Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Pentecost... what does it mean to you?

I have written before that we Protestants, for no good reason, almost never mention Mary the mother of God (lest we appear too Catholic?) This even though she gave the indisputably Best. Advice. Ever. 1

I have also written, as an admitted Stephen fanboi, that we tend to ignore Stephen, thinking of him only as one of the first deacons 2 and the first martyr. But in truth, based on his sermon before his stoning, a truly amazing oration which we tend to overlook to our detriment, he was probably the first person to understand that the nascent Christian church was not a progression of Judaism, but something all together different.

I would argue there is another event that doesn't get the attention it deserves, at least in reformed churches that follow covenant theology, be it vanilla (Presbyterian) or chocolate (Baptist). 3 And that would be Pentecost. The over-emphasis on continuity 4 in covenant theology, especially Presbyterian, tends to cause blindness about the huge significance of Pentecost. It gets viewed something like a fantastic gift, a super-extra measure of the Holy Spirit poured out upon us. It was that, but it was much more. It was the start of the Church. The small 'c' catholic church.

The church was not unforeseen by the prophets, as dispensationalists claim, and it did not exist in the Old Testament, as some Covenant theologians argue. Jesus does not say the he will strengthen the church, or update it, or change its direction, or give it a "new form". No, he said the he will build his church (Matt. 16:18). Also, consider when Jesus promises Pentecost, he associates it with a baptism:
[F]or John truly baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” (Acts 1:5) 
This verse is significant. For to make Pentecost something less than a major event in redemptive history, many try to equate baptism of the Holy Spirit with regeneration of individual believers 5, but Jesus was speaking to regenerate people when he promised a new baptism, better than John's. It's something different.

I believe Spirit Baptism was the baptism of the church if you will, and that Pentecost was the establishment of the New Testament church, a church that was predicted by the prophets (Ez. 36:26-27) and did not exist in the Old Testament.

Some (not many, but some) Covenantal Theologians agree. Consider Richard Gaffin Jr. in his book Perspectives on Pentecost. In there he writes (p.21):
Pentecost is nothing less than the establishment of the church as the new covenant people of God, as the body of Christ.
Yes. That.

1 In John 2:5 Mary, speaking to the servants, regarding Jesus, said: "Whatever [Jesus] says to you, do it." Point, game, set, match.

2 If he was a deacon (the Greek never uses the noun, just the verb form) then he was not your garden variety deacon. For we are told he did great wonders and signs. That implies a bit more than attending to the widows.

3 I really should know better that to use food analogies for this distinction. We once hosted a Christmas party where I made two batches of egg-nog, one labelled "Presbyterian" and the other "Baptist." The parents understood; they knew which one contained alcohol. Unfortunately I did not think of the kids--they didn't grasp the joke. Oops. My Bad. Hoisted with my own petard.

4 I say this as a supporter of Covenant Theology, well at least at the 95% level. But all-out Covenant Theology (as I have claimed on numerous occasions) makes the same category error as dispensationalism. The latter emphasize discontinuity to the point where the church becomes an unforeseen parenthetical intrusion. The former (Covenant Theology) emphasizes continuity to the point where the church is not only the New Testament Israel (defensible) but Israel was the Old Testament Church (not defensible). Covenant Theology, for all it gets right, flattens redemptive history too much, and misses the paradigm shift of the New Covenant.

5 Again, where some go (way) too far regarding Spirit Baptism (i.e. the radical Charismatic movement), Covenant theology doesn't go far enough and has no coherent doctrine on Sprit Baptism.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

The Puritans hated their Enemies

The New England puritans evoke images of a dour Ichabod Crane among unbelievers, and something akin to beatific exegetical savants, idolized if not idols, in the Reformed community.

As is always the case, the truth is in the middle.

Among all the marquee reformers, I have the greatest admiration for Martin Luther. Lest that ever approache idolatry, I can remind myself that, even allowing for his times and culture, Luther was a raging anti-Semite. A true outlier. Nobody is just one thing. We all have clay feet. We all are the chief of sinners.

In reformed circles there is great and worthy admiration for the writings of the puritans. However, they were far from perfect. They crossed he pond to escape persecution from the Church of England. However, contrary what is often attributed to them, they were not seeking freedom of religion. While they were seeking to remove themselves from a kind  of theocracy, they were simultaneously eager to establish one. They were  looking not for tolerance, but for their own sect to take the reins of absolute ecclesiastical and civil power. Regarding other Christian denominations and viewpoints, their intolerance was on par with, and at times exceeded, that which they fled.

