Encountering Jesus

 

A Sermon
Presented to the Youth of the Broadway Church of Christ
Lubbock, TX
October 4, 2017

A Living Lord
Jesus is often tamed, no less in our churches.  I think, however, that we like it that way.  When we relegate Jesus to “the before time”, the “back then” we do not have to worry about him showing up today, right now.  When we confine him to stories bound in a book we do not have to worry about him making too many demands.  He becomes a static idea that we can manipulate and skirt around by mental and hermeneutic gymnastics.  But throughout history Christians have confessed their faith in a short summary called The Apostles Creed.  Within that creed there is a confession which reminds one of the most dangerous, terrifying, even rebellious things that we could ever say.  After confessing Jesus born of a virgin by the Holy Spirit, crucified under Pilate, and buried, we continue with this subversive confession: “On the third day he rose again.  He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”  Jesus is alive.  This means that he is active.  He still speaks.  He still shows up in the world.  He still meets us unexpectedly, and that’s a terrifying thought.

It’s terrifying because I can read about Jesus calling Peter, James, and John to leave their jobs to follow him and I remain untouched by that command (cf. Lk. 5:1-11).  “Jesus spoke to them”  we say.  And when we get to work interpreting the text we ask, “But what does it mean for us?” as if we are sure it means something different.  We transform this radical call to leave one’s livelihood and we dumb it down and tame it.  We read this passage and we say, “Well, obviously Jesus is not calling us to leave our jobs.  The text only means that we are supposed to have a kind of inner detachment from our work.  It is not to be our god.”  And so we allow ourselves to remain in our jobs and our lives more or less untouched.  That is because we are dealing with a text.  We are not dealing with a living Lord.  If Jesus were to appear to you and me as he appeared to Peter, James, and John there would be no escape.  Sitting in our boats with Jesus upon the shore, our interpretation could not save us.  When Jesus issues the command to leave behind our nets and become fishers of men it would do us no good to turn to our companions and say, “Worry not, friends.  He doesn’t really mean for us to leave our work.  The world needs fishermen too.  He only means for us to carry on our work in a new spirit.  We are to fish as if we fished not.  Our hearts are to be with Jesus while our hands are with our nets.”  Who could imagine Peter, James, and John saying such a thing?  And so we are comforted when we begin to think that Jesus will never meet us like he met them.

Or perhaps we read about Jesus meeting with the woman at the well in John 4.  We read about how Jesus revealed unto her all that she had ever done, and we breathe a sigh of relief that he will never meet us like that.  That was “back there”, “back then”, and now Jesus is way away in heaven.  We don’t have to worry about him meddling in our business today like he did in hers.  But we can only hide when we are hiding behind a text.  We can only take that kind of comfort if we forget that we are dealing with a living Lord.  If we thought that Jesus might actually appear to us, as he did to this woman, while we went about grocery shopping or going to the post-office, we might feel quite differently.  If I really thought that I might meet someone around the next corner who would reveal to me “everything I have ever done” (4:29), I might feel a little more timidity about this Jesus whom we worship.  But, thank goodness I’ll never meet him.  Or will I?

Very often, I think, we are like those children C.S. Lewis describes in his book Miracles.  “There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall?  There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (‘Man’s search for God!’) suddenly draw back.  Supposing we really found Him?  We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?”1 . We have been playing make believe. All this church stuff is fun, sure. But we never expected to actually meet Jesus. We never meant it to come to that. Why? Because then we might have to actually do something about it. Well, I’m here to tell you that he is exactly the God you have to deal with.

The Present Christ in the Powerful Spirit
Luke writes his gospel to one Theophilus.  He says, “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed” (1:1-4).  So we read on and we hear about all the grand things which we applaud and at which we stand amazed.  We read about the things which, while they are fantastic, we are a little glad that they are “back there.”

The disciples, however, felt a bit differently about Jesus’ presence being a thing of the past.  In his upper room discourse with his disciples they worried that he was going to leave them.  So much so that he had to offer them comfort.  “Do not let your hearts be troubled” he said (Jn. 14:1).  He continues, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you … Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.  You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.'” (14:18, 28).  Even though Christ was going away, we would not leave them orphans.  He would not leave them alone.  He would come to them again.  In fact, he says, it is even better for him to go away and come again.  “Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate [the Holy Spirit; 14:16, 17] will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (16:7).  After Jesus ascension he returns in the person of the Holy Spirit.  This is why he is able to say, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).  This is not metaphorical.  It isn’t the “pretty talk” of cliché bumper sticker religion.  He means it. He will be with us.  Literally.  Jesus is present with the believer by the Holy Spirit.  This is perhaps one of the reasons it was to our advantage that he “go away.”  While Jesus was upon earth his presence was confined by the space of his body.  When he was with Peter, James, and John upon the Mount of Transfiguration he was not with the other nine at the foot of the mountain.  But now in the person of the Holy Spirit he is present with all of us.

So as we continue to read we find that the living Lord is active indeed.  He’s still “doing stuff.”  Luke writes again to Theophilus, “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1, ESV).  Did you catch that?  His first book, the Gospel According to Luke, recorded all that Jesus began to do and to teach.  That means that he is still doing and teaching.  The crucified savior is the risen and ruling Lord.  This is what we mean when we confess, “On the third day he rose again.  He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”  His seat is a throne of authority from which he continues to act.  When Peter and John go to the temple and heal a lame man they confess that it was Jesus himself who healed him.  “And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you” (3:16).  When the retell the story to the authorities they say, “Let it be know to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth” (4:10).  After they are released they then pray to God and say these words, “And now, Lord, look at their hearts, and grant your servants to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus” (4:29, 30).  Still later Peter met a man name Aeneas who had been bedridden for 8 years with paralysis and he says to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you” (9:34).  If we were to watch all of these events we would see Peter healing and praying.  But if we want to know who is really working we have to look at Peter and see Jesus.  Peter doesn’t say to Aeneas , “I heal you” or even simply, “Be healed.”  He says, “Jesus Christ heals you.”  Jesus is still working in the world and he does it through his people, like he always has.

God With Us
When Jesus was born he was called Immanuel, which means “God With Us” (Mat. 1:23).  He is now and has always been that same God.  He does not leave us alone.  He is not “way away up there.”  He is present here and now in the church, his body on earth (cf. Col. 1:18; Eph. 5:29, 30).  That is our business in the world.  We must be Christ for the world.  Christ acts through us.  “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him” (2 Cor. 2:14).  Again, “For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh” (2 Cor. 4:11).  The church makes Christ visible to the world.  She is the sign that God is still “God With Us.”

 

The Freedom of Christ and the Hard of Heart
So it is that God is still with us.  He never left.  We may meet him, in flesh and blood, just as the apostles met him.  And he may meet us, just as he met the woman at the well and Zaccheaus.    How does this happen? We’ve already hinted at one way–i.e. in the chuch–and there are other ways as well, like prayer and scripture reading.  We must first mention a quick caveat.

Insofar as we are dealing with a person, not just a text or an idea, he has a will.  He is free. As a person Jesus may choose to appear or not, and that is not up to us.

“If you are a geologist studying rocks, you have to go and find the rocks.  They will not come to you, and if you go to them they cannot run away.  The initiative lies all on your side.  They cannot either help or hinder.  But suppose you are a zoologist and want to take photos of wild animals in their native haunts.  That is a bit different from studying rocks.  The wild animals will not come to you: but they can run away from you.  Unless you keep very quiet, they will.  There is beginning to be a tiny little trace of initiative on their side.  Now a stage higher; suppose you want to get to know a human person.  If he is determined not to let you, you will not get to know him.  You have to win his confidence.  In this case the initiative is equally divided–it takes two to make a friendship.  When you come to knowing God, the initiative lies on His side.  If He does not show Himself, nothing you can do will enable you to find Him.  And, in fact, He shows much more of Himself to some people than to others–not because He has favourites, but because it is impossible for Him to show Himself to a man whose whole mind and character are in the wrong condition.  Just as sunlight, though it has no favourites, cannot be reflected in a dusty mirror as clearly as in a clean one.”2

Two things should be noted: First, the disciplines which we are about to mention are not magic, nor are they science (which are more related than we like to admit). They are ways of listening. If there is nothing to hear then listening really hard will not help. Spiritual disciplines do not compel God to show up. As such, he may not show up when we want him to. That does not mean, however, that he does not or will not. It only means that he hasn’t yet. We should wait. It is something like what Gandalf says to Frodo when he appears in the Shire. Frodo says to him, “You’re late.” To which he responds, “A wizard is never late. Nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to.”3

Second, if we do not meet Jesus, or hear from him, the fault may be our own. Lewis says that light cannot be reflected in a dusty mirror. Jesus says, “For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and understand with their heart and turn–and I would heal them” (Mat. 13:15). If we have never expected God to show up, we cannot expect to have met him. Likewise, if we have never slowed down to listen, we ought not be surprised if we have not heard. There is a reason we are told to “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10).

Encountering Jesus
We mention here three ways by which we might encounter Jesus. First, in prayer. In prayer we ask for help. We ask for mercy and grace, and that is pictured as approaching the very throne of God. “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). When Isaiah approached the throne of God–which is identified as a vision of Christ (Jn. 12:36-41)–his life was changed forever. He saw himself in contrast to God’s holiness and he confessed, “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (Isa. 6:5). Not only did he see himself as he really is, but he was called to a mission in that same vision. When God asked “Who will go for us?” Isaiah responded, “Here am I; Send me!” (6:8). This is not unlike what happened when Peter came into Jesus presence in Luke 5. He confessed his sin and received a commission to become a fisher of men (5:1-11). So, we should be prepared for what may happen when through prayer we enter into the presence of God and approach the throne of grace. We may find ourselves confessing our sins or called to some far flung corner of the world. We never know what will happen or what Jesus might say. Remember, he is a person. This is a relationship. In relationships each responds to the other. And we should expect no less from Jesus.

We should also expect an answer to our prayers.  We should expect God to show up.  When David was exiled from Jerusalem because his son Absalom his trusted advisor, Ahithophel, was reported now to be in service of Absalom.  David immediately prays, “O LORD, I pray you, turn the counsel of Ahithophel into foolishness” (2 Sam. 15:31).  What happens then is no voice from heaven, nor does Ahithophel become a babbling idiot.  Still, what happens is no less an answer from God than a voice from the clouds.  “Hushai the Archite came to meet him with his coat torn and earth on his head.  David said to him, ‘If you go on with me, you will be a burden to me.  But if you return to the city and say to Absalom, “I will be your servant, O king; as I have been your father’s servant in time past, so now I will be your servant,” then you will defeat for me the counsel of Ahithophel'” (15:32-34).  David prays that God would turn Ahithophels counsel into foolishness and immediately God answers.  He sends Hushai the Archite to do just that.  When we say that we pray to God and we listen for an answer we do not mean that we hear voices from heaven, or voices in our head for that matter.  But we do mean that God is present.  Jesus is here.  And not only does he listen, but he responds.

There is a story told of Mother Angelica, founder of Eternal Word Television Network. When things were really getting off the ground with EWTN she wanted to expand things and she ordered an enormous satellite dish. She doesn’t have the money to pay for it but she orders it anyway. When the fellow arrives with the dish he says, “I’m supposed to ask you right away for the money. I’m not going to leave this thing here until we’re paid. It’s $600,000.” She says, “Give me one minute” and goes inside to the chapel and prays to God. She says something like, “Alright Lord, I thought you wanted me to have this things, so I ordered it. You better come through.” She leaves the chapel to go and tell the fellow that she doesn’t have the money. Just as she does one of the young nuns runs up to her and says, “Mother, Mother! There’ someone on the phone who wants to talk to you right away.” On a yacht, in the Bahamas, is some business man who had read some of her books and had admired her for quite some time. He said, “Something told me that I needed to send you $600,000.” To which she responds, “Wire it right away!”4 And so she gets the dish which you can still see to this day. When she prayed, God showed up. She expected an answer, and she got one.

