The apocalyptic anthropology of Paul

December 1, 2020

Romans 6.5-7:

For if we have been grown together in the likeness of His death, we will certainly also be [grown together] in the resurrection. Knowing that our old humanity was crucified together [with him] in order that the body of sin would be powerless so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin because the one who has died has been vindicated from sin.

2 Corinthians 4.16-18:

So we do not lose heart. Even if our outer humanity is being destroyed, our inner [humanity] is being renewed day by day, for the momentary insignificance of our affliction is producing an everlasting weight of glory beyond extraordinary for an excess. We do not pay attention to what is seen but what is not seen because what is seen is temporary but what is unseen is everlasting.

Ephesians 4.17-24

Now this I say and insist in the Lord: you should no longer walk just as the Gentiles also walk in the futility of their mind. They are darkened in understanding, having been estranged from God’s life because of the ignorance that is in them on account of the insensibility of their heart, who, having become callous, have given themselves over to licentiousness for the pursuit of every impurity with greediness. You did not learn the Messiah in that way, if indeed you did listen and were taught in him (just as truth is in Jesus) to lay aside the old humanity in conformity to that former way of life (which is being corrupted in conformity to deceitful desires), to be renewed by the Spirit of your mind, and to wear the new humanity that has been created in conformity to God in righteousness and true devotion.

Colossians 3.5-11:

Therefore, put to death the body parts that belong to the earth: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the covetousness that is idolatry. God’s anger comes upon the sons of disobedience because of these things, in which you formerly walked when you were living among them. But now you all should lay aside all of these things, anger, rage, wickedness, and slander, from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, take off the old human with his deeds, and put on the new [humanity] [that is] renewed in knowledge in conformity to the one who created it, where there is not Greek or Jew, circumcized and uncircumcized, barbarian, Scythian, slave, or free, but Christ is all and in all.

In Biblical studies, there are two large approaches as to how interpreted Paul in relationship to apocalyptic thinking of Second Temple Judaism. The one aptly named the apocalyptic interpretation of Paul, represented by scholars such as J. Louis Martyn and Douglas Campbell, may be summarized as the belief that Paul interpreted Christ as bringing about something dramatically new in the world from God. The implication of this is that you can not come to understand Christ by anything prior to his coming, such as the Old Testament, but one must know Christ and then from that perspective come to understand the OT and everything else. By contrast, salvation-history accounts, best resembled in NT Wright’s scholarship, put forward that Christ is the ongoing outwork of God’s work in history as told by Israel’s Scriptures. While something new does occur with Jesus, it is better to be seen as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel. The apocalyptic element in Paul’s theology is reflected in the dramatic changes in history that are expected to occur, most notably the rise and fall of political powers.

There are weaknesses to both approaches. On the one hand, Paul’s letters are replete with references to Israel’s Scriptures and stories that are pivotal in understanding the significance of the present reality inaugurated by Christ and His crucifixion. While one may attempt to try to suggest the reading of these stories are only had in light of Christ, such as Campbell’s hypothesis as the problem of Adam in Romans 5 is only understood in light of the solution in Christ, the diverse uses of Israel’s Scriptures make a wide-ranging, post-hoc, Christological interpretation of Israel’s stories unlikely. Apocalyptic interpretations of Paul need to assume its own validity in order to make the assumption that Paul understands Israel’s story only by understanding Christ first. Furthermore, for the degree of emphasis that is given to the dramatic new nature of apocalyptic revelation given by apocalyptic interpreter’s of Paul, we don’t see a corresponding emphasis on the theme of newness in Paul’s letters. It primarily shows up, as I am going to put forward, when Paul is discussing the emergence of a new humanity in Christ. It does not, however, really reflect how Paul understand’s the person of Jesus in relationship to Israel’s Scriptures or to the nature of revelation itself.

On the other hand, the salvation-historical interpretations of Pauline apocalyptic conventions as it pertains to the rise and fall of political powers also lacks robust support in Paul’s letters. The observation of occasional references to Rome are perhaps warranted, but they are not very common. Even where we do see them, such as most prominently in 1 Corinthians 2, we aren’t getting a picture of the rise and fall of the Roman empire as much as we are getting a critique of the intellectual and moral practices. More consistent with Paul’s recurring moral criticism of the vices witnessed in the Greco-Roman world, Paul’s apocalyptic “thinking” seems to be much more focused on the wider social realities than simply the ruling, political power of Rome.

What I would put forward at the center of Paul’s understanding of Jesus Christ is the idea of apocalyptic anthropology. Before moving forward, I want to offer a rudimentary definition for apocalyptic anthropology. Apocalyptic anthropology is a form of thinking characterized by the imagination of the transformation of human life that is brought about by a dramatic, life-altering event or events. As a modern example, COVID-19 may be seen as an event that is fundamentally changing the nature of human life across the globe. Whether it will permanently change the course of human life after it is contained remains to be seen, but it has fundamentally altered the way we relate to one another, the way we work, the role of science in our daily lives, etc. There was no gradual development to these changes, but they were a pretty dramatic, sweeping change that has made a lot of us feel uncomfortable in one way or another, both for those who accept the necessary changes to our lives and those who seek to resist them. At the core of an apocalyptic anthropology is a crisis event or events that bring about a rapid and otherwise unpredictable change in how people live. In a similar manner, Paul’s apocalyptic anthropology may be characterized as envisioning a dramatic change in how people live in light of the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ.

