The _____ captivity of the church

Sometimes I think we Christians after Christendom think we’re William Wallace. That we’re in front of a shield wall firing people up for the battle we face… when, actually, we’re already not just prisoners of the enemy, but serving the empire we think we’re standing against. We talk about the world now being ‘Babylon’ and don’t always confront how much Babylon already infects our hearts. Here’s a piece, in part, inspired by Martin Luther’s The Babylonian Captivity Of The Church

“Aye, fight and you may die. Run and you’ll live — at least a while. And, dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!” — William Wallace in Braveheart

Freedom.

Religious freedom.

Freedom of speech.

It seems we Christians are a bit obsessed with questions of freedom at the moment. We’re positioning ourselves like an army of Scots ready to fight to maintain our independence from the empire. We’ve got thought leaders who are bracing us for impact, telling us that we’re in the middle of a battle that will decide our future; the battle for our freedom. These freedoms. Hard won freedoms. Freedom from the tyranny of Babylon. Freedom from bending the knee to Caesar and his rainbow sash.

The problem is we talk about religious freedom and how important it is, while we the church are captives in Babylon; and if we think freedom looks like Babylon-lite we’re in big trouble. If we think freedom is simply the ability to maintain a distinct sexual ethic we don’t realise just how much we’ve already been captivated by a world that is an entirely different kingdom to the one we live for if we follow king Jesus. We’re so focused on sex, that we fail to realise that we, mostly, already belong to ‘Babylon’.

We’re captives.

We’re political captives.

We’re economic captives.

We’re captivated by a counter-Gospel. We’re narrative captives, enthralled by Babylon and its shiny promises and explanations about who we are, and what we’re for; blinkered so that we don’t often look beyond our defaults; the status quo of our immediate context and culture.

We’re captivated in our hearts, and our minds, in our desires and in our imaginations.

But still. We picture ourselves as William Wallace, just without the face paint (and so we end up looking a whole lot like Mel Gibson, it’s ok to be a raving lunatic if you’re in character, elsewise, not so much).

We think our freedom is at stake; that it is under attack.

Apparently our real enemies; the ones who will decide our fate, are those who’ve risen up from the margins of the empire who now threaten to take control of everything, or at least to wield disproportionate influence as they capitalise on our collective guilt and shame at how our culture has treated those who are different. We don’t feel guilt, or shame, not in any way that manifests itself in sitting down at the table to make reparations and to reconcile, anyway. We might have changed some of our practices so we don’t do conversion therapy any more or kick out our same sex attracted children (hopefully); we celebrate celibacy for those in our community who are same sex attracted, sure, but we’re not particularly on the front foot explaining to same sex attracted folk outside our community how Jesus is the best possible news for them, and better than any desire for earthly things, including sex, we’re not particularly interested in how life in a contested, pluralist world might be safe for them. It’s not just Christians, or the last vestige of christendom/Old Testament morality that cause bullying, or discrimination, or the world to be unsafe for those who statistically, are not normal. It’s the human heart. It’s the beastly part of the human heart. We’re like chicks, who turn our beaks on the little bird in the clutch who is different, and peck at them until we feel secure, and they are broken beyond recognition.

Well. Now these marginalised folks are at the head of an army; they’ve rounded up the forces of Babylon, both the politicians, and the market forces — corporations — and they’ve brought that army to our shield wall.

“They may take our lives… we might say, but they’ll never take our freedom.” 

We get these bracing call to arms type blog posts on all the big Christian platforms. We get books trying to chart a strategy for the church going forward in a hostile world where our freedom is under threat.

Freedom.

Religious freedom. That’s our shtick; and partly because we so value it for ourselves, it’s one of those things, those common goods, that we want to fight for for everyone else. We tend to see ourselves as the warriors fighting the good fight for freedom on the frontline. William Wallace in a battle raging against the ‘secular’  empire. And by secular this is the sort of hard secularism that sees no place for worship, rather than secularism as ‘no religion is favoured’ pluralistic secularism.

“They may take our lives… we might say, but they’ll never take our freedom.” 

Only we can’t really say that. Or rather, we can’t really say that and mean it. Because our freedom is already gone. We’re already captives. When it comes to Babylon, they’re not at the gate banging on the doors using the new sexual revolution to break down the walls. We’re already captives, and have been for a long time. This stuff on sexual difference is just, perhaps, the last defence to fall before we capitulate, bend the knee to Caesar and kiss the ring. And that we don’t realise we’re already captives makes our resistance pretty pathetic and futile.

We think we’re fighting the good fight here on same sex marriage and safe schools. But the truth is, we’re already captives to Babylon in so many ways that this resistance is pathetic, and unless it leads us to seek freedom in a whole bunch of other areas where ‘Babylon’ has infiltrated, we’re in a bit of trouble.

But the other truth is that Babylon in the Bible isn’t just judgment from God (as we’ll see below); it’s opportunity. It’s an opportunity to reach people outside Israel, and outside the church. Babylon is our mission field, and always has been. And the thing that keeps us focused on the main thing — joining with God in bringing dead people to life through the Gospel — is realising that we’re in Babylon, not Israel, that our neighbours are facing death for rejecting God, and that we’ll be part of God inviting them out of Babylon into a new kind of citizenship.

If we really want to resist Babylon in order to be part of winsomely calling people from death to life, there’s a whole lot of stuff we might need to free ourselves from first. We have to figure out how we’re distinct from Babylon (or should be) in order to reach Babylon with the Gospel (oh, and we need to remember that because we’re not Jews, we’re actually converts from Babylon, Babylonians who’ve decided to follow a different king, that our job isn’t first to identify with Israel and its story, but to appreciate that because of the one faithful exile, Jesus, we are brought home to God and made citizens of something new); we also need to be clear about what ‘Babylon’ means as a metaphor in a Biblical sense (beyond the exile).

There is a sense that God’s people being scattered into Babylon is both vital for his mission to see his image bearers spread over the face of the earth (Genesis 1), and judgment for failing to do the job of being his image bearers in the world; a case of God achieving his purposes through judgment. There’s also a sense in which exile into Babylon is judgment giving people a taste of what it seems they desire — to not live like his people; it’s a purifying thing. This is where his judgment in response to the impulse at Babel — where a bunch of people didn’t scatter, but instead stayed together to build a big, central, tower — probably an ancient ‘ziggurat’ (a staircase into the heavens to make themselves gods) — fits in with his plans for the world. These people rejected his call to go into the world, they built a tower for their own name to make themselves gods ascending to the heavens, and were scattered as a result. It’s this moment, in the Biblical narrative, that creates nations like Babylon, and there’s some pretty interesting historical ties between Babel and Babylon, so that in the first century, the historian, Josephus, says:

“The place wherein they built the tower is now called Babylon, because of the confusion of that language which they readily understood before; for the Hebrews mean by the word Babel, confusion”

The Babylonian captivity of Israel

When Israel was carted off into exile in Babylon the first time around, what got them there, what got them in trouble, was they were already Babylonian at heart before the armies arrived. They were captivated by Babylon before they were captives in Babylon.

They’d already rejected God, and what should have been their distinctives as his people, and they’d turned to idols instead.

They’d signed up with their hearts, and exile was a case of them becoming what they loved. In the book of Ezekiel we get an explanation read by people in Exile about why they’re in exile in the form of the words of the prophet who warned them what was coming.

There’s this scene where a group of Israel’s leaders rock up to Ezekiel to ask him what God says, and it turns out they’re in trouble because they’ve ‘set up idols in their hearts’ — abominations one might say… it turns out they’ve already deserted God. They’re already captives in this sense, even if the physical takeover is not yet complete (though it is for the first readers of Ezekiel)…

 When any of the Israelites set up idols in their hearts and put a wicked stumbling block before their faces and then go to a prophet, I the Lord will answer them myself in keeping with their great idolatry. I will do this to recapture the hearts of the people of Israel, who have all deserted me for their idols.’ — Ezekiel 14:4-5

The heart reality, the ‘Babylonian captivity’, is going to become the real deal though.

“Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘Because you people have brought to mind your guilt by your open rebellion, revealing your sins in all that you do—because you have done this, you will be taken captive.

“‘You profane and wicked prince of Israel, whose day has come, whose time of punishment has reached its climax, this is what the Sovereign Lord says: Take off the turban, remove the crown. It will not be as it was: The lowly will be exalted and the exalted will be brought low. A ruin! A ruin! I will make it a ruin! The crown will not be restored until he to whom it rightfully belongs shall come; to him I will give it.’ — Ezekiel 21:24-27

Exile is a judgment from God on those whose hearts have already gone from him; those who are already captives. The end of this Babylonian exile, according to Ezekiel, is the restoration of the crown to a rightful king of Israel. That’s Jesus. This restoration would also include a restoration of the heart, and a return from exile.

 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.” — Ezekiel 36:25-28

The first Babylonian captivity of the Church

The ‘Babylon’ of Revelation is, first, Rome. It’s the Babylon Israel are still enthralled by; to the extent that when Jesus came, they joined the Romans in executing him. Israel is still in exile, they don’t have new hearts, and they haven’t recognised God’s king. They’re part of this Babylonian kingdom. It’s a picture of a beastly kingdom that has set itself up in total opposition to the kingdom of God. The kingdom we see launched by the death and resurrection of King Jesus. It’s a kingdom whose values are both the opposite of Jesus’ values, and that are so totalising, coherent, and integrated, that once you let just one bit creep into your heart, it’s a trojan horse that lowers your ability to fight the rest. When John starts describing ‘Babylon’ in Revelation he paints this vivid picture of a powerful and beautiful woman who rides a beast, and seductively takes people away from God:

The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. The name written on her forehead was a mystery:

Babylon the great

the mother of prostitutes

and of the abominations of the earth.

I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus. — Revelation 17:4-6

This isn’t some mystery where we need a decoder ring, or to get in touch with our inner Nostradamus…

“The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.” — Revelation 17:18

For John, in his day, this is a description of Rome. Rome who loomed large as the totalising persecutor of Christians, but also as a compelling, integrated and coherent picture of civilisation; where order was kept and maintained and the seduction of beauty and power was never far away from the stick of its military. The carrot and stick of Rome were the threat to Christians aiming to maintain their distinction as citizens of heaven who bow the knee to Jesus, not Caesar, so we have a little exchange between governor Pliny and Emperor Trajan where Pliny is trying to figure out what to do with the Christians, and Trajan says “if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it — that is, by worshiping our gods — even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance.” And this lure, which caught Israel, also threatens the church — when John opens Revelation by directly speaking to the churches who first read this apocalyptic (revealing) text; that showed the real lay of the land, he warns the churches ‘not to forsake their first love’, not to be lured by Jezebels and the promises of false worship, not to become ‘lukewarm’ because of their own economic might within the empire… people in the church are in danger of forsaking Jesus and ending up in judgment, in Babylon.Everyone is an exile — you’re just either exiled from God, or from the beastly Babylon. Whatever happens their lives are lived in the physical reality of Babylon. They’re not home. And they’re treated like exiles too, by the world. The church is facing persecution for not bending the knee to Caesar.

Escaping persecution was so simple. You just had to sign up, totally, to the empire. To give in to Rome; to the empire; to Babylon; was to become an abomination; to become “children of the mother of the abominations of the earth.” Now this is pretty strong language, and for a long time the church has got itself in a spot of bother by using versions of the Bible that seem to single out sexual sin as the only sort of ‘abomination’ and abomination as a particularly insidious different type of sin. All sin is fundamentally an abomination to God. Stuff we might give a hall pass to out there in the public square — like greed — but also stuff we’re thoroughly conscripted into and captivated by as Christians — like lust, gluttony, and, umm, greed.

An ‘abomination’ was something put in the place reserved for God — in the Temple, at the altar, but also, fundamentally, in our hearts. An abomination is anything you replace God with. It’s the thing that turns us, as it conscripts us and deforms our behaviours (and so the image we bear in the world), in such a way that we become more like Frankenstein than human. We become vaguely human, in terms of what God’s kingdom looks like. The whole Roman enterprise — though much of it looked beautiful, ordered, and admirable — was built on an abominable rejection of God as God and Jesus as king.

When the Maccabees revolted against the Seleucid Empire (a hellenic kingdom), they were motivated, in part, by that empire fulfilling what they thought were Daniel’s prophecies about the abomination that causes desolation. It was all about God’s temple, and the altar, and the purity of whole-hearted worship that Israel was able to offer to God. So 1 Maccabees describes this abominable moment:

Now on the fifteenth day of [the month] Chislev, in the one hundred forty-fifth year, they erected a desolating sacrilege on the altar of burnt offering. They also built altars in the surrounding towns of Judah — 1 Maccabees 1:54

This sacrilege is later described as an abomination.

… that they had torn down the abomination that he had erected on the altar in Jerusalem; and that they had surrounded the sanctuary with high walls as before, and also Beth-zur, his town. — 1 Maccabees 6:7 

The Romans, when they destroy Jerusalem in 70AD, build a temple to Jupiter on the site of the Temple. And some believe this is what the ultimate abomination Rome is going to carry out looks like. It’s abominable, no doubt.

But I think the ultimate abomination was what Rome — and ‘captive’ Israel — did to God’s ultimate temple. They executed him; utterly rejecting his rule; holding up a mirror to what the beastly kingdom looks like against the face of God’s king. The great irony is that this is where king Jesus is enthroned and his kingdom begins — the kingdom that would ultimately be the undoing of Roman rule and the downfall of the Caesars (if you take the long term view, and of course, the eternal view). We repeat the abomination that causes desolation whenever we put anything but God in the place of supremacy in our hearts — we were made to bear the image of God; to be walking ‘temples’ for whatever it is we worship (the things we love and serve).

