“I Will Be What I Will Be”

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

©M. Benfield 2017


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

Jesus the Word of God

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

©M. Benfield 2017


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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

©M. Benfield 2017


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

Learning to Speak Christian: Apologetics Without Apology

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

G.K. Chesterton pictures it this way:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©M. Benfield 2017


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

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 3)

 

The purpose of this series has been to say something about hermeneutics.  The concern is with allowing scriptures to say what they mean without inserting something into the text which the authors themselves did not intend, which is a prolix way of saying that I’m concerned with keeping scriptures within their context.1 More precisely, my concern has been with whether or not it is possible for a text to have a meaning which the human author did not intend, that is, a meaning outside of its authorial context. If it can, then that meaning is, by definition, context-less. If context-less meanings exist it would spell trouble for meaningful discourse/disagreement, as well as efforts towards unity and unanimity which depend upon intellectual agreement.

In part one I took the position that the human authors did not unknowingly describe modern science. Rather, they sometimes couched theological statements about God (which was their illocution)2 within the Old World Science of their day. This means that there is no context-less science embedded in the OT.  In part two I took the position that many of the NT’s quotations of the OT do not indicate sensus plenior as often conceived amongst the people.3 The OT authors did not intend to prophecy about Christ. It was the NT authors who, in light of the revelation of the Christ event, “read backwards” and were able to notice certain figural patterns in the narrative of history in general and Israel’s history in particular. They then interpreted, retrospectively, the events of history (which were not prophecy per se) as foreshadowing the Christ who would come (cf. John 5:39; Luke 24:27, 44). If that is true, and I believe that it is, “it would be a mistake to read the Law and the Prophets as though their authors were deliberately predicting events in the life of Jesus. Rather, in light of the unfolding story of Jesus we’re enabled to read backwards and to discover in the Law and the Prophets an unexpected foreshadowing of the later story.”4 “Foreshadowing”, then, not “prophecy” is perhaps a better term to describe the sensus plenior as used in the NT.  In this way it is the Christ event which provides the context for the reinterpretation of the OT.  These sensus plenior are, therefore, not examples of context-less interpretations as some make them out to be.  On both accounts then, in regard to science in the Bible as well as the NT use of the OT, we find that neither supports the existence of context-less interpretations.

The significance of the figural interpretation of the OT by the NT is this: it makes such interpretations accessible to our reason, as it was to the writers of the NT. This is different from sensus plenior as often conceived amongst the “folk.” The folk conception of the NT use of the OT is that there were hidden meanings in the text only known to those which have a special illumination of the Holy Spirit. And this is, I think, the crux of the matter. It is at least the matter I intend to address in this final article. Either the (fuller)meaning of the text is accessible to our reason in light of the larger Story as interpreted through the Christ event, or we have no grounds to affirm supposed fuller meanings.

I mentioned in Part One about Old World Science that the term sensus plenior is not applied to the supposed pre-scientific statements (as far as I know).  I have labeled it a sort of fuller meaning, however, because they share the same character.  They both claim that there is embedded information which is not evident to the original reader and perhaps even the author.  In a similar way the sort of thing I will describe below is not sensus plenior as the term is commonly used.  Still, it shares the character of fuller meaning because it claims more meaning for certain passages than is apparent from the context or authorial intent.  The problems with such context-less interpretations will be discussed below.  But first, how does this interpretative method express itself in my tradition?

A Dangerous Assumption
Perhaps the most perilous assumption of my tradition5 is the assumption that the Bible must answer every question we raise about religious life.6 A scripture sometimes called in as evidence in this regard is 2 Peter 1:3.  “His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.”  This is usually considered prima facie evidence that the Bible answers all of our questions about Christian living.  But does it?  Saying that God has told us all that we need to know is different than saying that we need to know everything, and that is precisely how this verse is often treated.  Many with whom I come into contact, some of them ministers, seem to think that if they have a question about worship or ethics then the Bible must address it.  This often results in attributing more meaning to a particular text than was intended by the author.

When considering this it is important to remember that we are never allowed, with the Bible or any other book, to insist that it answer our questions.  We must allow the book to ask us its own questions.  Numerous writers recognize the importance of asking–not any question–but the right ones when reading a text.  Mortimer Adler speaks of reading in general and says, “Ask questions while you read–questions that you yourself must try to answer in the course of reading.  Any questions?  No.  The art of reading on any level above the elementary consists in the habit of asking the right questions in the right order” (emphasis original).7 Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart in specific regard to the Bible comment, “The key to good exegesis, and therefore to a more intelligent reading of the Bible, is to learn to read the text carefully and to ask the right questions of the text” (emphasis original).8  And finally, Krister Stendahl puts it beautifully when he writes, “Even the divinely right answer is not heard aright if it is applied to the wrong question.”9 There is a sense in which the Bible has a limited number of answers and we cannot take its finite number of answers and apply them to an infinite number of questions. That would be something akin to asking a Magic 8 Ball any question, knowing that it only has 20 answers on the icosahedral die. We may ask the Bible whether this practice or that one is authorized and we get either a yes, no, or a non-committal answer, just like the 8 Ball. We get answers like, “Yes, definitely”, “Most likely,” or “Very doubtful.” Whereas the Magic 8-Ball’s answers may be useful for party games, they are not intended to be a guide for deciding who to marry, which house to buy, or which religion to follow.  It was not designed to answer those questions.  In the same way we must stop to ask which questions the Bible is intended to answer.  If we make it answer questions it was not intended to answer we find the right answers to all the wrong questions.  We’ll take as examples three questions that have been asked within my tradition and upon examining the passages ask whether or not those passages are intended to answer the questions that we put to them.

