“Why the Lord Jesus Christ freed the human race through harsh suffering, not through power.” A Translation of Caesarius of Arles by Ben Wheaton

This holy week I am pleased to present this sermon translation of Bishop Caesarius of Arles’ sermon, “Why Christ Redeemed Man Not through Power, But Through Suffering,” by Dr. Ben Wheaton. Dr. Wheaton has recently completed a Ph.D. in Medieval studies at University of Toronto, and I’m very grateful he has allowed me to share the fruit of some of his work. Besides being a perfect meditation for the time, it’s also an excellent example of finding atonement as penal substitution wonderfully synthesized with Christ’s victory in the Fathers.

caesariusBio: One of the more remarkable figures in Late Antique Christianity, Caesarius of Arles was born in 470 in the city of Chalons in southern Gaul (modern France). He was appointed as bishop of Arles in 502. Arles was at this time the administrative and ecclesiastical capital of southern Gaul, making Caesarius immediately the leading figure in the southern Gallic church. He remained there as bishop until his death in 542, leading his congregants and ecclesiastical subordinates through the politically tumultuous times that followed the dissolution of Roman power in Gaul.

 

Sermon XI 

Why the Lord Jesus Christ freed the human race through harsh suffering, not through power.

This question, dearly beloved brothers, occurs to many; the thought of this matter sends many men of little understanding into anxiety.  For they say: “Why did the Lord Jesus Christ, the Power and Wisdom of the Father, work the salvation of man not by his divine power and sole authority but rather by his bodily humility and human struggle?  For without a doubt he would have been able by the heavenly power and majesty to overthrow the Devil and to free man from his tyranny.”  Certain others ponder: “Why did he who is proclaimed to have given life in the beginning by his word not destroy death by his word?  What reason was there that lost men should not be brought back by the same majesty which was able to create things not yet existing?  Why was it necessary for our Lord Christ to receive so harsh a period of suffering when he was able to free the human race through his power?  Why his incarnation?  Why his infancy?  Why the course of his life?  Why the insults?  Why the cross?  Why his death?  Why his burial?  Why?  Why did he take up all these things for the sake of man’s restoration?”

This is what men of little understanding say.  Without a doubt our Lord would have been able to triumph over the Devil by his divine authority and to free man from his rule.  He would have been able, yes; but reason resisted, justice did not give its permission: and these are more important to God than all power and might.  These two attributes are praised even among men; how much more are they praiseworthy to God, who is the Creator and Judge of reason and justice!  Now it was in the mind of God to restore man, who had been deceived by the Devil, to eternal life.  This then had to be kept in mind: compassion must not destroy justice, love must not destroy equity.  For if He had finished off the Devil and rescued man from his jaws by His majesty and power, there would indeed have been power, but there would not have been justice.  For the Enemy of the human race would have been able to say: “O Lord, you are just and true; you made man in your goodness, you who created me as well as a good not an evil angel.  You gave to me as much as to man the free power of the will; you gave the law with this threat of judgment: if we touched something forbidden, we would die the death.  I ruined myself at the very beginning by a voluntary envy; then I persuaded man to do a wicked deed.  I persuaded, I did not force; for I was not able to force one having the freedom of his own will.  I was listened to more than your word was preserved.  We received by your judgment sentences befitting our merits: I the eternal word sent into evil, man was sent with me to death and terrible punishment.  Man joined himself to me by his own will; he separated from you not unwillingly but by the same will: he is mine.  Together we are destined for punishment; if he is torn away from me, it is not justice but violence, it is not grace but an injury, it is not compassion but plunder.  Why should man, who did not wish to live when he had the ability, be made alive unwillingly?  I presume to say this, O Just Judge: it is not fitting for there to be unequal sentences in the same case.  Ultimately, if it pleases you that man be saved against all justice and reason, we ought both to be saved—both he who perished and I who was ruined.”