The church’s job, according to Revelation, is to bear faithful witness in Babylon as people distinct from Babylon because we bend the knee to a different king — the king described in Revelation 1 who brings the kingdom described in Revelation 21-22, after Babylon is destroyed. In the meantime we’re to be faithful witnesses (see the letters to the churches at the start of Revelation), who call Babylon to repent; who speak truth to power; even to the point of sharing in Babylon’s treatment of our king. Or, as Revelation 11 puts it, when talking about the faithful ‘lampstands’ (which is what the churches are depicted at in the start of the book):

Now when they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the Abyss will attack them, and overpower and kill them. Their bodies will lie in the public square of the great city—which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt—where also their Lord was crucified. For three and a half days some from every people, tribe, language and nation will gaze on their bodies and refuse them burial. The inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and will celebrate by sending each other gifts, because these two prophets had tormented those who live on the earth.

But after the three and a half days the breath of life from God entered them,and they stood on their feet, and terror struck those who saw them. Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here.” And they went up to heaven in a cloud, while their enemies looked on. — Revelation 11:7-12

Avoiding ‘Babylonian Captivity’ in the early church

Avoiding Babylonian Captivity after Jesus is a matter of right worship; it’s a matter of being part of the return from exile promised in Ezekiel (and because we’re not Jews, most of us, a return from the exile where we’re humanity was kicked out of Eden). It’s a matter of participation in God’s kingdom, the church, following his king, Jesus, and having him rule our hearts via the Spirit; a removing of the ‘abomination’ of false gods that rule our hearts.

The point is — it’s not sexual sin per say that is the ‘abomination’ (it’s a form of it), it’s idolatry. It’s the participation in worship of things other than God, through undifferentiated participation in kingdoms that are not God’s. It’s captivity. And the thing about Babylon, ‘the mother of abominations’ is that it’s not just sex that captivates us and so makes us captive; it’s not just the ‘sexual revolution’ that aims to restrict our freedom… there’s politics (power), and economics (money), and philosophy/wisdom (education and a vision of the good life) in the mix too.

Early Christians, knowing what was at stake, were more William Wallace like in their ability to avoid this sort of captivity. They refused. They maintained a distinction that included sexual fidelity, and an approach to marriage that was counter cultural in the Roman world, but it included much more than this. Here’s a passage from a second century document called the Letter to Diognetus. It’s about how the Christians avoid being caught up in the trappings of Babylon.

Instead, they inhabit both Greek and barbarian cities, however things have fallen to each of them. And it is while following the customs of the natives in clothing, food, and the rest of ordinary life that they display to us their wonderful and admittedly striking way of life.

They live in their own countries, but they do so as those who are just passing through. As citizens they participate in everything with others, yet they endure everything as if they were foreigners. Every foreign land is like their homeland to them, and every land of their birth is like a land of strangers.

They marry, like everyone else, and they have children, but they do not destroy their offspring.

They share a common table, but not a common bed.

They exist in the flesh, but they do not live by the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, all the while surpassing the laws by their lives.

They love all men and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned. They are put to death and restored to life.

They are poor, yet make many rich. They lack everything, yet they overflow in everything.

They are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor they are glorified; they are spoken ill of and yet are justified; they are reviled but bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evildoers; when punished, they rejoice as if raised from the dead.

The writer of this letter says some other stuff too, including this passage on the stupidity of the idolatry of ‘Babylon’ from earlier in the piece…

“Are they not all deaf? Are they not all blind? Are they not without life? Are they not destitute of feeling? Are they not incapable of motion? Are they not all liable to rot? Are they not all perishable?

You call these things gods! You serve them! You worship them! And you become exactly like them.

It’s for this reason you hate the Christians, because they do not consider these to be gods.”

This is what it looks like to really fight for freedom — to be poor and make many rich, to be lowly, dishonoured, without power, marginalised, but to bless, honour, and do good. To be sexually distinct, to share a common table, to be living a different story because we follow a different king.

Getting out of Babylon now (or getting Babylon out of the church)

I look at how we play politics as the church and feel like there’s not a huge amount of difference to how politics get played by other ‘religious’ groups. The politics of power, of zero sum games where it’s our way or nothing. The politics of picking the people who best represent our views, rather than the people most qualified for the job. We try to play politics with everyone else, we’re just not very good at it (bizarrely, perhaps, because other people have cottoned on quicker that we’re more shaped by our loves than by ‘knowing the facts’, and so they tell better stories).

I look at how I approach money, and career, and security, and experience, and toys, and I think that there’s not much difference in my approach to consuming and my pursuit of luxury, than anyone else in my life (except perhaps that I earn slightly less because of career choices, but this just means I crave slightly more in an unrequited way).

It’s not just about sexual difference, this Babylon thing — though that is important, and our marriages should be rich testimonies to the love of Jesus, and we should love and nurture our kids. And we should fight the temptation to sexual immorality and the corrupting of our imaginations by a ‘sexular society’… but there has to be much more than that in our kit bag.

If we want to be people who aren’t captives, people who live as though ‘every land is like a homeland’ and a ‘land of strangers’ we need to be people who are so caught up in the vision of a kingdom greater than Babylon and a sense of certainty that our future is greater than the present, and the past. That the picture of life in Revelation 21-22 doesn’t just surpass Babylon, or Rome, but Eden.

This will mean a totally different approach to politics that is not wedded to a sort of conservatism where we’re trying to restore paradise lost (and end up building Rome)but a progressivism that shoots for the kingdom of heaven — the kingdom we are citizens of even now.

This will mean, in some corners of the world, divorcing ourselves from worldly political establishments (and not shooting for a wedding with any particular political party here in Australia).

This will mean we don’t seek to be at the centre of the empire culturally, or politically, or economically — to be at the centre would require the ’empire’ being at the centre of our hearts — an ‘abomination’ and a form of captivity… like Spiritual Stockholm Syndrome. We won’t seek to be at the centre, but nor will we seek to be at the margins to the extent that we don’t participate in life with our neighbours. But we do need to be close enough to those at the margins to bless the people there, hear the people there, and be champions for the bringing about of change for the benefit of those Babylon treads on. Our distinctives on these fronts are to be prophetic and the noticeable and part of our appeal (think Daniel in Babylon).

This will mean listening to voices from the global church, from marginalised communities (from people who aren’t white blokes with multiple university degrees).

This will mean a totally different approach to economics. When John describes the downfall of Babylon he describes it with reference to its material prosperity — its luxury — and in terms of the downfall of a worldly economy built on the powerful controlling the goods of this world for their own benefit (and at the expense of other people — like those sold as slaves (Revelation 18:11-13) — and of the world itself which John says is “corrupted by her adulteries” (Revelation 19:2-3). The Babylon lost when God judges is not just built on sexual excess (though that is part of the picture), but on economic and political excess — a beastly and abominable approach to God’s world created by the worship of these things in the place of God. This sort of idol worship is totalising

This will mean a different approach to arts, and culture, and storytelling. The appeal of Babylon, in any form, rests in its counter-gospel and the way its gods are dressed up as appealing counterfeits to the real God. It’s no coincidence that even the word Gospel is ‘Babylonian’ (in the Roman sense); the proclamation of the marvellous victories of king Caesar. We need to be people who proclaim a different king in ways that call people to worship the one who ends our exile from God; the one who brings us out of captivity.

This will mean a different approach to personhood, discipleship, and education, that doesn’t see us just as solitary brains to be educated towards sanctification, but worshippers whose worship is cultivated in the ‘heart’, by practices, by stories, and in community where we follow our king by imitating him together, and show and reinforce our distinctive ‘story’ together.

This will mean a different approach to being the church. One that is not defensive or inwards looking, but that cultivates hearts that in looking to the king, and his way of life, joyfully and hopefully look to the lost sheep in our world; those crushed by worldly kingdoms, and offer them good news. Our practices and disciplines and the rhythms of our life together should, like the church from the Letter to Diognetus, be aimed at ‘making many rich’…  There are plenty of people at the margins of our society where the gospels of our ‘Babylons’ are exclusionary. Get an education; get a job; buy a house; collect experiences; be ‘free’… there are people for whom this vision of the good life is a millstone pulling them into depths of despair, not a picture of freedom at all. These are the people the freedom of the Gospel is for, and yet we spend our time hand wringing because the ‘elites’ don’t like us.

Babylon is a totalising system that aims for all of us — our desires, imaginations, beliefs, belonging, and actions… much as the Kingdom of God is a totalising system in a totally counter-Babylon, counter-Rome, way. These are where some of my misgivings about Christendom as an enterprise historically are located… we like to think the church civilised the barbarian empire… and in many ways we did… but we’re not so aware of the ways that this also allowed the empire to barbarianise the Church… and this was part of what Luther was getting at, in the Reformation he launched of the ‘Roman Church’ in a text like The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. This is the scale of the challenges we’re facing as the church now, and it might not be the Benedict Option that gets us to where we need to be, but we don’t really have the option of not changing if we’re already captivated by the trinkets and baubles of Babylon and just waiting for the last little bit of resistance to crumble while we fight for ‘religious freedom’… we need to fight for religious freedom, certainly, but more than that we need to fight to be free from abominable religions that pull our hearts from God.

When Luther described his task of pulling the church out of what he perceived to be a Babylonian captivity, he recognised how hard this would be because the captivity was so entrenched by the traditions of the church…

“I am entering on an arduous task, and it may perhaps be impossible to uproot an abuse which, strengthened by the practice of so many ages, and approved by universal consent, has fixed itself so firmly among us, that the greater part of the books which have influence at the present day must needs be done away with, and almost the entire aspect of the churches be changed, and a totally different kind of ceremonies be brought in, or rather, brought back. But my Christ lives, and we must take heed to the word of God with greater care, than to all the intellects of men and angels. I will perform my part, will bring forth the subject into the light, and will impart the truth freely and ungrudgingly as I have received it.” — Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church

Like many things, Luther saw the corruption of the way church was happening — removed from truths of the Gospel — as the work of Satan, work achieved through idolatry (any worship without Jesus); he says where we lose our centre — faith in Christ — we end up in judgment,  “removed from our own land, as into bondage at Babylon, and all that was dear to us has been taken from us.”

In this our misery Satan so works among us that, while he has left nothing of the mass to the Church, he yet takes care that every corner of the earth shall be full of masses, that is, of abuses and mockeries of the testament of God; and that the world shall be more and more heavily loaded with the gravest sins of idolatry, to increase its greater damnation. For what more grievous sin of idolatry can there be, than to abuse the promises of God by our perverse notions, and either neglect or extinguish all faith in them. — Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church

We need to be prepared to change; we, the church, need to acknowledge where we are captives, and we need to be prepared to reform. It’s a big deal, and it’s about much more than what goes on in our bedrooms.

“But you will say: “What? will you ever overthrow the practices and opinions which, for so many centuries, have rooted themselves in all the churches and monasteries; and all that superstructure of anniversaries, suffrages, applications, and communications, which they have established upon the mass, and from which they have drawn the amplest revenues?” I reply: It is this which has compelled me to write concerning the bondage of the Church. For the venerable testament of God has been brought into a profane servitude to gain, through the opinions and traditions of impious men, who have passed over the Word of God, and have set before us the imaginations of their own hearts, and thus have led the world astray. What have I to do with the number or the greatness of those who are in error?”

The Adventures of Joe Jaffa: Biblical Theology meets animated film noir detective series

I work with some very clever people who make very beautiful things. This term our church has tackled an ambitious project to show a stack of ways the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms are all about Jesus. Like he says they are in Luke 24.

We’re showing this episodic detective series The Adventures of Joe Jaffa in our services. I think it’s fantastic. I’m blown away by the sort of talent that is required to produce this sort of gear. I’ll update this post over the next few weeks (I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to share them so they can be appreciated sequentially). Here are the first five.

If your church could use these for anything – please do feel free to use them (it’d also be great to know if you are). There are hundreds of hours of work going into this (from one very passionate animator), so it’d be great for that work to help lots of people for a long time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Tarantino movies help me read the Bible better

tarantino movies bible

It takes a special sort of artist to be the subject of conspiracy theories that make their work more compelling. Not less. The Internet is full of bad conspiracy theories about art. Theories that draw from the same gene pool as the backwards masking movement from the early days of rock music. Theories that see ghosts operating in the machine. Theories from the Third Eagle of the Apocalypse. Theories are a dime a dozen. There are five that I choose to believe.

  1. Radiohead orchestrated a secret album within two albums called 0110 (previously).
  2. TV writers are trying to organise cross-overs between characters (not actors) from a range of programs that means most of the TV we consume is happening within the dreams of a character named Tommy Westphall from a show you’ve probably never heard of (previously).
  3. Pixar’s movies are all united in the same universe (previously).
  4. The Office UK and the Office US exist in the same universe and thus broke any laws of probability by the exact same day happening in two offices across the Atlantic (previously)
  5. Quentin Tarantino’s movies are all either set in the same universe, or are movies watched by people who live in that universe (more).

What I love about these is they are all (if true) demonstrations of intricate creativity being deliberately laid out over a significant amount of time with a huge degree of deliberation. If true they are the work of master craftspeople. People at the top of their creative games, and at the top of the creative game. The beauty of these theories (well not really the Office one – it’s just fun) is that you don’t have to notice them to appreciate the individual texts (movies and albums) involved, but when you do notice them, or experience them through the lens the theories provide, there is a greater richness in the experience and a greater appreciation of the mastery on display.

I choose to believe that Tarantino is a master story teller. A master of very deliberate decision making in the creative process. I think the best stories are layered. They reward multiple readings (or viewings). They get richer over time, not simpler.

