Do As They Say

A while back I posted a longish essay on the problem with “consequentialism” in doctrinal evaluations; essentially, how we should and shouldn’t use Jesus’s fruits test for recognizing false prophets (Matt. 7:15-20). Used as an evaluation of prophets, it eventually holds up, but as a test of doctrines and their fruits, the issue is trickier. I won’t repeat myself, but you can read it here.

This morning in my Scripture reading I remembered a text that makes a kindred point from a different angle: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice” (Matt. 23:2-3). Jesus will go on to critique many of their actual doctrines, but his opening gambit concedes that much, if not most, of what the Scribes and Pharisees taught was doctrinally sound, but an empty confession. (One of the benefits of recent scholarship is highlighting just how close Jesus was to Pharisaic teaching in many respects.) They did not practice their teachings, nor did they teach in such a way as to enable others to enter in themselves. And yet, that did not mean their teachings were actually wrong through and through. Insofar as they sit in the chair of Moses and actually expound the Law truly, their false lives don’t actually invalidate the Law.

Similarly, Paul points out that “some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry” (Phil. 1:15). They have bad hearts. They strive for power, for position, possibly money, and clout. They don’t care sincerely about the gospel, they just want to strike at Paul while he’s in prison (1:17). What’s Paul’s response, “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (1:18). He is unflappable. “Look, I know they’re trying to dunk on me, but they’re doing exactly what I’d love to be doing–getting the message of Jesus out–so I’m happy.” Don’t miss it–their bad motives, their sinful use of the gospel-preaching to try and get at Paul, doesn’t falsify their gospel. It’s still true no matter the bad faith of the preacher.

In a time when more than a few favored teachers sitting in the chair of Moses have taken a moral tumble, or have had their fleshly motives exposed, it’s worth remembering that neither morals nor motives actually make what is true false, any more than the good motives and sterling behavior of an Arian makes his doctrine true. There ought to be consistency between life and doctrine, but there is often not, and so the Scriptures warn us of this, giving us reason to cling to the gospel beyond the preacher, the message beyond the vehicle by which we have heard it.

Which, I suppose, is another way of saying that our faith really is in Christ alone.

Soli Deo Gloria

On Making it Personal (Or, One and Half Cheers for ‘Abstraction’)

If you’ve spent much time discussing any ethical issue of great import, you know there are times when it’s appropriate to ask someone, “What if it was your kid? Would you still take this position? Or hold it this way?” as a way of personalizing and putting flesh on the dilemma under discussion. Nevertheless, there are corresponding moments where you need to ask, “Okay, what if it wasn’t your kid? Would you still look at it this way?” as a way of prodding folks to recognize the way their own personal commitments might be obscuring and biasing their view of the objective issues at hand. Which is to say, both personalization and abstraction, or depersonalization, have their place in the reasoning process.

This basic point is often obscured by much online discussion at the moment: the ability to distinguish people from positions and particular situations from general principles is good and necessary for all sorts of reasons. Even more briefly, abstraction can be good, actually. Depersonalizing and exercising critical distance might be healthy for us.

I offer a few rambling and incomplete thoughts in defense of the latter in what follows.

Skin in the Game and the Reverse Ad Hominem

There are a couple of different ways of personalizing an argument. One is to go on the offense with an ad hominem. “A bourgeoisie like you would say that, wouldn’t you?” In that case, you make the other person’s character, class, or some other personal marker the issue instead of the issue–or rather, you connect the two in order to undermine their argument. Now, that’s actually relevant if the argument is an appeal to authority and credibility based on their character. It also may expose a motivating factor in an argument, but it’s not always relevant, which is why it’s usually considered a fallacy. (Relatedly, as C.S. Lewis points out, even if you can expose someone’s motivating reason underneath an argument, eventually you still have to actually answer the argument.)

Another way of personalizing an argument is by inserting yourself (or perhaps a present, watching, third-party) into the argument—you identify your life, your choices, your own existence with your position. Now, this isn’t always bad. Sometimes personalizing the argument is a way of showing you have skin in the game. In a sermon, putting flesh on a point and demonstrating that you yourself have embraced this truth as a way of life can be valuable for the sake of modeling and purchasing credibility; you are not preaching anything you yourself are not trying to practice. It also may serve to awaken folks to the flesh and blood implications of their positions. Personalizing the argument can bring a qualitative dimension to quantitative analysis in the same way an interview with a subject puts a human face on an impersonal graph or a data set. Finally, a disengaged, abstracted stance is not the ultimate or final state of a rational evaluation of the truth of an issue. Especially when the principle to be applied impacts concrete, flesh-and-blood situations.

Nevertheless, even leaving aside the problem of choosing between normative narratives and experiences we invoke, there are dangers with this approach.