In Romans 6.5-7, 2 Corinthians 4.16-18, Ephesians 4.17-24, and Colossians 3.9-10 Paul describes the passing away or letting go on what Paul refers to as an old humanity (ὁ παλαιὸς ἡμῶν ἄνθρωπος/τὸν παλαιὸν ἄνθρωπον) and outer humanity (ὁ ἔξω ἡμῶν ἄνθρωπος). Unfortunately, most English translations take ἄνθρωπος in these passages to mean “self,” suggesting that Paul is referring to the characteristics that make a person distinct and different from other individuals. While ἄνθρωπος can be used to designate specific, individual persons, there is little evidence the word is intended to be used reflexively by itself.1 The presence of the article makes it much more like that Paul uses ἄνθρωπος in reference to the more abstract concept of humanity or personhood. The advantage of this translation of ἄνθρωπος is that in three of the four times Paul addresses the old human(ity), it is made in the context with other anthropological and cultural discussions Paul regularly engages in. Romans 6.6 falls on the heels of his contrast between Adam and Christ in Romans 5.12-21. In Ephesians 4.17-24, Paul discusses lay aside the old humanity in the context of addressing the practices of the Gentiles. Then, in Colossians 3.5-11, Paul follows up the discussion with the Christological union of all people regardless of various social identities. The usage of ἄνθρωπος seems to be connected with Paul’s understanding of the current social world he inhabited.

However, Paul does not always describe the alternative state as ἄνθρωπος, at least explicitly. There is no reference to a new ἄνθρωπος in Romans 6.5-7. In 2 Corinthians 4.16-18, Paul may be using ellipsis in his description of the inner humanity. Colossians 3.5-11 would also have to be using ellipsis but in a rather strange syntactic form in describing a new humanity. Only Ephesians 4.17-24 is explicit in referring to a new humanity. Nevertheless, in three of the cases, the old humanity is understood to be in contrast to a new way of moral living, whereas the contrast between outer humanity and the inner in 2 Corinthians 4.16-18 is focused more upon the way the person’s response to suffering and persecution resembles and reflects Jesus. In each case, Paul envisions a different characteristic of life for those who are transitioning away from the old humanity and outer humanity and, in each case, the new phase of life is explicitly connected to Jesus.

The conclusion to draw from this is that Paul envisions that Christ is responsible for bringing about a dramatically new, different way of people human that is qualitatively different from what precedes it. To that end, it begins to satisfy the definition of apocalyptic anthropology that I gave above. Furthermore, in three of the four cases given (excluding Ephesians 4.17-24), Paul makes reference to significant themes in apocalyptic thinking of Second Temple Judaism. In Romans 6.5-7, the discussion of the new humanity occurs in the context of a reference to the resurrection, an event that is first described in the apocalypse of Daniel 12.1-3. The looking towards a future eschatological glory in 2 Corinthians 4.16-18 alludes to the idea of a resurrection. Then Colossians 3.5-11 discusses the anger of God that comes upon those who practice “earthly” vices as a picture of an eschatological judgment. In these three cases, Paul’s anthropological discussions about two different humanity are present with implicit and explicit themes and ideas of apocalyptic literature in Second Temple Judaism.

The advantage of this view in understanding the rest of Paul’s letter is manifold. First, it provides a way to address the questions of continuity and discontinuity between Paul’s understanding of Christ and Israel’s Scriptures. The newness that Paul perceives is not a new “perspective” on understanding the person of Jesus as suggested by Douglas Campbell. The closest we get to that is in 2 Corinthians 5.16-17, but it is much more likely that Paul is not talking about a new, non-fleshy perspective by which we understand Jesus and other people, but rather what qualities about Jesus and other person’s are people specifically paying attention to, that which is visible markers of status within the current social world (flesh) or an emerging glory and the new creation that is not observed by paying attention to what is directly visible to the eye (cf. 2 Cor. 4.18). Here, the newness of new creation is about the fundamental characteristics that define a person in Christ, which further buttresses the idea of an apocalyptic anthropology in Paul. Thus, insofar as Paul embraces an apocalyptic anthropology, the discontinuity that he describes and prescribes is connected to the nature of human life lived in light of the crucified, resurrected, and glorified Savior. Asides from the first element chapters of Genesis, Israel’s Scriptures are not properly taken to be reflective of how God viewed humanity as a whole. Aside from occasional reflections, there are not broad, sweeping understandings about a shared human nature between Isreal and the nations in the Old Testament. Israel’s Scriptures are decidedly particularistic in its purpose, describing God’s relationship with the specific people of Israel. As such, a picture of a new humanity that both Jews and Gentiles participate in that is not determined by the contours of the Torah would by nature be highly discontinuous with the content of Israel’s Scriptures.

By locating an “apocalyptic newness” within the domain of Paul’s anthropology, there isn’t the need to try to understand the person of Christ from an entirely new angle in order to satisfy the conventions of apocalyptic literature. Instead, the person of Jesus and the events of His life, particularly the crucifixion and the resurrection, are best situated within the context of creation and God’s promises. In other words, the Gospel as proclaimed by Paul can be understood as the story of Jesus understood in light of God’s overarching purposes as reflected in Israel’s Scriptures that then come to fruition in Jesus without throwing out any sense of newness.