And their doctrine was on the extreme right of covenant theology, to the point, in one regard, of advocating an indefensible position. They were theonomists. They established a state religion, and a religious state, and in their colony they instituted Mosaic law, including the right of the magistrate to punish religious deviations as blasphemy.

It doesn’t mean their writings are not valuable, for they surely are, in certain topics they are among the best of the best. But their theology was far from perfect. Establishing a Christian civil government, replete with Old Testament punishments, is just about the biggest distortion of the New Covenant and New Testament teaching you can imagine. There is no call in the New Testament for the establishment of a Christian theocracy. Indeed, what is taught is that we should pay scant attention to our form of our government, because we, as citizens of a greater kingdom, are effectively aliens wherever we happen to live.

The puritans of New England beat, placed in stocks, poked holes in tongues, cut off ears, imprisoned, banished, and sometimes hanged both Baptists and Quakers. They truly hated their enemies, in direct violation of Jesus’ teaching.

Like many I admire much of what they wrote. But I also sense the irony in that most of those who admire the puritans, should they be transported back in time to puritan New England, would find themselves suffering extreme persecution.

Like I said, nobody is just one thing.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Divine Simplicity and Plato

The doctrine of the Simplicity of God, or Divine Simplicity is a good (perhaps the best) place to see the potential for the effects of Greek philosophy on theology. As an aside, I find it sad that many will readily use pagan philosophy (which is unfalsifiable) to inform their theology, and will even apply the word “heretic” to those who disagree with their subjective conclusions, while at the same time they will discount the idea that science (which by definition is falsifiable) should play any role (other than a trophy wife) in one’s view of creation.

 Divine Simplicity is defined this way:
[T]he doctrine of divine simplicity says that God is without parts. The general idea can be stated in this way: the being of God is identical to the "attributes" of God. Characteristics such as omnipresence, goodness, truth, eternity, etc. are identical to God's being, not qualities that make up that being, nor abstract entities inhering in God as in a substance; in other words we can say that in God both essence and existence are one and the same.
This discussion is independent of whether the Doctrine of Divine Simplicity is correct or not. I happen to agree with a form of the doctrine, although I would use an Einsteinian version: God is as simple as he can be, but not simpler.

Where does the idea originate? It does not come from the bible. It comes from a pagan idea, the Platonic theory of forms:
The theory of Forms or theory of Ideas is a philosophical theory, concept, or world-view, attributed to Plato, that the physical world is not as real or true as timeless, absolute, unchangeable ideas.
In a nutshell, what is real are the timeless, unchangeable, immutable forms (ideas.) Their realm is “heaven”, if you will. What we see around us are sort of cheap (and shifting) approximations to these forms. This is not at all consistent with the biblical view of God's revelation, either special or general. The theory of forms would recast what used to be a proud doctrine of the Reformed, the perspicuity of scripture, into a doctrine that scripture sort of "approximates" the reality of the shadowy forms.

To ancient pre-science theologians, steeped in Greek philosophy, it was undoubtedly tempting to make God the ultimate, unchangeable Platonic form. In some sense I would agree with that—should it not be taken too far—and should the abused notion of “parts” not be taken so literally.

Hard-core adherents to Divine Simplicity state that God is without parts, and therefore God does not have attributes, but rather he is his attributes. For example, you’ll get slapped by a pedantic advocate if you say “God has mercy” because that makes mercy a “thing” or a part—so instead we must say that God is mercy.

But what exactly is a part, and why would it be so bad if God had some divine version of parts? Here is a hard-core proponent (and extremely popular) theologian James Dolezal:
Classical Christian orthodoxy contends that the first cause of all being must be simple for the straightforward reason that complex or compound things depend upon parts that are more fundamental in being than themselves. And nothing is more primary in being than God. Parts are really so many causes giving some form of actuality to those entities in which they are integrated, and enabling them to operate as they do, like the six million parts of a Boeing 747. Composite beings are doubly dependent: first, upon their various component parts, and second, upon whatever agent or power acts to unify their parts in them.
Notice what he does. For his example of something that has parts, he uses a complex machine, a 747. But of course nobody would ever suggest that God, if he has parts, would be anything like a machine with six million independent parts riveted and bolted together. It’s a strawman.