One is that it can easily turn into a way of daring your opponent to engage in an ad hominem of sorts against you. You so identify yourself with the position you’re arguing for, or you make your own story the argument, that nobody can critique the position without (at least implicitly) critiquing you personally. To say your position is wrong is to reject you, your values, your very self. “Refute, deny, or even question my argument, you’re questioning me.” Depending on the context and the participants, this easily becomes emotionally manipulative. “Unless you don’t embrace this doctrine, this social policy, this particular solution to our organizational crisis, you can’t possibly embrace me personally.” This quickly devolves from rational persuasion into relational coercion. It’s a conversation-stopper.

A move like this is especially powerful when done in front of a watching audience where you know you’re the more sympathetic figure. Indeed, the gambit may not even be aimed at the main dialogue partner, but as a way of choosing the audience to pick a side, “him or me?” threatening to functionally reduce rational dialogue into a high-school popularity contest. But people we like can be wrong and people we do not—even for good reasons—can be right. Think of the classic Clickhole article, “Heartbreaking: The Worst Person You Know Just Made a Great Point.” We’ve all seen it happen.

On the Good of Critical Distance
All of this can be exacerbated when the personalized position is articulated within a narrative of trial and pain. When folks are sharing their struggles and pains, one healthy instinct is to want to validate their experiences—to let them know you hear, you care, and are committed to their health and well-being. Asking critical questions, breaking down premises and arguments, sitting back with what appears to be a dispassionate, cold assessment seems potentially emotionally triggering, painful, and communicate a lack of concern. It can also smack of arrogance—how dare you sit in judgment of my own evaluations of my experiences? Or it might be seen (and can often be) a self-defensive mechanism—especially when the narrative might imply an indictment of your own behavior. We should be aware of these things.

Of course, the problem is that we all know none of us is an infallible interpreter of any experience—even our own. How many abuse victims have wrongly blamed themselves for their own suffering? How often have we seen manipulators recount a story in such a way as to excuse their own engagement with others and come to find that they have convinced themselves that is actually the truth of the situation? Or in dealing with our own journeys of healing and sanctification, how often do you recognize that your 25-year-old self’s understanding of the dynamics at work in your own sin and temptation were too clean, too binary, lacking the depth, grain, and texture as you’ve grown in self-awareness, humility, and painful experience?

To take a morally neutral example, it has taken me close to 10 years to find out what actually went wrong with my body when I had something like a full-system collapse at 24. Over the years, as I tried new therapies, went to different doctors, worked my way through various exercise programs, and continued to read online about different joint conditions, I had a variety of evaluations of what the “cause” was: it was “tendinitis”, a doctor’s misdiagnosis, stress-induced over-exercises, spiritual attack, bad diet, poor movement patterns, mis-prescribed pain medication, and so on. Now, looking back at things 10 years on, I think it was probably a mix of all of these factors and a few more. But at any point in my journey, I would have had different evaluations and takeaways—normative prescriptions for how I and others should tackle this problem in the future based on my own self-understanding. And these were not things I held neutrally or at a distance—at times these diagnoses were explanations giving me clarity and hope to deal with my pain.

At just that point we find the value in being about to, at times, distinguish a person from their positions, their story from the moral they’ve drawn, or the validation of an experience as real from a corresponding evaluation of what that experience was. Every good counselor knows that there are moments in a session when what is needed is to listen and validate an experience of pain. They also know that there are moments when what a suffering patient needs is a liberating question, a new lens that helps them reframe their pain and its meaning because they’ve adopted a flawed, self-understanding (“I’m worthless,” “I’ve always got to do it myself”, “I’m the only one who knows what’s going on”), or a universalized maxim (“you can’t trust anybody”) that is warped and crippling their ability to heal and move forward.

In those moments, it is precisely the ability to distinguish a moral from a story, a person from their self-diagnosis, and actually offer substantive critical feedback that is helpful to them. At that moment, the value of a counselor lies precisely in being someone who has enough critical distance from the pain; to be an outside observer who can lovingly disagree.

Critical Distance and Love

This brings me to my brief, final point. I could go on to speak about how good this is for the public square and the churches, for the deliberative process whereby we reason together about issues of great social import, etc. But also on the more personal level, it’s just good for your ability to love those you disagree with (“I don’t agree with you on X, but I still love you”), and for us to recognize and allow folks who disagree with us to love us (“I get that we don’t see eye to eye on this, but I recognize you don’t hate me”). And this can go a long way towards helping us love our ideological enemies in obedience to Jesus’s commands.

We’re humans. We cannot, nor should we, always strive to make arguments impersonal—or rather, to hold our conclusions to those arguments impersonally, especially when they are matters of great ethical import. God gave us more than abstract reason as a mode of discernment. Nevertheless, it is one of his gifts to us, and it is one we neglect to our peril.

Thucydides Describes Politics in 2020-2021

I did not know Thucydides was a prophet as well as a historian.

So revolutions broke out in city after city, and in places where the revolutions occurred late the
knowledge of what had happened previously in other places caused still new extravagances of
revolutionary zeal, expressed by an elaboration in the methods of seizing power and by unheard-of
atrocities in revenge.

To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual
meanings.

What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the
courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action.

Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defence. Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect. To plot successfully was a sign of intelligence, but it was still cleverer to see that a plot was hatching. If one attempted to provide against having to do either, one was disrupting the unity of the party and acting out of fear of the opposition. In short, it was equally praiseworthy to get one’s blow in first against someone
who was going to do wrong, and to denounce someone who had no intention of doing any wrong at
all.

Family relations were a weaker tie than party membership, since party members were more
ready to go to any extreme for any reason whatever. These parties were not formed to enjoy the
benefits of the established laws, but to acquire power by overthrowing the existing regime; and the
members of these parties felt confidence in each other not because of any fellowship in a religious
communion, but because they were partners in crime. If an opponent made a reasonable speech, the
party in power, so far from giving it a generous reception, took every precaution to see that it had
no practical effect.

Revenge was more important than self-preservation. And if pacts of mutual security were made,
they were entered into by the two parties only in order to meet some temporary difficulty, and
remained in force only so long as there was no other weapon available. When the chance came, the
one who first seized it boldly, catching his enemy off his guard, enjoyed a revenge that was all the
sweeter from having been taken, not openly, but because of a breach of faith. It was safer that way, it
was considered, and at the same time a victory won by treachery gave one a title for superior
intelligence. And indeed most people are more ready to call villainy cleverness than simplemindedness
honesty. They are proud of the first quality and ashamed of the second.

Love of power, operating through greed and through personal ambition, was the cause of all
these evils. To this must be added the violent fanaticism which came into play once the struggle had
broken out. Leaders of parties in the cities had programmes which appeared admirable – on one
side political equality for the masses, on the other the safe and sound government of the aristocracy
– but in professing to serve the public interest they were seeking to win the prizes for themselves. In
their struggles for ascendancy nothing was barred; terrible indeed were the actions to which they
committed themselves, and in taking revenge they went farther still.

Here they were deterred neither by the claims of justice nor by the interests of the state; their one standard was the pleasure of their own party at that particular moment, and so, either by means of condemning their enemies on an
illegal vote or by violently usurping power over them, they were always ready to satisfy the hatreds of the hour.

Thus neither side had any use for conscientious motives; more interest was shown in those who could produce attractive arguments to justify some disgraceful action. As for the citizens who held moderate views, they were destroyed by both the extreme parties, either for not taking part in the struggle or in envy at the possibility that they might survive.

-History of the Peloponnesian War, Bk 3, par. 82

Stalin was good with kids

I’ve been listening to biographies for the last couple of years, just to branch out of theology and biblical studies. Having made my way through some of the big “good” WW2 allies (FDR, Churchill, De Gaulle), I figured it was time to work my way around to the other side, so I picked up Simon Montefiore’s work Stalin: The Court of the Red Czar. There’s much to be astonished at when surveying the life and legacy of this prolific butcher, statesmen, spy, tyrant, mass-murderer, and generalissimo, but I think the most surprising thing so far was finding out how good he was with kids. Apparently they loved him. At least early on.

Stalin had issues with many of his sons, but by all accounts he doted on his daughter Svetlana as a child. He used to tease his magnates’ children at the dinner table, throwing orange peels in their ice cream, joking with them, and so forth. Once, when one of their children called into the office asking for him so that he could help them on their math homework (could have been Malenkov, I can’t remember), Stalin told the child he was unavailable and then helped them with their homework over the phone. All of this while he was orchestrating the terror and having their parents arrested and tortured in Beria’s dungeons or something similarly horrible.

I don’t have a much say beyond two quick points.

Stalin being good with kids makes his legacy all the more terrifying. It’s one thing to think of a cartoonish, inhuman, supervillain being guilty of Stalin’s staggering crimes. It’s quite another to connect them with the face of a one-time friendly neighbor, a tutor, someone whom many plausibly experienced as “Uncle Joe”, (despite the fact that the Roosevelt admin gave him the name ironically). It chills the bones.

Secondly, this sure puts flesh on Jesus’s saying, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Lk 11:13).

Soli Deo Gloria

Just Who did Isaiah See on the Throne?

Isaiah’s famous vision report in chapter six opens thus:

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple.

Obviously, the “Lord” is God. But the question is, “who” are we seeing? Classically, it’s been common for Christian commentators to hear a reference to the whole Trinity in the Trisagion, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; heaven and earth are full of your glory” (v. 3).

Cyril of Alexandria writes of the blessings which fill the mouth of the Seraphim:

They say “holy” three times and then conclude with “Lord of hosts.” This demonstrates the holy Trinity exists in one divine essence. All hold and confess that the Father exists, along with the Son and the Spirit. Nothing divides those who are named nor separates them into different natures. Just the opposite is true. We recognize one Godhead in three persons.

Theodoret of Cyrus comments similarly that as the seraphim praise “the title Lord singularly in this song, but repeat ‘holy’ three times (in reference to the Trinity), we know they are referring to the one essence of Deity.” If you see the tripling of ‘holy’ as a reference to the Trinity, then the praises of the seraphim seem to clear that up very quickly.

