Saturday, December 31, 2011

Of Monumental Pursuits and Facebook Conversations

I got into a FB discussion yesterday, which I probably should not have done. For one, it was about a topic that is hard to talk about in the first place, as the average churchgoer today doesn’t get into the Bible any deeper than “Jesus loves you. Now go give the poor some food.” This is a good message, but if we don’t dive deeper, it’s a message that is misunderstood.
For another, not everyone would be committed to the message once they do understand it, and unless one has completely resigned oneself to live in accordance with the Scripture, then arguing scriptural points is really futile. The only thing it does is make people mad and entrench them within their pre-commitments.
Even worse, FB isn’t really a good place to have the discussion, as it doesn’t provide the space for something that needs more time to discuss, nor are such discussions usually looked upon as appropriate in the forum.
Even worse than this is that it was a comment about a toy; but it was a comment that implied something philosophically and theologically important (of the utmost importance actually) in the attitude it conveyed, even though that was not the surface intent.
Because of this, against my better judgment, I entered the conversation anyway (so much for any wisdom people were under the false impression that I had), and proceeded to muddy the waters even more than they already were.

You see, I am an awful writer. If you’ve read anything I’ve written on this blog or in my books, you already know this. My thoughts are not well expressed and they are quite disorganized at times. So I’m not really the best person to explain something. I wish I was. I wish I had better skills in the area, but I just don’t. I’m at peace with that, but it makes for some difficult discussions when you’re trying to give people what is true and you want them to see that you are trying to love them by doing so, and instead they just think you’re a confused jerk. I’m not saying of course that everyone would appreciate what I am actually trying to say, but that it would be nice for people to at least understand what was being said before they write off what I’m saying. In fact, I explained to my wife what I was trying to say and then I read to her what I wrote on FB, and she said she totally understood what I was saying when I explained it to her in person, but that it sounded completely different when I wrote it on FB, so there you go.

So we were discussing the nature of homemaking as it pertained to this particular toy, and those with whom I was discussing the subject felt that homemaking is not an essential part of the woman’s role in life. In fact, it was said that it was not a calling at all. So I attempted to explain why it was an inherent part of who the woman is as co-creator with God and doing good in the world, but that soon was heard as “women are only good for housework,” or “women can do other things besides housework, as she does in Proverbs 31,” or “pursuing art is not the opposite of family,” etc., as though what I was saying had anything to do with limiting the woman to just housework alone. Because of my inability to express what I want to say well, I often feel like Billy Budd in most of the conversations I get into, and this one was no different, but I’m not writing this post to whine about it, but to try to clarify what I was trying to say, as I think it will benefit anyone who reads this in one way or another.

So because I think the subject is so important, this is a little background to what I was trying to say:

In Genesis 1, God creates. He doesn’t just create humans, but the environment that will sustain human life. So the act of divine creation is one where both human life and the environment that supports the thriving of human life is created and sustained. God does not just create humans in a spaceless vacuum, where the humans would just die out as soon as they were created. He creates both human and human environment.

However, Genesis 1 & 2 tells us that God will maintain creation (i.e., of both human beings and their environment) through the very humans He has made. Hence, He installs them as His images, i.e., those who represent His creative victory over chaos by sustaining creation through reproduction and maintaining the environment that allows for human life to continue. In this way, the man and woman become co-creators with God, as they are the instruments through which God continues to create and support the existence of human life upon the earth.

This is the nature of God’s order. It is who the humans are as humans, and their genders express the two different ways that God will continue to create through them. It is interesting, however, that when we see the primary gender in creation, it is the woman. It is she who is necessary in Genesis 2. It is also she who is said to have given birth “together with YHWH” in 4:1. Yet, we are told that she gives birth because Adam knew his wife, Eve, so obviously, the man is involved. Yet, YHWH is said to be the one who creates together with her in order to show that the humans are co-creators, not Creators. This sets up their genders as expressions of their humanity in so far as they seek to organize their gender roles around their human role as co-creators. Hence, creation for us is both about creating humans and making and sustaining the environment that supports human life. For the woman, this means she gives herself to becoming a vessel through which God creates human life and seeks to maintain the home environment as a safe and healthy living space. For the man, it means he allows himself to be used as an instrument of God to make human life and also creates a living space, usually in the construction and maintenance of it, as well as defending it from enemies, in order to keep it a safe and healthy living space. Both genders use their creative strengths to become primarily co-creators in the world.

Now, in comes the serpent with another vision of humanity in Genesis 3. The serpent then tells the human couple, speaking primarily to the woman, that they don’t need to be co-creators when they can be Creators. They can use their creative abilities in the way they see fit. There is no need to use them primarily for the purposes of human creation and preservation.

The couple adopts his vision for a moment, only later to realize that they have been deceived. Humans are not made to be Creators. Humanity dies if it goes down that path. Hence, the human couple dies that day. But God sets up a contrast between two different kinds of people in the world: those who become co-creators by using their creative abilities to accomplish God’s task of maintaining human life and creation and those who seek to become Creators by using their creative abilities in whatever way they see fit. These are the two seeds that are in hostilities with one another in 3:15.

Hence, we come to Genesis 4 & 5, where the two types of people are contrasted. In Cain’s line, the line that represents those seeking to become Creator, we are presented with people who primarily create through architecture, societal structures, music and entertainment. Their secondary use of their abilities is family, and that is shown by the fact that they do have a child or two, but that is not what mainly characterizes the goal of these people. It is seeking life through their own creations rather than through God’s, whether that includes children or not. In fact, this group is enclosed at the beginning and end of the genealogy with murderers in order to show the anti-creational/anti-life nature of seeking to become Creator. Hence, they represent the serpent’s seed, because the serpent itself represents chaos/non-creation in terms of human life.

In contrast to this group, we have the line of Seth that represents the woman’s seed (i.e., the seed of creation/co-creation) that seeks to use their creative abilities to accomplish the divine task of maintaining human life. Hence, they are only characterized by having children, and each one is said to have, not just a child or two to keep one’s name going, but “other sons and daughters.” This phrase is repeated with each person. Their genealogy is enclosed by Adam, who was made to be co-creator, and Seth, who was made in the image of Adam, a signature that he represents that humanity in that role. He himself also continues life as the replacement of Abel, who is seen as righteous in contrast to Cain. The genealogy ends with Noah, who will preserve human life by having children, finding favor with God, preserving humanity through the flood, and receiving the procreative command to co-create human life and maintain the environment that would support it after the flood.

This doesn’t mean that co-creators don’t do other things with their creative abilities. It just means that their primary, and most important task, is found in being co-creators, whereas, the primary and most important task among those who seek to be Creators is using their creative abilities as they see fit, even though they may secondarily use them for purposes of creating and sustaining human life. So it is a battle between what is primary and what is secondary in terms of what is emphasized and pursued as the governing task to all other pursuits.

This theme continues, not only throughout the Book of Genesis, but throughout the entire Bible. This is the struggle all humanity is in. It is a struggle between those who would become co-creators and those who would become Creators. It is a struggle of humility before deity with arrogance as deity, self sacrifice toward God versus self worship toward becoming a god.

Hence, when we see the roles of men and women later in the New Testament, what is described as “good” all has to do with family, whether it be to one’s individual family, or the larger family of God within the Church. “Good” has to do with becoming co-creator and allowing God to use one as a vessel to create humans and to maintain the environment that supports human life. This is accomplished both within the microcosm of the individual home (thus, the home is ordered with the man at the head of it to protect it both spiritually and physically by giving himself up for its well-being, and the woman as the one who oversees the maintenance of the household, giving herself up to be co-creator with God [1 Tim 2:15; 5:9–10] and maintain the environment by being a worker at home [Titus 2:3–5; also see my comments on Proverbs 31:10-31 in my post entitled, “Where Motherhood and Careers Do Mesh,” to see there that Scripture is not saying that the woman does only this and nothing else]).
On the macrocosmic level, the humans become co-creators within the church by subjecting themselves to God’s message of salvation (i.e., that which creates new human life) and maintaining the familial environment that supports that new human life (i.e., through teaching and spiritually guarding the Church by ordering it in accordance with what supports and nurtures that new human life). Hence, gender roles within the family are expanded into the Church as the Church itself is an expansion of family and the original purpose of humans to take upon the role as God’s images, i.e., His co-creators.