As the man from heaven (1 Cor. 15.47), Jesus inaugurates a new way of being human that is discontinuous with Israel’s story in the Scriptures as it testifies to human sin and weakness (cf. Rom. 3.19). At the same time, his death and resurrection are understood in light of God’s promises from Israel (1 Cor. 15.3-4). Put more generally, insofar as the Scriptures are a reflection of God’s word and promises, Jesus is continuous with the Old Testament. However, insofar as the Scriptures are addressed to and testify to the human sin evident in Israel, the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection in bringing about a new humanity that diverges from the fate inaugurated by Adam will be highly discontinuous with Israel’s story.

In addition to addressing the questions of continuity and discontinuity, an apocalyptic anthropology also serves as a vital center for the rest of Paul’s reflections of social life within the church and the wider world. If the newness that emerges as a result of the crucifixion of Jesus is a new type of humanity, that provides a clear intellectual basis for why Paul rejects the works of the Torah as normative for Christian communities. If the new humanity only emerges from Jesus Christ, then the Torah was never really intended as a picture of how God’s People were ultimately intended to live. Furthermore, the oneness of believers (Gal 3.28, Col. 3.11) can be grounded in the idea that the new humanity makes the old divisions between different social identities obsolete for those who are being transformed, that is those who are in Christ; this transformation suggests a movement away from the old categories for distinguishing different people groups that were prominent in Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures. Also, the emergence of the new humanity provides from the person of Jesus explains why Paul repeatedly connects his and other people’s experience to the pattern exhibited in crucifixion and resurrection: the new humanity emerges from a participatory experience with the heavenly man’s own suffering and new life. At the same time, the central work of the Holy Spirit in persons only accentuates the apocalyptic nature of Paul’s thinking, as this new humanity emerges in individual persons through heavenly acton.

In conclusion, I would put forward that Paul’s theology may be best understood as having an apocalyptic anthropology with a fundamentally Trinitarian shape at its center: the redemptive power and love of the God of Israel is revealed for the world in the crucified-and-resurrected Jesus Christ, which brings about a dramatic anthropological transformation for those who are lead by the Holy Spirit. This new anthropology, then, may be understood as the basis for understanding how God’s purposes to bless the world through Abraham is coming to fruition, as the old ways of being human that left people enslaved to the powers of sin and death along with fear and sinful desires, producing widespread social misery, are being overturned with a dramatically new way of living as a human that emerges by believers learning from and imitating the life of Christ through the leading of the Spirit that frees people to experience the positive life as described by the fruit of the Spirit. This also leads to transformer believes becoming salt and light in the world that reflect a different way that even non-believers could adopt themselves, just as Paul describes himself as an aroma of Christ that is a fragrance, that is metaphorically knowledge, of both the Christian way of facing death and living life to both the saved and those who are perishing (2 Cor. 2.14-17). In other words, a transformed, apocalyptic anthropology extends beyond simply being of benefit to those who follow Christ, but when rightly realized it becomes a beautiful fragrance that charms even the unbelieving world. In other words, the actualization of an apocalyptic anthropology in Christ may also become a basis for effective cultural engagement and pre-evangelism.

How do we obtain the charismatic gifts? The role of love and human desire

November 26, 2020

1 Corinthians 12.31:

Desire the greater gifts. Even still, I am showing you a way beyond measure.

1 Corinthians 14.1:

Pursue love and desire the spiritual utterances, especially that you may prophesy.

I am reminded of a conversatio recently that I had with a friend who was trying to discern whether they were a prophet or not. They and I had multiple spiritual conversations about the things of God. While I have always been something of a cautious skeptic about what people make of the spiritual gifts, they were the type that was willing to learn but was perhaps too willing to believe anything. They shared with me that they had gone to a training that taught them about the gifts, including how to prophesy. Among the things they shared with me, they mentioned how they had experienced an event that they thought was them prophesying. To avoid any risk of anyone identifying this person, I won’t give the specific details of what they said that they prophesied, but as of yet none of them have come true. While I didn’t consider them to be a false prophet, because I could see how they were seeking to fulfill what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 14.1 and that they were not claiming an actual prophetic authority, I tried to subtly urge them away from the direction they were going. Fortunately, they love the word of God more than they love their own sense of power, so I am confident they are not going down a dark end.

Yet, so many do go off down a dark hole when it comes to the charismatic gifts. Stories are replete of false prophets, hucksters, and greedy manipulators that live out on the edge of charismatic Christian faith that openly embraces the dynamic, living power of God to act and speak, including through other humans. This is why Jesus warns people of false prophets, whose evil, in the end, isn’t some “false doctrine” as these are people who rightly claim “Jesus is Lord” so much as they portray themselves as being under the power and authority of peaceful God while their own desires lead them to be destructive (Matthew 7.15-23). When one believes in the living, dynamic, active, ongoing work of God in our lives, it can be very easy for false prophets to cast mental graven images onto God for their own benefit, to even believe that Jesus blesses them in their apparent success.

Why is it that people turn down this end? While I can believe that some people just set out to manipulate what they believe to be a gullible populace, I don’t think that is the case for most people who grievously err. Jesus’ portrayal is not that of people who intentionally and knowingly mislead others. The image of a ravenous wolf in sheep’s clothing is to portray a picture of a person’s inner desires that is divergent from their outward expressions, not necessarily as a form of intentional deception. When Jesus further continues his comments on these false prophets who bear bad fruit, he characterizes them as people who believe that they belong to the kingdom of heaven because of the powerful deeds they had done. In the end, the problem for them wasn’t their duplicity, but that their heart as metaphorically represented by the fruit-bearing tree wasn’t good.