Some might be more skeptical of this, though, and not just modern commentators with prejudices against Christian readings of OT texts. Instead, it’s possible to think that what we’re seeing here is more strictly a vision of the pre-incarnate Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity by appealing to John 12:41. There John quotes Isaiah 6’s prophecy about Israel’s hardness of heart and says, “Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him”, referring to Christ.

Of course, read within the grounds of a Christian doctrine of God, to see the glory of the Son is to see the glory of the Father as it is one shared glory. As Calvin says here that while John teaches that Isaiah has a vision of Christ, “in my judgment, it is wrong to restrict this vision to the person of Christ, since the prophecy refers rather to God without differentiation.”

While Calvin’s logic is good on its own, Herman Witsius blew my mind this morning as I was reading his reasoning in the Economy of the Covenants (Bk. 4. chap. 3, par. V). He says that “Isaiah saw the whole Trinity, like a king sitting on a throne” and points not only to the more prominent passage of John 12:41, but also points to Acts 28:25-27, where Paul quotes the same prophecy about the hardness of heart from Isaiah 6 and says, “The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your fathers through Isaiah the prophet.” Witsius clearly reasons that if Isaiah saw the glory of the Son and heard the speech of the Holy Spirit and, “I imagine, none should excluded the Father”, then how can we not but conclude that Isaiah saw the whole Trinity represented to him in a vision? Seems about right to me.

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Soli Deo Gloria

Tamar Was Righteous

Tamar, daughter-in-law of Judah, gets a bad rap. Often cited as one of the “scandalous” women in Jesus’s genealogy (Matt 1:3), she’s famous for tricking her father-in-law into getting her pregnant by veiling herself and presenting herself to him as a prostitute (Gen. 38).

Admittedly, this is not the usual way of going about things and you can see why preachers tend to skip it in the middle of their series on the life of Joseph or whatever.

The long and the short of it, though, is that Tamar was married to Judah’s son Er. Er is wicked in some unspecified way, so God puts him to death before he had given Tamar any children. At that point, it falls to Onan, his brother, to fulfill his obligation according to the levirate marriage laws and go in to her to give her a child so she could raise him up as offspring in Er’s name (Dt. 25:5-10; Ruth). Wanting to avoid having to care for another heir, Onan famously only does a half-way job of it, for which he is also struck dead (Gen. 38:10). From there, it falls Judah to give his younger son Shelah in marriage to Tamar so that she can have a child by him–which he promises to do–but then reneges on because he’s scared that Shelah might be the hat-trick of dead sons married to Tamar.

After a while, Tamar comes up with her plan. She’s living at home with her parents, but she dresses up like a prostitute, veils herself so no one will know who she is, and waits by the side of the road for her father-in-law to pass by. He does and she persuades him to come into her. (Incidentally, the fact that she knew this would work speaks loudly to Judah’s character at the time.) He has no money, so she accepts his signet, a cord, and staff as a pledge that he’d pay later. Then, she ghosts with them.

Months pass and she turns up pregnant. At this point, Judah is indignant and calls for her to be stoned for she has been “immoral.” So she sends him his signet, cord, and staff and asks for him to identify him. Caught with his metaphorical pants down, Judah confesses, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah” (v. 26). Tamar is vindicated and gives birth to sons, Perez and Zerah.

The story is significant for several reasons, not least of which is the fact that this is part of our Savior’s lineage, but in the 20th Century it might be referenced most frequently in debates around the meaning of the term “righteousness” in the Bible.

I won’t summarize the intellectual story here, but at the tail-end of the 19th Century and into the 20th Century there has been a move to define righteousness as a relational concept instead of a “norm” concept. I first encountered it in the recent work of New Perspective scholar like James Dunn or N.T. Wright who likes to talk about righteousness as “covenant-faithfulness,” but the argument really took off over 100 years ago when Herman Cremer argued that the concrete, Hebraic conception of righteousness was a relational one as opposed to the abstract, Greek normative one. On this view, someone was defined as righteous, not because they measured up to some abstract, universal, ethical standard or norm, but because they had kept up their end of the bargain, been true to their word, or kept faith in the context of a relationship. Roughly.

Now, there are all sorts of shades and variations on this that develop after Cremer with different nuances and emphases, but most tend to trade on this same, basic assumption. (On all this, see Charles Lee Irons’s excellent dissertation The Righteousness of God: A Lexical Examination of the Covenant-Faithfulness Interpretation). While there all sorts of lexical and conceptual arguments made that I won’t go into, the Tamar escapade has been used repeatedly to illustrate the rightness of this basic approach. Why? Because at the end of the story, Judah confesses, “She is more righteous than I” (v. 26). Folks like James Dunn will point out that it seems pretty obvious that dressing up like a prostitute and tricking your father-in-law to get you pregnant can’t be seen as conforming to some abstract rule, or a even a public norm governing society. Instead, it must be read in terms of the relational righteousness reading. Judah was less righteous in keeping up his end of the bargain. She is more righteous than I, even if she’s not ultimately morally righteous.