Second, we meet Jesus in the reading of scripture.  In the Mishnah it says, “But if two sit together and words of the Law [are spoken] between them, the Divine Presence rests between them, as it is written, Then they that feared the Lord spake one with another: and the Lord hearkened, and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before him, for them that feared the Lord, and that thought upon his name.  Scripture speaks here of ‘two’; whence [do we learn] that if even one sits and occupies himself in the Law, the Holy One, blessed is he, appoints him a reward?  Because it is written, Let him sit alone and keep silence, because he hath laid it upon him.”5 . As we read and study the word of God we enter into the presence of God and he speaks to us.

Remember that “the word of God is living and active” (Heb. 4:12). It is so because it comes from the mouth of a living Lord. As such, the words are not static. Whenever we listen to the words of scripture it would be a mistake to think that they mean only one thing and that they mean the same thing to every person. If we all came with the same question to Jesus he would not give us all the same answer. Why? Because we are all different and we all need different things. When we treat the word as if it is dead, as if it means only one thing, then we are forced to interpret it in such a way that is becomes applicable in that same way to everyone, and that is a mistake. Jesus did not call everyone he met to leave all and follow him, but he did call twelve to do just that. He did not call everyone to sell what they have and give to the poor, but he did call the rich young ruler to do just that (cf. Mat. 19:21). He did not call everyone to be an apostle to the Gentiles, but he did call Paul to be just that. Can we be sure, when we read scripture, that the words do not apply to us exactly as they are written? It is not for me to say that you must sell all that you have an give to the poor. Neither is it for me to say that you must not. You have to do with Jesus. He is the Lord which issues his command. When St. Anthony went to worship he heard the reading of the gospel which said, “Be not anxious for the morrow” (Mat. 6:34). He immediately got up, left the service, sold all that he had and went to the desert where he would depend solely upon God for tomorrow’s provisions.6 St. Anthony did not ridicule others because they did not follow him to the desert. He did not make the mistake of thinking that the word which Jesus spoke to him in the reading of the gospel was the same word that he spoke to others. But when Jesus’ command came to him he had no choice but to obey, and obey he did. We must allow for the possibility that we may meet Jesus in a similar way. He may gave us similar commands. The word of God is not dead because its author is not dead. What he says he says to each of us individually, if only we are willing to listen.

Finally, we meet Jesus in community. We have seen already how that Jesus is continually active through his body, the church. When the church is what it ought to be, when she is disciplined by the word of God, when she lives in the rhythms of the very life of God and is shaped by her worship, she may speak to us as a spokesman for Jesus.

“One of the most delightful examples comes from ‘the poor little monk of Assisi,’ St. Francis. Francis, it seems, was in ‘great agony of doubt’ about whether he should devote himself only to prayer and meditation, which was a common practice in those days, or whether he should also engage in preaching missions. Wisely, Francis sought out counsel. ‘As the holy humility that was in him did not allow him to trust in himself or in his own prayers, he humbly turned to others in order to know God’s will in this matter.’ He sent to two of his most trusted friends, Sister Clare and Brother Silvester, asking them to meet with one of their ‘purer and more spiritual companions’ and seek the will of God in the matter. Immediately, they gathered to pray and both Sister Clare and Brother Silvester returned wit the same answer. When the messenger returned, St. Francis first washed his feet and prepared him a meal. Then, kneeling down before the messenger, St. Francis asked him, ‘What does my Lord Jesus Christ order me to do?’ The messenger replied that Christ had revealed that ‘He wants you to go about the world preaching, because God did not call you for yourself alone but also for the salvation of others.’ Receiving the message as the undisputed word of Christ, St. Francis jumped up saying, ‘So let’s go–in the name of the Lord,’ whereupon he immediately embarked on a preaching mission.”7 As Peter and Paul were Christ’s representatives to so many, so the church continues to be Christ’s presence in the world. So it is said, “If you cannot listen to your brother, you cannot listen to the Holy Spirit.”8 Of course, the church, even at her best, can be fallible. So we “test everything” and “hold fast to what is good” (1 Thes. 5:21). The frailty of the church does not negate the fact that our brothers and sisters may speak the words of Christ into our lives.

 

Are You Ready?
Hopefully now it has become clear: there is no escape. Jesus is not someone “back there” and his works are not “back then.” Jesus rose from the grave on the third day. He is alive, and he is active. We meet him in a thousand different ways and he continues to speak to us. He calls us, he commands us, because he intends to change us. When we are ready to face Christ in the flesh, as a reality today, we face him as a lion, and so I am reminded of Jill in C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair. When she first arrives in Narnia she finds herself unbearably thirsty. Happily, she hears a stream near by, but as she approaches she is stopped dead in her tracks. There, just on her side of the stream, is the Lion Aslan. “If you’re thirsty, you may drink” he says. That’s Jesus invitation to us all. Hearing the stories of men and women like David, Deborah, Peter, and Paul, of certain saints like St. Anthony or St. Francis, all make us thirsty, like Jill, thirsty for an encounter with Jesus. At the same time, we are a little afraid of what might happen if we were really to meet him. So, like Jill, we ask him politely to go away. Aslan says, “Are you not thirsty?” to which she responds, “I’m dying of thirst.” “Then drink”, said the Lion. “May I–couldI–would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill. She wanted satisfaction without the Lion. Like her, we want satisfaction without Jesus. We may even want religion with Jesus. Church and family are fun. They’re full of friends and games, and we like those well enough. But very often, we’d be more pleased if we could have them without Jesus not knowing that even if we could have it, it would not satisfy. Of course, Aslan refused to move. Jill could not drink without drawing near to Aslan, and so we cannot have the life we were made for without Jesus. Of course, even Jesus isn’t so threatening, so long as we can keep him caged up in a book. That was Jill’s thought too. She thought that perhaps she could get close to Aslan by taming him. “Will you promise not to–do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill. Like her we want all of the comfort of Christ with none of the change. We want all of the riches of Christ with none of the responsibility. “I make no promise,” said the Lion. The thing is, we stand before Jesus as we would stand before a lion. We cannot know what might happen if we get too close. But if we give ourselves to Jesus he will do with us what we could never imagine. So follows this final exchange between Jill and Aslan.

“Do you eat girls?” she said.
“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.
“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.
“Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”
“There is no other stream,” said the Lion.
It never occured to Jill to disbelieve the Lion–no one who had seen his stern face could do that–and her mind suddenly made itself up.”9

We may run from Jesus, but there is no other stream. Only he has the water of life (cf. Jn. 4:14). Oddly enough, the most common way of running from Jesus is by trying to tame him. We want a promise that he isn’t going to do anything to us. But that’s not how things work. He is living, and active. His call and commands meet us sternly in prayer, in scripture, and in the community. When Peter, James, and John were commanded to leave their nets, there was no interpretation that could save them. When Jesus told Zaccheaus to come down from the sycamore tree, there was no illusion that he meant anything other than what he said. Jesus’ living voice remains today. Who knows when we will meet him or what he might say? Who knows how our lives might change? When Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy first heard of Aslan they asked if he were safe, to which Mr. Beaver responded, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.” There is no grander adventure than being a Christian. It’s exciting. It’s dangerous. There is nothing safe about it. Do not be trouble. Though Jesus be not safe, you can trust that when you meet him you will know that he is good.

 

©M. Benfield, 2017


1. C.S. Lewis, Miracles, (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 150.
2. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 164.
3. Peter Jackson, director, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, (New Line Cinema, 2001). A clip of the scene may be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HvWCnqY-GWQ .
4. As related by Bishop Robert Barron here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uDBTT9NL0_Q&t=379s .
5. Herbert Danby, trans., Mishnah, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2013), Aboth 3.2, p.450.
6. The story is related here: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2811.htm .
7. As told by Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 180.
8. Virgil Vogt, as quoted by Richard Foster. Ibid, 187.
9. Lewis, The Silver Chair, (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 21-23.

You Shall Have No Other Gods Before Me

 

 

The exposition of the Decalogue in Martin Luther’s Large Catechism gives much attention to the first commandment: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:2, 3).  He does so because, he says, “where the heart is rightly set toward God … and this commandment is observed, all other commandments follow.”1 He points to the heart and then adds to the affection of the heart the conception of the mind. “It is most important that people get their thinking straight first. For where the head is right, the whole life must be right, and vice versa.”2

What Does It Mean to Have a God?
So, we proceed by way of Luther to ask of the first commandment, as he does, “What does it mean to have a god? Or, what is God? Answer: a god means that from which we are to expect all good and in which we are to take refuge in all distress. So, to have a God is nothing other than trusting and believing Him with the heart. I have often said that the confidence and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol … Now, I say that whatever you set your heart on and put your trust in is truly your god.”3 Later he puts it this way, “Everyone has set up as his special god whatever he looked to for blessings, help, and comfort.”4 He also notes the etymological relationship in German (which exists also in English) between the words “God” and “good”, saying, “So, I think, we Germans from ancient times name God (more elegantly and appropriately than any other language) from the word Good. It is as though He were an eternal fountain that gushes forth abundantly nothing but what is good. And from that fountain flows forth all that is and is called good.”5

This is helpful because we are prone to think that idolatry does not exist today.  This is so because we consider idols as those things which we worship and we construe worship as restricted to prayers and hymns.  Luther’s conception of what it means to have a god challenges us to ask ourselves, from what do we “expect all good” and in what do we “take refuge in all distress”?  When we answer that question then we have identified our God(s).

Some expect money to be the fountain of all good, others, power.  Some run to drugs and alcohol in their distress, others, sex.  Some turn to things a bit more benign.  They turn to work for the source of their good and to family for refuge in all distress.  The question facing us is: when life gets hard, what do I turn to to save me?  Or in other words, what do I turn to in order to make me feel better?  When we ask it this way we find that idolatry is alive and well.  What’s worse, we may find that we are idolaters.

A Caution Against Dualism
While Luther helps us to identify our idols, it is just here that we must be careful to guard against any sort of dualism which might pit God’s creation against himself.  God gifted his creation to man to be enjoyed (cf. 1 Tim. 6:17). Luther is aware of this danger and is careful to protect his readers from any such false step.  He instructs us as to how we might find comfort in God alone without rejecting the world all together.

Receive from God, Not from Ourselves
First, we must ask if the things to which we turn for comfort are enjoyed within the boundaries set by God himself. They must be appropriate objects and enjoyed in appropriate degree. Food is an appropriate object of pleasure, recreational drugs are not. Food sufficient for the belly is an appropriate amount, gluttony is not. Only when we share in the pleasures God has given can we be said to have turned to God for our comfort, otherwise we have turned only to our own will and so to idols. “So no one should expect to take or give anything except what God has commanded. Then it may be acknowledged as God’s gift, and thanks may be rendered to Him for it, as this commandment requires. For this reason also, the ways we receive good gifts through creatures are not to be rejected. Nor should we arrogantly seek other ways and means than what God has commanded. For that would not be receiving from God, but seeking for ourselves.”6

This seems to be the very thing Paul had in mind when he wrote to the Ephesian church. Just before he equates greed with idolatry (5:5) he lists a number of sins which ought to be avoided. “But fornication and impurity of any kind, or greed, must not even be mentioned among you, as is proper among saints. Entirely out of place is obscene, silly, and vulgar talk” (5:3, 4a). Paul then contrasts these sins with virtue. We would expect Paul to contrast fornication and impurity with chastity. We would expect him to contrast greed with contentment, and obscene talk with pure speech. But that is not what he does. In place of all this he says, “but instead, let there be thanksgiving” (5:4b). He does this, I believe, because virtuous actions are pleasurable deeds that we can receive as God’s gifts and thereby render thanks unto him.  As a result, thanksgiving becomes the opposite of vice because thanksgiving may only be rendered to God on account of virtue. While sex in itself is a gift of God, fornication, i.e. sex outside of marriage, is not. We cannot thank God for that which he did not give. Such “gifts” are those gifts which we would give ourselves. Talk is another gift from the Lord. Conversation binds together the hearts of those who share in it and strengthens the bonds of community. Obscene talk, and vulgar speech, however, do not. They are not gifts but poisons. And so we cannot thank God for them because he did not give them.  They reside outside of his command. If we are to have no other God but the LORD then we may only enjoy such gifts as he gives, anything else is from idols; We may only enjoy those things for which we are able to thank him in all good conscience.  Thanks for anything else is sacrifice to idol gods.