My working theory in this post is that God is the ultimate deliberate creator. The ultimate story teller. And when we drill down into what makes excellent human story telling excellent we gain a new appreciation of the excellence of the story God has been telling since before the beginning of time that includes, but is not limited to, the story told by the Bible (I say this because I think a case can be made that the Bible is a demonstration of the story God has been telling through history since he created the world.

Tarantino’s approach to telling stories through deliberate and intricate plots helps me appreciate the story of the Bible.


Image Credit: IGN, The Intricate, Expansive Universe of Quentin Tarantino.

 

What the Bible is…

Like Tarantino’s movie corpus which includes all his films, occuring within one universe, the Bible is a collection of books put together across a span of time. Christians believe the creative intent behind the linking of these books and the stories and story they tell is the result of the deliberate creativity of a divine author – God – who doesn’t just deliberately author these texts with a particular creative intent, but all of human history.

The Bible is a set of books that work as discrete units with specific purposes that tell complete stories, books that form part of different genre based corpora (like the Law, the Writings, and the Prophets in the Old Testament. Just as Kill Bill is one story told over two episodes to give Tarantino more space, there are narrative based books of the Bible that come in two parts – like 1-2 Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles. The books in the Old Testament often include a variety of sources and references to other texts in their time – Proverbs, for example, includes references to several foreign kings whose collections have been included in Israel’s official collection of theological wisdom. Genesis contains Jewish versions of stories (like the flood) that are retold by other cultures with other emphases (see, for example, the Gilgamesh Epic). The Bible uses these stories with a particular agenda according to God’s purposes. The Bible doesn’t contain all the stories God is telling in his world, because: a) there isn’t enough room, as John says at the end of his Gospel…

Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” – John 21:25

b) every human life is a story, and part of this story. Like in Tarantino’s movie universe – All these stories – the stories told in the Bible, and the stories told in history through our lives, are connected through God’s meta-narrative. The story of his son. Jesus.

Like Tarantino’s movies, this story involves an act of hyper-violence. The story of the Bible (at least so far as it claims it is one story) is the story of the lamb slain before the creation of the world – and how that slaying plays out for each one of us. Are we slayers or was he slain for us? How’s this stuff from Revelation 13 for Tarantinoesque… Just let the symbolism of this stuff wash over you – the really important bit is in the bolded verse, but that only really makes sense in its context.

People worshiped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshiped the beast and asked, “Who is like the beast? Who can wage war against it?”

The beast was given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies and to exercise its authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to blaspheme God, and to slander his name and his dwelling place and those who live in heaven. It was given power to wage war against God’s holy people and to conquer them. And it was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation. All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the Lamb’s book of life, the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world. – Revelation 13:4-8

We all play a part in God’s story – either we’re on team dragon or team lamb. And God’s story centres on this one particular violent event. Deliberately. As Peter puts it in Acts 2 when he speaks to the Jewish crowd the narrative of Luke-Acts holds responsible for killing Jesus…

This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. – Acts 2:23.

This chapter comes soon after (but in volume 2) Luke records Jesus telling us how to read the Bible as one intricate story with one agenda.

“He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” – Luke 24:44-47

This mind opening that Jesus performs for his disciples is something like that light that turns on when you hear the theory that Tarantino’s movies are all connected. It’s what happens when you’re given the key to understanding a bunch of stories you’d never quite connected.

Look. The Bible’s writers could have made all this stuff up. Maybe. I’m familiar with the argument about puddles that some people believe does away with the need for an intelligent designer in a fine-tuned universe. And I’m really advocating a view of a finely told story… And this construct Jesus suggests for reading the Bible actually does work, it gives us (or at least me), a particularly satisfying approach to an ancient text, tracing myriad threads through the Old Testament to the foot of the Cross and the feet of King Jesus. This could be the work of some very clever humans. It could be an artificial frame to put around a bunch of random text – as a hole in the ground is a random frame that perfectly encompasses a puddle… But bear with me for a moment.

Consider the crucifixion of Jesus as a massive triumph of deliberate planning. The orchestration of literature, events, and human behaviour. Masterfully woven together. Where written story (the Old Testament) and human history come together in an utterly sublime, but yet totally surprising, way. I love reading essays like I, Pencil (which is also a YouTube video now), or a recent article about Thermos sending a hot coffee by freight across the US, and all the things that have to fall neatly into place in the supply chain to get that coffee from farm to mouth.

I love thinking about the intricacies and deliberation required to achieve certain desired results.

I love the idea that true creativity is about finding an intricate, elegant (aesthetically pleasing), or deliberately and aptly selected (sledgehammers can be creatively applied) approach to achieving such results. This is why I love Rube Goldberg machines and OK Go film clips and uphold them as archetypal forms of creativity or ingenuity. It’s why I enjoy Tarantino movies and the theory they all take place in the same interwoven universe. They are examples of intricate, elegant, and deliberate story telling. But they are not the ultimate version of this sort of storytelling…

What is more intricate, elegant, and deliberate than having human history unfold in such a way that a specific person, born in a specific place, to a specific category of mother, killed by specific people, in a specific way, with specific events plausibly surrounding this specific death? That sounds a little like a potential plot line for a Tarantino movie. The ‘deliberate’ planning involved to get Jesus to the Cross blows my mind…

Consider the deliberate marshalling of human history and events both local and geo-political in order to have Jesus killed through an unexpected agreement between a particular surviving people group from the Ancient Near East (whose very survival was unlikely) – Israel – who believed that being hung on a tree was a sign of God’s curse and their bitter enemy – the occupiers – Rome –  the most powerful human empire and propaganda machine the world had ever seen, who used crucifixion as a violent symbol in a PR war to keep sedition at bay.

Consider the sheer unlikelihood of the rise of Christianity amongst both Jews, with their views on crucifixion – theologically driven, and ancient, and Romans. Jews looked at crucifixion through the lens of Deuteronomy 21, which says:

“If someone guilty of a capital offense is put to death and their body is exposed on a pole, you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse.” – Deuteronomy 21:22-23

While Romans had the rhetorical power of the cross hammered into them by its use in events like the crucifixion of Spartacus’ army in 73BC. Where 6,000 Roman slaves were executed and displayed for all to see on the Appian Way – a 200km highway between Rome and Capua.

Consider that crucifixion was so violent and barbaric that Roman citizens were not permitted to be crucified. That sort of cultural aversion had to be developed in order for the cross to have its inverted rhetorical power in the Christian story. In order for its sheer unlikelihood as a means of heralding and coronating a king to be significantly subversive.

That’s the level of intricacy in this story’s supply chain.

That’s the sort of creativity involved in God’s story-telling.

Even if the puddle theory could be applied to this level of fine-tuning – there’s a sublime amount of creativity applied to weave all these elements together across genres, languages (from Hebrew to Greek (via Aramaic), through different political regimes (the nomadic patriarchy, the Jewish monarchy, exile under Assyria, exile under Persia, the return from exile, exile under Greece, exile under Rome), and to link them with an incredibly consistent application of tropes, and amazingly intricate intertextuality (both inside and outside the Biblical canon).

Whatever the explanation for the creative force behind this intricacy – be it a cabal of human editors working over that span to advance some sort of nefarious agenda (or simply for creativity’s sake), or divine (and I’m not sure the human alternative is all that plausible, even if I’m a sucker for creative literary conspiracy theories) – it is sublimely creative and exciting. It is deliberate, intricate, and elegant.

This is what sets the Bible’s story apart from the rest, in the same way that Tarantino’s movies sit apart from contemporary works or those within similar genres. But here are three areas where appreciating the deliberation and creativity in Tarantino’s movies helps me to get a sense of the greater creativity at play in the pages of the Bible – a much older text.

Intertextuality

One of the interesting implications of the Tarantino theory (certain parts of which have been confirmed) is what it means for all the movies from our real universe that Tarantino references in his “realer than real” universe and also in the “movies that exist within the realer than real” universe. His movie universe is a movie universe where most of our texts also exist (in order for them to be referenced in whatever homage he chooses to pay them). Curiously. The Bible exists in the Tarantino universe. Pulp Fiction hitman, Jules Winnfield, quotes Ezekiel as he shoots his victims. Only. He doesn’t. This is what Jules says:

“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of the darkness. For he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you.”

Ezekiel 25:17 actually says:

I will carry out great vengeance on them and punish them in my wrath. Then they will know that I am the Lord, when I take vengeance on them.”

That’s a distraction from this concept of intertextuality. Intertextuality – speaking to, and with, other texts from within a text, is a sure-fire way to create intricacy and integration.

There’s quite a bit of language in this video that claims to contain every pop culture reference Tarantino makes in his movies. This “definitive guide” goes beyond mentions of other cultural artefacts within Tarantino’s work to explore the way he pays homage to a wide variety of texts. Here’s how the characters in his movies (and the movies of Robert Rodriguez) are interconnected.


Image Source: The Adventures of an Insomniac

The Bible is chock full of cross-references – interactions with other cultural texts, for sure, but the incredible number of cross references between the 66 books that became the Christian Bible is quite amazing. There are 63,000 cross references in the Bible depicted in this graphic.

Bible-Cross-References-Infographic

Some of these cross references are more hefty than others – but the way the Bible links the words of the prophets in the Old Testament with the actions and words of Jesus is pretty stunning story-telling (more stunning if the connections are what actually happened, not just things creative writers invented – and I believe they are). This sort of intertextuality is Tarantino on steroids – that definitive guide to Tarantino, impressive though it is, contains 179 examples. Examples from one guy. From 18 of his movies. This infographic depicts about 352 times the number of references Tarantino managed, from 66 books, written by about 40 authors. The Bible’s intertextuality, in my opinion, is significantly more impressive because of the integration of the creativity of so many people, over so long, to tell a coherent story that also does both pop culture references and references within the universe of the Biblical texts.

As far as I’m concerned there are two options with the Bible. It is definitely an amazingly integrated story full of deliberation, intricacy and elegance – transcending a bunch of archaic genres that we aren’t particularly well equipped to grapple with. This story is either fiction, invented by a string of genius Tarantino like humans, operating across cultures, or it is truth, divinely authored through a string of genius Tarantino like humans. I like the concluding remarks from the essay I, Pencil mentioned above, at this point. I think what is true in this paragraph about the making of a pencil is truer about the writing of the Bible.

“I, Pencil, am a complex combination of miracles: a tree, zinc, copper, graphite, and so on. But to these miracles which manifest themselves in Nature an even more extraordinary miracle has been added: the configuration of creative human energies—millions of tiny know-hows configurating naturally and spontaneously in response to human necessity and desire and in the absence of any human master-minding! Since only God can make a tree, I insist that only God could make me. Man can no more direct these millions of know-hows to bring me into being than he can put molecules together to create a tree.”

The use of tropes (type-scenes, reoccuring metaphors, images, objects, patterns, or ideas) in both narrative and meta-narrative

Tarantino has certain trademarks – some more offensive than others – that reoccur throughout his movies. These serve to link the movies together as ‘Tarantino’ movies. They are part of his distinctives. They are part of his personality.

The Bible is chock full of trademarks, or motifs, that reoccur across different books. There are also threads that carry the narrative across these books, through the cross references depicted above, to link the books of the Bible as one unfolding story. That’s part of the added appeal.

Here are just a few.

1. Women who can’t conceive falling pregnant and giving birth to a miraculous child after being visited by a messenger from God, the child then plays a significant part in God’s rescue plan. Starting with Abraham and Sarah (Isaac), then Jacob and Rachel (Joseph), then Sampson’s parents (his mother isn’t named), Elkanah and Hannah (who have Samuel), Zechariah and Elizabeth (John the Baptist), then, of course, Mary – the most unlikely mother – gives birth to Jesus.

2. Animal interactions as indicative of God’s judgment, or humanity’s obedience to God. From the snake in the garden, to Balaam and his talking donkey, to Jonah and the whale, to Elisha and his attack she-bears, to Sampson and David ripping apart lions and (not tigers) bears as signs of strength, animals are a reoccuring plot device in the Bible.

3. Gold. There’s Gold in Eden, at the start of the Bible, and from there on, gold (and the jewels also mentioned in Genesis 2) becomes like a thermometer that tests the temperature of humanity’s relationship with the creator and his world. The gold is plundered from Egypt during the Exodus, used to make a golden calf when Moses gets the 10 Commandments, used to construct the Temple and the clothes of the priests, and then the temple treasures are handed over to the bad guys on Israel’s road to exile.

4. Character names as determinative puns. Right from Adam, whose name means “of the ground” to Jesus, whose name means “God with us” – the Bible uses character names to move plot, and indicate where things have changed – for example, when Abram’s name is changed to Abraham.

5. Numbers. The Bible uses reoccuring numbers – like 12 (tribes and disciples) and 40 (days of rain for Noah, years in the wilderness for Israel, days in the desert for Jesus) – to link stories and events.

There are also tropes within books. Genesis, which starts in the Garden, spends the rest of the book playing with the idea of ‘seed’ – including the weird story of Onan. Judges is full of people killing using improvised weaponry. 1-2 Samuel reads like a mafia novel – Kings (or Godfathers) rely on their hitmen (Abner for Saul, Joab for David) to carry off increasingly nasty hits. Quite a few books in the histories section involve stories about people building markers to recognise significant places or events that are said to “remain till this day”…

My favourite thread that helps carry the narrative is the good old “image of God” thread – which isn’t just about the ideal human and our relationship to God, but is a constant criticism of the idolatry of the nations that Israel keeps taking up. People are meant to be living images of the living God, but they’re so keen to make dead images (still, wooden, stone, or metal) of dead gods. This thread helps explain the prohibitions against making images of God, and the problems Israel have with being the people God wants them to be. The Bible is pretty clear that the things we make our gods shape us. When Israel is shaped by the living God things are good (this doesn’t happen often), when they are shaped by idols, they die. This carries through to Jesus, who the Bible tells us is the image of God. Who transforms dead people who have turned away from God into live people, reconnected with God. It’s a big story of recreation – the end of the Bible, Revelation, is a perfect world, with a Garden, where God is present with people restored to his image.

