Monday, April 30, 2018

Biblical Theology XXI: Lamentations

The Book of Lamentations, or in Hebrew ʾêkâ “How?” is a composition made up of five laments concerning the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile. It is likely written by a person who is left in the land, and somewhat documents just how severe the judgment of God was upon the nation. The first three are acrostic using the 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet to begin each verse. The fourth is an acrostic where each letter of the alphabet begins every three verses, and the final fifth lament does not begin each verse with a Hebrew letter, but still contains 22 verses. A lament is a mourning over death, in this case, the death of the city. The ordered patterning the governs the five laments may subtly indicate that there is a divine order in the midst of chaos, and an order in the way one should respond to God’s judgment. The Hebrew name “How?” likely has a double meaning. In one sense, it asks “How all of this devastation could have happened?” In another sense, it answers the question, “How should people respond to the judgment of God?”

Theology: In the first lament, Jerusalem is viewed as a widow who was deprived of her husband and children. The lament conveys the idea that the judgment for Judah’s sins that was predicted by the prophets was not a bluff made by God, but was actually a genuine warning of a devastating judgment that has now taken place. It is also meant to convey to the nations that if God has carried out the judgment about which He warned His people, He will certainly also carry out what He has said concerning the nations concerning their judgment.

The second lament presents Jerusalem as a daughter who has been abandoned to her enemies because of her many sins against God. The people in ruin are told to cry out before God day and night and not cease to seek His mercy in the midst of the devastation.

The third lament is from the perspective of a person who is experiencing the judgment of God. It describes an absolute shunning by God of the individual that leads to absolute chaos on every side, so that the person is in despair. “He has walled me in so that I cannot get out; he has weighted me down with heavy prison chains. Alsowhen I cry out desperately for help,  he has shut out my prayer. He has blocked every road I take with a wall of hewn stones; he has made every path impassable (7–9).

God is presented as pursuing the person as a predator who relentlessly cuts off every avenue of relief from destruction. Because God is the enemy of the person under judgment, there is no hope of a higher power relieving one of the onslaught. The result of God’s judgment is absolute despair and hopelessness.
What causes a glimmer of hope to appear is when the mourner remembers YHWH’s ḥesed, and that even though God is not obligated to answer the prayers of those under judgment, He may still do so if one cries out to Him in repentance. Hope is, therefore, found only in the character of God and His love for His people. Hence, only God can bring relief from His own judgment, and hope is born for those who seek Him. 

The fourth lament follows the same pattern of thought as laments 1 and 2. 

Finally, the fifth lament is a prayer to God that, perhaps, means to be an example of what a repentant prayer should look like. It ends with asking God to restore them, unless He has decided that they have gone to the point of no return and can no longer be forgiven.

Ethics: God has no obligation to forgive anyone under judgment. If He chooses to hear their prayers of repentance it is because of His merciful nature toward those who seek Him; but there is a point where feeling sorry, or saying sorry via words or sacrifices, has replaced true repentance that is characterized by Isaiah as ceasing to do evil and learning to do good. This lack of repentance brings people into judgment and there is no obligation on the part of God to grant true repentance to someone under His judgment. This means that God cannot be manipulated and controlled by someone who merely wants to go on sinning but be forgiven each time by saying his or her "sorrowful plea" to God. Lamentations argues that maybe He will forgive and maybe He won't, so one should not presume that his perpetual sinning does not make a difference.

In the hope that God will grant repentance and restoration based upon His own merciful character toward those who truly seek Him, Lamentations gives instructions for how one should repent: (1) Acknowledge that judgment has rightly been handed out by God for the sins of the individual and the community. (2) Acknowledge that God has no obligation to hear one’s prayers and forgive. (3) Cry out to God without ceasing. Let him bury his face in the dust. Sit alone while being disciplined. (4) Accept the discipline from God that may come from other people (reproach from others for one’s sins). (5) Be patient for the Lord’s deliverance in the hope that He will forgive based on His ḥesed. If one is instead bitter toward God for being punished for his sins, he can expect that the Lord will not forgiven him. 

Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Hermeneutics of Inattentiveness

It has often been said that “the devil is in the details.” However, I actually want to argue today that the devil is in the generalities that lack the details. Details provide clarity. To lack them is to lack clarity and to make what is said into something that can be more easily molded to one’s false beliefs. Without details, we misunderstand what God has said about Himself, His work, and us.