Should that speech of the Devil not have seemed to God to be just and reasonable, since He did work and still works all things justly and reasonably?  And so in order that this criminal voice should not have any place and that all the deeds of God should be consistent with justice and reason that very Strength came from heaven; it came not to tear man away from the Devil through power, but rather only after it had preserved equity in all things.  This is just as the Lord Himself reminded John the Baptist at the time of his baptism—when John wished to decline—saying: “Without delay; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all justice.”  Therefore for this reason our Lord and Saviour came “in the likeness of sinful flesh” as the apostle teaches and endured all things without sin; so that thus with justice having been fulfilled he might condemn sin in his flesh, since his flesh was taken up without sin from a sinful substance.  That encounter in the desert orchestrated by the Spirit proves this, when the Devil was conquered not by divine majesty but by the memory of a command, by fasting and by a lawful response.  The many different tests of the Pharisees also prove this, by whom the Lord was often challenged.  When He benefits the ungrateful, when he does not resist an injury, when by his patience he overcomes an insult, by his goodness conquers ill-will, all justice is necessarily fulfilled and every sin is condemned.  Because of this the same Lord preached: “The Prince of this world comes, and he possesses nothing in me.”  This is the first victory: that the flesh, assumed from a sinful race, stands forth as having no part in a misdeed; and so in that same flesh sin was condemned, in which it had believed itself able to reign; the same flesh, which at one time sin had conquered, conquered sin.  For if divinity alone had conquered, the Devil would not have been in great confusion, and it would not have inspired confidence in bodily men that it would conquer.

Let us see what the cross might want from itself, how the sin of the world is remitted upon it, how death is destroyed and the Devil triumphed over.  The cross is certainly not deserved, insofar as it pertains to the form of justice, unless by sinners; for both the law of God and of the world is recognized to have decreed the cross for guilty men and criminals alone.  Therefore with the Devil hurrying about working through Judas, through the kings of the earth and through the princes of the Jews, who “came together as one” to Pilate “against the Lord and against his Christ,” Christ was condemned to death; an innocent man was condemned just as the prophet says in the Psalm: “But the righteous man, what has he done?”  And again, “They will seek against the spirit of the righteous and will condemn innocent blood;” the man guilty of not even a trivial sin is condemned, since the serpent was able to leave no trace in this rock.  He patiently endured both insults and blows, the thorny crown and scarlet robe, and the other mockeries which are contained in the Gospel.  He endured this without any guilt, so that filled with patience, as “a sheep to the sacrifice,” he might come to the cross.  He received this in a dignified manner who would have been able to inflict injury upon his enemies.  He endured very powerful forces, as David sings, “as a man without help,” who would have been able to avenge himself by his divine majesty.  For he who withered the fig tree to its roots by his word would much more easily have immediately withered all flesh, which was reckoned as grass, if he had wished to resist.  For if even those who had come to capture him retreated backwards when they were questioned with a gentle speech, that is, “Whom do you seek?” and they were made like dead men, what would he have done if he had wished to resist?  But he fulfills the mystery of the cross, for which purpose he also came into this world; so that by means of the cross, by means of a salvific justice and reason, the note of our indebtedness to sin might be cancelled, the enemy power be captured after being enticed by the bait of the cross and the Devil lose the prey he used to hold.

Now, it is necessary for this to be believed to have been done in this way.  Christ the Lord without any guilt, without any blame, underwent a penal sentence; the innocent man is crucified without sin.  The Devil is made guilty by the death of an innocent man; the Devil is made guilty by bringing the cross upon a righteous man who owed nothing.  The death of Christ benefitted man: what Adam owed to God Christ paid by undergoing death, having been made without any doubt a sacrifice for the sin of men and for their race, just as the blessed Paul taught: “Christ,” he says, “loved us and handed himself over for us as an offering and sacrificial victim to God in a pleasing aroma.”  For that original sin was not easily able to be dismissed unless a sacrificial victim had been offered for the fault, unless that holy blood of propitiation had been poured out.  For the saying of the Lord at the time of the Exodus remains in force now: “I will see the blood, and I will protect you.”  For that figure of the lamb points to this Passion of the Lord Christ.  When blood is paid out for blood, death for death and a sacrificial victim for a fault, even so did the Devil lose what he was holding.  It is now rightly said to him: “O enemy, you do not have that on account of which you had a legal case.  The first Adam sinned but I the last Adam did not receive the stain of sin; let my righteousness benefit the sinner, let my death, imposed upon me unowed, benefit the debtor.  You are no longer able to hold man in endless death, for he conquered, overcame and crushed you through me.  You were not truly conquered through power, but by justice; not by domination, by rather by equity.”  Thus the Enemy vomited up what he had gulped down and justly there was taken away from him what he used to hold, since unjustly he dared to infringe upon that which under no arrangement was his concern.