Hence, “housework” is really the maintenance of the created environment. Doing housework rids it of filth and disease. It allows children to thrive in a safe and healthy environment. It is the work of co-creation. It’s not some menial task that is designated to the woman because she is some lesser being. She is a supreme being among creation. She creates together with the Almighty, and it is through her homemaking that chaos does not take over the home, as the man has his jobs that seek to do the same. What I’m saying is that we have been taught to see these things as worthless when in fact they are some of the most important things we can do as people. They are acts of creation. They are the primary way we use our creative abilities, then, because our primary role in life is to become co-creators. This is difficult for us because we have for so long learned from the dual tutors of our rebellious disposition toward God and our culture to seek our own paths to express our creative abilities rather than subject those abilities to the work of God in His epic determination to create and maintain creation through us (rather than apart from us). Hence, something like housework cannot be divorced from procreation because they are two sides of the same coin that both enter into a relationship agreement with God to perpetuate human life upon the earth.

So this is what I was trying to say, even though apparently I am the worst communicator in the history of written communication (and probably in other forms as well). I admit I am disorganized in my writing, and this leads to a confusion created mostly by me. However, this is also not a well-known understanding of the Scripture. Plenty of scholars note the contrast between the two lines, but most layman have never heard of this and it just sounds weird to them (as all things that do not accord with our thinking and lifestyles do). So I likely will not try to enter such a discussion on FB again. (Although I do have a long standing goal to try to be “defriended” by someone at least once a month.)

My point was to try to express that whatever nurture we can give a child to become the co-creator he or she was meant to be is a good thing, and should not be seen as something insulting and degrading, especially when it is the greatest thing a human can ever do. It is, in fact, doing good versus doing evil by primarily (not to be read as “solely”) seeking to become co-creator by the work of creation via procreation and preservation of the environment in its maintenance, and is what we should be all about. Anything else we pursue should be seen as secondary and really should feed into, rather than away from, our primary purpose as co-creators.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Eight Reasons Why There Are So Many Interpretations of the Bible

They say there are as many theories of psychology as there are psychologists. I would say the same for biblical interpretation and theology. Yet, the Bible says that our unity is in the truth, and cannot be found through superficial means elsewhere. It is unfortunate, then, that rather than work toward unity in the truth, evangelicals/emergings have given up on the task to be one in mind and practice with God and each other simply because they observe that there are so many interpretations of the Bible and conclude that moving toward a complete unity in the truth must be a hopeless task. The forced conformity of fundamentalist cults, for lack of a better word, only convinces evangelicals/emergings that they don't want to seek unity in what they believe and practice, since they certainly don't want to be like those people.

But biblical unity isn't a forced unity of the truth. It is a patient growing of teachable individuals toward unity in the truth. And it is necessary for our maturity and spiritual well-being, without which we are left without an anchor to our relationship with God and one another. Unity, therefore, is commanded in Scripture. It is the last desire expressed by the Lord before He goes to the cross and leaves the world; but that unity must be of mind and practice, not in our similar cultural likes and dislikes, i.e., personal preferences. Unity in preference is the unity of the world, but our unity is not of this world.

So one of the main culprits of leaving us in disunity is our feeling that such is hopeless and that we ought to just move on to seek unity either in other things (like a generic mission statement--hence, we all just try to agree to be "missional") or in a mere kernel of the truth that God had set out for us within His whole counsel, since God's whole counsel leads to disunity when there are those who would be offended by it or simply reject it. But since it is God's will that we be of "one mind," having come to belong to "one faith" through "one Spirit" in "one baptism" under "one Lord" and "one God," we need to seek oneness in the way that He desired us to do so, and not cheat with some superficial shortcut so that we can feel like we have arrived at a destination that can only be reached by a long and difficult road.

In light of this, I thought I would lay out a few reasons why we all hold different interpretations of the Bible, as many have just assumed that everyone is equally looking at Scripture and coming away from it with fifty interpretations of it (FYI, most scriptural texts, in reality, are only interpreted two, or sometimes, three different ways, so there aren't really hundreds of possibilities and context limits them usually to a single one). Although many people blame disunity on the lack of perspicuity of the text, the reasons for our disunity usually lay with us (with an exception I will note below). So here is a list of some reasons why we are in disunity that don't really belong to the obscurity of the text.

1. The people interpreting it might not be saved. If the Spirit of God is the One leading us into all truth, then perhaps the issue is that these people just don't have the Spirit of God, and thus their minds are not in tune with the text. We are told in Scripture that God actually befuddles the minds of the unbelieving and confuses their interpretations of life and the text, so that they would "see but not see and hear but not hear." So they twist the Scripture to their own destruction.

2. They're biblically ignorant. Often people hold so many interpretations because they're not actually interpretations at all. They're opinions gained from culture and folk religion. These people have never sat down to actually read the text, so their theological ideas are only thought to be taught by Scripture, but really are not. Think of the factual errors that people make and think the Bible teaches them (e.g., that the angels announcing Christ's birth to the Shepherds sing, that the three wise men visit Christ at the manger, that Christ sweat drops of blood, etc.), and simply apply this to their theological and ethical opinions as well.

3. Although they may have read the Bible, they've never really sat down to rigorously study it. These people have read the Bible before, or maybe often, but they don't really do exegesis of the passages in question. They merely assume they already know what they mean or they just ignore them altogether, and yet, as we all tend to do, will still have an opinion of the matter.

4. They don't know how to study the Bible by taking things in biblical context. Context is important. The immediate context, the context of the entire book, and the context of the entire Bible. Since the entire Bible is God's Word, the entirety of what God has said in it must be considered and provide qualification to any interpretation. Most people are in disunity with the interpretations of others because they read and study the Bible in disunity rather than in continuity with itself. What this means is that one must not limit his or her study to a mere verse, but know the entire passage, book, and Bible so well as to take what is said in context. Hence, since this is a lot of work and takes time, our fast food generation wants the easy way out and doesn't bother with context. What results is each man believing and doing what is right in his own eyes.

5. They don't consider the context of orthodox theology as their guide. We do not approach the Bible as blank slates. We approach it with ideas and a rebellion that seeks to secure those ideas upon which we have stabilized our lives. When those ideas are shaken, our lives our shaken, and that is a scarey thing. Fear then drives us to not want the Bible to say what it says, but rather to support what we want it to say. This is the nature of bias. What the theological and ethical teachings of orthodoxy do is give us the correct bias with which we ought to approach the text, since the promise to lead the church into all truth was given to and through the apostles, who are the divinely appointed interpreters of Christ and the Bible. The church that continues on through their witness is guided by the Spirit of God through the elders/teachers that remained within that orthodoxy. As such, it provides the starting point for us when we approach Scripture. This is why it is so important for an orthodox church to preach the gospel to you, as the wrong gospel will lead one away from the scriptural approach of orthodoxy, and unless corrected, will inevitably lead to wrong biblical interpretation, since the context of the orthodox gospel has been distorted, distorting now the individual passages it interprets in light of it like a diverted rail to a train.

6. They might have the wrong presuppositions. Whereas we not only need the right bias, we also need the right presuppositions in our methodology of inquiry. If our exegesis is based upon, say, a philosophical naturalism that does not see the text as both divine and human, we will tend to interpret it sociologically rather than theologically, and hence, not see it as applicable to what we think and practice today. This will lead to all sorts of uses of the Bible that lead to all sorts of interpretations it was never meant to convey.

7. Their religious traditions may not allow them to actually see what is being said. This goes along with all that has been said above, but many approach the text with not only their secular, cultural ideas, but also their unorthodox religious ideas gained from the particular group they grew up in or first belonged when they believed. These unorthodox traditions put blinders on people so that they cannot follow the text through. If you're not sure if this has happened to you, you only need to look at whether your interpretations cannot explain other passages in Scripture. Like JW's who only want to stay on certain verses and cannot explain others that contradict their interpretations, others who are not in cults still practice the same with their wayward interpretations gained from their families, churches, retreats, books, sermons, etc. that do not allow them to honestly read and study the biblical text thoroughly.

8. Finally, and I want you to pay attention to this one, we are in disunity because WE ARE NOT PERFECT YET AS A PEOPLE. Unity is something we are growing toward. It is not something we have all reached. Some have reached a deeper unity with each other as they mature in the truth, but others are still growing there, and even those who have reached it are still growing together. What disrupts the growth process, however, is our rebellion/unteachable spirit and the things I've laid out above. Hence, it is not OK to merely set aside our pursuit of unity in the truth by setting aside our pursuit of truth together. It is clear that one who sets it aside is working against the Lord and His purposes, not with Him and for Him. Hence, no one should argue that because we have not reached the goal, we ought to become unconcerned about reaching it anymore than one should conclude that because we have not yet become holy, we ought to not be concerned about holiness and sanctification (which ironically are both achieved through unity with God and each other in the truth).

