The virgin birth is important, but not as important as you think

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December 12, 2018

As we are in the season of Advent, approaching Christmas, it is around this time of year that you may hear many sermons, discussions, arguments, and polemics surrounding the Gospel story of the Virgin Birth of Jesus, or, to be more specific, the Matthean and Lukan Gospel story. A couple of years ago around this time, Andy Stanley was a focal point of controversy because he said that one’s faith is in the resurrection of Jesus and not the virgin birth; he wasn’t denying the historical fact of the virgin birth but was questioning the significance that is attached to the idea.

Here is the dominant narrative about the virgin birth in traditional/evangelical circles: the virgin birth is proof that Jesus is the Incarnate Son of God. However, many people resist this narrative, viewing the idea of a virgin birth with deep skepticism; instead, they understand the virgin birth as symbolic or mythological that has no value as a matter of historical fact. For instance, Brian McLaren has stated the “virgin birth” as a symbol against patriarchy. This is a recapitulation of a dominant post-modern narrative of resistance against centers of power as havens of injustice.

What if both narratives are wrong? What if the virgin birth is taken as a historical fact by the Gospels but it’s significance is not that Jesus is the Incarnate Son of God? My suggest is that while the post-modern revisionist accounts are right to criticize the standard Christmas narrative of most of us orthodox Christians, they do so in such a way that they grossly misunderstand the historical context of the Gospels and thus engage in a blatant act of cultural appropriation for present day purposes.

To be clear, this is not said with any desire for any sort of theological revisionism of Christian faith. I am an orthodox Christian, who believes both that Jesus is God Incarnate and that Jesus is the Son of God. My desire, however, is to tear down oversimplified narratives so that we may have eyes to see things afresh and anew.

The origination of this oversimplification is rooted in our Trinitarian liturgies, where we refer to the second person of the Holy Trinity as the Son. To call Jesus the Son (of God) is taken to be synonymous with calling Jesus God Incarnate; the phrases “Son of God” and “God Incarnate” are taken as exact or near exact synonyms, expressing the same thing. However, these phrases are not the same in their origination, as the language of Sonship originates from the Old Testament royal language about the king, such as in Psalm 2. Meanwhile, the language of incarnation hails from John 1, where “the Word became flesh/σάρξ,” where the Latin for σάρξ is caro (genitive: carnis) for flesh.

Put simply, for the Jewish historical narrative, the Son of God is language of kingship, where God has bestowed His authority to a human agent, just as a king would bestow authority to his son. Being a son of God wasn’t about having a divine nature. It took on this significance in Greco-Roman mythology where gods would impregnate human females, creating a demi-god who have both divine and human powers. But this mythology is something that Israel was called to reject.

By contrast, the idea of Incarnation is grounded in the Jewish understanding of God’s Wisdom. God’s Wisdom was with God in creating the world and participating in the creative act as in Proverbs 8:22-31. While Israel’s wisdom was connected to Israel’s kingship, just as the Son of God way, these two concepts are not exactly synonymous in John 1. John extends the familial language to believers in 1.12-13, although rather than using υἱός (“son”) which he uses for Jesus (such as in John 3.16) he uses τέκνα (“children”). The Gospel of John recognizes that there is something special about Jesus as μονογενὴς (“only-begotten”). But nothing further is said about the special status that Jesus has in comparison to the children of God.  It is more likely that μονογενὴς is to be understood against the background of Proverbs 8.22-25, where God’s Wisdom was given a status that is separate from creation.1

Thus, the language of “Son of God” and “God Incarnate” are not exactly synonymous. While both expressing ideas that are related to Israel’s Davidic kingship, they are refer to distinctly different concepts. Within the language of the Jewish historical narrative, to speak of Jesus as God’s Son is not a metaphysical statement about Jesus having the Divine nature.

What has occurred is that “Son of God” and “God Incarnate” have the same reference to the person of Jesus, but not the same sense. Gotlobb Frege talk about words having two components of meaning, sense and reference. While there are many critiques to give against Frege’s breakdown and thus it isn’t important here to understand the specifics of Frege’s views of language. What is important is that the word meanings have at least two sources: 1) semantic memory from repeated and conventional usage that gives us the customary sense and 2) (potentially new) semantic information derived from those persons or things our words are used to reference. In the orthodox Christian tradition, the meaning of “Son of God” and “God Incarnate” has become increasingly defined by what we believe and know about Jesus rather than the historical origination of these phrases. So, when we hear “Son of God” we also think “God Incarnate” to the point that we have blended the two phrases/ideas into “the Incarnate Son of God.”

There is nothing wrong in calling Jesus the “Incarnate Son of God.” IT expresses something deeply true. But, the problem comes when the semantic and linguistic changes impacts a) how we read the Gospel narratives and b) how we logic out the significance of the virgin birth. In Luke 1.35, the angel explains to Mary how she as a virgin can have a child who will take upon the authority of the Davidic kingship, saying: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”2 There are two ideas that are being expressed here: 1) Mary can conceive as a virgin because the Holy Spirit is bringing this about; 2) Because it is the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus can be called the Son of God, which has kingly overtones.

The Virgin Birth explains Mary’s pregnancy and the authority that is bestowed upon this child. By contrast, there is no description of Jesus as having a Divine nature, as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, as the Word who became flesh. Even if we import Greek mythology as an analogy, it only leads to Jesus being a demi-God. Nothing in Jewish history nor Greek mythology substantiates the connection of the virgin birth with the orthodox confession of Jesus as fully God.

Furthermore, the New Testament does not place much emphasis on Jesus virgin birth. Rather, it is preferred to connect Jesus status as the Son of God to the resurrection of Christ, as in Romans 1.4. The virgin birth is thus not the primary witness of Jesus’ Sonship. Rather, in Gospels of Matthew and Luke, the narratival function of the virgin birth is to foreshadow the direction Jesus’ life will take. It is a hint that there is something truly important about this person with echoes of a Davidic kingship, but it is not intended to be a clear, definitive proof that Jesus is the “Son of God” nor is it intended as a definitive statement “Jesus is God in the flesh.” If Thomas’ confession “My Lord and My God” in John 20.28 is representative of the early Christian confession, it is the resurrection that demonstrates Jesus is the David King and Lord and that Jesus is God in the flesh.

Meanwhile, the story of the virgin birth by itself has two significant holes to it if it operates in a vacuum apart from its narrative context. Firstly, the event of the virgin birth doesn’t by itself explain who Jesus is. It is the angel’s description of the power of the Holy Spirit that explains who Jesus is. If it wasn’t for the Holy Spirit, the significance of the virgin birth could be variously explained. There is even examples of virgin births in nature in the process of parthenogenesis, although the offspring is a female.

Secondly, assuming the story of Matthew and Luke are legitimately derived from Mary’s own witness and experience that actually happened, who is to say what Mary heard from the angel is actually true? Could it not be considered a religious hallucination or some other form of abnormal mental event that bears no real truth value?

It is the resurrection that ultimately grounds the confession that Jesus is the Son of God, not the virgin birth. It is the resurrection that confirms what Mary heard. It is the resurrection that is the key piece of evidence to Jesus’ identity, not the virgin birth.

There is, however, a third significance to the virgin birth that Luke does not mention. Matthew 1.18-22 explains the significance of this event from the words of the prophet Isaiah in 7.14 by giving the meaning of Emmanuel: “God with us.” Now, with our orthodox lenses, we might immediately think: “Aha! Incarnation!” But this is not the primary meaning of this phrase; Matthew is providing a statement about God’s faithfulness to His people and His covenant, which is part of the original context of the prophet Isaiah’s proclamation. This is also a theme of Mary’s song of praise in Luke 1.46-55, particularly in vss. 54-55.

It is only with post-Easter lenses that we can then turn around and say: God is being faithful by being personally present as a human person. In other words, the language of God’s faithfulness takes on a deeper significance that includes but extends beyond the meaning of the words within their original, pragmatic context. But we can only say “God with us” means “God Incarnate” because of the resurrection, not because of the virgin birth.

Rather, if we are to extend the theological significance of the virgin birth beyond Jesus’s identity as the Son of God and as an agent of God’s faithfulness, I would suggest it should emerge from Israel’s understanding of God’s Wisdom in Proverbs 8.22-31, where the virgin birth by the Holy Spirit is the Word’s involvement in the act of creation. The virgin birth of Jesus Christ is an act of creation that establishes Jesus as the second/last Adam (as in 1 Corinthians 15.45-48), preparing the way for creation to go towards its originally intended purposes.

Nevertheless, the event of the virginal conception never by itself entails the idea that Jesus is “God Incarnate” within the Jewish worldview; this logic requires a pagan style of reasoning injected with steroids. It is only after the fact through understanding the whole story of Jesus Christ in light of His death and resurrection that we can look back to the virgin birth and say: “this wasn’t just God’s power at work, this wasn’t just God’s Son and Davidic king, this wasn’t just God being faithful to Israel; this was God in the flesh!” It is due to the epistemic light that the resurrection brings that Incarnation can be said to metaphysically define what happened in the virgin birth; apart from this, the virgin birth understood in the context of Israel’s story never achieves the orthodox Christian confession.

God does lead into trials: The Lord’s Prayer and the temptations of Christ

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December 11, 2018

The Pope has made news recently saying that the Lord’s Prayer should be retranslated to say “Do not abandon us to temptation.” Undergirding this concern is a very common, modern concern to not portray God as taking an active role in causing the difficult life circumstances we face. However, there is a distinctive problem: the word εἰσφέρω is not the language of abandonment. At a literal level, it ascribes an active causal role to God in regards to πειρασμός, which can be translated as trial or temptation, that the petitioner requests God not to bring. “Abandon” is far too passive.

Furthermore, the connection of the Lords’ Prayer to the temptation of Jesus is paramount here. A tight interconnection of themes exist between the two. The language of God’s fatherhood in in the prayer, whereas right before going into the wilderness, the voice of God spoke from the heavens acknowledging Jesus status as His Son. As the devil tempts Jesus with kingdom power, so the Lord’s Prayer seeks the coming of God’s kingdom power. As Jesus was starved of food in the wilderness, He expresses a reliance and trust upon the basic provisions of such basic needs. In fact, the only part of the Lord’s Prayer that can not immediately be connected to themes in the temptation narrative is the prayer for forgiveness, but it is precisely these words that are immediately defined after the prayer  (Matthew 6.14-15). Nevertheless, if we recognize the concern about forgiveness is concerned not about modern sensibilities about guilt, but about God restoring the fortunes of Israel from a sense of exile, then even Jesus’ faithfulness to overcome temptations that can be connected to Israel’s narrative history has a sense of a restoration of forgiveness in the background.

In other words, it might be best to suggest that the Lord’s Prayer is the learned prayer in the crucible of Jesus’ trial, in which Jesus directs His disciples to seek a relationship with God that is not defined by Jesus’ own experience in the wilderness; where Jesus was deprived of food, the disciples are to seek provisions; where Jesus faced the trials that put Israel into exile, the disciples are to pray for restoration; where Jesus faced a time of difficult testing and experiences all the painful, harmful consequences upon the body from it, the disciples are to seek to never have such an experience.

So, when Jesus speaks of not being lead into trial/temptation, it is relevant to recognize how it echoes the temptation narrative, where it is said that “Jesus was led up (ἀνάγω) by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” (Matthew 4.1) Once again, there is an active causal role assigned to God, this time through His Spirit, in which Jesus quite literally moves to the location where he will face temptation because of the Spirit. 