I think the most common trait amongst bad interpretations of Scripture is, therefore, what I would call the hermeneutics of inattentiveness. In other words, a type of interpretation of Scripture that does not pay attention to detail. This is typically on purpose, as details provide context to what is being said in the text. To ignore them is to ignore the context, and therefore, the context can be replaced or the text lifted out of its context can be reinterpreted to support one’s false view. The arrogant are concerned about winning arguments, not whether or not they are exalting God on the throne He has constructed for Himself out of truth. If one thinks about it, the more one cares about God, the more he or she will care about what God has said, the more one cares about what God has said, the more one will pay attention to the details that provide the context of what God has said. Only haters are apathetic toward the context supplied by their opponents.

For instance, in a recent debate with some people on FB concerning the exclusivity of God and His kingdom blessings, the Pharisees were employed as those who were being exclusive. From a 10,000 foot flyover, panning out from the scene and ignoring the details of what is being said, one can generally argue that the Pharisees were excluding people and therefore represent the side of exclusion. Jesus was rebuking them for their views. Ergo, Jesus was arguing for inclusion. Hence, to argue for exclusion is to be a Pharisee and to make the argument for inclusion is to be like Jesus. The Inclusivist pats himself on the back and walks away happy that he holds Jesus’ view and anyone who contradicts him holds the view of those who Jesus condemned.

The problem, of course, is that when pans back into the scene and pays more close attention to the details, he or she can see that Jesus is not rebuking the Pharisees for being exclusive in general, nor is He arguing for inclusion in general. Instead, He is rebuking them for the basis upon which the decisions of exclusion are made. Jesus Himself excludes the Pharisees. He excludes all those who practice lawlessness. He judges all mankind, sending some to life and others into the lake of fire, excluding them from the kingdom forever.

If this is true, what do the details concerning Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees tell us about the real argument being made? Well, the details indicate that the Pharisees were excluding on the basis of ritual purity, class, ethnicity, etc. Jesus comes along and rebukes them, not because they are not being inclusive of everyone regardless of beliefs and moral practices, but because beliefs and moral practices are not the basis for their exclusion as God’s basis is.

Hence, when God comes to the people through Christ, His message is, “Repent, because the kingdom of God is now accessible.” It is accessible through repentance of sin, not regardless of whether one repents. It is the kingdom of the God of the Bible, not any god whatsoever. This kingdom has been prepared for those who are His sheep, and they make themselves known both by submitting to the Son as Lord and by their love for the rest of His sheep (i.e., they are known by their exclusive love and excluding and including on the basis of theology and ethics, not ritual practices, ethnicity, or class).

Hence, the problem with the Pharisees is not that they were exclusivists. The problem is that they did not exclude and include people according to the criteria God gave them throughout the Hebrew Bible. In other words, according to the details, He is rebuking them for being the wrong kind of exclusivists rather than for being exclusive in general.

Jesus argues that God is exclusive. He has His own people that He has called out for Himself. Jesus does not pray for those the Father has not given Him, but only for those the Father has given Him. There is a judgment that divides the world, and there is an inclusion and exclusion in that judgment that must be known now and not just when it is too late.

Ironically, this misunderstanding of the basis of exclusion led the Pharisees to misunderstand their mission. They taught people ritual purity rather than repentance from sin. Hence, there was no Spirit in their message because it was the wrong one. Whenever they did make converts, it only made them twice as much children of hell as they were because they were converting the externals.

The hermeneutics of inattentiveness causes the reader to miss the point, construct a rebuke of the Pharisees that looks like the rebuke they are making of their opponents, and comfort themselves that Jesus is on their side. But what is even more dangerous than this is that this type of poor exegesis leads to constructing a completely different God/Jesus that ripples throughout one’s theology, reconstructing Christianity as a whole. An inclusive God means a lesser judgment if one exists at all. This has repercussions in one’s ethics as well. If God loves everyone, includes everyone regardless of their theology or ethics, then theology is probably not that important. Neither is repenting of sin all that urgent. After all, God loves and includes everyone. To argue otherwise is to argue against Jesus and to be a Pharisee.