So I wanted to lay this out because many people have the false impression that disunity is due to the lack of clarity the Bible provides. That is simply not the case. The Bible isn't clear because God has set it up that way for those who are unbelieving, but also because our approach to the Bible is often incorrect, that is, if one attempts to correct his thinking by approaching it at all. So the problem is with us, but it is not a fatalistic problem that cannot be solved by the softening of hearts and the teachable spirit of those who seek to know God and the Lord Jesus Christ. One who wishes to be of one mind, heart, and spirit with God will humble himself, believe, and correct his approach to the text in order to do so. And it is in this humility that his eyes will be opened and he or she will be exalted to a place of unity with God and with other fellow believers.

Spare no effort to show yourself approved to God as a  workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. (2 Tim 2:15)

"They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. "Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.  "As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. "For their sakes I  sanctify  Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth. "I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, [are] in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. (17:16-21)

And He gave some [as] apostles, and some [as] prophets, and some [as] evangelists, and some [as] pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ;  until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all [aspects] into Him who is the head, [even] Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love. (Eph 4:11-15)

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Righteousness through Faith: Paul's Use of the Priority Argument in Galatians 3:17

[This is yet another installment of a rough draft of my thesis. I thought I would start working on this chapter to put in writing the gist of what I want to say here. It needs to undergo a lot of revision and study still, but this is it in seed form. I hope it helps people understand the role of the Law and the gospel a bit better]

One of the passages that brings out the importance of the Priority Argument for purposes of understanding theology is Galatians 3:17. Paul’s argument here will contrast faith with the Law as the means by which one must acquire a right standing before God. This is an important question for Paul to discuss, simply because the question naturally arises, and did within Judaism, as to what role the Law plays, if any, in our salvation. Whereas Second Temple Judaism would argue that it is the means through which we must maintain our right standing before God, Paul argues that it is only the means for us to understand our wrong standing before Him in order that we might come to a right standing before Him through faith in Christ. The means to maintain a right standing before God, then, is faith, not works of the Law, since the Law does not have its origins in faith, but in works that are impossible for sinner and saint alike to perform.
It is important to see the context of his larger argument, so the entirety of the third chapter of Galatians has been reproduced below.

You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed [as] crucified? This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit from the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain--if indeed it was in vain? So then, does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, [saying], "All the nations will be blessed in you." So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer. For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them."  Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, "The righteous man shall live by faith." However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, "He who practices them shall live by them." Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us--for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree"-- in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. Brethren, I speak in terms of human relations: even though it is [only] a man's covenant, yet when it has been ratified, no one sets it aside or adds conditions to it. Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, "And to seeds," as [referring] to many, but [rather] to one, "And to your seed," that is, Christ. What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise.  For if the inheritance is based on law, it is no longer based on a promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise.  Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made. Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be! For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law. But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.

In Paul’s use here of the PA, he argues that “works of the law” are not the basis of the Christian life because they are not the basis of justification.  He pits the ajkohV pivstew" “obedience of faith” against the e[rga novmou “works of the law” by asking rhetorically, in vss. 3 and 5, whether the Galatian believers had received the Spirit of God through works or through faith.  He further distinguishes the two by appealing to Abraham as he begins to employ his use of the PA. 
            One might ask how the appeal to something Abraham does constitutes a PA; but it is understood in Second Temple Judaism that Abraham is the “beginning” of the nation of Israel and therefore the covenant community of God.  As such, arguments were made within Judaism that Abraham observed a proto-Sinaitic law that would be more fully given at Sinai to Moses.[1] Paul argues that Abraham is the father of this community, not Moses.  In this thinking, he is in perfect alignment with Second Temple Judaism. However, when he places faith in contrast to the law, he enters into an argument with it at this point, as Second Temple Jews believed that the Torah was given to Abraham in seed form.
Paul argues from the canonical text, however, that in chronological order, a declaration of righteousness that was given through faith preceded the righteousness to be found in the Torah, which was given many years later. Therefore, what Moses does may be of God, but it is not as superior as that which was done by God through Abraham, who is the human father with whom God’s salvific covenant was made. Hence, the means through which Abraham gained his relationship with God is superior to the means someone may relate to God later within a second covenant, since that second covenant cannot exist for the purposes of setting aside the first. In other words, Abraham, as the federal head of the covenant is the prototype of one’s relationship with God, and Paul argues, therefore, that since his relationship is made right with God through his faith, those who would become his children by way of adoption must also mimic the means through which righteousness is gained for their own salvation.
            Paul, therefore, states that the Law, which came 430 years after Abraham, is not authoritative enough to do away with the precedence of the covenant between Abraham (the beginning of the covenant community) and God.  Paul is clear to state that this does not mean that the Law is not good or that it has no authority at all, but that its role in defining the covenant community’s relationship to God cannot outweigh the first “definition” given to the community via its first father.  Paul therefore states that the Law has a role to play, but that its role must be defined as subordinate to that of the superior covenant given to Israel at its very beginnings.  
As Martyn states, “the Teachers will probably have considered the Law to be eternal. Paul, however, locates the law at a definite point in history, identifying it as an event considerably later than God’s covenant.”[2]
Hence, the role of the Law is not that which gives blessings, but curses to both those who observe and do not observe it, since it cannot rectify sin. So, for instance, Martyn’s summary of Paul’s argument concerning the Law’s purpose seems appropriate here:

The Law does not have the power to bless. It is the Law’s business to pronounce a curse, and, by attending both to one of the Teacher’s major texts [i.e., Genesis 22] and to my exegesis of it,  you will see that the Law’s curse falls on both those who are observant and on those who are not. By pronouncing a curse, the Law establishes a sphere of inimical power that is universal.[3]

Paul’s argument then is that the Law was a tutor that taught us we were sinners. It was never meant to save us directly, but only to point us to the necessity of the first covenant promise given to our father, Abraham. As such, it is foolish to attempt to follow it for the purpose of being saved by it, as that was never its intention, and this we know, because the original covenant promise of righteousness and blessing was received by faith, not by the performing of the Torah, which, so Paul argues, was added because of transgressions, not as a vehicle through which one might obtain salvation.

Hence, as Martyn states:

In light of vv. 19–20 we can see, then, that the Law and its curse constitute an angelic parenthesis lodged between and differentiated from two punctiliar acts of God himself, the uttering of the promise to Abraham and to Abraham’s singular seed, and the sending of that seed, Christ. This again indicates that the Law does not stand in a redemptive-historical line between the promise and the coming of the seed. Precisely the opposite.[4]

Hence, what this provides for the current study of PA’s is the understanding that what precedes that which is instituted at a later time, even if by God Himself, is superior in its ability to provide the proper guidelines in understanding God’s intentions with His people. The covenant that came before the Law is superior to the Law, and must define rather than be defined by it. Hence, we can see that in using a PA, an author is attempting to argue that what is established at the beginning of an institution has more authority to define the beliefs and practices of that institution than anything culturally, or even divinely, instituted later on.

[1] Cf. the “Teacher’s Sermon” reconstructed by J. Louis Martyn (Galatians:A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary [ABD 33A; New York: Doubleday, 1997], 302–306) against something of which Paul is likely arguing.
[2] Martyn, 342.
[3] Martyn., 311.
[4] Martyn, 342.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Modesty and the Christian Woman

I got a few great commentaries for Christmas. One of them that I'm reading now is Raymond Collins's commentary on the Pastorals in the New Testament Library series put out by Westminster/John Knox Press (not put out by Westminster Theological Seminary--this is more of a theologically liberal to moderate publisher). Of course, the commentary says a lot that I think is wrong, but it makes some great observations about the Hellenistic background to what the author of the Pastorals is saying. In fact, viewing the Scripture sociologically is what I like least about the commentary, since it confuses a sociological means of understanding the circumstances for writing, and as a means to understand language used, with the theology that is intended to be conveyed through that language. But there are some good observations here, as long as one realizes Collins roots everything in culture, nevertheless.

One of these interesting observations corrects a popular myth about the instructions for women to not adorn themselves with gold and braided hair in 1 Timothy 2:9:

Likewise, [I want] women to adorn themselves with proper clothing,  modestly  and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments, but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness.

I've heard people say things like, "that's because prostitutes used to do this." That's actually not true. Prostitutes were notoriously poor. They wouldn't have put on gold jewelry and those who had their hair braided were often those who could afford slaves to do it. In other words, this is talking about how an upper class individual ought to dress.