The individual integrity and brilliance of the parts but greater integrity and brilliance of the canon

I like some Tarantino movies better than others. I can appreciate things about his movies that I don’t like. But this Tarantino universe theory – and the ingenuity underpinning it – excites me. It opens up new ways to appreciate each movie. The connection to something bigger makes the individual movie richer. Each movie stands on its own. Each movie is a coherent and discrete unit. But they’re linked – not just by the name on the can. Tarantino. But by the use of tropes, by the intertextual approach, the signature style, all that stuff. The more aware of this stuff I am, the more I appreciate about Tarantino’s work.

It’s the same with the Bible. Each book of the Bible offers something different (maybe with the exception of Chronicles as they relate to 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings). Each stands alone as art. Each is a work of creativity. Each has a relatively clear meaning and purpose – but this clarity becomes richer with time, the more one understands the creativity at play in the text. The books that take a narrative form stand alone as stories with beginnings and endings. With characters. With a purpose. With the artistic development of ideas and images. But what makes the Bible really sing is when each book takes its place next to the others as this unfolding story. God’s story. The story that brings all the tropes, all the threads, all the events, together in one person. Jesus. God’s king. The king anticipated by the Old Testament. The author writing himself into the story in order to be known. The master story teller who becomes part of the story, and dies for the sake of the characters he loves. That’s when the story becomes deliberate. Intricate. Elegant. And a model of creativity at its most sublime.

Facebook is messing with your head: what to think about this as a Christian

This is part 3 in a 5 part series on what social media does to our brains – it uses Facebook as a case study, but sustained use of any communication medium will have a similar effect (though Facebook is extra specially designed to addict you).

The first post showed that the mediums we use do shape our thinking and rewire our brains. The second post was about how one might process this fact drawing on insights from media ecology and neuroscience.

In this post we’ll consider what insights might be gained here for Christians who want to use mediums like Facebook to communicate about Jesus and share their lives authentically with their friends while steering clear of the down side of having your brain changed in ways you don’t want.

This post is less about why a Christian should use Facebook (though it deals with that briefly), and isn’t so much about what steps to take to use Facebook well (which will be dealt with a little in post four) – it is more about what to think about the power our communication mediums have over us.

facebook brain

The Theological Framework

I’m speculating a little here – and it’s possible that you can’t simply equate the Biblical concept of “mind” with the neuroscientific understanding of what the mind is. But I think there are some important Biblical and theological touch points to consider when it comes to social media and our brains. Some of these are also covered in John Dyer’s excellent From the Garden to the City – Dyer approaches the question of communication technology as a Christian theologian and media ecologist. His journey through the Biblical narrative hits similar points – as does this old post.

Briefly – according to the guy who kickstarted a lot of the neuroplasticity stuff, Daniel Siegel, people’s well-being involves a combination of brain, mind, and relationships – the “mind” is the process that regulates the flow of energy and information through the brain, which is the physical “neurocircuitry,” relationships are how energy and information is shared between people via communication. When it comes to the Bible – the mind and heart are closely linked with how people think and act. I’m working on the assumption that these are roughly equivalent and related.

The God who speaks (from the ultimate hive mind)

“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…” – Hebrews 1:1-2

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made… The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth…No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. – John 1:1-3, 14, 18

Theological projects – like this – are best served by starting with who God is. God is the ultimate ‘hive mind’ – one God, in three persons, acting with one mind. There’s a word bandied about in theological tomes – perichoresis (wikipedia) – which describes the interpenetration of the persons of the Trinity. There is no act of God the Father that doesn’t  involve unity of purpose and action from God the Son and God the Holy Spirit because each person of the Trinity is so thoroughly ‘networked’ to the other. The Trinity is the ultimate social network – or perhaps, in a less theologically dangerous way – social networks are what we get when humans made in the image of God, for relationship, use our meagre, broken, selves to try to act out that relational aspect of our humanity.

It shouldn’t really surprise us, in this sense, if our attempts at forging communication networks end up with something like a hive mind. Relationships are about connection.

Here are a few paragraphs from my project – you can read the whole thing if you want to see the footnotes.

As ethos, pathos, and logos, are necessary elements of persuasive act, so the “perichoretic” contribution of Father, Word, and Spirit is necessary in divine communicative acts. There is no act of God that is not produced by the three divine persons, acting in concert, so it should be impossible to speak of any work of Father, Son, or Spirit separately, just as it is impossible to produce a spoken communicative act that doesn’t inherently contain the three persuasive proofs: ethos, logos, and pathos.

Moon (2010) suggests the Triune God is a Divine “communicative system” that employs the perfect media – the Word and Spirit, to produce communicative acts both internally (ad intra), and externally (ad extra) through “coupling with creaturely media.” Moon suggests the primary part of “the distinct form of divine operation is communication,” because divine action is consistently depicted as speech, or alongside divine speech, and God is described as “word.” The divine communication system is the “ground of communicative/meaning systems” so that human communication is “grounded in divine communication,” or, as O’Donovan describes it “from God’s true speech flows all possibility of true human speech.”…

…I suggest that divine communicative acts are persuasive acts, containing the three proofs, analogously aligned to the persons of the Trinity. Each divine communicative act involves the inextricably perichoretic contributions of each divine person, yet one might describe those acts in terms of the ethos of the father, being demonstrated in the incarnate logos, with the Spirit moving the hearts and minds of the audience as divine pathos. So, as a communicative act of God, consistent with his character, the incarnation of the logos, and his death on a cross express the ethos of God, who also works in the hearts of the recipients of his communicative act to produce appropriate emotional responses (either hardness or softness of hearts) as divine pathos. In communicating through Scripture, to and through people in particular times and places, using appropriate and common mediums and genres, and through the incarnation itself, God “aptly” accommodates himself to his audience and situation.

Basically, all our communication, true or otherwise, is a reflection or refraction of the way God communicates and uses mediums. This is especially true when one considers the incarnation of Jesus – and what that does with humanity as a medium. Which we’ll get to below. First we’ve got to look a little bit at what humanity, especially the ‘mind,’ is and to do that we’ll do a little run through the Biblical story…

A Biblical Theology of Personhood: Heart, Mind and Image

The best way to develop a theological framework for something like what it means to be a person with a changing brain, is to start with Biblical Theology – and see how the idea of personhood develops – I think there are three interesting ‘human’ threads – the heart, mind, and image – that we can pull together to help us understand what the Bible thinks about your mind being rewired into an externalised social hive like thing (I don’t want to use brain and mind completely interchangeably – a lot of the neuroplasticity stuff out there makes a slight distinction between them).

The Bible talks of personhood in a whole heap of ways – but the ones that are particularly pertinent for this little exercise are to do with the state of our hearts and minds (a sort of overlapping mishmash of desires, objects of worship, and the thinking that frames our actions), and the image we present to the world as we live out those desires.

The first thing we learn about humans is that we’re created ‘male and female, in God’s image’ – made in the image of the God who is a plural (he says “let us”), but a singular entity as people who are designed to relate to each other (Genesis 1). Humans were then given a job to do. Adam and Eve were to be God’s images – his representatives (and probably something like his ‘idols’) in his Garden Temple. There’s a really nice thread in the Bible that starts at Eden, weaves through the Temple, and ends in the New Creation – that involves a Garden, flowing water, precious stones, and God’s people. Adam is also meant to “work and take care of” the Garden – and the Hebrew words used in Genesis 1:15 are later used of the priests in the Temple. Part of his job – presumably where he is showing that he’s a chip off the old block – is speaking to name the animals, just like God spoke to make the world and create the animals. Communication is part of what it means to be made in the image of God – and being made in the image of God means we have a function that communicates something about God as people look at us. Images are mediums. People are mediums. We all carry messages about the things we live for – the image that is imprinted on our hearts as we live and relate to other people.

The things we think about and the way we think shape our lives. Contemporary neuroscience is catching up with thousands of years of Christian (and Jewish) theology. We shouldn’t be shocked – as Christians – to learn that we can alter our brains by the way we live, and alter the way we live by altering our brains. We should expect it. It’s foundational – we’ll see in the next post that many of the ways we might go about deliberately changing our brains for the better are also part and parcel of a Christian way of life.

At the heart of humanity’s rejection of God’s rule, in the events of the Fall, is the desire to be like God ourselves – not to bear God’s image, but to bear our own image, to shape our own lives. The serpent’s deception cunningly attacks the very heart of our created being.

“For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God…” – Genesis 3:5

Adam and Eve were already created to be like God, the desire the serpent awakens is the desire to set the communication agenda for one’s self.  The result is a breaking of the ability to carry God’s image – Adam’s son is made in Adam’s image (Genesis 5:3), and a darkening of the human heart so that it’s “only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5).

Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. – Romans 1:28

I think Paul, in Romans 7, is talking about the frustration of being someone made in the image of God who lives with this darkened heart brought about by sin.

“So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law;  but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.” – Romans 7:21-25

Our minds – as created – long to break free of the shackles of our broken human nature. When a bunch of people whose humanity is broken like this, get together as broken humans, with darkened hearts, in social networks, using the language they were created to use as people made in God’s image – they no longer work to point people to God, like they were created to, but to their own images and interests. So we get Babel.

“Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar.

Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” – Genesis 11:1-7

The people who went to build this tower – using new technology they had created (bricks and mortar), and the language that united them – tried to turn themselves into gods and use their created technologies that were new and mythically permanent to try to make a name for themselves, but their plans were shattered and they were scattered.

“Rather than using their creative powers to honor God as Noah did, the people of Babel wanted to bring glory to themselves. Rather than live in dependence upon God (as Abraham will in the coming chapters), they tried to achieve complete autonomy from him… At Babel, we find humans creating a city as their anti-garden and a tower as an image to themselves.” – John Dyer, From the Garden to the City

We shouldn’t be surprised that as we interact with created things that have the potential to either serve our idols, or become idols themselves, those things rub off on us a bit.

“We are molded and formed into the image of whatever shapes us. Here wisdom warns us that not all technologies are created equal in this regard.”

“The things we create can—and will—try to become idols in our hearts. Though they enable us to survive and thrive in a fallen world, the very aid they provide can deceive us with a false sense of comfort and security, hiding our need for God and his grace.” – Tim Challies, The Next Story

The problem with being conformed into the image of something hollow and empty is that it leaves you hollow and empty, and it never quite lives up to the promise. David Foster Wallace gave a famous speech This Is Water to a bunch of college graduates. In it, though he wasn’t a Christian, Foster Wallace said:

“Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.” – David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

The connectivity that Facebook offers – the boost to your ego that keeps you coming back – it’s the same hollow and empty shadow of Christian relationships, or the eternal self-giving relationships in the Trinity. The effect it has on your brain is a shadow of the effect that participating in those social networks has. And participating in those social networks – the church, and being connected to Jesus via the Holy Spirit – is possible because of how the Triune God employed communication mediums. It’s this social network that should reshape our brains, and help us to avoid having them reshaped by other stuff as we manage to be in the world but not of it.

Jesus’ prayer in John 17 is pretty useful for thinking about how we share in a deeper social network if we follow Jesus.

“My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory,the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.” – John 17:15-24

That’s a nice bookend to John’s prologue, quoted above. Jesus – God’s word made flesh – became a human. Truly human. Sharing all of humanity’s potential pitfalls and foibles. Entering a broken world, and yet he managed not to be broken by sin, while choosing to be broken for us.

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. – Hebrews 4:15

Jesus became a communication medium, he used communication mediums, and rather than being conformed into the messy “myth” or narrative of the human condition – he transformed the narrative and rewrote the myth – so that if you want to be human like Jesus was human – through the cross and sharing in his death – you too can be transformed. This has to change the way we use communication mediums – and I’ll suggest that it does. In the next post.

The story of the Old Testament, and the promise anticipated that is fulfilled in the New, revolves around broken humanity’s inability to focus mind and heart on God, as they should.

Israel was called to be a nation of priests – a nation that represented God to their neighbours – and the tool they had for doing that was the Law. God’s word.

Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.” – Exodus 19:5-6

See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the Lord my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” – Deuteronomy 4:5-6

Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. – Deuteronomy 11:18

That didn’t work so well. So God had to intervene… first with a promise…

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
and with the people of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
    I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
    to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
though I was a husband to them,”
declares the Lord.

“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
after that time,” declares the Lord.
I will put my law in their minds
    and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
    and they will be my people. – Jeremiah 31:31-33

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. – Ezekiel 36:26

And then he intervened again with the Holy Spirit – which does something profound to the hearts and minds of those who follow Jesus – and works to conform them into his image.

“After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly. All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had – Acts 4:31-32

Paul shows how the renewing work of the Spirit as a result of Jesus’ work on the Cross, and our union with him – which brings us our justification and sanctification (makes us ok by God, and works to make us like Jesus), brings about a new humanity – a new link between heart, mind and image.

“Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you… the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God… For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.

We become part of the ultimate mind-rewiring social network . Our hearts and minds are rewired to match up with the heart and mind of God. Suddenly we’re able to communicate with God again.  This is the ultimate socially networked ‘hive mind.’ The Holy Spirit has incredible power to connect us with other people to make us more like Jesus.