 

How Many Cups Should We Use on the Lord’s Table?
If we were certain that the Bible was intended to answer this question then finding the answer would be fairly simple.  We need only to scour the Bible and collect all scriptures which reference the Lord’s Supper and decide whether or not one cup was used or many.  Many have assumed that the Bible is intended to answer this question and have done precisely that.  They then conclude that we are only authorized to use one cup for the Lord’s Supper.10 But this comes to the text with a question in mind, like one does with an 8-Ball, and does not stop to ask whether the text is intended to answer that question. Certainly the text is trying to tell us something, but what? What to eat? What to drink? What time to eat? Where to eat? How many cups to use? How many plates? In what direction we should pass the Supper? Is Jesus suggesting a healthy diet? Is he concerned with the frequency of the Supper? We could ask any of these questions, but we would be wrong to do so unless these are the questions the Bible intends to answer.

Without entering the complex discussions about whether the Supper which Jesus shared with his apostles was a Passover meal11 it does seem clear the Passover, at the very least, supplied the imaginative background for the Supper. The Bible writers certainly draw upon Passover language and readily apply it to Jesus (John 19:36; 1 Cor. 5:7, 8). Jesus, then, takes the Passover and reinterprets it around himself. Insofar as the Passover commemorated the Exodus, by drawing on the images of the Exodus Jesus identifies himself as the one who is to bring about the true Exodus, the full and final Exodus which will bring an end to exile, and death, which exile prefigures. When he institutes the Supper he says, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). That’s a radical statement. Up to this point the Passover has been in remembrance of God’s redeeming the Israelites from Egypt. Without losing that significance Jesus superimposes himself upon the memorial. It is no longer a memorial of the Egypt exodus only, it is also a memorial of the exodus which Christ himself would accomplish. The bread, Jesus says, is his body and the wine his blood.

We stop now to ask, is there anything in the text to suggest that the number of cups is at all significant? Is the single cup given some symbolic significance? Would the use of multiple cups change the imagery of the Exodus in any way? Would it affect the meaning of Jesus’ exodus? Would it in any way negate or alter the significance of Jesus’ body and blood? We must conclude that the number of containers is not a concern of any of the gospel texts. But what of others?

In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul reflects upon the significance of the Jesus Meal. The Corinthians, apparently, were dividing themselves by class. “I hear that there are divisions among you … one goes hungry and another becomes drunk … do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” (11:19-22). Paul points to the theological significance of the Supper in order to combat their division and encourage unity. Now certainly if ever there was a place for the symbolism of a single cup this would be it. In a divided church the necessity of drinking from a single cup would be an effective, not to mention beautiful, image to rally around. But such a point is conspicuously absent. In fact, it is the bread, not the “cup” which receives the interpretive attention.12 Paul writes, “For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves” (11:29, emp. mine). Whereas Paul could have drawn attention to the cup (he mentions both eating and drinking) he gives the symbol of unity to the bread. This no doubt draws upon his previous discussion of idolatry in which he also makes use of the Lord’s Supper tradition as an antidote to the erroneous practices of the Corinthian church. “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (10:16, 17).  Again, even when the cup is mentioned within the immediate context, the symbolism of unity is focused upon the bread, not the enumeration of cups.

This brief inspection is not intended to be an exhaustive treatment of the Eucharist. Space does not allow nor is it within the purview of this article. The point is simply to show that the concern of some is not at all the concern of Jesus, the apostles, or the early church. No text which depicts or comments upon the Lord’s Supper draws attention to the number of vessels during the Supper, even when it would have been an appropriate and effective symbol. There is nothing within the context of any passage to indicate it is concerned with the question, “How many cups ought we to have?” If that is not the question that the text intends to answer then we do wrong to force that question upon the text. The Bible is not the one on trial. We do not bring our questions to it. It poses its questions to us.

As far as the context shows there is no evidence that the writers were concerned with the number of cups used nor do they attribute any spiritual symbolism to a single cup, even when it would have been advantageous to do so.  Now, one may agree that the passage does not indicate a concern for one cup and yet still insist that such a meaning is within the passage. If this is so that would mean the one cup requirement is a context-less meaning.  Such a meaning, if it exists, is unavailable to our reason and thus becomes the kind of folk sensus plenior which I mentioned in the introduction.

How Many Elders Must a Congregation Have?
It is a long held position within my tradition that each local church is autonomous and has no higher earthly government than its own elders. Further, each church must have a plurality of elders or none at all. A single elder is, as we say, unauthorized.13 This is a similar question to the one above insofar as it has to do with number. As such, it makes a shocking inconsistency for many who require a plurality of elders think requiring one cup is silly.  But why?  If the mere mention of plural elders requires plural elders today, why does not the mention of one cup require only one cup?  Their reasons for each position are the same, as is the method by which they arrive at their conclusions.  They come with a question and then mine the Bible to find the answer.  Now, if we knew of a certainty that the Bible intended to answer the question of how many elders a church should have, then it would be that simple.  All we would need to do is search the Bible and discover how many elders were appointed at each church. But this comes to the Bible with a question already in hand, like some do with the cup in the Lord’s Supper, and like all do with the 8-Ball. We must first consider whether anything in the Bible suggests that it is concerned with the question.

There are many scriptures which mention elders, some in mere passing and others with more attention.14 Most of the time elders are accouterments of the scene and not the focus of the narrative. We’ll take a quick look at the passages which are most detailed and/or most appealed to by my tradition.