But is that really the case? After reviewing the story in detail and revisiting the levirate laws, Irons makes a convincing case that Tamar basically did nothing wrong. I’ll quote part of his argument at length:

But is it true that Tamar formally violated the moral law? What action of hers could be construed as such? Perhaps it might be thought that she engaged in prostitution. But her “prostitution” was a one-time act for the purpose of getting pregnant in order to raise up seed in the name of Judah’s firstborn, Er, in fulfillment of the levirate obligation and, even more importantly, in keeping with God’s promises to Abraham that he would have an innumerable seed who would inherit the land God had sworn to give to Abraham. Perhaps it might be argued that she committed sexual immorality by sleeping with her father-in-law, Judah. That is not quite accurate either, since she slept with Judah as a surrogate for Shelah. Obviously, it would not have been an act of sexual immorality to sleep with Shelah, since she was in fact legally betrothed to him the moment her second husband died. Since Judah was the one who obstinately refused to fulfill his duty and give Tamar to Shelah as his wife, Tamar took matters into her own hands and got herself pregnant by Judah as a surrogate for Shelah. This was not sexual immorality; it was the fulfillment of the aim of the levirate institution, namely, the production of an heir. As Dvora Weisberg states, “There is no indication that the union between Tamar and Judah is not a levirate union.” The only act, so far as I can see, that could in any way be construed as a violation of the moral law was Tamar’s act of procuring Judah’s seed by means of deception. Tamar deceived Judah into thinking that she was an ordinary prostitute rather than his daughter-in-law, and such deception is technically a sin. (173-174)

Thinking it through further, Irons notes Tamar isn’t even charged with deception. And beyond that, she only resorted to deception because Judah failed in his obligations (leave aside how often deception for lawful cause seems to be viewed lightly in the Old Testament). In the context of judicial case Judah brings against here, Irons says, “Tamar…is totally vindicated.”

What’s the pay-off here? Well, for one thing, it’s interesting for the sake of the broader conversation around righteousness in the Bible. I remember first encountering this argument in seminary and finding the Tamar incident to be a plausible illustrative case to drive home a broader lexical and conceptual argument I didn’t have the capacity to follow at the time. (Incidentally, if you’re interested in that and you have library access, Irons’s book is well worth your time). I’m foreshortening Irons’s argument here by a lot. He does say that the relational and saving righteousness reads do put their finger on some of the biblical data that should be considered part of our overall concept of righteousness, while nevertheless maintaining that the lexical meaning of righteousness having to do with a forensic status or ethical conformity to a norm.

Second, I’m tempted to see three connections to the gospel here (though I’m open to correction and expansion here).

On a first read, Tamar’s actions are scandalous and possibly immoral. Yet upon closer inspection, we see Tamar was righteously trying to raise up seed for her dead husband according to the Levirate law. In this, I think we can see a foreshadowing of the outwardly scandalous righteousness of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who would be suspected of sinfully turning up pregnant (Matt. 1:18-25), though it was in obedience to the will of the Lord (Lk. 1). Second, there is the redemptive-historical point. She was righteously faithful to her husband and ultimately to God’s covenant purposes despite the unrighteous faithlessness of Er, Onan, and Judah, and so she bore Perez, the forefather of Boaz, the forefather Jesse, the father of King David, and ultimately David’s Greater Son, our Lord Jesus, the Righteous One. Third, I am increasingly convinced it is not a stretch to see a type of Christ here, who was himself wrongfully accused of sin and unrighteousness according to the Law and not only threatened with death, but actually condemned to it on the cross. Yet, ultimately in his resurrection he is vindicated in the face of his accusers who are themselves condemned by their own accusations. And miracle of miracles, it is by this act that they can become righteous in him!

To sum up, Tamar was righteous. Thank God.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Covenant With the Body Too

In his debate with the Sadducees, Jesus proves the resurrection of the dead by appealing to the story of Moses at the burning bush, “where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” (Luke 20:37). Jesus says it should be obvious from this that there is a resurrection to come because, “he is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him” (v. 38).

Now, this is a nice clean little argument that shut everybody up at the time and should set us to think on our Lord in wonder. Dutch theologians Herman Witsius actually took it a bit further in his day.

In his section on “glorification” in his Book III of The Economy of the Covenants, he sets out to refute the Socinians who deny that there is a soul that continues after death, which also feels, understands, lives, and is conscious. Now, Witsius goes about refuting it several ways, but fascinatingly enough, he appeals to this passage and reasons that when Jesus said that “do all live on unto God,” it is “not only to be understood of that happy life of the entire compound,” the reunion of body and soul at the resurrection, “but of the blessed life of the soul in a state of separation, which our Lord ascribes to them in the present time.”

He breaks down Jesus’ argument like this:

In order to prove the resurrection, he proceeds in this manner, as first, he concludes the soul survives and live, and then from that infers the resurrection of the body: because God’s covenant was not made with souls, but with entire persons.

I just want to briefly make a couple of points about this remarkable passage.

