Hiding in Plain Sight

mullerSometimes things are too obvious to notice at first glance. Whether it’s your keys, or a key feature of a film you’ve watched a half-dozen times, we’ve all had moments where we finally notice something that was hiding in plain sight.

The same thing happens in theology from time to time.

In his short article, “The Myth of Decretal Theology,” Richard Muller sets about doing what he’s known for–exploding myths about the nature and development of the theology of the Reformation tradition. In this piece, among other points, he tackles the notion that the Reformed Orthodox ‘systems’ of theology begin with the “decree” as an architectonic principle and then “rather than follow a biblical, historical order of doctrine or a cognitive order, ‘abstract decretalism’ moves deductively through the topics of theological system from God, to Creation, human nature, sin, covenant, Christ, salvation, the church, and the last things.”

Muller first shows that, in point of fact, the systems never actually began with the decree as an architectonic or fundamental cognitive principle. In which point, it might be wondered,  “why the Reformed systems follow a ‘deductive’ rather than a ‘biblical’ order.”

The answer to this query is quite simple: The order of system that runs from God and creation, to human nature and sin, promise and covenant, law and gospel, Christ and salvation, church and last things, looks suspiciously like the order of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation [my emphasis]. If there are deductive elements to this order, the predominant model is the biblical and historical order. Indeed, those sixteenth-century theologians who discussed the order of theology, notably Melanchthon and Hyperius, emphasized the historical order of the theological topics. This order, by the way, is also mirrored to a certain extent in the Apostles’ Creed — which also accounts for the shape of theological systems like Lombard’s Sentences and Calvin’s Institutes in which there are variations away from a strictly historical order. In other words, not only is the order of orthodox Reformed theological system not governed by a process of deduction from the decree, in addition, it is not an order devised by the Reformed orthodox. It is a traditional order of theological system, basic to Western Christianity and followed in fact by monergist and synergist alike. The Reformed system is biblical and historical not purely deductive.

Muller is exactly right. There are various possible ways to order and organize one’s exposition of doctrine, but there’s nothing particularly surprising (or deficient) about the way the theological tradition has typically done so. The reason has been hiding in plain sight between the pages of Scripture.

Soli Deo Gloria

Hezekiah and the Temptation of “Peace in My Time”

Isaiah 39 contains a haunting transitional narrative. In 36-37 we learn of the LORD’s rescue of Judah from the Assyrians after the good King Hezekiah turns to the Lord for help. In chapter 38, he learns of a sickness which will kill him, but again, upon his prayerful request, the LORD heals him. After these things, we come to our story.

hezekiah

At some point before their rise to power, envoys from Babylon come to Jerusalem to confer. Hezekiah, feeling strong and secure, shows them all that he has, all of his treasury, belongings, and holdings. After this, Isaiah gets word of this visit and asks Hezekiah about it. Hezekiah, unblinking tells him what he did. And this is Isaiah’s response:

Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the Lord of hosts:  Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon. Nothing shall be left, says the Lord. And some of your own sons, who will come from you, whom you will father, shall be taken away, and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.” Then Hezekiah said to Isaiah, “The word of the Lord that you have spoken is good.” For he thought, “There will be peace and security in my days.” (Isa. 39:5-8)

There are two possible ways to read the story. On the one hand, perhaps Hezekiah is humbly submitting to the word of the LORD, knowing that God has already been patient with Judah in the past. This is a possible read that is not entirely unlikely given Hezekiah’s righteousness in the past.

That said, I think this unlikely given his willingness to plead for his own life in the narrative of chapter 38. Also, he is already depicted acting foolish and boastfully in displaying his wealth to the Babylonians. Even more, though, he betrays himself by that last line, “There will be peace and security in my days.”

This is a selfish, foolish thought for a King and leader of God’s people to have. It was then, and as I was reading the story, I was hit with the weight of how foolish it is today.

While it is often the case that pastors and church leaders are obsessed with what’s to come and are too fixated and updating, tweaking, and “vision-casting” for the next 20 years, sadly, it is very easy to fall into a certain sense of  complacency or cowardice as well. As long as their churches, their denominations, and their ministries are “working well enough for now,” they write off the need to plan, to fight, to prepare, and pray for the conflicts of tomorrow. It could be anything. Doctrinal matters left unresolved in your congregation, stale or non-existent evangelism to the next generation, financially unsustainable programs, and so forth. So long as the bill won’t come due on your watch, you ignore it.