First, let’s make brief note of what is often pointed out, that every mention of a governing body in the church mentions elders in the plural. Indeed, I cannot count the number of times which ministers in my tradition, within my hearing, asserted that the mention of “bishops”, plural, in Philippians 1:1 was de facto evidence of the necessity of more than one elder. But, recall if you will our discussion of Speech Act Theory.15 Words do not merely communicate, they try to accomplish something. They inspire, inform, encourage, describe, commit, etc. We must ask ourselves whenever we read, “What is the writer trying to do?” In Philippians 1:1, is Paul trying to institute something by his reference to “bishops”? Is his intent to prescribe a practice? Nothing in the text suggests this. His goal is to identify the recipients of the letter. “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.” This is his illocution, and that is where his authority lies. If that is what he meant to accomplish then that is how it must be taken by the reader. We must ask these same questions of every verse which mentions elders. We must ask, “Does the writer intend to prescribe a practice of appointing only a plurality of elders?” We will find over and over again that that is not the goal of the writer, or at least, nothing in the text indicates this.

Second, one of the most detailed passages we have about elders/bishops is 1 Timothy 3:1ff. We notice first that he speaks of each individual bishop, not of a collective body. The next thing we notice, and the most obvious, is that Paul is not concerned with the number of bishops which are to be appointed in each church. His concern is wholly with the character of the bishops. Nothing in the text indicates a concern for the enumeration of elders.

Third, Acts 14:23 says of Paul and Barnabas, “And after they had appointed elders for them in each church, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the Lord in whom they had come to believe.” This passage is often cited to show that it was the practice of Paul and Barnabas to appointed “elders”, plural, in every church. This is taken to be definitive. A few things should be pointed out: 1. The point of Acts is not to describe church government. It’s references to early church organization are few. The book of Acts depicts for us how the first Christians believed they were to carry the Story of the world forward in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ. 2. The appointment of elders, much less their number, is not the focus of this section of Acts (chps. 13-14). This portion is concerned with describing Paul’s first exploits among the Gentiles and Gentile churches which will become the focus of the Acts narrative from here onward. 3. We cannot be sure that a plurality of elders was appointed in every church. Undoubtedly someone will point out that the word “elders” is presbuterous and is plural. That is not contested. But a simple insistence upon the plurality of the word does not deal with the nuance of language and so does not solve the problem.

Imagine a town building a new college. The campus is completed and they have hired their teachers. The last step is to appoint the deans of each department. Having done that the newspaper runs an article announcing the completion of this last step and the readiness of the college to open. As you read the article the reporter says, “After establishing the deans of each department the new college will open its doors for the Fall semester.” Does this require that there be multiple deans over each singular department? No. Even though the word “deans” is plural it does not require that each department has multiple deans.  We are to understand that multiple deans were appointed over multiple departments. While it is possible for a department to be presided over by multiple deans such an idea is not required by the text of the article. When we view Acts 14:23 in this way we must conclude that this text is not concerned with answering the question of the enumeration of elders and, if it were, it would not be a clear answer. The construction of the sentence leaves it ambiguous as to whether Luke describes the appointment of multiple elders over each church, or multiple elders with each one over his own church. Both interpretations are allowable.

Fourth, another passage which suffers from the same sort of ambiguity is Titus 1:5. Paul says to Titus, “I left you behind in Crete for this reason, so that you should put in order what remained to be done, and should appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.” Just as above, this could be taken to mean a plurality of elders over each town, or many elders each over his own town. Further, and more curious, Paul does not say that Titus is to appoint elders over every church, rather, over every town. One might say that there was only one church in each town and so it amounts to the same thing. But this begs the question. How do we know there was only one church in each town? Moving onward, we find that Paul immediately launches into a description of the character an elder ought to have. We find again that Paul’s concern is not the enumeration of elders but the character that they are supposed to have, just as in 1 Timothy 3. Did Paul intend to establish a particular practice by mentioning elders in the plural? It does not seem so. Nothing in the context suggests it and everything in the context suggests his concern was elsewhere. When we do not come to the text with our own questions, and when we allow the Bible to pose its questions to us, we find that very often the Bible writers’ concerns are wholly different than our own.

 

What Sort of Music Should We Have?
Acappella music is perhaps the most distinctive marker of my tradition.  Countless books and articles have been written making a case for acapella music as the only authorized form of music in the worship of the church.16 The approach to this question is the same as the others. We come with our question, “What sort of music should we have?” The answer, we think, is as simple as collecting all of the verses from the New Testament which mention music in worship and noting that they are all singing without accompaniment. Hopefully by now we can see the difficulty with this. If we knew of a certainty that the New Testament was intended to answer that question then it would be a fair way of settling the question. The difficulty is that we have not allowed the Bible to tell us whether or not it is interested in the question. We have assumed that it must answer the question and we have gone in search of the answer. But what if we backed up? What if we gathered together the relevant passages and then asked, “Is the concern of these passages to limit worship music to singing only?” What if we found that the writers’ interests were different than our own? What would that mean for worship? Let’s take a look at three relevant passages.