Romans 12 is, I think (along with Philippians 2), an incredibly prescient passage for this whole idea that your brain is altered by the company you keep and the mediums you use to keep it. It, along with the incarnation of Jesus, provides an important framework for responding to competing influences on your head, but it also spells out what the ideal Christian social network looks like… people acting as one. Sacrificially giving of themselves for the sake of others. Just like Jesus does as, a person of the Trinity, at the cross.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. – Romans 12:1-2

Here’s why Christians should be a little wary of the impact Facebook can have – the world we live in isn’t neutral. It has a pattern that we are naturally conformed into – a pattern of behaving and communicating – culture – created by people whose lives are consumed by things that aren’t God. Who bear the image of things that aren’t God. People who are broken. Facebook is part of the “pattern of this world” – it promotes and rewards self-seeking behaviour. Facebook isn’t neutral because the world isn’t neutral. But that doesn’t mean Christians shouldn’t use it – in fact, in the next post I’ll argue that we should, using Jesus becoming human as the framework.

As Christians – we shouldn’t be surprised that groups of people work together to rewire our brains, and that communication mediums play a part in that – but we should be careful about what the communication air we breath in our hyper-connected world is doing to us.

We should be careful about what happens when a bunch of people gather with a common language to share a platform that is designed to bring glory to people, not God. Forewarned is forearmed.

We should be excited about being part of an incredible network of relationships – joined with God, by his Spirit, as his children, being transformed into the image of Jesus, and joined with other Christians, by the Spirit, as brothers and sisters united around the ultimate act of self-sacrifice – and that excitement should be something we seek to spread to others.

Here’s Paul’s solution to avoiding being conformed to the patterns of the world – living sacrificially and chasing humility has always been counter cultural…

“For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” – Romans 12:3-5

Or, restated in Philippians 2…

“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus – Philippians 2:1-5

Paul’s hope for the Roman church was that they’d be a social network with a hive mind… changed by God to do what people were created to do – not what the broken world made them do…

“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” – Romans 15:5-6

Interestingly – this sort of integration between mind and relationships is a pretty highly sought after type of neuroscientific “well-being” – we’re much more likely to be able to make deliberate changes to our brains if we’re part of such a network where people are committed to each other and to a set of values – in this case being sacrificially loving like Jesus. The Spirit has a big role to play in changing our thinking – because naturally we’d never focus on God – but Christianity, as described in the New Testament, works from a neuroscientific framework.

Paul was basically a neuroscientist before neuroscience existed. Probably because neuroscience is simply describing the way God created us to function, and the way we function as image bearers of whatever it is that we focus on bringing glory to with our minds, hearts and lives.

 

 

Dealing with genocide in the Bible

I had a crack at answering the conundrum that is the violence of the Old Testament in an essay in first year. And again in preparation for an exam last year. I’m still working out exactly what my answer to this moral question is – I think I’ve decided I was wrong in my earlier efforts to get my head around this issue.

I think I’m closer to the answer, and I’m hoping writing this post helps me get closer again… it’s a complex question, so it requires quite a bit of complex working out. And this post is some of my working. It’s long. It’s the longest post I’ve ever written. So maybe grab popcorn or something. Or just skim it. I thought about making this a series of posts, but I’d rather just have one long one, and not occupy people’s feed readers for days. Sorry. Skipping one post is easier than skipping eight.


Brick Testament rendition of Joshua 10:30

So did God carry out genocide in the Old Testament? And does that matter?

I think he did. And I think it does.

But not in the way the the New Atheists want to think it happened – or matters. I think most people operate with far too small a picture of God. A picture of God that looks like a big human, who should act like a big human, and should be judged like a big human.

This issue is much more complicated than flat and ‘literal’ readings of the text made popular by the likes of the New Atheists allow, and I can’t understand the indignation these Dawkinesque types direct towards a God they don’t even believe exists…

The question isn’t really “did God do this” – either he did or he didn’t. If you don’t think God exists then you’ve really got nothing to complain about when it comes to the events described in the Old Testament. If there’s no God involved then Israel should, according to the narrative, be commended as the little guy who did everything they could, against the odds, to survive amidst nations of bullies – who did worse things enemy children than kill them in battle.

The question is, if God did this, why aren’t we rising up in rebellion against him and trying to take him out in some sort of cosmic battle? The old epics are full of this stuff. Why are people so keen to worship, love, and revere him? Why are people prepared to speak of him as good?

What Christians are really being asked when they’re asked this question is “how can you be part of something like this, rationally, aren’t you better off writing it off as a nasty myth?”

But anyway, here’s a walk through my present thinking on this question… It’s quite possible I am wrong. It should always feel wrong to be appearing to be defending genocide, especially if it involves the death of children.

I don’t think it’s going to be satisfactory to everybody. It possibly won’t be satisfactory to anybody. But this will be where I send people when they ask me what I think about violence or genocide in the Old Testament. It’s meant to be comprehensive. It’s hopefully a helpful window into how I can still be a Christian while acknowledging that there are things we understand to be shocking in the Bible.

And if you’re one of those people I’ve sent here in the future, or you’ve been sent here by someone else – I want you to know four things.

Firstly, I just want to say from the outset that you don’t need to worry – I think there’s a big difference between something being described in the Bible and something being prescribed (or commanded) in the Bible.

Secondly, I really don’t want to shirk things here. I don’t want to dodge the question. I don’t want to pretend there’s nothing that looks like genocide in the text of the Old Testament (or, perhaps more importantly – though I’m largely dealing with the Old Testament – in the picture of Hell, God’s judgment, in the New Testament). I also don’t want to defend God, or defend the authority of the Bible. God doesn’t need me. He speaks for himself, through the Bible. I’m ultimately, in this piece, trying to defend the rationale, in my head, for thinking it is morally and intellectually coherent to submit to, and revere, the God of the Bible.

Thirdly, I quote big chunks of the Bible here – for two reasons, I want to show my working, and show how I think the Bible accounts for its own content, and secondly I don’t want to assume that you, dear reader, are necessarily familiar with what the Bible says, or that you’ll look it up. I’ve tried to bold the bits that are extra significant for my argument so that you can skim. I’ve used headings to break up the monotony of the text, and to help you skim to bits that might scratch the itch that has brought you here.

And lastly, if you don’t stick around to the end of the post (because it’s quite substantial) – it’s important, I think, that you consider the character of the God who Christians believe is behind both the Old and New Testaments – an infinite God who sends himself into a finite world, to a death on the cross, for people. This is a big deal.

Bigger than we can grasp.

We who are born to die, for whom death is a day to day reality – we sort of take death for granted. It’s part of our daily assumptions and decision making process. It’s real. But God dying? An infinite and immortal God – a person of the Trinity – becoming man and dying, is actually a really, really, big deal. It takes a bit of a revolution in our thinking to get that. But how many human lives is one infinite life worth? Mathematically speaking?

Using a poor analogy – how many ants is it ok to kill to save one human life? I think we’re approaching the magnitude of the cross when we get a sense of that question.

Anyway. If you want to read on…

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Hearing her voice: teaching, preaching, and a complementarian ethos

If you haven’t been following along on the interwebs, a hornets nest has been kicked and then ignited with the release of three Zondervan e-books about women and preaching, and whether or not they should do it.

I’ve read one of these, Hearing Her Voice, by John Dickson, the following review should come with the same caveats I included when I reviewed Promoting the Gospel: the best kept secret of Christian mission – I think John Dickson is excellent, I love his published body of work, and have found him helpful at just about every step of the way on my journey from Christian kid to theological student.

In this book we get more of Dickson’s very solid hermeneutical model applied to a pretty tricky question, and particularly applied to a verse that creates quite a few difficulties for the modern church. Seriously, he is, I think, the model of what being a careful interpreter of Scripture looks like, there’s a great para in the book that outlines his approach to using history as a tool for exegesis, and I commend it to you.

I was going to include quotes from the book – but this post is already almost 6,000 words long.

The question at the heart of this book – well, there are two questions, I think – and perhaps three – is what is “teaching?” Is preaching teaching? And if not, can women preach in church?

What’s not up for grabs for Dickson is the real strength of his work – he’s big on the authority of Scripture, big on consistently reading and exegeting it with the original readers and meaning in mind, and big on the principle that while male and female are equal in God’s sight, we are different.

I feel like I should throw in a few disclaimers at the start so you know where I’m coming from…

  • I’m aware of the dangers of being a “privileged” and unoppressed class speaking out on this issue – a white, anglo-saxon, male, protestant voice in this debate needs to be pretty mindful of his cultural background and relative freedom to make proclamations that appear to come at a cost to others. (UPDATE: If you’re reading this post in the present day, post 2014, I’m also a guy who occupies a pulpit — even more ‘privilege’ to account for in this conversation).
  • I love the concept of a priesthood of all believers – it goes without saying that this includes men and women – I think it’s biblical, I think we’re all called to be on mission together, and equipped by God to serve as part of the body of believers as we serve and love one another and try to reach people together.
  • I think there are lots of women who are gifted preachers, teachers, and evangelists. I don’t see any gender specific traits that make being able to show someone else that Jesus is the Christ a particularly male act. This isn’t an “innate” issue, or a “masculinity” issue, men are not innately more competent in this area than women.
  • I’m also a complementarian – I think our different genders are a good and necessary part of what it means to be human. I think we’re different but equal.
  • I agree that there are lots of roles open to women that we’ve essentially closed because we’re scared of transgressing in this area – including prophecy, exhortation, partnering as “gospel workers,” etc.
  • I think the gender stuff at the fall is pretty interesting, and is certainly something Paul has in mind in this verse. While this is pretty absent in Dickson’s book, it is something Mike Bird, who wrote a second book in the series, spends some time considering – but I haven’t read that yet.
  • I’m wary about tossing out 2,000 years of church tradition, particularly the interpretive traditions from people who took the Bible seriously – though I’m also aware that all interpreters are fallible, and texts, and interpretations of those texts are the product of different cultures. I’m interested in a tendency, beyond Dickson’s book, to pit current movements of the Spirit through female preachers against historic movements, through tradition. I’m also pretty sure the Spirit of God is able to speak, and point to Jesus, through all sorts of wrong things we might, as humans, adopt. Our fallibility has never been an obstacle to the Spirit moving people to faith.
  • I’ll also presuppose that how we do church – including who preaches – is part of our ethos, so that the decision about who preaches is, in part, a decision we make about our presentation of the gospel.

What is a sermon? Teaching? Exhortation? Preaching?

I have some reservations about how Dickson approaches the Greek language (and how others do too) – but this is probably because they are experts at Greek and I am not. I think word studies have some merit, but I think assume too much about the deliberation that goes into the use of particular words, rather than paying heed to the vibe of a paragraph, or whole letter. I think words often have a broad semantic range that overlaps with other words, and you kind of use those ranges together to create new concepts – Dickson thinks this happens with “teaching” and “authority” in the verse in question… So I don’t really like arguments based on word studies – and most of my response won’t really engage with the question of whether or not “teaching” or in the Greek, didaskein, is a technical word for a particular act, or a general word for the passing on of knowledge – this is where the debate is being fought out on the interwebs by Lionel Windsor, and Dickson himself (in a great model of how you can disagree with people without calling their character into question…

Like I say – I’m not an expert on Greek, and don’t pretend to be, and I’m fairly sure that words can also be used technically to mean very narrow things – but I do think literary context guides interpretation… and I think one of the concerns of Paul’s letter to Timothy is to help Timothy, and the church, think rightly about questions of pastoral leadership – including the establishment of a role that seems to be for men and includes carrying the responsibility of preaching and teaching, within the church.

I don’t think Dickson necessarily disagrees with this approach to language – though his treatment of “teaching” here is very similar to his treatment of “evangelism” in Promoting the Gospel. He allows for general  use of words, while suggesting we need to pay heed to the technical meanings that may have been in operation in the first century.

He spends significant time making the case that “teaching” isn’t directly transferrable to what we do in the pulpit of a modern church each Sunday – and his argument seems to have some merit. I don’t think preaching is the teaching, in the technical sense, that Dickson identifies. So I’m almost happy to cede his whole argument, on one level – if the Sunday sermon is exhortation, as he suggests, or prophecy as the Puritans suggest, and not teaching (as Lionel Windsor suggests it is) – then I think he’s right – women should be able to exhort, prophecy, and do all the things that Paul specifically or implicitly allows, and even all the things he doesn’t forbid.

Anyway – here’s the passage in question, with a bit of context. From 1 Timothy 2…

For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, 10 but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. 11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

In 1 Timothy 3, when he’s establishing the qualifications of a deacon, and an overseer he gives a set of ethos heavy principles, like being “above reproach” – which presumably has something to do with not undermining his leadership of others, and “be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.” It is assumed in these verses that the person in question is a man – building off his argument in chapter 2.

In 1 Timothy 5 it appears he assumes these elders will be the people doing the “preaching and teaching”…

17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.”

Then, in 2 Timothy 4, he kind of spells out what Timothy is called to do, under the umbrella of “preaching”…

4 I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teachingFor the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

Ultimately, I’m not convinced by the way Dickson groups “teaching” and “authority” into one command, rather than two separate but related commands based on the same Old Testament/created order principle… and I think there’s another reason, an ethos reason, when it comes to how we persuade people about the message of the gospel that means we should think carefully about how we use, or emphasise, gender and authority in church gatherings… which I’ll get to below. Somewhere. I think what is done from the pulpit is an act of authority – and listening is an act of submission.

Where I think Windsor is right to go (but slightly wrong in where he lands – I think), and where I think Dickson is wrong – is on what the sermon actually is. In sum, Windsor thinks it’s teaching, and Dickson sells teaching short, Dickson thinks the sermon is exhortation, or something analogous to that – and thus thinks women can give sermons.

What Preaching is not…

I’d argue, along with Dickson, that preaching is not teaching, we’ve hastily drawn an analogous line from the Bible’s use of teaching to our modern equivalent, and that’s come at a cost.

  • Preaching is not simply teaching – though it may involve the transmission of information from someone with knowledge to someone without.
  • Preaching is not strictly exhortation though it may encourage.
  • Preaching is not simply prophecy, though it may speak God’s word to people at a particular time… though in a sense a good sermon is all of these things. 