Recognize the Giver in the Gift
Second, even those things which God approves are potential idols. It is not that finding refuge in family or work is inherently bad.  They are not idols in themselves.  On the contrary, they are part of God’s good creation and they are offered to us for our pleasure.  They are intended to offer comfort.  They become idols only when they are rent from the hand of God and enjoyed as ends in themselves.  But, if we remember that they are gifts, if we remember that God is the fountain of all good (cf. James 1:17), then these things are not idols but blessings; They are instruments of God’s goodness.  “Even though we experience much good from other people, whatever we receive by God’s command or arrangement is all received from God.  For our parents and all rulers and everyone else, with respect to his neighbor, have received from God the command that they should do us all kinds of good.  So we receive these blessings not from them, but through them, from God.  For creatures are only the hands, channels, and means by which God gives all things.”7

Conclusion: Worship Defends Against Idolatry
So long as those acts and objects to which we turn in distress are good in themselves, that is, they are approved channels of God’s blessing and in accordance with his command, then there is no reason why we should not enjoy them. Finding comfort in God does not necessitate hermetic isolation and mystic contemplation (though there may be a time for that too). It does, however, require appreciating them as gifts and it requires recognizing God in them. To ensure that we turn to God-through-them and not to the things in themselves, we must give thanks for them as blessings.

“Take care that you do not forget the LORD your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today.  When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions.  He made water flow for you from flint rock, and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good.  Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own and have gotten me this wealth.’  But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today”(Deu. 8:11-18; cf. 1 Tim. 4:3-5).

When we worship God for our gifts it strips those gifts of any pretense to deity. By recognizing them as gift we recognize them as dependent and therefore not as gods. It may then seem like a tautology to say that worshiping the true God defends against idolatry, but as it turns out it is a truth which bears repeating.  And so God says to us all, “You shall have no other gods before me.”

 

©M. Benfield, 2017


1. Martin Luther, Luther’s Large Catechism, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2010), 24, sec. 47.
2. Ibid, 22, sec. 31. Because his comments here lean heavily upon the right conception of God we may be tempted to disagree with Luther and protest that we are not what we believe, rather, we are what we love. We must be careful, however, to obey the eighth commandment as expounded by Luther in favor of Luther: “It is especially an excellent and noble virtue for someone always to explain things for his neighbor’s advantage and to put the best construction on all he may hear about his neighbor” (p. 70, sec. 289). We must “put the best construction” upon Luther, and while he most often speaks of the right conception of God he does not neglect the affect all together. Indeed, on occasion conception and affection seem for Luther to intertwine. “Instead, to ‘have’ Him [God] means that the heart takes hold of Him and clings to Him. To cling to Him with the heart is nothing else than to trust Him entirely.” (p.19, secs. 14, 15). Further, Luther was an Augustinian monk and would have been well acquainted with Augustine’s concept of well ordered love.
3. Ibid, 18, secs.1-3.
4. Ibid, 20, sec.17.
5. Ibid, 21, sec.25.
6. Ibid, 21, sec.27.
7. Ibid, 21, sec.26.

The No-True-God Fallacy: A Blind Man’s Confession

 

 

Having reviewed my own work in the previous article about who God is and what sort of God he is, I realize that it is an easy article to contest.  One might easily say that I have committed the No-True-Scotsman fallacy.  This fallacy is an after-the-fact attempt to rescue an argument from refutation.  It is so called the No-True-Scotsman fallacy for the illustrations that are often used to explain it.

Smith:  All Scotsmen are loyal and brave.
Jones: But McDougal over there is a Scotsman, and he was arrested by his commanding officer for running from the enemy.
Smith: Well, if that’s right, it just shows that McDougal wasn’t a TRUE Scotsman.1

Or another form, which was my first introduction to the idea and still the one which first comes to mind, goes like this:

Person A: No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.
Person B: But my uncle Angus likes sugar with his porridge.
Person A: Ah yes, but not true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.2

One might say this is the sort of thing I have done.  I have asserted that God exists.  Then, when someone points out that there is suffering in the world, I simply respond by saying, “Ah yes, but the sort of God that is disproved thereby is not the God of the Bible.  The true God is not disproved by suffering.”  One might say that in the face of any evidence which would refute God I simply say, “The God you have refuted is not the true God.”  One might say that this is “simply a dogmatic refusal to face up to the possibility of being wrong.”3 Is this what I have done? Have I committed the No-True-God Fallacy?

Have I failed to make God intelligible?  What am I to do?  Should I recant all that I have said?  I find myself in the position of the blind man by the pool of Siloam.  And so, consider this a blind man’s confession.

The Unbelievers Who “Know” God, and the Believer Who Doesn’t
In John 9 Jesus and his disciples come across “a man blind from birth” (9:1).  Jesus “spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent).  then he went and washed and came back able to see” (9:6, 7).  It is undeniable that this man had been changed by Jesus, so much so that even those who knew him were not sure that he was the same person.  “The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’  Some were saying, ‘It is he.”  Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’  He kept saying, ‘I am the man.'” (9:8, 9).

The most interesting thing about the encounter is the man’s agnosticism.  Whenever he is asked for an explanation as to how he came to see all he can tell is what happened to him, but as to who Jesus is, where he came from, or how we was able to perform the miracle, he repeats over and over, “I don’t know.”  “But they kept asking him, ‘Then how were your eyes opened?’  He answered, ‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’  Then I went and washed and received my sight.’  They said to him, ‘Where is he?’  He said, ‘I do not know.'”

In contrast, those who refuse to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah are quite sure that they know what sort of man Jesus is.  “They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.  Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes.  Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight.  He said to them, ‘He put mud on my eyes.  Then I washed, and now I see.’  Some of the Pharisees said ‘This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.'” (9:13-16a).  Whereas the healed man did not know where Jesus was, certain the Pharisees knew where he was not from.  They were certain that he was not from God.  Others, however, were more cautious.  “But others said, ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’  And they were divided.” (9:16b).

They turn to the formerly blind man and ask him again to explain the man who healed him.  This time he ventures beyond his agnostic position to say simply, “He is a prophet” (9:17).  The Jews who interrogated him were not even sure that the man was born blind or whether he was making it up.  After calling his parents to witness to the truth of the matter they turn again to the man and say, “Give glory to God!  We know that this man is a sinner” (9:24).  Again, those who reject Jesus are the one’s that make the strongest claims to know him.  They know that he is a sinner.  The blind man continues his cautious and agnostic approach about the nature of Jesus.  “He answered, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see'” (9:25).

After the blind man’s expulsion he has another encounter with Jesus.  “Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’  He answered, ‘And who is he, sir?  Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’  Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’  He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’  And he worshiped him” (9:35-38).  How ironic that it is the life-long blind man who “sees” Jesus (9:37).

As so often happens in scripture, Jesus explains his actions to those around him as a kind of enacted parable.  “Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’  Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’  Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin.  But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.'” (9:39-41).  The blind man knew well that he was blind, not only physically but spiritually.  He did not presume to know who Jesus was, and thereby he was able to accept Jesus as coming from God.  It was this “blind” man who has his sins forgiven.  The mistake lies with those who were so sure that they could see, both physically and spiritually.  They “knew” who Jesus was and what sort of man he was.  It is that claim to knowledge that made them unable to accept Jesus.  It is because they said “We see” that their “sin remains” (9:41).

We Do Not Make God Intelligible, He Makes Us Intelligible
All those who are sure that they know what sort of God the God of the Bible is find themselves in the place of the Jews who opposed him.  They had read the Bible, they were sure that they “knew” what the Messiah would look like, how prophets would act, and what sort of God they served.  It was that “knowledge” of God which caused them to refuse Jesus.  As it turns out, the God they rejected was not the God they met in Jesus Christ.  So it is with so many unbelievers.  They have perhaps read the Bible and maybe even some philosophy.  They are then sure that they know what sort of God the Christian God is and that is the very thing which stops them from being able to accept him.

But if they are the Pharisees then that leaves me in the place of the blind man.  Often the best that I can do when asked about God is to say, “I don’t know.”  Still, given that it turned out well for the blind man, I don’t think that’s a bad place to be.  “Disputes between those who believe in God and those who do not often turn on the assumption by both parties that they know what they mean when they say ‘God.’  This seems unlikely, since Christians believe that we learn to use the word ‘God’ only through worship and prayer to the One we address as Father, Son, and Spirit.  Such a God is identified by a story that takes time, often a lifetime, to learn.”4 Because this is the case, it is likely misguided to try and defend God or explain him. Even believers are often not quite sure what to say about God.   And when they are “sure” they are often wrong.  But I think that is because God does not gain his intelligibility from us, rather we get ours from him. We do not explain him, he explains us. The blind man put it so well. “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” (9:25). He could not make sense of who had healed him. But the only explanation for the blind man’s sight was that someone had healed him. He could not explain Jesus, but only Jesus could explain him. Hans Urs Von Balthasar says something about this dynamic when he says, “John’s designation of Christ as the Logos points to the fact that the evangelist envisions him as fulfilling the role of cosmic reason, in the Greeks’ and in Philo’s sense as that which grants all things their intelligibility.”5

The Church that Only God Could Make
Mortimer Adler once described his attempt at apologetics using the works of Thomas Aquinas.

“One year–in 1936, I believe–that seminar began with the ‘Treatise on God.’  I announced that I would not move a page beyond Question 2 until I had succeeded in persuading every member of the class that the existence of God could be demonstrated by one or another of the proofs advanced by Aquinas.  One by one they gave in, either from some measure of conviction or, more likely, from weariness and boredom with the protracted process; but one, Charles Adams, indomitably held out.  Finally, my professorial colleague, Malcolm Sharp, called a halt to the proceedings and suggested that, instead of sticking to my guns with Adams, I tell the class about the life and work of Aquinas.  I did so, stressing the shortness of his career as a teacher and writer (a little more than twenty years) in which, under the austerities of monastic life, with no libraries, typewriters, in ordinary-sized volumes, would occupy many shelves; and, I added, most of these works were filled with quotations from Sacred Scripture, from the philosophers of antiquity, from the Fathers of the Church, and from his immediate predecessors in the 11th and 12th centuries–all this without having the convenience of a well-stocked library or an adequate filing system.  When I had finished, Adams spoke up.  He rebuked me for not having started out by telling the class what I had just finished reporting.  ‘Why?’  I asked.  ‘Because,’ said Adams, ‘if you had told us all this about Aquinas, you would not have had to bother our minds with arguments about God’s existence.  Aquinas could not have done what he did without God’s help.”6

Whereas, for Adams, Aquinas had failed to make God intelligible, he was sure that only God could make Aquinas intelligible.  It may be that the church’s best apologetics is being the church.  Stanley Hauerwas tells of a woman who served as his priest for some time, “Susan would often begin her sermons by observing that she could not ‘think the church up.’  She could not imagine an Aldersgate, but God can and does.  What a wonderful way to put it.”7 Our response to the living Christ is not to explain him but to live lives which only he could explain. This is a hard call to answer because so often Christians have severed their theology from the way that they live. Christianity has become formal knowledge of a private creed instead of discipleship to a living Christ. “I have come to think that the challenge confronting Christians is not that we do not believe what we say, though that can be a problem, but that what we say we believe does not seem to make any difference for either the church or the world.”8

It is time for the church to be the church.  It could very well be it is our lives, not our arguments, which need conversion.  There is a story often told of G.K. Chesterton.  He was asked if there was any irrefutable argument for Christianity.  He said, “Yes. Christians.”  Immediately following he was asked if there was any really good argument against Christianity to which he answered, “Yes.  Christians.”

I may not be able to make God intelligible.  The church may not be able to make God intelligible.  But the church can be a body which only God makes intelligible.  Let’s get about being the church that only God could make.

