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 2)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The miracles of Jesus make this clear. Lewis writes,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

©M. Benfield 2017

 


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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

This sort of linguistic accommodation is to be expected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 


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

Truth is NOT Simple (Part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

©M. Benfield 2017


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

Why Am I Here? (Part 2)

 

In the last article we focused upon our end.  We looked at the vision of John that we are to live into.  Another way of getting to the same place is to look at the beginning. “Eschatology [the study of last things] is like protology [the study of first things].”1  A thing’s end is “built in”, so to speak, from the beginning.  A broom is made (its beginning) to sweep up debris (its end).  A camera is made (its beginning) to take pictures (its end).  One can ask “What is a thing made to do?” in order to get a vision of its end.2 When we ask, “What is Man made to do?” We answer “be the image of God.”

The image of God should be understood as more of a vocation than some quality that we possess.  It is related more to what we do than who we are.  (That’s why it is addressed under “Why am I here?” instead of “Who am I?”).  Consider that the days of creation are more concerned with assigning role/function than they are with material existence.3 Whereas Genesis 1:1 is an introduction to the account, 1:2 describes the “stuff” of creation as without form and without function. Day one is about the ordering of periods of light and dark, not the existence of light per se. Notice, v.5 says, “God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.” Why not just call the light, “light”, and the darkness, “darkness”? Because he is not concerned with the material existence of light and dark (if dark can even be said to “exist”) but about what function they perform. The meaning of the verse is that God called the period of light “Day” and the period of darkness “Night.” This further helps make sense of the previous verse. “God separated the light from the darkness” (1:4). If we are speaking materially then it is nonsensical to speak of the separation of light and dark. There is nothing to separate because they cannot dwell together in any rational sense. They are mutually exclusive by nature. However, if it means that God established a particular and ordered period of light and an ordered period of darkness, then it makes sense. To be consistent we should understand “a period of light” throughout whenever the text says “light”.  Therefore, 1:3 is not about the creation of light materially but about assigning a role/function within an ordered system. The meaning would then be, “Then God said, ‘Let there be a period of light’; and there was a period of light.” This sort of role assignment continues throughout Genesis 1. In 1:6 the dome is created with the emphasis falling on its function.  “And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.'” (1:6).  When he created the “lights” of the sky he specifically mentions what function they are to perform. “God said, ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.’ And it was so” (1:14, 15).  If that is the pattern of Genesis 1 then we should consider the “creation” of Man also to emphasize his role rather than his existence.4  That is exactly what we find.

When we arrive at our text the writer places the weight upon the function of Man (1:26).  The “image of God” is defined in terms of what Man is supposed to do, not in terms of what he is.  “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”  Man’s vocation, his role/function, is further explained by v. 28, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.”  Hence, in response to the question, “Why am I here?”  we can answer, “To have dominion over the earth, to be fruitful, to multiply, and to fill the earth.”  The rest of this article will be dedicated to unpacking these dense phrases to see what they mean for us.

We Reign Under God
Because of our twisted ideas of power it is dangerous to say simply, “I am here to have dominion.”  It must be acknowledged up front that Man’s dominion is derivative.  Authority is not inherent in us; it has been delegated to us.  God has granted us authority.  “[Y]ou have made [human beings] a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.  You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet” (Ps. 8:5, 6).  We are “crowned” but there is one higher than us who does the crowing.  God is the one that has given us authority and he must be acknowledged as having more authority than we do. “But when it says, ‘All things are put in subjection,’ it is plain that this does not include the one who put all things in subjection under him” (1 Cor. 15:27).  This means that we are not to rule however we want.  We rule under the authority of God and always in deference to him.

We Reign in Imitation of God
Our duty is described as “the image of God” because we are to represent God to the world (this is another reason why we must defer to his authority).  If we are to represent God then there must be some analog between what we do and what God does.  This is, in fact, exactly how the narrative describes it.  We could describe God’s works in Genesis 1 as twofold: separating and filling.