First, this is an ingenious reading of the text. Christ’s argument is properly for a resurrection, but Witsius sits with the text and recognizes what it presupposes, or rather, he appeals to Christ’s premise for his own conclusion. Not only does it get you a resurrection–it gets you a soul too!

Second, I just loved that phrase, “because God’s covenant was not made with souls, but with entire persons.” God made a covenant with Abraham–not just his inner essence–but the whole man, body and soul; the guy who stands 5’6″, with a beard, drooping shoulders, possibly very unsightly teeth, and who believed in God’s promises. God’s covenant is with him–and all his children, body and soul, who are sons by faith (Gal. 3:6-9).

I think of a similarly marvelous line in the Westminster Shorter Catechism:

Q. 37. What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death?
A. The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves till the resurrection.

“And their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves.” How marvelous? Our union with Christ is body and soul, and even when our bodies lie in the grave, they are resting there in his care. Marvelous.

Incidentally, this is the kind of thing that ends up annoying me 10 years after the fact with so much of the rhetoric in N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope. It’s still a great book, but the impression you get early on that everybody forgot about the resurrection until the tail-end of the 20th Century New Testament studies is…Well, let’s just leave that can of worms half-opened and recall that Herman wrote this four centuries ago.

For now, I’ll tell you go dig up Witsius. It’s really marvelous, biblical-theology and this chapter itself is great because it manages to do the thing that so many modern eschatologies do not: it keeps an eye on the material glory of the resurrection, while at the same time expounding the beauty of our glorification with its spiritual goods in view: holiness and delight in the vision of God.

Truly, his covenant is made with entire persons.

Soli Deo Gloria

No Quarter

One of the most pernicious trends in our current discourse around, well, just about any subject, is the suspicion that you can never concede a point to the other side. Never concede that partisans of your own position might make ridiculous, indefensible claims that render reasonable people rightly suspicious. Never concede that maybe your opponents have latched onto a real, legitimately worrying, social trend, despite the fact you don’t believe its anywhere near as dangerous as the thing you’re worried about. Never concede that perhaps you didn’t see that last slippery slope coming. Never concede that the grifter that infuriates you may not be the best representative of your opponent’s point of view. Never concede that your own side’s grifters are just as intellectually dishonest and culturally corrosive.

Because if you do, you’re a naïve sucker. They’ll take advantage, they’ll gain ground, they’ll drive you from the field. Because they never concede.

A Quick Note on Circumcision and Baptism in Galatians 3

We’ve been working our way through Galatians in our small groups in RUF this last quarter and it’s fascinating the way passages I thought I knew well continue to surprise me.

In Galatians 3, it’s safe to say one of the issues Paul is dealing with concerns the question of who are the heirs of the promise to Abraham and his seed (Gal. 3:16). How does one get in on the promises to Abraham? By faith or by works? And how is that promise to be related to the covenant at Sinai? Without getting into the weeds of the whole discussion, what I had never noticed before was the way that Paul’s argument ends up swapping baptism in for circumcision and strengthening the argument for continuity between the two.

In 3:6, Paul quotes Genesis 15:6, “just as Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” His point here is to give not only a proof-text that Abraham was justified by faith, not by works, but to argue more fundamentally that Abraham’s children, the heirs of the covenant promises to Abraham, reveal themselves to be such by the same faith that Abraham displayed, and that this was God’s intention all along (Gal. 3:7-9).

At the end of the passage, after a long, complex argument about the way the Sinaitic covenant doesn’t annul, or change the covenant with Abraham, what the purposes of the Law actually were, etc. Paul writes this:

“for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” (Gal. 3:26-29)

For Paul, baptism is the sign marking you out as united with Christ by faith and through Christ, the seed (3:16). It is the sign and seal of those who have believed God’s promises as Abraham did, have been justified by faith, have God as their God, and are therefore heirs of the promise to Abraham.

The significant point here, though, is that this is precisely the role that circumcision played as a sign of the Abrahamic covenant promises in Genesis 17:9-14. Circumcision marked out the heirs of Abraham who believed by faith in the promise that God would be his God, give him heirs, and be the father of many nations. As Paul puts it elsewhere, “He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised” (Rom. 4:11). Paul doesn’t mention circumcision in Galatians 3, but by implication for those attuned to the story, baptism is clearly now functioning as the sign marking out the heirs of the covenant with Abraham through Christ, just as circumcision did under the old covenant.

This doesn’t constitute a knock-down argument for the association between circumcision and baptism in the NT, nor one for infant baptism. For that you’d need to deal with Colossians 2 as well as a deeper exploration of the associated, shared, symbolic meanings: forgiveness of sins, cleansing, removing/killing of the flesh, renewal of the heart. (Incidentally, I think this is one of the reasons so many Evangelicals find the link so initially counter-intuitive—when is the last time you heard a good sermon on the theological meaning of circumcision in the OT?) Nevertheless, it’s one more text that should be addressed in that conversation.