Somewhere along the way, people who go down the pathway of the manipulation and abuse of spiritual power, whether it be of the charismatic or in its more institutionalized form, either never really had a time where their lives where pruned to produce good fruit (John 15.2) or along the away they got caught seeking after and desiring other things that they used their religious authority to try to provide for themselves. Perhaps, like a Kris Volloton, they tried to convince themselves that they did have these gifts, but kept holding onto to the idea of them because of the status they bestowed on them. Perhaps they had a vision from God at one point in their life but then got seriously derailed, such as a Paula White. Maybe once they got to step into the halls of influence and power, they rationalized away all the ways they used their power to do something they believed to be for God when they were seeking for themselves. Whatever it is, there is no one single cause, at the end of the day there is always one overarching explanation for why people with spiritual power use it so wrongly for so long: their hearts were not effectively trained to use God’s gifts with real love and true discernment.

I imagine so much of what stands behind the dysfunctional use of Christian religious power and authority can be connected to the problems we see happening in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. These were a people that Paul considered incredibly gifted, and yet he also saw something deeply problematic with them. They showed disregard for upholding even the most basic of sexual mores within their fellowship, perhaps even justifying engagement in sexual liasons outside of their marriage bonds. They were contentious with each other, suing each other and excluding each other from the dinners that also celebrated the Lord’s Supper. They were more concerned to integrate the wisdom they had learned from the outside world into their Christian faith to justify their dietary practices rather than consider how their actions may be hurting those who were “weaker” in faith. They were deeply gifted, yet they were deeply self-absorbed, seeking various ways to figure out how they could get Christian faith to adapt to and benefit their lifestyle rather than how their lifestyle can be transformed into the way of love of the Gospel. It is interesting that with all of the problems Paul saw facing the Corinthians, he spent the most time addressing the matter of spiritual gifts. Why?

I am speculating here, but perhaps Paul recognized with all their dysfunctions, the Corinthians needed to learn the right way to use their gifts to build each other up. These other sins are concerning, to be sure. Yet, these self-gratifying Corinthians were at the risk of doing something worse, using the very gifts God had given them for their competitive, self-aggrandizement. To sin is one thing, but to sin through the use of the very gifts that God has given is something else. While the communal worship of the Corinthians had not yet turned towards a dark corner, or we would expect that Paul would have stronger words to say in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14, Paul feels the need to cut the potential dangers off at the pass. Having given a brief taste of what wisdom spoken among the mature looks like (1 Cor. 2.6-3.4), he provides a positive pattern for how to approach the use of the gifts in the body of Christ.

Yet, what is interesting is that Paul sandwiches the well-known chapter of love, 1 Corinthians 13, within the discussion on the gifts. On the one hand, one might be inclined to think that Paul is trying to show how you use the gifts in love.  As Witherington notes, Paul transitions into a piece of epideictic praise of love.1 To that end, it is true insofar as it goes to suggest Paul is trying to direct the Corinthians in how their gifts should be used.

Yet, perhaps something more is going on here. When Paul urges people to pursue the greater spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12.31, which Paul considers prophecy to be the highest, he then says he will show that is beyond the exaltation of the greater gifts.  Paul’s discourse doesn’t point towards love as the motivation for the gifts, but as something that is of such honor and glory that it makes the honor of the greatest gifts pale in comparison. Love is something to be pursued for its own sake, for its own value, for its own purposes.

Then, further attention to Paul’s praise of love can be favorably compared to the way wisdom could be exalted. Love for Paul is not simply talked about as something one does, as if Paul is describing the motivations behind specific actions, but it is something that one metaphorically possesses, much like wisdom. It has a capacity that is said to be everlasting, in contrast to prophesy, tongues, and knowledge. Love allows people to go beyond the partial knowing the way things are (γινώσκω) but it allows people to recognize (ἐπιγινώσκω) others as they are (1 Cor. 13.12). Thus, love is understood more like a power that impacts the capacity of what a person does.

What Paul’s discourse suggests that love is a capacity of action and understanding that is of much higher honor and longer-lasting than the greater gifts. While not disregarding them, as each can be used to build up the body of Christ, the Corinthians’ valuation of them comes from a perspective of valuing what is temporal. The gifts are temporal manifestations for the benefit of the present time, but they are just that: temporal.

So when Paul urges them to pursue the charismatic gifts, it is said with the implication that love is to be sought as a power that is even greater and more glorious. At Paul then transitions back to discussion the gifts in chapter 14, he repeats his exhortation in 12.31 in 14.1 with one important additions: as one should pursue love and desire spiritual utterances, one should prioritize prophesy above the rest of the gifts. Why? Because the gift of prophesy is more conducive to building up than tongues. While tongues are not bad as they can build up a person, prophesy is of much higher value because it builds others up. In other words, prophesy is a more powerful act of love towards others, whereas tongues by themselves are largely an act of self-love. The effect of what Paul has argued is to essentially show the value of the gifts based upon their capacity to love others.