 

©M. Benfield 2017

 


1. This example is taken from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, available here: http://www.iep.utm.edu/fallacy/#NoTrueScotsman ; accessed 9 July, 2017. There it is noted that the No-True-Scotsman Fallacy is a different way of naming what is called an Ad Hoc Rescue.
2. This is the first form given on Wikipedia, available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_true_Scotsman ; accessed 9 July, 2017.
3. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Ad Hoc Rescue.” Available at: http://www.iep.utm.edu/fallacy/#AdHoc Rescue ; accessed 7 July, 2017.
4. Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir, (Grand Rapids: Eerdsman, 2012), 236.
5. Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Love Alone is Credible, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 54.
6. Mortimer J. Adler, How to Think About God: A Guide for the 20th Century Pagan, (New York: Macmillan, 1980), 22-23.
7. Hauerwas, 222.
8. Ibid, 159.

“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.”

“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).

Learning to Say “God”: Reflections on Ten Years of Preaching

 

 

At the end of this year I will have been preaching for 10 years. One might wonder why I did not wait until I had fulfilled my years to reflect on them. Ideally that’s what I would do, but as I have come to learn, life is never ideal. I am presently experiencing a shift in how I preach the Bible and I thought it expedient to describe the process while it is happening rather than to try and do it retrospectively after the angst and uncertainty has worn off.

Impossible Prayers
I have not forgotten that this is an article about preaching, but good preaching begins with good prayers, though in my case it began with bad ones. My early Christian life was characterized by almost no prayer at all and when I did pray I believed they were impossible. I believed “God” was unchangeable and that made prayer impossible. I could ask, but he could not change, so it’s easy to see why I rarely bothered asking. Whatever I meant by “God” it was not someone who changed.
It was certainly not someone who changed for me.

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
I do not pretend to know what Pascal meant when he wrote the memorial he carried in the lining of his coat, nor do I remember how it came to me, but I do know what it meant to me when I heard it. “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and of the learned.” I realized that my idea of God had been shaped by the philosophers and not by scripture. Somewhere along the way I had heard, and accepted without question, that God was immutable, unchangeable, that whatever he purposed was done and there was no turning to the right or the left. So of course, when I had learned to say “God” from the philosophers, and not from the word of God, I cannot be expected to pray the prayers which only scripture makes intelligible. The “God” of my speech made prayer impossible. But when I went to scripture I saw Abraham pray to God and barter for the lives of those in Sodom and Gomorrah. I saw Moses pray for the lives of the rebellious Israelites. I read the burning passion of the psalms. All of these prayed as if they expected God to change … and he did.

I cannot explain how God changes. When I reason about him, or when I accept the reason of the philosophers, I find that I invent a God that cannot answer prayer. But when I read scripture I find a God who moves heaven and earth to answer the prayers of his children. The crucified Christ is the resurrected Christ who shakes heaven and earth so that only that which is eternal remains, and all that in answer to the petition of little children praying, “Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.” When I read scripture I find a God that I could not have guessed.

Inventing “God”
After graduating preaching school I was enamored with apologetics. It was my great dream to be an apologist and debater. In the apologetics I had learned, you cannot assume God. You cannot assume the thing to be proved. So, you begin with the “facts”, the things that are given. You begin with creation or with Man and ascend step by step until you have arrived at God. This sort of polemic “move” characterized by apologetics as well as my preaching. I would begin with the “neutral facts” and arrive at God.

Recently I have recognized a problem in this order. If God is God then there is no such thing as neutral facts.  The “fact” is that all that exists is created, Man is a creature, and to call Man a creature–which is to tell the truth about him–is not neutral.  If we begin with Man then Man becomes determinative, not God. We allow Man to define God instead of allowing God to define Man. Further, if we begin with Man, without reference to God, then we do not begin with Man at all but only a false idea of Man. There is no “Man” without God. To begin with a “neutral Man”, a Man without reference to God, is to begin with Man misunderstood. And when your premises are false your conclusions cannot help but be false also. To begin with Man or creation, apart from God, is to begin with false premises.

The God I Could Not Have Guessed
Whatever “God” we invent as a result of such faulty premises–such as “Man” apart from God–cannot be the God who is Trinity, the God revealed in the crucified Christ. Indeed, if the God we invent as a result of such natural theology is the true God then he is exactly the God we have guessed. Once again, as I did with my prayers, I had invented a “God” according to the philosophers, one who made the God of the Bible unintelligible. The witness of scripture is that the God revealed in Christ is the God we could never have guessed. The cadence of the Gospel According to Mark is measured by the chorus “They were all amazed.” While the “God” we invent is amazing, the amazement is not at “God” but at the ingenuity of Man. Who could be amazed at a “God” who fits inside the heads of men? One begins to wonder whether the men are greater than the “God.” This cannot be the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Learning to Say “God”
So I find that my preaching has all been a discipline in learning to say “God.”1 The god of the philosophers produced impossible prayers. The god of my natural theology produced a god at which I could not stand in the awe appropriate to Jesus, and it produced a Man which was more awful. Bit by bit I am learning to say “God.” Little by little I am learning that to say “God” at all, if I am to tell the truth, is to mean the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To say “God” is to name a God I could never have guessed.  He defines reality.  I must begin with him, and so must my preaching.  I have learned that if I am to tell the truth, and preaching must be true, I cannot know in order to believe. I can only believe in order to know. Credo ut intelligam.2


1. I have intentionally borrowed the phrase “learning to say ‘God'” from Stanley Hauerwas who increasingly influences the way that I think about God and the task of preaching. The phrase comes from his book, Working with Words: On Learning to Speak Christian, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011).
2. “I believe in order to understand.” This comes from St. Anselm’s “Proslogium.” St. Anselm, Basic Writings, (La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing, 1992), 53.

Sensus Plenior, Old World Science, and Other Hermeneutic Questions (Part 2)

 

In the previous article we looked at supposed pre-scientific statements which in fact turned out to be Old World Science.  I offered an approach, based upon Speech-Act Theory, that frees us from the necessity of finding modern science in an ancient book.  I have called the supposed existence of pre-scientific statements a kind of sensus plenior.  But what of sensus plenior as it is commonly used?  I now take on this hardest of the the three tasks I’ve set for myself in this series.  It is hardest because it is unique to myself.  By that I mean that I have never read another who explains it in the way that I will.  I am indebted to certain authors, as you will see, but they put their information to different use than I will here.  Further, though I have never read another who explains it in exactly the way that I will, I do not deny that such writers exist.  I have simply not yet found them (though I would be much comforted if I did).

Inspiration
My ultimate goal in this series is to say something about hermeneutics.  This discussion, however, cannot avoid overlapping with concerns about inspiration.  As a result, I feel it necessary to say a few things about it before I move on to hermeneutics.

It is immensely important that we rid ourselves of certain deistic tendencies in our thinking.  Though I have not met a Christian who puts it exactly this way I have met many whose comments assume the following system: If it can be explained without reference to God, God did not do it.  That is, if Man did it then God did not.  Conversely, if God did it then Man did not. This way of thinking keeps creature and Creator completely separate which is, I believe, a mistake.  Though I will not make the opposite mistake of conflating creature and Creator and falling into a sort of Pantheism, I do affirm that God often works from within creation.  For example, when Paul and his company were in Macedonia they became terribly troubled.  They suffered “disputes without and fears within” (2 Cor. 7:5).  Of this trouble Paul writes, “God … consoled us” (7:6).  If that were all that we read we might assume that God had miraculously offered them a sense of mystical comfort.  We might imagine an unexplainable warmth growing inside of Paul and his companions.  Perhaps we picture Paul and his company standing up straighter instilled with an indescribable confidence.  If this is how we imagine it then it is possible we are working out of the deism I mentioned, the sort which assumes that if God did it then Man did not.  If we continue reading, however, we find the means by which God offered comfort.  The Bible says, “But God, who consoles the downcast, consoled us by the arrival of Titus, and not only by his coming, but also by the consolation with which he was consoled about you, as he told us of your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced still more” (7:6, 7).  God worked from within his creation.  The very fact that Titus comforted Paul did not diminish in the slightest the fact that God had comforted Paul.  There is no reason to suppose that such human action is any less divine, especially when we have the witness of scripture that describes it so.

Another example to illustrate the point: when Hezekiah was sick Isaiah came to him by the word of the LORD and said, “Thus says the LORD: Set your house in order, for you shall die; you shall not recover” (Isa. 38:1).  Hezekiah then begged God to extend his life and he received a promise that the LORD would do so for fifteen more years (38:5).  Now, if this were all the information that we were given we are likely to picture Hezekiah as being miraculously healed entirely apart from material means.  The truth, however, is that Isaiah instructed Hezekiah’s servants to “take a lump of figs, and apply it to the boil, so that he may recover” (38:21).  The fact that a poultice was applied does not diminish Hezekiah’s divine healing.  It is only the deistic conception which insists on separating God’s work from his creation.  The biblical conception of God’s work is able to hold them together quite comfortably.  This should be no less true for our conception of inspiration.

The word “inspiration” means quite different things to different people.  Some emphasize the divine side of inspiration to the detriment of the human side.  Maybe they imagine inspiration like Rembrandt’s portrait of St. Matthew, with an angel whispering the words of the Bible into his ear.1  Others emphasize the human side to the detriment of the divine.2 And despite involving us in inextricable mysteries, I believe that our concept of inspiration should have just the same combination of the divine and the human as the above examples, not because I think it “makes sense” (though it does), but because it is how the Bible pictures it.

First, consider the introduction to Luke’s gospel. “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed” (1:1-4).  I know no other way to understand this than to think that Luke used sources in the composition of his gospel.  This would seem quite unnecessary if the Holy Spirit was whispering in his ear.  How then do we explain it?  I will not pretend to understand it all, but I affirm by faith that somehow Luke’s own thoughts and mental effort were involved in writing his gospel.  He had to gather sources, sift through the accounts, and conceive a unity to the story before he put it on parchment.  This affirmation of the human side of the process does not deny the divine side.  Somehow God was involved in the very human action of Luke, directing it and monitoring it, to ensure that no errors were made.  We cannot, however, allow that truth to overshadow the human struggle and mental exertion necessary to Luke’s work.

Second, other places indicate that the writing of scripture was in some sense dependent upon the mental efforts of its human writers.  When Luke records Festus’ visit to Jerusalem and his subsequent return to Caesarea he writes, “After he had stayed among them not more than eight or ten days, he went down to Caesarea” (Acts 25:6).  If the Holy Spirit were whispering in his ear it seems an odd thing for the Holy Spirit to say.  It seems more like Luke is dependent upon sources which informed him of a stay of eight days, or perhaps ten.  Or maybe even the source had given him the exact time but Luke had trouble recalling it.  Whatever the explanation, this is a very human thing to write.  I weary myself with saying this, but I feel it necessary to repeat that affirming the humanness of inspiration does not deny the divine at work, any more than affirming Paul’s comfort by Titus denies Paul’s comfort by God.

I offer one final example.  Third, when Paul writes to the Corinthians he laments that certain Corinthians were dividing themselves over who their favorite leader was, perhaps even who baptized them.  Paul responds by saying, “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name.  (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else)” (1 Cor. 1:14-16).  Again, this seems a strange thing for Paul to write unless he is somehow dependent upon his own mental effort.

To sum up, we do not deny that it is possible for God to grant men information that they could not have known on their own.  Certainly God could have reminded Paul exactly which people he had baptized; he could have told Luke exactly how many days Festus stayed in Jerusalem; and he could have removed the need for any of Luke’s sources.  But he didn’t.  I do not question what God is able to do, only what God has, in fact, done.  And it appears as if God quite often allows the words of the Bible to well up from the existing knowledge of the Bible writers.  I have no doubt that he superintended over the process so as to protect his word, but we cannot allow our affirmation of divinity to diminish its humanity.  Like Christ was able to become fully human without ceasing to be fully divine, so the word of God is able to comfortably combine both without confusion or mixture.  Just as we affirm that Jesus is “truly God and truly man”3, so we affirm that the Bible is truly human and truly divine.