First, separating.  God separated the light from the darkness (1:4), the waters above from the waters below (1:6, 7), and water from dry land (1:9).  Paired with the act of separating is the act of naming.  They are intimately connected.  To name something is a way of separating it from other things.  To give a name to something is to say that it is this and not that.  Our English word “denominate” literally means “to name” but it is also used to designated the number by which a whole is divided, hence the word “denominator.”  As God separates he also names.  He names the light “Day” and the darkness “Night” (1:5), the dome which separates the waters is named “Sky” (1:8), and the dry land is called “Earth” while the water is called “Sea” (1:10).
In imitation of God, the very first thing we find Adam doing is separating the animals by giving them names.  “So out of the ground the LORD God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name” (1:19).

Second, filling.  Genesis 1 is a symmetrically arranged account of creation.  Those things which are separated on day 1 are filled in day 4, those separated on day 2 are filled in day 5, and those separated on day 3 are filled in day 6.5 The periods of light and dark are filled with their luminaries (1:14-19), the water and sky is filled with fish and birds (1:20-23), and the land is filled with land animals and human beings (1:24-26).
In imitation of God, Man is commanded to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (1:28).

In creation there is a sense in which God held back.  He carried creation only so far and then placed Man upon the earth to carry that creation forward.  God could have named all the animals on his own but he didn’t.  He left that duty to Man.  God expects us to carry on his work of separating/ordering and filling.  “The heavens are the LORD’s heavens, but the earth he has given to human beings” (Ps. 115:16).

We Create Cultures
More and more scholars agree that a great part of Man’s duty upon the earth is to create cultures which glorify God.6 The biblical image of this is that of a gardener.  Indeed, agriculture is the most basic form of culture-making.7  Gardening is an act in which Man takes the raw “stuff” of creation and, by wise nurturing, helps it to grow up and realize its full potential.  This is the picture of what Man is to do with all of the “stuff” of creation.
Creating cultures is, I believe, part of Man’s responsibility inherent in the command to “fill the earth.”

“The command to ‘fill’ the earth here is not merely a divine request that Adam and Eve have a lot of babies.  The earth was also to be ‘filled’ by the broader patterns of their interactions with nature and with each other.  They were to bring order to the Garden.  They would introduce schemes for managing affairs.  To ‘subdue’ the Garden would be to transform untamed nature into a social environment.  In these ways human beings would be ‘adding’ to that which God created.  This is the kind of ‘filling’ that some Christians have had in mind when they have labeled this command in Genesis 1–helpfully, I think–‘the cultural mandate.’  God placed human beings in his creation in order to introduce a cultural ‘filling’ in ways that conform to his divine will.”8

 

This also is in imitation of God.  So much of what is pictured in Genesis 1 is not God making more “stuff” but ordering that stuff in meaningful ways so as to make a habitable (and beautiful) environment for Man to inhabit.  God makes the world liveable (by assigning function) but also loveable (by giving excellence of form).  That is the very definition of culture-making.

 

Conclusion
We began our investigation into “Why am I here?” by looking at our end.  In our discussion of John’s vision of the New Heaven and New Earth we saw the sort of kingdom we are working towards.  In this article we answered that same question by looking at our beginning.  Hopefully we can now see how those two are intimately connected, how the end is “built in” to the beginning.  If Adam and Even would have faithfully fulfilled their commission the picture of Revelation 21, 22 would have become a reality.  Their Garden would have become Revelation’s Garden-City.  They failed, however, and God through Israel and eventually Jesus Christ worked to put it right again.  Christians, through the Spirit of Christ, carry on this project.  It is what we were created to do.  Day by day the image of God is being renewed in us through God’s Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18) as we work towards bringing God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.  This is who we are.  This is what it means to be human.  So join me in fulfilling our ancient calling.  Because you were born to.