Collins (I and II Timothy, 68) comments on this by saying:

Braided hair was probably included on the list of things to be avoided by the virtuous woman because elaborately braided hairstyles were, along with gold and pearls, an expression of wealth. Only a woman who had slaves had the time and the possibility to have an elaborate coiffure. The Pastor had strong views on the use of wealth (6:6-10). These views may well have motivated his critique of women who wear their finery when they appear in an assembly of people at prayer. In the Hellenistic world, philosophers such as Musonius Rufus (frag. 1) and Epictetus (e.g., Discourses 2.21.15-16) wrote about the way that men and women were to wear their hair in public. Ancient cults often had specific regulations on the grooming, hairstyle, jewelry, and clothing of those who participated in worship. Paul, who wrote about men and women's hairstyles in 1 Cor. 11:2-16, shared the concerns of these philosophers and liturgists. The Pastor continues this tradition as he writes about women showing devotion to God (epangellomenais theosebeian) by their good works rather than by showing off their physical beauty and their wealth.

Now, of course, the emphasis of the virtuous woman isn't gained from Hellenistic culture. It appears throughout various biblical and extrabiblical literatures, such as Proverbs 31:10-31. In fact, v. 30 sums up a reflection of Paul's concern well: "charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised." The word for "charm" here is Nxh, which is the word for "favor" with a definite article attached to it. It refers here in all likelihood to the favor one secures from other people by how one looks or acts. What is deceitful is judging oneself by what other people think of you, since they merely judge by appearances and are, in fact, awful judges of what is appropriate. The word that describes beauty here as "vain" is also interesting, as it literally means "breath," or "vapor," displaying the temporally futile pursuit of physical beauty which quickly passes away. The woman who purposes to gain popularity, prestige, or envy through her looks and behavior will have favor from other people for a short time, but, in contrast to her, the woman who fears the Lord, i.e., recognizes His authority and lives by it, shall gain a beauty and favor from God that is everlasting. As such, it is her praise that will stand the test of time when all others who secured their status with their looks and ungodly behavior will be thought of with contempt in the end.

This accords with what Collins (Ibid., 67) says about the nature of modesty, reflected in the Bible and even in the ideal virtues of the ancient world:
Among Hellenists, modesty or self-control (sōphrosynē) was considered the most important of a woman's virtues. Men were expected to possess the virtue as well, but among men the quality was configured differently from the way that it was to appear among women. In women the virtue of modesty implied that she was well ordered in the conduct of her life, chaste in her marriage, and above reproach . . . a woman's self-respect and modesty were reflected in her outward demeanor [as opposed to her physical appearance], the way that she appeared in public.

In other words, a woman who tries to get attention with the inappropriate way she dresses or behaves, inappropriate by the standards of a virtuous woman, not that of a culture that exalts temporal beauty and misbehavior, is immodest. Modesty is not merely the idea that a woman should not wear sexually inappropriate clothing. That would be obvious. Such clothing was in fact the wear of prostitutes, and that is obviously unbecoming of the virtuous woman. Yet, our culture has lost even this base understanding of modesty. Hence, it has lost the greater understanding as well, and that is that modesty requires one to not emphasize appearance over demeanor. So this is about where one concentrates her efforts. Modesty does not require queens to put away their crowns or even the rich to not wear jewelry (or women to care for their physical appearance), but that a woman's physical appearance should not be so much louder than her virtue that the community primarily knows her through it (I mean, how many people really know the Kardashians for their modest dress and conduct?). Certainly, a Christian woman's conduct should be that of a woman of God whose life is ultimately viewed eternally and not of a woman who has only a brief vapor of time that the temporal world has to give her in order to gain a fleeting favor from others. 

It is fascinating that modesty is spoken of so little in the church today. Indeed, our younger women dress like prostitutes and our older women adorn themselves with pounds of makeup, an arsenal of jewelry and a new wardrobe every month. The young seek to gain attention through their physical appearance and the old do the same. It's just that the young do it both in dressing sexually and expensively, whereas the old can no longer pull that off, so they just dress expensively. But what should be thought of you is how well you conduct yourself in public (1 Tim 3:11). What should be thought of you is the concentration of your life on doing good, as it is defined (and contrasted) in passages such as 1 Timothy 5:9-15. (As an aside, it is interesting that the biblical discussions of modesty all include how she treats her husband with respect, as if to say that a modest woman is a woman who honors her husband with her conduct rather than her flaunting her physical appearance. This accords with the idea that a modest woman is a chaste woman, who guards herself in her behavior with other men and women, as her concern is to be faithful to him and his image in every place. She is, in a way, his ambassador, and she honors or dishonors him by the way she dresses and conducts herself among others. Hence, there is some discussion of her being in submission to her husband that follows each time it is mentioned--Prov 31:10-31; 1 Tim 2:9-15; 1 Pet 3:1-6.)

Ironically, in our culture, modesty is so difficult to find that such a woman does stick out like a sore thumb, and such women are highly respected, even by our pagan culture. But the mind set on the vapor of the self cannot see this, as it cannot lift itself out of the addiction to be desired by the world that is passing away. But the woman of virtue looks to be favored by God. Her sight is set on the gates (i.e., the place of judgment), where her works are praised above her looks (Prov 31:31). Modesty is a virtue that is truly unique in the world, but it should not be among Christians making the claim that he or she values what is eternal over what is temporal. 

In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any [of them] are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, as they observe your chaste and respectful behavior. Your adornment must not be [merely] external--braiding the hair, and wearing  gold  jewelry, or putting on dresses; but [let it be] the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God. For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands; just as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without giving control to a lesser concern. (1 Pet 3:1-6)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Do You Believe that Jesus Will Save You? Doubt as the Means through which We Must Be Saved

I don't know if you've ever seen a submarine movie. There are quite a few of them. My wife won't watch a single one. She gets claustrophobic just watching. But I always thought the scenes where a torpedo is shot and the sailor continually marks its distance until it finally hits the sub to be interesting. Imagine sitting there, nowhere to go, no way to maneuver out of the way, just waiting to die as you hear someone counting down your impending doom. What would you think about in those moments? Would you say a prayer? Why? Why does a sense of doom call us back to God? We'll get back to that question.

Doubt comes to us in different ways. For some, they are unsure of whether their interpretations are correct. For others, they wonder if Christianity is true, or the only way of salvation (which is essentially doubting whether it's true, since it is exclusive by virtue of its claims). For others, they often wonder if God really does exist. Although I often briefly entertain these questions, these are not major areas of doubt for me. I have come to a place where interpretation is more sure, Christianity can be the only possible way of salvation, and that it is absurd to deny the existence of God. I would, in fact, have to commit intellectual suicide and be dishonest to go about seriously doubting these things. So I believe they are true, and see the world, I believe, correctly through them.

In fact, I often have little respect for those who doubt the existence of God or Christianity as the truth, because I often see in them a cowardly attempt to displace the problem with the truth itself rather than with their own sense of damnation. If an interpretation is off, it's God's lack of clarity in communication. If I'm unsure of Christian claims, it's a flaw in Christianity. If I do not believe God exists, it's because He hasn't provided enough evidence for Himself. These are all a coward's way out, precisely, because none of these are the real reason why most people doubt. They doubt because the feel like they're not saved, and that snowballs into further unbelief, but they don't want to admit that they are damned, for who wants to do that, so they point the finger at the truth and attack its validity instead. This gives them reprieve from the war within. They can feel better about themselves by pushing the truth into obscurity.

This brings me to the area of doubt that plagues me more than any other: That my interpretations are correct, that Christianity is true, that God exists, that He has saved His people, but that I am not one of them. In other words, I have absolutely no doubt that Jesus saves. Where doubt comes to visit me, however, is in the area of whether He will save me. But this is the very issue at hand. If I believe all the truth, but do not believe that I am saved by it, then what good is the truth to me other than existing as a doomsday cry, marking the distance of the torpedo as it approaches? I become a dead man walking. Faith becomes a chain around my neck, making me aware of my end with every step. The truth just becomes a great source of sorrow rather than joy, and this is why most people, who cannot stomach it any longer, point their finger at the truth. It gives them relief from the doubt. But it does so as a quick fix that will inevitably lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy that secures their damnation. For those who don't look for the easy out, however, there is more than just a little hope.

You see, these times of doubt, these "dark nights of the soul," exist as trials to show us whether we truly believe, and whether we are truly in submission to Christ and His truth, or whether we only believe for insurance purposes. One not truly committed to the truth of Christ will soon reject it if he feels he gains nothing from it, especially, if he feels condemned himself by it. It's easy to condemn the wicked, but seeing oneself as the wicked condemned is something only the true believer of the truth can maintain.