But that is still not the part that is trouble. It is what slides into these arguments, sometimes without mention or with the argument-killing announcement that it is “totally obvious.” Let us take a look at Bavinck:
This simplicity is of great importance, nevertheless, for our understanding of God. It is not only taught in Scripture (where God is called “light,” “life,” and “love”) but also automatically follows from the idea of God and is necessarily implied in the other attributes. Simplicity here is the antonym of “compounded.” If God is composed of parts, like a body, or composed of genus (class) and differentiae (attributes of differing species belonging to the same genus), substance and accidents, matter and form, potentiality and actuality, essence and existence, then his perfection, oneness, independence, and immutability cannot be maintained.
The first thing to note, as I said earlier, is that the doctrine of Divine Simplicity is not in scripture. It is derived. You have to decide whether it was derived properly or not. Bavinck’s scriptural references, such as they are, is that God is called “light,” “life,” and “love.” Fair enough. Nobody disputes that. However it falls far short of proving “the” Doctrine of Divine Simplicity.

But here, finally, is the part I want to get to, it is, in some form, in every “proof” of Divine Simplicity:
If God is composed of parts, like a body, or composed of genus (class) and differentiae (attributes of differing species belonging to the same genus), substance and accidents, matter and form, potentiality and actuality, essence and existence, then his perfection, oneness, independence, and immutability cannot be maintained.
There is no proof of this “obvious” statement, a statement that is pure Platonism (which doesn’t mean it is wrong.)

This statement is presented as an indisputable assertion; it is presented axiomatically, and Dolezal, in his version, uses a 747 as a rhetorical device to slide this axiom by the unsuspecting reader. It is so horrible to think of God as being like a 747 that we are ready to accept, without discussion, an axiomatic statement that sweeps that ugly vision aside and  then, in a question-begging way, renders the answer that is sought as a foregone conclusion.

The argument boils down to this: if God has “parts”, then he has them in the same sense that a 747 has parts, and clearly the parts are (indeed) more fundamental, and therefore that composite "thing" can’t be God. The same people who later will insist that God is so utterly different from man (true enough) that all the references to emotions are purely anthropomorphic (not true) are here insisting that if God has parts, then he has them not in some divine manner that we cannot fully grasp, but precisely in the same sense and in the same relationship to the whole as the parts of a man-made contraption.

But let me argue (without proposing) that we (or at least I) can readily conceive of a God who has a heart, whatever that means for God, and that heart is the seat of God’s disposition toward us. And that God has a head, whatever that means for God, and that head is the seat of God’s plan of redemption and also God’s own free will. And let me further argue that God (without proposing) is a perfect union (so unlike an airplane!) of these two “parts” and that he is not less fundamental that his heart or head, and that nothing about God, such as his immutability (properly understood) is necessarily compromised by this view.

It is only when you invoke Platonism as universal truth can you “derive” a conclusion that such a view is not possible. The real problem, as I see it, with a God that is simpler than he needs be, who is without parts in the sense that utterly everything about him is unified in his essence, is that God becomes the ultimate deterministic being. He doesn’t decide to create a flood—that “decision” was simply part of his essence from eternity. Not only must all God’s emotions in scripture be anthropomorphic, so must all his decisions that appear in the bible.

But the absolute worst part of this debate how arrogant some are, how certain they are that they are correct in their derivation (ultimately due to Plato) about the nature of God at a microscopic level of granularity—for an aspect of God that is not described in scripture, that they are willing to label disagreements over this ultimately unimportant doctrine (it has no ramification for the Gospel)  as heresy. They, in a very real sense, allow Plato to determine what is Christian heresy.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

John the Baptist: The Greatest and the Least

I'm in a John the Baptist kind of mood. First, I was thinking about this passage:
2 And when John had heard in prison about the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples 3 and said to Him, “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?” 4 Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: 5 The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. (Matt. 11:2-5)
It took me a while to appreciate the timeline implied by this passage. For I always took it to mean that the two ambassadors from John arrived, and Jesus provided them a quick answer, and sent them packing. Which would not have been a very satisfying report for John to receive. But I am convinced the language supports the notion that the men were to stay for a period and observe Jesus' ministry, and only then return to reassure John with eyewitness accounts. A quick answer would only tell John that Jesus was talking the talk. A period of observation of his ministry would demonstrate that he was walking the walk as well.