In other words, both linguistic evidence and evidence from the larger Matthean narrative suggests that God can take an active role in bringing people to a difficult, trying circumstance.

However, because we have so “liturgical-ized” the Lord’s Prayer apart from the larger narrative, we don’t hear the words “do not lead us into temptation” against the backdrop of the temptations of Christ. The meaning of such language becomes much more free-floating, being anchored more towards the modern concerns we have about God, parenting, and/or power.

For instance, our understanding of God has been so influenced by an abstraction of what it means to be ‘”good.” Being “good” in modern discourse essentially amounts to a mixture of a) getting the behavioral formula of righteousness correct and b) not putting people through emotional pain or turmoil.1 The wording of the Lord’s Prayer appears to suggest that God does something that puts people through pain; in a culture that is highly concerned about issues of abuse, this sounds like the wrong type of action that would be unthinkable to attribute to God if God is good. Hence, the Pope mentions what a (loving) father is supposed to do as justification for an alternative translation. I can understand and sympathize with this concern that undergirds this, but it is the wrong solution for the problem.

And, if I may suggest, the Pope’s favored translation isn’t much better in how it portrays God. It can also risk portraying God in the role of a neglectful father who needs to be reminded to help their children. While the Pope appeals to ideals of fatherhood to argue against the more active language, his alternative isn’t much better.

In fact, the very existence of suffering in the world makes any expressions about God that a) is based upon real human experience and b) appeals to God to act with power to change circumstances means that any and all language about God is at risk of portraying God as not being loving, as either being abusive or neglectful.

The root of this problem is that we try to understand God against some abstracted notion of “goodness” that we form based upon our own, pragmatic concerns and circumstances. We are aware of problems of misuse of power and control upon hapless victims, particularly children, and we define the ideals of parenting and fatherhood with these concerns in mind. If we don’t understand the prayer against the backdrop of Christ’s temptations, we will understand it against the backdrop of the problems that are salient within our own culture and society.

The better solution to this problem, I would suggest, is to understand the prayer against the backdrop of Christ’s temptations, it is a profound prayer in which we recognize that God might put anyone of us as His children through difficult trials. Jesus endured it twice, first in the wilderness and second in the cross; notice the shared language about God’s will in the Lord’s prayer and the prayer of Gethsemane in Matthew 26.39. But if God puts you through a trial, know that it has a redemptive purpose behind it as through it God’s will becomes accomplished. These redemptive purpose of such trials aren’t for oneself, however; they are for others. Put differently, the Lord’s Prayer is structured so as to ask God to make His will become realized in the world without the need for times of difficulty. “Your kingdom come, your will be done” is followed by prayer seeking for an avoidance of the wilderness experience.

Thus, I would suggest this solution would entail either a) ceasing to liturgical-ize the Lord’s Prayer such that it isn’t read and used apart from its context or, perhaps more fruitfully, b) having an additional liturgy of the temptation of Christ connected to the Lord’s Prayer. Rather than focus on retranslating the Lord’s Prayer, perhaps we should re-liturgical-ize the Lord’s Prayer.

Why I no longer hold to substitutionary atonement

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December 7, 2018

My faith first found its home in a Southern Baptist church. I still have found memories of my time in the youth group and Sunday School, but many things have changed about my understnading of God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Sciptures, etc., even as I am deeply indebted to them for the deep respect and importance they taught me that Scripture has in the Christian life.

One area where I have massively diverged from them is the idea that Jesus Christ’s death was a substitute on our behalf. But, to be clear, my rejection isn’t of simply penal substitution, the most prominent for substitutionary atonement theory. And, to their credit, I don’t remember that church as portraying God as incredibly angry; while I think the PSA narrative is deeply problematic, it would not be fair to characterize them, or many churches, of peddling a hateful God. Rather, it would probably be more accurate to suggest that for many of them, they were unintentionally creating a narrative of fear about God, unaware of how people would interpret their discussion about sin and punishment. This isn’t to absolve them and other churches of any role in portraying God in a very angry manner, but only to recognize that there were factors that were outside of their control and that they were unaware of.

Rather, my criticism extends to the very concept of substitution as an explanation for the soteriological significance of Christ’s death as being unnecessary to the Biblical narrative and texts. More than simply being unnecessary, I would suggest it misunderstands the significance of God taking the matters of atonement in His hands. In its place, the notion of Jesus participation in human life and overcoming the powers of sin and death is a better model.

Substitution was most likely some part of the heart of the logic in the system of sacrifices in the Torah, although we can’t be exactly sure on this. But what we can say with strong confidence is that what was substituted wasn’t death for another person’s death, because the power of atonement was in the blood of the animal sacrifice, not the death per se. Atonement was more concrete in a phenomenological manner, rather than appeal to some abstracted, albeit common, idea of death. Something about the blood as originally physically ‘possessed’ by the animal was the key aspect in atonement.

However, a fundamental mistake is to think that atonement was caused by only a singular feature: the blood of the animal on behalf of other people. This reduction of causation is at the heart of how the entire sacrificial system become a religious automation, which is what the prophets criticized. While not explicit in the texts that directly speak of how the sacrifices are offered, the prophetic critique says without the heart of the person for God, God does not desire the sacrifices. Rather than seeing the prophets as deconstructing a religious practice, this perspective sees the prophets as trying to redirect people towards the original purposes of the sacrificial system as a genuine expression of the people’s relationship to God in love and to others in justice.

If we take this as true about the prophets and that their voice represents something substantive about the meaning of the system of sacrifice and atonement in the Torah, then the atonement is effective due to a constellation of causes. Put differently, the substitution of the animal’s life in the blood for the life of another was a necessary, but not sufficient, condition of atonement for the Torah system, at least for humans. But what it was paired with was the heart of the person/people. In this light, substitution would be considered efficacious only in the context of the right heart within the people. In other words, the sacrifice of blood was not constitutive of the event of atonement, but it was the heart of the person/people, without which God would disregard what was offered.

However, when Jesus becomes an atonement for sins, the entire logic of the sacrificial system gets turned on its head. One theme of the letter to the Hebrews is that Jesus Himself was faithful the point of death so that He could offer His own death as an atonement for others. In so doing, Jesus fulfilled the outlines of the Torah sacrificial system. However, given that Jesus as the Son is the exact imprint of God’s nature, it wasn’t simply a human doing it but it was God being faithful to the very covenant He fashioned with Israel that regulated atonement. In Jesus Christ, God was fulfilling both God’s obligations and the human obligation that undergirded the sacrifical system.

What does this mean? By God taking upon both roles, this means that the efficacy of the atonement apart from the Mosaic Covenant is no longer understandable by direct analogy. You should not automatically jump from the nature of substitution in the Torah to substitution in Jesus Christ. Substitution was the effect of atonement in the Torah sacrifices, but the cause was in the blood of the sacrifice. But once God takes on himself the blood obligation, it can dramatically impact the effect the act of atonement has. The sacrifices function as substitution in the act of cooperation between God and humanity. Why? Because the heart of the persons made it such that their faithfulness would be paired with the substitute. However, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is not an act of cooperation between two parties but one party taking on the role of both parties instead because the hearts of people never remained cleansed.

In this framework, something different occurs. Rather than a pure conscience of the people making the sacrifices effectual, Christ’s sacrifice offered in a pure conscience is offered to make other consciences pure. While remaining faithful to the covenant, the effect of the sacrifices for sin shifted from substitution to purification of the person. It is no longer about substitution but transformation. It is no longer about the pure of heart getting their sins forgiven; it is about people who by God forgiving their sins and offering atonement Himself may make them purified in heart. This, I believe, stands at the heart of Hebrews: while God is faithful to the covenant, everything gets flipped on its head.

This comes to play when it talks about Jesus’ own experiences in suffering as a necessary condition for His offering help. Jesus experienced what people experienced. But, rather than facing the human experience and becoming faithless, Jesus was faithful to the point of death. In his own life, Jesus overcome what humanity could not overcome to the point that his blood was shed. The blood of the atonement is no longer used to cleanse the altar, defiled by human sin, but rather is used to cleanse the altar of human hearts. In other words, there is a transformation of function from the animal sacrifices to Christ, even as Christ fulfills what is expected of sacrifices.

At the root of power of Christ’s atonement then is a victorious participation in human life. Christ is tempted and Christ dies, just as humans are tempted and humans sin. But, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ overcomes temptation to the point of death and overcomes death to the point of resurrection. Jesus is a trailblazer, setting out the path to a destination that had never been reached before. Thus, as Paul mentions in Galatians, Jesus takes on the curse of people under the Torah so that he can redeem those born under the Torah. Hence, what in 2 Corinthians, Paul says that Jesus became poor to make people rich.

Jesus takes on the experiences of human life and victoriously conquers the powers that pervade it, altering the course of the inevitable destiny of human persons. But this inevitable destiny is the destiny of judgment of God’s ‘redemptive’ wrath1 upon human sin so that creation can be free from the sin that has so mangled it because in Jesus Christ, humanity has a way to be victorious over the powers that spiritually enslaved. But this alteration of ‘destiny’ is not a substitution because we never see God condemning Jesus as a sinner so that we won’t be condemned at the judgment. Rather, God allows the power of human judgment to reveal the grace and love of God; God takes human evil and uses it for good to transform and purify human hearts.

The only sense of “substitution” that I accept as part of Christ’s atonement is a sense of an ironic substitution as in Isaiah 53, where the people who put the suffering servant to death were committing the very things they condemned the servant of. But the conditions of this type of substitution is built around false accusations and thus is not explanatory of why the atonement of Christ is effectual, but rather that it is effectual even for those who punish for what they themselves do.

In conclusion, then, I offer six rudimentary statements in need of further fleshing out to explain my view of the atonement.

  1. Jesus Christ participates in the fullness of human experience.
  2. Human experience of the powers that lead to an inevitable death also has a humanly inexorable pull towards sin.
  3. This inexorable pull towards sins continues to malign God’s creation such that judgment is necessary to restore the integrity of God’s creation.
  4. By the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ overcomes the influences that human experiences have to take us away from faithfulness to God.
  5. By the power and leading of the Holy Spirit conjoined with the imitation of Christ, we who believe in Christ may then have a faith like Christ so that we can overcome these influences of human experiences so as to be faithful
  6. Through the transformation of Christ-imitation and Spirit-leading, Christian are being purified of the problem of sin that necessitates judgment.

The idea of Christ’s atonement realized through the Spirit may be understood as the Triune God’s power of new creation. In it, there is no divinely necessary condition that determines how God must act to get a specific effect, such as punishment of one person is lieu of punishment for another. Rather, it is God’s faithfulness to creation and faithfulness to His convenant with Israel that impacts the shape the atonement takes in Jesus Christ, but the effectual power of the atonement rests in the power of the God through His Word and His Spirit to create anew as He did in Genesis 1. God does not ‘substitute.” Rather, God’s power makes new through the act of participating in the old.

This resembles the notion of Christus Victor, except one doesn’t have to postulate the satisfaction of some devilish power. Rather, Jesus conquers the devilish power by empower people to overcome the influence of the powers of sin and death; people’s own experiences are transformed from within through Christ and the Spirit so that they then experience freedom within themselves from the devil rather than simply some act against the powers from without. So, while resembling Christus Victor, the narrative and mechanism of atonement are in some ways worlds apart as Christus Victor portrays a more top-down view, whereas this potrays a more bottom-up narrative.