I mention this, because I see a lot of cowardly doubt being passed on as some noble enterprise, where real Christians doubt the truth. No, real Christians doubt themselves. They doubt that the truth is for them, yet they continue to trust in that truth. In fact, this is the type of doubt one sees throughout the Bible. Biblical authors don't ever doubt the existence of God. That's something fools do. They don't doubt that the Word of God is true. They have come to know that it is. Their doubt surrounds one recurring issue alone: "Why is God not saving me?" Does He not care for me? Has He abandoned me because of my sin? Why does He prosper others but leaves me in destitution and depression? Why are others filled with joy, even those that do not trust in His Word, but those who do are filled with pain and sorrow? Why have you turned away your face from me?

The area of doubt in the Bible is not whether God can save and whether His Word is true, but whether God will save me by applying those truths, those promises of salvation to me. It's like standing at the edge of another body of water as your enemies pursue you to the edge and watching God from a distance open up the Reed Sea for Israel to safely pass while your enemies plunge the dagger into your back. That's the feeling of personal doubt as opposed to our tendency to seek out holes in the truth because subconsciously we just don't want to feel this way. But, as with all things, cowards lose out. It reminds me of the passage in Revelation that says that all sorts of sinners will be in the lake of fire, including the cowardly. They take the easy road.

But the difficult road is staying in the truth and trusting that since God can save you, you will seek His face all the more. I am struck by this passage in the Gospel of Matthew:

As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed Him, crying out, "Have mercy on us, Son of David!"  When He entered the house, the blind men came up to Him, and Jesus said to them, "Do you  believe  that I am able to do this?" They said to Him, "Yes, Lord." Then He touched their eyes, saying, "It shall be done to you according to your faith." And their eyes were opened. (9:27-30a)

Notice this. The blind men believe that He is the Messiah, the Son of David. They are hailing Him as the King. They believe that He has the ability to deliver them from their oppressive ailment, so they come. But Jesus asks them if they believe He can do this anyway? Why? Because He's not asking whether they believe He can heal people in general. He's asking whether they believe He is able to heal them. Hence, when they say, yes, He responds by saying, "It shall be done to you according to your faith." In other words, true faith does not simply believe that God can save, but that God will save you if you only trust in Him.

This reminds me of another instance when a demon-possessed boy is brought to Christ by his father, and the father says to the Lord, "if you can do anything, take pity on us." Christ responds by saying, "If you can? All things are possible to him who believes" (Mark 9:22-23). Notice again, all things are possible "to/for him who believes." Faith is about what God can do for the one who has it. Faith is about you, not about a million other people. Faith believes for oneself. Faith trusts that God can and will save you according to what He has promised.

Likewise, all of those biblical authors who express their doubt that God is saving them turn and acknowledge that they will continue to trust and hope in Him, knowing that although it seems as though God is not saving them, such is an illusion if they have truly put their lives in His hands. Hence, they know that God will not just save others, but He will save them as well.

Those who are cowardly, those who give up the fight against the temptation of the dark night of the soul to relieve oneself by poking holes in the truth (and God has provided numerous opportunities for those who disbelieve to poke holes in it), never make it to the other side of that darkness. They stay there. Morning never dawns. Joy never replaces pain. Such comes to those who believe. Those who remain in doubt of the truth receive nothing. Those who humble themselves and trust that God, who never lies, can and will save them personally, as He has promised to those who believe, will be exalted in the joy of their salvation.

This is where faith must bring us: on a sure ground of our own salvation. Doubt comes to us because it seeks to test our claims of belief, but when the night comes, we know and trust in God that we will see morning, having now come to understand that God is not merely the Savior of mankind, but the Savior of us as well.

So I don't "feel" saved all of the time, but I don't have a lot doubts about the truth in general, and frankly, this is why I probably don't hold a lot of patience with those who continually express doubt about the truth over faith. To me, the truth in general is too evident to doubt. But to doubt my own salvation is easy, as God has not promised to save everyone, and I often feel I am the least of these. But that's the true moment of faith in crisis. That's the moment that calls us to seek God all the more. And, in fact, it may be that God is saving us through that very doubt, for those who are damned do not often feel damned, but saved. So those who are saved do not often feel saved, but damned. Those who feel they are saved walk further from God, and those who feel damned seek Him out in every place to reconcile with Him and restore the relationship they sense has been lost or never gained.

This is why I always tell people that two things exist in you if you doubt in this manner: sin and salvation. You have both, as only those who are saved will let their sin and sense of separation from God weigh heavily upon them, and yet, remain exalting God in their affirmation of His Word and His salvific works displayed therein. God is true though every man is a liar, and it is this humility that leads us to the cross again and again. It is the feeling that we do not deserve it that brings us to tears when the dawn breaks and we begin to realize that He has not just saved others, but has in fact saved us personally as well.

Ironically, when we look to ourselves, we see only condemnation and despair, but if we believe, we begin to look up, away from ourselves, to Him, and we then see only salvation and joy. And we then realize that we are in fact saved and that this doubt was a part of that very salvation, without which we would have strayed out too far. Hence, Paul tells us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, and encourages us to test ourselves to see if we are truly in the faith.

Ironically, the only submarine movie I remember a sailor counting out the distance was in the "Hunt for Red October," and it was in that counting that they were all saved from the torpedo. So feel free to doubt, but doubt yourself, and after you have lamented and feared the absence of God in your life, lift your eyes up to the hills from whence your salvation comes and bind yourself forever in gratitude to the one who brings it to you.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
 "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. (Matt 5:3-4)

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Word through the Words: Why the Entire Bible Is the Main Thing

The common, Neo-evangelical hermeneutic of the Bible today is rooted somewhat in Barth’s doctrine that the Scripture is really just about the Person of Christ, not individual teachings the Bible may put forth, many of which are merely the religious musings of men, who fallibly attempt to give witness to the Word behind the text. The Bible is inspired to put forth the Person of Jesus Christ, and since that is its main purpose, other teachings that are presented therein must be judged by the individual as to how they are to be appropriated. Although Barth rightly says we should not be the judges of Scripture, bur rather allow Scripture to judge us, his understanding of the Bible ends up undermining this otherwise correct doctrine. Some teachings may fit well with what one views as the Person and teachings of Christ, which are often limited to the Gospels (and sometimes to the kernel of what is thought to be the authentic teaching of Christ in the Gospels), and some may not, as the ideas of the human authors of these books are mixed in with the divine message they are presenting. Barth has many good things to say about the Spirit of God and the Scripture, but this isn't one of them, and it ends up reversing one's ability to know Christ by diminishing himself and allowing the Spirit to communicate Christ through the text. 

This hermeneutic is often referred to as “neo-orthodox” (an odd name, since there is very little orthodoxy in it), called as such largely because of its more allegorical emphasis of Scripture (and hence, a misnomer, since the Fathers weren’t all primarily allegorists—that’s a common myth), as a source of our experience with God. neo-evangelicals, of course, would not express their hermeneutic this way, as they would likely emphasize that the text speaks directly of Christ, but they too often emphasize the Word behind the less important words by talking about Jesus as the main thing, as opposed to other teachings in Scripture, or talking about essentials versus non-essentials taught in Scripture. Christ is one part of Scripture and the other lesser teachings, although divinely inspired, make up the rest of Scripture; but this is woefully flawed.

What this does is divorce the Person of Christ from the Scripture whenever we may think these two conflict. In all actuality, what conflicts is our distorted views of Christ that need to be corrected by the individual teachings we’re rejecting, but now because we’re rejecting them, Christ will never be known through them. In fact, we are essentially displaying our rejection of Him by rejecting these individual teachings because they shine a light on our claim that we are in submission to Him. His words express Him. Every issue is an issue of Christ and His Lordship. They are not side issues or the musings of religious men.

To the modern evangelical, Scripture isn’t about all of the individual teachings it puts forth, but mainly about the Person of Christ, who is distinct from those teachings. Hence, one can worship Christ while ignoring the rest of Scripture, or at least, while not being as concerned to get the rest of Scripture “right.” Hence, it’s about Jesus, or, as we are so often told, it’s about “keeping the main thing the main thing,” thus implying that there are minor teachings and major teachings in Scripture.