John, the last prophet of the old age that was coming to an end, the Jewish age if you will, recognized (although doubts were creeping in) Jesus as the one who was to usher in the new age, the Kingdom of Heaven. However, it would appear that Jesus didn't quite initiate the new age in a manner that met John's expectations. So Jesus told John's messengers to hang around and witness the direct fulfillment of prophecy, such as
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. (Isa. 35:5)
and only then report back to John, who would be reassured that Jesus was indeed the coming one, and the new age was indeed at hand. The "end of one age, start of another" theme also explains the somewhat paradoxical:
“Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Matt. 11:11)
Here "born of women" is a metaphor for those under the Old Covenant, in contrast with those in the New Covenant, born of water and Spirit (John 3:5). The least of those who are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, i.e. who live in the age made possible by the finished work of Christ, are "greater" in terms of their privilege, than even the greatest who livd before the onset of the Kingdom. If for no other reason than faith was in some sense harder for Old Testament saints, who had to have faith in a promise, while our faith rests on the documented (in the bible) historical events of the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

I get email

On a forum I visit, I wrote that I consider Methodological Naturalism (MN) 1 to be synonymous with the scientific method. I received a series of emails from a concerned citizen. Here is the most recent:
Hello again David, Just noticed this came after what I wrote to you last month: "I view MN and 'the scientific method' as synonymous." 
Pity. It just means your work in science, philosophy, theology/worldview discourse will be largely irrelevant, as it is ideologically compromised and outdated. 
Most millennial undergrad philosophy students, and surely anyone who has taken a course or read a book or even article in science studies or philosophy of science, would simply ignore your claim because it is not sustainable or coherent. It makes me wonder why an evangelical Christian would try to foist it upon his brothers and sisters as if ideological science were a good thing. 
The answer you gave is the same and only one that atheist physicists seem to give. Why is that? Are you going to continue to give the same answer as the atheists, using their ideology as your own, David? 
I have spoken with devout religious physicists who have done enough work in philosophy of science to know what you haven't learned yet. Literally, David, they ALL reject methodological naturalism as an unnecessary ideology. And they're not just physicists, like you, but also theologians!
I wrote back that I appreciated his concern, but I have already long ago resigned myself to the fact that my science, philosophy, and theology are largely irrelevant, so no need to worry!

1Methodological Naturalism  (MN) essentially states that everything we learn about the natural world we learn through science. On the other hand there is Philosophical Naturalism (PN), which I deny, which states that the supernatural does not exist. There are two very different beasts. MN is good. PN is bad.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

How I do my error-prone amateur theology

It's ugly and undisciplined and self-taught. It's sort of like this. 0

0 I reserve the right to modify the process by methods both willy and nilly.

1 This is not Van Til presuppositionalism. This is presuppositionalism-lite, of the form "Jesus loves me this I know, for the bible tells me so."

2 There is some overlap within the list. God's Holiness, for example, can be said  to encompass many of his attributes.

3 As I have written elsewhere, God's transcendence is an often ignored attribute. But you will get immutability and omnipresence wrong (and possibly make further shaky derivations) if you base them on Aristolelian philosophy instead the the scriptural teaching that God is outside of time and space (God's immensity).

4 I could have used the Apostle's creed, but I think the Nicene is perfect. Note that the Nicene Creed, written by smart men, contains about 150 words, and the Westminster Confession of Faith (which I shouldn't have to say, but I will: I love it!) also written by smart men contains about 12,000 words. Note that the number of errors in documents written by smart men is, to first order, proportional to the number of words they write. You do the math. That is why a binding statement of faith should be small, and a classic confession of faith (WCF or LCF 1689) should supplemental but not binding.

5 Roughly speaking, I view the 2nd tier doctrine as very important, but upon which we can agree to disagree and maintain Christian fellowship. Also roughly speaking, differences here lead to different denominations. They are derived from the first tier. People often try to prove these doctrines but they can't. Be very careful of fallacious proofs at Tier Two and below. Especially popular is the wrongheaded slippery slope, where a denial of a 2nd or 3rd tier doctrine is said to lead, inevitably, to a denial of the gospel.

6 Everyone looks for their sweet spot. We have to guard against legalism and antinomianism. However the acceptable path is wide here, not narrow. A church that allows alcohol consumption is not apostate, at least not for that reason, nor is one that prohibits alcohol consumption, at least not for that reason. (One of them, however, is wrong.)