Jesus is not a bigot – The Syrophoenecian woman and progressive Christianity

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December 6, 2018

Last month, Rachel Held Evens posted the following tweet about Jesus, well-intended I believe, trying to address the issues of racism and the human predisposition to such attitudes:

It’s fear of Jesus’ humanity, I think, that keeps us from interpreting the story of the Syrophoenician/Canaanite woman as a story about a man changing his mind about his racial bias when confronted with the humanity (and chutzpah!) of another person. But that’s a tricky one…— Rachel Held Evans (@rachelheldevans) November 19, 2018

As you can imagine, this struck a nerve with many people, thinking she was called Jesus a racist. She later admits she wasn’t trying to call Jesus racist. This distinction is important as people can have racial biases (as in, we all have them), but racists cement their racial bias with rationalizations and justifications for their superiority and the inferiority of others. People who have racial biases but are not racists don’t let their biases control how they see others, allow their experience of different people to change what they think about them, rather than fitting people of other ethnicities into their racist boxes. So I can appreciate what RHE was perhaps trying to accomplish and the distinction she was trying to draw.

But RHE is not simply the thought of a person who went astray. It rather represents a distinctive hermeneutical problem that stems from the intellectual and cultural progressivism she inhabits. This becomes particularly salient when a United Methodist Bishop, Karen Oliveto, has charges brought against her in a message she gave to her annual conference, taking Jesus’s response to the Syrophonecian woman as an example of “giving up bigotry and prejudices” and admonishes against “making Jesus an idol.”1 The same constellation of emphasis upon Jesus’ humanity (and in the case of Oliveto to the point of saying something profoundly unorthodox and bordering on what would be considered heretical by most Christians throughout history) to read Jesus’ initial response to the Syrophoenician woman as a story of racism/bigotry and change from that is not the emergence of a single person. Rather, I would suggest it is reflective of the form of equality that is deeply immersed in the progressive mindset.

Allow me to state something clearly though: I am not trying to malign “progressives.” I share many similar concerns that they have on a lot of topics, but a) my rationale for understanding differs profoundly, which means b) I don’t always interpret the source of problems in the same way so that c) I don’t propose the same solutions that progressive-minded people do. This blog post is, in a sense, an attempt to expose these differing rationales and how, in the context of Christian faith, impact hermeneutics and the reading of Scripture.

What under-girds the progressive mindset is the attitude of a particular form of equality. There are many types of equality. There is equality of process, where all people are treated equally under the law. While this idea has roots in the Enlightenment, it didn’t become more fully realized until late, modern liberalism, influenced by the Civil Rights movement in the United States. Then, there is the equality of outcomes, where there is not massive divergence as it pertains to education, wealth, etc. This found its early expression in Marxism/Communism, and takes a more modified form in modern forms of socialism. Progressive visions of equality subsume both forms of equality, although with a particular explaining inequality of outcomes due to procedural inequalities. However, they take a step further in what I refer to relational equality: the way we treat each other should be the same, regardless of who we are. For instance, racism isn’t simply about unequal treatment under the law, nor is it about inequality of status and wealth; it is about how you personally treat them.

What is particularly significant about this is that what amounts to evil in the eyes of progressives are any negatives view of persons of minority status, no matter what the reasons such a view is expressed. It goes beyond against a rejection of judging a person *because of* the color of the skin to any negative judgment towards people of minority status, such as African-Americans, as by default reflecting racist attitudes and therefore wrong. This isn’t without reason, because often time our biases towards others are never registered in our consciousness, but we treat people of specific groups more negatively than others due to membership in the group. For instance, a black and white person accused of the same crime in the United States will often receive different sentences, with the black person getting more severe punishment on average. This is a statistical reality that plays itself out day to day.

Given the reality of inequality, the progressive mindset assumes negative appraisal of members of a minority group is automatically done in an unequal manner. In this case, the proper response isn’t to change how one views people of majority status with more negative attitudes, but to fight against negative attitudes towards minorities. This converges with principles of non-judgmentalism that many of us Millenials were taught growing up and an increased awareness of the role of psychological pain and stress in hampering people’s live. The right response to inequality is to become tolerant and open. Thus, by default, negative attitudes towards people deemed minorities is likely to be considered wrong, if not evil.

As a consequence, negative views of people with a minority, disempowered status are very salient to people in the progressive mindset. While there are still some taboos that if anyone, regardless of status, commits legitimates judgmental or critical views of them, by and large, any sort of negative or different treatment is immediately interpreted as some form of prejudice or bigotry. So, when Jesus initially “refuses” to help the Syrophonecian woman, the saliency concerns about racism takes controls the way they interpret the passage.

Furthermore, their attitude towards a form of non-judgmental equality hinders seeing another explanation for Jesus’ actions. In the progressive mindset, there is a large aversion to the idea of gross inequalities and superiority. The progressive mindset is particularly averse to all forms of exceptionalism and exclusivity; it stems from seeing the evils of the racial supremacist views of early and mid 20th century along with noting the problems of gross economic inequalities with late capitalist such that the rich are often seen as the primary cause of many social problems. However, this aversion extends to any sense of significant variance in social status and regard. Privilege is by nature unfair and as such, one’s obligation and duty is to use one’s privilege to end privilege. Any sort of special status to a specific group is seen as out of bounds and illegitimate, except the status of being a protected group because of negative treatment.

However, it is this notion of a special status bestowed upon Israel that under-girds Jesus’s actions. Anyone who takes the Old Testament seriously as a source of faith has to grapple with the special status Israel in comparison to the rest of the world. The Old Testament doesn’t attribute this special status to any superiority or merit on the part of the people of Israel, but rather due to God’s promise to their ancestors, the patriarchs of Israel. Thus, this form of special status is not analogous to a racial supremacy, because there is nothing superior about Israel; it all stems from the work of God, who Israel’s does deem as superior above all others.

What was the nature of the special status? While many Israelites could rationalize this special status as having many functions, such that some may have thought their genealogical heritage meant that they would be treated more leniently in God’s eyes than the Gentiles, John the Baptist, Jesus, and even Paul undercut this explanation. In part, Romans contains Paul’s attempt to explain the significance of Israel’s special status while highlighting that the adherence to the Torah does not provide any special benefit in the eyes of God.

Rather, the special status Israel was seen as having was as a beacon of God’s light in the world. Genesis 18.16-21 highlights the role Abraham’s descendants will have in bringing blessing through their righteousness as a contrast to the evil of Sodom and Gomorrah, which first becomes clearly exemplified by Joseph as a blessing to the people of Egypt. When God was freeing Israel from Egypt, He told Moses to go to Pharaoh and say that all the plagues are happening and Pharaoh still lives so as to “to show you my power, and to make my name resound through all the earth.” (Exodus 9.16). Then, after being freed from Egypt, God explains the purpose of the covenant He is forming with Israel, calling them “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19.6), suggest they have an intercessory role in the world while they also represent God’s holiness, as Leviticus repeatedly calls Israel to be holy as God is holy.

Then, Isaiah 49 speaks of a servant from Israel that God created and set out from their conception that they will be a “light to the nations.” (Isaiah 49.6). The wisdom of Sirach understands this role of being for all of Israel, where Israel shows God’s holiness and looking for God to use Israel to show God’s glory so that the nations will know God and God alone. (Sirach 36.4-5). Consistent is this idea that God will use the people of Israel to have an impact on the rest of the world, just as it was in the Exodus.

Thus, Israel is deemed as having a special purpose in the course of history to bring the world to a knowledge of God. However, even though this work is primarily predicated upon God’s actions, Israel must also reflect God’s holiness and righteousness through their way of life. Failure to do so doesn’t prevent God from accomplishing his purposes but invalidates specific people from participating in God’s purpose.

In this light, one of Jesus’ primary roles is that of a voice of the charismatic authority like the judges, prophets of the Old Testament. 2 Jesus action is focused upon calling Israel back to its proper purpose as He speaks of the approaching kingdom of God. Many Israelites would have heard something along the lines of Sirach in this; God is about to do something, so we need to repent and get our act together to be apart of what God is doing. Jesus ministry in teaching about the nature of Torah in the Sermon on the Mount and disavowing the way the well-known expositors of the Torah have done it exemplifies this: Jesus is calling Israel to repentance and a new way of life so that they can get in line with the work kingdom work God is doing.

So, when we read the story of the Syrophonecian woman asking Jesus for help in Matthew 15.21-28, we can make sense of what Jesus says when he responds to her: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (vs. 24). Jesus’ earthly ministry was not tasked with changing the world, but with calling Israel back to its proper vocation as God’s covenant people that they had forgotten and went astray from. Israel has a special status and Jesus’ purpose is to get Israel’s purpose back on track.

However, the woman continues to plead for help. Then, Jesus says “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (vs. 26) This is where progressives can hear a hint of objectification and contempt. IT is understandable because we in our modern world have heard how groups of people are treated as less than human, with the Holocaust as most salient. But, that is not how Jesus means this. This can also be understood as a metaphor describing Jesus’ actions: Israel has a special purpose and Jesus’ ministry is targetting towards them, just as bread is for children. The intended metaphorical point of comparison here isn’t Israel as the children and the Canaanites are like dogs as if there is some racial superiority latent here; this comparison is secondary to the purpose of the metaphor, as its pragmatic purpose is the comparison between bread and Jesus’ powerful healings as part of Jesus’ ministry intended for the ministry to Israel.

Then, the woman retorts, “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” (vs. 27), to which Jesus responds: “Woman! Great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish.” (vs. 28) While some might understand Jesus change because the woman’s persistence of even because they see in faith some idea of association with Jesus, I would proffer something much simpler. She recognizes God’s purposes for Israel are on behalf of the world. Her response expresses a faith that what gets given to Israel does get passed on even to the world. Her great faith is that her, as an outsider to the covenant, are still to be a recipient of God’s blessing through God’s mission in and through Israel. Jesus’ response changes not because he changes views on racism, but because he sees her faith. 

Thus, it is the schema of Israel’s special purpose from God for the purpose of the world that makes sense of the narrative, including the inclusion of the note about her Canaanite origin.

What happens in the progressive hermeneutic is that a different connection is made: the Canaanite’s ethnicity is seen as wrongly exclusive and thus Jesus’ metaphor is an act of dehumanizing racism, drawing the main intended comparison between the children and dogs in the story with Israel in comparison to the Canaanites. This is because marginalization and dehumanization is particularly salient to the mindset, so that any sense of difference, exclusion, etc. is viewed along the moral lens of racism. They read Jesus’ response to the woman through the lens of the progressive vision of equality, which from the outside exclude the possibility of special purposes to specific people, especially coming from God. Their vision of equality would exclude the Old Testament narrative about Israel, thus leaving a hermeneutical vacuum to fill in the gaps with concerns about bigotry and racism.

The criticism here isn’t with the progressive mindset, but it is the paradoxical narrowness in which they fit Jesus into a box of modern Western ideas, all while decrying other people putting Jesus into a box. This interpretation of Jesus engaging in bigotry/racism is, essentially, an act of appropriation for modern socio-political agendas and does not show the proper cultural respect for its meaning in its ancient context, particularly the discourse of a minority group of people (when it originally occurred and then when it was originally compiled) who were commonly oppressed and persecuted. In interpreting Jesus this way, there is an act that in many ways participates in the very acts they can protest and project onto others.