Now, a lot of this stems from the idea that one has to believe every orthodox teaching in order to be saved. That, of course, is false. One can be justified by the simple message that Christ died for the sins of those who repent and trust in Him without knowing that He is God, how atonement works, whether the whole world is in sin, etc. In other words, believing all of orthodoxy doesn’t save you. Believing the basic gospel message, which is the beginning of orthodoxy, does; but a belief in orthodoxy, once it has been presented to you, displays whether one is saved, because to reject those teachings is to reject Christ as Lord and His work as the God of creation and salvation in the world. Hence, to reject what Christ commands and still call Him “Lord” is a hoax, but one does not need all knowledge of Him to be justified. (As an aside, we need to understand that salvation is becoming conformed to the image of God's Son, and that being justified and saved from hell is the first step that we experience upon that path, but that questions of justification and what is required for it do not answer for us what is important for salvation as a whole, i.e., to know Christ by being conformed to His image).

Hence, in this line of thinking, the main thing, i.e., what is required to be saved, is confused with what displays the Person of Christ and lifts Him up as Lord in all things. One is about a basic understanding of with what the new believer begins his journey of knowing Christ and one is about the rest of that journey to know Christ. The beginning of the path and the rest of the path are not two paths to be divorced as though one had nothing to do with the other. Knowing Christ more is at the end of the path. Hence, both the beginning and the rest of the path is of vital importance for those who love Him and seek to know Him. As Paul says:

But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of  Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing  Christ  Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain  Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from [the] Law, but that which is through faith in  Christ , the righteousness which [comes] from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained [it] or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by  Christ  Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of [it] yet; but one thing [I do]: forgetting what [lies] behind and reaching forward to what [lies] ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in  Christ  Jesus. (Phil 3:7-14)

Think about Paul’s statement here for a moment. Everything he thought was true as a religious person is now counted as dung for the sake of knowing Christ. All of his experience, ideas, practices, everything is now to be considered a loss, something to be disposed of as garbage. He then tells us that he has not yet come to fully know Christ, even though that is the path He is on. He pursues Him in knowledge and in deed. This is no “I just concentrate on the main thing” argument. This is a “I want to know and experience all of who He is” argument, and that argument tells us that there is more to know of Christ than the basic gospel we have believed. There is a whole world of the Scripture that shows Him to us through its theology and ethics, i.e., the mind of God/Christ and the character of God/Christ to be displayed in us and conveyed through us.

In other words, the main thing is the whole thing, because the whole thing is the main thing, Christ. We are trying to say otherwise because we want to hold onto our experiences, ideas, practices, everything, and have Christ too. But Christ isn’t merely a name to be pasted on whatever set of religious beliefs and practices we may wish to hold, as though the “name of Jesus” meant only His literal name and did not refer to the entirety of the Person of Christ; but He is to be exalted over every lofty thing that would exalt itself over Him, and that means that the entirety of His revelation, displayed throughout the Scripture in all of its individual teachings are to be believed and practiced in light of Him and His work in order to exalt and know Him more and more. The entirety of Scriiptural teaching is the main thing, because it all testifies of Him.

The Barthian model argues that it testifies of Him in the sense of testifying of the main message of His deity and gospel work, and the neo-evangelical version tends to agree with this. To them, Christ is best known through the red letters in one’s Bible. The rest is best left alone to one’s own experience, as though each can begin to walk down the same path and end up in completely different places in their journey to know Christ. Yet the Bible speaks to us of a unity that is gained in the journey that stems from the truths we believe and the ethics we follow (Eph 4-6). We can walk this path together, precisely, because there is only one path to walk down. Multiple paths divide us, as though Christ is divided; but that is not in accord with the teaching even of those red letters.

Rather, what Christ says in contrast to this is that all of the Scriptures speak of Him. Whereas a Barthian model may think this is saying that the Scriptures do not bring to us individual teachings themselves, but just all point to the Person of Christ in a very generic way, what Christ is actually saying there in John is that everything the Scriptures say speak of Him because He is God. Hence, everything revealed of God, every command given, every promise made, should be taken seriously, precisely, because it all speaks of Him, and through Him all of it comes to life.

In other words, it is not a model that is Christ versus the individual teachings of Scripture, but Christ displayed through the individual teachings of Scripture. This is why not one jot or tittle of the law will pass away until all is accomplished. This is why the writer of Hebrews says that the Word of God that judged the Israelites for their disobedience toward the revelation given to them is living and active to do the same in his own day. This is why Jesus says in John that the Scripture cannot be broken, and thus, divided by listening to one part of it and not another.

The Christ versus the teachings of the Bible model, or what many will refer to as the Word of God (i.e., Christ) versus the words of God (i.e., the individual teachings of the Bible) is erroneous, because Jesus never set up that dichotomy, but in fact taught that we would have to not only pay attention to all that was spoken, but even to all that was implied by what was spoken (Matt 5-7).

Hence, people who argue that it’s all really about Jesus, and not about other theological or ethical teachings of the Bible are confused. They’re right that it’s all about Jesus, but those theological and ethical teachings are about Jesus. All of those supposedly minor doctrines taught in the Bible are about Him. All of those supposedly trivial ethical commands are all about Him. They’re all about Him, precisely, because He is Lord, and they all display His nature, His works, and His commands toward us as Lord in the work of our salvation. Jesus, therefore, cannot be divorced from the rest of Scripture, which is exactly His point in John. The Barthian model is a model that undermines His own teachings about Himself, and as such, must be rejected, lest it give honor with the lips but not in the heart, which is displayed in faith and deed. A denial of Christ’s oneness with the individual teachings of Scripture is a denial of His deity and authority. In essence, it is a denial that He is God, and therefore, the Lord who conveys His teachings throughout the Scriptures.

Hence, the Barthian, neo-orthodox, neo-evangelical, hermeneutic gets Christ wrong because it gets the Bible wrong. It diminishes the messages in order to exalt the Message, but the Message is conveyed through the messages, and this is what is not understood. The individual teachings of Scripture need to be pursued, because Christ must be pursued through them. To know Him more is to know them more. Without them, one might be saved, but in rejection of them, one cannot say honestly that he is.

Hence, we do not pursue them because we are attempting to be saved by them. We are saved by Christ and His work. But we pursue them because we have been saved and wish to know this Christ who has saved us all the more. Our pursuit is not one of seeking our own righteousness, as that needs to be a thing of our past, but instead, our pursuit needs to be one of love, and our zeal to know Him more through what He has taught through His prophets in the Old Testament and through His earthly ministry and apostles in the New Testament displays the love that has been placed within us by God when we first believed. Sadly, the disregard of the individual messages displays our lack of love for Christ, and that lack of love and desire to see Him exalted over us, shows us that we are not on the right path toward knowing Him.

So, indeed, He is the Word of God revealed through the words of God. They should not be set up as a false dichotomy, as though the Spirit of God who revealed the individual messages of Scripture is contrary to the Spirit who revealed the gospel of Christ. If evangelicals are to understand the full inspiration of the entire Scripture, and Christ’s words that it cannot be broken, where one piece can be discarded and others received, then a Barthian/neo-orthodox model must be rejected for the sake of knowing Him. We must count this hermeneutic as dung that, although attempting to do better than the liberal hermeneutic, falls too short and will inevitably lead us down the same divergent paths from Christ that liberalism sought to do. Hence, as the Lord told the devil, so we tell this devilish philosophy, “Man [shall live] by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Why Do Angels Have Wings?

With Christmas Eve upon us, many images fill our society with good tidings of great joy (if only every consumer at the store right now did the same, right?). One image that is often present is that of angels. They are depicted in our culture as either children, women, or men with wings. In fact, in popular myth, one often sees angels as humans who get their wings if they perform good deeds in life. Of course, angels are differrent creatures in the Bible than humans, and we know that we do not become angels, since the Bible tells us that angels are not apart of Christ's direct redemptive act of securing salvation upon the cross, i.e., they are not saved by it, but humans are (Heb 2:16; 1 Pet 1:12).

But we continue to depict them as humans with wings nonetheless. This, no doubt, is gained from the attempt throughout history to bring biblical statements concerning their appearance into a single picture, but is it accurate? First, angels are never said to look like women or children in the Bible. When they are said to appear, they look like men (Gen 18:1-3; Judges 13:3, 6; Dan 9:21). Now, we are told by Christ that angels do not marry nor are given in marriage, and this may indicate that they have no actual gender, so what people are referring to when they say, "a man" may in fact just be that the angel "looks" human, not that he is in the actual form of a man. But we are also told that we can actually have encounters with angels and be unaware of it (Heb 13:2), which means they must be able to transform themselves into something that looks and feels like a tangible human.

