“I Will Be What I Will Be”

 

 

“God also spoke to Moses and said to him: ‘I am the LORD.1  I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name ‘the LORD’ I did not make myself known to them” (Ex. 6:2, 3).  The LORD as revealed to Moses is unknown to the patriarchs.  But are we altogether sure we know what we mean when we say that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did not know God as the LORD?  Or, what is infinitely more important, are we sure we know what God means when he says that the patriarchs did know him by that name?  Here I discuss God’s name, how we know it, and why it matters.

 

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
Some may take the above passage to mean that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob simply had never heard the name the LORD, and instead only used the name God Almighty.  This, however, would be a mistake.  The Bible records all three of the patriarchs using God’s personal name.  Abraham addresses God as the LORD and even names a place after him (cf. Gen. 15:2, 17; 22:14).  Isaac follows in his father’s footsteps by using the name of the LORD as a place name (26:22), and Jacob also shows that he knows the name of the LORD (27:20).  If they were aware of his name, how can God say to Moses that the patriarchs did not know him as the LORD?  Critics of the Bible say plainly that this is a contradiction.  But could there be another explanation?

I Will Be What I Will Be
If both the patriarchs and Moses knew the Name, in the sense of knowing its syllables, then how did they differ?  In what way does Moses’ knowledge of God differ from that of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?

When God calls Moses from the burning bush to send him to Egypt, Moses asks for the Name of the LORD.  We may assume that Moses as well as the Israelites knew the Name, just as their fathers did.  What, then, do we make of the question?  Names are more than identifying labels.  They reveal the character of a person.  To know the name of God is to know who he is (cf. Ex. 33:19 where God’s “goodness” is made parallel to “the name ‘The LORD’).  For Moses to ask the Name of the LORD is to ask to be shown what sort of God he is.  In response God says “I AM WHO I AM” (Ex. 3:14), or so it is translated in most English versions.  Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks takes issue with this interpretation calling it an “obvious mistranslation.”2 It ought to be translated “I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE.”3 This future tense gives us a hint as to the difference in Abraham’s knowledge of God and Moses’ of the same. Whatever God’s Name would prove to mean is in the future tense, that is, it is still to be revealed. The Catholic Catechism says this about God’s Name, “It is at once a name revealed and something like the refusal of a name, and hence it better expresses God as what he is-infinitely above everything that we can understand or say: he is the ‘hidden God’ …”4 God’s Name as revealed here “is a grammatical remark that suggests that God is known by what God does”5 and it was yet unknown what God would do.  He will be what he will be.  So it is that Moses and the Israelites would witness works of God which were unknown to the patriarchs and would thereby know him in a way unknown to their fathers.  They would have to wait to see what God would do in order to “know the Name”, that is, to know the full import of what it means for the LORD to be their God.

The Redeeming God
When God declares that the Israelites will know the Name, unlike their ancestors, the declaration of his Name is immediately followed with “seven dynamic verbs” describing the acts they would soon witness as a revelation of his character.6. “Say therefore to the Israelites, ‘I am the LORD, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them.  I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment.  I will take you as my people, and I will be your God.  You shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians.  I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession.  I am the LORD” (Ex. 6:6-8).  Notice: these acts are how “You shall know that I am the LORD.” The acts of God listed here describe the redemption of the Israelites from slavery.  And that is the difference between their knowledge of the LORD and the patriarchs’.  Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob knew him as El Shaddai, God Almighty,  the God who can provide (cf. Gen. 22:14).  But they did not know him as the God who redeems.  This knowledge, the experience of redemption by the arm of the LORD, would set the Israelites apart from their fathers.  Knowing the LORD is regularly associated with witnessing his acts. Most often the specific acts are those of the Exodus, or they are described using its language, as when the return from Babylon is pictured as a second Exodus (Ex. 7:5; 10:1-2; 29:45-46; Isa. 52:1-7; Eze. 35:4, 9, 12, 15; 36:10, 23, 36; 37:6, 13, 14, 28; cf. Jer. 23:7-8).

Proclaiming the Name
The most explicit revelation of God’s Name is found in Exodus 34.  God had called Moses to Mount Sinai where he promised to reveal the LORD to him (cf. Ex. 33:19).  As Moses hid in the cleft of the rock “The LORD passed before him, and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation” (34:6-7).  This is one of the most oft repeated scriptures in the Old Testament.7 Most translations, like my own, begin the quotation with a dual repetition of “the LORD.” While this maintains what I believe to be the sense of the passage, it is made clearer by placing the quotation marks later. “The LORD passed before him, and proclaimed the LORD, ‘The LORD, a God merciful and gracious.'” God here “proclaimed the LORD”, he defines his Name, he explains its meaning, its essence, and he does so by rehearsing his acts. He abounds, he keeps, he forgives, he visits. This is what he does, and that is the meaning of his Name.

Psalm 136 is a perfect example of how important God’s acts are to knowing him.  When God declares that he is abounding in steadfast love, we are not left in the dark as to what “steadfast love” means.  The psalmist takes up the task of defining it for us, but he does not do so in abstractions.  For him, to tell what steadfast love means he must tell the story of the Exodus.  For the Hebrew, that is the revelation of God’s goodness, the very revelation of his Name, and their children cannot know the LORD apart from this redemptive act (Ex. 10:1-2; Deu. 6:4-9, 20-25).  Indeed, every subsequent generation is to commemorate the Exodus in Passover and to consider himself as personally present during the actual event (cf. Ex. 13:8).8  To experience this act of redemption is what it means to know the LORD.

The Hidden God
While the Exodus is the paradigm of revelation in the Old Testament, it is not the last word.  It does not entirely encapsulate the LORD.  Their life together was a continuing education in what the Name means.  God further reveals himself in history and he is a constant surprise.  One such surprise is described in Isaiah 45.  “Thus says the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes, to open doors before him–and the gates shall not be closed: I will go before you and level the mountains, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron, I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who call you by your name” (45:1-3).

The surprise at God’s actions is addressed by the LORD himself.  To the Israelites who cannot imagine God working through Cyrus as “his anointed” he says, “Woe to you who strive with your Maker, earthen vessels with the potter!  Does the clay say to the one who fashions it, ‘What are you making?’  or ‘Your work has no handles’?  Woe to anyone who says to a father, ‘What are you begetting?’ or to a woman, ‘With what are you in labor?’  Thus says the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, and its Maker: Will you question me about my children, or command me concerning the work of my hands?  I made the earth, and created humankind upon it; it was my hands that stretched out the heavens, and I commanded all their host.  I have aroused Cyrus in righteousness, and I will make his paths straight; he shall build my city and set my exiles free, not for price or reward says the LORD of hosts” (45:9-13).

It was just when the Israelites presumed to know what sort of God he is that they got it wrong.  When they thought to have a handle on him they attempted to correct him.  “You’re not the sort of God who works through pagans like Cyrus.  What are you doing?”  They become like clay that says to the potter, “You’re doing it wrong.  You didn’t make any handles.”  God turns out to be a surprise.  They did not know the Name as well as they thought they did.  Their conclusion could be none other than it was.  “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior” (45:15).  God remains hidden, and whatever he reveals he reveals through his acts.

