable duties, or forbids perverted delights;

Self-explanatory, but we are not a responsibility culture. We are a culture of personal freedom and autonomy that extends in all directions. Well, as long as nobody messes with each other’s stuff:

if kings are interested not in the morality but the docility of their subjects; if provinces are under rulers who are regarded not as directors of conduct but as controllers of material things and providers of material satisfactions, and are treated with servile fear instead of sincere respect.

Here we begin to get into those features of modern culture caught up with our differing conception of the role of government, but it’s been a long time since we’ve understood it as an instrument of moral formation for our society. Governments are increasingly seen as referees making sure nobody plays too rough.  Governmental respect is low, but as long as we fear its power.

The laws should punish offences against another’s property, not offences against a mans own personal character. No one should be brought to trial except for an offence, or threat of offence, against another’s proper, house, or person; but anyone should be free to do as he likes about his own, or with his won, or with others, if they consent.

Again, the assumption that the character of the citizenry is a moral concern of government is gone–and there’s something inevitable about that when you’re trying to manage a pluralistic culture. Still, minimalistic, consent-based moralities are increasingly seen as the norm to which we should be aspiring.

There should be plentiful supply of public prostitutes, for the benefit of all those who prefer them, and especially for those who cannot keep private mistresses.

Don’t mess with my porn, bro.

It is a good thing to have imposing houses luxuriously furnished, where lavish banquets can be held, where people can, if they like, spend night and day in debauchery, and eat and drink till they are sick; to have the din of dancing everywhere, and theatres full of fevered shouts of degenerate pleasure and every kind of cruel and degraded indulgence.

Luxury and opulence are not an object of reproach. The idea that certain forms of financial extravagance are obscene–that there even is such a thing as financial extravagance–is for communists. Various forms of gluttony, both of the garden-variety or the more delicate tastes of the foodie class, binge-drinking, and so forth, can be noted to be on the rise.

Most interesting is the reaction of the mob against anybody who raises a protest:

Anyone who disapproves of this kind of happiness should rank as a public enemy: anyone who attempts to change it or get rid of it should be hustled out of hearing by the freedom-loving majority; he should be kicked out, and removed from the land of the living.

If this sound unfamiliar to you, then you haven’t been paying attention to the drift of most public discourse over the last few years. Obviously, the rhetoric is a bit soaring, but the fact of the matter is that dissent from the partyline on the nature of freedom, autonomy, and so forth is increasingly marginalized and given no space in academic forums and eventually the public square.

Finally, the idolatrous root is arrived at.

We should reckon the true gods to be those who see that the people get this happiness and then preserve it for them. Then let them be worshipped as they wish, let them demand what shows they like, so that they can enjoy them with their devotees, or, at least, receive them from their worshippers. All the gods have to do is ensure that there is no threat to this happiness from enemies, or plagues, or any other disasters.’

Whether it’s the hands-off god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism that only wants us to be happy or just your more average cultural deification of created goods, we trust the “gods” who promise to give us these basic ultimate values. We will serve whatever god serves us best.

Obviously, this is all a bit dark and pessimistic. It’s an evaluation that needs to be paired with Augustine’s underlying confidence and hope for history because of the work of Christ. Still, the moral insight is prescient, revealing a pattern, a tapestry that seems to be reweaving itself before our very eyes. Of course, it wasn’t the end of the Church then and, though in post-Christendom we face a somewhat different challenge, it won’t be now. Still, it’s good to recognize the pattern for what it is–its interconnections and precedents.

Soli Deo Gloria