One example from my own experiences. I don’t write much about the troubles my old church went through as they decided whether or not to stick it out in their declining, liberalizing denomination or move to greener, more orthodox pastures. It was a long, protracted process, with prayer, committee meetings without end, public forums, and everything you’d expect of a Presbyterian church trying to do the due diligence.

At one forum, they had brought in a couple of orthodox pastors who represented two positions: stay or leave. The fella who was arguing for staying had been in ministry for 30 plus years, apparently faithfully, and was about to retire. He argued that leaving the denomination would be akin to getting a divorce, quitting when the going got tough, and so forth. (Nevermind that it had been ‘tough’ for decades and was now entering the ‘terminal’ phase.)

In the Q&A I asked him what he thought a young member pursuing ordination should think about joining a denomination who, if he and his church were to face a lawsuit over maintaining an traditional stance on marriage and related issues, would not actually back him legally. At that point, the pastor sort of blustered and said something to the effect, “Well, you know the time is coming when you’re going to have to learn to take a stand for being a Christian and suffer for it.”

Now, that’s true as far as it goes for any Christian. But in the context, it wasn’t actually a call to courage and faith in God’s providence. It was the comfortable counsel of a man who was about to retire and didn’t really have skin in the game. You could see it didn’t matter to him what younger pastors coming up after him would have to deal with in the denomination he had failed to keep from plowing into the ground. There would be peace in his time and for maybe a couple of years after that so, “toughen up and fight the good fight, son.”

This is just one example of the kind of carelessness about tomorrow that only is concerned with, “peace and security in my days.” What’s haunting about this, is remembering that Hezekiah was a good king. And this man was not a failed or unorthodox pastor. This is a trap that even generally faithful leaders can fall in.

Considering it now, it’s something I can only pray the Lord keeps me from when my time comes to think beyond my own days.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

 

Tearing Evil Out At the Root

After the destruction of Jerusalem, the Psalmist famously ends Psalm 137 with these disturbing lines:

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare,
down to its foundations!”
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!

Or again, in the middle of a prophesy against the Tyrant in Babylon, hear Isaiah 14:20b-21:

Let the offspring of the wicked
never be mentioned again.
Prepare a place to slaughter his children
for the sins of their ancestors;
they are not to rise to inherit the land
and cover the earth with their cities.

brueggemann

What do we do with such verses that seem to desire or prophesy the destruction of the children of the wicked as punishment? They seem bloodthirsty and an affront to justice, unfitting for God’s people. Perhaps they can be excused as the outburst of an angry populace who has suffered much violence, but why are they included in Scripture? How might Christians learn from them or approach them?

Dealing with these questions is too much for a short post, but Walter Brueggemann’s comments on the passage from Isaiah are illuminating:

The poem, however, is not yet finished when tyrant is incarcerated in the permanent land of the impotent. The poet looks past this former tyrant to the future. Such tyrannical clusters–dynasties, families, clans, organizations–have an amazing capacity for survival and reemergence. Always there is somewhere a hidden heir to the brutality who waits for a revival of power. Always there is a possible resurgence of barbarism. And so the poet is not content to carry the brutalizer to weakness. The heirs must be considered: the descendants of exploiters are prone to exploitation. For every Nebuchadrezzar, there is a neo-Nebuchadrezzar. Thus it is important that those now consigned to weakness should included all possible future carriers. The heirs must be obliterated. The sons must be executed. The name must be nullified (cf. Ps. 109:13). Steps must be taken to assure that the deathly possibility remains dead–to the third and fourth generations and forever. The permanent exclusion of the dynasty of abuse is the only sure way to guarantee that it will not happen again. (Isaiah 1-39, 132-133)

The language of prophecy aimed at the heirs of oppressors and destroyers of God’s people, such as Nebuchadrezzar, evinces a certain historical and moral realism that most of us trained in Western individualist societies often overlook. Evil and oppression are not merely matters of individuals, but systems and social inheritances. And the poor and oppressed who have seen their families ground into the dust by the sword cannot be blind to these realities.

The prayers, then, are not necessarily about overkill, or simple tit-for-tat vengeance against the possibly innocent children (esp. Ps. 137) of their enemies. They are testimonies to the depth of evil, as well as a hope that lies beyond the temporary reprieves from violence we receive in history. They are prophecies about the Lord eradicating evil by tearing it up at the root, not merely chopping down its largest branches.