What is the Name of the LORD?
Isaiah 45 continues.  The LORD shows his superiority over idols.  He calls a council of court and asks those who serve idols to witness to their gods’ power.  When they fall short, when they fail to be adequate witnesses to the power of their idols God declares that it is he, not idol gods, who is the savior.  It is he who orders the world, and there is no other.  “For thus says the LORD, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it a chaos, he formed it to be inhabited!): I am the LORD, and there is no other … Assemble yourselves and come together, draw near, you survivors of the nations!  They have no knowledge–those who carry about their wooden idols, and keep on praying to a god that cannot save.  Declare and present your case: let them take counsel together!  Who told this long ago?  Who declared it of old?  Was it not I, the LORD?  There is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is no one besides me.  Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth!  For I am God, and there is no other.  By myself I have sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear’” (45:18-23, emp. mine).

This should sound familiar to every Christian.  It should be familiar because it is a description of Christ himself.  “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross.  Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Php. 2:5-11).  God’s Name is known only through his deeds.  His greatest deed, and therefore the most perfect revelation of his Name, is the salvation of Man through Jesus Christ.  If we would know God, we can do not better than to look at Jesus.  “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Mat. 11:27).  His is the Name.  It is the Name that is above every name.  It is the Name at which all shall bow.  Jesus: this is the Name of the LORD.

The Revealed God Remains Obscure
Jesus himself declares, “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world” (John 17:6).  Indeed, it is in knowing God through Jesus that eternal life is to be found.  “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (17:3).  If we would know God we are not permitted to look beyond Jesus.

Despite this final revelation of God, he remained and remains obscure to many.  Over and over the New Testament records people’s shock and amazement at Jesus.  Even his own disciples found it difficult to comprehend who he was and what he was doing.  He remained “the hidden God.”  Many times certain Jews objected to Jesus saying, in essence, “You can’t do that” or “If you really were Messiah, you would not do that.”  They made the mistake of thinking they knew the Name of the LORD apart from Jesus.  They stood in judgment against him.  Just then he reminded his enemies, “The Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath” (Mat. 12:8).  When we find that our idea of God does not fit Jesus, it is our conception of God which is mistaken.  “In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4).

The God of the Psalms
What does any of this matter? It matters because knowing God is eternal life.  Further, even rejecting God requires a kind of knowledge of him.  When atheists decide what sort of God they disbelieve, then Christians can decide whether or not they agree with the atheists.  The problem is that they don’t know any god well enough to say whether or not they can believe in him.  For example, the only argument which pretends to disprove God is the Problem of Evil.  But that problem requires a particular sort of “God.”  The psalmists did not seem to think that God was the sort of God who could not exist alongside suffering.  They would cry out to God in the midst of their suffering, even blame God for their suffering, but they would not give up faith in him.  After their complaint the psalmists would undoubtedly say, “Regardless, you are God.”  Instead of assuming they know what sort of God he is, and then deciding that he cannot exist alongside pain, they confess that–apparently–they did not know him after all, or at least not as well as they had thought.  The pain is a surprise because they did not know God was the sort of God that worked like this.  Still, it made better sense to them to say that they do not know God well than to say that God does not exist at all.  Even amidst the suffering of crucifixion, Jesus would rather think himself God-forsaken than think that God does not exist.  That at least is the language of the psalms.  Only the saint, it turns out, knows God well enough to decide whether or not he can believe in him, but the saint always decides that God alone is good (cf. Mat. 19:17).  So we are left with this interesting truth: those who disbelieve in him cannot, and those who can do not.

Repeating the Sin of Adam
The only reason why suffering should cause us to disbelieve in “God” is if we repeat the sin of Adam.  We take it upon ourselves to grasp the knowledge of good and evil, apart from God.  We then take our new invention we call “goodness” and submit God to that standard.  When God does not match our definition of goodness we decide that we no longer believe in God.  We now believe in Goodness, the god of our own making, and so we become idolators.  We stand in judgment against God and find him guilty.  But this is like submitting a game of chess to the rules of checkers.  If we should find that the Knight had made an illegal move we will discover that is only because we thought we were playing a different game.  You may rebel against God.  You may even hate him for not playing by your rules.  But you cannot disbelieve in him.  If you do, you only find that the God in which you disbelieve is not the God of the Bible.  When it comes to that God, disbelief is not an option.  The only live option is idolatry.  It’s strange; An atheist is a someone who does not believe in God.  He will be surprised to learn that God is someone who does not believe in atheists.

Christians: The Original Atheists
Under the Roman Empire Christians were considered atheists because they did not believe in the gods of Rome.  I imagine Christians were proud to be so called because the gods in which they disbelieved were not the God of the Bible.  Atheists today, who say that the Holocaust means that they cannot believe in a particular sort of god, will be surprised to find that Christians agree with them.  The sort of god disproved thereby is not the Christian God.  As such, I am indeed a devout atheist.  I also happen to be a devoted Christian.  How odd.  But then again, there always is something odd about the truth.9  God will be what he will be.  And as it turns out, he will be the crucified Christ.

“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.  For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:20-23).

 

©M. Benfield 2017


1. When “LORD” or “GOD” appears in all capital letters that indicates that YHWH, the personal name of God, is used. In general, I follow this practice in imitation of the modern Jewish reticence to use the name of God.
2. This remark comes from his explanation of the title of his book Future Tense, which can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TCHu85d5iJ8&t=100s ; accessed 6 June, 2017.
3. The Hebrew is Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh and is the imperfect form of the verb “to be” which is roughly, though not precisely, equivalent to the English future tense. The NRSV and the JPS both make note of this possible translation, and Adam Clarke mentions it in his comments on Exodus 3:14. The number of times this particular form of the verb appears varies according to one’s source (38-43 times). By my personal count, it is translated as future tense 33 out of a total 38 times.
4. Catholic Catechism, article 206. Available at: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P16.HTM ; accessed 26 June, 2017.
5. Stanley Hauerwas, Working with Words, “Naming God”, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 81.
6. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Fourth Ed., n. on Exodus 6:6-8 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 90.
7. Bobby Valentine names it “The Pulse of the Bible” in his article by that title, available here: http://wineskins.org/2014/11/30/exodus-34-pulse-bible/ ; accessed 26 June, 2017.
8. “In every generation a man must so regard himself as if he came forth himself out of Egypt, for it is written, And thou shalt tell thy son in that day saying, It is because of that which the Lord did for me when I cam forth out of Egypt.” Mishnah, Pesahim 10.5, Trans. Herbert Danby, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2013), 151.
9. This is, of course, in reference to Flannery O’Connor’s now famous statement, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.”

Jesus the Word of God

 

In the previous article I made the point that one’s actions may not be judged apart from him.  We cannot know what actions mean apart from a personal context any more than we can know what words mean apart from their use in a sentence.  Just so, apart from who God is, we cannot know what God means when he speaks.  God’s most explicit word to Man is the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.  As such, Christ is our beginning and ending if we are to understand what God means.  “It is Jesus himself who comes between the disciples and the law, not the law which comes between Jesus and the disciples.  They find their way to the law through the cross of Christ.”1

The Lord of the Sabbath
“‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’  At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat.  When Pharisees saw it, they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.’  He said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry?  He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests.  Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless?  I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.  But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.  For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.’ ” (Matt. 11:28-12:8)

This is one of many places where the place that Torah had in the life of the Jews is replaced with the person of Jesus Christ.  The Mishnah, a collection of Jewish tradition likely extending back before the time of Christ, says, “R[abbi] Nehunya b[en] Ha-Kanah said: He that takes upon himself the yoke of [Torah], from him shall be taken away the yoke of the kingdom [i.e. the troubles suffered at the hands of those in power] and the yoke of worldly care; but he that throws off the yoke of [Torah], upon him shall be laid the yoke of the kingdom and the yoke of worldly care.”2 Instead of inviting people to the yoke of Torah Jesus invites them to take up his yoke.  I do not think it is necessary to say that Jesus stands above the Torah.  What would that mean?  How does one stand above his own word?  We must not see him as above Torah but we must see Torah in relation to him. The Torah had been ripped away from God and placed into the uncareful hands of Man.  By inviting the people to take his yoke upon them he forces them to see that Torah does not exist apart from the God who gave it.  If we do not see Torah as the word of God then we do not see it at all.  Torah is only the word of God insofar as it is the Word of God.  If we interpret it to express anything other than the will of Jesus then we have not understood it.  Like any action, any speech, it is only intelligible when understood in relation to the person.  God in Jesus defines what is meant by Torah.  If Torah is rent from Jesus it means something that he never meant.  It becomes a burden instead of a delight (cf. Isa. 58:13).