I don’t say this to try to accuse Christian progressives of a hermeneutic of hypocrisy. Rather it is to make the point that ideally under-girds much of the progressive mentality: it is hard to truly represent and understand the ideas of another without force-fitting them into our own ideas and judgments. This all-too-human propensity is what undergirds racism and the various forms of marginalization of minorities. Thus, paradoxically, to see everything through the lens of racism is to engage in the same cognitive act that begets prejudices like racism in the first place. Jesus is seen as engaging in racism or as a bigot and thus he speech and actions can not be understood as anything other someone who failed to meet the moral criteria of our culture. This mentality stands at the very foundations of stereotyping.

Jesus is not engaging in a world of progressive equality: Jesus is engaging in the mission of God for Israel’s people according to the Scriptures. But by seeing everything through the lens of inequality, particularly of racial inequality, it controls understanding from seeing anything other than that, even if there is evidence in favor of seeing it a different way.

Why charity isn’t Christian – Part 3

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December 5, 2018

IF you have followed along in my first two posts, you are aware of my critique of the way Christian tends to connect our faith to charity. I have called charity part of the lowest common denominator (LCD) or morality, suggesting it is a more or less universal human concern rather than a specifically Christian concern. In contrast, I have tried to show how Jesus had a much less common attitude that was much different view as it came to concerns about poverty: one should identify with the poor rather, rather than trying to be their hero “from above.”1 The former is an attitude known as the poverty of spirit in which the way one looks at life dramatically alters one’s behaviors; the latter can be genuine, and in the cases of charity by the poor in spirit will so, but is an easy way to share up one’s own bases of power and influence, or even prop up one’s own sense of self-identity. The effect of all of this is to say that being Christian isn’t about helping the needy, though a Christian will help the needy.

However, there is one hurdle to this view of Jesus: Matthew 25.31-46. Here is the whole passage, discussing Jesus’ judgment of the nations:

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 

34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[a] you did it to me.’ 

41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”2

Here we see a pretty strong statement Jesus provides about the way people treated the marginalized. There is no getting around it if one takes the Gospels seriously: Jesus means business when it comes to how one responds to the needy.

However, there is something important to grasp: the commandment to charity would not have been the most notable thing about what Jesus said originally. Herbert Basser and Marsha Cohen point out that the order of actions Jesus uses follows that of the Midrash Tehillim 118.17:3

When a man is asked in the world to come, What was your work? And he answers, I fed the hungry, it will be said to him, This is the gate of the Lord. Enter into it, O you that did feed the hungry. When a man answers, I gave drink to the thirsty, it will be said to him, This is the gate of the Lord. Enter into it, O you that did give drink to the thirsty. When a man answers, I clothed the naked, it will be said to him, This is the gate of the Lord. Enter into it, O you that did cloth the naked. This will be said also to him that brought up the fatherless, and to them that gave alms or performed deeds of lovingkindness. And David said, I have done all these things. Therefore let all the gates be opened for me. Hence it is said, Open to me the gates of righteousness; I will enter into them, I will give thanks unto the Lord.

Such calls to charity was a common theme. What Jesus was saying about concern for the needy and marginalized and being granted entrance into the presence of God would have perfectly fit into the Jewish world he inhabited. The charitable actions Jesus describes wouldn’t be new teaching to the disciples.

What would be noteworthy, however, is that first, Jesus places himself in the role of the Lord here. Jesus is the ruler who judges, who welcomes and receives those who showed hospitality and kindness to those in need. This is a strong claim about Jesus’ own identity. Most of us in orthodoxy Christianity wouldn’t find this particularly novel, however. There is another point laid within this though.

Before explaining it, it is important to read this discourse of Jesus within the context that Matthew places it within. It comes on the heels of Matthew 24, where Jesus warns his disciples about the future catastrophe that will take place before the “coming of the Son of Man.” Jesus then advocates for his disciples be watchful about themselves and make sure they are careful with how they treat one another and not get distracted from their purpose. (Matthew 24.36-51).

Jesus then provides two parables, the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids (Matthew 25.1-13) and the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25.14-30), each of which connects people’s behavior in regards to their designated purpose with their reception or exclusion when the bridegroom/master arrives. Each of these reinforces the message about being watchful and staying on the task Jesus had given to his disciples.

So how does the story of the judgment fit into this? Notice that there is a shift here from those who are charged with a specific task (i.e. the disciples) to “all the nations.” There is an echo from the Abraham narrative in Jesus’ words. In speaking of “all the nations” and speaking of the sheep as those “blessed by my Father,” Jesus echoes words that God spoke about Abraham in Genesis 18.16-21:

16 Having risen up from there, the men looked down on the face of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham was going along with them, accompanying them. 17 The Lord said, “Will I hide from Abraham,w my servant, what I am doing? Abraham will become as a great and numerous nation, and all the nations of the earth will be blessed in him. 19 For I knew that he will appoint his sons and his household after himself, and they will guard the ways of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring on Abraham all the things that he said upon him.” 20 The Lord said, “The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah has been multiplied, and their sins are very great. 21 After going down, therefore, I will see if they are perpetrating according to their crying that is coming to me, and if not, in order that I may know.” 4

Jesus envisions his disciples as proclaiming the message throughout the world (Matthew 24.14), so the disciples are regarded as participating in this purpose that Abraham’s children was given so that by doing righteousness and justice, they would bring about this blessing onto the world. Thus, the disciples are part of the mission to respond back against the injustice and unrighteousness of Sodom and Gomorrah. 

Matthew 25.31-46 is not placed there to warn the disciples and Christians “You better be nice.” It is placed there as part of the understanding of the eschatological purpose of their mission: to be a blessing to the nations so as to reverse the cursed state of the world that lacks hospitality, resembling Sodom and Gomorrah. The criteria of judgment Matthew 25.31-46 is not a statement about the Christian mission; it is a statement about how Christ will judge the entire world. The disciples will be judged according to how they as servants fulfilling their purpose as the previous two parables elucidated; the world will be judged based upon how they fulfill this basic concern for the needy.

Sodom and Gomorrah were characterized as a city full of evil in the Old Testament. It is often assumed Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because of homosexuality. While the mention of their sexual behavior in Genesis certainly is part of the portrayal of the extent of the wickedness, homosexuality was not the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah that merited destruction. A similar story was told about the people of Gibeah of the tribe of Benjamin in Judges 19.22-30, but this time they end up raping a concubine of an elderly man. It is a heartbreaking story of sin begetting even more sin as the old man kills the raped concubine simply in order to send a message. The sin being discussed in both Sodom and Gomorrah and then in Gibeah is that of rape, characterizing an attitude of exploitation of the weak and powerless.

We see Ezekiel take this theme in his characterization of Israel as a sister of Sodom in Ezekiel 16.43b-50.

Have you not committed lewdness beyond all your abominations? 44 See, everyone who uses proverbs will use this proverb about you, “Like mother, like daughter.” 45 You are the daughter of your mother, who loathed her husband and her children; and you are the sister of your sisters, who loathed their husbands and their children. Your mother was a Hittite and your father an Amorite. 46 Your elder sister is Samaria, who lived with her daughters to the north of you; and your younger sister, who lived to the south of you, is Sodom with her daughters. 47 You not only followed their ways, and acted according to their abominations; within a very little time you were more corrupt than they in all your ways. 48 As I live, says the Lord GOD, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. 49 This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. 50 They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it. (NRSV)

To be clear, Sodom is not literally being characterized as solely inhospitable, as Ezekiel compares the “abominations” of Israel to Sodom.5 Rather, their lack of concern for the poor and needy is reflective of the type of people they are; in their pride and abundance, they do whatever they wish including behaviors deemed shameful and abominable while they disregard those who have little self-regard and live in scarcity.

So, when Jesus castigates people of the nations for their lack of hospitality, it isn’t meant simply as “you aren’t charitable enough.” It is understood as more reflective of their entire attitude and character. Absolute inhospitality and lack of charity towards the needy is representative of a wicked heart. And indeed, while concern for the needy is a LCD moral principle, people’s hearts can become so prideful and so callous that they have absolutely no regard for the helpless. The type of person who is callous to the needy is the type of person whose heart is deeply corrupted.

Thus, Matthew 25.31-46 is Jesus’ giving the purpose to the disciple’s mission as it relates to the eschatological future when Jesus comes in judgment. The disciples are to be sent out into the world to be a blessing of Abraham, so that the nations may be blessed rather than falling into and remaining in the attitude of Sodom and Gomorrah that is corrupt and filled with injustice.

If Matthew 25.31-46 refers to the judgment of the world, but what preceded in Jesus’ discourse is warnings towards the disciples to fulfill their purpose or they will be judged, then the universal judgment is not referring to disciples. They already know Jesus; it is absurd to suggest that the disciples would have thought “when did we receive Jesus?” Rather, it is the world that did not recognize Jesus. Jesus regards their hospitable, charitable attitude towards the marginalized as if they had received Jesus Himself. After all, Jesus lived and ministered in such humble circumstances, so to receive the needy would mean that one is the type of person who would receive Jesus.

Thus, in the end, I would suggest Matthew 25.31-46 is not characterizing the Christian ethic and way of life. It is about how Jesus will judge the world. But when it gets transferred into a statement about what it means to be a Christian, it reduces the Christian life to LCD morality. However, in so doing, it undercuts the very power of the life contained in genuinely following Christ that can accomplish the Abrahamic mission Jesus sets out for his disciples. Mere charity and teaching others to be charitable will not transform the world. Something more must be present.

So, charity is not Christian; it is a universal human principle of morality that Christ will judge the world according to. But it is not what defines the Christian life; Christ sets out a mission for His disciples that extends beyond simply charity.

Jesus, the apocalyptic, and demons

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December 4, 2018

In the past century, starting most notably with Albert Schweitzer in The Quest for the Historical Jesus, there has been a pronounced effort to try to understand Jesus, and even the New Testament, in light of Jewish apocalyptic literature. Early renditions of apocalyptic were considered to be about being the end and destruction of the world, but that has come to be recognized as a gross misunderstanding and caricature of the literature. Debates about what “apocalyptic” is and what are its essential features abound continue in Biblical Scholarship. N.T. Wright’s and others such as John Collins suggest that “apocalyptic” is a literary genre rather than any sort of religious movement or developed system of ideas. While leaning towards the genre explanation, I do think there is good grounds to suggest there is some thematic core that is exemplified in apocalyptic literature that was diffused to others that we can legitimately talk about an apocalyptic mindset. These themes could be appropriated for different purposes, so you can’t really draw some systematic observation about what apocalyptic means, but that the apocalyptic mindset is characterized by God’s dramatic action, judgment of the righteous and wicked, disenchantment with the present social order, radical change in human life, and some eschatological future, either lived in the resurrection or alternative forms of afterlife.1

However, these are not the only features that emerge from the apocalyptic mindset. Another common, although by no means universal, feature is the presence of evil spirits, such as fallen angels, which are called δαιμόνιον (what we typically translate as “demon”) in the New Testament. 1 Enoch 1-36, also known as the “Book of the Watchers,” catalogs the action of fallen angels prior to Noah’s flood and how their actions in procreated with human women and spreading of knowledge was pivotal in the degradation of human life. Such explanations commonly function as a way of addressing the problem of evil: why do bad things occur in this word if God who is good is Creator? Here, it appeals to some transcendent personal beings that rebelled against God, and so their rebellion explains why bad things happen.