James 5:13 is the minor key when it comes to passages called in support of acapella only. The passage reads, “Above all, my beloved, do not swear either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your ‘Yes’ be yes and your ‘No’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation. Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord” (5:12-14). In regard to oaths James is concerned that people may use oaths as a form of manipulation. While they might “promise on a stack of Bibles” in order to coerce someone into agreeing to something that they might not otherwise agree to, James encourages the church to be people whose outward actions always accord with their inward character. They should not be a people whose inward character makes others hesitant to enter into agreement with them. They should not have to take an oath in order to convince others that “this time” they really mean it. Rather, they are to let their “Yes” be yes, and their “No” be no. They should not be deceptive or hypocritical people. Their outward actions are always commensurate with their inner attitudes. It is a short step from here to the next section where James tells the people that their outward actions should always reflect their inner condition, and those actions should bring their inner condition before God. If they are suffering, they should pray. No need to hide our suffering from God Almighty. Instead, we bring our suffering into his presence. If they are joyful, there is no reason to hold that in either. They should express it appropriately, and bring that expression of joy into the presence of God through singing. Are they sick? Well, have the elders pray for them. This is to bring sickness into the presence of God by bringing it to the Christian community by which God’s presence is mediated to us. Having the big picture of the flow of the text we are now in a position to ask, “Is James concerned with prescribing a particular sort of music for the church?” Not at all. His concern is that Christians be genuine and live in the presence of God no matter what the circumstance. Are we really to take singing as the only appropriate response to joy? Could we not shout? Or feast? If not, why not? And if we make singing the only appropriate response, will we then make prayer the only appropriate response to suffering? What about weeping? Or fasting? Is calling the elders to anoint with oil (a thing which we rarely do) the only appropriate response to sickness? What about taking medicine? Or going to the doctor? These are not restrictive commands but representative ones. James is describing the sort of behavior which ought to characterize the Christian, not a particular act. A Christian ought always to express himself appropriately and always in the presence of God, which shows our dependence upon him. If a restriction for acappella is here it is not indicated by the context and must by definition be context-less. If it is context-less then such a meaning is not available to our reason and it shares the character of the folk conception of sensus plenior.

We now move to the central scriptures in defense of acappella only, Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. We will not insist that these scriptures answer the questions that we would pose to it. Rather, we want to come to the letters and allow them to speak to us. What is Paul’s concern when he commands singing? Is he trying to restrict the form of worship to acappella? Only an examination of the letter can tell and we cannot assume a particular question going in.

One of the most peculiar things about both texts is that neither actually contains the command to sing. The words which describe the action, “teaching”, “admonishing”, “speaking”, “making melody”, “giving thanks”, and “singing” are all verbals. None are commands. A verbal is a verb which functions as an adjective, adverb, or a noun. If police were to approach a man in a park where people were engaged in all sorts of activities, eating, exercising, kissing, singing, throwing frisbee, and ask that man, “Have you seen Mr. James Smith?” He might respond, “Yeah, he’s right over there.” “Which one?” the police ask. The man then says, “The singing man.” “Singing” here functions as an adjective describing the man. So while it is a verb in form it is an adjective in function. Verbals may also be adverbs. Whereas an adjective describes a noun an adverb describes a verb. For example, I might say, “I’ve been cleaning the house all day, sweeping, mopping, and vacuuming.”  The verbals “sweeping, mopping, and vacuuming” are not additions to “cleaning”, they are adverbs.  They describe the cleaning; they tell what it looks like.  That is how the verbals function in Ephesians and Colossians.

In Ephesians Paul discusses the change that ought to characterize the Christians in Ephesus. They are to “lead a life worthy of their calling” (4:1). They are to “put away their former life” their “old self”, “be renewed in the spirit of their minds”, and “clothe themselves with their new self, created according to the likeness of God” (4:22-24). This contrast between former sinful behavior and present holiness continues into chapter 5 where Paul writes, “So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:17-20). Paul points to activities which characterized their former life, as he has since chapter 4, things like foolishness and drunkenness, and commands them to forfeit those practices in lieu of holy ones. Instead of being filled with wine he commands them to “be filled with the Spirit.” This is the command of the verse.  What follows are verbals which describe that command.  “Speaking to one another”, “singing and making melody”, and “giving thanks to God the Father” all describe what it looks like to “be filled with the Spirit.” This can be taken either to mean that these are the practices which invite the filling of the Spirit, or they can describe the results of being filled with the Spirit. Either way, there is an intimate connection between these practices and a Spirit-led life. We now ask, is Paul concerned with the sort of music in the church? Does he here intend to prescribe acappella music as the only approved sort? If that is a concern, it is not evident. Paul’s illocution, what he is trying to do by writing this, is to encourage the Ephesians to forfeit the “unfruitful works of darkness” (5:11), like drunkenness, and to “live as children of light” (5:7) by being filled with the Spirit. If that is Paul’s intent, can we conscientiously make him say something else?

Paul’s message to the Colossians is much the same. He calls the church to “put to death whatever is earthly” and to be “clothed with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator” (3:5, 10). “Above all”, he writes, “clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything int he name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (3:14-17). The similarities to the Ephesian passage are striking, even down to the lack of focus upon the sort of music we are to have in the worship of the church. Paul’s concern is a changed life. He expects them to put to death those things which are “earthly” and to live a life filled with the word of Christ which subsequently produces singing and thanksgiving. Does he intend by writing this to limit the worship of the Colossian church to acappella singing? If he does, nothing in the context suggests it. If that meaning is latent then it is context-less and is unavailable to our reason. If any of these passages intend to prescribe a particular sort of music it is not obvious. If we insist that these verses require acappella singing we are assigning the passages a sort of fuller meaning which does not originate from the context of the passage.

Series Summary
We have come a long way. We began by discussing supposed pre-scientific statements. We determined that it was never the intention of the Bible writers to reveal modern science. And since it was not their intention then if such science exists it is context-less, it is hidden, and so shares the character of sensus plenior.