Soli Deo Gloria

Him Whom the Father Sanctified and Sent Into the World

There’s a tantalizing little verse towards the back of John 10, germane to my dissertation, which I’d never noticed before. It comes right in the middle of Christ’s famous response to his Jewish interlocutors accusing him of blasphemy because, “you, being a man, make yourself God” (v.33). To which Jesus replies, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came–and Scripture cannot be broken–do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’? If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even thought you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”

Now, there’s a lot going on here, but the line that grabbed me was that central bit about, “him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world” (v. 36). What could that mean? The term “consecrated” is ἡγίασεν, a form of the ordinary verb for sanctify, set apart, make or render holy. This appears straightforward enough at first. But in the context–the dispute about Jesus’s alleged claim to divinity–the temporal and ontological freight is what’s contested. It all depends on who is being sanctified and when is this sanctification happening?

Turning to the tradition, there seem to be a few options here.

First, following Hilary, Aquinas suggests that “him who the Father has sanctified” refers to Christ, “insofar as he has a human nature.” And the argument is an a fortiori one. Given that some people get called “gods” in a derivative sense, “only because they participate in God’s word”–that is, they were cleansed by God and given some derivative share of divine power or authority, the way Moses was functionally made like God to Pharaoh (Ex. 7:1)–then it’s not blasphemy for “that man who is united in person to the Word of God” to be called God.

Aquinas further clarifies that even though everyone is sanctified by God to be adopted children (John 17:17; Rom. 8:15), Christ was sanctified uniquely to be “the Son of God by nature, united in person to the Word of God.” He thinks this is is clear in two ways. First, because God sanctifies him “as Father”, this indicates the filial nature of his sanctification. And here he cites Romans 1:4. “he was predestined to be the Son of God by the Spirit of sanctification.” Second, he thinks the phrase “and sent into the world” also clues us into this reality. “For it is not fitting for a thing to be sent some place unless it existed before it was sent there. Therefore, he whom the Father sent into he world in a visible way, is the Son of God, who existed before he was visible.”

Calvin reads the text in a similar fashion, though he can be quoted at length more economically:

There is a sanctification that is common to all believers. But here Christ claims for himself something far more excellent, namely, that he alone was separated from all others, that the power of the Spirit and the majesty of God might be displayed in him; as he formerly said, that him hath God the Father sealed, (John 6:27.) But this refers strictly to the person of Christ, so far as he is manifested in the flesh. Accordingly, these two things are joined, that he has been sanctified and sent into the world. But we must also understand for what reason and on what condition he was sent. It was to bring salvation from God, and to prove and exhibit himself, in every possible way, to be the Son of God.


Here Calvin sees a unique sanctification for Christ referring “to the person of Christ, so far as he is manifested in the flesh.” But the purpose of that sanctification is precisely that he might be sent to be our Savior and recognized and seen as the Son of God by nature.

Augustine is our patristic wildcard and I mostly wrote this post so I could highlight his view in his Tractate 48 on John. He also argues that we’re dealing an a fortiori argument here, with a string of rhetorical questions that are worth quoting at length, just because it’s Augustine:

If the word of God came to men, that they might be called gods, how can the very Word of God, who is with God, be otherwise than God? If by the word of God men become gods, if by fellowship they become gods, can He by whom they have fellowship not be God? If lights which are lit are gods, is the light which enlighteneth not God? If through being warmed in a way by saving fire they are constituted gods, is He who gives them the warmth other than God? Thou approachest the light and art enlightened, and numbered among the sons of God; if thou withdrawest from the light, thou fallest into obscurity, and art accounted in darkness; but that light approacheth not, because it never recedeth from itself. If, then, the word of God maketh you gods, how can the Word of God be otherwise than God?

So here we get the same participation argument of Aquinas, but with more literary punch. Here’s where things get interesting, though. Augustine doesn’t seem to take the sanctification as referring to God’s setting apart Christ’s whole person, or his humanity as joined to the Word, but to his eternal begetting. At least that’s what he seems to do in answering what might be termed an Arian-style objection:

Perhaps some one may be saying: If the Father sanctified Him, was there then a time when He was not sanctified? He sanctified in the same way as He begat Him. For in the act of begetting He gave Him the power to be holy, because He begat Him in holiness. For if that which is sanctified was unholy before, how can we say to God the Father, “Hallowed be Thy name”?


Given that the act of sanctification might seem to imply the Son was unholy prior to that act, Augustine moves to make that sanctification an eternal one, much the same way that his generation was an eternal one. Actually, not much the same way, but really, he renders it an angled description of that same act. The Father eternally sanctifies the Son, giving him the power to be holy, insofar as his eternal act of generation is holy and holiness-generating. The eternally Holy Father (John 17:11) eternally begets/sanctifies an eternally Holy Son.

Oh, and in case you were worried about that conceptual point, not everything that is sanctified is unholy prior to its sanctification. Otherwise we’d never be able to pray that God’s name be sanctified. (Of course, thinking with Scripture, we know God’s name can be profaned, but who can’t help but admire Augustine’s cleverness here?)