If Paul thinks of love as something that is sought more like a power rather than a personal motivation, this leads to a different conclusion about the nature of the spiritual gifts. The spiritual gifts are ultimately powers that come from the highest power of love. The gifts of prophesy, knowledge, wisdom tongues, etc. are all capacities that emerge from love, God’s love for us and our love for God and the body of Christ. To that end, the way to pursue the charismatic gifts isn’t by seeking to try to acquire the gifts themselves, but pursue love more deeply and richly.

In the story I shared from a friend trying to explore the prophetic gift, what little information I gleaned about the training they attended was that it seemed directed towards moving people towards the types of experiences one would expect a prophet to have. If that were indeed the case, then that means the training seemed to be based upon having an idealized version of the form of prophesy in mind and then seeking to acquire that, either through practicing, openness to the experience, or some other variety of practices to train one in the direction of a prophet.

We can even do that without such formal “training” in that there is a specific image of what we thing prophesy or tongues or wisdom looks like and we orient our thinking, our feeling, our actions to conform with the idealization of the gift. Something might emerge from us that we think fits the pattern and that we want to label the charismatic gift, but what has emerged has comes from whatever human desire that is in place that motivated us towards the specific form. Those “gifts” become more expressions of desires that are not rooted in God’s love, but of something else. These “gifts” become expressions of the powers of human motivation, but not the power of Christ-shaped loved. Yet, in claiming the name of Christ, a person who has adapted themselves to have the appearance of the gifts has become an expression of two different things: on the surface they express themselves as from God, but inwardly within their hearts their actions are a from the well-spring of other desires than those rooted in love.

At this point, it may become more apparent how people can go down the route towards becoming a false prophet and the general misuse of the ‘gifts’ of God. People adapt themselves to the form of the gifts out of other desires rather than that of God’s love. The more these other desires take root, the more the use of the “gifts,” either in their initially genuine or counterfeit forms, become dictated by them. This leaves a person mastering what they think the form to be, but the form is not used in the way that God inspires and teaches in and through love. Yet, because the person believes the form to be genuine, they rationalize and justify what they do as coming from God while they seek something else. They may exhibit great power and capacity as a consequence of continuing to learn how to adapt the form to achieve desires for goals, but they are not living from an expression of God’s will. Maybe at one time they were an agent of God’s love, but as some point they did not receive God’s discipline and training over their lives that would direct empower the use of the gifts in love, allowing desires rooted in sin to reign in them instead.

The genuine gifts from God are not something we train in. One does not learn to prophesy like one learns to be a physician. One does not learn how to speak in tongues like they learn to read an ancient language. Instead, they emerge from us as we seek after a Christ-shaped love. The experience of real love, both in the giving and receiving, becomes our teacher and our guide to the charismatic gifts. We may desire the gifts, bringing us to a place of being open to act from love in the various ways God may gift us to do so, but we actively seek after the ideal of love, not the ideals of prophesy, tongues, wisdom, etc. We adapt ourselves to the form of love in Jesus Christ, not the form of the gifts. When Paul describes the way the gifts differ in their giving in Romans 12.6-7, he says that the gifts are given based upon something else the person does. Whether it be faith, ministering, teaching, exhortation, etc. each of these attitudes and acts are grounded in the love of God and love of the body of Christ, which will then give rise to the gifts. So seek love; seek to love God more deeply and to love one another more deeply. Then as the commission and empowerment of God’s grace leads us to not elevate ourselves above others but rather to consider our relationships to one another (Romans 12.3), then the genuine gifts will emerge from that grace expressed through love.

In my own quest for discovering how to reconcile the highly cautious, sometimes skeptical person within me with the person of a charismatically-shaped faith, I have come to the conclusion that it is imperative that we get how love is the power of the true expression of the charismatic gifts. I have felt capacities emerge from me that I never tried to attain directly, even as I had a heart that desired them, as I sought more deeply to understand and live in love. Without a deepening, cross-shaped love, however, what will rule our hearts if we wish and seek after the spiritual gifts? If we think the gifts can be pursued apart from being transformed into the image of Jesus Christ in order for us to be function well as part of the body of Christ, then I can feel the skeptical person within me wanting to rise up and shout “No!”

The future of two different ‘evangelicalisms’

November 26, 2020

In the past couple of years, I reached the point that I no longer considered myself to identify as an evangelical anymore. The motivation to reject that identity was rooted in what I saw and witnessed to be the social and political failure of American evangelicalism, which become most glaring in the way significant portions of evangelicals become invested in the active defense of the person of Donald Trump. It was one thing to vote against the increasingly progressive policies of the Democrats while not exactly being enthused by Trump; many of my evangelical friends my age who voted for Trump expressed their real ambivalence for him. Yet, that evangelicalism could become so tantamount to the active support and defense of Trump such that Christian leaders who were critical of Trump, such as Russell Moore, would be active targets by many other religious leaders signaled something to me: the evangelical identity, whatever good it had, had primarily become a proxy for conservative politics. Rather than the righteousness of Gods’ Word becoming a source of salt in divisive American politics, evangelicalism had lost its saltiness and instead was “peppered” with the dung of American politics.

Yet, over these past couple of years, my theological differences with the brand of evangelicalism have become much more developed. Initially, my feelings about evangelical theology was complex. There was much still much I felt I could share with the majority of evangelicals. Yet, I had no desire to continue with the label because I did not want my theology to be judged based upon the way it looked in comparison to the prototype of what an evangelical theology would be taken to usually look like. For instance, I wanted to feel free to explore and affirm the nature of God’s inspiration of the Scriptures without having to endorse the doctrine of inerrancy as it was traditionally formulated. However, as time has passed, I have come to various deeper critiques of the evangelicalism that I can no longer identify with.