We see the language used to refer to the transcendent agents of evil throughout the New Testament. It is commonly assumed that because the New Testament talks about δαιμόνιον, that Jesus and/or the authors of the New Testament share this worldview where personal agents of evil litter the spiritual landscape. After all, Jesus talks about casting out demons and tells his disciples to cast out demons, so they must believe in this demonology we see developing in the intertestamental literature.

But, this is not a necessary assumption to make. While, in the end, I do think Jesus and the New Testament believe in the existence of evil powers and forces that go beyond human persons, and that even some of these powers may have a transcendent personal being as their origin, it isn’t necessary to suppose that when the NT talks about δαιμόνιον, they use word the exact same way as it is coming out of the mouth of the Pharisees. The same language does not always have the same meaning across different people.

It is important to recognize that apocalyptic literature due to it status as written literature, would have been the work of a more educated person. In such an ancient day where education was not a (quasi-)universal right, such education would make someone a person of higher status and influence. Additionally, educated persons in developing their areas of expertise tend to construct complex structures of meaning such that the various categories and explanations that they developed and use tend to have many different words, with different shades of meaning and nuances. In other words, among the educated, there tends to emerge a plurality of different explanations and instructions about why things are the way they are and/or how we should do things. We see this in the demonology of 1 Enoch, where all the various “watchers” are given names and personal characteristics, particularly in the branches of knowledge they are responsible for. In short, the apocalyptic demonology reflects more the development of worldview of an educated, social elite to explain matters in the world.

This is an important point for the New Testament, because it is the Pharisees who principally using the ideas of demonology. In criticizing Jesus’ miracles, they say “It is only by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons, that this fellow casts out the demons.” (Matthew 12.24) According to Jesus, they also accused John the Baptist of having a demon because of his ascetic behavior. (Matthew 11.18) Aside from demonology, we see the converse of good, helpful transcendent beings like spirits or angels in Acts 23.6-9 as the origin of Paul’s doctrine of the resurrection. IF we can take these insights as reliable, then the Pharisees exhibited an apocalyptic mindset in which they judged people according to whether they had a good spirit/angel or evil spirit/demon influenced them. Given the role the Pharisees had in instructed the common populace in Israel, we can imagine the origins of demonology we see used in the Gospels largely stem from the way they taught Israel.

But take note: we don’t see this sort of behavior from Jesus and his disciples. We don’t seem them like a doctor diagnosing the presence of demons. Rather, they are like a doctor treating the problems they see. Not that Jesus never “diagnosed,” but only that it doesn’t seem to be a tool in his arsenal that we see mentioned. I take this to be a significant difference.

The significance can be perhaps explained by the role δαιμόνιον take in the Gospels. Rarely is a δαιμόνιον personified in the Gospels. Luke 4.29 characterizes the δαιμόνιον as speaking, similar in Luke 4.41. We see one instance of demons transferring from a human to pigs in Luke 8. But, by and large, most of the references lack either a) personification or b) reference to an ontological existence independent of the person. We don’t see Jesus engaging in an active struggle against some evil agent, but we see Jesus speak and acting and a δαιμόνιον being cast away. It is almost as if δαιμόνιον are not always personal agents.

My suggestion is that Jesus had a more “demythologized” view of δαιμόνιον from the start. Rather than engaging in the elaborate, diagnostic systems of the Pharisees that did more to maintain their power and influence by labeling deviants through deprecatory labels, Jesus challenges this by providing a spiritual healing for the powers and forces that were ‘bedeviling’ the people. Jesus is focusing on what happens to people and redeeming them from what ails them rather than explaining and diagnosing some hidden power. Thus, the Gospels portray Jesus casting out δαιμόνιον principally as addressing problems people rather than some battle with some evil agent.

This fits with what I believe largely characterized the early Christian movement as engaging in what I would very tentatively call a “naturalized apocalyptic.” This is not the place for me to outline the entire basis of that idea, other than to state that the early Church placed more emphasis on the concrete experience of what happened in person of Jesus and the powerful, dramatic events that occurred in His ministry and the ministry of the apostles rather than intellectual focus on non-divine, invisible, unobservable forces. If correct, it still allow that the early Christians clearly believed there were some personal agents of evil that existed, most notably the devil; Jesus and the early Church “partially demythologized” the Pharisaical apocalyptic but not entirely. But it means that not everything categorized as a δαιμόνιον or a πνεύμα ἀκαθάρτος (“unclean spirit”) referred to a personal agent of evil that we think of when we hear the word “demon.” It is certainly interesting that we really don’t see much discussion about demons outside of the Gospels, except the devil in a few places. It is even more interesting that the Paul principally connects sin to human life lived in σάρξ (“flesh”); thus Paul’s explanation to the problem of evil is “naturalized” also, avoiding repeated appeals to transcendent personal forces of evil though he clearly believes in the existence of some.

Thus, we can legitimately refer to many of these instances in the New Testament as matching what we today would call a mental illness or some  other spiritual struggle without entirely abandoning the notion of the “supernatural” and “demonic.”2

One implication of this is that the early Christians were often times taking the role we today assign to therapists. To be clear, the way the disciples address problems were dramatically different from the way therapists do their business. But this view is more immediately amenable to the work of therapists as like those who cast out demons in Jesus name but were not accompanying and being discipled by Jesus. (Luke 9.49-50) While the methodology of the early disciples that they learned and were granted by Jesus would not have been the modern methods of talk therapy, medication, cognitive-behavioral techniques, etc., the purposes of both largely overlap and serve similar purposes. While Christians should be aware of therapeutic presuppositions defining the meaning and purpose of the Gospel, they can certainly be copartners.

There is another implication of this idea though. If not everything that is referred to as δαιμόνιον or πνεύμα ἀκαθάρτος is caused by an evil, personal agent, we should become acutely aware of the other causes, including the role we as people play in what happens to other people. The neurological flexibility of the human brain is a near-miracle of high degrees of complexity that allows us to adapt to dramatically different circumstances. But this neural flexibility is also the cause of pernicious forms of evil and suffering, as the brain changes due to the various experiences of abuse and neglect and milder forms of derision and disregard. Just as people can “cast out demons,” they can also “throw demons into people.” It is very important then to consider the role we can play in the dysfunction and struggle that people experience; when these strong, raw emotions get expressed, we, like the Pharisees, may be apt to explain their problems away due to some other cause and miss the role we ourselves play. While we shouldn’t blame ourselves for things we don’t control, nor should we use this type of thinking as a reason to blame ourselves for our victimization by others (I remember one time thinking another repetitiously toxic behavior was somehow due to my contributions and thus my fault), we do need to take seriously as Christians the way people’s life are influenced by our own behavior.

In summary, the relationship of Jesus to the demonology prevalent in some forms of apocalyptic literature is complex and does not seem to either be a wholesale acceptance of demonology, nor an entire demythologization of the ideal of transcendent agents of evil. Rather, Jesus and the early Church were dramatically focused on the concreted events in human life and society that they discerned God bringing and doing, rather than trying to diagnose and discern the patterns of demons.

Why charity is not Christian – Part 2

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December 4, 2018

The rich and the poor. The stereotype in America is that the prominent political parties, Republicans and Democrats, seek out the interests of each of these groups, respectively. While this is a stereotype, there is some truth to the statement as to whose concerns weight heaviest when they are in conflict. While consciousness of these statuses, or very similar ones, are present throughout many societies throughout history, it is due to the influence of Marxist notion of the class struggle that has largely influenced how the West and significant parts of Asia have construed class and wealth.

These distinctions are present in Judea. The epistle from James is littered with references of compassion towards the poor and anger and judgment towards the rich. The church in Jerusalem seems to have been particularly predisposed towards the poor, having been relegated to the margins by much of the Jewish religious leadership. Jesus Himself also uses language showing His consciousness about wealth and status, but I will come back to that in a moment.

There is a difference between the early Christian response to these class distinctions and the injustices that emerged from them and the Marxist response. The early Christian response looks towards the reversal of status where, in the word of Jesus, the first become last and the last become first because God is going to do something earth-shattering. This reflects the language of prophets, where God tears down rulers and raises new leaders. However, the assumption of a same or similar socio-political structure or hope remains: they expect a king as God had given them from David. The change that is looked for in the midst of injustice and impoverishment is a change in who will lead, guide, and direct. However, this king would still be guided by the lead and instruction by God, particularly through the Torah.

Marxism, by contrast, looked towards not a change in leadership, but a change in the very socio-political structures of society. Having lived in shadow of dramatic technology, cultural, and political transformations in the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, Marx saw the clash of classes culminating in an entire reordering of society such that the way society is ordered will overlap with the interests of all people, getting rid of any distinctions of class and status, any source of inequality, as all share equally. However, what happened in the rise of communism, was a change of political structures that became more totalitarian and more unequal, not less. In effect, the destabilization of society leads to the disruption of the basic norms by which leadership are evaluated, allowing the leadership greater and greater leeway to make their own decisions. Marxism under the ideology of equality granted even greater power and become a greater source of inequality by the way it dramatically disrupted the structure of society and its norms, because the principle of equality motivates us more in closer, more personally significant but becomes less of a motivating factor the further, more distant, and more abstract people are to us.

I make this distinction because there are different ways one can address and relate to the concerns of the poor, needy, marginalized, and disaffected. But, some of these responses lead to greater inequality, as sometimes those who advocate for the poor become the greatest perpetrators of inequality. When it comes to the poor, not all response are of equal effectiveness.

That brings me to Jesus and his language about the rich and poor. The Greek word for poor, πτωχός, occurs 20 times in three synoptic Gospels and 4 times in the Gospel of John. The rich, πλούσιος, are mentioned 16 times the Synoptics of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It does not occur once in John. I mention the Gospel of John because there is no criticism of the rich, and the only one who is mentioned advocating for the poor is was Judas Iscariot.1

Allow me to suggest that the Gospel of John isn’t trying to portray concern about the poor in the negative light, but rather portraying those who use the moral appeal of the poor for manipulative purposes. As I mentioned in the last past, concerns about needy people is a lowest common denominator (LCD) moral principle that is shared by almost all human groups; while some cultures limit the needy to people with whom they share the same social identity (such as ethnicity, nationality, religion, etc.), concern for the needy is a familiar principle. This is precisely why it concern about the poor, marginalized and needy is so powerful and persuasive to influence people’s think because a) people understanding it and b) because so many people get it, there is a bandwagon effect where the moral principle moves everyone to action. Judas is, in effect, employing the powerful moral motivation because the poor for an ulterior agenda of himself: he would benefit himself by the power he would garner by appearing to be concerned about the poor.

What Judas was doing wasn’t unique to him however. It is a not uncommon tactic of people who have some base of power and status to use their wider spread of influence to extend their power base through morally powerful ideas. That is, to say, the rich and wealthy will often times reach out to the poor, but with ulterior agendas at all; similarily, those with ambitions will also appeal to powerful moral ideas for their own benefit.

Read the wisdom of Sirach 4.1-10:

1My child, do not cheat the poor of their living,
    and do not keep needy eyes waiting.
Do not grieve the hungry,
    or anger one in need.
Do not add to the troubles of the desperate,
    or delay giving to the needy.
Do not reject a suppliant in distress,
    or turn your face away from the poor.
Do not avert your eye from the needy,
    and give no one reason to curse you;
for if in bitterness of soul some should curse you,
    their Creator will hear their prayer.