In his Gnomon of the New Testament, J.A. Bengel seems to offer a variation on both of these, though he doesn’t frame it quite the same way. He notes that Christ’s sanctification is “mentioned in such a way as to be prior in time to His being sent into the world…and it implies, in conjunction with it, the inference of Christ’s Godhead, at an infinite interval before those whom only the word of God came.” They are called gods by way of dignity, but Christ is the Son of God by way of sanctity, which for Bengel is just his divinity. So for Bengel, “Christ therefore is holy, as He is the Son of God“, not just at some particular time, but because “I and the Father are one” (v. 30), eternally. Bengel is interesting in that he cites several texts suggesting that Christ’s sanctity is strictly a matter of his eternal godhead, but also that it is something sealed and marked out in time of his whole person (Rom. 1:4; John 6:27). Even more, he references 1 Pet. 1:20 and Christ’s fore-ordination “before the foundation of the world,” raising the possibility that something like a decretal sanctification could be in view. To be fair, his commentary is meant to be gnomic.

Nevertheless, a comment by D.A. Carson could be taken in something like a decretal sense. Noting that there seems to be probable echo here to the Feast of Dedication commemorating the sanctification of the Temple after its desecration, Carson links the two sanctifications.

The Jews celebrate the sanctification of the temple, but they, like the disciples, remain unaware of the ways in which the temple points to Jesus (2:19–22), so that the really critical ‘sanctification’, the crucial act of setting something or someone aside for God’s exclusive use, was the setting aside of the pre-incarnate Son to the work of the mission on which he was even then engaged. In this way Jesus outstrips and fulfills this Feast as he has the others.

-Carson, The Gospel according to John, p. 399

I’m likely over-reading Carson’s formulation here, but it seems to present the possibility of reading this as a reference to a pre-temporal sanctification of the pre-incarnate Son to the task of his mission, which does not seem to simply be a reference to his generation. This is the neighborhood of God’s eternal decrees, predestination, and possibly the Covenant of Redemption.

It’s tempting to say the question is how to read the phrase “sanctified and sent into the world” in relation to the procession and visible mission of the Son. Augustine appears to read the conjunction “sanctified and sent into the world” as indicating the distinction between the procession and the mission of the Son. He is eternally sanctified in his generation as the Son and then consequently sent into the world. Aquinas and Calvin seem to read it both terms as describing the mission of the Son, not taking his sanctification to refer to the act of generation as the Son, though in such a way as to make clear that procession (his generation as the Son). Christ is sanctified according to the whole person so far as he is manifested in the flesh (Calvin), or as man in conjunction with the Word (Aquinas/Hilary), in his being born by the power of the Holy Spirit and being designated as holy–the Son of God (Lk. 1:35), for a holy task, which is a fitting extension in time of his procession in eternity.

Parsing things in terms of mission and procession may be tricky for our third option. Or, at least, for me. Thinking about the decrees, the Reformed talked about essential internal acts of God that are immanent to his life, but that respect and relate to something outside himself. They are internal, yet have to do with God’s own counsel about what he himself is going to bring about outside himself, so to speak. They are eternal, but ordered to time. As Thomas says of the Predestination of Christ that it can be considered in respect to its antecedence in God, but also with respect to its temporal effect. While not all decrees are related or reducible to the missions or processions of the persons (take creation), but decrees regarding the missions seem like they ought to be. So the question is how to read the idea of a decretal sanctification.

The trick is that according to Aquinas, missions are not eternal, but temporal. Or rather, mission signifies procession from the principle, but also determines the temporal term, or endpoint, of the procession, which is temporal. “Or we may say that it includes the eternal procession with the addition of a temporal effect” (ST Q 43, Art. 3, Pt. 1 Rep. 3).The problem is that this sanctification does not seem to be the same kind of thing Augustine is talking about in terms of generation as sanctification, though it is grounded and flows from it. Instead, it has to do with the way the Son becomes present to us in time in a new way. That definitely seems missionish. Perhaps what we’re grasping for is a way of stating the eternal origin, ground, and depth of the mission? Or perhaps the moral is that that decrees just are the decrees and they logically exist between the missions and processions? Or rather that the proper axis here is not procession and mission, but decree and execution? Or perhaps it just means that I’ve gotten way out of my depth here? That last seems likeliest.

In any case, this is where I pull the ripcord before I say something too Barthian and have to cancel myself.

With that final punt accomplished, how should we read the text? Materially, I think Augustine’s suggestion is true as doctrine. I find the idea of generation as sanctification to be dogmatically fruitful. Nevertheless, I think it less likely as exegesis. Calvin and Aquinas’s read is more likely with respect to the text due specifically to the context of Jesus’ dispute with the Jews.

I don’t have a big spiritual take-away here except that: (1) Scripture is theological and demands to be read theologically otherwise we have not grappled with it on its own terms, (2) there is a lot of underdeveloped material on Christ’s holiness in the Gospels, and (3), even when I’ve exhausted myself tracking down dogmatic rabbit-trails that don’t render an absolutely clear conclusion, meditating on the being and work of the thrice-holy Trinity always leaves me full of wonder.

Soli Deo Gloria