Behold, dearly beloved brothers, how much I deem that a reason has been given for why our Lord and Saviour freed the human race from the power of the Devil not through power but through humility, not through violence but through justice.  For this reason let us, to whom the divine compassion gave so many benefits with no preceding merits of our own, labour as much as we are able with the help of that same divine compassion so that the grace of so great a love should not produce a judgment for us but a reward.

Soli Deo Gloria

“For holiness is hidden glory; and glory is holiness shining forth”: (Or, Tracking Down a Bengel)

Occasionally in grad studies, you get fixated on a frustrating question that takes you down a productive little rabbit trail. I recently made my way down one while hunting out the original form of a nearly ubiquitous comment on the Trisagion in Isaiah 6:3, (“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty; the whole earth is filled with his glory”). J.A. Motyer gives one version of the formula, “Holiness is God’s hidden glory: glory is God’s all-present holiness,” (The Prophecy of Isaiah, 77).

It’s a striking formulation that wonderfully highlights a regular identification, or link between the concept of holiness and glory in Scripture (cf. Lev. 10:3). It’s also theologically pregnant, because glory is something of a summary attribute—the outward expression of the fullness of his majesty and totality of the divine nature.

true bengelLike I said, when you begin to read around Isaiah 6:3, you see it pop up a lot. Otto Kaiser gives us a version, but he does by way of citing Volkmer Herntrich’s earlier comment, “holiness is his concealed glory…but his glory is his holiness revealed” (Isaiah 1-12, 79). At the same time, Kaiser notes that Herntrich himself is following the Wurtenberger divines Friedrich Christoph Oetinger (1702-1782) and Johann Albrecht Bengel (1687-1752).

H.U. Von Balthasar also quotes Herntrich and the trail of crumbs leading back to Oetinger and Bengel (The Glory of the Lord Vol 6, 64). Brevard S. Childs simply writes, “His glory is his disclosed holiness; his holiness is his inner glory (Oetinger, Bengel)” (Isaiah, 56). Sadly, I have been unable to get my hands on Herntrich’s commentary, but I decided to jump further back and found that even before Herntrich, at least Keil and Delitzch were making the link, “His glory, as Oetinger and Bengel have formulated it, is His disclosed holiness as His holiness is His veiled or hidden glory.”

While it seems everybody agrees with Oetinger and Bengel’s insight, for the last 100 years nobody has seen the need to cite where they actually happened to be deriving this formula. So, I decided to do a little digging.

Initially, I had to overcome my historical ignorance by realizing that even though everybody just kept lumping them together, they weren’t citing some shared source I couldn’t find.

Fred Sanders pointed me to Oetinger’s Biblisches Wörterbuch and that proved immediately fruitful. (Yes, that’s a “personal correspondence” bragglebrag.) If you turn right over “heiligkeit” and related terms, you get a few nice pages of discussion of holiness through the Scriptures, despite some of Oetinger’s weirdo, semi-Swedenborgian theosophy poking out the edges. For our purposes, though, you get a hit on our formula on 247, “Holiness is hidden glory, and glory is holiness revealed.” So there you go.

That said, despite everybody placing Oetinger first in the pair in the commentaries, Bengel was born a good 15 years before him and was actually the senior of the two. In which case, I figure the odds are good that he’s the source of the insight and the more original of the pair.

But where to look? The most obvious place to go digging is in his classic, multi-volume commentary Gnomon of the New Testament. And again, the obvious first place to look yields fruit quickly.

