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Archive for March, 2008

Fuzziness

The Bible is a complex book.  Consisting of sixty-six books written over several millennia, it describes a bewildering array of characters and events.  The Bible seems especially complex and difficult to modern Christians, because, however hard we try to think biblically, we have been subtly but deeply influenced by modern philosophy and science.  Often, even when we have rejected the explicit conclusions of science, we unconsciously adopt a scientistic mind-set.  One example of this is our tendency to operate on the modern assumption that all ideas can be defined with infinite, scientific precision, and that concepts can and should be distinguished very sharply.

The more you study the Bible, the more you will find that it cannot be forced into this mold.  Ideas and symbols in the Bible meld together, overlap, and stretch out in a thousand different directions.  This is not to say that the Bible is irrational or unscientific, or that we cannot make any meaningful distinctions.  But a modern reader cannot escape the sense that the Bible speaks a very different language than he learned in “Chem. Lab” or Philosophy 101.  As theologian Vern S. Poythress has noted, the biblical world view acknowledges the reality of “fuzzy boundaries.”

Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck drew a distinction between pagan and biblical thought that may help to clarify this idea.  Bavinck said that modern (and ancient Greek) thinkers attempted to find the “essence” of a thing, that which makes a thing uniquely what it is, by subtraction.  To discover the “essence” of a pencil, we subtract its color, its size, its shape — all of which may vary without changing the nature of the thing and all of which may describe something other than a pencil.  (There might be a red apple as well as a red pencil, a six-inch slug as well as a six-inch pencil, etc.)  When we have subtracted all the variables, what we have left is the “essence” of the pencil, what might be called “pure pencilness.”  (Of course, what we really have left is nothing at all.)

Scripture, by contrast, describes the essence of a thing by addition.  Only when we know the fullness of a thing, all of its attributes, do we really know its uniqueness and “essence.”  God’s “essence” is not some “bare minimum” of deity, or some “basic attribute” from which all the other attributes can be derived.  Instead, the “essence” of God is the fullness of all his attributes — Peter Leithart, The Kingdom and the Power, pp. 93-94.

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The phone rang. “Hello, this is John Mark.”

“Hi, JM. This is Simon Peter.”

“Oh, hello, Mr. Rock,” said Mark. “What can I do for you?”

“Well, JM” said Peter, “I’ve been very impressed by your recent essays in the New Jew Review, especially your series on David as the anointed one, pointing to our Lord Jesus. Some of what you’ve been writing about dovetails, if I may use the word, with what some of us have been hearing from the Spirit.”

“New prophecies?” asked Mark.

“No. What I meant was the way the Spirit has been leading our conversations. JM, Agrippa is becoming intolerable. The man is scum, but bears the title of `king’ thanks to that loony Caesar Littlebooties; and now that old pseudo-philosopher Claudius has added Judea and Samaria to Galilee and given it all to him. He thinks he’s Herod the Great reborn.

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“. . . and just when are you guys going to live up to your Sons of Thunder reputation? Huh? A lot of us are wondering about you two.” With that, the young man got up, climbed down the ladder, and stalked up the street toward the old city.

Jacob turned from watching the man and looked at his brother. This was not the first time he saw that expression on Johanan’s face. What was it? Bewilderment mixed with sadness maybe, but then too a hint of fear. Jacob empathized. For months now they had been hearing similar angry speeches. The younger men especially were given to reacting to the persecution with a show of strength, even force. Every apostle in Jerusalem has been approached with similar proposals. But now the situation appeared to have gotten worse. This man reported on activity that crossed the line. He actually urged them to join with the resistance.

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The sun had set and finally the crowds had dispersed. The disciples gathered in the upper room, exhausted but joyful after preaching and teaching in many different languages all day, not to speak of seeing to the baptism of three thousand people. James bar Alphaeus put on a CD of the Bach Christmas Oratorio, which seemed somehow appropriate, while James and John opened the fridge and broke out cool ones for all the men, who were sitting and lying around resting their feet.

Then came a knock on the door.

Peter said, “John, would you get that.”

“Sure, Rocky,” said John, and went to the door.

Standing outside were a hand of men, all five distinguished leaders of the Jews: one of the chief priests, two rabbis, and two synagogue officials. “May we come in?” asked the chief priest.

“Certainly,” said John. “Andrew, would you move in five more chairs for our guests? And what would you men like to drink?”

After all had settled down and wedges of a really fine goat-milk Gouda with cumin seeds had been passed around, the chief priest, Johanan, who seemed to be the spokesman for the group, said, “So, then, men. Where’s the book?”