Yet, we are told that, in their undisguised appearance, they appear to be something much greater and more frightening than a man, as the continual comfort an angel often offers the person or group he is visiting is, "Do not be afraid." This tells us that his appearance is something rather terrifying. In fact, in Matthew 28:3, the angel that descends upon the tomb of Christ is said to have the "appearance of lightning," and that this causes the guards to be so scared as to lock up and be incapable of moving (a phenomenon that has led us to call this type of extreme fear, "being petrified"). It is not known whether his coming was quick like lightning or whether his appearance is bright like a flash of lightning. I think it's the latter, as the text further explains his description as one whose clothing was "as white as snow." This is consistent with Paul calling Satan an imposter of an "angel of light" (2 Cor 11:14), indicating that angels are creatures that have a brilliance to their appearance that gives off great light (which may have some implications for what the star over Bethlehem might be, i.e., rather than an actual star, it could be an angel--although there are good arguments made by some astronomers for taking it as a literal heavenly body). The angels who come with Christ at His return are called "His mighty angels" who return with Him in "flaming fire" (2 Thes 1:7), perhaps, depicting the terror and brilliance of light that accompanies them.

We are also told that they are not mere men because of the powers they possess. In fact, they are so powerful, they are called either the "sons of God" or "gods" themselves, since to us (and especially to a person in the ancient Near Eastern world) they appear to be gods. Hence, when the angel visits the wife of Manoah to tell her of the birth of Samson, she says of him, "A man of God came to me and his appearance was like the appearance of the angel of God, very awesome" (or, "exceedingly fearsome") (Judges 13:6).. A single angel wipes out all of the firstborn of Egypt in the plagues. An angel strikes the hoard at Sodom with blindness by the wave of a hand. The two angels then rain fire and brimstone down upon the cities. The Israelites were led out of Egypt with a giant pillar of smoke and fire in which the angel of the Lord was clothed. He is the same angel that drives out the Canaanites from the land of Canaan. He also can destroy the entire territory of Israel. A single angel also destroys the entire encampment of the Assyrian army. Although it is not clear, if Satan was an angel, it may indicate their abilities are great, as we are told that he is capable of sending disease and controlling the weather. In fact, angels are even identified with wind and fire, precisely, because those two elements are the most powerful elements known in the ancient world, since they have the greatest amount of destructive power. Of course, there is only one true God who is the "God of gods," and so, even with all of their power, they are finite beings who are dwarfed by the Almighty.

So angels appear to be very powerful beings, but they look like very powerful human creatures, unless they cloak their glory in some way, and then they simply look like one of us. So where did the idea that they have wings come from? Well, it actually comes from biblical imagery that has been misunderstood as a literal depiction.

You see, in the ancient Near East, wings are a symbol of protection. Hence, guardians are said to have wings. Deities are often described as having wings (e.g., the sun god in Egypt is both presented as the sun with wings and as manifesting itself as a falcon). In fact, this imagery is applied to God, as it is said that he spreads His wings over His people like an eagle catching her offspring as they fall from the nest (Deut 32:11). We are told that Ruth has come to seek refuge under God's wings (Ruth 2:12). The Psalmist tells us that it is under the shadow of His wings that we may take refuge (Ps 17:8; 36:7; 57:1; 63:7), as well as continually telling us that wings represent protection (61:4; 91:4). This doesn't mean that God looks like this. It doesn't mean the Spirit who cannot be contained even by the highest heaven (1 Kings 8:27) has a physical form that can be characterized as having wings. And the same is true for angels. The wings represent their role of guardians and protectors of what is holy. They surround the throne of God in visions to represent that, and they surround the people of God (i.e., His holy ones/ saints) to protect them.

Hence, their physical depictions in the Bible, such as we find on the ark and in visions, are that of a sphinx, having characteristics of strong animals to portray their power and wings to portray their role as guardians of what is holy. In other words, this is imagery, not a literal depiction of what they look like. They are depicted according to what the ancient Near Eastern world would see as guardians with god-like qualities, but they are not meant to give us an actual description of what they look like anymore than Jesus saying He is the bread of life means that our Lord is made of baked doe. Hence, when we see angels described this way, it is usually in very symbolic contexts (e.g., the making of the ark and tabernacle that carries tons of symbolism and in apocalyptic literature or in visions). When we have them described in narrative, they are often just described, in their true form, as extremely fearful looking human-like creatures that are clothed in white and emanate light. When in disguise, they would only appear to be humans and nothing more.

So our understanding of their literal physical appearance may be off, but I think we still understand their role, and that is what is truly important. We may hang up cherubs in the likeness of woman and children (or men) with wings, and be mistaken if we think that's what they look like, but we usually are not mistaken as to what their presence with us means. These images are symbols of God's love and protection of His holy people. They protect what is holy by holding the evil that would destroy it at bay, even sometimes destroying the agents of evil, on the one side of the coin, and on the other side, they, in those very acts, are symbols of our salvation from corruption and evil. In fact, these incredibly powerful beings are said to have been made specifically to serve us in this manner (Heb 1:14), and we will become their judges as to how well they did this job (1 Cor 6:3).

So I like seeing angels at Christmas, not because I think babies with wings are cute, but because these symbols display the great, eternal love and thoughtfulness of God toward His children in His decision to save and preserve them from this place and from themselves. It reminds us to look away from the constant evil with which we are surrounded and to see that God has surrounded us with His servants to protect our souls (and many times our physical lives) from that evil. They, then, are rightfully present at the announcement of God's redemptive acts, especially at the birth of Christ, and are overjoyed with this work on our behalf, as it confirms that all of their hard work was not in vain. They are there at the Exodus. They are there at the birth of Christ. They are there at His resurrection. And they will be there at His Second Coming. But we should always remember that they are there, not only because of the significance of those events, but because they are always there, watching over and protecting what God has entrusted to them, us.

So if you won't be getting a great present this year, please know that if you have given your life to Christ and are one of His children, you have been given a greater present each and every day than something that can be fit into a box. God has so set His love on you that He has long ago created and purposed His angels to watch over you, protecting what He considers to be sacred from harm. Their existence and presence trumpets out to us, "God loves and cares for you." And that's what those wings really mean. I just thought you should know.

God bless and Merry Christmas!

And in the same region there were [some] shepherds staying out in the fields, and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an  angel  of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. And the  angel  said to them, "Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. "And this [will be] a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths, and lying in a manger." And suddenly there appeared with the  angel  a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased." (Luke 2:8-14)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

On Historiography and the Lukan Narratives

Christmas time. Time for cookies, presents, and Newsweek’s biannual attack on the Bible. Oh wait, I forgot, Newsweek went bankrupt. We’ll all be wondering if the Newsweek of old really every existed, or whether it was just a fabrication made up by a secular culture in order to have a spiritual sense of belonging. In any case, articles keep coming from every angle on the unreliability of the history in the Bible, as if that old liberal ploy to undermine its teachings had any effect upon  those who have wised up to its irrelevant claims.

If you’re not familiar with the issues, Luke records that a worldwide census was taken under the reign of Quirinius (Cyrenius). In fact, both Luke and Josephus record that there was in fact a provincial census taken during the time of Cyrenius (JW 2.117; JA 18.1-8). It's just that Luke's report places it on the world's stage rather than just the local stage. What scholars usually argue is that no such worldwide census was known to us, and therefore, since we have no reports of a worldwide census (i.e., a census taken throughout the Roman Empire), Luke is making a mistake. Thus, the Bible has an error.

Now, I’ve said before that this is an erroneous view of inerrancy. Inerrancy is found in the message the Bible intends to convey, not the details that make up its presentation, even particular historical details that have nothing to do with what’s being taught as truth; but there are some things about modern historiography that one needs to remember, since Christmas is the season of secular attacks upon the Bible (only seconded by Easter).