7 These are doctrines like impassability, which to a first approximation everyone agrees that it is a doctrine but nobody agrees on exactly what it means. That is characteristic of many 2nd tier doctrines, and after 2000 years if we can't agree on what impassibility (as one example) means, then that is a good sign that we should  not elevate one specific view of  the doctrine as cardinal, and should probably establish the least common denominator.

8 What was said in footnote 7 for impassibility applies here as well. To the extent that a doctrine of salvation is consistent with the 1st tier, it should be treated as acceptable. Calvinism and Arminianism  may not want to share a house, but they can both live in the same city.

9 Yeah-- we are commanded by Jesus to baptize. The fact that he did not provide details should not be taken to mean he forgot or didn't have time to  spell them out--it should be taken to mean the details are not important. There are two main traditions for baptism, and both are fine. If you think God can only dispense grace via one mode exclusively, or if you think God cannot dispense grace at all, you are placing God in a box in which he doesn't place himself.

1There is biblical social justice consonant with Imago Dei. The most frequent violation is victim-blaming of women who have been assaulted by church members or abused by their husbands. Show many any church leader who will go to the mat with misplaced piety that the text in the bible on divorce is not just literal but also complete, and common sense generalization has no place,  so that even a wife who is physically and sexual abused must try to reconcile with a "repentant" spouse, and I'll show you, with concrete counter-examples, a church leader who will apply the "literal and complete" hermeneutic only when it is easy and it suits him. (As an aside, my equally amateurish hermeneutic is simple: The Bible is meant to be read intelligently.)

11 The compatibility of science and scripture is tier 2, not  tier 3. Those who deny it, or make science the enemy, or proudly proclaim that they don't care what science has to say, are denying General Revelation. Don't do that.

12 Third tier doctrines are great fun to argue about, but should be even less likely to cause divisions. Roughly speaking, most of these are differences found even within a healthy local church. (And in fact their absence might be the sign of an unhealthy church.)

13 This one, Church Government, is possibly 2nd tier. Tough call. I place it here, at least for now, because there are, for example, Baptist churches with indistinguishable doctrine across the board except for some being elder led and some being deacon led.

14 The writers of the historic creeds understood. God created the heavens and the earth--on this we must agree. But the how or the when--well the creeds, like the bible itself, is silent about those details, and so we should treat them as unimportant. (Isn't that obvious?)

15 Similarly the writers of the historic creeds understood what was important: He will come again to judge the quick and the dead, but wisely silent on the details of how history will come to an end.

16 Church discipline is a strange topic. Churches preen about what a big deal they make about it, and how they apply Matthew 18. They ignore the fact that Matthew 18 applies to a very limited case, that of personal enmity between believers. None of the actual cases of discipline in the New Testament give any indication  of following Matthew 18. Rather they appear to follow a much simpler process: if a member is living in unrepentant sin, excommunicate him. I place it here because as long as churches are tossing out, for example, members adopting an adulterous lifestyle, they are fine. You do not have to follow Matthew 18 where it does not apply, and where by explicit biblical example it is not followed. And there no examples of disciplining members who stop coming. Even weirder are churches that attempt to use church covenants as legal documents and  attempt to enforce violations of those covenants, especially in terms of disciplining members who leave. That not only has no biblical precedent, it is illegal.

17 Obviously "proof" does not mean the same as it does in mathematics. It is less rigorous than that, but more rigorous that secular philosophical proofs. The latter is due to the fact that not only does the theologian use the same axioms of logic that secular philosophers use, but there is a richer set of presuppositions for the theologian. I would define proof this way:  If you take an intelligent and  reasonable atheist (like the  kind they used to make, back in the day) and say: accepting these presuppositions arguendo, do you agree these doctrines logically follow? That at least 95% would agree: yes that doctrine, given your absurd presuppositions, does indeed follow, albeit a form of garbage in, garbage out. (Intelligent and  reasonable atheists tend to be snarky.)

18 See references 6-9 on this wiki page.

Sunday, September 08, 2019

Does the bible really claim that Jesus is God?

Does the bible ever really claim that Jesus is God? This is a common question, as is a narrower version: Does Jesus ever claim to be God?