As Jesus traveled his disciples became hungry and began to eat.  The Pharisees then take what Torah had said and separate it from what God meant.  They thereby accuse his disciples of doing what is unlawful.  They took the sabbath to mean something which would be a burden to Man, when in fact the sabbath is supposed to be a delight.  In Mark’s parallel account he reminds them that “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27).  The sabbath is not the Lord of Man but his servant.  Any other way of seeing sabbath is to misunderstand what God means by sabbath.  So Jesus points to another scripture which they no doubt knew, though they did not know what it meant, as Jesus again makes clear.  “But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless” (Mat. 12:7).  They knew what scripture said, but they did not know what it meant.  And they did not know what it meant because they had separated the word from the speaker.  Had they really known God they would have known that whatever God meant by “Remember the sabbath and keep it holy” he did not mean “You must starve.”  And so Jesus reminds them that Torah does not exist on its own.  It is an expression of the will of a person.  There is no Torah without its Lord and “the Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath” (12:8).  We may not separate one from the other.

Be Perfect as Your Heavenly Father is Perfect
Just as Moses went up the mountain to receive the word of the Lord so Jesus ascends a mountain to deliver the word of God.  After blessing all of those who had joined themselves to him he affirms his union with Torah.  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.  Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Mat. 5:17-19).  While he calls his disciples to obedience, he does not leave open the option of obeying the Law apart from him.  We saw above what sort of righteousness the Pharisees produced when they wrested the law of sabbath from the hands of Jesus.  And so he calls us all to a righteousness which “exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” (5:20).  The righteousness which exceeds is precisely the righteousness of Christ.  It is the Law of Christ, for there is no Law apart from him.

Six times Jesus points to the Law and six times he joins it to himself.  “You have heard that it was said … But I say to you …”  We may not separate Jesus’ word–for that is what Torah is–from Jesus.  When we separate the word from the Word we get an inferior righteousness and “whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (5:19).  Jesus insists that the word is the word of God.  It is therefore an expression of himself.  We may not read the word of God without remembering the God who spoke it, the God who “makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (5:44).  And so we realize that God’s word is no word if it is severed from himself.  It is what it is only insofar as it seen as an expression of Christ who is himself an expression of the will of God.  So the word of God and the Word of God call us to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48).

Listen to Him
The disciples would need to learn this lesson again and again.  The words of Moses and Elijah are no words at all unless they are seen as the very words of Christ.  “Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.  And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.  Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.  Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’  While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him.”  When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.  But Jesus came and touched them saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.’  And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.’ ” (17:1-8).  It is not that Moses and Elijah and Jesus present different voices.  They all speak the word of God, but only Jesus is the Word of God.  This lesson they had to learn.  They had to learn that to read Moses was to read the word’s of the Beloved Son.  They had to learn that to hear Elijah was to hear Jesus.  Whenever they listen to Moses and Elijah they are to listen to Jesus.  “Listen to him” said the voice from the cloud.  And the disciples “saw no one except Jesus.”  There is no other to see.  All words are to be seen as the Word.  There is no one else.

Jesus the Word of God
If we want to know the word of God we are not permitted to listen to any other voice than Jesus.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being … And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1-3, 14).  Whatever God said, Jesus is always what he meant.  “He is the self-expression of the Father–what the Father has to say.  And there never was a time when He was not saying it.”3

Walk to Emmaus
After the incarnation we may not read the Old Testament in any way other than Christologically.  Jesus made this clear to two disciples on a walk they shared to Emmaus.  After they expressed their disappointment at Jesus’ crucifixion he said to them, “‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!  Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’  Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Luke 24:25-27).  This is not to say that Jesus picked out a bit of scripture from Moses here and a bit from the prophets there and said, “Yes, these are prophecies of me.”  Rather, he shows that it is all about him, from beginning to end.  How could it be otherwise?  He is the Word of God.  There is no word without Jesus in it.  We may not separate the scriptures from Jesus else we fall under his condemnation.  “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life” (John 5:39a).  No!  There is no life at all in the scripture unless we see that they are connected to him who has life in himself (cf. 5:26).  “And it is they that testify of me”, he says.  “Yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (5:39b-40).  It is in Jesus that we find life.  And so, scripture apart from Jesus is no life at all.  If we separate the word of God from the Word of God we make it a dead letter.  It can only kill.  But if in the word of God we see Jesus and listen to him we find that we have life, and that which is life indeed.

All Things In Him, Through Him, and For Him
The incarnation did not only transform the way we see and hear the Old Testament.  It must by necessity transform the way that we see and hear the world.  Just as we do not know what the Old Testament means apart from Jesus so we do not know what the world means apart from him.  Because as the incarnate Word he is the mediator between God and Man (cf. 1 Tim. 2:5), he is also the mediator between Man and the world.  “For in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers–all things have been created through him and for him.  He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together … For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:15-20).  We no longer have immediate access to the world.  To have such immediate access is to abuse it, to see it askew.  To attempt to grasp the world apart from Christ is violence and deception.  The world must be shaped by him and reinterpreted through him.  There is no world apart from him.

“We must face up to the truth that the call of Christ does set up a barrier between man and his natural life.  But this barrier is no surly contempt for life, no legalistic piety, it is the life which is life indeed, the gospel, the person of Jesus Christ. By virtue of his incarnation he has come between man and his natural life.  There can be no turning back, for Christ bars the way.  By calling us he has cut us off from all immediacy with the things of the world.  He wants to be the center, through him alone all things shall come to pass.  He stands between us and God, and for that very reason he stands between us and all other men and things.  He is the Mediator, not only between God and man, but between man and man, between man and reality.  Since the whole world was created through him and unto him (John 1.3; 1 Cor. 8.6; Heb. 1.2), he is the sole Mediator in the world.  Since his coming man has no immediate relationship of his own any more to anything, neither to God nor to the world; Christ wants to be the mediator … There can only be a complete breach with the immediacies of life: the call of Christ brings us as individuals face to face with the Mediator … For the Christian the only God-given realities are those he receives from Christ.  What is not given us through the incarnate Son is not given us by God.”4

We may no longer see the poor, we must see Christ. We may no longer see our enemies, we can only see Jesus. We cannot see our rights but only God’s gifts. We do not see our families, instead we see the Church, which is Christ’s body. We may not see the world unless in it we see the glory of Christ and his handiwork, otherwise we are blind and there is no health in us. We must all be able to say, “I believe in [Christ] as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see [him], but because by [him] I see everything else.”5

 

©M. Benfield 2017


1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 123.
2. Herbert Danby, Trans., Mishnah, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2013), Aboth 3.5, p.450. Another occasion where Jesus places himself in the place of the Torah is Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them” vis a vis Mishnah, Aboth, 3.6, “R. Halafta b. Dosa of Kefar Hanania said: If ten men sit togehter and occupy themselves in [Torah], the Divine Presence [The Shekinah] rests among them, for it is written God standeth in the congregation of God … And whence [do you learn this] even of two [people]? Because it is written, Then they that feared the Lord spake one with another: and the Lord hearkened, and heard.”
3. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 173-174.
4. Bonhoeffer, 95-97.
5. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, “Is Theology Poetry?”, (New York: Harper Colloins, 2001), 140.