This does not address the problem entirely, of course. We still need to decide whether this language is hyperbolic, where and when it is fulfilled by the Lord, and especially how we relate to it as Christians on this side of the cross and resurrection. How might Christians who serve a God who gave his own Son to be executed for the sins of his ancestors read this text for today? But whichever way we go, we cannot simple write off these prophecies as the perverse deliverances of a benighted people long dead. Somehow, by the Spirit of God, they speak to us about the end of evil today.

Soli Deo Gloria

The God of James

It’s amazing how much theology the NT writers get done in a short space. And not just “theology” in general, but theology proper–teaching on the nature, existence, and character of God. James is an excellent example of this that I only noticed recently. Consider how much we learn of God in the first chapter alone.

First, we are told that, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (1:5). We very quickly learn, then, that God is generous and the source of wisdom. Indeed, he is not just the source of wisdom alone, but the benevolent One, the heavenly Father, who bestows every good gift upon the world from his bounteous plenty (1:17). To be the source of wisdom and all good things, one must have them and, indeed, be their all-powerful, all-wise source. Indeed, you must transcend them in order to give them.

What’s more, this is who he constantly is, because he is one “who does not change like shifting shadows” (1:17). In other words, God is unchangingly and immutably this all-generous source of all that is. But this divine stability is not just metaphysical, but moral as well. God is also beyond temptation, nor is he a tempter (1:13). It is not only that he is pure from evil, but impervious to evil. His is a moral perfection.

This perfection is executed, not only in his good gifts of wisdom and “every perfect gift”, but in the ultimate gift: salvation. “He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created” (1:19). God is the author of salvation, the one who sovereignly elects to bring forth fruit through the truth of the gospel in the lives of those who had none. God is, therefore, merciful. 

But why does God show this mercy? To bring forth holiness and righteousness, though this righteousness is a particular sort–not the kind that can be produced by man’s anger (1:20). Instead, what God desires, the kind of religion that is pleasing to God the Father, is this: “to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (1:27). In other words, he aims to produce in creatures an analogical extension of the generosity and purity that marks his own life.

There is more to be said of God, of course–and James does so. But it is remarkable how much he does say in such a short space. It’s always a good reminder as a theology student, just how much you can get from applying yourself directly to the text of Scripture, and not simply mediating theological texts.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Incomparability and Analogy in Isaiah

isaiah

The doctrine of analogy aims to answer the question of how we can speak of an infinite God who transcends creaturely reality, thought, and language. Instead of saying words apply in exactly the same way to God and creatures (univocity), or that words apply in completely different ways to God and creatures (equivocity), we say they apply analogically in order to capture the reality of similarity and distinction.

Now, there are a number of charges to be made against analogy, but one that occurs with some frequency is that it is an unbiblical doctrine that theologians have come up with under the pressure of an all-too-philosophical theism and not the revelation of Scripture.

And yet, it seems that something like analogy is precisely what the revelation of Isaiah, especially the Lord’s speeches in 40-55, presses us towards. Consider the Lord’s extreme declarations of incomparability:

To whom then will you compare me ?” (40:25):
“Is there any god besides me? There is no rock; I know not one.” (44:8)
“I am the Lord, and there is no other.” (45:18)
“I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like me.” (46:9)
“I am He; I am the first, and I am the last.” (48:12)

The Lord declares himself to be without peer, utterly unique, compared to whom the agency of kings, nations, and other so-called gods is nothing at all (41:24). Who else creates light or darkness, weal or woe? (45:6-7) No one and nothing.

And yet, and yet, as Frederick Gaiser points out in his article, “To Whom Then Will You Compare Me? Agency in Second Isaiah,” (Word & World Volume XIX, Number 2 Spring 1999), God is not strictly or absolutely incomparable if that means we can’t use human language and experience to refer to him at all. In fact, “The prophet will require a wealth of images to justice to the wonder of the God he proclaims.”

In his prophecy, God deploys a “variety of images to bear witness to his person and work” drawn “from the realm of creation and human life.” And this is fitting “because the prophet’s question about a “likeness” for Yahweh uses the same term used for the human in Genesis, created in the “likeness of God” (Gen. 1:26).”