Endear yourself to the congregation;
    bow your head low to the great.
Give a hearing to the poor,
    and return their greeting politely.
Rescue the oppressed from the oppressor;
    and do not be hesitant in giving a verdict.
10 Be a father to orphans,
    and be like a husband to their mother;
you will then be like a son of the Most High,
    and he will love you more than does your mother.2

What is apparent here this: at the core of Sirach is the concern that one’s actions on behalf on the poor has on oneself. Those who refuse the concerns of the needy may be cursed (v. 6) but those who take care of them will be like a father, husband, and son of God, all terms of power in that culture. One’s own power base is extended by charity. While these statues in and of themselves are not bad, Sirach role as a Jewish scribe certainly provides insight into the practice of almsgiving by the “hypocrites” of the Pharisees and scribes that Jesus criticizes in 6.2-4. Sirach reflects a consequentialist wisdom about concerns for the poor; to be concerned about the poor provides benefit to oneself. (To be clear, I am not saying Sirach is manipulative in his concerns; I am saying that his instruction has influence on the way concerns for the poor were construed by the Pharisees)

You see a similar concern for the poor in Sirach 13 when he contrasts their unjust treatment with the injustice actions of the rich. Sirach’s distrust of the rich but concern for the poor places him in the line of those who seek to be a hero for the poor. While Sirach does not go here, it can readily go to the point that an advocate for the poor is being a hero on behalf of the poor to cement and expand their own power and status.

This is not the only way Jewish wisdom construed how one exhibits concerns for poor. 4Q Instruction, fragments of wisdom of the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran had a different response to the poverty. These fragments make repeated reference to the audience being impoverish, saying “you are poor.” In 4Q416 2 III, you see the following

  • vss. 2-3 – “And remember that you are poor… and what you need you shall not find…”
  • vss. 8-9 – “You are poor, desire nothing except your inheritance. And do not be confused about it lest you move your boundary.”
  • vss. 11-12 – “Praise his name always, for from poverty he has lifted your head and with the nobles he has set you. Over an inheritance of glory he has given you dominion.”
  • vss. 15-16 – “Honor your faith in your poverty and your mother in your lowly state…”3

Rather than the wisdom of an educated and relatively high status scribe of ben Sira, here the wisdom of Qumran reflects the life of people who live in poverty. Rather than a wisdom that calls people to be a hero for the poor, here is a wisdom where people are to life live according to their state of poverty.

It is this mentality that Jesus shows greater affinity towards in his ministry. Compare vss. 11-12 to Matthew 5.3: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Some influence upon Jesus is plausible, given his relationship to John the Baptist who lived out in the wilderness just as the covenanters at Qumran/the Essenes did. Also, compare vss. 15-16 that call for honoring parents in the midst of a lowly, impoverished state to Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees and scribes in Matthew 15.1-9 where they find legal traditions to abscond themselves from such actions.

This isn’t to state Jesus simply reproduces this Qumranic wisdom; there are some notable differences. There are some notable differences. Whereas, it seems vss. 2-3 may be stating that the poor should just accept nothing coming in life, Jesus by contrast advocates for a trust in God to take care of one’s needs as one seeks God’s Kingdom and Righteousness in Matthew 6.25-34. Whereas the Qumran covenantors were essentially living an ascetic lifestyle, whether by life circumstances or by choice, Jesus was not ascetic in lifestyle but he would party and enjoy meals.4 So, Jesus isn’t a facsimile of this type of wisdom.

However, this does put the responses of Jesus and the Pharisees into their historical context: Jesus reflects a response to the poor where one identifies as poor, whereas the Pharisees reflect the actions of those who seek to be heroes for the poor. Put differently but perhaps oversimplified: Jesus is the response of the poor for the poor, whereas the Pharisees is the response of the rich to the poor.

This puts Jesus’ reading of Isaiah 61.1-2 as describing his own ministry in Luke 4.16-30 into context. Often used as a sign of a more heroic ministry on behalf of the poor in many Christian contexts, Jesus isn’t saving as a hero liberator from the outside, Jesus himself identifies with the very people he seeks to liberate, experiencing their own struggles and pains but yet overcoming them.

There is thus a difference between the two responses. Charity is an action of heroism. It is not evil in and of itself; charity can be a good thing when one has the resources. But charity is also easily manipulable for other purposes. Identifying with the poor, however, is more a matter of living life in accordance to the realities and possibilities of lacking. It is not simply an action one does, but an attitude that determines all behaviors across various context and circumstances. It is, I believe, reflected in the words of the Apostle Paul in Philippians 4.12: “I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.”

But, it is tempting in a charity/heroic mindset to read Jesus’ language about riches and poverty in the idea that people who are rich are somehow not doing their duty or are evil. For instance, the rich young ruler of Mark 10.17-27 is construed in the negative fashion of a person who is condemned because he is rich. But let’s note that the character of the ruler would be considered impeccable, if he is speaking the truth of himself: he doesn’t steal, he doesn’t defraud, and he even honors his parents like the poor are more likely to emphasize. If there is a man who you would likely expect to treat the poor well and with justice, it is probably a person like him.

When one hears the words of Jesus: “sell what you own, and give the money to the poor” it is often tempting to read the failure of the ruler as that he doesn’t give to or care for the poor. But allow me to suggest that it is a LCD morality that leads to the interpretation that charity is the significant point Jesus is driving home. Jesus’ ultimate instruction for the ruler is for Jesus to follow him: he is calling him to identify with the life of poverty by directly alienating himself from his riches to follow him. Jesus is not simply instructing the rich young ruler to give to charity; his spiritual problem isn’t his lack of concern for the poor. It is, rather, the attachment he has to his wealthy status that hinders him from going beyond the moral status of being obedient to the commandments to something more complete in discipleship to Jesus.

Jesus message about storing up riches, how what you surround yourself by influenced who you are, and idolatry to money in Matthew 6.19-24 reflects the rationale behind Jesus’ words to the rich young ruler: a person who has in saving everything has hoarded himself in riches has become such a person that he worships money over God. There isn’t in Jesus’ words a criticism of failing to do enough for the poor, of not being charitable and giving. It is something else: one’s heart is possessed what one’s life is surrounded in. Jesus is presented an entire way of life that is defined by being poor in spirit. It isn’t reflective of literal poverty, but a matter of the person whose heart is not deeply attached to the riches of this world.

While both those with a poor in spirit attitude and those with a heroism for the poor similarly can be charitable to the poor, there are different, underlying rationales for the charity. The poor in spirit are not attached to their wealth; consequently, there is little resistance when it comes to giving when the occasion arises. They are motivated by the good that is done by the giving. However, when one is attached to one’s riches and wealth, then charity frequently needs further motivation; there needs to be some quid pro quo, some reciprocation, or some immediate benefit to oneself to give to others. It may be as simple as the reward of feeling morally good superior in your own eyes or it may be as nefarious as trying to build a public persona, but charity without the attitude of poverty in spirit will need some other motivation to get people to overcome their attachment to the money they have.

The attitude of poverty of spirit is a much deeper, much rarer attitude than simply a habit of giving to and advocating on behalf of the poor. The Gospel is not seeking heroes for the poor and needy; that role was filled by those who were actively seeking to develop their own power base. Nor is the Gospel seeking ascetics who reject the idea of any possession within the world; if that is the case, then this quickly became forgotten in the early Church. Rather, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is calling people to identify with a mindset of impoverishment and forming them into that way of life.

Charity is not Christian, but is a more or less universal value of the LCD morality; poverty of spirit is not universal and it begins to approach what it means to follow Jesus. In the next post, I will push further into what attitude of poverty of spirit is leading towards. 

Why charity isn’t Christian – Part 1

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December 4, 2018

In churches in churches all across the the US and even in Scotland where I am at school, parishioners will be presented with various opportunities to support people who are less fortunate through charity programs such as Operation Christmas Child, Angel Tree, etc. We are reminded of various children, who through poverty or through imprisonment of parents as with Angel Tree, who will not have a Christmas present this year. While these charities, or even other charities, can sometimes cause problems or even hurt in unexpected ways, there is something meaningful about such charities. So, if you read this title and were expecting me to criticize the act of charity, that wasn’t my point. (So, it’s a little click-baity, I know!) Charity can be a good thing.

And certainly, if you are deeply devoted Christian with resources, you will give freely of your money to people and circumstances where there is need. However… Let me repeat… However, charity is not a Christian virtue; it doesn’t make you Christian to give to charity nor does trying to encourage people to give to charity in the name of Christ mean you have really understood what it means to be a Christian. Charity and other forms of giving and advocating for those we see who are in need is what I refer to a lowest common denominator (LCD) morality.

Typically, when you hear LCD and you aren’t in math class, you typically think something as base, crude, or maybe even abhorrent. I don’t mean it that way. Rather, I mean LCD as that sort of moral principles that are rather universal across all people. Altruism is a deeply embedded moral principle that most people have some sense of feeling for. Most of us, Christian or not, are emotionally impacted by people who have had a hard time, have difficult life circumstances, etc. We want to help out, for one reason or another. It isn’t distinctly Christian to be charitable; it is human to be charitable. By LCD morality I am referring to, essentially, universal or near-universal moral principles. Almost all cultures have some sense of moral principles about not killing the innocent, lying to your own people, and a good proportion of them have some sense of helping people in their need. But the (near) universal status of these moral ideas doesn’t a) get practiced in the same way or b), more importantly for this post, are not always the most important moral ideas.

However, let me take Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as a framework for doing Christian ethics. In Matthew 5:43-48, Jesus says:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.1

Here, Jesus break through the edifice of the Pharisaical application of the Torah commandment about “loving your neighbor” in such a way that one’s obligations ended at concern for your neighbor. So if one had an enemy, one had a permission, if not in some instances an obligation, to hate them and go after them. But, for the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is demonstrating how the Pharisaical use of the Torah and its ethical concerns is missing the entire point: the Torah is to lead people to be complete/perfect, or “mature” as I prefer, as God is complete/perfect/mature. This would have had clear echoes to the Levitical call to be holy as God is holy (Leviticus 11:44-45, 19:2, 20:7), where Jesus now defines holiness by an advanced stage of ethical development into the character of God.

What has happened is that the Pharisees, as a party of religious teachers who task it was to guide the people in obeying the Torah, often times seeing to make the seemingly hard to follow commandments, written to a people living in a different context than 1st century Judea, easier to follow. They would teach principles that they derived and developed from the Torah so that people could avoid breaking the commandments, which became known as the tradition of the elder and later the oral Torah in later Rabbinic Judaism. Far from being some legalistic, fuddy duddies, they were actually trying to make the commandments of the Torah accessible and relevant to the day-to-day life of Jews. They really aren’t that far off from many of us seminary-trained clergy, who engaged in the intellectual debates about the meaning of Scripture but then trying to figure out how to preach and teach this in the congregations. And before you see that comparison as a negative; it isn’t necessary: Jesus himself resembled the Pharisees in many many ways, such as having disciples and in the way he would engage in discussions about Torah. However, the critical difference was this: Jesus register criticism against the Pharisees for breaking commandments of the Torah and teaching others to do the same through the tradition of the elders.2 The Pharisees represented a popular brand of Judaism, made easy and relevant for the people.