“You Brood of Vipers”: Why I Don’t Talk Like Jesus

 

We ought to imitate Jesus.  What else does it mean to be a Christian if not “a follower of Jesus”?  Whatever comes below it should not be said of me that I am not interested in following Jesus or that I am encouraging others not to be like him.

So what do I mean?  Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks often says that he did not trust others to summarize his book “The Great Partnership”, so he did it himself.  Similarly, because I do not trust others to summarize this article I will do it myself.  The message that follows intends to demonstrate only this: One’s actions may not be judged separately from him.

 

White People and the “N-Word”
It has become conventional wisdom that the black community is allowed to say the “N-Word” whenever they want, but white people never are.  The word itself cannot be described as friendly or pejorative apart from the person who says it.  The reason white people cannot say the “N-Word” is simply because we are white.1  Here, at least, society acknowledges that one’s actions may not be judged separately from him. What a person does must be considered in light of who that person is.  Who does it is just as important (perhaps more important?) as what they do.  It is the relationship between those two that determines the meaning of what they do.  I call this ethical montage.

Ethical Montage
If you look up the definition of montage it will tell you that it is the process of piecing together separate pieces of pictures, text, or music to create a new composite whole.  It may, however, also describe the effect of the composition.  By juxtaposing separate bits of art one actually changes the meaning or affect that each of those bits would have separate from the whole.

A fantastic contemporary example of this is the Fearless Girl statue.  In order to appreciate the Fearless Girl you must first appreciate the Charging Bull or what is sometimes called the Wall Street Bull.  Wall Street is home to the two largest stock-exchanges in the world.  Wall Street is itself a symbol of wealth, finance, even greed.  The Charging Bull is a statue in this district which symbolizes financial optimism and prosperity.  This is so because a “bull market”, in contrast to a “bear market”, describes a market of generally rising prices.  So, the Wall Street Bull is a portent of such a future.

The Fearless Girl is a statue of a small Latina girl with her hands on her hips confidently, almost defiantly, facing the Charging Bull, and intentionally mimics the style of the latter.  This makes them appear as an intentional whole instead of separate pieces.  The statue was installed on March 7, 2017, the day before International Women’s Day.  It was commissioned by an organization which invests in capitalization companies which rank highest in gender diversity.  The plaque which accompanies the statue reads, “Know the power of women in leadership.  SHE makes a difference.”  That “SHE” is in all capitals indicates that it is not only a reference to the gender of the statue but also to the NASDAQ ticker symbol for the fund.2

The important thing for our discussion is the interplay between the two statues.  Fearless Girl is partially dependent upon Charging Bull for its meaning.  Even more significant is how Fearless Girl actually alters the meaning of Charging Bull.  Whereas Charging Bull alone is a symbol of prosperity, it becomes a symbol of the male domination of the market when it is seen in conjunction with Fearless Girl.

It is also interesting that the juxtaposition of the two pieces had the effect of altering the status of Fearless Girl from that intended by the artists and commissioners.  While it had intentional feminine symbolism it was also intended as an advertisement.  By being paired with Charging Bull its meaning is both contracted and expanded.  It is contracted because its symbolic power in relation to gender equality is so overpowering that most people don’t even know it was an advertisement.  Its meaning as an advertisement is lost all together.  Its meaning is also expanded by its relationship to Charging Bull.  A colleague of NASDAQ said, “[I]t is 100% an advertisement, but perhaps it is on its way to transcending that label.”  One wonders whether it would have been such a powerful symbol if it had been erected in Des Moines, Iowa or Santa Fe, New Mexico.  To defy such a powerful symbol as the Charging Bull requires a symbol just as powerful.  By placing them so close to one another the statue claims for itself a power comparable to the Bull, a power it likely would not have had if it were any other place.  So, not only did Fearless Girl change the meaning of Charging Bull, but, by its relation to such a prominent figure as Charging Bull, the Fearless Girl has superseded its existence as an advertisement to become a symbol of gender equality.  The meaning of both pieces have been altered by their relationship to one another.  It is a sort of contextual alchemy that not everyone is happy about.3

When this contextual alchemy is considered in ethics I label it ethical montage.  To an earlier example, “black” is an acceptable description of a person.  One might be tempted to draw the conclusion that because etymologically “nigga” derives from “niger”, the Latin word for “black”, that it would also be an acceptable address.  The reality, however, is that the “N-Word” is inextricably bound up in a context of hate, oppression, and dehumanization.  Words are not their etymologies, they are their use.  Words derive their meaning from their contexts, social as well as linguistic.  This is why it is a term of friendly address in one community and a pejorative term in another community.  The speech cannot be judged apart from the speaker.  To separate them is to falsify them.

The Grammar of Ethics
I’ve called it ethical montage and contextual alchemy.  We might also consider it in terms of a grammar of ethics.

It is a mistake to isolate a word from a context and say that word “means” so and so. This is because words don’t “mean” anything apart from a meaningful context.  You would be hard pressed to find a word that means only one thing.  Language is piled upon and loaded with meanings which it accumulated from this culture or that one, from this situation or that historical event.  It’s used figuratively here and technically there.  We may be able to say something like, “This word usually means” this or that.  But it would be very hard (impossible?) to speak in universals when it comes to the meanings of words.  A word with one meaning is likely to be brand new, and it won’t be long before it accrues other meanings on top of it.  We do not isolate a word from a sentence and then judge its meaning.  It has no meaning apart from the sentence.

In the same way we should not isolate actions from their context and then judge their meaning.  That context, as I have argued, is provided by the person and his situatedness.  He is a particular person at a particular time in a particular role within a particular community performing a particular action.  That same action performed by a different person at a different time in a different role within a different community could mean something entirely different, just as one word may mean different things in different contexts.

To illustrate, consider women who dress differently.  One woman dressing chastely means, “I hate sex.  I want to distance myself as far as possible from any sort of sexual overtone.”  Another woman doing the same thing means, “I do not want to have sex with you.”  Still another woman means, “I think about sex all the time and I assume you do too.  Even the slightest bit of skin may be inflammatory, so I cover it up.”  The same action, i.e. dressing chastely, may mean either that one hates sex or loves it.  One cannot know unless one knows the person.  Other women may dress with a low neck and a high skirt and also mean different things.  One may mean, “I need money and I’m willing to do whatever I need to get it.”  Another means, “I feel confident.”  Still another means, “Sex never crossed my mind.  I can’t imagine a world in which men might see me as a sexual object and so my body, I assume, will not be the subject of fantasy.”  The same action means different things depending upon who performs it.  While revealing clothing may mean that one is obsessed with sex it may also mean that sex isn’t a consideration at all.  We cannot judge a particular action apart from its ethical-grammatical context.  We have to admit that we don’t know what an action means unless we know something about the person, their history, and their social context.  We may be able to say “what this usually means is” so and so.  But are we sure that meaning is universal?  Likely not.  Seen in this light grammar itself becomes training in ethics.