 

©M. Benfield 2016


1. J.D. Levenson, Journal of Religion 64 (1984), 298; quoted in T. Desmond Alexander, From Eden to the New Jerusalem: An Introduction to Biblical Theology, (Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 14.
2. David Foster Wallace illustrates this in his novel The Broom of the System, The Penguin Ink Series (New York: Penguins Books 2010), 149, 150. “What she did with me–I must have been eight, or twelve, who remembers–was to sit me down in the kitchen and take a straw broom and start furiously sweeping the floor, and she asked me which part of the broom was more elemental, more fundamental, in my opinion, the bristles or the handle. The bristles or the handle. And I hemmed and hawed, and she swept more and more violently, and I got nervous, and finally when I said I supposed the bristles, because you could after a fashion sweep without the handle, by just holding onto the bristles, but couldn’t sweep with just the handle, she tackled me, and knocked me out of my chair, and yelled into my ear something like, ‘Aha, that’s because you want to sweep with the broom, isn’t it? It’s because of what you want the broom for, isn’t it?’ Et cetera. And that if what we wanted a broom for was to break windows, then the handle was clearly the fundamental essence of the broom, and she illustrated with the kitchen window, and a crowd of domestics gathered; but that if we wanted the broom to sweep with, see for examples the broken glass, sweep sweep, the bristles were the thing’s essence … Meaning as fundamentalness. Fundamentalness as use. Meaning as use. Meaning as use.”
3. On this point I am indebted to John Walton’s work, especially The Lost World of Genesis One, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009).
4. J. Richard Middleton agrees with Walton here. “These two examples of creatures in 1:6 and 1:14-18 whose existence is explicitly defined by their function or purpose thus sets up the expectation, or leads to the presumption, that the royal function or purpose of humanity in 1:26 is not a mere add-on to their creation in God’s image, separable some way from their essence or nature.” The Liberating Image: the Imago Dei of Genesis 1, (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2005), 54).
5. This is widely recognized by scholars, Walton and Middleton included. See their respective works listed above (The Lost World of Genesis, 62; The Liberating Image, 75).
6. J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth, (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic 2014), 41-55; The Liberating Image, 31, 88, 89; Randy Alcorn, Heaven, (Carol Stream, IL; Tyndale, 2004), 375 and passim; James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2009), 163-164, 205-214; Richard J. Mouw, When the Kings Come Marching In, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), passim esp. 33-37.
7. “As anthropologists know, the basis for all culture is agriculture. We could not develop the sort of complex cultures that we have today–with cities, governments, technology, art, science, and academic institutions–if we did not first find a way to produce enough food for people to eat. Hunter-gatherers can develop only a rudimentary culture. In order to develop any form of complex social order, people must be able to settle down somewhere and have a dependable supply of food. This makes sense of the garden of Eden as the original human environment of Genesis 2. God’s encouragement to the first humans to eat freely from the trees of the garden (Gen. 2:16) clearly indicates that the garden is meant to provide food for human needs.” Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth, 41.
8. Richard J. Mouw, When the Kings Come Marching In, 35.

Why Am I Here? (Part 1)

 

In previous articles we asked the question “Who am I?” to which we gave two answers: 1. I am primarily an embodied creature.  2. I am a teleological creature.  This means that what I do is not governed first of all by my thoughts/beliefs but by my desires/loves and that my love is pointed towards something.  My love moves me towards a particular vision of the good life.  This good life is a social vision and therefore can be described as a sort of “kingdom.”  Because we are embodied creatures we are moved by desire  and because we are teleological creatures we desire a kingdom.1

Now we ask the question, “Why am I here?”  We are here to bring God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven by “imaging” him into the world.  This will require a discussion of what God’s kingdom looks like and the deeds which characterize a person who is living into that vision.  The former will occupy this article and the latter will be expounded in future articles when we seek to answer the question, “How then shall I live?”