We then discussed the NT use of the OT. We found that even when the NT writers point to the life of Jesus as the fulfillment of an OT passage, they do not mean that it was the intention of that OT passage to prophecy about Christ. Rather, the NT writers “read backwards” and retrospectively perceive events which foreshadow the life of Christ. These figural analogies are then termed fulfillments by the NT writers. The significant thing about this definition of fuller meaning is that it makes the sensus plenior accessible to our reason.  It is not the case that NT writers were “allowed to use scripture out of context because they were inspired by the Holy Spirit”, as a friend once told me.  They did not play fast and loose with scripture.  There is a context to these figural readings, as there is to every appropriate interpretation of fuller meaning, and it is the Christ event which provides that context.

Finally, in this article we have shown that the way many approach the above topics (and others) share the character of a folk understanding of sensus plenior.  They attribute to the passage a meaning which is not apparent from the context, either immediately or in light of the Christ event.

Conclusion
So what?  Why is this a big deal?  The problems presented by such an interpretive method are these.

First, if there is meaning in the text which has no origin in the context then how do we get it?  Some who disagree with my assessment of the NT use of the OT will say that the writers did not “read backwards” and that their use of the Hebrew Bible was not available to their reason.  They will insist that the Hebrews scriptures cited were not foreshadowing but direct prophecy.  They will further insist that the Christian writers were able to discern these fuller meanings only by inspiration of the Holy Spirit.17 If that were the case then it would seem that in order to affirm a fuller meaning in the texts above, or any others, would require a similar claim to inspiration. If the fuller meaning is not available to our reason, and we insist that there is one, how do we know? If the NT writers only knew by inspiration, is this how we know? Would inspiration not be required for us as it was for them? I doubt anyone is willing to claim that sort of inspiration.

Second, I do not want to insist that the above option is the only one and so appear to create a Straw-Man argument. I admit to knowing no one who claims inspiration from the Spirit of the kind we read about in the NT, even though that would seem to be required if they insist upon a meaning not evident in the context. Still, there is another problem with claiming such a fuller meaning which has no origin in the immediate context or through the context of the Christ event, as all valid sensus plenior must. If the fuller meaning under question has no context, then how are we to verify it? Further, how are we to disagree with it? When we insist upon a meaning which is by definition context-less we have forfeit all controls upon interpretation. The moment we affirm such context-less meanings we open wide the gates for  interpretations whose only “context” is the whimsy of the interpreter. This is a danger we can all agree must be defended against. Without context, without boundaries placed upon the number of meanings which can be derived from a text, we become unable to speak of Truth, for truth is “this and not that.” Boundaries are precisely that which divides “this” from “that” and without them we have no definable Way, only a boundless sea, a quagmire of interpretation. Without boundaries we lose all possibility for intelligible discourse or disagreement.

I offer these considerations as a contribution to an ongoing conversation about hermeneutics within churches of Christ. I hope this series has benefited you as much as it has me, whether it has garnered your agreement or vehement disagreement. In all cases I appreciate all who endeavor to draw nearer to God by immersing him/herself in God’s living word. Grace be with you all.

 

©M. Benfield 2017


1. I do not mean to imply that others are not concerned with keeping scriptures in their context. I would not judge their motives in that way. I only mean that I differ with some on what criteria constitute something being “in context.” It has been the concern of these articles to discuss and model what sorts of things I consider proper and improper modes of interpretation, i.e. which things are, in fact, “in context” and which are “out of context” despite the best intentions of some.
2. See part 1 here for an explanation of illocution within Speech-Act-Theory and its relevance to biblical hermeneutics.
3. I confessed in part 2 that while I initially set out to “debunk” sensus plenior I found that I the more I wrote the more I established it. I maintain, however, that my comments are still valid in one regard. The sensus plenior that I have described is different than that sort which is tossed about by many lay people.  I speak here as a local minister and not as a scholar.  As a result my comments are aimed at the way that I frequently hear lay persons appeal to the text.  Whereas it seems the consensus among scholars that the Bible writers did not intend the fuller meaning, and that that fuller meaning is only understood retrospectively as an event analogous to contemporary ones, the idea amongst many Christians is that the writers knowingly intended two different things: 1. The message for their immediate context as well as 2. A prophecy for future generations. This I hold to be a misuse of the idea of sensus plenior.
4. This quote comes from a lecture by Richard Hays entitled, “Did Moses Write about Jesus? The Challenges of Figural Reading.” Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RlRqu0anrF8&t=690s ; Accessed 14 April, 2017. This lecture masterfully illustrates the hermeneutic I suggested in part 2. At the time I was unaware of Hays’ lecture and so I claimed the view as unique to me, while admitting the possibility that others held it unbeknownst to me. My use of “reading backwards” comes from the title of Hays’ book, which I have yet to read, and my use of the term “figural” is also indebted to Hays.
5. I belong to the churches of Christ, a Protestant tradition which arose during the era often labeled “The Restoration Movement.”
6. By calling it an assumption I acknowledge that many who do this may not realize that they do it and, therefore, may even deny that they do. Still, the conclusions they wrest from the text prove otherwise.
7. Mortimer J. Adler, How to Read a Book, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972), 46.
8. Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, (Grand Rapid: Zondervan, 2003), 26.
9. Krister Stendahl, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1976), 6.
10. One such example can be viewed here: https://www.newtestamentchurch.org/html/Cup.html ; Accessed 21 April 2017.
11. While Luke seems clear that it was, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you” (22:15), John’s account offers a different perspective which may suggest that Jesus’ supper anticipated the Passover (13:1; 19:14).
12. Gordon D. Fee, “The First Epistle to the Corinthians”, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 551.
13. Leroy Brownlow, Why I Am a Member of the Church of Christ, (Fort Worth: The Brownlow Corporation, 2002). I was gifted this classic of my tradition shortly after my conversion. I still own that copy in which the sweet sister inscribed Ecclesiastes 12:1, “Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth.” This book continues to be influential in my tradition. In answer to the question posed by the title, it contains a chapter entitled, “[I am a member of the Church of Christ] Because It Is Scriptural in Organization” (chapter 6, 38-44). This chapter discusses Christ as head of the church, the local congregation as autonomous, the congregation as the largest and smallest of all governing bodies within the church, and the necessity of a plurality of elders.
14. In the book of acts alone we find the following: Elders: Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23; 16:4; 20:17; 21:18; Overseers: Acts 20:28. Outside of Acts there are the following: Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:2ff; 5:17ff; Titus 1:5ff. (Also 1 Peter 5:1ff, though it is disputed whether the referent is the office of elders, or elderly men, or both).
15. You can view the article in which I discuss it here.
16. E.g. Leroy Brownlow, Why I Am a Member of the Church of Christ, (Fort Worth: Brownlow Corporation, 2002), chp. 24. M.C. Kurfees, Instrumental Music in the Worship, (Indianapolis: Faith and Facts Press). Everett Ferguson, A Cappella Music in the Public Worship of the Church, (Abilene: Desert Willow Publishing, 2013). David Miller, Piloting the Strait, (Pulaski, TN: Sain Publications, 2006), chp. 20. David Miller, Richland Hills & Instrumental Music: A Plea to Reconsider, (Pulaski, TN: Sain Publications, 2007). Rubel Shelly, Sing His Praise! A Case for A Cappella Music as Worship Today, (Nashville: 20th Century Christian, 1987). Shelly, however, has changed his stance since the publication of this work.
17. Whereas I certainly agree that the NT writers wrote by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, I do not believe, as some do, that this excludes the use of the writers’ own reason. You can read a brief explanation of how I believe this works in Part Two, which can be accessed here, under the section labeled “Inspiration.”