“Fulfillment”
Now we are able to move into a discussion about sensus plenior.  Often these “hidden” or “fuller meanings” are preceded by a fulfillment formula, i.e. “This was done so that it might be fulfilled …”  Whenever we read these statements we might immediately assume that the Bible writer is referring to a prophecy of the Old Testament.  Prophecy, we think, is the counterpart to “fulfillment.”  And there are certainly instances which have to do with prophecy (cf. Isa. 7:14; Mat. 1:22-23).  But one of the first things we will notice when we start looking at the sensus plenior in the New Testament is that very few of them are “fulfillments” of prophecy.  Hosea 11:1, fulfilled in Jesus descent/ascent from Egypt (Mat. 2:15), cannot be a prophecy as we commonly conceive it because it does not look forward at all.  It looks backward to an event, to the Exodus of Israel from Egypt.  The command not to break the bones of the Passover lamb (Ex. 12:46), fulfilled in Jesus’ crucifixion (Jn. 19:36), is also an event, not a promise or prophecy.4 Further, Rachel weeping for her children, which is fulfilled in the murder of the innocents by Herod (Mat. 2:17, 18), is not a prophecy.  It is an imaginative description of an event.  It is a story which gives pathos, depth, and meaning to the tragedy of the Israelite exile by Assyria and Babylon (Jer. 31:15).  This being the case, it seems we have to broaden our idea of “fulfillment.”  It seems that fulfillment is not only the counterpart of prophecy but it can also be the counterpart of events and imaginative descriptions of events.  Previous events can be pictured, or repictured, or–better still–reenacted and thus named “fulfillment.”  The important thing to note here is that recognizing an analog between the events is not dependent upon receiving special knowledge from beyond.  One is able upon reflection to recognize recurrent patterns and themes in events and stories.  It does not require that one be “clued in” on some fuller meaning by the Holy Spirit.  It requires astute hermeneutic skill or, more importantly, a disciplined imagination.

Myth-Become-Fact
J.R.R. Tolkien is supposed to have said, “We tell stories because God is a story teller … We tell our stories with words; he tells his story with history.”5 G.K. Chesterton before him wrote, “I had always felt life first as a story: and if there is a story there is a story-teller.”6 This idea of history as the story God is telling is the reason that C.S. Lewis is able to speak of a “grammar of the universe.”7 God is a story teller and insofar as Christ is the Logos, the “Message” of God, he is what God has been trying to say.

The miracles of Jesus make this clear. Lewis writes,

“There is an activity of God displayed throughout creation, a wholesale activity let us say which men refuse to recognize. The miracles done by God incarnate, living as a man in Palestine, perform the very same things as this wholesale activity, but at a different speed and on a smaller scale. One of their chief purposes is that men, having seen a thing done by personal power on the small scale, may recognize, when they see the same thing done on the large scale, that the power behind it is also personal–is indeed the very same person who lived among us two thousand years ago. The miracles in fact are a retelling in small letters of the very story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.”8

As a specific example he chooses Christ at Cana to show him doing small what God often does large.

“God creates the vine and teaches it to draw up water by its roots and, with the aid of the sun, to turn that water into a juice which will ferment and take on certain qualities. Thus every year, from Noah’s time till ours, God turns water into wine. That, men fail to see. Either like Pagans they refer the process to some finite spirit, Bacchus or Dionysus: or else, like moderns, they attribute the real and ultimate causality to the chemical and other material phenomena which are all that our senses can discover in it. But when Christ at Cana makes water into wine, the mask is off. The miracle has only half its effect if it only convinces us that Christ is God: it will have its full effect if whenever we see a vineyard or drink a glass of wine we remember that here works He who sat at the wedding party in Cana.”9

Jesus reenacts the Story that God has been telling from the beginning of time. The drama of Cana is a miniature of the Drama of Nature.

Notice also that Lewis mentions Man’s habit of telling stories about nature. Wherever men have drunk wine they have told stories of Bacchus. If we see God as a story teller, and Man as “making by the law in which we’re made”, it makes wonderful sense not only of the act of story-telling, but also of the sorts of stories that we tell.

The stories we tell are based upon what we see in nature and history, which are the things God uses to tell his story. In this way our smaller local stories are reflections of God’s much larger and universal one. Therefore, it should not surprise us in the least to find similarities between the two. Our stories tell of the weak being saved by the strong, of the lower being dependent upon the descent and ascent of the higher, of the dying and rising gods like Balder and the Corn-Kings. “The similarity is not in the least unreal or accidental. For the Corn-King is derived (through human imagination) from the facts of Nature, and the facts of Nature from her Creator; the Death and Rebirth pattern is in her because it was first in Him.”10 So we find in Christ the reality of which all our myths were just shadows.

“It is He who sends rain into the furrows till the valleys stand so thick with corn that they laugh and sing. The trees of the wood rejoice before Him and His voice causes the wild deer to bring forth their young. He is the God of wheat and wine and oil. In that respect He is constantly doing all the things that Nature-Gods do: He is Bacchus, Venus, Ceres all rolled into one.”11

We could say, as Lewis does, that Jesus is Myth-Become-Fact.

“The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens–at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.”12

Now comes the important bridge. Remember, we pointed out earlier that “fulfillment” may be applied to events and descriptions of events (stories) as well as prophecy. It is appropriate, then, to speak of Christ as the “fulfillment” of nature as well as our stories about nature, our myths. Chesterton, making the same point as above, writes, “[T]he life of Jesus … was a fulfillment of the myths.”13 In regard to the incarnation he writes, “[T]he event had fulfilled not merely the mysticism but the materialism of mythology. Mythology had many sins; but it had not been wrong in being as carnal as the Incarnation.”14 Note the language of “fulfillment” in Chesterton. Tolkien uses the same language. “The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories … But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfilment [sic] of Creation.”15

The Christ event is in terse miniscule the very message which Nature has been telling in her long prolix uncial.  Therefore, if we did not spread his message abroad “even these stones would cry out” (cf. Luke 19:40).  And they do.  With every season and every sunrise Nature’s voice goes through all the earth, and her words to the end of the world (cf. Ps. 19:4).

If this is true about the Story of the World, and our stories about the world (which are often full of error), should we not expect it to be just as true about the Story of Israel?  Strikingly so.  For the Story of Israel is the Story of the World.  Only eleven chapters intervene between the story of creation and the story of Abraham.  This should indicate to us all that the fate of creation rests upon our distant father and his descendants.  The history of Israel is the hinge upon which the whole world turns.

The True Story of the World
Man has written many myths, but only one did he write with the aid of the original Myth-Maker.  More than that, Man not only recorded the Story but he found himself to be a central character.  This is truer of no people than it is of the people of Israel.

Ever since the Fall men have felt themselves as part of a story that was going somewhere.  Laboring under the curse, the birth of Noah brought hope to his parents.  They said of him, “This one shall bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands” (Gen. 5:29).  All of creation groans and waits for its redemption (cf. Rom. 8:18-25).  Abraham is the one chosen to bring about that redemption.  God says to him, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3).  It is this long Story which Christ is seen to fulfill.  Not an odd bit here or there, as if Jesus woke each morning with a list of prophecies and said, “Well, I’d better check that one off the list today.”  All of scripture finds its fulfillment in him.  The mysterious Story of Israel, and with her the whole Story of the world, finds its “Yes” in Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 1:19-20).

This is the sense in which so many of the “fulfillments” are indeed fulfilled.  It is not that the Israelites descent/ascent from Egypt was a prophecy, at least not in the sense we usually imagine.  Neither the Passover nor the Exile of the Israelites.  Rather, there is a particular “style” to the way God tells his story, a “grammar of the universe.”  “All His acts are different, but they all rhyme or echo to one another.”16 Just as one fluent in Latin will note the Latin-icity of other languages17, so one who is steeped in the Story of God will notice the imprint of the divine upon his several works. So it is not that Isaiah prophesied of the Christ at the same time he prophesied of Mahershalalhashbaz. Rather, it is that Matthew, living and breathing the Story of Israel, is able to look back through the lens of the Christ event and see in Isaiah’s prophecy the shadow of which Christ is the substance. It is in this sense, the same sense in which Christ is the fulfillment of nature and of myth, that Christ is the fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14 and all the Story of Israel.  The Exodus, the giving of the Law, the wilderness wandering, the temple along with its priests and sacrifices, the king, and the exile are all fulfilled in Jesus.

Because there are no prophecies, indeed no history, without the word of God there can be none without Christ who is the Word of God. All are contained in him, and he in them. He is the Eternal Word. He is what God has been saying, and there was never a time when he was not saying it. All of Man’s triumphs as well as his sorrows find their “Yes” in him. The history of Israel, indeed the whole history of Man which rode on her back, is summed up in the Son of Man. This is why the psalmist may say “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and we are not surprised to find those words on the lips of our Lord. Not because they are “prophecy”, but because they are a part of Man and Christ is all that we are. Or, rather, he bears all that we are on the back of what were supposed to be, and carries that to the cross. Everything is bound up in him. “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” (Col. 1:16, 17).

Building Again What I Have Torn Down
Weeks ago when I set out to write this series I had in mind to tear down sensus plenior.  Even as I began writing this article I still intended to undo the idea.  In the midst of writing, however, I find that I have built again what I have torn down.  I have established sensus plenior rather than debunking it.  But I have not established it in the way that I often hear it used.  That use, which I consider a misuse, is something to which I still object.  In order to make my objections clear it will help to distinguish between the two.

First, the fuller meaning I have given here is universal whereas the misuse to which I object is particular.  The explanation I have offered gives more meaning to quite literally everything, not just odd bits of scripture here and there.  It sees meaning in the entire Story of scripture, not to mention nature itself.  I quote C.S. Lewis once more.

“It is not an accident that simple-minded people, however spiritual, should blend the ideas of God and Heaven and the blue sky. It is a fact, not a fiction, that light and life-giving heat do come down from the sky to the Earth. The analogy of the sky’s role to begetting and of the Earth’s role to bearing is sound as far as it goes. The huge dome of the sky is of all things sensuously perceived the most like infinity. And when God made space and worlds that move in space, and clothed our world with air, and gave us such eyes and such imaginations as those we have, He knew what the sky would mean to us. And since nothing in His work is accidental, if He knew, He intended. We cannot be certain that this was not indeed one of the chief purposes for which Nature was created.”18

This kind of sensus plenior infuses the whole world with meaning.  Every rock and tree and creature is part of God’s grammar.  It is his way of saying something about the way that the world is and the way that we are to relate to it and to him.  This is different from the use I consider misuse.  That sort of fuller meaning is not so full.  It only claims a fuller meaning for certain passages of scripture.  It is not a synthesis of the entire Story.  And because it cannot show itself to be within the “style” of the whole it often appears as an intruder.  The fuller meaning appears strange and out of place.  It exists as a curiosity.  It answers one question while it may raise others which it cannot satisfy.  That is quite different from the sort I have a described, a sort which always feels at home within the whole.

Second, the fuller meaning I have shared here is accessible by Man’s reason, whereas the misuse of sensus plenior requires a special revelation of the Holy Spirit.  This makes it appear as if the NT writers misused the OT by yanking scriptures out of context.  We are then required to make special allowances for these writers which we would never make for any one else.  As a friend once said to me, “They were allowed to use scripture out of context because they were inspired by the Holy Spirit.”

The fuller meaning I have suggested provides a context wherein the NT use of the OT makes sense.  It has a suitability to it, an appropriateness.  The misuse of sensus plenior puts the NT writers in a place where they offer a context-less interpretation of a passage.  It appears as an interpretation wholly unsuitable to the context of the OT passage.