In previous posts, I have been working on a theme: the distinction between declaration and demonstration and how prophetic ministry and the witness of the New Testament church are better understood as demonstrations from God rather than declarations about God. To that end, the way I have come to understand evangelicalism, even in it’s less politicized form, is as a declarative religion, with specific truths about God that are to be proclaimed so as to be accepted. Yet, I can imagine and hope for a future of a different sort of evangelicalism that is much more focused in the demonstration of God’s love and power rather than bare declarations.

At this point, it is perhaps important to give my own working understandings of declaration and demonstration. A declaration is a type of action, primarily a speech-act, that seeks to influence what people believe by making statements as to what is the case, that is, what should be seen as true.

In the context of the Christian proclamation, some example declarations that it is endeavored to get people to believe are proclamations such as “Your sin deserves to be punished” and “Jesus died for your sins.” The ultimate intent of such declarations if for people to believe the declarations so that they will then act in the way appropriate for that belief, that is, conversion: “Repent of your sins and believe in Jesus.” Specific evidence may be offered in favor of the declarations, but at the end of it all, the purpose of the declaration is to obtain acceptance of the declarations so that it will then lead to the right actions by those who are persuaded.

On the other hand. Demonstrations is about changing people’s perceptions. Perceptions are different from beliefs, as there are many things that I can perceive without making a conscious belief about it or making a choice to think it is true. Perceptions are about the way we construe basic features people, things, and forces around us and anticipate them to act so that we are mentally prepared to engage with them. At the heart of perceptions is the preparation of our response to them. For instance, I may perceive the kindness of a woman I love. Yet, initially, I did not have an explicit belief in her kindness, nor did I make a choice to believe that she was kind. I had simply sensed it from the person I experienced her to be, even as I later came to be much more reflective about her personality. Yet, my perception of her kindness was in large part why I fell in love with her. To that end, the provision of demonstrations is about providing the prerequisites for having a perception, both dynamic perceptions in the encounter of specific moment but also encoded memories of such perceptions that will alter our perceptions in future encounters.

The contrast between a declarative Christianity and a demonstrative Christianity is most salient by contrasting what the goal is: either to get people to believe in God or to get people to perceive God. In the cast of the former, it puts the emphasis on human actions to achieve the goal. In demonstrative Christianity, however, our goal is not to get people to believe the truth, but rather to provide what we can to help people to perceive the ways that God demonstrates His love. While it may be necessary at specific points of time to make specific declarations about specific truths in a demonstrative form of Christianity, a demonstrative Christianity (a) prioritizes different type of declarations that focus on God’s past deeds, most prominently in the life of Jesus Christ, rather than more abstract ideas and statements often taken as the Christian “gospel” such that (b) these declarations help people to see how God’s powerful loving is working on their behalf. At the heart of the demonstration is this, guiding people to perceive God’s faithful love that is powerfully at work in creation and our lives, which is ultimately demonstrated by and known in Jesus Christ who allows us to perceive the nature of the Holy Spirit’s work.

One may rudimentarily understand the difference between demonstrating and declaration as the difference between showing and telling.

At the heart of these two different visions is this: two different understanding of the fundamental makeup of the Gospel proclamation. Is the Gospel a set of emotionally-and-spiritually-significant ideas that we hold to be true about God? Or, is the Gospel the story of God reconciling to the world to Himself in Christ that demonstrates the shape and character and work of God’s love for us, in us, and through us?

Beyond this, declaration and demonstrative Christianity takes on two different postures between one who proclaims and the one being evangelized. Declarative Christianity takes the proclaimed to be some sort of authority on the Gospel and the doctrines being espoused, which implicitly sets up a power-dynamic between the two parties. The hearer trusts the authority of the one speaking to be true, regardless of whether they actually see a reason to believe it on their own end. As a consequence, those who proclaim the gospel often implicitly feel a need for power over those they teach. Demonstrative Christianity, by contrast, does not require any sort of power dynamic between the two as the goal is not to get people to believe what they can not see. Rather, the goal is simply to demonstrate through the proclamation of the Gospels and one’s own life the nature of God’s powerful love and trust that God will demonstrate Himself, possibly even in the demonstration of our own lives.

Also, I would suggest that the nature of declarative Christianity ultimately begins to break the spirit of the Second Commandment. Insofar as belief in God is laid up with the declaration of the evangelist, then people’s beliefs in God will become formed by the mental image the words of the preacher gives. If the primary thing that determines what and wh a person believes in the idea of God is what declared and taught to them, how is this any functionally different than priests creating graven images that people would take to be representing of God. At the end of it all, belief is contingent upon how human religious leaders exert their authority and influence to influence what people think about God. On the other hand, demonstrative Christianity is ultimately about helping people to perceive the living God. While yes, declarations are used, these declarations become examples of what they may witness coming from God. In the end, the mental images people have of God are more and more tuned to seeing how God demonstrates Himself. God “incarnates” Himself within our own life and experience.