This hermeneutic essentially allows the person to believe and do whatever he or she wishes. Cults employ it for this very reason. To ignore the details, fly so high over the text that only a very generalized principle can be gleaned without the qualifications those details supply, is really to ignore the Word of God as a whole. It is an immoral act of rebellion against God’s Word under the guise of piously quoting it. Tricksy little Hobbitses are we. Self-deceived and deceiving others. But for those who have been called out of darkness and into His glorious light, God is in the details.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Theology Dictates How We Search for the Elect among Unbelievers

My obligation is not to the non-elect. They are unbelievers and they will remain so. Yet, we have a call to go make disciples of all nations. What does this look like, or better yet, what do we use to find the elect who will become disciples?

If one approaches the subject with a Pelagian/Semi-Pelagian outlook, then there are a variety of means one might use to find them: general kindness through giving physical resources, emotional stories that heighten their sentimentality toward Christianity, endearing/enticing music, great displays of miracles, a general niceness all around, etc.

The Bible, however, tells us that none of these are effective because fallen humanity is dead in sin. Neither miracles nor niceness is able to wake the sinner from his self-worshiping slumber. Instead, we are told that the Father must draw him to the Son through teaching (John 6), but what is this teaching? We are told that faith comes by means of hearing and that an obedient hearing is given to the elect individual through the message of God, i.e., the gospel.

The gospel and the command to follow Jesus through it is what wakes the dead. To throw physical gifts, smiles, music, stories, etc. at them in the hopes that this will wake them is futile. We are just adorning their graves and making sport of their funeral.

I believe, therefore, that Christians should have a love for the elect, i.e., future Christians, by not concentrating on putting all of that other garbage in the way, and immediately give them what they need to rise from the grave, i.e., the gospel of Jesus Christ.

If it is the gospel that wakes men from the dead and nothing else, then it doesn't need help. Indeed, everything else is just a distraction, and a costly one at that, both in terms of time and money. It's almost the devil's greatest scheme to keep the gospel from clearly being spoken to the world. The church is so concerned about its various methods of converting unbelievers that it runs around trying to make ineffectual means effectual. What it ends up doing, however, is creating false believers, since all of these things do, in fact, attract the dead. They just don't wake the dead to life.

I would argue, therefore, that love demands that we no longer seek to convert the elect unbelievers with any other means but the gospel itself, throwing off all other types of peddling Christianity to people. I don't need a party if I'm dead. I need God's Spirit given to me through the preaching of the good news.

The Exclusivity of the Gospel and Christian Love

I'm sure there are a few more of these floating around on this blog, but here is a good summary of the issues concerning to whom Christians are obligated to care for and in what ways they are obligated.

Lexicon: Hypocrite

The word "hypocrite" is a transliteration of the Greek ὑποκριτής. We often assign an English meaning to it as "one who says one thing and does another." Jesus says this very thing of the Pharisees in Matthew 23, so we conclude that this is what it must mean. The problem is that they are also called ὑποκριταί for putting on a show before men in Matthew 6. This is because the word actually doesn't primarily refer to someone who just has contradictory beliefs or practices in the Synoptics. Instead, the word actually means "actor," "pretender," "fake." It references the fact that they pretend to know God, but by their deeds they evidence that they do not know Him, and therefore, are not a part of the covenant community. Certainly, a contradiction between what one teaches and does is a sign of being a false believer, but the word itself does not refer to this contradiction directly as much as the contradiction makes reference to the fact that such works may show one to be a fake believer.

The reason why this is important to understand is that many people think that if believers sin they are somehow hypocrites in the biblical sense. This would mean, of course, that every believer is a Pharisaical hypocrite.

What is worse, is that our culture assigns its own morality to believers and then calls them hypocrites for not performing according to their standards. Again, the word simply refers to people who do not really know God but are pretending that they do. One can be a hypocrite in the modern sense then and still be a Christian, but to be a hypocrite in the Gospels means that one is not a true believer. The word really shouldn't be thrown around in this sort of equivocating manner then unless one means to say that modern Christians aren't Christians at all.

Jacob I Loved But Esau I Hated

A recent FB post reminded me of the fact that American Christianity is essentially liberal when it comes to its ethics. Matthew Rose writes about the liberal view of humanity by summing up Adolph Harnack's view of Christianity.