(1)   The historian doesn’t have more insight into what happened in ancient history than you do, as long as you’re informed of the data, which is usually a very small corpus of information coming from a text or non-textual archaeological find. What this means is that the six hundred page books you read about a subject in ancient history is about two pages of data and 598 pages of speculation about that data. In other words, data must be interpreted and the historian, as interpreter, is making up a story that he or she thinks fits the data the best in his or her opinion.
(2)   No historian is objective, either in bias or in presupposition. Every historian is a human with ideas. Every historian, regardless of the hope of objectivity he or she may seek, will always place his or her beliefs as the interpretive guide of the data. This means that those 598 pages of speculation upon the data are largely philosophical diatribes filled with whatever political and religious (or irreligious) views to which the historian holds. Although bias is possible to set aside, it makes it difficult for the average historian to spend his or her time writing a 600 page book without wanting to make some sort of contribution and impact upon the beliefs of others. However, even if biases can be set aside, presuppositions that stem from our ultimate beliefs, and govern our methodologies of inquiry, cannot be. Whatever ultimate beliefs and presuppositions created by those beliefs may be, they will determine the trajectory of one’s story placed to the data, along with one’s conclusions. In other words, you're just getting the person in 598 pages and the data on two.
(3)   History is not something we have recorded on videotape. It’s gone, and we have no time machine to reenter it. Hence, we are left with only the data from textual and non-textual, archaeological sources. Because the data only offers us interpretation if in textual form, and because even that data, along with its interpretation, can be fabricated or distorted, it’s never a sure thing that even the data is accurate. What this means is that one must just trust or distrust the source. We can evaluate a source as to its authenticity in terms of its antiquity, but not in terms of its report without entering into a discussion with it, a discussion that, from our part, is born of our own ideas and culture.
(4)   Because bias and presupposition play such an important role in interpretation, the historian who has such biases or presuppositions that would reject the accuracy of the data will look to discredit it, so that the story he or she wishes to paint will prevail.
(5)   Truth is stranger than fiction, which means that what actually happened in history may be so complex that to reconstruct it sounds like apologetic nonsense for one’s position (regardless of whether one is accepting or rejecting previous accounts). The truth of the matter is that history isn’t so simple as to be established on Occam’s razor, as many a neophyte will attempt, because no two events happen in the exact same way, and therefore, one cannot merely explain one event with another (or with what “usually” occurs in such and such a circumstance).
(6)   Most historians today have a deconstructionist attitude toward all historical texts, but especially religious ones, as the reigning philosophy of historiography today teaches that what is presented is biased toward one’s attempt to gain power or influence by it. Hence, what is presented in a religious document cannot be trusted more than the event presented in a non-religious document, or in many cases, more than the event as it is presented by the historians own reconstruction (see how that works: if I can take down the authority given to a text, I raise up my own authority and ability to influence—which is why even the historian’s work ought to be distrusted).

What this all means is that the historian should be held suspect as much as the ancient document or event being interpreted by him. Our need to have control causes us to want to know more about history than we really can now, however, and this is the reason what I’ve said above will largely be rejected. We just don’t want to admit that we must believe or disbelieve a report based on nothing else but faith first. We want to know the event directly. We want to be able to sit critically over all other stories and tell our story as the right one instead. Indeed, some our stories are more correct than the rest. Some of our stories are more incorrect. And some of them are completely made up and have no truth to them whatsoever. But such cannot be settled on “factual” grounds, as though an historical event can be experienced empirically through data alone. The data can be experienced empirically. The event is gone.

Now, what does this have to do with the Gospel narratives, specifically speaking here of the Lukan Infancy Narrative? Well, we need to ask ourselves the question, Why should we trust an historian who argues that the empire-wide census never happened, simply because he or she sees no evidence for it? What does he or she mean by “no evidence”? We have data from Luke that it was empire-wide. We have data from Josephus that it existed in the province of Syria. So what do they mean there is no evidence. What do you call Luke and Josephus, the only actual historians who comment upon the event?
You see, what they really mean is that we have no objective data, but as I said before, data of the event is only objective if one makes no comment upon it. Otherwise, the data is never objective because it is always interpreted by the subjective. So there is really no such thing as objective data, because there is no such thing as an objective interpretation of data. The data says nothing by itself. The report must be believed or disbelieved. The non-textual data must be interpreted by that belief or disbelief. So why are some historians so dogmatic in their op-ed pieces about the Lukan narratives being in error? Could it be they have an ideology to present in its place?

Now, again, I think Luke’s purposes are apologetic, not historical in the sense that he is attempting to teach us facts about historical events. God isn’t trying to teach us a history lesson about the minutia of first century Palestine. Luke is saying something about Christ’s birth: that it was a virgin birth of humble means, as it was carried out in a manger, not in a palace or a house. His historical details are just part of the presentation of the story that get us to that place. He’s trying to convey that Christ was born of a virgin, and is, therefore God (something that the Greco-Roman world understood a divine to human birth to be), having been overshadowed by the Holy Spirit. Yet, He wants us to understand that God is not reigning like Caesar reigns. He has compassion upon the lowly and outcast, as He Himself entered the world as one of them.
But the virgin birth isn’t something Luke is making up for theological purposes. It is a true event from which the Holy Spirit who is guiding his writing draws out its implications and divinely intended meaning. In other words, the question as to whether it is historical or theological is a false dichotomy; but we should not confuse the historicity of an event that underlies the message and the historicity of the historical minutia that simply makes up the presentation of that event and the theological interpretation thereof.

Now, I believe Luke is accurate. I have no reason to doubt him, as my ideology doesn’t need to try and prove his inaccuracy with arguments from silence (really, saying that there is no evidence for something and then saying therefore that it didn’t happen is pure speculation versus the report, i.e., it’s merely an assertion of unbelief, not an assertion of historiographical fact or as a result of study). That’s like me saying that there is no evidence that Lincoln liked pumpkin pie. So what? Does that mean that he didn’t? No, it just means that I don’t have any information concerning the matter. But what would be worse is if we had a diary of someone who investigated Lincoln’s life from various reports at the time and then said that he did in fact like pumpkin pie, and then I turned around and said there was no evidence for it. Hugh? I may not believe the report, but the report itself is evidence for it.

Likewise, even though Luke likely is using Josephus, the fact that both men report that the provincial census took place would lead me to believe that an empire-wide census took place as well. There are reasons why only a local census might occur, but does the probability that a Caesar who would go to the trouble to assemble a party to one major province to do a census also make sense that he would go ahead and require other provinces to do the same as well? I’m not sure what’s so hard to believe about the matter, except that ideology and presupposition doesn’t allow for it.

Now, most historians, if they are honest, will in fact acknowledge what I’ve said above. They're just conflicted about the Lukan narrative because they’ve heard the line, “there is no evidence for it” touted over and over again, so much that it’s become a staple in the debate. But on the other hand, they know full well that such has no bearing on whether the event occurred. So, for instance, Mark Coleridge, in his The Birth of the Lukan Narrative: Narrative as Christology in Luke 1–2 (JSNTS 88; Sheffield Academic, 1993), makes the statement that the event cannot be proven historically accurate for lack of evidence, and that to say it is historical, although the most straightforward explanation, is “unsatisfactory” (130, fn. 3). Unsatisfactory? To whom and why? Because it doesn’t lend itself to the dichotomized interpretation between theology and history that one wants to paint? In any case, in the very same footnote we see real historiography getting honest when he says, “we cannot be sure whether the historical census was factual or not” (131, fn. 3). In other words, one cannot say that it did not occur because there is lack of evidence, and in this case, one only believes there is lack of evidence because one must first disbelieve the report (i.e., the evidence) we have of the event. But again, we do have evidence. We see it in Luke, and it makes sense from that evidence we have in Josephus, as well as the inscription from Apamea (ABD 588).

In any case, I wanted to make you aware of what really goes into these news articles concerning the Gospel narratives. In the end, Luke may just be using Josephus as a source and changing the apologetic thrust from “Judaism is not a threat to the Roman Empire—therefore, stop persecuting us” to “Christianity is not a threat to the Roman Empire—therefore, stop persecuting us”); but this says nothing to the truth or falsity of the history used, and certainly nothing toward the truth about Christ being taught. Both of those must be affirmed or denied by faith, not fact, as all fact requires faith to precede its apprehension. 

Hence, we must choose to believe one report over another, or just the reconstruction of timelines and events put together by historians. I tend to think that Luke's timeline is irrelevant to his message, and so the historical minutia is being reconstructed and presented by him to make his point, so that perhaps Quirinius was or was not the governor at the time of Jesus' birth; but that would simply mean that I would be trusting in an alternative reconstruction and timeline. The "world-wide," i.e., empirical census is just one aspect of this debate, but it serves to show us how to think critically of what we're being told by modern scholars. As I indicated before, in the end, Luke's theologizing history for purposes of synchronism is much more important than the historical details he may move around to paint that picture (see ABD 589 and Luke T. Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, 51-53, although the false dichotomy is prominent in the latter work); but such does not allow us to know the event better than Luke, and as such, we choose to believe or disbelieve the report of the detail, but we should never pretend that such a detail is objectively known to be factually correct or incorrect. Such is the enterprise of posturing for one's own empire, and we know we ought to be critical of that more than anything else.