The differences between the mental “graven images” of declaration and the mental “incarnation” of the demonstration have an impact on the way that people come to grow and develop in faith. Declarative Christianity considers any words, events, or experiences that provoke questions about God to be anathema. Anything that might challenge our right beliefs are dangerous and they must be avoided. For demonstrative Christianity, on the other hand, the questions, the doubts, the challenges, the skepticisms are not things to be dangerously avoided at all costs, but that in coming to more deeply trust God, they may be taken as opportunities for God to demonstrate His love, faithfulness, and power. To that end, a declarative Christianity will have a continuing struggle to culturally engage with a world that has become increasingly post-Christian, almost having to regard it as an enemy because it makes many diametrically opposed truth-claims, whereas demonstrative Christianity can see the various questions and doubts about Christian faith and values as challenges to engage with, with trust that God will demonstrate His faithfulness and provide what is needed to discern the way of faithfulness in the midst of the often confusing chaos of the modern age that looks like a Babel of cultural, rather than linguistic, confusion. Yet in such confusion between cultures and differing truth claims, it is perception rather than authoritative declaration that will provide the grounds for accepting truth claims, and so it is God’s demonstration that will then give us the perception that will help us to know the truth.

In other words, demonstrative Christianity is incarnational in its shape. An evangelicalism, that is, a religion rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that leans into and looks for God’s demonstration has a future. The “evangelicalism” that is built upon the power of declaration is passing away as a relic of a past, along with the structures of power, status, wealth, and authority those declarations relied upon that so often served the interests of those who had that power, status, wealth and authority to influence those under them rather than God’s loving purposes to help people see God’s powerful love demonstrated.

God’s benevolence is not friendship with God

November 22, 2020

John 15.12-15:

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.

James 2.21-24:

Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

Matthew 5.45:

[Your Father in heaven] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

Romans 2.3-5:

Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.

It’s an all too familiar scene among teenagers and young adults. One person who deeply desires a close, romantic relationship with someone else can be inclined to read the friendliness and kindness of someone as a sign of a desire to date. I recall a couple of instances in my own past where my kindness towards a female was interpreted as indicative of a desire to pursue a further, romantic relationship. I have always been a person who wanted to be kind to others, so when my kindness was taken as intention for something more that was followed up by violations of my boundaries, I began to show signs of frustration, defensiveness, and even anger towards them. One time I remember the other person seeing visible anger on my face after I perceived one of these violations and the began to feel like I hated them. Trying to be sympathetic with them at a later point in time, I tried to tell them that I didn’t hate them and that I offered a compliment in kindness towards them, telling them that they were very intelligent. This spawned a whole new round of problematic behaviors, thinking I was complimenting them because I wanted to date them that eventually lead to my having to increasingly distance myself from that person. I had even been accused of doing that myself a time or two, but I understood that kindness did not equate to romantic interest.

Now in telling this story, my intention is not to berate people who struggle with recognizing the difference between kindness and romantic interest. That is a common struggle that many people can have, as we each have different mental maps and expectations of what friendliness versus romantic attraction looks like so that miscommunication can occur frequently. Figure that out is a natural part of the life of the teenager and the young adult. Where the problem occurs is when people are inflexibly bound to the assumption that kindness must be an indication of a deep, intimate relationship or the desire for it. When our sense of other relationships to other people is too tied up to what we want, romantic or non-romantic, and not enough to understand and listen to what another person wants and is seeking, there is the risk of presumption and boundary violations in that relationship.

I bring this up, then, to serve as analogy for how we understand our relationship to God. There is a sharp prediction among Christians to confuse the kindness of God with friendship with God. There is a relatively popular contemporary worship song call “Friend of God” that goes as follows:

I am a friend of God
I am a friend of God
I am a friend of God
He calls me friend

Who am I that You are mindful of me
That You hear me, when I call
Is it true that you are thinking of me
How You love me
It’s amazing

I am a friend of God
I am a friend of God
I am a friend of God
He calls me friend

What a privilege it is

God almighty Lord of Glory
You have called me friend

Now, in what I am saying, I am not judging the relationship of the original creators of this song to God. I simply don’t know it. Yet, I want you to pay attention to what the song suggests as evidence of their friendship with God: “You are mindful of me,” “You hear me when I call” and “you are thinking of me.” It is almost as if the fact that God pays attention to you in a positive way is a sign of friendship.

This is perhaps due to the way that friendship has been treated superficially as simply those people who are nice to you. Yet, the ancient understanding of friendship was more than simply those who were kind to you. Friendship was a much rarer thing, where two people loved each other as if they were themselves.  Attentiveness to another person could be demonstrated in the act of hospitality towards another person, but this was not necessarily indication that one must treat that person in a deep intimate way, even if it did initiate the expectations of reciprocity in the future. To be friends was to be with someone who you share much in common in a deep, abiding way. So, I would put forward that this song may at times be like the love-sick suitor: prone to see God’s benevolence and kindness as a sign of a deeper relationship.

The standard for friendship with God is much higher in the Bible. James describes Abraham as a friend of God not because he simply believed in God, but because He honored and feared God to the point of being willing to offer his son Isaac. When Jesus tell His disciples they are friends, he calls them friends because they will follow His command to love each other the way He loves them in sacrificed His life for them. Becoming friends with God is something that is much more exclusive that it is sometimes made out to be. To be a friend of God, one must deny themselves so that they will be someone who seeks after God’s will, and then in so doing they will be a friend of God.