The Problem With Morals
The very language of “morals” was an invention of an era whose chief goal was to toss off the traditions of their forebears.  That is, they attempted to separate themselves from their historical context.  Beginning with Francis Bacon and René Descartes, the thinkers of the Enlightenment period sought to establish a system of knowledge apart from the received tradition of their ancestors.  Following them, and influenced by them, came men like David Hume and Immanuel Kant who attempted to establish a system of moral justification separate from religious tradition.  The invention of the word “moral” parallels their efforts.

“Consider one very striking fact: in the culture of the Enlightenment the first language of educated discourse was no longer Latin, but it remained learning’s second language.  In Latin, as in ancient Greek, there is no word correctly translated by our word ‘moral’ [i.e. the moral of a story]; or rather there is no such word until our word ‘moral’ is translated back into Latin.  Certainly ‘moral’ is the etymological descendant of ‘moralis.’  But ‘moralis’, like its Greek predecessor ‘êthikos’–Cicero invented ‘moralis’ to translate the Greek word in the De Fato–means ‘pertaining to character’ where a man’s character is nothing other than his set dispositions to behave systematically in one way or another, to lead one particular kind of life.  The early uses of ‘moral’ in English translate the Latin and move to its use as a noun where ‘the moral’ of any literary passage is the practical lesson that it teaches.  In these early uses ‘moral’ contrasts neither with such expressions as ‘prudential’ or ‘self-interested’ nor with such expressions as ‘legal’ or ‘religious’.  The word to which it is closest in meaning is perhaps simply ‘practical’.”4

So “moral” no longer means a habit of goodness but a rule that says this or that action is good or bad.  The significance of this linguistic shift is that it is the first evidence of evaluating a particular action apart from one’s “set dispositions to behave systematically in one way or another.”  Just as some attempt to define words apart from sentences they attempted to establish a system whereby we might judge an action apart from a person.

But how are we supposed to judge an action apart from the character of the actor?  The Enlightenment sought to do so through reason.  “It is of the essence of reason that it lays down principles which are universal, categorical and internally consistent.  Hence a rational morality will lay down principles which both can and ought to be held by all men, independent of circumstances and conditions, and which could consistently be obeyed by every rational agent on every occasion.”5

Immanuel Kant has especially had an influence on how we think about morals.  “Most ethics since Kant has sought to be democratic.  Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’ underwrote the assumption that all people could be moral without training since they had available to them all they needed insofar as they were rational.”6  That is, one does not have to be good in order to do the right thing.  He needs only to be rational.

This era effectively produced the separation of morality from ethics, where ethics focuses upon the production of good people and morality centers upon good rules known by reason.

Can a Liar Tell the Truth?
The shift I have attempted to describe above may not yet be clear so it will be helpful to illustrate it.  In order to do so we ask the question, “Can a liar tell the truth?”  If actions may be judged separate from one’s character then a liar should be able to tell the truth.  If it is the case that actions cannot be judged apart from one’s character then a liar cannot tell the truth.

It will, of course, be easy to raise objections.  The reason is that most people are not well established liars.  They are mixed bags of goodness and badness, vice and virtue.  As such we live on a continuum between the two.  For the moment–this ambiguity will be addressed later–allow that the liar here considered is a consistently bad fellow.

Just the other day I watched a television show which takes place in a prison.  During a riot the alarm goes.  It’s rather annoying so one of the inmates, who has studied electricity, wants to clip a wire and turn off the alarm.  She has with her one of the staff of the prison who is notoriously unkind to the inmates.  He also happens to be the one who teaches electricity.  The inmate has difficulty deciding which wire to cute.  She is torn between the red wire and the blue wire (aren’t they always?).  She asks the staff member which she should cut to which he responds very disinterestedly, “Blue.”  She gives him a sideways glance and then cuts the red wire.  The power goes out and the alarm continues.  The man says, “See?  I told you.  Blue.”  She then turns to the fellow and berates him.

This is a very clever move.  The humor of the moment depends upon us recognizing the deception in his answer.  When he says “Blue” what he means is “Cut the red one.”  But it’s a clever move because when she gets angry for cutting the wrong wire he can always defend himself by saying, “What?  It’s not my fault.  I told you the truth.”  Still, we sympathize with the inmate because we know, as she did, that even his “truth” was intended to deceive.  Remember, words are their use.  If, then, the use of the word was to deceive, even though it corresponded to reality, can we really call that truth?  It seems that a liar cannot tell the truth, even when he is truth-telling.  We cannot judge his speech apart from him.

Another example comes from the Lion King.  As Scar tries to convince Simba to go to the Elephant Graveyard he says, “An Elephant Graveyard is no place for a prince.”  That is true, and those same words coming from Simba’s father, Mufasa, would mean something different.  Mufasa would mean, “Stay away from the Elephant Graveyard.”  Scar, however, means exactly the opposite.  He means, “Go to the Elephant Graveyard.  I have a trap set for you.”  And that is exactly what Simba does.  Even though Scar’s words correspond with reality the use to which he puts the words is not an honest use.  He intends to trap and deceive.  It cannot, therefore, be called truth.  Again, this is an exceptionally clever way to lie.  When one questions the morality of the liar he can always defend himself by saying, “But I told the truth.  I told him to stay away from the Elephant Graveyard.”  A pure lie which masquerades as the truth is the ultimate invention.

We can witness this phenomenon in other areas of life.  Imagine a couple who have been married for 35 years.  The last 15 years have been miserable.  They hardly talk.  They sleep in different beds.  And who could blame them?  She is intensely critical.  He is distant emotionally, and often geographically.  He would rather stay out with his friends than be at home with his family.  But, the couple stays together “for the kids.”  Eventually, however, he decides that he doesn’t want to continue to live in such a loveless marriage.  That evening the husband comes home immediately after work and he brings a dozen roses.  The wife, seeing the roses in a vase on the dining room table, grabs them and tosses them in the trash.  We might be tempted to say, “How rude!”  But can we blame her?  The past 15 years with her husband have been nothing but manipulation and emotional abuse.  Words, as well as actions, are interpreted within a context.  The husband has created a context in which his wife is left with no choice but to interpret apparent kindness as a trick.  How can she be sure that this gesture is not an attempt at further manipulation?  For that matter, how can he be sure that his gift is not an effort at manipulation?  Is he sure that he is not perpetuating the behavior he has practiced for more than a decade?  He did not become a bad person over night, nor will he become a good one.  Indeed, the moment she tosses the flowers in the trash he goes on a tirade, storms out of the house, and goes to grab drinks with his buddies where he complains about his wife’s ingratitude.  Of course his buddies pat his back consolingly because, they think, his anger is completely justified.  He has achieved the liar’s perfect invention.  Emotional manipulation and abuse which masquerades as kindness and love.  Seemingly, it cannot be objected to without appearing ungrateful.  The point is, the action, i.e. a gift of roses, may mean “I love you” or it may mean “I want something from you” or something else.  The action must be judged within its ethical-grammatical context.