So, consequently, they could have made sense of the commandment “Love your neighbor as yourself” only extend to the Jewish people, but not necessarily as an attitude towards people in general. While in the 12 century, read these words from Jewish philosopher Maimonides in his commentary on the Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1:

And when a person believes in all of these principles and his faith in them is clarified, he enters into the category of Israel; and it is [then] a commandment to love him and to have mercy upon him and to act with him according to everything which God, may He be blessed, commanded about the man towards his fellow, regarding love and brotherhood. And even if he does what is in his ability from the sins, because of desire and the overpowering of his base nature, he is punished according to his sins, but he [still] has a share in the world to come, and is [only considered to be] from the sinners of Israel. But if one of these principles becomes compromised for a person, behold, he exits the category of Israel and denies a fundamental [dogma] and is called an apostate, a heretic and ‘someone who cuts the plantings.’ And it is a commandment to hate him and to destroy him, and about him it is stated (Psalm 139:21), “Do I not hate those that You hate, O Lord.”3

It is certainly not hard to imagine that in the 1st century, against the backdrop of a world in which the Roman Emperor was spreading injustice and Roman paganism was defiling the nation of God’s people, many Pharisees would have seen a limit to the commandments of “love your neighbor” to not be extended to one’s social and political enemies, including people deemed traitors to Israel’s cause. Instead, what they could interpret the commandment to mean is in line with LCD morality: love your own people, which is what all people do. This seems to be the thrust of the question by the legal scholar “Who is my neighbor?” in response to Jesus’ recognition that loving God and neighbor are the two most important commandments, which is why Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus points out this LCD ethic, saying there is nothing praiseworthy in following such a widespread, if not universal, moral principle. The ultimate purpose of Torah that Jesus is completing in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17b) is to love like God does, who shows kindness to the unrighteous along with the righteous. However, the Pharisees have made the observance of the Torah, ultimately, about themselves, as Matthew 6 goes into. This includes their actions of giving alms to the poor. Here is where this segues into charity. In the eyes of Jesus, the Pharisees have essentially read the Torah in line with a LCD morality that practically everyone recognizes to some degree.

Then, they obey they take what would be the most basic, fundamentally good actions of moral people in giving and doing this in order to be seen as good people (Matthew 6:2-4). They extend their public piety even further, making a deal about being involved in public prayers (Matthew 6:5-6) or even fasting in way that others know they are fasting (Matthew 6:16-18). They take a widespread moral principle AND two relatively widespread practices in many religions and they marshall it for its effective persuasive power among all the people. Precisely because they are considered practices of widespread value, they are praised; if it wasn’t of a LCD form of ethic and piety, then it wouldn’t have been effective for their public persona. Punctuated in the midst of this criticism is the prayer taught his disciples, that looks for God’s will and kingdom to come from heaven to earth, seeking a way of life that is by no means common to human societies, even a Jewish one, but rather uncommon. (Matthew 6:9-13) One can thus contrast Jesus prescription of holiness in accordance to advancing towards having a character like God’s, which would be entirely uncommon and thus distinct/holy, with the LCD forms of ethics and religious societies.

Right after Jesus directly critiques LCD morality in terms of love, he describes the Pharisees giving to charity, which as a LCD form of action is popular with others. Nowhere does Jesus criticize the act of almsgiving in and of itself: it is something one should do in secret. But the Pharisees are marshaling this LCD morality for their own personal purposes, which could also include their own social-political-religious goals.

Here is my point: giving to charity doesn’t make one a Christian. While it is an action when done for the right purposes, God will honor and remember, being charitable is no more to follow Christ than it is to love your own family. You aren’t following Christ if you refuse to be charitable or take care of your own family, but doing it doesn’t make you distinctly Christian.

The problem that Western Christianity has faced, however, is similar to what has happened with the Pharisees. In trying to lead people, which is a good and noble cause, it has accommodated more so to the LCD of moral and ethical principles that almost everyone who has a moral conscience or wants to appear to have one would agree to. LCD ethics is good for building large, diverse coalitions of people to live together with a basic sense of peace; this is good for nation-building of large, culturally diverse democracies, but you are not being faithful to follow Christ by advocating simply for the LCD. However, many Christians will make their faith so tightly contingent upon how they advocate for such LCD positions, unaware that they aren’t that far off from what the Pharisees did.

This is particularly prominent among progressive Christians in America. Just as the Pharisees made an emphasis on charity in almsgiving, progressive Christians place a large emphasis on such actions. Just as the Pharisees resisted the Roman Caesar in the ways they could and sought the end of his rule so that God’s will could lead to a new kingdom, progressive Christians seek to resist Trump and his administration and look for political progress to come to the US. And sure, while they don’t do what the Pharisees did in limiting the “love of neighbor” because of the importance they saw in disregard those traitorous to their social causes, they do likewise seek to limit and “contextualize” other instructions of Scripture that they deem a political and social injustice on matters such as sexuality or forgiveness in matters of oppression or harassment. Much of what they do isn’t bad: it is obvious to anyone that takes does not bow as the idol of America and nationalism that Trump has committed evil and has spoken evil. Many people today in the West would agree that the abuse LGBTQ persons is wrong and that people who have been oppressed and harassed should speak out and seek accountability for what has happened to them. But these are all matters that approach the LCD of morality, which only seems high and lofty in comparison to those a) who have desensitized themselves from even the LCD due to political and religious idolatry and rationalizations or b) due to differences of culture, practice the LCD moral principles in a different way that is not immediately recognizable to progressives.

I make that whole point about progressives to connect the same point to charity. Being charitable and advocating for helping the poor is good as progressive are known to do, but it is this part of the LCD of human moral principles. You aren’t being faithful Christians because you make this a central part of your understanding of faith. It should never be neglected, and it is easy to neglect, but following Jesus goes many degrees beyond such a basic, moral principle. So give and give freely to those in need as love compels you to do so, but to follow Christ is something that goes beyond giving excessively and extravagantly to those in need.

In the next post, I will try to shed light on this way of Christ as it relates to matters of wealth and charity in light of various perspectives in Second Temple Jewish wisdom.

The wisdom of Proverbs, Sirach, and eating with sinners

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November 19, 2018

In my research on wisdom on 1 Corinthians, I have taken some time to read through the wisdom of ben Sira in the Old Testament apocrypha. Without going into great detail, I believe that Sirach’s wisdom in one of three different forms of wisdom that stand in the background of 1 Corinthians (the other two being Stoic philosophy and Greco-Roman rhetoric).

But as I am reading, I can not help but but observe something important. On the one hand, Sirach clearly continues in the tradition of wisdom of the canonical Proverbs. However, there is also a particular shift in Sirach’s style. Whereas occasionally, Proverbs will praise the wise person, it more frequently focuses on wisdom as an idea, commonly personified in the form of Lady Wisdom. Sirach, by contrast, tends to spend more time humanizing wisdom, portraying specific persons as wise or its opposite of foolish, evil, etc. To put differently, where Proverbs spends more time idealizing wisdom, Sirach spends more time idealizing wise people.

This difference has a particular effect to it. The whole of Sirach 12 can be summarized as “Don’t spend time with sinners.” Proverbs has its own passages warning against sinners, but it is under the guise of warding off the specific influence they might have on one’s own actions, such as in Proverbs 13:20 and 22:24-25. The concern about proverbs is the effect that sinners can have on your own behavior. This concern about associating with sinners has morphed in Sirach 12, where the concerned is about the danger that sinners might have to harm and betray you. For Sirach, the immoral and foolish are considered enemies, either actual or potential, whereas for Proverbs, they are considered potentially bad influences on one’s own person. For Sirach, they are roadblocks to one’s well-being, whereas for Proverbs, they are roadblocks to one’s wisdom.

In other words, by focusing on the wise person, rather than on the ideal of wisdom itself, Sirach instrumentalizes wisdom for the purpose of the possessor of wisdom. Wisdom is increasingly not regarded something to value that then provides benefits, wisdom is values for its benefits. There always exists the tension between valuing something for its own sake and for its instrumental efficacy, but Sirach as shifted the pole increasingly towards efficacy. Consequently, persons are similarly portrayed in such a manner as their value to one’s own well-being: hence, sinners are seen as a threat.

It is against this background then that we may then consider Jesus’ own practice of eating with sinners and tax collectors. By being lumped with tax collectors, sinners could be considered on the treacherous side, just as tax collectors were deemed Roman-conspiring traitors to their own people. For the Pharisees and scribes, no doubt influenced to some degree by Sirach if his description on the scribe in Sirach 39 is any suggestion, they were questioning Jesus’ judgment more than the commonly modern political romanticization of “Jesus being on the wrong side of things.” It is interesting, then, that Jesus response to this question “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Mark 2:17) echoes more mentality of the concerns about social contagion in Proverbs, but in reverse. Rather than the foolishness of the sinners being “contagious,” Jesus can reverse the course for the sinners.

Against this backdrop we can make better sense of Jesus’ actions. Far from being the prophet of inclusion that many want to make him to be, Jesus is doing the opposite of that which motivates those who vouch for inclusion. For Sirach and those who are influenced by Sirach, they are concerned about safety, hence they question Jesus’ judgment. Later, this morphs into them seeing Jesus as a threat to their own interests. But for Jesus, the concern is to bring them to repentance.

But it is important to recognize the nature of Jesus’ own actions with the sinners. Nowhere do we reach the sense of: “Hey. You guys have been too hard on them. They are really good people that you just haven’t recognized.” or “You need to forget all they did and just accept them.” Nor do Jesus’ actions fit into questions access and inclusion that our modern social and political debates are concerned about. Rather, it boils down to a simple question: are sinners worthy of being reached out to or are they lost to the judgment of God? The Torah never directly addresses this question, as those who sin in a defiant, high-handed way are excluded from the community with no hope of atonement. (Numbers 15:30-31) In this ambiguity and gap, the judgment of the sinners as treacherous could very well have left the sinners as unworthy and unsafe of ever being restored. But for Jesus, the answer to this ambiguity is a bit different and isn’t deteremined by the self-preservation of Sirach’s wisdom.

But before getting to that, it should be noted that nothing Jesus says and does suggest that Torah’s principle of exclusion and vulnerability to the guilt of one’s stubborn defiant actions is no longer the case. For instance, Jesus association with sinners does not fit into the modern rhetoric of “grace” and “forgiveness” that allows abusers to keep their status, power, and access as has become the penchant of many who claim Christ and yet exonerate severe breaches of misconduct from political figures. Rather, Jesus’ actions are pointed towards this basic conviction: sinners can be redeemed and given a place at the table of fellowship, not sinners should be given the keys to the kingdom (sinners are included in God’s Kingdom, but it is because God has the keys, not the sinner).

Against this backdrop we can understand the Parable of the Prodigal Son: the father chases after his son upon seeing him making his way back, even after the high-handed defiant actions of his son. Why? Because the father’s love makes him go out and then provide a fatted calf. The son is not “unsafe” but is sought out to be restored by the father’s own actions. And the older son, far from simply whining about moral superiority of his past actions, portrays his younger brother in terms of self-serving and treacherous behavior who has not proven his worth. Paraphrasing Jesus’ words from the parable: “Immediately, as soon as he comes back, you bless him with something precious, even though he went so far as to waste all he took with prostitutes. You don’t seem to recognize who is worthy of trust!” The father’s words suggest that the older son is interpreting this as a matter of trust, saying “Son, you are always with me” as an expression of the recognition of faithfulness. But then the father reframes it to say this is a matter of a celebration of restoration, not a recognition of faithfulness. The Parable of the Prodigal Son is understood as a challenge against a culture that is so rife for distrust of the once fallen.