Another way of asking “Why am I here?” is to ask “What is my purpose?”  Or “What is my goal?”  The question becomes, “Towards what vision am I supposed to live?”  Insofar as we are teleological creatures we are all living towards some sort of vision.  But we want to know which vision God intends for us.  What end did God have in mind at our beginning?  Thankfully, we do not have to guess.  God revealed that vision to John almost 2,000 years ago.

Revelation 21-22 gives us a picture of what God intends for all of creation: a New Heaven and New Earth.  A detailed explanation of this passage is beyond the scope of this article but I want to paint a few broad strokes so we can begin to imagine our future with God.

It Is Material
What John saw was not the destruction of the material cosmos.  He saw a new heaven and a new earth (21:1).  God did not make creation with the intention of throwing it into the trash bin.  Earth is not a temporary holding cell to be evacuated so that we can dwell somewhere else, in an immaterial disembodied heaven.  He formed the earth “to be inhabited” (Isa. 45:18) and he isn’t going to turn his back on that intention. He even gave us material bodies to accompany that material earth. Just like the future of the cosmos is renewal, not destruction, so the future of Man is not to evacuate the body (or the earth) but for the body to be renewed and resurrected.  Jesus’ resurrection body was a physical body (Luke 24:39) and our bodies are to be modeled after his (1 Cor. 15:20-23; 1 John 3:2).2 How then shall we live?  We ought to treasure creation.  It is God’s and we are just stewards of it (cf. Ps. 24:1; Lev. 25:23).  This means we care about the environment and the ethical treatment of animals.  It means we take care of our bodies.  We do not feed it trash and we do not neglect the necessary exercise to keep our bodies healthy.

It Is Free of ‘The Curse’
Man was made to bring order from non-order, to spread God’s love and goodness and justice and creativity into the world.  After the tragedy of Adam and Eve all of creation was cursed.  God’s good intention was twisted somehow.  The result was hate, war, injustice, and chaos.  The picture of Revelation 21-22 is the healing of creation.  John saw that “the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.”  In Apocalyptic literature like Revelation and parts of Daniel, as well as in Ancient Near Eastern creation stories, the sea or sea monsters were associated with chaos (Rev. 13:1 cf. also Dan. 7:2-3; Ps. 89:9-10; Isa. 27:1).  The non-existent “sea” of Revelation does not indicate a lack of water in the New Earth.  Instead it points to the victory of God over chaos.  Just a few verses later John says, “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).  God has overcome everything which “tastes” of Death.  John describes this as God’s victory over the “curse” of primeval history.  “Nothing accursed will be found there any more” (22:3).  This is why “nothing unclean” will enter into the New Jerusalem.  All of “the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars” who have not put their trust in Jesus will be done away with (21:8).  How then shall we live?  Any where we see anything tainted by the curse we fight to overcome it.  We develop medicine to fight against death.  We fight against the unjust systems which keep the poor impoverished.  We fight against the addictions which rack individuals and ruin families.  We fight against every thing which makes good men bad.

God Is There
With the New Heaven and New Earth John sees a New Jerusalem descending from heaven to earth.  This city is pictured as being in the shape of a cube whose “length and width and height are equal” (21:16).  In all of the Bible there is only one other cube mentioned: the holy of holies in King Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 6:19-20).  What John sees is the entire city become the place of God’s presence.  “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.  And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (21:22-23).  How then shall we live?  We live in God’s presence in the here and now, which is another way of saying that we should acknowledge God’s presence.  David knew that he could not escape the presence of God.  “Where can I go from your spirit?  Or where can I flee from your presence?  If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.  If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast” (Psalm 139:7-10).  The angels sing, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isa. 6:3).  So in our lives we should acknowledge God’s presence instead of “kicking God out.”  We invite him into our homes, our marriages, and our work place.  We acknowledge his presence at the dinner temple as well as the bedroom.  He belongs everywhere.

God Rules
In the New Jerusalem God is on the throne, as well as Jesus the Lamb.  “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb … But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him” (22:1, 3).  How then shall we live?  We acknowledge God’s authority.  God presence is a ruling presence.  Everything that we do is under his command.  Everything I do ought to serve God and his purpose.