Again, consider the fact that certain messages mean more to our children when they come from someone other than their parents.  Even if its the exact same message.  This happens because parents have a particular relationship with their children which provides the interpretive context for the words that they use.  Children are not sure if what their parents tell them is the truth or a deceptive attempt at control.  Further, parents are not always sure what they mean when they speak to their children.  Are they really telling the truth?  Or are they trying to subtly deceive, manipulate, and control?  Encouragement, as well as criticism, is often better received from people outside the family.  The same is true between spouses.  There are certain things that I cannot say to my wife precisely because of the relationship that we have with one another, because of the social context that I have created.  Even if what I say is “true”, the ethical montage created by the interplay between our history and the words I speak transforms my message into a power play with the goal of controlling her or exhibiting my superiority in some way.  The question of truth is always bound up in the character of the speaker.  The very same words coming from another may mean something different than they would if they came from me.  My very person provides an ethical-grammatical context different from that of another person.

The difficulty of life together, whether that’s in a neighborhood, a family, a marriage, or a friendship is that most of us are not so bad as Scar, or the immoral staff of the prison.  Most of us have better marriages than the one described above.  We are ambiguous people.  This makes it even harder to discern whether or not someone is telling the truth.  If a person were bad through and through we could know that they are lying.  But because of our ambiguity we are never quite sure.  So we oscillate in our relationships between trust and doubt.  We are never quite sure if the other person is telling us the truth.  Even worse, we are never quite sure if we are telling the truth.  It turns out that telling the truth is a significant moral achievement.

How God Became “Nice”
It is strange that the world in which John 3:16 is displayed by every bumper sticker, tattoo, and football fan is the same world in which Jesus’ love is separated from his person, particularly as reflected in his crucifixion.  Doesn’t John 3:16 say that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”?  Yet, somehow, we have effectively separated “love” from the one who loves.  And because actions must be interpreted in relation to their actors it should come as no surprise that separating God’s love from God has resulted in interpreting “God is love” to mean “God is nice.”  Without the ethical-grammatical context by which we understand love, a context provided by the person of Jesus, we may define love many different ways.  Because we have bought into the idea that words and actions have meaning apart from any context  we may think “love” means something like tolerance or niceness.  We then insert the definition of love which we have created apart from the lover and then insert that into the Bible.  As a result we read that God is love and we think that means that God is tolerant.  We think God is nice.

It is only when we refuse to see love apart from God that we realize what love means.  Love means the cross.  Love means the willingness to be vulnerable for the good of others.  Love means willingness to suffer painful death on behalf of another.  It also means that love is confrontational.  The cross is not a sentimental gesture.  The cross was a sacrifice as well as a conflict.  Insofar as Jesus died “for our sins” he died in opposition to our sins.  He died to fight against our sins.  He died to defeat them.  He died to save us, and salvation is a painful process, for us as well as for him.  Love is not “nice.”  Love is not “tolerant.”  Love is full of conflict.  But the conflict of love cannot be separated from the lover who would rather die than see you destroy yourself.  Love can only truly be expressed when it is paired with such a person.  And that’s why speaking the truth in love is a nearly impossible achievement.

“You Brood of Vipers”: Why I Don’t Talk Like Jesus
You can’t have “good southern preaching” without saying somebody is going to hell.  Or so it seems.  Southern Baptists, revivalist Pentecostals, conservative Churches of Christ, and others with strong roots in the south have a reputation for preaching fire and brimstone.  In our culture it’s considered good form to name the “whitewashed tombs”, the “false teachers”, the “blind guides”, the “hypocrites”, the “den of vipers.”  And if people object the preacher will abruptly inform them that Jesus spoke like that and if their “snowflake” disposition can’t handle it then they’re probably headed to hell too.  It’s the perfect invention.  Meanness masquerading as Christianity.

It’s difficult to object.  It’s a basic tenet of Christianity that Christians are supposed to be like Jesus.  It would seem to follow that if Jesus did it then we can too.  But hopefully by this time it is clear why this is not so.  Jesus’ actions cannot be separated from his character.  Jesus is literally willing to be crucified rather than see one of his brothers destroy himself.  And whatever else he does cannot be separated from that fact.  The cross is the central expression of who he is.

What would it mean to actually imitate Christ’s goodness in this regard?  Have you ever known someone so good that he or she could confront anyone and that person would thank him/her after?  I can only think of one, maybe two people I know who can accomplish that feat.  Their entire lives are characterized by a settled sort of compassion, a genuine holiness.  When they speak, people listen.  If they speak a critical word you can trust that it is a necessary word.  And more than being necessary, you can trust that such people have within them a wellspring of life gushing up from the power of the Holy Spirit, filling them with love and joy and peace.  There is no way to interpret their speech in an ungodly fashion.  Whatever they say means, “I care about you.”  Whatever they say is fitting.  Of them the proverb is true, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Pro. 27:6, KJV).

“There is a story told by Drury, a friend of arguably the most important philosopher of the last century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, about a walk he was taking with Wittgenstein … Wittgenstein, who more than any other philosopher helped us recover the essential relation between what we say and how we live, on a walk with Drury passed a street evangelist preaching to all who passed by.  Drury reports Wittgenstein remarked, ‘If he really meant what he was shouting he would not use that tone of voice.'”7

That is the love of Jesus.  We cannot judge Jesus’ words apart from him.  They are only good because they come from him.  Anyone who would possess the ability to imitate his words must imitate his life.  We cannot have it any other way.  If I were to say the same words that Jesus said they would mean something different.  I would mean, “I want to destroy you.”  Jesus means, “I would rather die than see you destroy yourself.”  And that’s why I don’t talk like Jesus.  The truth is, I’m not good enough to be mean.

 

©M. Benfield 2017


1. Dictionary.com actually includes this “Usage Alert” above its definition of “Nigga.” “Nigga is used mainly among African Americans, but also among other minorities and ethnicities, in a neutral or familiar way and as a friendly term of address. It is also common in rap music. However, nigga is taken to be extremely offensive when used by outsiders. Many people consider this word to be equally as offensive as nigger. The words nigger and nigga are pronounced alike in certain dialects, and so it has been claimed that they are one and the same word.” Notice, the word is considered “a friendly term of address” as well as “extremely offensive.” What makes the difference is who uses it. The speech cannot be judged apart from the speaker. Available at : http://www.dictionary.com/browse/nigga ; Accessed 10 June 2017.
2. http://www.nasdaq.com/article/the-fearless-girl-statue-isnt-a-symbol-it-is-an-advertisement-cm766282 ; Accessed 10 June 2017.
3. Ibid. The creator of Charging Bull is not at all pleased with the appearance of Fearless Girl.
4. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd ed., (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press, 1984), 38.
5. Ibid, 45.
6. Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens, 25th Anniversary Edition (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014), 98.
7. Stanley Hauerwas, Working with Words, “Sent: The Church is Mission”, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 168-69.

Learning to Speak Christian: Apologetics Without Apology

 

In my previous article I talked about my ongoing education in learning to tell the truth, specifically when it comes to talking about God.  It would seem as if the approach I offered would rule out any sort of apologetics, or preclude the possibility of speaking to anyone who does not already have faith in God.  If we are to believe in order to understand, how are we to speak to those who neither believe nor understand?  When I wrote that article I was aware of these possible objections but I did not think it appropriate to address them at that time.  Since that publication a dear friend shrewdly raised these very questions, so I have thought it necessary to say something about a thoroughly Christian apologetics, an apologetics without apology.