Spoiler alert: the answer to both questions is yes. 1

By the way, it is essentially the same question as: Does the bible ever teach of the Trinity? Or rather the two questions can be answered simultaneously, since many of the passages that attest to Jesus’ deity also speak to the deity of the Holy Spirit.

The apostolic church unambiguously claimed Jesus to be God. It starts at the beginning, when in the first post-resurrection sermon Peter, to use a poker metaphor, sees the highest known Jewish title and raises it—in fact he goes chips all in—by adding a new title, Messiah, an unspeakable abomination if not applied to God, i.e.
“Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” (Acts 2:36)
And then the other bookend, in Revelation, where Christ is placed in the throne of God, and he's not just trying it on for size like some impertinent tourist:
And there shall be no more curse, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall serve Him. (Rev. 22:3)
The Pharisees would certainly agree with orthodox Christianity that Jesus claimed to be God. It is precisely why they wanted to kill him:
The Jews answered Him, saying, “For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy, and because You, being a Man, make Yourself God.” (John 10:33)
The question of whether Jesus was God was not a matter of debate in the church for three centuries, until the arrival of the heretic Arius (c. 256–336). Arius was not arguing to maintain the theological status-quo, but to overturn it. His ideas were the new ideas.

As for Jesus claiming to be God, there are the instances that the Pharisees “correctly” used to bring charges of blasphemy, noting for example that Jesus proclaimed sins to be forgiven, a prerogative of God alone.

And there is more, such as in the Great Commission:
Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, (Matt 28:19) 
Do not miss the fact that the reference is singular (in the name of, not in the names of) but the person is three. To appreciate the fact that this is either of claim of deity (for both Jesus and the Holy Spirit) or it is unspeakable blasphemy, imagine replacing the Son and the Holy Spirit in this verse with the names of even the two great apostles:

baptizing them in the name of the Father and of Peter and of Paul

Ouch.  There are other such Trinitarian references, such as the benediction at the end of 2 Corinthians:
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen. (2 Cor. 13:14) 
Again, try reading it with Jesus and the Holy Spirit replaced by Peter and Paul.

Another place where Jesus’ deity is proclaimed is in the beginning of the book of James:
James, a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, (James 1:1) 
Does James really have two masters? Of course he does not, and here he equates the Son with the Father. One master. A bit later, James describes Jesus with an attribute, glory, that the Jews would have reserved for God:
My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, (James 2:1) 
We also note that in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes the prophetic utterance: Thus sayeth the Lord, and makes it self-referential: I say unto you.

And for just one more, we have the words of Thomas. Upon requesting physical proof, of the resurrected Christ, and receiving it without rebuke, Thomas makes an unequivocal statement:
And Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28)
And again this statement, the height of blasphemy if not correct, was accepted without comment.

1 The answer is really: "Duh." But I'm trying to be polite.

Friday, September 06, 2019

The Difficult 2nd Commandment

The second commandment reads:
4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; 5 you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. (Ex. 20:4-5)
I find this very confusing.

Note that it is actually two, two, two commandments in one. 1

The first "subcommandment" is:

SUBCOMMANDMENT 2.1: You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

This would include, taken at face value, your album of wedding pictures and pictures of your children and your pets.  (The language implies that carved images are being called out as the contemporary gross offenders, but the wording is careful to include, under the same restriction, any likeness on any past, present, or future media) This is important: many want to limit the application of this commandment to deities real or imagined--but the text of  2.1 provides no basis for such a narrow view.  In fact the text goes the extra 3520 cubits 2 to prescribe a universal domain of application, i.e. "likeness of anything; in the sky or on the land or in the water" .

Then we have:

SUBCOMMANDMENT 2.2: You shall not bow down to them or serve (worship) them.

Herein lies the difficulty for me.  First, a trivial problem: If 2.1 means you can't make an image, then why worry about worshiping it?  Well, because someone else might have made it.3

Less trivial is this, and it is vital: For purposes of establishing a violation of the 2nd Commandment, is 2.2 sufficient, or is it sufficient and necessary?

I think we would all agree that it is sufficient.  That worshipping Micky Mantle on his Topps 1952 rookie baseball card, or an image of a blue-eyed Jesus on black velvet is not just bad taste but idolatry and under condemnation.

But the only way of avoiding your family "likenesses" from causing you a problem, because they are certainly covered by 2.1, is if 2.2 is also necessary. That is, you're good as long as you don't worship those baby pictures (or baseball cards).