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.

Truth is NOT Simple (Part 1)

 

For months I have had the idea to write an article about the problem with simple Christianity.  I put it off for a time but now feel I ought to wait no longer.  I recently found this remark online:

“If your doctrine takes forever to explain, question whether it’s true.  Truth is almost always easily explained & easily understood.”

This is not an isolated statement, but a representative one.1 Brother Lee Snow is merely stating what is widely believed in our common tradition.2 I myself was convinced of this for years and taught it just as vehemently. I have since come to believe, however, that there is hardly anything with which I could disagree more.

My first doubt arose when I realized how difficult it seemed to explain things that I once held to be obviously true. As is common in my tradition I believed and taught that a cappella singing was the only authorized sort of music in worship. Yet, it was the most curious and difficult part of my tradition for others to understand. They responded, “But they worshipped with instruments all the time?” To which I would respond, “Yes. They did. In the Old Testament.” This, however, did not help my case. Admitting that they worshipped with instruments in the Old Testament seemed to be as good a reason as any to worship with them today. The response from my questioner was usually raised eyebrows, shrugged shoulders, and raised hands, perhaps even an audible, “So?” I was then required to set out on the adventure of explaining to them why the Old Testament is not an accurate guide for today’s worship practices. After a long journey through Acts, Hebrews, and certain key passages in Galatians, Ephesians, and Colossians I ended with my confident rhetorical flourish, “So you see, because we are no longer under the Old Testament then we ought not to use instruments in worship.” If complexity had already been built atop the assumed simplicity of my doctrine it was only the foundation for further complexity. The inevitable response from my interlocutor would be, “So … you don’t believe in the Old Testament? But Jesus and the Apostles quoted from the Old Testament all of the time.” I was then compelled to explain to them the hermeneutical system by which Jesus and the Apostles (obviously) determined exactly which things from the Old Testament were “binding” and which things weren’t. But after much struggle I learned that it’s just easier to say, “If it is repeated in the New Testament then it’s binding.”

 

The most difficult problem, however, was a problem of my own making. Frustrated at my brethren’s inability to understand the proper use of the Old Testament3 I set out to write an article which would explain it clearly and definitively once and for all.4 As I wrote, I found my own (mis)understanding challenged. I began with an illustration which had helped me in the past. An instructor of mine once asked, “How many of the 10 commandments do we keep today?” To which the class rightly (or so we thought) responded, “Nine.” My instructor with a sly grin responded, “None.” “You see,” he continued, “we do not keep the other 9 ‘because the Old Testament said so.’ We keep them because they are repeated in the New Testament.” Then he offered the illustration that continued to be helpful for so long. “For example, the United States of America used to be under British rule. Under their law it was forbidden to rape, murder, and steal. It would be incorrect, however, to say that we still obey the British Law which tells us not to rape, murder, and steal. We do not. We obey the American Law. Now, they happen to have these things in common for they both forbid raping, murdering, and thievery. But we do not obey them because the Queen said so but because the President said so.” This made incredible sense. There were a great number of places in which the commandments found in the New Testament overlapped with those in the Old Testament but that was no reason to say that I obeyed the Old Testament. I did not. I obeyed the New Testament and it just so happens that they often said the same things. As I set about to demonstrate this for all the world I hit upon this curious truth: it wasn’t true. Over and over again the apostles appealed to the “Old Law” (as we are accustomed to calling the Law of Moses) not as an illustration or principle, but as an authoritative command. For example, Paul writes, “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder, You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the Law” (Romans 13:9, 10). To which I ought to respond, “Why should I care to fulfill the Law? The Law of Moses was nailed to the cross.” Yet, Paul strangely quotes the Law and expects his hearers to have a desire to obey it. I met the same strange thing in Peter. Peter insists, “As he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.'” To which I ought to respond, “Good riddance with ‘it is written’! I’m no longer under that Law.” To me this was just as good as saying that I ought not to steal a man’s car because it would bring dishonor to the crown. Hang the crown! My concern is for the stars and stripes. Paul and Peter could just as easily (and more simply) have said, “God has granted us authority to make rules in his name and we judge that you ought to be holy and not to commit adultery, to murder, to steal, or covet.” But they didn’t. Instead they appealed to the authority of a Law that I believed had been stripped of its authority. The truth was stranger and more complex than I had ever imagined. How, if I struggled to understand the truth at all, was I supposed to make this simple? For I certainly believed that we ought not to offer bulls and goats on an altar in Jerusalem, yet now I was forced to believe that somehow I ought to obey Moses without dishonoring Jesus. At this point I was not ready to forfeit my insistence upon a cappella. That came much later. But I conceded this at least: the truth, as I saw it, was not simple at all. It was stranger than I could imagine and more complex than I thought fair.