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There was a time, I think, when Evangelical Christianity in North America tended to be dominated by what might be (pejoratively) called a “retreatist” or even “defeatist” view of society. For various reasons, Christians believed that society was headed downhill and there was nothing the Church could do about it, and thus nothing they should do about it.

Then, at some point, we had the “moral majority” countersurge. The importance of voting and lobbying and other political activity was emphasized. (I think also the importance of involvement in real life ministry and outreach was also stressed—for example, we began to see many more crisis pregnancy centers. This was a good thing.)

While this latter view had some great features, I think it also was sometimes misdirected. For one thing, in my experience, it sometimes seemed like the message was going out that all Christians are called to be political activists.

Jesus has been raised up as, is now, and always will be “the ruler of kings on earth” (Revelation 1.5). But it is important that we work for the acknowledgment of his Lordship in a way that is consistent with our witness to it. For one thing, if Jesus is now king of the universe, then we need to show by word and deed that we actually believe that to be the case, rather than slipping into the idea that we should or can “make” him king. The Gospel proclamation says that God has already done this (Acts 2.36; 1 Corinthians 15.1).

While it is true that political activism has some place in the way Christians acknowledge the Kingdom of Christ, making this too much of a priority is practical atheism. It can become a way of life that presupposes that human leverage is the key to how the world can be changed.

Here is a contrasting Christian view of political and cultural cause and effect:

The Spirit of God came upon Azariah the son of Oded, and he went out to meet Asa and said to him, “Hear me, Asa, and all Judah and Benjamin: The Lord is with you while you are with him. If you seek him, he will be found by you, but if you forsake him, he will forsake you. For a long time Israel was without the true God, and without a teaching priest and without law, but when in their distress they turned to the Lord, the God of Israel, and sought him, he was found by them. In those times there was no peace to him who went out or to him who came in, for great disturbances afflicted all the inhabitants of the lands. They were broken in pieces. Nation was crushed by nation and city by city, for God troubled them with every sort of distress. But you, take courage! Do not let your hands be weak, for your work shall be rewarded” (2 Chronicles 15.1-7).

While Asa is exhorted to do something that, in context, was quite political, the reasoning and the aims are rather different than what I typically hear about among Evangelicals today. Do you want to see peace on earth? Do you want to see prosperity in the world? Then make sure the church worships God the way he wants and that pastors teach the truth.

The world isn’t changed by human manipulation–not even by Christian activism. The world is ruled by Jesus, and he evaluates and responds to us. Does he see a church living by faith according to every word that comes from His mouth? (Deuteronomy 8.3; Matthew 4.4; 28.20) Or does he see a place of mostly erroneous teaching and other forms of unfaithfulness? When the church is unfaithful, God’s Word says that the world is given over to war and instability and fear.

Voting for, or even electing, the right candidate will not turn the situation around. A new outpouring of “Christian worldview” analysis and “Biblical solutions” are not going to help us. If God finds the Church “without a teaching priest and without law” then all these efforts will come to nothing.

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Romans in 500 Words

David Field notes that there are dozens of ways to summarize Romans.  Here, republished with his permission, is his:

I want to help you understand God’s good news: good news about Jesus, good news which saves, good news which reveals God’s covenant faithfulness (1.1-17).

As it is, God’s wrath against human rebellion and degradation is clear (1.18-32). God’s judgment is perfect and he will declare righteous only those who do the law (2.1-16). Being a Jew, privilege though it is, guarantees nothing. The fact is that all humans, as sinners, are condemned (2.17-3.20).

However, in the death of Jesus, God showed his unstoppable saving faithfulness and dealt with sin (3.21-26). And the fact that God declares righteous those who have faith in Jesus (whether Jew or Gentile) shows that this is how his global saving promise to Abraham is fulfilled. People are declared righteous because of faith, not because of works, circumcision, or being a Torah-person (3.27-4.25).

It’s all in Jesus that this reconciliation and restoration take place (5.1-11) and, because Jesus stands over against Adam, his achievement is all-encompassing (5.12-21). Those united to Christ are (and need to live as) new humans who can understand themselves as re-living (but this time effectively) the story of Israel: Exodus, Sinai, Wilderness, Inheritance (6.1-8.39). Exodus: they have left behind bondage to the death-realm of tyrant Sin and have been brought under the liberating rule of God, which is life (6.1-23). Sinai: this liberation is also liberation from the dark side of God’s good Torah which Israel, disempowered through being in Adam, had experienced (7.1-25). Wilderness and Inheritance: walking now in the Spirit, there is life in the present and glory-hope, through suffering, for the future (8.1-30). And all this, because of Jesus, is utterly secure (8.31-39).

