Friday, February 1, 2013

The Neo-Errantist Failure to Understand Jesus: The Sermon on the Mount as a Test Case

Neo-errantists are often presented with the challenge that if they believe the Scripture to be theologically and ethically in error, how exactly do they decide what teachings are true and good and what are false and evil?

Of course, one is often left with nothing more than a reliance upon the zeitgeist as his guide. Modern sensibilities take over as authoritative guidelines by which one can judge all other theological and ethical claims, including those found in Scripture.

But many of these neo-errantists think that they are actually channeling Jesus' theology and ethics that are opposed to those in the Old Testament. They often cite the Sermon on the Mount as an example of Jesus' opposition to the Old Testament par excellence.

For instance, Dr. Enns posts this:

And then answers an objection in a comment by stating this:

I also think that Seibert’s point is not that he knows “better than the God of the universe” but that the violence of God poses certain theological challenges, not the least of which comes from Jesus himself on the Sermon on the Mount. 

The problem is that this is all built on shoddy exegesis that has been passed along through a pacifistic tradition that sees the Sermon on the Mount as outside of, and even against, the Old Testament context.

But Jesus Himself, if context is to be considered, argues that this is not the case. He is not arguing against the Old Testament teaching, but against a misapplied and superficial obedience to the Bible.

To argue that His teaching is contrary to the Old Testament ignores the context, and here is why. At the beginning of His critique of Pharisaical hypocrisy, He states that His words are to be understood as upholding, rather than rejecting, the Old Testament Scriptures. That's strike one against the neo-errantist interpretation of Him.
He then goes on to say that every single jot or tittle of the Law will stand until all things are accomplished, which seems to be long after this sermon is preached. Hence, he is not nullifying the Scripture in any way in this sermon. That's strike two against the neo-errantist interpretation.
Then He goes on to say that whoever nullifies even one aspect of the Law and teaches others will be considered least in the kingdom of God. But in the neo-errantist interpretation of Jesus here, that's exactly what Jesus is doing. Hence, by His own words, Jesus is to be considered least in the kingdom of God. That, of course, is absurd, and is strike three against the neo-errantist interpretation of Jesus. Then when we observe what Jesus is actually contradicting, none of it is from the Old Testament, but rather interpretations and applications of the Old Testament applied within the community.

That last preposition is important, because Jesus is not talking about war and international relations here. He is not talking about what government does (Is government to forgive criminals and let them keep on murdering people because it wants to be more Christlike?). Jesus is talking about interpersonal relationships within the community, specifically within the religious community (your "enemy" is talking about someone who is not your friend, but rather your "opponent at law"). His teaching here, then, is really about how one conducts his relationships within the community, from the way he treats his wife in thought and deed to the way he treats the fellow members of his community. He is to love all of the people within his community, to not take his rights over theirs, to not withhold goods from those who need and even take it from him without asking, etc.

Hence, Matthew is written first and foremost to the Matthean community with application for the larger ecclesiastical community that can then take Jesus' words and apply them to itself.

This has nothing to do with government waging war, employing the death penalty, etc. And hence, it says nothing toward what Israel was commanded to do in terms of its government to wage war, execute justice through physical punishment, etc. That is a complete misread of the sermon and one that causes neo-errantists to misunderstand the teaching of Jesus as against rather than within the context of Old Testament theology and ethics.

That, of course, is strike four, but they were all already out anyway.

What all of this tells us is that we need to grapple with texts of violence in the Old Testament within their contexts and within the context of Jesus' teaching here that implies these things to be good teachings that should not be abolished but rather applied correctly within the view that they are the Word of God that will not pass away.

We need to understand why the Bible says that these things are good, and I think that it all has fallen down at not understanding the creation ethic seen throughout Scripture, where it is argued that not only is the support of covenant children a good, but the destruction of chaotic agents in the world that would threaten the existence of those covenant children is also a good. Hence, in the procreative command to preserve human life given to Noah after the flood, we also see the command to execute murderers. These are contradictory acts to moderns because they don't want to be exclusive and distinguish between two types of humanity, but that is an anthropology they don't share with Scripture. There are agents of life and agents of death who exist as two subgroups of humanity, and the Bible only sees the preservation of one of those groups as a good and the destruction of the other as a good as well. So the hermeneutic that says that the Bible should never be used to do harm to others assumes an unbiblical stance about humanity to begin with. The key is in understanding that such things are left to government in the biblical context.

But all of that can be fleshed out later. My only point is to say that I think that neo-errantism is based upon shoddy exegesis and misunderstands Jesus as much as it misunderstands the Old Testament.

And so we are back to the same question as before, By what standard, other than your self and those within your peer group, do you decide what teaching in the Bible is true and good and what teaching is false and evil? And are we going to now read Jesus in context and exclude His words concerning the Old Testament now too?

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