We Rule With God
“[God’s servants] will see his face … and they will reign forever and ever” (22:3-5).  Though God is in charge he always intended to run the world through Man (cf. Psalm 115:16).  We were created as his vice-regents (cf. Gen. 1:16-28; Psalm 8:4-8).  How then shall we live?  Even though God is in charge we do not just sit back and let him handle it all.  God intends his purposes to be worked out in the world through human beings.  The Eternal Word became a human being for this very reason.  He now reigns as Man–without ceasing to be God–over the world (1 Tim. 2:5).  So Jesus, who has all authority in heaven and on earth (Mat. 28:18), delegates that authority to human beings.  We continue God’s project in the New Heaven and the New Earth.

We Develop Culture
John writes that “the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it … People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations” (Rev. 21:24-26).  Here John pulls from the imagery of Isaiah 60.  This helps to explain what it means that the kings will bring “their glory” into the heavenly city.  Isaiah uses the phrase “wealth of the nations” to describe the “glory” that is brought to the LORD (60:5).  All the best that each nation has to offer is brought into the New Jerusalem.  “A multitude of camels” along with “gold and frankincense” (60:6).  “Silver” also (60:9) as well as the “glory of Lebanon … the cypress, the plane, and the pine” (60:13).  In the New Creation the development of culture does not stop.  Kings and nations continue to bring their best into New Jerusalem.  How then shall we live?  We develop culture here and now.  We involve ourselves in the advancement of art and technology.  God cares about sculpture and dance and mathematics.  He is intensely interested in science and music and economy.  Government, agriculture, and architecture, all of this is important to God.  So we practice it here and now.

It Is a Multi-Ethnic Kingdom
John’s vision includes the “nations” (21:24, 26).  People from all walks of life, all colors and stripes, are included in God’s New Creation.  How then shall we live?  If we are going to be with people of all races and all cultures then we have to learn to live together now.  Racism, classism, sexism, and every sort of “-ism” is excluded from God’s Kingdom.  We honor all people as equally precious in God’s sight.  That is the vision we live towards.

Conclusion:
What we hope for tomorrow determines how we live today.  When Peter pictures the purification of the cosmos, resulting in a New Heaven and a New Earth, he concludes, “Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holines and godliness … But, in accordance with this promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home” (2 Pet. 3:11, 13).  We do not simply wait for God to bring the New Age.  That New Age has already begun in Jesus Christ.  His resurrection body was the first “bit” of New Creation (Col. 1:15-20).  That part of the future has invaded the present.  So we live out the future now.  Day by day we pray, “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” (Mat. 6:10).  This is what we were made for.  This is why we are here.  This is what it means to be human.  So join me in being simply human.  Because you were born to.

 

©M. Benfield 2016


1. This is the reason that James K.A. Smith entitles his book Desiring the Kingdom, (Grand Rapids: BackerAcademic 2009).
2. The best objection to a physical/bodily resurrection is from 1 Corinthians 15:44 which says that the body is sown a “physical body” but is raised a “spiritual body.” The answer to this is that the adjectives “physical” and “spiritual” do not describe the “stuff” from which the body is made but the thing that animates that body. The word “physical” is psuchikon which describes those who “do not have the Spirit” (Jude 19; cf. also 1 Cor. 2:14; James 3:15). While the word “spiritual” (pneumatikon) often describes men in physical bodies who have the Holy Spirit dwelling in them and are thus “animated” by the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:15; 14:37; Gal. 6:1).