I was helped later by an unlikely source. C.S. Lewis was one of the first men I ever read outside of my tradition and after I had finished his book I concluded that this was his only fault. In Book II, chapter 2 of Mere Christianity he wrote these words which I have never forgotten:

“It is no good asking for a simple religion. After all, real things are not simple. They look simple, but they are not. The table I am sitting at looks simple: but ask a scientist to tell you what it is really made of–all about the atoms and how the light waves rebound from them and hit my eye and what they do to the optic nerve and what it does to my brain–and, of course, you find that what we call ‘seeing a table’ lands you in mysteries and complications which you can hardly get to the end of. A child saying a child’s prayer looks simple. And if you are content to stop there, well and good. But if you are not–and the modern world usually is not–if you want to go on and ask what is really happening–then you must be prepared for something difficult. If we ask for something more than simplicity, it is silly then to complain that the something more is not simple. Very often, however, this silly procedure is adopted by people who are not silly, but who, consciously or unconsciously, want to destroy Christianity. Such people put up a version of Christianity suitable for a child of six and make that the object of their attack. When you try to explain the Christian doctrine as it is really held by an instructed adult, they then complain that you are making their heads turn round and that it is all too complicated and that if there really were a God they are sure He would have made ‘religion’ simple, because simplicity is so beautiful, etc. You must be on your guard against these people for they will change their ground every minute and only waste your time.”5

I found myself nodding in agreement with him though it would be longer still before I began to consider the implications of what he had written. I was encouraged to do so, however, by another writer to which Lewis himself is indebted: G.K. Chesterton.

“The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait. I give one coarse instance of what I mean. Suppose some mathematical creature from the moon were to reckon up the human body; he would at once see that the essential thing about it was that it was a duplicate. A man is two men, he on the right exactly resembling him on the left. Having noted that there was an arm on the right and one on the left, a leg on the right and one on the left, he might go further and still find on each side the same number of fingers, the same number of toes, twin eyes, twin ears, twin nostrils, and even twin lobes of the brain. At last he would take it as a law; and then, where he found a heart on the one side, would deduce that there was another heart on the other. And just then, where he most felt he was right, he would be wrong … Now, this is exactly the claim which I have since come to propound for Christianity. Not merely that it deduces logical truths, but that when it suddenly becomes illogical, it has found, so to speak, an illogical truth. It not only goes right about things, but it goes wrong (if one may say so) exactly where the things go wrong. Its plan suits the secret irregularities, and expects the unexpected. It is simple about the simple truth; but it is stubborn about the subtle truth. It will admit that a man has two hands, it will not admit (though all the Modernists wail to it) the obvious deduction that he has two hearts. It is my only purpose … to point this out; to show that whenever we feel there is something odd in Christian theology, we shall generally find that there is something odd in the truth.”6

I had been confronted twice now by men admittedly greater than I saying the exact opposite of what I had long held to be axiomatic. Yet they were not opposing me through and through. Both admit that truth appears simple. This we had in common. But where they had gone right and I had gone embarrassingly wrong, is that they knew that things were not always as they seem. Truth may seem simple but it is not. This came as a flash in the dark when I finally realized that even that which I considered to be the simplest of problems was not simple at all. Now I confront you with that most simple of all problems. What, if you please, is 2+2?

This is a fine example of the deceit of simplicity for a number of reasons. My debates and, alas, frequent arguments with others over matters of doctrine would almost certainly end in the objection, “That’s your interpretation.” Being young(er) and impetuous I would respond, “There can be no interpretation about something as simple as 2+2.” And that is how I felt. Deep in my bones. There were things in the Bible that I thought took effort to misunderstand. In my mind they were so simple that I thought rejecting my conclusion was as pig-headed as rejecting that 2+2=4.

Which brings us back to the question. I assume when I asked you “What is 2+2?” you answered 4. And I’m glad that you did. Because that is just where you would be wrong. What if I told you that 2+2 equals 11? You might say that I’ve lost it. But why should you? And why should 2+2 equal 4? You see, the answer “4” assumes a Base-10 numbering system. That is a numbering system which symbolizes quantities using ten digits, namely 0-1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9. If you imagine these digits on a numbering line and then add the quantity XX (symbolized by the number 2) to the quantity XX (also 2) you get XXXX (symbolized by the number 4).

– X X – – – – – – – + -X X – – – – – – – = – X X X X – – – – –
0 1  2  3  4  5 6 7  8  9 + 0 1 2 3  4 5  6 7  8 9  =  0 1  2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

But what if you did not have ten digits? What if you only had three? What if you had to symbolize the same quantity, XXXX, with the digits 0-1-2? You could count to two without any problem. It would look exactly the same.