The Position and the Problem
The God who is Trinity, the God we meet in Jesus Christ, is not the God we could have guessed.  There is no way, apart from revelation, to determine that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  If we were to meet an unbeliever and articulate an argument for God beginning with such facts as the existence of the world, Man’s rationality, or Man’s conscience, we may be able to convince them of a sort of Higher Power, but that ambiguous Higher Power would not be the God of the Bible.

Further, when one sets out on the task of argumentation he must make every step sure.  If his foundation is shaky then whatever he erects upon that foundation will easily crumble.  Now, if God exists that would make him the determinative reality, not Man.  This means that we could not know what creation is, who we are, or even what it means to be human without him.  As a result, if God exists, then to begin with creation or Man, apart from God, would be to begin with creation/Man misunderstood.  As such, the foundation upon which we built our further argumentation would be shaky.  Whatever our conclusions from these misunderstood premises, they cannot help but be skewed.  In order even to understand the premises that would prove God–like Man and creation–one must begin with God or else his “facts” are misunderstood. “The man who begins to think without the proper first principles goes mad; he begins to think at the wrong end.”1  So, it would seem that in order to have firm premises we must assume that very thing which we are trying to prove, and that is circular reasoning.  What, then, is a Christian to do?  Does he forfeit apologetics all together?  Does he abandon the unbeliever?  If not, what apologetics could there be without apology?

The Logician and the Mystic
The problem with unbelief, it turns out, is not that it is unreasonable.  A false thing may still be a reasonable thing.  Imagine coming upon a man with an odd sort of iron box.  Upon inquiry you find out that the box is sound proof and, to your horror, you also learn that there is a cat inside.  Because you cannot hear the cat inside you ask the man whether the cat is alive, to which he responds, “I don’t know.”  The important thing to note here is that the ideas of a living cat inside the box and a dead cat inside the box are both reasonable.  There is nothing inherently contradictory in either idea.  But only one can be true.  The cat is either alive or dead.  But the false idea, whichever it happens to be, is still reasonable.

When you discuss things with an unbeliever you will find a reasonableness about him.  I have never been able to offer an objection to an intelligent unbeliever that he could not answer.  You will find that the instructed unbeliever is imminently reasonable.  But if he is so reasonable, what went wrong?  Why does he not believe?  It is time to consider that the problem is not with the reason.  Perhaps it is something else.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “[R]eason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.  Imagination … is not the cause of truth, but its condition.”2  If this is true, and I believe it is, then a healthy imagination is the necessary pre-condition for knowing truth.  Reason, too, is necessary, but without proper imagination it will run round in a very reasonable but very narrow circle and thereby exclude the truth which stands outside of it.

G.K. Chesterton pictures it this way:

“The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory.  Or, to speak more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable; this may be observed specially in the two or three commonest kinds of madness.  If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all men deny that they are conspirators; which is exactly what conspirators would do.  His explanation covers the facts as much as yours.  Or if a man says that he is the rightful King of England, it is no complete answer to say that the existing authorities call him mad; for if he were King of England that might be the wisest thing for the existing authorities to do.  Or if a man says that he is Jesus Christ, it is no answer to tell him that the world denies his divinity; for the world denied Christ’s.

Nevertheless he is wrong.  But if we attempt to trace his error in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as we had supposed.  Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle.  A small circle is quite infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large.  In the same way the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large … Now, speaking quite externally and empirically, we may say that the strongest and most unmistakable mark of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction.”3

So it is that the problem is not with the reason. Therefore, to try to overcome the unbeliever by reason is to aim at the wrong target. That is not where the problem lies. Chesterton continues, “In these cases it is not enough that the unhappy man should desire truth; he must desire health … A man cannot think himself out of mental evil; for it is actually the organ of thought that has become diseased, ungovernable, and, as it were, independent. He can only be saved by will or faith.”4 Of course Chesterton believes that the Christian is reasonable and not irrational, but its grounds are more than that. “[I]t can be put much more precisely in more general and even aesthetic terms.”5 And with the appeal to aesthetics we have an appeal to the imagination.  Chesterton, like Lewis, also considers a healthy imagination a necessary pre-condition for the apprehension of truth.

C. Stephen Evans is an expert on the thought of Soren Kierkegaard. On one occasion he summarizes Kierkegaard, again pointing to the imagination, “Religious faith has declined among intellectuals, not because they’re so smart, but because their imaginations are so weak and their emotional lives are so impoverished. If it’s true that many intellectuals don’t believe in God it’s either because they don’t want to believe or else it is because the natural human capacities that ought to allow them to recognize God at work in their lives have atrophied, they’re no longer working properly.”6

If we play the logic game we are bound to go round and round in circles. While Christianity is reasonable we will find atheists to be just as reasonable, though with a peculiar dryness. Perhaps it’s time to learn to play a different game. Given the choice between being a logician or a mystic, always be a mystic. “Mysticism keeps men sane.”7

A Story That Will Make You Believe in God
The book Life of Pi by Yann Martel offers itself as “a story that will make you believe in God.”8 That is a significant claim in itself. It is not an argument to make you believe in God, or a proof, but a story, and stories breed imagination.  Life of Pi tells the story of Piscine Patel, or Pi.  He is a young boy who grew up in Pondicherry, India, a French colonial settlement, where his family owned and operated a zoo.  He is raised a Hindu but quickly embraces Christianity as well as Islam.  As he recounts his interest in each of these religions you find that he was not “convinced” of any of them by argument.  It was the story, the practice, and the imagination of these religions which drew him in.  He liked them all so much that he refused to pick just one.

Despite his intensely religious character, Pi is able to sympathize with the atheist.  It is the agnostic which he despises most.  He says of them, “I can well imagine an atheist’s last words: ‘White, white! L-L-Love!  My God!’–and the deathbed leap of faith.  Whereas the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeastless factuality, might try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying, ‘Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain,’ and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story.”9

Pi’s father eventually decides to sell the animals and move to Canada. En route to Canada they find themselves and the animals aboard the Tsimtsum which sinks soon after departure.  The majority of the book recounts Pi’s survival at sea in a small life raft in the company of a rat, a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, and a full grown Bengal tiger. And that’s not even the most fantastic part of the story. During his sea voyage he lives for a time upon a floating island full of meerkats, an island which turns acidic and carnivorous at night. In the end Pi reaches land. As he recovers in the hospital from emaciation he is interrogated by two men from the Maritime Department in the Japanese Ministry of Transport about the sinking of the Tsimtsum.