Rotting Limb or Golden Bough?
I have gone out on a limb to express a view unique to myself.19  Paradoxically, this limb seems to me more likely to break with its sole occupant than it would if it bore up a great cloud of witnesses.  I cannot help but feel, however, that the golden bough which sustains me is Truth. But let us assume, for argument’s sake, that the branch which I have made my home is not only rotten, but worse, is all together non-existent.  What solid limb will knot my head as I tumble towards more solid ground?  It is a view which is admittedly simpler, though not without its difficulties.

Perhaps it is not the case that the Bible writers, through prayerful struggle and meditation, as well as inspiration, saw Christ as the fulfillment of all scripture.  Perhaps it was not that Christ fulfilled the whole Story of Israel and with it the long Story of the World.  Maybe the Bible writers had no unified cosmic-historical vision.  Let us suppose, rather, that I am wrong and that Matthew (and others) did often use the OT “out of context.”  And let us suppose that they did so with divine permission.  Finally, let us suppose that no Bible writer could have concluded what they did on their own but needed to be “clued in” on the sensus plenior, the fuller meaning, by the Holy Spirit. What does that say about our hermeneutics?

I can only repeat here what was stated in the previous article. If another meaning exists which is not accessible to us by our reason, then it is by definition context-less and therefore only accessible by a special gift from the Holy Spirit.

Conclusion
It seems that there are only two available options left open to us.  If we believe there is a fuller meaning to a text we must be able to demonstrate its appropriateness within the Story of the World as revealed in scripture.  It must fit with God’s “grammar”, with his “style.”  There must be a suitability about it, as there is in the miracles of Jesus Christ and in his reenactment of the history of Israel.  It must “fit.”  Consider it like this:

“Let us suppose we possess parts of a novel or a symphony.  Someone now brings us a newly discovered piece of a manuscript and says, ‘This is the missing part of the work.  This is the chapter on which the whole plot of the novel really turned.  This is the main theme of the symphony.’  Our business would be to see whether the new passage, if admitted to the central place which the discoverer claimed for it, did actually illuminate all the parts we had already seen and ‘pull them together.’  Nor should we be likely to go very far wrong.  The new passage, if spurious, however attractive it looked at first glance, would become harder and harder to reconcile with the rest of the work the longer we considered the matter.  But if it were genuine then at every fresh hearing of the music or every fresh reading of the book, we should find it settling down, making itself more at home and eliciting significance from all sorts of details in the whole work which we had hitherto neglected.”20

If the meaning we assign to the text, its primary meaning or its fuller one, does not have this appropriateness we must reject it. If it is not suitable then we may only maintain our proposed fuller meaning by claiming some special revelation of the Spirit. Insofar as I know of no one claiming such a revelation, we are left with only one way. The Story must make sense as a whole and whatever interpretations we claim for it must do the same.21 These are the controls which are placed upon our use of the Bible. If we do not respect these limits we risk abusing the text as well as using the text to abuse others. Only by such strict adherence to the Bible do we find the way forward, through the fog, by the lamp which God has granted us. Only his word is “a lamp unto our feet and light unto our path” (Psalm 119:105).

 

©M. Benfield 2017

 


1. You can see the painting here: http://www.artbible.info/art/large/739.html ; Accessed 29 March 2017.
2. A charge which my detractors will no doubt level against me.
3. This phrase comes from the Creed of Chalcedon, available here: http://www.theopedia.com/chalcedonian-creed ; Accessed 30 March 2017.
4. Some have suggested that John’s reference is to Ps. 34:20 instead of the Passover. This would seem odd. The promise in Psalms is deliverance from death. The reference to Passover, a description of death, is more fitting. Still, if the reference is to Psalms it supports the point that the “fulfillment” is not a fulfillment of an evident prophecy. It is a recapitulation of a promise.
5. I say “supposed to have said” because this quote comes from a recreation of a conversation between Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. The recreation, however, is based upon evidence from Tolkien and Lewis themselves and ought to be considered fairly reliable. If he did not say these exact words he certainly said something like it for he has said similar things in other places. E.g. when discussing Man’s habit of telling stories and making myths he writes, “We still make by the law in which we’re made” (from his poem Philomythus to Misomythus or Mythopoeia). If our making stories is according to “the law in which we’re made” it necessarily follows that our lives and all of history is a kind of divine story making or, to use Tolkien’s own word, mytho-poeia.
6. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009), 93.
7. C.S. Lewis, “Miracles”, God in the Dock, in The Timeless Writings of C.S. Lewis, (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 2004), 315.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid, 316.
10. Lewis, Miracles, (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 186.
11. Ibid, 184.
12. Lewis, “Myth Became Fact”, God in the Dock, 343.
13. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008), 207.
14. Ibid, 176.
15. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories”, in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, (London: HarperCollins 2006), 155-156.
16. Lewis, “Miracles”, God in the Dock, 316, 321.
17. Lewis, Miracles, 103.
18. Lewis, Miracles, 258.
19. It would be dishonest if I did not here mention N.T. Wright’s book Scripture and the Authority of God, (New York: HarperCollins, 2011). His approach was always in the back of my mind while writing and his approach has influenced me a great deal. He seems to have done with the Story of Israel what Chesterton, Tolkien, and Lewis did with myth. He finds Jesus, rightly I believe, reenacting the Story of Israel as Lewis and the rest saw Jesus reenacting great myths. It is right to wonder whether Wright is also indebted to these men. I think it likely insofar as he regularly admits the influence of C.S. Lewis. If our approaches are so similar, why call it unique to myself? First, Wright has, to my knowledge, never made his case in quite the same way I have. As a result I cannot be absolutely certain that he would agree. Second, because I cannot be sure he would agree, or put it quite the way I have, I have left off associating him with a view which he might oppose. Regardless, I wish to give credit where it is due and acknowledge his influence as well as certain similarities between what I affirm and what he has written.
20. Lewis, Miracles, 175-176.
21. Wright models this for us in the two case studies which conclude Scripture and the Authority of God. Even with practices which many think are quite clear cut, like Sabbath and Monogamy (his two case-studies), Wright shows that it is not enough to simply quote a verse. We can only trust that our interpretation of a verse is correct if it shares the style of the True Story of the World.

Sensus Plenior, Old World Science, and Other Hermeneutic Questions (Part 1)

 

The phrase sensus plenior is Latin for “fuller sense” or “fuller meaning.”  It is often used in biblical exegesis to refer to a “deeper” or “hidden” meaning of the text intended by God but not intended by its human author.  Classic examples of sensus plenior are 2 Samuel 7:12 which is supposed to contain a prophecy about Solomon as well as a prophecy about David’s “Greater Son”, Jesus the Christ, and Isaiah 7:14 which is thought to prophecy both the birth of Mahershalahashbaz by a “maiden” as well as the birth of Jesus by a “virgin” (the ambiguous Hebrew almah being later translated by the stricter Greek parthenos).

Though sensus plenior is not used to describe pre-scientific statements (as far as I know) the ideas are similar.  Just as sensus plenior says that there is another meaning latent in the text of which the human author is unaware, so Scientific Concordists believe that modern science is embedded in the text unbeknownst to the writers.  An example of this is Isaiah 40:22 where God is pictured as sitting upon the “circle” of the earth.  According to the Concordist, the Israelites may have considered this “circle” to be a disc (not a sphere) like the surrounding nations of the ancient world, but Isaiah was in fact indicating the earth’s spherical shape.  Another example is the psalmist’s mention of “the paths of the sea” in Psalm 8:8.  This was supposed to have revealed the existence of ocean currents.  Examples could be multiplied to include the Israelites establishment of quarantine, healthy diets, as well as the invention of a crude anti-bacterial soap, but these examples are sufficient enough to illustrate the idea.

Both sensus plenior and pre-scientific statements are by definition “context-less” because nothing in the context indicates the presence of the hidden meaning, or else it would not be considered hidden.  Is this a legitimate form of exegesis?  Certain “obvious” examples, like Isaiah 7:14, would seem to say so.  But is there another way to view supposed sensus plenior?  This article begins a series which will examine sensus plenior, “Old World Science”, and some other modern hermeneutical practices which share their context-less nature.

One important thing needs to be said before we launch into a discussion of inspiration and exegesis.  I do not question what God is able to do.  I only intend to raise questions about what God, in fact, has done.  God is able to fill my office with elves and fairies but he is not at present doing so (that I can tell).  It is important to keep these two questions separate and I only intend to address the one: what has God revealed in scripture?

 

Scientific Concordism
Regarding the “sensus plenior” of Old World Science, it is taken for granted that the Bible is not a science text book.  This means that its purpose is not to give us a science education.  Its purpose is to tell the Story of God’s mission to rescue creation from the mess that we’ve made.  Scripture is not for an education in physics but for “teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16, 17).

The very definition of sensus plenior, however, is that God embedded a meaning which the human author did not intend and was possibly (probably?) unaware of.  A commitment to this idea, which is, unfortunately often bound to the inerrancy of scripture, has caused some to say that although the Bible is not a science text book it is always accurate whenever it remarks upon scientific matters.1 This view is called Scientific Concordism and is the default position of many (most?) evangelical Christians.

The view is often explained using the “Two Books” metaphor.  It is said that God wrote “two books”: one is written upon Nature in the precise language of math and science, the other is written upon the pages of the Bible in the more common, but also more ambiguous, language of men.   The metaphor itself is very old.  Galileo Galilei used this metaphor in his famous Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany (A.D. 1615), but even then he was quoting Tertullian’s much earlier work Adversus Marcionem (circa A.D. 208).  He writes,

“Perhaps this is what Tertullian meant by these words: ‘We conclude that God is known first through Nature, and then again, more particularly, by doctrine; by Nature in his works, and by doctrine in his revealed word.’  From this I do not mean to infer that we need not have an extraordinary esteem for the passages of holy scripture.  On the contrary, having arrived at any certainties in physics, we ought to utilize these as the most appropriate aids in the true exposition of the Bible and in the investigation of those meanings which are necessarily contained therein, for these must be concordant with demonstrated truths.”2

The common belief that modern science completely accords with scripture has resulted in two different approaches. One, believing science to be the clearer revelation, interprets scripture in light of modern science. This has resulted in ideas like the Day-Age Theory, the Gap Theory, and so on. The other, believing that scripture is the more reliable (albeit less precise) revelation, either accepts or rejects science depending on whether or not it agrees with their interpretation of scripture. This has resulted in some rejecting Evolution, Global Warming, Heliocentrism, even the very existence of Dinosaurs. The root of these approaches is exactly the same. They both share the common belief that modern science must agree with scripture. The only difference is that one interprets scripture in light of science and the other interprets science in light of scripture.3

But is it possible that the Concordist approach is inherently flawed? Does our belief in scripture really depend upon its scientific accuracy, or vice versa?  Is it possible that there is a third way?  I believe that there is.  Before offering a third way, however, let’s first consider some of the difficulties inherent in Scientific Concordism.4

 

Difficulties with Scientific Concordism
One way of defending Scientific Concordism is to suggest that the scientific language of the Bible is sometimes intentionally ambiguous. This gets God out of the supposed dilemma of saying something false while at the same time allows him to accommodate the false beliefs of the original readers. 5 This raises the question: if the language of the Bible could be used by ancients to “prove” their science as well as by moderns, does it prove either one?  We must answer, no.  To be fair, this approach does not claim to end the discussion, only to keep it open.

Another bolder approach is to say that the scientific language of the Bible is not ambiguous at all, but quite specific.  It requires that each scripture which supposedly comments upon some scientific fact be precisely accurate.  The problem I find here is that science is constantly changing.  At every stage Christians have thought that the Bible supported the best science of their day.6  And each time science proved otherwise Christians were forced into a corner.  We had three decisions, and individuals have taken all three at different times: 1. Give up the Bible all together  2. Give up that particular interpretation of the Bible.  3. Question the science.

It seems to me that this constant battle with science is never ending.  Regardless of where you begin, either with science or scripture, there is only one way to settle the matter and that is to have all matters settled.  Christians will have to arrive unanimously at an immovable hermeneutic position and say, “This is precisely what the text means.”  So long as we are able to change our interpretations of scripture then science will never be able to “pin us down.”  Each time experts find science to contradict scripture we will either deny the science or change our interpretation.  Just the same, if Christians claim science as their support what will they do when the science changes?  Only when science has settled all matters which it is suited to settle, and only when the interpretation of scripture is finally concluded can we compare the “two books” and say whether they agree or not.