– X X
0  1  2

But what happens when you exceed that quantity? Well, you need a place marker. So the quantity XXX becomes one full set plus zero.

– X X X
0  1  2 10 (1 full set + 0 = 10)

Are you getting it? Finally, we have arrived at where we can symbolize the quantity XXXX with only three digits. How do we do that? You guessed it: 11.  One full set plus one.

– X X X X
0  1 2 10 11 (1 full set + 111).

In a base three numbering system the symbol “4” doesn’t even exist. If a person using that system were to ask you, “What, if you please, is 2+2?” “Four” would not only be wrong it would be nonsensical.

Now, if you’re clever you may respond to this by pointing out that changing the symbol of a quantity does not change the quantity itself. Whether you call it 4 or 11 the quantity is still XXXX, which is true, but that leads us further to ask, “Why should we use a Base-10 numbering system at all?” And the answer is that we have five-digits on each hand making 10 total. The point of this exercise, however, is to show how the simplest of all problems (2+2) can lead us into boggling complexity. We began with invented numbers and ended with created fingers. The simplest of problems turns out to be more complex than we imagined. And we could go further still. We might wonder why we settled on Base-10 instead of Base-20 as we might have done, for as much as we have 10 fingers we also have 10 toes. Our wonder would increase if we realized that having six fingers is often the dominant trait in humans and animals. How then is this dominant trait so uncommon?7 Curious indeed. What would our world have been like if we had a Base-12 numbering system instead? And regardless of how many fingers and toes we have, why should that be the basis of numbers at all? It might surprise you to know that ancient Sumerians had a sexagesimal (Base-60) numbering system, and as far as I know they didn’t have 60 fingers, nor 30 fingers and 30 toes.  So why did they choose 60?  And why should we have chosen 10?  When we realize that numbers mustn’t be reckoned according to the (recessive) number of our fingers the very fact that they are becomes exponentially more quizzical.

Other examples of deceptive simplicity could be given but by now you know that I have something up my sleeve. If I were to ask you, “Which is longer: a day or a year?” You would think a bit longer before answering, “A year.” You would expect a trick. And you would be right. The question assumes a particular planet. A different planet requires a different answer. On Venus a day is actually longer than a year. So you see, to answer the question truly and thoroughly one must discuss the rotation of a planet’s axis (a day) in comparison to that planet’s orbit around the sun (a year), which is itself an amazing assumption. It was not long ago when men were killed for saying that there was a such thing as an orbit around the sun because the sun so obviously orbits around the earth.  If you doubted it then finding proof was as simple as watching the sun rise and set.  That should settle the matter.  But of course you know that it doesn’t.

When we ask for simplicity we find complexity. And if we insist on simplicity, men lose their lives. Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for refusing simplicity. The question, then, is this: am I Giordano Bruno, or am I Pope Clement VIII?

If all of this questioning seems absurd that’s because it is. My intention isn’t to fish for Red Herring but to make an all too obvious point which turns out not to be so obvious. And if this seems like the eternal childish questioning of an infant–“Why? But why? But why?”–that too is on solid ground. For,

“Children ask magnificent questions. ‘Why are people?’ ‘What makes the cat tick?’ ‘What’s the world’s first name?’ ‘Did God have a reason for creating the earth?’ Out of the mouths of babes comes, if not wisdom, at least the search for it. Philosophy, according to Aristotle, begins in wonder. It certainly begins in childhood, even if for most of us it stops there, too. The child is a natural questioner. It is not the number of questions he asks but their character that distinguishes him from the adult. Adults do not lose their curiosity that seems to be a native human trait, but their curiosity deteriorates in quality. They want to know whether something is so, not why. But children’s questions are not limited to the sort that can be answered by an encyclopedia. What happens between the nursery and college to turn the flow of questions off, or, rather, to turn it into the duller channels of adult curiosity about matters of fact? A mind not agitated by good questions cannot appreciate the significance of the best answers. It is easy enough to learn the answers. But to develop the actively inquisitive minds, alive with real questions, profound questions–that is another story.”8

Truth often appears simple, but it is not. And if physics, which is observable, testable, and measurable, is so complex, can we really expect metaphysics to be any simpler? The Bible often appears simple. But if we want the truth we must be prepared for complexity.

[Editor’s note: upon publication I extended an invitation to brother Snow to respond if he would like. I committed to publishing his response without alteration. He graciously accepted. His response can be expected soon]

©M. Benfield 2017


1. For example, one blog in my tradition carries the title “Plain Simple Faith.” Another well known anecdote comes from Tolbert Fanning, former editor of the Gospel Advocate, who gave a glowing recommendation of J.S. Lamar’s book on hermeneutics with this caveat: “It seems to imply that the Bible needs interpretation, whereas, in strictness … The Scriptures fairly translated, need no explanation.”
2. Brother Snow’s quote was originally anonymous. Because I did not intend to “call him out”, and because the sentiment is so common, I did not think it important to name the author. Upon his request the article was later edited to include his name as well as a link to his information.
3. This itself presents a problem. If my own tradition, after preaching this particular doctrine for nearly 150 years, still has difficulty understanding it, how can we call it simple? We’ve been explaining it for a century and a half and cannot seem to get to the bottom of it.
4. I now realize and confess the hubris inherent in such a thought.
5. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 40-41.
6. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009), 123-125.
7. Exactly how this can be is discussed here: http://genetics.thetech.org/ask-a-geneticist/polydactyly ; Internet; Accessed 11 February 2017.
8. Mortimer J. Adler, How to Read a Book, (New York: Touchstone, 1972), 270.