But that leaves us with the question of images of Jesus or God. If 2.2 is necessary, and I think it must be, then is it obvious that you cannot have an image of Jesus (let's say a print of a masterpiece painting) that is not an object of worship but rather an object of art, or commemoration, or a reminder?

It is not obvious to me.

It really is impossible to parse this commandment as it often gets parsed, i.e. don't make any images of Jesus or God, often to include the wearing of crosses. The only way you can support that view is if you can argue that all images of Jesus are, by default and without exception, bowed down to by their holders. I don't buy it. I think those who say that they can have an image of Jesus and not be in violation of the 2nd commandment are correct.

1 Really showing my age. This is from certs mints advertising. See wiki, which tells us: the phrase "Two, two, two [insert almost any word or short phrase here] in one" remained an American idiomatic expression into the 21st Century.

2 3520 cubits = 1 mile.

3 In fact, the story of "render unto Caesar" takes a richer meaning knowing that some Jews would not even touch a denarius, not because it had Caesar's image but because it had an image, period. They did not limit the application of the 2nd Commandment to images of God. They were right, at least in that regard. And this would have further vexed them when they tried to trap Jesus with the tax conundrum, because how could they not but agree with Jesus' solution of getting rid of the abominations (as they viewed them) by giving them back to Caesar?

Thursday, September 05, 2019

Jesus said: “For many are called, but few are chosen.” That's kind of a downer.

“For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matt. 22:14)
This verse, from the end of the parable of the Wedding Feast, is often taken, across the evangelical spectrum, to mean: only a small percentage of the human population or, even more dramatically, a small percentage 1 of the fortunate subset that has heard the gospel call (and therefore has a "fair shot," in Arminian-Speak) will actually heed the call ("are chosen" in Calvinist-speak) 2 and be saved. Bummer.

It might mean that. But the chances, in my opinion, are small. 3

For one thing, it is quite possible that the phrase is not theological or eschatological, but rather proverbial. It appears (in various forms) in the ancient literature, including Plato and the Gospel of Thomas, where it roughly means, in crude terms, "only the smart (or enlightened, in Gnostic-Speak) people will understand what I am saying and will use it to their advantage." In the KJV it also appears at the end of Matt 20:16 in the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. There it is less susceptible to be interpreted as eschatological prophecy and more likely to be viewed as proverbial. Alas, it does not appear at the end of Matt 20:16 in more modern translations, so I don't know what to make of it.

I will add, however, that the phrase (in either the one or in both occurrences) is tied to a parable, so the proverbial interpretation is consistent with what Jesus himself says about the parables:
Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. (Matt. 13:13)
If Jesus' words recorded in Matt: 22:14 are to be taken more literally, it is still unlikely that he was making a prophecy for the ages. He was probably speaking of the time period of his ministry. Why do I  say this? Because the Bible. 4 Viz.
  1. Within a month or so after the crucifixion, the number of believers increased by a significant multiplicative factor-- as least by 10 times.
  2. Paul refers to those who are saved as the many, not the few. (Rom. 5:15,19)
  3. The Revelation speaks of an uncountable number in Johns vision of heaven. (Rev. 7:9)
Or, as Calvin puts it, in his commentary on Romans and Thessalonians,
If Adam's fall had the effect of producing the ruin of many, the grace of God is much more efficacious in benefitting many, since admittedly Christ is much more powerful to save than Adam is to ruin.
Calvin. Is. Da Man. (Except when his writings refute my armchair theology.)

1 Exactly 1:10 according to poet Robert Burns:
O Thou, that in the heavens does dwell,
As it pleases best Thysel',
Sends ane to Heaven an' ten to Hell,
For Thy glory,
And no for onie guid or ill
They've done afore Thee!
(Holy Willies Prayer, stanza 1) 
But he's a Scot, and they are always dour due to the bad weather, and the fact that they can't beat the English in soccer. (Although his Calvinism is spot-on, which may also be correlated with being dour.)

2 And at least in this case, Bible-speak.

3 I have noticed a weird insistence (occasionally with a small but discernible ΓΌber-creepy dash of pleasure) from some of my fellow believers that this is indeed a prophecy from our Lord that the population of hell will be far greater than that of heaven. If that is what it means, and I don't think it is, it should be regarded as one of the saddest verses in the bible.