Whether we choose the former softer route, which can prove everything and therefore prove nothing, or the latter harder route, which constantly changes its answers so as to preclude any objective comparison, it seems that we cannot expect science to be an ally in proving the inerrancy of the Bible.

I want to suggest, however, that even though it is not an ally (at least not in the way that Concordists suppose) neither is it an enemy.  It is not an enemy because science and the Bible are saying two very different things.  As we said before, the Bible is not a science text book.  Therefore, we ought not judge the Bible by its scientific in/accuracy.  Immediately someone (perhaps you, the reader) will ask, “Does that mean that there are errors in the Bible?”  Well, yes.  And no.  It depends on how we judge errors.  A quick glimpse at Speech-Act Theory will help explain what I mean.7

 

Speech-Act Theory
Speech-Act Theory is a way of explaining what we do when we communicate with others.  It’s important to note, first of all, that much language involves accommodation.  We must assess where our audience is in their understanding and then choose the appropriate words to communicate with them, even if those words are imprecise and not the words we would normally use (consider how we often explain difficult concepts to children).  Speech-Act Theory helps us to understand this sort of accommodation.  The most important idea behind the theory is that when we speak we are not merely communicating but we are actually trying to accomplish something (hence, Speech-Act), for example, to promise, to bless, to instruct, to pacify, to apologize, to encourage, and so on.  Consequently, we also expect a particular sort of reaction from those with whom we communicate.  We expect them to obey, to understand, to accept a gift/blessing, to forgive, etc.

When we speak we use words, idioms, and tone (if spoken) or genre (if written).  This part of the communication, the first part, is called locution.  One of the most important things to grasp is that genre can be neither true nor false.  Insofar as it bears similarity to the tone of a spoken voice we might ask, can a person’s tone be true or false?  No, of course not.  It simply is.  It is an adornment of the locution, a characteristic of the words which are the vehicle of meaning.  It will change how we receive the message of the speaker/writer but it is not inherently true or false.8 This is also where accommodation happens. Accommodation, then, becomes a part of the genre and, therefore, cannot be true or false.

The next part of the Speech-Act is illocution, what we are trying to do through speech.  Are we trying to encourage, promise, describe, or instruct? Or perhaps something else?  And if we are trying to teach, what are we trying to teach?  If we are trying to describe, what are we trying to describe?  Consider one of Pablo Neruda’s Cien Sonetos de Amor (XXIII):

 

“The fire for light, a rancorous moon for bread, the jasmine smearing around its bruised secrets: then from a terrifying love, soft white hands poured peace into my eyes and sun into my senses.”9

 

If you were to ask Neruda if this were true I have no doubt that he would say, “Yes.”  We understand that we are not to imagine Matilde, his wife, pouring a bucket of sunshine.  Yet, it does communicate something true.  It is not a scientific truth, not a physical truth.  Rather, it is a romantic or a metaphysical truth.  The phrase “soft white hands poured peace into my eyes and sun into my senses” is the locution intended to describe (the illocution) an evening shared by him and his wife.  The locution, the words and genre he used, are not verifiable or falsifiable. It is the uniquely suited vehicle chosen to describe and praise (the illocution) his and his wife’s shared reality. It is the illocution that we must judge to be either true or false.  (That is assuming the illocution is verifiable.  A command, for example, can be neither true nor false, it merely is).  Only if Neruda and Matilde had hated one another and never spent a single amicable evening together could we would say the poem is false.  Notice, however, that we would not say it is false simply because it used fanciful language.  That is part of the genre (locution) and is therefore neither true nor false.  We would only say it is false if what it affirmed (the love for his wife) were shown to be false.  Authority is not vested in the locution (speech) independent of the illocution (act).

We are now in a position where we can deal with some of the “scientific” statements of the Bible.

 

Old World Science in the Bible
In Genesis 1 the sky is described as a “firmament” (1:6-8).  The “firmament” is the Hebrew word raqiya later translated by the Greek stereoma.  Though some have suggested that raqiya simply means “expanse”, instead of “beaten metal”, stereoma refers to anything firm or solid.  We have already noted that Augustine, Luther, and Calvin all believed in a solid dome (cf. footnote 6).  It was none the less true of the Ancients in Israel’s day.  Mesopotamians and Egyptians both believed that the sky was a solid dome which held back the waters above and allowed precipitation through gates in the firmament.10 There is no reason to believe that the Israelites believed anything different, especially considering that this was the common believe even as recently as John Calvin.

Does this mean that God made a mistake?  No.  Remember, the Bible is not a scientific text book.  That means it is not intended to relate scientific facts, that is not its illocution.  Rather, it is intended to talk about God’s mission in the world.  This means that he may (and has) used accommodative language (locution) in order to meet the Israelites where they are and communicate some truth about himself.  The story of Genesis 1 is not about material origins.  It is about God constructing a cosmic temple in which he intends to dwell with mankind.

Elsewhere God is pictured as sitting upon “the circle of the earth” (Isa. 40:22).  Again, Egypt and Mesopotamia appear to have believed that the earth was a flat disk.11  It makes sense for God to communicate to his people using their common language to make a further point.  The point of the passage is that the LORD is greater than idol gods, not to say something about the shape of the earth.

This sort of linguistic accommodation is to be expected.

“Why would we think that the human communicator would use the science of our day? In fact, that would be foolishness because a century from now we will undoubtedly have adopted some new scientific conclusions that differ from what we believe today. Science is always changing, and it is expected that continuous progress will be made. God chose human communicators associated with a particular time, language and culture and communicated through them into that world.”12

Over and over again examples of biblical “Old World Science” could be given.  This need not bother us, however, if we remember that the Bible is not intended to communicate such scientific truths.  Science and the Bible are saying two very different things.  Consequently, science can be neither biblical or non-biblical because the Bible does not take scientific positions, nor can the Bible be scientific or unscientific because it is not concerned with scientific questions.  The Bible and science are different instruments revealing different sorts of truths.  This allows the Bible writers to say what they want to say to us without trying to make them into proto-scientists.  This also allows science to be judged on its own merits.  If the earth revolves around the sun or vice versa it is not so because “the Bible says,” it is so because the science says so.  Further, if the earth is ten thousand years old or ten billion years old it will be found to be so because science says so, not because the Bible says so.  The Bible is not intended to answer such questions and it is a mistake, I believe, to require it to do so.

Conclusion
We have come a long way.  While some may think the chief importance of the above information has to do with whether or not the Bible is inspired, it extends further than that.  This way of understanding the Bible becomes very important to our hermeneutic approach in other places.

First, we have demonstrated briefly that nothing in the context of supposed scientific statements indicates that the purpose of those passages is to communicate scientific information.  The context always indicates that the writer had another goal in mind (his illocution).

Second, this means that if scientific information was intended to be transferred by God, unbeknownst to the human writer, then it is by definition context-less, because the context has indicated otherwise.

“If God had other meanings beyond what he gave through the human biblical communicator, we have no reliable way to get to them except through later authority figures.  We dare not imagine ourselves in that capacity lest the authority of the text end up residing in each individual reader.”13

Which leads to our next point.  Third, if we affirm that such information is embedded in the text we affirm the existence of a context-less message and thereby remove all possible controls upon interpretation.  It now becomes senseless to speak of something being taken “out of context.”  All a person needs to do is appeal to other context-less interpretations to legitimate his idea.  This is, I think, the greatest danger.  It allows the Bible to be abused as a witness to the whimsy of men and women who would support this policy or that, this war effort or that one, trendy diets, particular clothing styles, or invented household rules.  (Anyone who who has fallen prey to such interpretations will know that none of these examples is far fetched).  The possible existence of context-less interpretation not only abuses the Bible but is too often used to abuse people.  The only hope we have at saving others from such manipulation is the serious and prayerful struggle to understand scripture within its ancient context as it would have been understood by its original readers.  These are the controls, the limits, set upon us as students of the Bible which safeguard others from our own pride and selfishness.  God have mercy on us all as we dive deeper into the world of the Bible and the mission of God.

 

 


1. For example, Dr. Hugh Ross, writer for Reasons to Believe, says, “If the Bible is indeed God’s message to humanity, would He not inspire the human authors in such a manner that their writings would communicate truth, and nothing but truth, to all generations?” Internet; Available at: http://www.reasons.org/articles/defending-concordism-response-to-the-lost-world-of-genesis-one ; Also, Mike Willis for Truth Magazine writes, “Yet, the claim that the Bible is verbally inspired cannot be sustained if the passing comments which it makes regarding the universe are in conflict with the facts of science. Hence, in order for the Bible to be inspired of God, it must be a book which harmonizes with the known facts of science.”  Internet; Avaialble at: http://www.truthmagazine.com/archives/volume21/TM021270.html ; Accessed 17 March, 2017.
2. Galileo Galilei, Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany, lines 275-286. Internet; Available at: http://www4.ncsu.edu/~kimler/hi322/Galileo-Letter.pdf ; Accessed 11 March 2017.
3. John Soden PhD., “What is Concordism in Bible-Science Discussion?” Internet; Available at: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2017/03/07/concordism-bible-science-discussion/ ; Accessed 17 March 2017.
4. This is not intended to respond to every shade of Concordism. That would be a task much too large for this short article. I intend only to offer some general objections to common Concordist approaches.
5. James Patrick Holding, a writer for Answers in Genesis, takes this position in his response to Paul H. Seely. “Is the Raqiya’ (Firmament) a Solid Dome? Equivocal Language in the Cosmology of Genesis 1 and the Old Testament: a Response to Paul H. Seely.” Internet; Available at: https://answersingenesis.org/astronomy/cosmology/is-the-raqiya-firmament-a-solid-dome/ ; Accessed 17 March 2017.
6. Augustine, Martin Luther, and John Calvin all believed scripture supported the science they had but which we now know to be outdated. Internet; Available at: http://www.thegospelandevolution.com/is-scientific-concordism-really-a-feature-of-the-bible/ ; Accessed 17 March 2017.
7. In what follows I am almost entirely dependent upon John Walton and Brent Sandy’s book The Lost World of Scripture, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013).
8. Something like this idea may be behind the famous conversation where C.S. Lewis said to J.R.R. Tolkien, “But myths are lies, and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver. They are just beautiful lies. You can’t actually believe in fairy stories.” To which Tolkien responded, “Why not? I can. In fact, I do.” Are we then to believe that Tolkien believed in Zeus, Mars, or the Ragnorak? Of course not. He was a faithful Catholic. But he understood that the truth or falsity of myth was not in its genre but in what it attempted to do, and it attempted to speak truth. The conversation continues, “But this is preposterous. How can you seriously believe a lie?” said Lewis. Tolkien then explains, “Myths are not lies. In fact they are the opposite of a lie. They convey the essential truth, the primal reality, of life itself.” This dialogue is recreated from notes in their letters and from Tolkien’s poem which resulted from this conversation variously titled “Polymythus to Misomythus” or more simply “Mythopoeia.” A live action recreation of the conversation is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NzBT39gx-TE ; Internet; Accessed 18 March 2017. “Mythopoeia” is available here: http://home.agh.edu.pl/~evermind/jrrtolkien/mythopoeia.htm ; Internet; Accessed 18 March 2017.
9. Pablo Neruda, Cien Sonetos de Amor, Trans. Stephen Tapscott (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009), 51.
10. John Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 168-170.
11. Ibid, 171-172.
12. Walton, Lost World of Scripture, 52.
13. Ibid, 53.

Truth is NOT Simple (Part 2)

Part 1 made the case that truth is not simple.  This article explains why acknowledging complexity is important.