First, I was able to find a direct hit on the formula through some handy dandy search term work (God bless Google books). Commenting on Paul’s description of Christ’s work of sanctifying his bride, the Church Ephesians 5:26, Bengel explains that this sanctification renders her glorious because, “often holiness and glory are synonymous.” Indeed, that is because “holiness is internal glory: glory is holiness shining forth” (Vol 4, 107). So there you have it.

Even more interesting, though, in the “Sketch” of his life and writings at the beginning of volume 5, A.R. Fausset informs the reader that from 1711 to 1713 he served a curacy at Stuttgart, and that during:

…this period he composed a Latin treatise, “Syntagma de Sanctitate Dei,” in which he shows, by parallel passages of Scripture, that all the attributes of God are implied in the Hebrew with holy, rendered qadosh: or hagios in the LXX: in fact, that the Divine holiness comprehends all His supreme excellence.” (viii)

Johann Christian F. Burk confirms this in his A Memoir of the Life and Writings of John Albert Bengel, (pg. 7) , but sadly reports that the treatise was never published in its original form. Apparently, it was not only a lexical study but a theological, philosophical, and historical one that also “adduced quotations from the most eminent divines of every period, to show that it was no new opinion.” Needless to say, I was greatly disappointed as that might have proved a goldmine.

Still, Burk consoles us with the news that the substance of his views popped up in later works. Fausset also manages to produce a wonderfully enticing quote to tease us:

Godhead and Divinity have not the same meaning: Godhead signifies the Divine essence; Divinity, the glory and dignity belonging to it. The word ‘holy’ means separated or set apart: when applied to God, it denotes his incommunicable essence: His holiness is therefore synonymous with His majesty. When holiness and glory are joined together, then the former expresses God’s hidden and unsearchable excellence; the latter, the revelation of His holiness to His rational creatures. (xxiv)

Unfortunately, Fausset doesn’t tell us where Bengel’s works he makes this comment and a search of the 5 volumes didn’t yield it either. All the same, cruising around in the Gnomon, you can find a condensed version of the same comment on Romans 1:4 when discussing the “Spirit of holiness”:

The word qadosh, hagios, holy, when the subject under discussion refers to God, not only denotes that blameless rectitude in acting, which distinguishes Him, but the Godhead itself, or, to speak with greater propriety, the divinity, or the excellence of the Divine nature.

Bengel coverBurk points us to the jackpot, though, in Bengel’s massive, commentary on Revelation (Erklarte Offenbarung Johannis und viel meher Jesus Christi. (Apparently Bengel could have given Hal Lindsey a run for his money in this mammoth, in which he predicted the Millennium was going begin in 1836). In any case, in his comment on the song of the living creatures in 4:8, (“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come,”), Bengel explicitly refers to his earlier study and then briefly unpacks his view of the holiness and majesty of God (310-113).

First, he first notes that in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and German, the base meaning is “separated.” And so when God is named as holy, it indicates “his own very special excellence,” the “glimmering from his divine qualities, shining forth from all his works.”

God is separated from everything because, “he is and works of himself, out of himself, in himself, for himself and for his own sake. That is why he is the first and the last…infinite and unchanging, omnipotent, omniscient, wise and true, righteous and faithful, gracious and merciful.” For that reason, the terms, “holy and holiness name as much as God and deity.” This is why God can swear by his life and swear by his holiness and have it come to mean the same thing.

And then, he continues on to again make the identification between holiness and glory, seeing within their collocation an argument mystery of the Trinity:

This holiness is often called glory: often holiness and glory are praised at the same time (Isa. 6:3) For holiness is hidden glory; and glory is holiness shining forth. The Scripture talks profusely about the holiness and glory of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, and by means of which the mystery of the Holy Trinity is palpably affirmed.

With all this in view, then, we can see that in Bengel this identification between holiness and glory is much thicker than a couple of Scriptural parallelisms. God’s holiness indicates the fullness, the totality, the sum of all his divine qualities—it is a summary attribute that directs us to consider the absoluteness of God’s deity as such. In which case, theologically it forms a correlative with the glory of God insofar as glory, as we said earlier, is that attribute by which we speak of the manifestation of the fullness of God’s deity outwardly or visibly.