This is one of the areas I think Dickson’s argument breaks down – you don’t have to look much past Paul to find someone who exercises more than one of the “offices” of word ministry that Dickson seems to suggest are in operation… Paul also suggests all of these things are part of Timothy’s job as a preacher (2 Tim 4).

It’s quite possible that there’ll be an overlap of different styles of speaking in any particular speech, much as there was in just about any form of first century oratory. Where Cicero, in Brutus, bags out some orators for being too specialised in one area, because the idea was that public speakers could adopt a wide range of styles, from the boring didactic history lecture, to the witty declamation of an opponent on the election trail.

What a sermon (preaching) is…

Preaching is preaching. It has a New Testament equivalent – and an Old Testament equivalent. It has a Greek word – kerusso – which had a pre-existing technical meaning, and a meaning that developed through Christian usage, and it appears to be something like being a herald and proclaiming good news, with authority.

I’d argue that if one:

then our sermons are not “teaching” in the sense identified by Dickson – but “preaching”… in the sense that the word is used throughout the New Testament.

Our sermons should point people to Jesus and the kingdom of God, attempt to persuade people to accept the message, and declare that, Jesus is Lord – This essentially does nothing for the gender question but move the goalposts, so the question is not “can women teach?” but “can women preach?” – so Dickson’s insights, while useful, are potentially irrelevant to the question.

I would say that I think preaching is an act of authority – but the ultimate authority rests in the same person it rests in when Jesus is challenged about the authority behind his preaching – God and his Christ. When we preach faithfully we are simply pointing to the authority of Jesus. The way authority is exercised over the church is ultimately in the preaching of the word (and the faithful passing on of the apostolic traditions) as they relate to Jesus, not the appointment of humans who have particular gifts in particular areas. We judge a preacher’s authority on their adherence to the divine logos, Christ-made-flesh and Christ-crucified — the message of the Bible, not on their particular ability as a speaker. And I want to make the case below that we should ultimately profoundly be assessing a preacher on their ethos — their willingness to have the truth of this logos shape who they are and how they preach. I want to make the case that this isn’t a new way of thinking about what preaching is – first from the Reformers, and then, after a little ethos excursus from the New Testament (though the order should be reversed – the NT stuff is pretty long).

Preaching in the Reformed world

Both Luther and Calvin (Institutes, 4.1.5) put a pretty high value on preaching , if preaching involved the gospel – so much that preaching was more important than the sacraments in terms of constituting Christ’s presence in the gathering of the body – this was a big deal in a time where people were killed over what they thought happened at communion.

Calvin says:

“We see that God, who might perfect his people in a moment, chooses not to bring them to manhood in any other way than by the education of the Church. We see the mode of doing it expressed; the preaching of celestial doctrine is committed to pastors. We see that all without exception are brought into the same order, that they may with meek and docile spirit allow themselves to be governed by teachers appointed for this purpose… Hence it follows, that all who reject the spiritual food of the soul divinely offered to them by the hands of the Church, deserve to perish of hunger and famine. God inspires us with faith, but it is by the instrumentality of his gospel, as Paul reminds us, “Faith cometh by hearing” (Rom. 10:17). God reserves to himself the power of maintaining it, but it is by the preaching of the gospel, as Paul also declares, that he brings it forth and unfolds it.”

Both (Luther Large Catechism (PDF, p 72), Calvin Institutes 4.1.1, 4)  saw the church as the “mother” of believers – responsible, ordinarily and under God, for giving birth to new believers and nurturing the faith of existing believers – and it did this, for both groups, in the same way – by preaching the gospel of Jesus. Not legalism. Not morals. Not ethics. Not just words of encouragement. But the gospel.

The gospel will have necessary implications for our morality and ethics – and it will necessarily be encouraging as we consider that the creator of the universe sent his son to earth to buy us, for a relationship, to make us his children. But our sermons that do all these things do these things because they first declare the truths of the gospel, and these things are part of the persuasive case the gospel makes for those who hear it.

The preaching of the gospel is one of the “marks of the church” for Reformed people.

The Westminster Confession of Faith essentially follows both Calvin and Luther on this point – it says the church is responsible for the “gathering and perfecting of saints” (WCF VII, XXV), and that the preaching of the word is one of the two marks of the church (along with the administration of the sacraments).

“And particular Churches, which are members thereof [the universal, visible, church], are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.”

In XV the Confession says ministers are to preach: “Repentance unto life is an evangelical grace, the doctrine whereof is to be preached by every minister of the gospel, as well as that of faith in Christ,” and in XXI it says faithful preaching is part of worship. This preaching is conducted by these “ministers of the gospel”…

I like this quote from Calvin that Justin Taylor shared last week:

“This is what we should in short seek in the whole of Scripture: truly to know Jesus Christ, and the infinite riches that are comprised in him and are offered to us by him from God the Father. If one were to sift thoroughly the Law and the Prophets, he would not find a single word which would not draw and bring us to him. . . . Therefore, rightly does Saint Paul say in another passage that he would know nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”

Biblical, expository, sermons will point people to Jesus Christ in a way that declares his kingdom has come at the cross. It is preaching, not teaching.

An argument from “authority” – an ethos consideration

I think a case can be made that Paul’s prohibition on women exercising authority in the 1 Timothy 2 passage refers to what is going on in the gathering, and works a bit with the similar prohibition in 1 Corinthians, to establish a principle, rooted in creation and the fall, for what happens when the church meets and the gospel is preached… as an authoritative act.

But even if that case is weak – I wonder if there’s an ethos driven, cross-shaped, argument for women letting men preach, if sermons are preaching, and preaching is an act of persuasion where both pathos and ethos are as relevant as what we say… even if they are more gifted than their male counterparts, which is surely often the case.

A willingness to submit is part of the testimony of the gospel of the cross – as is a willingness to sacrificially not use our gifts for the sake of others… I’d argue Paul is essentially doing this in Corinth when he avoids using his full rhetorical prowess, that he demonstrates in Acts, in order to “know nothing but Christ and him crucified” as he teaches them, knowing what he does about their culture and context – and the sinful desires they have to place value in their abilities or flashy man made idols. I reckon its possible that gender equality is a bit of an idol in our culture – I’m not arguing that it’s a bad thing, idols are good things turned into ultimate things… but I wonder if a refusal to give in to cultural pressure on the gender front, voluntarily, might be a hugely important part of our testimony.

This is where a little bit of trepidation kicks in on my part – because I recognise that I’m a guy telling gifted women they can’t do what they’re gifted to do.

But, I think it’s possible that If we believe that:

  • genders are different, but that people are equal in value,
  • that the gospel does away with inequalities that people might establish on the basis of differences (Gal 3:28),
  • that submission isn’t a statement of inequality, this is where some smart egalitarians like Miroslav Volf depart, but it must be true because if we believe that the Trinity is made up of three parties who are equally God, we need to be able to say that Jesus can submit to the father without calling this equality into question (in academic terms this is a question of whether you can have functional subordination alongside ontological equality, I think the answer has to be yes, if the submission is voluntary, an act of love, offered without coercion),

then we should be able to sacrificially let men do the preaching… even if there are women out there who are better equipped to do the job… because this is part of our testimony, and our act of testifying – to the sacrifice of Jesus, for his church – just as it is in marriage (Ephesians 5).

The act of preaching is an act of authority – but this authority isn’t establishing an inequality – and if it does create such an inequality, then questions have to be asked about whether or not the guy is doing his job – just like in a marriage. Because a cruciform preacher who humbly uses the gifts God has given to build up the church and point people to Jesus through the persuasive preaching of the gospel won’t, if logos, pathos, and ethos stack up, be in a position to create any inequality except the inequality created by considering everybody else better than yourself…

Our value to God isn’t caught up in our ability to serve him – with the gifts that he has given us, nor is our testimony – I would argue our testimony is caught up in our ability to live cross-shaped lives where we imitate Jesus, who despite having all authority and abilities in his grasp, and being equipped to do otherwise gave himself up for us, as an example, here’s Philippians 2:

2 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, anyparticipation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselvesLet each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of othersHave this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Perhaps the way we testify to our unity, our like mindedness, and avoid promoting our gifts, interests, and selves, is to be prepared to not do things we could do, as part of our testimony to Jesus, and to the creator who sent him, and made men and women different.

Communicating why we’re doing this, and valuing, affirming, and giving avenues for gifted women to be effective members of the body and servants of the mission of God is obviously pretty tricky – and one of the great strengths of Dickson’s work is that it’s motivated by exactly this concern.

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Mission starts with Babel: A cool Biblical Theology thing

I’m doing some stuff on the church for one of my subjects this semester (well, for three of them, but this one in particular is called Church, Sacraments, and Ministry). Here’s a cool bit of Biblical Theology that I’d kind of thought about before but I’ve just had to articulate it…

These passages work really nicely together to account for the global significance of the gospel…

In Genesis 11 you get the story of Babel, some entrepreneurial peeps try to build a big tower to be like God. Because they all speak the same language.

11 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward,they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lordsaid, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.That is why it was called Babel —because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

It’s a nice little theological account for why there are different nations – which sits just before God calls Abraham (then Abram) to start his own people – and they’re meant to bless these other nations (Gen 12:1-3).

Skip ahead a few thousand years (well, you could incorporate the nations coming in to see Solomon. I probably would). And you get the great Commission… Especially these bits in Matthew 28:

18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

It’s global. But it’s global because the Babel type distinction (which has become a “Jew/Gentile” distinction) has been broken down by Jesus.

Paul says it this way in Galatians 3:

28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Here’s some cool stuff though… Babel starts getting reversed at Pentecost in Acts 2 (I know it’s probably obvious, sometimes the obvious can be exciting though)…

2 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues[a] as the Spirit enabled them.

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven.When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontusand Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

That, in itself, is a pretty nice piece of Biblical Theology. But what I really love is when you throw in a picture of what heaven will look like, which seems to riff on this little thread that develops through the Bible – where people get together and sing with one voice…

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”

Cool. Hey. Babel gets reversed so that people can sing stuff about Jesus.

 

 

My number one piece of parenting advice: The Jesus Storybook Bible

Parenting is fun. We love it. Getting advice about parenting, well, that’s a mixed bag. Some is helpful. Some is odd. Most is well intentioned. Some is revenge for the years of pain I’ve inflicted on other people’s kids.

Anyway.

Here’s my number one piece of parenting advice. Buy your child this kid’s Bible. The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name. For less than $12, excluding postage, you pretty much can’t go wrong. It’s brilliant. We’re on the third lap. It is well written, it is theologically astute. You’ll probably learn something about how to make Biblical concepts clear enough for kids.

It’s a sensational example of why a Christ centred Biblical Theology brings the whole Bible together.

I am looking forward to Soph being old enough for me to complement it with pictures from the Brick Bible. I have the Old Testament already. And you can find the kids talks I did once with pictures from the online version of Judges in my Bible Stories for Boys tag.

Old Testament 102: How wisdom might fit into existing Biblical Theologies

Brueggemann and Goldingay’s approaches to wisdom identified a worthwhile second peg in Biblical Theology theology that is often ignored in favour of focusing on salvation or redemptive history, bringing the issue of creation – what we are created to be/how we are created to live – into the mix. This approach puts the wisdom literature largely into the category of how we should live as people in God’s creation – but I’d suggest that the wisdom literature has a role to play in redemptive history. Because, as I’ve posted previously, I think the wisdom literature was part of an international wisdom dialogue, and that it put forward wisdom grounded in YHWH as true wisdom. Israel had a covenantal obligation (see Gen 12) to bless the nations. I think Solomon’s wisdom, as described in 1 Kings 4-10, is where we see that blessing most fulfilled in the Old Testament, and the linking of the wisdom corpus to Solomon’s reign provides a handy interpretive key with regards to its purpose. This doesn’t do away with the two poled creation/redemption approach. It’s not an either/or thing. To suggest that the Wisdom Literature only had one function or purpose and only has one way of being integrated with understanding the big picture is to create an unjustifiably false dichotomy.

Two of the problems that have caused the wisdom literature to be seen, as Brueggemann calls it, as the embarrassing step-child of the Old Testament, are its similarities to other Ancient Near Eastern wisdom, and the apparent presentation, in Proverbs, of a retributive “you reap what you sow” theology. Some scholars have suggested that Proverbs is so different in outlook to Job and Ecclesiastes that they can only be considered to have arisen in protest to this retributive idea. It’s very possible that this protest question is going to come up in the exam for the B Th people… so I’ll post my essay answer to that question again shortly.

I think that rather than being a problem for figuring out the Wisdom Literature, its similarities with other writings from the time and place are part of the answer. To touch on my current “big idea” – we’re used to the idea that part of the Genesis account is written directly to address other ANE creation accounts (the Gilgamesh Epic and Enuma Elish), and as I mentioned in my post on the Old Testament law and women last week, the laws in Leviticus are very similar to laws governing the same legal issues in contemporary cultures (just nicer, and designed to help Israel be “set apart” from their neighbours). So why do we get to the wisdom literature and go “oh no, it’s similar to the other nations” and then see this as a problem. Perhaps the Biblical wisdom literature seeks to address the influence of wisdom literature from other cultures on the people of Israel. Perhaps, in the light of the account of Solomon’s rule, it also seeks to participate in an international wisdom dialogue, and maybe it’s even presenting a philosophical apologetic for subscribing to Israel’s religious system to her neighbours… Norman Whybray, Bruce Waltke, and Christopher Wright have suggested there was an international wisdom conversation going on around the time the wisdom literature was emerging in Israel, Proverbs contains, by its own admission, wisdom from foreign kings, collected by Solomon (and others), and the account of Solomon’s reign in 1 Kings includes him giving his better wisdom to surrounding nations (as fulfillment of Genesis 12 – which is the intention of the 1 Kings narrative (Goldsworthy).