First, it needs to be said that understanding complexity is different from acknowledging that it exists.  Whereas I think acknowledging complexity is important for everyone, understanding it is not.  If we recall, C.S. Lewis admits this as well.  “A child saying a child’s prayer looks simple.  And if you are content to stop there, well and good.”1  Many people are content to stop “there”, i.e. at simplicity.  And I admit that in most cases that is all that is necessary.  For example, a person does not need to understand alternative numbering systems or why we have settled upon Base-10 in order to learn basic arithmetic.  They may be content to be told, “We use 10 digits and here they are.”  And for the general population that is all they need to know to balance their check book, to invent a budget, or figure sales tax.  But.  There are some people who must acknowledge and understand the complexity latent in numbering systems.  A person cannot get far in certain technology fields without understanding binary notation which is a Base-2 numbering system.  If a person refused to admit that there were alternative ways of counting and insisted upon Base-10 as “the right way” or perhaps “the simple way,” and if he refused to use binary because it was “too complicated”, I imagine he would be looking for another job.

Again, I readily admit that most people do not need to know that different planets spin on their axis at different rates and that the rate of their  rotation stands in a different relationship to their orbits around the sun than does the earth.  Most people are content to know that there are 24 hours in an (earth) day and that there are 365 days in an (earth) year.2 There are, however, some for whom the former is not only interesting but necessary. Those who are responsible for landing probes on Mars will need to know that Mars moves differently than the Earth. If a calculator at NASA refused to acknowledge that “years” are not always 365(.25) days and that “days” are not always 24 hours, because it was “too complicated” and it made his head spin, then he would not be of much use to NASA.

The same can be said when it comes to religion in general and Christianity in particular.  What a person “has to know”3 in order to be a faithful Christian appears simple, and it will remain simple for most people. But inevitably there will arise circumstances for certain individuals and for certain congregations that step outside of the norm. On these occasions “simple” just will not do. I offer one example here but anyone with an “inside” view of Churches of Christ will know that these examples could be multiplied. I feel confident in saying that the most common musical experience an outsider would have when worshipping with a Church of Christ would be a cappella singing lead by an individual man. Supposing an outsider asked why we do it this way, and precluding the opportunity for a more in depth answer4, we might say, “We sing a capella because instruments were not used by churches in the New Testament. A man leads because women are not to usurp authority over men.” A single sentence answer for each of the two curiosities inherent in male lead a capella worship. Now, a person might hear that and be satisfied. Maybe. But this simplicity only hides the latent complexity which will arise in different circumstances.

I have had the grand opportunity of doing extensive mission work in Brazil. On one occasion I even had the privilege of living with a Brazilian family for 2 months. While our worship services were much the same they sometimes differed on this point. In a smaller gathering it was still most common to see worship lead just like it is here, one man leading the church in a capella singing. A larger church, however, often did things differently. They had two men leading worship. When I first saw this I was a little startled. It was certainly different. But I thought very little of it. An even bigger group saw three men leading together. A still bigger group saw six men all standing in front of the congregation leading us in song. When I inquired as to why they did it this way they responded that often younger boys feel too timid to stand alone in front of the church. Being surrounded by their family and friends helps them to over come that fear. It turned out that this was their way of discipling worship leaders, and an effective one at that. Upon return home I continued to reflect upon the practice. I heard so much about the sin of “Praise Teams.” They were simply “unauthorized.” I began to wonder, “What was the difference in that group of men leading worship in Brazil and a Praise Team in Mississippi?” More questions began to arise. “What constitutes a ‘team’? Were they a ‘team’ when they were two? Or did it take as many as six to make them a ‘team’?” I further questioned, “Which one of them was leading? Were they all leading? Is it possible to have more than one leader? If everyone lead does it mean anything to call them leaders? Can a leader be a leader if he has no followers? Then what about certain devotionals where no one stands in front but any one is free to lead at any time? Is there really a leader? Are there really followers?” My questioning didn’t stop. “What if there is a mixed group of men and women up front but they were all subordinate to a leader? Does that mean that the women are usurping authority over the men in the pews even though they are subordinate to the man leading the praise team? What is different when these women are seated in the pews in contrast to when they stand behind a man on stage?” These questions were overwhelming. Then I landed at this one, “Where in the New Testament do we find an example of even one man standing in front of the congregation to lead the church? Where did I get the idea of song leaders in the first place?” If a person is satisfied with a simple answer then they need not worry about these problems. But what happens when a young man, recently baptized, wants to lead songs but is too shy to do it without his father? Are they both allowed to stand in front to lead the church? And if two may lead then why not three? And if three then why not six? And if we can have a team, why can we not have women?  I am not here advocating Praise Teams or women worship leaders. All of this is merely illustration to prove a point. Our simple answers “work” most of the time. But our simple answers are not suitable for every circumstance. Exceptional circumstances are unavoidable. In such cases we need leaders who are willing to grapple with the complicated realities that so evidently describe our lives. One who refuses to accept the complexity of truth is not willing to do that. And that is problem #1. For most Christians simple answers satisfy. Others, specifically leaders, will have to be prepared for that which is not simple. The leader who is not willing to entertain complex answers to irregular situations is not prepared for the irregularities of ministry.

Second, another problem with believing that truth is simple is that it changes what I think of other people. It leaves only two opinions about those who disagree with me.  They are either bad or brainless.  They can be wicked or they can be wacky.  But they cannot be genuine and genius at the same time.

I have recently begun to substitute at the local schools. Every class is a mixed bag. I have some children who are special ed and some who are just special. If I were to teach a basic mathematics class and a young man insisted that 2+2 was 11 I could react a number of different ways. If I refused to admit the possibility of alternate numbering systems and insisted upon Base-10 being “the right way”, then I could only think two things about this fellow. One possibility is that something has gone wrong with his education. He has not learned to count, and that is a sad situation indeed. But it is, at least, a situation with a remedy. I need only sit the young man down and return to the number line. The other possibility, however, is much more distressing. It is possible that the young man is being intentionally obstinate and disruptive. In this case he is intelligent enough to see that 2+2 is 4 but he chooses not to admit it for his own twisted amusement. If I were to meet this sort of thing in an adult I might wonder if he had some other motive. Perhaps insisting that 2+2=11 is an odd sort of wish fulfillment. Maybe he wishes to work two two-hour days and get paid for 11 hours of labor. Whatever his motive is it is surely a bad one. The problem is not the man’s head, it is his heart. And if that is the problem then no amount of education will save him. I should not waste my time trying to teach him. I should spend my time praying for his soul.

But. What if I was willing to admit that even the simplest of equations has a number of correct answers? This admits a new possibility. It is not that my student is dorky or deficient. Perhaps he is neither puerile or pernicious … he is quite possibly precocious. Maybe he sees some disability or clumsiness in our Base-10 numbering system that I am unable to see. Yes, he’s well aware that 2+2=4 the way that I reckon it. But maybe he has a reason for preferring to reckon it otherwise. If I were to crush his spirit I could be crushing another Einstein. If I decided to prove my authority by inspiring fear I could be inspiring another Sandy Hook. All because I insisted upon a much “simpler” and “traditional” way of reckoning numbers.

The same could be said for the length of days and years. If a young lady insisted that days were longer than years I could think that she was intellectually puny or that she was morally pugnacious. But, if I’m willing to entertain the possibility of complexity, I may entertain the possibility of a Perelandrian.5 And I would regret it if I forfeit the opportunity to introduce myself to a visitor from Venus.

These same responses fit matters of doctrine. Most often our initial response to those with whom we disagree is to assume that something has gone wrong with their education. We try to school them in elementary principles and bring them up to speed. If disagreement persists we do not assume that the trouble is with the topic. We do not assume that an educated fellow could genuinely disagree with us. Instead we assume that he must not want to know the truth. Documentation of these phenomena would be necessary if they weren’t so frequent. A duck inside a mainstream Church of Christ, a short listen to an online sermon, or a quick perusal of the many Facebook groups headed by members of the Church of Christ will be evidence enough. We are quick to say things like, “They decided to follow Man instead of the Bible.” “Some people just want their ears tickled.” “That man is a liar and a false prophet.” “He’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” “I remember the days when the simple gospel was enough for people. Now days all they’re interested in are fancy auditoriums and youth groups.” Still, overlooking the unlikelihood of an insider being unacquainted with such remarks, I share a personal experience where this attitude is evident.

While I was in school I once had an instructor who proudly confessed that he would be willing to volunteer any of our graduates to debate the students of any university, regardless of their erudition. Dartmouth, Yale, Harvard, no matter. We would defeat their liberalism with plain simple truth. If they disagreed with us they were either less intelligent or less sincere.  Either way they are “less.”  This assured him of our victory.  At the time I contributed my “Amen” to the chorus of the class. Now I feel fairly confident that we would be whipped in debate. What’s worse, we would be whipped and walk away thinking we had won.

This should not be surprising. If truth is really as simple as we insist then what option do we have? Either they are too ignorant to see what is plain or they are too stubborn to submit to God’s power. What other explanation is there for an intelligent man to disagree with us? He must not want to agree with us. The only thing that allows me to view my dissenters as good and intelligent is the belief that the thing about which we disagree is difficult to agree upon. If we are wrestling with a complex problem I should expect well meaning and gifted men to disagree with me. But if we are arguing about the color of the carpet he is either carnal or color blind (or maybe I am).

This is an important lesson for everyone to learn, not just the religious. Those who have taken it upon themselves to comment on politics would also do well to admit the complexity of the problems they debate. If determining the goodness of our president is as easy as comparing photos of the inauguration then there is only one explanation as to why people should think Trump a better choice than Obama. They are either bad or brainless. But if a president’s quality is more complex than paralleling polaroids then I might have to do the hard work of listening to those who think differently than I do.

If my presidential choices are defined by whether or not I support “killing babies” then there is only one way to explain why my neighbor would vote for Hillary. She is either wicked or wacky. But if electing our leader isn’t reducible to one issue then I may have to swallow my pride and have a conversation with my neighbor.

If my policy on refugees is as simple as defending against terrorism then there are only two reasons not to support my president’s temporary immigration ban: either I don’t understand terrorism, or I am a terrorist. But if immigration and harboring refugees is about more than terrorism then I might want safety for my friends and safety for the strangers.

The way that I view Truth and the way that I view Man are connected. If I am to leave room for love I must leave room for mystery. Being zealous for simplicity may mean being over zealous for prejudice. But when I make room in my head for the Sphinx, I make room in my heart for the foe.

Conclusion
It is not at all necessary for a person to understand all of the nuances of truth in order to be a good person or to be a faithful Christian.  When a child asks why Mommy’s belly is so big an acceptable answer would be, “Mommy is growing another baby in her tummy.”  It tells the truth but not all the truth.  In order to fully explain it we would have to say something about love, intimacy, marriage, sex, and embryology.  Of course, most of it would be meaningless to the little one and therefore unnecessary.  But when it comes to our own daughters having babies, we certainly want them to understand something about love, intimacy, marriage, and sex.  We may even want her to know a bit about embryology.  When it comes to the OBGYN we certainly want him/her to know something about it.

Some Christians are “new borns” or “children” in the faith.  Whether that is because they are recently converted or because they have failed to grow, “children” is an apt description.  In such cases they cannot stomach the food of the mature Christian (cf. 1 Cor. 3:1, 2; Heb. 5:11-14).  They need a simple presentation of complex truth.  It would be silly of me to deny this.  But it would be just as silly to think that my simple explanation has exhausted all there is to say.  If I fail to recognize this I dishonor the truth.  In addition, if I do not acknowledge the mysteries of the truth then it is only natural for me to think less of those who do not see what I see.  I do not have to see it all, but I must admit that there is more to be seen.

 

©M. Benfield 2017


1. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 40.
2. Even this is a little too simplified. There are in fact 365.25 days in a year. This is the reason for Leap Year. Every four years we must add an extra day to the year in order to stay on track.
3. Even this, by the way, cannot be agreed upon amongst my brethren. Why then do we insist that it’s continue to insist that it’s simple?
4. The very fact that a more “in depth” study would be desirable should indicate again that this is not a simple issue.
5. “Perelandra” is the native name of the planet Venus in C.S. Lewis’ science fiction novel by the same title.