One interesting point to note about this little historical dive. Aside from the fact that I think Bengel is on to something here, it’s worth noting when he was on to something. It’s been common for who knows how long to claim that theologians have mostly treated holiness as a moral quality up until the late 19th, early 20th century when the Biblical scholars made big breakthroughs through advances in comparative Semitics and the like (Diestl, Roberson Smith, Von Baudissin, etc.). While that’s true in the main, here Bengel argues for the view at least 100 years before we are typically told it arose, without recourse to any of those sorts of studies, and he claims he’s not doing anything new. (I actually think I can prove that too, but let’s save something for the dissertation).

Well, I’ll wrap things up here for now as things have strained beyond the normal reaches of nerdy, theological-history even for this blog. I hope this post either (1) increased your appreciation for the insight of older commentators like Bengel, (2) leads you to pray for me now that you know how I spend my days, or, most importantly, (3) got you thinking even the slightest bit more deeply about the holiness and glory of our Triune God.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Trueman Called It

trueman

This last couple of days I have been at the Paideia Center conference at RTS Orlando, where the main subject was the doctrine of the Trinity. The lectures and panels were all excellent, but I wanted to quickly highlight something Carl Trueman mentioned in passing (and I can’t remember if it was in a lecture or one of the panels). Back in 2002 he had an editorial in Themelios, “A Revolutionary Balancing Act,” in which he warned of the deleterious effects upon theology if the curriculum neglected the historic categories and simply fed students on a diet of pure ‘Biblical’ theology of the redemptive-historical sort.

While there is nothing wrong with it in and of itself, it has it’s limits:

My greatest concern with the biblical theology movement is that it places such an overwhelming emphasis upon the economy of salvation that it neglects these ontological aspects of theology. In doing so, it will, I believe, prove ultimately self-defeating: a divine economy without a divine ontology is unstable and will collapse. Trinitarianism will dissolve into modalism; the theological unity of the bible will be swallowed up and destroyed by its diversity because it has no foundation in the one God who speaks; and Christian exclusivism will be sacrificed to a meaningless pluralism as the church’s narrative is reduced to having significance only within the bounds of the Christian community. I suspect that ‘Openness theism’ is merely the most well known heresy to have been nurtured in the anti-doctrinal, anti-tradition world of contemporary evangelicalism; it will certainly not be the last. And my fear is that the overwhelming economic emphasis of the biblical theology trajectory effectively cuts the church off from probing the ontological questions which I believe are demanded by reflection upon the biblical text, by consideration of the church’s tradition, and by our Christian commitment to the notion of the existence of a God who has revealed himself yet whose existence is prior to that revelation.

You can (and should) read the rest here.

I want to note a few things. First, this was fourteen years before the Trinity Debate of 2016, so I think we can all agree that despite Trueman’s notorious (and endearing) pessimism, he wasn’t just whistling in the dark. All has not been well in contemporary Evangelicalism’s theology proper for a long while.

I’ll just pitch in for myself that the problems are not just seen in things like open theism or the Trinity debate. They have had repercussions down the line into other areas of dogmatics. Atonement doctrine, for one, is a place where I have become convinced that only a recovery and appreciation of some of the classic ontological categories and judgments can make sense of our account of the person and work of Jesus in the cross and resurrection.

Without thick accounts of things like the nature of the persons, relations of origin, unity of operations, the two natures of Christ, as well as attributes like divine simplicity, impassibility, we don’t have the proper grammar to explain what we mean when we say that the Son was handed over for our trespasses and raised for our justification. And this has contributed to some of the blowback and problematic rejections of classic Protestant doctrine on this score.

Now, the encouraging thing is that this is changing (I think). A number of helpful retrieval projects are afoot among Protestant and Evangelical theologians and biblical scholars going to work today. Heck, the Trinity Debate itself was salutary on that score. (Which is a good reminder for those of us who tend to think all theological polemic is just divisive and unhelpful for the church.)

Still, it’s an uphill battle. I’ll only throw in my one cent of caution for the younger folks leading retrieval charge: don’t over-correct in the other direction. As one older pastor warned me, you need to do some of this overhaul work, but if you go too far in the other direction, you’ll just face the pendulum swing back in the next generation.

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

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