Who Am I? (Part 2)

 

In part 1 we asked whether we were primarily mind or body.  While acknowledging both we sought to discover which one most often ran the show.  We concluded that most often we follow the inclination of our bodies over our minds.  Therefore we answered the question, “Who am I?” by saying, “We are embodied creatures.”  In this article we want to add a layer to that.  I want to suggest that we are “teleological creatures.”1

The word telos (from which we get “teleological”) is a Greek word which means something like “goal” or “purpose” or “aim.”  By saying that we are teleological creatures I am saying that we are always “aiming” at something.  We aim at all sorts of different things in all sorts of different ways but the thing common to it all is that we are aiming.  To illustrate, take a moment and think.  Don’t think about anything.  Just think.  You can’t do it can you?  Now try this: want.  Don’t want anything in particular, just want.  It’s impossible.  See, none of us can simply think or want or hope or fear.  All of these things are always aimed at something.  We must think about something, even if it’s just thinking about thinking.  Neither can we just want.  We want pizza or excitement or rest or sex but we want something.  The same goes for all of the other ways that we intend or “aim at” the world.  There is always an object.  We are intentional beings.  We are teleological creatures.

When we combine the fact that we are embodied with the fact that we are teleological this helps us further the conclusion in our last article.  If I were primarily a thinking-thing then I would aim at things through thinking.  Most of what I did would be based upon what I thought or believed about the world.  I would seek abstract ideas like peace, justice, pleasure, and happiness.  But there are two problems: 1. I am not primarily a thinking-thing.  I am an embodied creature.  I am primarily a desiring-thing, and therefore thinking is not primarily how I intend the world.  2. Even if I were primarily a thinking-thing that would be a difficult life.  Take a moment and imagine justice.  Not a just society or a just household.  Just justice.  Again, it’s impossible.  Or how about peace?  You cannot imagine just peace.  You can imagine a peaceful relationship, peaceful scenery, a peaceful government, even world peace.  But you cannot imagine just “peace.”  And it is incredibly hard to aim at something that you can’t “see.”  As James K.A. Smith puts it,

 

“[W]hat we love is a specific vision of the good life, an implicit picture of what we think human flourishing looks like … implicit in it will be assumptions about what good relationships look like, what a just economy and distribution of resources look like, what sorts of recreation and play we value, how we ought to relate to nature and the nonhuman environment, what sorts of work count as good work, what flourishing families look like, and much more.”2

 

This is because I am primarily a desiring-thing (not a thinking-thing).  I aim at a vision, not ideas/beliefs.  “It is important to emphasize that this [vision of the good life] is a picture.  This is why I have emphasized that we are fundamentally noncognitive, affective, creatures.  The telos to which our love is aimed is not a list of ideas or propositions or doctrines; it is not a list of abstract, disembodied concepts or values.” 3

As was mentioned in the previous article we might be tempted to consider the imagination under the control of the mind instead of the body. However, our imagination works on us in a different way than our reason does.  Listening to a definition of chaos (which would target our reason) is different than considering a painting of chaos (which would target the imagination).  A definition engages the intellect, a vision engages the guts.  It works on our passions and our emotions.  Consider the different reactions you experience when you hear statistics about poverty in Africa compared to when you see a photo of a poor child with a swollen belly and belabored breath.  That’s the difference in idea and vision, intellect and imagination, mind and body.

In general, we do not seek to obey a set of rules/convictions.  We desire to live into a vision, a picture of life, like the Pevensie children of C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader.  We may think, like Edmund, that looking at a picture doesn’t do any good.  ” ‘The question is,’ said Edmund, ‘whether it doesn’t make things worse, looking at a Narnian ship when you can’t get there.'”  He thought that no matter how badly they wanted that vision of life, picturing it wasn’t going to get them there.  But they were wrong, and so are we.  The children stared at the painting of the ship and eventually found themselves transported into the world of their imagination.  “The things in the picture were moving … Down went the prow of the ship into the wave and up went a great shock of spray … Eustace jumped to try to pull it off the wall and found himself standing on the frame; in front of him was not glass but a real sea.”4  Just as their longing for the Narnia of the painting was able to transport them there, so we will be transported into our vision of the good life, however we paint it.