Among other things, God is portrayed as redeemer (41:14), savior (43:3), maker or potter (45:9-10), rock (44:8), warrior (42:13), woman in labor (42:14), shepherd (40:11), friend (41:8), helper (41:10), lover (43:4; cf. 49:169), rear guard (52:12), mother (45:10), father (45:10),10 nurse (49:15), husband, hawker (55:l).

Gaiser adds, “not only do these images work, they are apparently necessary–and precisely in their abundance.” The paradox seems to be that without these images and comparisons drawn from creation, we would not be able to express the incomparability of the Lord.

He calls attention to a key description of the Lord after the acclamation, “Here is your God!” (40:9):

See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep. (40:10-11)

The Lord is described as a warrior (10) and a shepherd (11). With the same arm he strikes down the foe and “gather the lambs” (11). “Despite the differing pictures, they portray one God. It is not that sometimes God is strong and sometimes God is tender: God’s strength is God’s tenderness, God’s tenderness is also God’s strength. In bringing these images together, the warrior image especially is sharply redefined.” (Simplicity alert!) Gaiser continues to note comparison after comparison, juxtapositions, and surprising redefinitions, which keep us from understanding these comparisons as operating in a simply univocal fashion.

We could keep going, but important point I think we ought to see here is that against a radical skepticism, God is able to take up language from the created realm as a vehicle of revelation. They point us to the truth of God. And, at the same time, their bewildering and overpowering variety attests to their insufficiency and inadequacy at capturing his infinitely more glorious essence.

All of which is to say, while the formal fine-tuning of the doctrine of analogy may be influenced and guided by philosophical considerations, its instinct is a thoroughly biblical one.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Spirit of this Letter

And we have such trust through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Cor. 3:4-6)

holy terrorPaul’s contrast here between the Spirit and the letter which kills has given rise to a host of curious interpretations throughout Christian history.  It has become a favorite of antinomians and enthusiasts old and new, it has often been used as a justification for a spiritualizing interpretation of given text, beyond the mere “letter of the Law” to the spirit of the Law. Or, rather, to pit one’s own leading by the Holy Spirit against the mere letters of inspired Scripture. From properly theological discussions, the phrase then passes into idiomatic usages and comes up in debates about hermeneutics in general, the spirit v. the letter of Constitutional law, and so forth. And that’s how most of us hear it today.

Of course, in its own context of the discussion in 2 Corinthians, the contrast is primarily one of covenants not hermeneutics. The Law, the Torah, the letter and the ministry associated with it is one of death because, even though it is good and glorious, by it there is only condemnation. Paul is a minister of the new covenant, though, which is that of the Spirit who gives life in Christ. As a secondary issue, hermeneutics does come up towards the end of the passage. There we read that the Israelites of the day cannot properly read the Law, they have a veil over their eyes to shield them from the glory. But it is only when one turns to the Lord, in the Spirit, that the veil is removed from our eyes when we read the old covenant to see it for what it truly is.

With that I clear, I wanted to briefly turn attention to an intriguing comment by Terry Eagleton on the spirit v. letter dichotomy in his work Holy Terror. He has been expositing the purpose of the Law as educational, good, “holy”, and yet limited. It is a work of love to “train us up in its habits and protocols”, and yet it generates unintended consequences such as guilt, provocation to sin, and so forth.

The law’s education in the ways of love is bound to backfire, which is why the law is a curse. This is partly because to encode the law in writing opens up the possibility of turning it into a fetish, as Shylock makes a fetish of his bond [Merchant of Venice]. He does so because as an oppressed Jew he needs his scrupulously worded contract for his protection, and would be foolish to rely on the hermeneutical vagaries of the Venetian Christian Establishment.

It may be the spirit of the law which counts, but there is no spirit without a letter, no signified without a material signifier. The spirit of the law is an effect of the signifier, not a substitute for it. It is a matter of the creative interpretation of letters, not the spontaneous diving of something lurking bodiless behind them. Otherwise the spirit of the law could included pretty well any arbitrary implication which sprang to mind, which would be to make a mockery of the law. This ‘spirit’ of the law must be the spirit of this letter. It is not a question of ditching the letter for the spirit, but of grasping the letter of the law as spirit and meaning, rather than, say, as some numinous icon in its own right–some totem or mantra which has merely to be magically chanted or brandished to have its effect. (37-38)

Now, as a straightforward interpretation of that particular verse in Paul, it tends to be working with the problem posed in popular idiomatic sense. But even there, Eagleton is instructive. Yes, there can be fetishistic, legalistic ways of interpreting and applying the letter. Jesus makes this critique of the Pharisees often and we’ve all seen it in the worst sort of fundamentalistic interpretation. (Think Jehovah’s Witnesses forgoing all celebrations of holidays and birthdays because Ecclesiastes says, “the day of death than the day of birth”).