"He assured believers that modern thinking was an unambiguous blessing, as it could liberate them from a metaphysical mindset that was foreign to the original spirit of their faith. And that spirit was animated by a simple creed about the universal Fatherhood of God and his presence in every human soul."

This "fatherhood of God, brotherhood of man" mentality pervaded the American religious spirit so much that even fundamentalists made room for it when it came to evangelism. It was an easy transition since entire towns had been made up of professing Christians, i.e., the visible covenant community, since the early days of the Christian Roman Empire on into the period of American colonization, understanding "neighbor" literally as everyone within one's sphere of influence was a natural leap.

Since Evangelicalism is a hybrid of fundamentalist and liberal traditions, it is no surprise that it often adopted the theology of their fundamentalist forebears and the ethics of their liberal ones.

One of the problems, of course, is that the Bible teaches a very exclusive God with a very exclusive gospel of salvation. God chooses Jacob over Esau. He chooses His people over the Egyptians, the Amalekites, the Canaanites, etc.

This is the very concept of love that the phrase, "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated" coneys. Love is preference. Love is choosing one over another, and the one who is not chosen is said to be hated (i.e., not the one given priority over the other). It is giving care to Israel at the expense of other nations rather than giving care to other nations at the expense of Israel. A choice has to be made. Either God will give preference to the Egyptians over the Israelites or the other way around. He must choose that Israelite babies live and Egyptian babies die, Israelites live and Canaanites die, etc. One can argue that He stays out of it so that no preference is given, but this too is an unbiblical (and illogical) concept.

Ultimately, He loves His Son, and only those who are placed in the Son. Outside of the Son are the chaotic agents of the world, the wicked who are destined to destruction. Because of this, there is no fatherhood of God, brotherhood of man in the Bible because only the Son is loved by God. This means that only those in the Son are brothers of the Son and brothers of one another. The Bible teaches, therefore, the "Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of Christians," not of humanity in general.

Paul even argues in Romans 9 that the unbeliever may be created as one who will receive the wrath of God in damnation in order to display what mercy looks like to His elect. Jesus tells the Syro-Phoenician woman that He has no obligation to her as one who is not of the covenant community, i.e., a child of God. This only changes when she exercises faith in Him, displaying that she, in fact, does belong to the covenant community via faith.

Likewise, the Pharisees evidence that they are not of the covenant community by their lack of faith. They receive only condemnation from Christ, not some affirmation that God cares for them as His own. Jesus also holds back doing miracles when the assumed covenant community evidences that they are not truly "of Jacob" because of their lack of faith. In fact, being a visible member of Jacob, i.e., the covenant community, is mandatory to receive the blessings of Christ. He does not heal a single person who rejects Him. He does not heal a single person who is outside the covenant community. He gives priority to Jacob because He loves Jacob, and does not give kingdom resources (i.e., the blessings of the eternal kingdom to come that are given in a smaller part in Jesus' ministry and beyond) to Esau because He hates Esau. The nations still receive a common grace because they are being used to sanctify His people, but the Bible teaches that they will be removed from His blessed earth once that is all accomplished.

What this means is that God/Jesus has priorities, and these priorities are set up according to whom He loves over others. By choosing a people for Himself, He gives preference to those people at the expense of other people. This is the logical outworking of love, and why love must be seen as a work of prioritizing groups for which one is responsible to care for.

As I've said before, if a man walks into my house with a gun and desires to murder my children, I must decide to whom I will give preference, who has priority over the other. I don't give some sappy liberal answer that Jesus just wants us to love everyone. No, He doesn't. He wants us to give priority to those to whom He gives priority, and we know this because every verse that discusses taking care of the poor, oppressed, etc. is in the context of the covenant community. We are to love one another. We are to take care of the least of these brothers of Mine. If any believer sees his brother in need and turns away the love of God, i.e., the prioritizing love of God that gives preference to His people, does not abide in him. Even loving one's opponent within the covenant community, i.e., the enemy in terms of someone in the church oppressing you is to be loved due to their visible connection to the church. Christ tells us that if He returns and a professed believer is mistreating other believers that He will assign Him a place with the unbelievers. All of this is exclusive to believers, and yet, if the Fatherhood of God, brotherhood of man were true, why is there any specification at all? Why not say that Christians are obligated to love everyone equally, regardless of whether they are believers? Why limit the scope to fellow Christians? Either by virtue of the implicitness of the audience of the biblical text or by virtue of something explicit said in the context, every single text that places a burden on believers to care for other human beings refers to the human beings within the covenant community.