To help you understand how ‘old’ Israel fits into all this, let me remind you from her history that God’s sovereign saving purpose has always, mysteriously, involved hardening and rejection of some – and, in relation to the salvation of Gentiles, it is misguided Israel that has been hardened and rejected (9.1-10.4). In Jesus the promised covenant-renewal has arrived (so that faith in Jesus and doing Torah are in some senses equated) and the good news is going to Gentiles while, sadly, Israel remains recalcitrant (10.5-21). However, there are some ‘old’ Israelites now (and many more to come) who have believed and God’s “harden A; save B; make A jealous and save more A; thus save A and B” method proceeds apace (11.1-32). Praise him (11.33-36).

And now let me tell how this global saving action of God, accomplished in Christ, plays out in your life together (12.1-12); in relation to others, including the authorities (12.14-13.7); as fulfilling Torah, and as you face the future (13.8-14). Because this is an in-Christ, by-faith, and Jew-Gentile reality, then it must be expressed in your Jewish-Christian, Gentile-Christian mutual acceptance (14.1-15.7). After all, Jesus was true Israel for the sake of the Gentiles, as Scripture shows (15.8-13). In my own apostolic ministry I’m in the same business – reaching Gentiles while honouring and relating rightly to Jews (15.14-32). God bless you, one and all; avoid division; and God be praised for his all-nations, Scripture-fulfilling, faith-realised, Christ-centred, Jew-Gentile uniting, good news (16.1-27).

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In our previous post, we examined the sundry texts from which Paul quotes in his great catena of quotations in Rom 3.10-18. But the thought unit is not yet complete; Paul makes his assessment of the implications in 3.19-20. This followup makes Paul’s intent clearer, although it is frequently misread (verse 19, in particular; I think this is likely also the case with verse 20, but my understanding of the verse is still being formed).

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In our earlier look at Paul’s use of Scripture in Romans 3, we focused upon how Psalm 51, from which the apostle quotes in verse 4, determines and shapes our reading of 3.1-8. We also noted that the psalm contains a reference to divine righteousness (Ps 51.14), where it refers to God’s salvific activity. In this post, we move on to the next subsection, and begin our consideration of Romans 3.9-20. What are these passages from which Paul quotes? What do they contribute to our understanding of Paul’s train of thought?

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It has always been important to pay attention to the Old Testament quotations we find in the New Testament, but in recent years, it has become even more clear that one must take into account the extended context of the passage cited, not simply the words directly quoted. This is understandable: unlike our situation, the ancient world largely communicated texts as an oral culture, and nobody footnoted.

But it is understandable on an even more important level: the New Testament writers are not manufacturing a de novo religion; they are drawing upon an inspired and authoritative text that has come to new light with the advent of Christ and the Spirit. (Indeed, this is what Paul says almost directly in 2 Corinthians 3.) And if this is the case, we can be sure that – no matter what our untrained eyes may lead us to believe at first glance – the writers of the New Testament were contextual and faithful to the Scriptures from which they drew. Our failure to recognize this stems, not from our superior training in hermeneutics, but from the poverty and weakness of our biblical understanding.

In the case of Romans 3, we have one of the heaviest concentrations of biblical citations to be found within the Pauline corpus. This means that proceeding to define terms and phrases must not be done in a vacuum; we must investigate the passages Paul cites.

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Hebrews 11 makes it very clear that Abram (later, Abraham) exercised saving faith from the time he left his home to go wonder in Caanan. He was justified at least from the time of the call in Genesis 12.1-3 on. Yet I keep reading people

  1. who think that any appeal to the fact that believers are justified in various events at various times repeatedly is an attack on “the doctrine of justification, and
  2. who treat Genesis 15.1ff as if it was Abram’s initial act of faith by which he was justified.

The two mistakes depend on one another. (1) forces people to adopt (2) and (2) is then used to support (1).

But the whole idea is wrong. Any reading of the text that takes the sequence from Genesis 12 to Genesis 15 seriously, and that also has regard for the inspired commentary on these events in Hebrews 11, has to reckon that Genesis 15 is the record of a special test of faith–much like, though not as intense as, the test in Genesis 22.

Just as the Westminster Confession assures us that “God doth continue to forgive the sins of those that are justified,” so also the Bible teaches that he continues to reckon as righteous and vindicate those that are justified. He does not do this by means of a mere assent, as James points out so emphatically in chapter 2 of his epistle, but on a basis of a true trust in God. This trust grows and matures as it passes through tests.

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