And it is this reading of the Prodigal Son against the backdrop of high handed sin and the treachery of sinners that Jesus’ action can make sense: God has provided the atoning sacrifice that goes far beyond the atonement of the Old Covenant; God has taken it upon Himself to invite those who have forgotten and rejected Him to come close again. Jesus is personally reaching out the dangerous. He isn’t simply reaching out to the unpopular, the disliked as the modern prophets of inclusion make him out to be. Jesus is going into a den of thieves so to speak.

Thus, recognizing Sirach as a probable influence on the Pharisees and a pattern of mistrust whereas Jesus’ actions fit closer to the mentality of the Proverbs in a pattern of behavioral contagion, it helps us to shed light on what it means to be like Christ eating with sinners. It is neither a story of absolute inclusion nor absolute absolvement, but rather a story with a point that the Torah itself never gave an answer to in the case of high-handed sin: God can and will reach out to and redeem even those who are considered dangerous and unsafe.

Christian ethics as formative consequentialism

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November 17, 2018

Deeply embedding within Christian discourse is it’s ethical views are fundamentally deontological. That is to say that certain actions are right or wrong in virtue of inherent status such actions have. You have a set of laws, commandments, rules, etc. that regulate the Christian life and the moral status of the person is determined by their adherence to the set of deontic regulations. Often times, such a view of Christian ethics stands in contrast to the more consequentialist and utilitarian brands of ethics that judge actions based upon the results that come about from actions, rather than conformity with any specific principle. Such views often times evoke ideas of the horrors of “means justifying the ends” sort of thinking.

However, it is my contention that this deontic view of Christian ethics is an unnecessary hangover from a particular deontological view of the Torah stemming from the Catholic usage of law framing how Torah was understnading. As laws often operate in accordance to deontic princoples, particuarly when they are legitimated through hierarchical pronouncements, through Protestantaism characterization the Torah in legal terms, Protestant ethical thinking, alongside Catholicism, retaining a deontic structure insofar as ethical and moral thinking was still related to Torah. In suggesting this source for deontological ethics in Protestant thinking, my argument is not contingent on how historically accurate this assessment is; only that deonotological ethics 1) primarily characterizing Protestant and even Western Christan thinking about ethics and 2) deontological ethics is not an adequate descriptor of the systems of ethical expressions in the Old or New Testament. Rather, I would content for the hypothesis that Biblical ethics, and New Testament ethics more particuarly, have an ungirding ethical framework that is implicitly a more consequentialist of a peculiar sort. Put differently, Christian ethics is fundamentally grounded upon ethical prescriptions built towards certain formative results as the consequence of actions, but does not fit with the the utilitarian ethics that classified Jeremy Bentham, J.S. Mill, and had a large influence on classical liberalism.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus rejected the commandments of the Torah as defining people who are genuinely righteous. His discussion of the Torah begins in Matthew 5:17-20 with three pronouncements. Firstly, Jesus states he is completing (πληρόω), not abolishing the Torah, as if the Torah on its own terms is somehow incomplete. From this explains a hierarchy of status of the kingdom of heaven based upon whether one breaks or adheres to Torah and teachers others to do the same. Finally, he puts the Pharisees and scribes, people who certainly held to Torah, as excluded from the kingdom of heaven, stating that one’s righteousness must exceed theirs.

These series of pronouncements can be understood in relation to other statements Jesus makes. For the Pharisees as the target of Jesus disdain in the term “hypocrites” in Matthew 6:1-18. Jesus remarks that their self-serving purposes have already received their “reward.” Right here, we see the connection between action and consequence. This falls right on the heels of Jesus conclusion to his teaching on Torah in Matthew 5:48, where the ultimate goal is to “Be mature (τέλειος) as your heavenly Father is mature.” (5:48) Thus, I would suggest that Jesus intends to contrast the purpose and consequence of their self-serving action with the God-directedness motivating Jesus’ employment of the Torah.

This is strengthened by the notion that Jesus describes following his teaching as making one like a ἀνδρὶ φρονίμῳ. (“prudent/wise man”) The word φρόνιμος recurs repeatedly in the LXX, recurring repeatedly in the Wisdom literature of Proverbs and Sirach with also another occurence in the Wisdom of Solomon. Therefore, it is highly plausible that Jesus is construing his entire Sermon on the Mount as an exercise in wisdom, which characteristically is attuned to the relations of one’s actions to the situations one faces. While the wisdom literature is not, strictly speaking, consequentialist in its ethical scope, it certainly pays attention to the relationship of one’s actions to what follows. This aligns with Jesus consequentialist statement that putting His words into practice will assure their stability in the time of distress.

This wisdom context also explains the usage of the word τέλειος, which was not exclusively used in the wisdom literature, but it does commonly occur in contexts of wisdom, such as Sirach 44:17, recounting the charachter of Noah1 as an exemplar of wisdom. Wisdom of Solomon 9:6 uses the term in the hyperbolic fashion of describing the case of a person who is τέλειος but lacks wisdom.2 In 1 Corinthians 2:6, Paul uses τέλειος in reference to who he teaches wisdom to. In each of these instances, τέλειος refers to a person who has attained a high sense of character, which we might today refer to as maturity. Thus, being τέλειος seems to go hand in hand with wisdom, which only reinforces being like a wise man being the consequence of obeying Jesus’ words.

All this leads to the purpose of the Torah in Jesus eyes. When Jesus employs the formula “you have heard it said,” referencing a statement from the Torah, with “but I say to you,” there is a relationship that remains between the Torah commandment and Jesus further instructions. It is as if Jesus is trying to show people how to see the Torah by breaking the hermeneutical blinders than the Pharisees and scribes as teachers would have laid upon the people through showing that the commandments of Torah should teach us something about how we should live as people. The commandments point towards something more about people than the literal words express. Thus, to have a righteousness that exceeds the Pharisees and scribes, one should have a life this broadened sense of awareness in mind, because all of it points towards the status of being full grown/mature (τέλειος). In this way, Jesus didactic purpose of completing (πληρόω) the Torah enables the acquisition of a matured status (τέλειος).

So, Jesus view of the Torah is contrasted with his of the status of the Pharisees and scribes. The hypocrites’ real purpose behind Torah is ultimately consequences that benefit themselves, whereas Jesus’ employment and instruction of Torah is ultimately geared towards the consequences of imitating the matured state of the heavenly Father, which has echoes of the Levitical prescription to be holy as God is holy. Thus, viewed in this manner, the ethical regulations of the Torah are not construed in some deontic sense of “you better do this because God said so,” but rather “If you do these things, for the right purpose, you will move towards possessing the type of character that God has.” Hence, Jesus refers to peacemakers as those who will be called God’s children, which evokes a sense of resemblance, even though peacemaking is not a literal command of the Torah.

In short then, the purpose of God’s instructions via commandments isn’t to define what is good and what is evil in a deontological sense. Rather, they function as pedagogical guides and instructions, which when put in practice for the right purpose, lead to formation of people who resembles God’s character who also are the types that bring peace/shalom through their actions. The problem with Torah throughout the Old Testament, however, is that this formation of Israel never occurs because they never retain this rightly directed purpose of the love of God and pursuit of His holiness, but that God Himself must circumcise their hearts (Deuteronomy 30:6), putting His instruction in their hearts (Jeremiah 31:33-34), giving them a new heart and new spirit in place of a hardened heart of stone. (Ezekiel 36:26) The problem of the Torah can be summarized by this: the Torah is not done for the right purpose.in terms of the setting of one’s relationship to God.

With this in mind: there are a few corollaries this this premise.

  1. What is “good” and “bad” is ultimately defined by the experiences of human life which was created and fashioned by God. However, this need not be an oversimplistic manner of “if it brings pleasure, it is good; if it brings pain, it is bad.” Why? In this view, God’s commandments are not what simplistically define, delimit, and differentiate the “good” and the “bad.” Rather, God’s instruction form us into people who do the “good.” Therefore, we are free not to judge the people of the world simplistically based upon their conformity and deviance from Christian principles. Christian ethics are intended to form people to take upon the character of God; they are not, in and of themselves, the barometers of goodness and badness. For instance as relevant to today’s divisions in the Church as it pertains to sexuality, gay and lesbian persons are not be judged as “bad” because of their sexual activity, which has caused unnecessary degrees of shame and pain on people. However, that does not negate the Biblical call to sex within the confines of a relationship to marital relations between a male and female; rather it clarifies the nature of this call towards the formation is has on those who submit to God’s principles rather than a judgment on the world for failing to adhere to it. The practice of sex in a heterosexual *faithful* marriage3 or celibacy aside from that is about the nature of the impact those two particular type of practices have, not the status of goodness or badness the actions themselves transmit to or signal about the people who do them.
  2. Our understanding of sin as the failure to adhere to God’s instructions would shift from simply being that which disobeys God and His commands, to that which has a negative consequence upon our relationship to God, to others, and the creation God has made. Too long, people have heard the echoes of a harsh judge passing a terrible sentence when they hear the word “sin.” Rather, sin is concerned about the consequences such actions has upon ourselves and the world around us, echoed in Paul’s statement “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) as an expression of the consequences of human actions that God seeks to redeem us from, rather than itself expressing the judgment of God. (Paul expresses the nature of God’s judgment in Romans 2)
  3. Jesus’ formative consequentialism takes one’s seeking of God and His righteousness as the hinge by which adherence to the Torah properly functions for Israelites. As such, formative consequentialism can put Paul’s statement about the faith of Jesus Christ against the works of Torah into context. For Paul, the most essential criteria for righteousness is what God does and our relationship to God’s action in the attitude of faith and trust. Through faith, one’s life set upon a new way of life by God that will come to define one’s life by righteousness, as we are formed in a new pattern in Christ through the leading of the Holy Spirit. Faith is the attitude by which we relate to God’s powerful actions on our behalf, in which also we are guiding towards the purposes that the Spirit leads us towards. Thus, problems of works by the Torah for Paul is that seeking to add adherence to it for Gentiles works against the Spirit who is at work in them, thereby taking them off course from “waiting for the hope of righteousness” “through the Spirit by faith,” as concerns about Torah obedience blinds one from the rightful direction and purpose of “faith working through love.” (Galatians 5:5-6) It isn’t that Paul is sayings our actions don’t matter, but rather not losing track of what God is doing by trying to add the Torah. One’s faith as being lead by the Spirit determines the direction and purpose of one’s actions rather than trying to conform to the words of the Torah.4 In other words, the problem of Gentiles trying to add on circumcision and Torah obedience is that it is taking the people off course from God’s purposes working themselves out through the Spirit.
  4. Deontological ethics misses the entire point of God’s guidance of Israel and the guidance of the Church through Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Deontological ethics on its own terms is a spiritually dead ethic, done simply for the status of being “right” and “good” instead of “wrong” and “bad.” This leads the heart to find an motivation and purpose for doing “good,” which will commonly in curvatus se lead us to the motivation of “I want to be seen as right and good by others.” While this implicit, unconscious form of this isn’t by itself condemning as it doesn’t rule of the motivation for seeking after God, the more we define Christian ethics in a deontological manner, the more we leave a motivational vacuum that will be filled with our own, more “natural” purposes for doing what is “good” and “bad” rather than seeking God’s righteous character as the purpose of submission to His instruction.

In other words, I would put forth that formative consequentialism enabled by and accomplished through God’s redemptive actions in Christ and the Spirit best defines the ethical trajectory of the Bible, and when taken to is logical conclusions, would dramatically shift our theological, social, and psychological discourse and practices from what is the common practice in Christian circles.