4 I love the new Because [noun] construct in the English language. Example: I love libraries. Because books. This is fantastic!

Monday, September 02, 2019

Hate your enemies? What's up with that?

 Consider the text:
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, (Matt 5:43:44) 
This is a passage that my reformed brethren, in my opinion, use properly in one sense and misuse in another.  To those who argue that Jesus was abrogating the decalogue in the “you have heard it said” sequence in the Sermon on the Mount, this verse is properly employed in the counter-argument, given that “Hate Your Enemies” was not one of the big 10. Fair enough. 1  But many reformed go too far, and insist that Jesus was not introducing anything new, he was merely correcting bad teaching.  According to this argument, Jesus is not introducing new law by contrasting it to the old, because "hate your enemy" is not only not a commandment, but it was never taught in the Old Testament, period.

It is a strong argument, a compelling argument,  save for the inconvenient fact that it is not correct.

First, as circumstantial evidence, we have the conquest of Canaan, where God commands the execution of entire peoples: men, women, and children. We are not going to have the usual (and for me, ultimately unsatisfying) discussion about how to understand the commands (I, quite frankly, gave up long ago) but view them in light of "hate your enemy." Would not any reasonable Jew, primordial pharisee or not, have viewed the command as being, as a default position, tantamount to hate your enemies the Canaanites? Especially absent any caveat to counter the default position, such as "love them as you kill them."  At best you have to take the position that the command to annihilate the Canaanites carried with it an implied subcommand that it should be done neutrally, without emotion.

More circumstantial evidence is the existence (without condemnation) of a substantial collection of imprecatory prayers.  Was David loving his enemies when he prayed:
22 Let their own table before them become a snare; and when they are at peace, let it become a trap. 23 Let their eyes be darkened, so that they cannot see, and make their loins tremble continually. 24 Pour out your indignation upon them, and let your burning anger overtake them. 25 May their camp be a desolation; let no one dwell in their tents. (Ps. 69:22-25) 
It would appear to be so only for ridiculously small values of "love."

For explicit evidence, in the form of a "thou shalt" command, we can examine this passage:
3 No Ammonite or Moabite shall enter the assembly of the Lord; none of their descendants, even to the tenth generation, shall ever enter the assembly of the Lord, 4 because they did not meet you with food and water on the way when you came out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you. 5 Nevertheless, the Lord your God was not willing to listen to Balaam, but the Lord your God turned the curse into a blessing for you because the Lord your God loves you. 6 You shall never seek their peace or their prosperity all your days. 7 “You shall not detest an Edomite, for he is your brother; you shall not detest an Egyptian, because you were an alien in his land. 8 The sons of the third generation who are born to them may enter the assembly of the Lord. (Deut. 23:3-7) 
Here the Jews were told not to hate the Edomites nor the Egyptians. This is stated as a direct contrast to how they should treat the Ammonites and Moabites. The logical conclusion of the contrast is not by implication only,  it is direct and inescapable: The Jews, when commanded not to hate Group B, are being told: hate Group A only.  You would have to perform an olympic-level exegetical gymnastics routine to argue otherwise.

Following Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on The Mount, we are no longer permitted to hate our contemporary versions of the Ammonites and Moabites. 2  It is new law, it is not merely correcting bad teaching.  Which is not to say that the Pharisees were not engaged in bad teaching--for they obviously were.  But that is not what Jesus is addressing here.

This mistake is, as I've stated before (and is clearly just my opinion) tied to our (reformed) tendency to overemphasize continuity. It is the same category error that dispensationalists make, except they overemphasize discontinuity.

1 I used to make that argument, that the Ten Commandments were replaced by the Sermon on the Mount. I would now characterize my position as saying that they were subsumed (the difference being real but nuanced) by the Sermon on the Mount, which also included law newly introduced by Jesus. Because, you know, he kinda had the authority to do so, and he exercised that prerogative.

2 We (Christians) are pretty terrible at loving our enemies. And I'm not just talking about hating atheists, The New England Patriots, or other religions. We routinely display the most vicious hatred for fellow believers with insignificant doctrinal differences, i.e. differences that are not about the gospel. The Puritans, often the standard bearers for the reformed, covenant theologians to the core, executed both Baptists and Catholics for heresy. One could, I suppose, attempt to argue that it was an act not of hatred, but of love. (We don't, as a matter of practice, even treat people who leave our churches with love. We really suck at the love thing.)