Most scholars are quick to dismiss the idea that Israel stole wisdom from other countries willy-nilly as it sought to develop its own social identity, but few explain the presence or influence of foreign wisdom in the Bible. Other than to suggest that all wisdom is developed out of observations of the same world. All agree that Hebrew wisdom deliberately creates a monotheistic distinction from conventional ANE thought. This deliberate distinction, not the similarities, should provide the most fruit for understanding the relationship between similar works.

Wright suggests Israel’s wisdom thinkers and writers took part in an international dialogue “with an openness to discern the wisdom of God in cultures other than their own,” and that such comparisons lead to the conclusion that there was “a lot of contact between Israel’s wisdom thinkers and writers and those of surrounding nations.”

Tying the wisdom literature to Solomon’s reign – the guy who built the temple, and reached the nations – seems to be a pretty good way to bring it alongside redemptive history, as primary documents from the time when Israel was at its peak… and its not doing an injustice to the text – because Proverbs and Ecclesiastes both present themselves as linked to Solomon, and most scholars acknowledge that the wisdom movement flourished under his reign.

Wright (2006) suggests “any wisdom that is associated with Solomon must be connected with the Solomonic tradition that God should bless the nations in their interaction with Israel.”

Here’s where I think that leads (from my essay):

Solomon participates in an international wisdom dialogue with foreign leaders, judges justly, and blesses the ANE world in fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise (Genesis 12:3), in the manner envisaged by the Psalm 72. His international focus is evident in his prayer dedicating the temple contains an international injunction (1 Kings 8:41-43). It is also feasible to assume that the description of Solomon’s collection of wisdom crossed national boundaries.

The aspects of his reign that I would suggest have bearing on our interpretation of biblical wisdom are as follows:

1. An interaction with the ideas of the nations and their rulers and wisdom, and thus with the religious beliefs of the nations (1 Kings 4:29-34, 1 Kings 10:23-24)
2. A theological focus, and corrective of international wisdom, based on the “fear of the Lord” (1 Kings 8:43).
3. A desire to see the nations come before Yahweh, recognising his rightful position as creator of the world and the basis of wisdom and righteousness (1 Kings 8:41-43, 59-61, 1 Kings 10:9, Psalm 72).

The reference to Solomon’s wisdom “surpassing that of Egypt and the wisdom of all the men of the east “ (1 Kings 4:30) invites us to compare Israel’s wisdom with the nations, and it is therefore feasible to expect similar interactions between wisdom literature linked to Solomon and the wisdom literature of the ANE.

The biggest difference between the Biblical wisdom literature and that of the surrounding nations is the centrality (at least in the final form of the texts, but I’d argue also in their fundamental purpose) of the concept of the “fear of the Lord” – it’s an important theme in Job and Ecclesiastes, as well as in Proverbs. And it’s indelibly linked to salvation history.

The “fear of Yahweh” is a touch point of Jewish orthodoxy synonymous with faithful obedience (Deuteronomy 4:10; 5:29; 6:2, 13, 24; 10:12, 20).

The phrase occurs throughout Proverbs (Proverbs 1:7, 2:5, 9:10, 10:27, 14:27, 15:16, 15:33, 16:6, 19:23; 22:4; 23:17, 31:30, and an injunction to “fear the Lord” occurs in Proverbs 1:29; 3:7; 8:13; and 24:21), it occurs almost exclusively in the passages tied to Solomon (Chapters 1-24), and does not appear in those collected under Hezekiah.

The passages linked most strongly to other ANE wisdom writings fall in passages attributed to Solomon. Those passages are either directly proceeded by, or followed by, a reference to fearing Yahweh (Proverbs 22:4, Proverbs 24:21, and Proverbs 23:17).

The phrase is also used to contrast with the teaching of wise (Proverbs 13:14) and the fear of Yahweh (Proverbs 14:27), with both considered as the “fountain of life.”

Retributive theology was a big concept throughout the Ancient Near East. And you can read Proverbs as advocating such a position, if you remove any notion of God (and some scholars go so far as to suggest that the Fear of the Lord is an addition by a pious sage wanting Proverbs to be more Godly – Von Rad is one of them). But Waltke suggests that any Proverbs that lend themselves to this interpretation should be considered in the broader scheme of the book, and are likely to be eschatological.

The idea that Job and Ecclesiastes stand in conflict with Proverbs is popular modern wisdom scholarship, and some have tried to identify retributive theology in the ethics of the prophets, suggesting it played an important role in Jewish theology. Any concept of retributive theology legitimately found in the Old Testament is carefully grounded in the will of Yahweh, and is usually the fruit of a promise. I would suggest this view actually describes the purposes of the wisdom authors in addressing ANE conceptions of reality.

Here’s the bonus bit – from a comment from my dad in response to one of yesterday’s posts:

“Can I suggest that there’s lots of Deuteronomic content in Proverbs, particularly relating to the blessings of living under covenant in the land? It’s often observed that Proverbs is overly idealised, and ‘over promises.’ But I’d suggest, no moreso than the blessings of Deuteronomy would lead you to expect. In fact, if you allow for an allegorical reading of the “son” material as referring to Israel, who is not to prostitute himself to other gods, Proverbs is (arguably) just saying that ‘all the Deuteronomic blessings will be yours if you remain faithful.’ Conversely, there are clear exile warnings in the early chapters of Proverbs, which also fit it neatly into the Deuteronomic schema. From there, it’s a simple step to building it into the metanarrative of a Biblical Theology. (Theory Part B – It’s all integrated by Hosea, who was one of Hezekiah’s men, as specified in Proverbs as those who ‘gathered and Solomon’s teaching.’) Hence, there are heaps of proverbial statements in Hosea, and echoes of Hosea’s “Israel as son” theology in Proverbs.)”

So there’s another response to the idea of protest that seems plausible, and also ties the wisdom literature to redemptive history… Here’s what I reckon is going on, from the conclusion of my essay:

“I propose that the wisdom literature adopted and critiqued the wisdom conventions of surrounding nations in the same way that Israel’s historians adopted and critiqued stories of creation and the flood from the ANE and contrasted them with an account grounded in the actions of Yahweh. A true understanding of wisdom, like a true understanding of history, is grounded in understanding Yahweh’s involvement in the world, not in its ANE equivalents. If the wisdom literature is an apologetic for Yahweh as the author of life, in a deliberate comparison with other ANE gods, and if this apologetic occurs in the context of an international wisdom conversation, then it was both didactic for the people of Yahweh, and a declaration to the nations. “

Old Testament 102: Wisdom and biblical theology

Following up on yesterday’s summary of approaches to integrating wisdom and Biblical Theology, Wilson discusses integrating Wisdom Literature with Biblical Theology following Bruegemann and Goldingay.

Brueggemann proposes a dialectic approach to Biblical theology – using the poles of creation and redemption. Goldingay develops this idea, suggesting that while Salvation History is a prominent strand in Biblical revelation we can focus on it at the expense of baby and bathwater, neglecting stuff like how God interacts with nature, how he interacts in day to day life, and wisdom. He makes four statements that summarise the relationship between the two poles.

1. The world God redeems is the world of God’s creation.
2. The world that God created is a world that needed to be redeemed.
3. Humans are redeemed to live again their life created before God.
4. The redeemed humanity still looks for a final act of redemption, or new creation.

Four good points. And the question “what does this passage contribute to our understanding of God’s creation and our place in it as his people” is a useful one to ask in exegesis, perhaps not quite as useful as “how does this passage demonstrate God’s plans to redeem the world through Jesus, and how do you fit in that” – but splitting them is creating a bit of an unhelpful dichotomy. They’re the same coin.

Here’s Wilson:

“The first two [points] establish the connection between creation and salvation history (or covenant), and ensure that both voices are heard. God’s pusposes are wider than the covenant people. Yet they are also focused on Israel, and effected through them.”

I like the idea that ancient wisdom movements are analogous to the later philosophies that Augustine and others before him (like Justin Martyr) suggested God’s people should pillage like gold from Egypt – truth is truth wherever it is found. How’s that for integrating different disciplines from college (actually, I like that idea a lot, and I’ll post something on it post exams – I’m working up a pretty big idea that needs to be blogged in order for me to stop dwelling on it – that’s how I roll).

“The last [point] enables us to see the incompleteness and forward looking nature of the Old Testament. The expressions of future hope that we find mainly in the prophetic and apocalyptic materials are rightly seen as part of the Old Testament core. When we read these together we appreciate some of the flow of Old Testament theology. We see the movement from creation, through God’s redeeming acts in different generations, to the future hopes variously described as redemption or new creation. This is the big picture, the broad canvas of the Old Testament.

But there’s also a smaller picture, which Goldingay recognises in point three (but which I reckon is part of the bigger picture too, because Christians living that created life before God is part of bringing people into the grander narrative)…

Wilson on Goldingay’s third point:

“Here he again recognises that both creation and redemption have a part to play – people are redeemed to live their created life before God. Daily living is not just the concern of the wisdom materials. The Torah has extensive legislation that affects everyday life. The prophets call Israel back to right living within the covenant. Yet, the Wisdom themes have a great input here, particularly in the area of attitudes and the formation of character.

Kidner’s commentary on Proverbs says that wisdom focuses on “details of character small enough to escape the mesh of the law and the broadsides of the prophets.”

Wilson likes this twin pole idea championed by Brueggemann and followed by Goldingay. But he raises two concerns with regards to the Wisdom literature..

1. This point three needs clarification – wisdom isn’t framed as a response to God’s redemptive acts but rather to creation itself [though as Goldsworthy points out the “Fear of the Lord” suggests that wisdom might be based in the knowledge of God’s position as redeemer]. Scobie is the guy who suggests that wisdom is a response to the world and the human experience. Wilson says “perhaps what is needed is a broadening of our understanding of the human response so that it includes responding to God’s redemptive acts (the law and the prophets) and to God’s order in creation (especially in the wisdom materials).

2. The connection between creation and redemption needs to be explored further – which is more fundamental? He breaks it down to the questions:

“Is the focus in the salvation-history materials on “what requirements should be imposed on the covenant community?” While that of wisdom is rather “what values should I adopt or strive for?”

A nice summary of the functions of wisdom and the law that Robyn and I worked up yesterday is that the law provides the ethical low base for how God’s people are to live, while wisdom and the laws regarding loving God, and loving your neighbour, are the high bar. It’s the way God’s people are meant to live. Ideally.

Coming up next – I’ll try to summarise the approach I landed on in my essay (which provides a function for the wisdom literature that focuses on a purpose for the wisdom literature that fits under this model, and a method of integrating the different books that doesn’t put them in opposition to one another), and I’ll, as a bonus, put forward my dad’s solution. Which I also haven’t read anywhere else.

Old Testament 102: Biblical Theology and Wisdom

When it comes to the question of a Biblical Theology of the Old Testament (an idea that underpins it and holds it all together) the wisdom literature is a bit of an elephant in the room. Most Old Testament theologies focus on themes like “covenant” or “promise” and tie the Old Testament to the new by dealing with the unfolding of the story of God’s dealing with his people and his creation, finding some form of fulfillment in Jesus. It’s a noble, and useful aim. Provided you don’t lump for one, at the expense of all the other themes that are also there, and also valid. Why can’t all our Old Testament theologies be friends?

Eichrodt pioneered the “covenant,” and Dumbrell picked that idea up and ran with it. Von Rad (the most awesome name in theology) preferred to focus his sights on “salvation history,” Kaiser proposed “promise,” which doesn’t seem that much different from “covenant” because it isn’t. He sees wisdom as “life under the promise” – but Scobie (who has a few bobs each way on a unifying idea in his “The Ways of Our God“) suggests this connection between wisdom and the rest of the Bible is tenuous…

A useful piece from the Reformed Theological Review by Lindsay Wilson called “The Place of Wisdom in Old Testament Theology” summarises the situation nicely. Here’s an overview of the article.

Kaiser put forward two questions that need to be answered in order for a big idea to be considered valid:

1. Was this idea and purpose in the minds of the Old Testament writers?
2. Can this view be embraced by the whole Old Testament without artificially overloading this point, or ignoring large blocks of material?

Since the 20th century and Von Rad and Eichrodt’s work, scholars have decided that no single idea can describe the Old Testament adequately.

Goldingay suggests there are three ways to approach to the diversity of the Old Testament.

1. Diverse theologies can be explained by various historical contexts (e.g the idea of what it means to be the “people of God” changes based on Israel’s political circumstances).
2. One strand of theology should be used to evaluate and critique the others (Deuteronomic or Deutero-Isaiah should be the dominant view, others should be compared and contrasted).
3. The strands should be brought together, Goldingay calls this a “unifying or contsructing approach” – in a manner that does justice to the theological diversity.

Goldingay describes the different approaches like this:

“One suggests that different viewpoints are appropriate to different contexts, another that they reflect different levels of insight, and a third that they are all expressions of one underlying theology.” – Goldingay, Theological Diversity and the Authority of the Old Testament, 1987

Wilson analyses these approaches…

The first approach helps to explain some of the diversity of the Old Testament – clearly Adam in Eden requires different commands and hopes to Abraham, and Abraham to David, and David to those in exile.

The second is the most open to objection – it can involve people reading the Old Testament through a lens of their own creation, not something borne out by the Old Testament itself (eg the “history of religions” approach that tries to describe the emergence of Jewish monotheism from ANE polytheism).

The third is both promising and vexing – one must decide what to include in the mix to form a key cluster of ideas held in complex unity.

Wilson now considers how the wisdom literature might be approached in relation to Biblical Theology.