 

“A vision of the good life captures our hearts and imaginations not by providing a set of rules or ideas, but by painting a picture of what it looks like for us to flourish and live well.  This is why such pictures are communicated most powerfully in stories, legends, myths, plays, novels, and films rather than dissertations, messages, and monographs.”5

 

When we are captured by a vision we live into it.  I once listened to an episode of the early morning radio show Kidd Kraddick in the Morning where J-Si described his misplaced motivation to cut his son’s hair.  He said something like, “I was at the salon getting my hair cut and the lady did it so fast!  She made it looks so easy.  So when I got home and my son said he wanted hair like mine, I thought, ‘I can do that.'”  It did not go well.  He and his wife, Kenzie, had to take their son to have a trained professional fix his hair.  The point, however, is about what made J-Si want to do it in the first place.  It was the skill and ease of his hair dresser.  He was fascinated by her.  She did not reason with him while he was in the chair to convince him of why he ought to cut his son’s hair, why it would be a good idea, or how it would be an economical decision.  None of those things are the “reason” why he cut his son’s hair.  This was a visceral bodily phenomenon.  He was moved into a vision where he could cut hair with the same ease as she could. He tried to live into that life he had imagined, and failed.  But he tried none the less.

In the movie Adjustment Bureau David Noriss (played by Matt Damon) meets the girl of his dreams (Elise–played by Emily Blunt) but is suddenly separated from her and unable to find her again.  Upon serendipitously meeting he explains his efforts to locate her.  He says, “I didn’t have your number.  And I didn’t even have a last name to go by.  You know, if you Google just ‘Elise’ you get seven-hundred and …” “You did not!” she objects.  “… fifty seven thousand hits.  And none of them are you.”  See, Noriss was captured by a vision.  No one convinced him that he should find Elise.  No one argued with him to prove that this course of action was right or good or profitable.  Noriss imagined a world in which he and Elise were together and he put forth tremendous effort to make that vision a reality.

We do the same thing.  Because we are embodied creatures we are captured by a vision of our life and because we are teleological creatures we then proceed to live into that vision.  But our lives are not isolated from others.  We live in families and communities and therefore our vision is always a social vision.  We imagine that we are rich or famous or good looking or successful or healthy and we try to be that.  (Notice also that these are not things which are “right” or “wrong”–the are things which are desired or not).  We imagine that we have a dog in the country or we imagine that have a loft in the city where we can bike to work and walk to the coffee shop.  We imagine a home with large open windows, the smell of apple pie in the kitchen, kids playing in the floor, and ourselves reading a book by the fire (at least I certainly do).  The point is, these are the things that move us.  And even these more local visions are always situated in a wider contexts.  All of the pictures I described above are set in a peaceful America, not a world at war.  They are pictures of economic prosperity, not poverty.  The vision of the city is ethnically diverse, not racially divided.  These visions have universal implications and we live towards them.  This is how we operate as human beings.

We are all seeking a vision.  The danger is that different visions are constantly vying for our affection.  Some visions are communities which are hospitable to being fully human while others are dehumanizing and inhumane. But how do we know that we are seeking the right one?  That will be the concern of future articles.  Let me say for now that as a Christian I believe that the vision of the future towards which God is headed is a New Heaven and a New Earth.  It is a place where Jesus reigns as king and we reign with him.  It is an ethnically diverse kingdom of peace.  It is a place where all have justice and none are oppressed.  There are parties with music and celebration without the debauchery which often infects our own festivities.  There are feasts without the bad health that accompanies our gluttony and bad decisions.  There is art without pornography, technology without war, dance without lewdness, family without death, friendship without deception, and joy without sorrow.  This is what it means to be fully human.  This is the vision I live into.  This is the vision we are all invited to live towards.  So join me in being simply human.  You were born to.

 

©M. Benfield 2016


1. James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2009), 52.
2. Ibid, 52-53.
3. Ibid, 53.
4. C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, First Harper Trophy Edition (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 9-10.
5. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 53.