And why is this? Because God loves Jacob, but hates Esau. It might even be clearer to translate it as, "I chose to prioritize My care of Jacob over Esau." Any rejection of that is a denial of the God of the Bible, the true Christian ethic of love, and the exaltation of another religion the Bible simply does not espouse.

The irony of interpreting the Bible in an inclusive manner is that the very nature of love forces one into choosing one over another. One must choose to house his children in a safe environment rather than letting a hundred pedophiles live in the same house with them. One with limited resources must choose to give those limited resources in a way that diminishes giving. Either he will diminish giving to one by giving to the other, or both by diminishing the amount he gives. Choices are made daily, and the sad commentary on the liberal evangelical ethic is that when it reads the Bible it has more care for Esau than it does for Jacob. After all, if loving your enemy refers to the pagan then great care is taken to treat him well, but since the Christian isn't your enemy, less care can be taken. Theoretically, everyone knows this isn't right, but it works out very practically when you see in conversations how much concern is given for speaking to the unbeliever "lovingly," but other believers, who are in opposition, like garbage.

The truth is that because of this false teaching we are in a war over what love looks like when choices have to be made. It affects our politics, our understanding of the church's mission, church finances, etc. And all of that is very important because if we love Esau over Jacob then that means we are hating Jacob. And hating Jacob is the opposite of God's revealed love in the Bible.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Biblical Theology XX: Jeremiah

Jeremiah is a prophetic book that contrasts true and false religion along with true and false covenant members. It is a series of final warnings given to Judah before the judgment of the exile, as well as a series of promises of hope toward those who go into the exile.

Theology: God only accepts a worship that comes from the internal devotion of a whole mind given to Him that expresses itself in repentance and good works. He does not accept a superficial worship of external rituals, prayers, etc. God’s grace and mercy is only with those who truly worship Him. It is not with those who do not truly worship Him in the way described above. Hence, a new covenant is promised to the exiles where God writes His Torah upon their minds to where they will walk in them forever. For these people, He will send forth an individual to sit upon the throne of David and to intercede for His people as a representative of the Levitical Priesthood forever.

Ethics: The writing of God’s Torah upon the minds of His genuine worshipers will result in their living out a total worship that is made up of their obedience to the Torah. God’s mercy and calling is specific to these people. As such, Jeremiah is told that he is not to pray for God to have mercy upon those within the visible covenant community that are unrepentant, and therefore, are not a part of the invisible covenant community as evidenced by their fruit. Instead, prayers for their destruction are given instead.

A major theme in the book concerns also the type of “word from the Lord” these false covenant members want to hear. Their pastors speak positive, encouraging messages to them in the midst of their unrepentant sin. This is what characterizes the false prophet in the book, as well as characterizing the false believer in the book. The community that wants to emphasize “positive messages” in the midst of their sin persecutes Jeremiah, kills the other prophets that speak as he does, and lifts up false prophets that lull them into a false sense of security with those encouraging and positive messages when, in fact, a severe message of warning and rebuke is needed instead.

What the false believers do is trust in the promises of God, find security in the messages that refer to God’s salvific works among His people, and assume that they are a part of that covenant community receiving those promises of salvation because of the labels they place upon themselves and the symbols of God’s presence among them, such as the temple. God, however, only considers them a part of those promises if they repent and worship Him whole-heartedly with all of their deeds. If not, none of those promises belong to them, and to emphasize them as a comfort is a deception that leads to everlasting destruction and removal from God’s communal presence.

Even though judgment falls upon the entire visible community of God, He turns the hearts and minds of His people toward Him through it, and promises both to be with them as they are going through the discipline of exile as well as to restore them fully both after the exile and beyond. What leads to the destruction of the false covenant member will, therefore, lead to the salvation of the true covenant member, even though hardship befalls both. Hence, all need to be rebuked when in sin, those who belong to God will repent from thought to deed, and thus receive the promise of salvation into God’s eternal kingdom ruled by the Davidic King and Priest. Those who do not repent have no part in that kingdom, and their comfort in positive and encouraging messages of God’s love and care for them merely lay a path leading to their ultimate destruction.