All the same, his critique of the enthusiast interpretation is worth repeating, “This ‘spirit’ of the law must be the spirit of this letter.” The spirit must not be used as an excuse for turning the letter into a wax nose. Indeed, we can only try to discern that spirit from those particular letters: “the spirit of the law is an effect of the signifier, not a substitute for it.” Discerning the spirit of Hamlet can only happen when we attend to the text of Hamlet.

Of course, Eagleton is speaking of the “spirit” in the non-theological sense of the term when he says this, but I think it also points us in the direction of a Reformation hermeneutic of “Word and Spirit,” where the one is never separated from the other, nor should they be pitted against each other. For with Scripture, we see that the letter, the signifier of the Law is actually an effect of the Spirit of Christ. But we can only know the Spirit of Christ truly if we attend to the letters which are his revelatory work.

In other words, there can ultimately be no appeal to the Spirit beyond or against this letter of Scripture precisely because he is the Spirit of this letter.

Soli Deo Gloria

Michal, the Worship Cynic

a son to meThe story of the return of the Ark to Jerusalem is fascinating and multi-layered (2 Samuel 6). The theology surrounding the punishment of Uzzah’s transgression against the ark. The blessing of the house of Obed-Edom, a Gentile. And, of course, the sight of the King of Israel dancing in the street with a linen ephod, before the whole of the nation. And of course, there is the negative reaction of his wife Michal to the whole display.

Seeing the whole thing go down, instead of seeing the glory of Israel returning, she only saw a shameful performance by David and she despised him. When David returns, she reproaches him to his face, telling him he had disgraced himself by dancing half-naked in front of slave-girls just like any common fool on the street (v. 20).

David’s response is classic. He tells her, first off, he was dancing before the Lord (“you know, the one who picked me over your dad to be king of Israel”) and before him, he’ll be even more undignified (21-22). Second, anybody with spiritual eyes–even servant girls–will recognize his humility and righteousness in doing so (22).

Now, when I was a kid, I remember learning the story and not understanding the hardness in Michal’s heart. Why did she not rejoice as David rejoiced? Why could she not see the blessing of the Ark? How could she not understand the lesson I was learning in Sunday School that day? Surely the Lord is worthy of our most ecstatic worship, and our own dignity isn’t anything to be concerned with.

But then you start to reflect on the story of Michal and the thing becomes more complex. Yes, there was a worldly judgment in her heart about what was appropriate for the king. Yes, she sinned in scorning the return of the Ark. Still, Peter Leithart makes a perceptive qualifying comment worth considering:

Yet, it is difficult not to feel some sympathy for here. She had been taken from a loving husband and brought into a house full of wives and concubines. Her bitterness was understandable. And, while David was sincere in dancing before the Lord, Michal’s charge that he was more interested in the young women was prescient. (A Son to Me, 196)

Michal was in this case sinfully cynical. But understandably so. She had been hurt when David took her back into his household, away from a husband who seemed to love and care for her. He was not a full-blown Solomon, but he had been multiplying wives contrary to the command for kings (Deut. 17:17). It did not all seem political.

Where am I going with this?

Well, I don’t know about you, but having grown up the church, I am often tempted to cynicism much spirituality and piety. I am especially prone to doubt it when I have something against someone.

Maybe it’s someone who has wronged me, or someone I know. Maybe I’ve seen them be vindictive, spiteful, crass, or manipulative. Maybe it’s someone whose online persona (and theological positions) I find troubling  and frustrating. In those moments, I just think it’s wise to have a care with my cynical judgments on their spiritual life and their praise of God. The Lord has only ever had sinners as his true worshipers. Including me.

Obviously, this is not an absolute. Yes, we are called to exercise discernment. Yes, the prophets called out false worship. Yes, Jesus went after the Pharisees for their pious displays. And nevertheless, we can sin if our cynical eye leads us to despise or call false the true worship of the Lord. We can get this really wrong.

Second, have mercy on the cynical Michal’s. You don’t have to go along with their cynicism, but it is always wise to consider what has led them to this point. Especially if you are ever called to engage, to love, or pastor them.

Soli Deo Gloria