Solomonic Enlightenment
Von Rad championedthe idea that there was a period under Solomon and David that allowed the unfettered development of the wisdom movement. Brueggemann agrees. Because Israel had arrived at its peak – the wise in Israel could turn from questions of faith to questions of how to live.

Brueggemann suggests the “salvation history” approach concentrates on traps man might fall into and God’s subsequent actions to deliver him.

“Scripture has been integrated primarily around the theme of redemption which tends to suggest the gracious, powerful role of God and the despair and helplessness of man… As a result the countertheme of creation has been generally neglected.”

Suggestions for how wisdom fits commonly turn to the idea that it’s about “the order in and goodness of creation,” this works with the idea that different social situations produce different theological approaches, and a different theological focus.

Wilson outlines two approaches for finding integration between wisdom literature and the rest of the Old Testament… finding salvation history elements in the wisdom books, and finding wisdom elements in non-wisdom books. A similar approach to that discussed in Goldsworthy’s Gospel and Kingdom.

Finding Salvation-History in the Wisdom Literature

He suggests the “Fear of the Lord” is one such link (as identified by Goldsworthy) but then suggests that the wisdom literature is more diverse than just “the fear of the Lord”…

“While Goldsworthy concedes that wisdom is a complement to, not a sub-set of, salvation history, he comes close to reading wisdom down to life under the covenant. Thus he concludes that “wisdom is a theology of the redeemed man living in the world under God’s rule”.”

Wilson says the second problem here is that such an approach “fails to show how the wisdom literature and salvation history elements are integrated… it establishes a point of contact, but says little about the interplay between the two strands.”

Finding Wisdom in the Rest of the OT

A bunch of scholars have suggested a “wisdom school” might have been influential in the writing or shaping of other texts. This is hotly disputed. James Crenshaw has suggested the methodology used in some of these studies is a bit rubbish. Wilson examines a couple of case studies that Crenshaw has critiqued, and while he agrees with Crenshaw that the stories (Esther and the Joseph Narrative) are not “wisdom” exclusively, he disagrees because he says wisdom may form part of the picture.

Wilson says:

“In the light of what we have seen so far, we are able to draw at least two conclusions. Firstly, Wisdom material and influence is a significant part of the Old Testament corpus. Any proposed analysis of Old Testament theology must do justice to Wisdom themes. Secondly, we must be wary of those who see wisdom as alien to the normative theology in the Old Testament.”

Wisdom is woven into the fabric of the Old Testament. We’ll see where Wilson takes his piece in the next post.

Old Testament 102: Goldsworthy on the place and space of Old Testament Wisdom

Wisdom literature gives some advice on guidance and decision making. Goldsworthy argues that wisdom literature can be related to Israel’s covenant faith. And that it points to the coming of Christ. Goldsworthy advocates a presuppositional approach to wisdom about the world. To be truly wise, first one must presuppose God. And because we presume God, we assume the Bible is the basis for true wisdom, then we also need to realise that the Old Testament finds its fulfillment in Jesus, so any consideration of the function of an Old Testament book must begin Christologically.

Wisdom is not intelligence, it belongs to all who believe the gospel. It’s not so much an intellectual approach to life, as it is a way of living life. It differs us from the animals.

We must begin [studying wisdom in the Bible] with Christ because it is through him that we become Christians and are motivated to study the Old Testament as Christian Scripture.

He suggests the question to ask of the Old Testament Wisdom is how it comes to help us understand Christ. And then we need to ask how the Wisdom Literature is fulfilled in Christ.

In Luke 11:31 Jesus makes an explicit comparison between himself and Solomon:

31 The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom; and now something greater than Solomon is here.”

Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 1 and 2 is another point of contrast – the Old Testament wisdom was very similar to the wisdom of the world, the gospel of Christ crucifed on the other hand, is folly to the wisdom of the world.

Worldly wisdom has a place. We use it every day.  When we approach questions of how to live our lives, we often turn to worldly wisdom without a thought about where it fits with God’s wisdom (appropriately) – we don’t ask if the correct approach to repairing a computer comes from God (nor should we take actions in those areas that contradict Godly wisdom – but you get the point).

“If Christians showed as much talent and shrewdness in the pursuit of the world for Christ as unbelievers show in the pursuit of riches, who could gauge what effect that would have?”

“Every culture collects the wisdom of its people, much of which will be found in the form of concise proverbial sayings.”

The wisdom literature from Babylon and Egypt has close similarities to the Biblical works.”

“At this point we can at least recognise that there is some common ground shared by the wisdom of pagans and that of God’s people”…

Stephen (Acts 7:22) suggests Moses was educated in Egypt’s wisdom.

By the time Moses went to school in Egypt there was already a long history of wisdom.

On Ma’at

“Ma’at represented an order that was to be seen particularly in the stability of the Egyptian state… There is no real parallel in Hebrew wisdom to Ma’at other than similarities to the idea of order. These similarities between Hebrew and Egyptian wisdom suggest that the common factor is the quest for the understanding of the order of the universe. Hebrew wisdom was distinct in that it was shaped by the Israelite experience of covenant and redemption.”

Goldsworthy suggests Biblical accounts of Solomon, and the non-Israelite bits in Proverbs suggest a connection between Israelite and ANE wisdom.

“The evidence available to us of the intellectual achievements of the people in the old civilizations of the Middle East shows us that wisdom was sought after and written down very early in recorded history. There is little doubt that wisdom sayings of some kind would have been part of the emerging culture of Israel’s ancestors.”

“Wisdom’s apparent lack  of concern for Israel’s history, covenant and law is one of its distinctive features. Perhaps we can work back from the wisdom books to look for clues to the origins of wisdom in Israel. The wisdom literature itself is lacking in the kind of historical references which would give such clues. The books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes contain only the briefest indications of the traditional patronage of Solomon.1

Four kinds of evidence which contribute to our understanding of wisdom in Israel:

First – the scattered wisdom sayings found in various parts of the narrative literature of the Old Testament (some of these are clues to a pre-literary stage which probably existed before there were any schools of wisdom or written wisdom) – for example sayings about mighty hunters (Genesis 10), and “it became a saying” in 1 Samuel 10. In this case the word “saying” is the Hebrew word later used for Proverb.

Second – the wisdom books themselves.

Third – knowledge of the wisdom literature form the ANE – “the forms and functions of this wisdom suggest parallels to Israelite wisdom, but the differences are more obvious.”

Fourth – the possible wisdom influences on other books of the Old Testament, the idea that other books were compiled by wisdom schools, written by wise men, or influenced by wisdom thoughts.

“If we could be sure of the identification of wisdom influences [on the Old Testament], they would provide some valuable evidence of the place of wisdom in the main stream of Israelite thought. We would see how the wisdom ideas, which in the main wisdom books appear in almost complete isolation from expressions of the covenant faith, have been brought into organic relationship with that covenant faith.”

1 We’ll get to Solomon later, and Goldsworthy’s view (also, see the previous post).

A timeline of (post documentary hypothesis) Old Testament Theology

1870s – Wellhausen’s Documentary Hypothesis (Source Criticism): Identifies JEDP – the four voices alleged in the Pentateuch. Breaking the texts into parts based on their use of names for God, theological focus (on ritual, or law), and on literary style. This followed about 100 years of source criticism.

Here’s what the breakdown of the text looks like (from Wikipedia):

1890s – Vos takes up a position as a professor of Biblical Theology in Princeton in a move designed to combat the emergence of text criticism as the dominant interpretive paradigm. Princeton was apparently looking for someone familiar with the German school and committed to a framework of Biblical Theology, Vos, having studied under the German school was perfect.

1940s – Noth and Von Rad (following Gunkel) introduced the idea of common oral sources (form criticism) for significant moments in Israel’s history. Noth also pioneered “the Deuteronomistic History,” the idea that Joshua to Kings represented a cohesive sociological-historical account of Israel for post exilic (7th century BC) use, at the same time both he and Von Rad saw Joshua as part of the same unit as the Pentateuch, arguing for a hextateuch (to me it seems like only a small step from Joshua to Judges which would make a septicheuch).

1941 – Cassuto, a Jewish Rabbi who wrote in Italian, offered a substantive criticism of the Documentary hypothesis that was not translated into English until 1961. He proposed that the Pentateuch was a single text, written by one author in the tenth century BC. His dating was a subsidiary to his criticism of the Documentary Hypothesis. He demonstrated that textual criticism – the notion of examining inconsistencies in the text to identify separate voices – was essentially cultural imperialism reading modern mores into ancient writings – and that the style of writing presented in the text was entirely consistent with Hebrew literary structure.

1976 – Schmid (another German) almost singlehandly removes the notion of the Jahwist voice (J), and some see him as having done away with all but the Deuteronomist.

1977 – Rendtorff went a step further than Schmid, he did away with both J and E, suggesting a Deuteronomic School was the most likely final editor of the OT, though allowing for a later “priestly” redactor.

My thoughts

Given my bias for Biblical Theology (ie a unified view of the text and an emphasis on inspiration), I’m glad the Documentary Hypothesis is on its way out the academic door. But I think it has provided useful insights (provided it sits under the umbrella of divine inspiration).

So here’s what I think.

The Pentateuch was probably around in some sort of oral/written form pretty early on, which was discovered (and possibly edited into a more cohesive form) under Josiah (there’s reference to a book of law being found in the temple under his reign so it must have existed before then), though compiled in its final form, and attached to the “deuteronomistic history” post exile as Israel struggled to come to terms with its identity. I think the Old Testament as a whole is a subjective retelling of Israel’s history so sociological and literary approaches to the text are useful, historical criticism is useful only insofar as it assumes the accounts will be flavoured in favour of Israel and genre is taken into account.

Biblical Theology: Tying it all together

So, in summary, if I was answering a question like “how is Biblical Theology useful for understanding the Old Testament?” I would make the following points (probably with reference to Goldsworthy, Scobie, Dumbrell and Demster):

1. It grounds us in the notion that the Bible is a unified text not a hodgepodge of disparate parts strung together because no other documents existed.

2. It puts other forms of literary criticism in their place as subsets of this view (here I would reference Von Rad, Brueggemann, Barr, the documentary hypothesis and anything else that would demonstrate I knew what was at stake in terms of viewing the Bible as a loose collection of texts).

3. It helps us chart the development of God’s redemptive plans for creation from go to woe. Starting with creation and the fall, through the creation of his people with covenant obligations, the development of kingship, and ultimately culminating with the new creation and Jesus as king.

4. It reminds us that themes carry on, and develop through the Biblical text that are helpful for guiding our exegesis and our preaching.

None of the ideas put forward as unifying concepts for the Bible are entirely satisfying on their own, they all miss something of the complexity of the text (any simplification or summary will inherently do that), but they all play a role in shaping our interpretation. Pointing out linking themes is useful. Provided you don’t want to turn it into the only thread that holds the Bible together.

Biblical Theology 101: Demster’s Dominion and Dynasty

Just to add another Biblical Theology into the mix, Demster’s work is part of Don Carson’s “New Studies in Biblical Theology” series.

Like everybody else in the Biblical Theology world he starts with a bit of background on the discipline. He says “of the sixty biblical theologies written in the last hundred years there are almost as many theologies as there are theologians.”

Demster, in a vaguely Hegelian movement, critiques the application of both postmodernism and modernism to Biblical text. This is a cool quote:

“Theologians sailing in the waters of contemporary western culture have to avoid two opposite errors: they have to navigate between the Scylla of modernism and the Charybis of postmodernism. The error of modernism is objectivism, that is the idea that individual subjects can attain the entire value-free truth when examining an object – they can see it as it really is; while the error of postmodernism is subjectivism, the idea that because observers are never value-free or objective, they see the object according to their subjective perspective – they see it not as it is, but as they are (and therefore never really see it). A truly Judeo-Christian epistemology will navigate between these extremes…”

That’s a nice elegant critique with a reference to old school Greek mythology right there…

Barr championed the notion that the books of the Bible must be read separately because they were written separately, and stored as such until a later collation. He says notions of unity are “read into the text” rather than “read out of it.” The same could be said of the Lord of the Rings.

Demster provides a good quote for anybody tackling a question about the ordering or importance of keeping particular books in the Pentateuch:

“The larger literary context of the Tanakh has significant hermeneutical implications. For example, it begins with Genesis rather than Exodus, signifying that Israel’s national history is subordinated to that of world history.”

And one for anybody writing on Judges (this afternoon’s readings) – “The monotonous refrain at the end of Judges that there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25) supplies the appropriate context for interpreting the rise of kingship in the subsequent book of Samuel.”

Demster affirms the cohesive literary value of the whole Old Testament, under its primary role as “scripture.” T.S Eliot said “the Bible has had a literary influence upon English literature not because it has been considered as literature, but because it has been considered the report of the word of God.”

Here’s another cool Eliot quote about primarily enjoying the Bible as ‘literature’:

“While I acknowledge the legitimacy of this enjoyment, I am more acutely aware of its abuse. The persons who enjoy these writings solely because of their literary merits are essentially parasites.”

He uses the analogy of approaching the Bible with a wide angled lens (Biblical theology) as well as a zoom lens (textual criticism). It’s only really worth interpreting with the latter if you understand it in perspective.

Demster, in his summary of the story from Adam to David (conveniently the period covered by our exam) says:

“This story is about the reclamation of a lost human dominion over the world through a Davidic dynasty. In short it is about the coming of the kingdom of God, and it is unfinished.”

His understanding of the Kingdom is essentially the same as Goldsworthy’s, though curiously (given that it was written in 2003) does not reference or interact with his work at all.

Then he brings out the hourglass structure – God’s people starting as humanity, narrowing to Israel, narrowing to Judah, narrowing to Benjamin, and then narrowing to David, before expanding. And he sees this as a typology of Jesus, the new David.