Pi tells his story in great detail, complete with zoo animals and mysterious carnivorous floating islands.  The men find his story quite laughable.  They refuse to believe that he existed so long at sea with a Bengal tiger.  Pi then says, “Love is hard to believe, ask any lover.  Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist.  God is hard to believe, ask any believer.  What is your problem with hard to believe.”  “We’re just being reasonable”, they say, to which Pi responds, “So am I!  I applied my reason at every moment.  Reason is excellent for getting food, clothing and shelter.  Reason is the very best tool kit.  Nothing beats reason for keeping tigers away.  But be excessively reasonable and you risk throwing out the universe with the bathwater.”10

The inspectors continue to plead with him to be “reasonable.” To give them “just the facts.” After which follows this beautiful exchange:

Mr. Okamoto: “But for the purposes of our investigation, we would like to know what really happened.”
“What really happened?”
“Yes.”
“So you want another story?”
“Uhh … no. We would like to know what really happened.”
“Doesn’t the telling of something always become a story?”
“Uhh … perhaps in English. In Japanese a story would have an element of invention in it. We don’t want invention. We want the ‘straight facts’, as you say in English.”
“Isn’t telling about something–using words, English or Japanese–already something of an invention? Isn’t just looking upon this world already something of an invention?”
“Uhh …”
“The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn’t that make life a story?”
“Ha! Ha! Ha! You are very intelligent, Mr. Patel.”
Mr. Chiba: [In Japanese] “What is he talking about?”
[In Japanese] “I have no idea.”
Pi Patel: “You want words that reflect reality?”
“Yes.”
“Words that do not contradict reality?”
“Exactly.”
“But tigers don’t contradict reality.”
“Oh please, no more tigers.”
“I know what you want. You want a story that won’t surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won’t make you see higher or further or differently. You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want dry, yeastless factuality.”
“Uhh …”
“You want a story without animals.”
“Yes!”11

Pi proceeds to re-narrate the story. Most of the elements are the same. The chief difference is that all references to animals are replaced with people. Those things which happened to the animals now happen to people. The animals that die are now people that die. What the animals did, now the people do. After this retelling of the story the inspectors are no nearer to understanding what contributed to the sinking of the Tsimtsum. Convinced that the interview is fruitless they prepare to leave. Just then Pi takes the opportunity to ask them a question.

“But before you go, I’d like to ask you something.”
“Yes?”
The Tsimtsum sank on July 2nd, 1977.”
“Yes.”
“And I arrived on the coast of Mexico, the sole human survivor of the Tsimtsum, on February 14th, 1978.”
“That’s right.”
“I told you two stories that account for the 227 days in between.”
“Yes, you did.”
“Neither explains the sinking of the Tsimtsum.”
“That’s right.”
“Neither makes a factual difference to you.”
“That’s true.”
“You can’t prove which story is true and which is not. You must take my word for it.”
“I guess so.”
“In both stories the ship sinks, my entire family dies, and I suffer.”
“Yes, that’s true.”
“So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with the animals or the story without animals?”
Mr. Okamoto: “That’s an interesting question …”
Mr. Chiba: “The story with animals.”
Mr. Okamoto: [In Japanese] “Yes.” [Now in English] “The story with animals is the better story.”
Pi Patel: “Thank you. And so it goes with God.”12

No matter which way Pi narrates the story they are both impeccably reasonable. There is no internal contradiction in either story. One, however, consists of “dry, yeastless factuality” while the other is undoubtedly the “better story.” The appeal, then, comes not from its reasonableness but from its beauty. This, I believe, is what C.S. Lewis experienced as he began to read George MacDonald and other imaginative Christians, like J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams. By which he concluded, in a reinvention of a line from The Song of Roland, “Christians are wrong, but all the rest are bores.”13 Pi’s inspectors and Lewis were both gripped by the aesthetic of the stories before ever they wanted to consider their “reasonableness.” The stories, of course, are logically coherent, and that is important, but that moved them neither here nor there. What they really wanted–dare I say what they needed–was first a feast for the imagination.

Apologetics Without Apology
Stanley Hauerwas said, “The best apologetics is a good dogmatics.”14 This invites the question, “What would it look like if Christians did not think their duty to the world was to defend God but rather to be witnesses to the truth about God?” Instead of embroiling ourselves in “apologetic” conversations which are framed by talk of “nature” or “values”, which cannot be right because they are supposed to exist without reference to God, what if we simply told the truth about God? God is the creator become Man in Christ Jesus who empowers us by his Holy Spirit, not to be people of godless values, but to be people of holiness. That’s far more interesting. And that’s the rub.

When we forfeit the unique contours of the Christian Story we forfeit all of its beauty. Who wants to talk about nature and its endless recurrence of cause and effect? There’s nothing interesting about that. But what about a world that does not exist necessarily? What about a world that is dependent upon the God who made it? Life is no longer a necessity. Life is, in fact, not a “right” but a gift, and that’s exciting! Every day I am the recipient of a gift from a gracious God who would rather I exist than not to exist. The God who gives me life draws me into his own life by becoming one like me in Jesus Christ. Now that’s interesting indeed.

What makes statues interesting is that they have a definite shape. The curves go thusly and it is proportioned just so. If it were to relinquish its particular shape it would lose its beauty.  It would be a shapeless boulder, a mere blob of rock.  Definite shape and beauty are bound up together. When we forfeit the particular language of Christianity and adopt the language of the world by using their terms, terms like “religion”, “values”, “social contract”, “inalienable rights” and so on, we forfeit the particular shape of Christianity and with it all of its beauty. And it is that beauty which makes it attractive! Without distinctly Christian language we are left with “dry, yeastless factuality.” But Christianity is undoubtedly the “better story.” And so, what is necessary is an apologetics which is quintessentially Christian. What is needed is an apologetics without apology. It needs no defense. Its particular shape is its beauty and its beauty is its own argument. When we pronounce the True Story of the world, a story like no other, it exercises the imagination of those that would grasp it. And if that is where the weakness lies, in the imagination, then such an exercise of imagination is what strengthens the necessary organ of meaning, the pre-condition of truth. By meeting God in the truth he exercises the imagination and rehabilitates the atrophied muscle of imagination.  As unbelievers wrestle with the particular contours which constitute the inherent beauty of Christianity it sparks their imaginations and, by the grace of God, that spark can be fanned into the flame of full belief. If indeed we trust that God is the primary actor, and not us, then witnessing to the truth is what is necessary.  God is mediated through his word, not our apologetic inventions, and so acts upon the heart of the hearer.  The task before Christians is not to learn to speak the language of the world. To speak their language is to hoist the white flag of surrender. The beauty of Christianity cannot be separated from its distinct shape. Our best apologetics is a good dogmatics. If the church is to tell the truth, we must learn to speak Christian.15 Why would the world want to listen unless we are a people with something interesting to say? This means that apologetics cannot be separated from ethics. And when it comes to ethics, telling the truth is a good place to start.

©M. Benfield 2017


1. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009), 46.
2. C.S. Lewis, Bluspels and Flalansferes, available at: http://pseudepigraph.us/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/CSL-Bluspels-and-Flalansferes.pdf ; accessed 5 June 2017.
3. Chesterton, 34-35.
4. Ibid, 37.
5. Ibid, 38.
6. C. Stephen Evans, “Kierkegaard on Natural Theology: Why We Can Know There is a God Without Proofs”, a lecture delivered on behalf of The Institute for Faith & Learning at Baylor University. Available at: https://vimeo.com/129558415 ; accessed 30 May 2017.
7. Chesterton, 46.
8. Yann Martel, Life of Pi, (Orlando, Fl: Harcourt Publishing Co., 2001), p.x.
9. Ibid, 64.
10. Ibid, 297-298.
11. Ibid, 302-303.
12. Ibid, 316-317.
13. C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy/The Four Loves, (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 186.
14. Jonathan Lett gives this form of the quotation as he heard it in a class he took with Hauerwas himself. The paper is available here: https://www.academia.edu/8862455/Dogmatics_as_Apologetics_Theology_with_Barth_and_Hauerwas ;accessed 5 June 2017. This seems to be a form of Karl Barth’s quotation, “Respectable dogmatics could be good apologetics” as quoted in Hauerwas’ Without Apology: Sermons for Christ’s Church, (New York: Seabury Books, 2013), p.xiv.
15. I have taken the phrase “learn to speak Christian” from the title of Stanley Hauerwas’ book, Working With Words: On Learning to Speak Christian, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011).