Yet, friendship with God is not like the way that friendship can sometimes work in the world. The world has a sharp predilection to love those who love them, to ONLY be concerned for the welfare of one’s friends. When that becomes the case, then it is often true that attentiveness and concern for a person is tied to being considered a friend. I can recall an instance in my life where I received scarce attention from someone who could help me in my time of need, but we didn’t see eye-to-eye with each other even though I held no grudge towards him and tried to treat him benevolently. When this becomes our experience of the world, it may very well feel like God’s benevolence is that God is a friend to you. To that end, I don’t want to judge those who may overreach on how they see their relationship with God when they feel so deprived of love and affection to the point that they often feel unloved, if not unlovable. The problem here is not simply a matter of word usage.

My concern, however, is for those who are on the reverse side of the equation: those who only show concern and attention to those who they consider friends. These are the people who treat kindness and attentiveness as a scarce resource that they only give to the extent that other people can be seen as bringing them the reward, honor, and blessing they feel worthy of. In their own world, they live according to the principle: I will only pay attention to those who I consider my friends, those who love me the way I want to be loved. When this is the world one lives in, then it can be very easy to presumptuously consider signs of God’s kindness as a sign of God’s approval and close relationship, because that is the way one lives oneself.

The apostle Paul warns some Jews of a very similar, presumptuous mentality in his letter to the Romans 2.3-5. It was a common belief among some Jews that their status as Israelites gave them a special, privileged relationship to God, as expressed in Wisdom of Solomon 15.1-2:

But you, our God, are kind and true,
patient, and ruling all things in mercy.
For even if we sin we are yours, knowing your power;
but we will not sin, because we know that you acknowledge us as yours.

The logic of this statement essentially goes as follows: whether we sin against you or not, we have a special relationship with God. Nothing one can do can threaten this relationship, it is entirely, unrevokably secure. Yet, Paul suggests that such persons misunderstand the nature of God’s kindness, not recognizing that God is kind to them to bring them to repentance, while warning them they are actually at the risk of getting on God’s bad side if they do not cease from doing the evil things they judge other people for doing. God is benevolent towards them, but it isn’t a sign of a special relationship. When Jesus talks about God’s bring sun and rain on the good and righteous and the evil and unrighteous alike, the implication assumption is that the heavenly Father is kind to those who act in opposition to him.

Now, Paul isn’t trying to warn people “One sin and you are out” or “You keep messing up and God will reject you.” God is not a God who has a short fuse, nor is He one to refuses those who seek Him in repentance and acknowledge their own sins. Rather, the point for Paul is to tell people you don’t have as cozy of a relationship with God as you might think you do when you live in sin that you condemn in others. In doing this, Paul seeks to call people to recognize how their sins are setting them against God and to come to be reconciled to God through the blood of Jesus. It isn’t intended to provoke terror (the exact opposite) so much as a push against the presumption can lead to the casting away of fear of God that Proverbs talks about. While we should not be frightened by God as perfect love casts out all such terrorizing fear that God is right on the cusp of rejecting and judging you, the right type of fear of God is in awe of His greatness and power that makes us hesitant at the thought of ignoring and resisting this God. In short, Paul may be seen as trying to say “Don’t take God’s kindness for granted.”

Friendship with God goes much deeper than God’s benevolence to us. Friendship becomes a case where God works in a much deeper, more demonstrably personal way with those who have set to genuinely honor God above everything else in this world in the specific way that God calls us to do so. For instance, Jesus says He will send them the Spirit of truth in a way that goes much deeper than their present relation to the Spirit because they love Jesus and keep His commandments (John 15.15-17). God draws much closer to His friends, teaching them and guiding them in a way that others do not receive because they listen and do as God instructs. It doesn’t come by paying mere honor to God, as if doing anything we label “giving glory to God” will lead God to draw near to us. The ones who God will accept as a friend are those who seek to pay careful attention to God’s instruction and have a heart that wants to diligent follow it. True, deep friendship is not based upon mere attentiveness and concern for another, but upon a deeper, abiding, careful, searching concern. As we show that deep, abiding concern for God’s word, God will deepen His abiding concern for us.

Why? In part it is because it is God’s friends who warmly welcome and receive God’s instruction, including when God may speak a hard word to them because of some sin in the life (cf. Prov. 27.6). A person who is resistant to God may often refuse the word of God, so why would God seek to teach them in a closer, deeper, more intimate manner. A friend of God is not necessarily sinless, but they will receive God’s instruction and not presume their special relationship to God will always remain if they disregard their integrity and commitment to God’s purposes. Yet, there is another reason. Those who genuinely and wholeheartedly set their whole lives towards the good that God wants for the world are the people God will put in places whether their goodness and kindness can be a rich blessing to other people. God leads and honors His friends that go beyond benevolence because He is a benevolent God who wants to bless the world through His friends.

God is a kind, benevolent God, but it has been the common tendency of Christians in the past few decades to suggest that our relationship with God is much closer than it really is. From assuming we are friends with God to thinking that everyone is a child of God, there is often a positive intention behind this: to get people to recognize that God does love them and does want their well-being. Yet, such positive intends can lead people to take God for granted, as if God will receive them and not judge them when they impenitently ignore and disregard God’s guidance and word that is meant to lead us in true, good, righteous way of shalom.

Hospitality and receiving a holy God

November 21, 2020

Matthew 5.43-48:

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,o what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Hebrews 12.2:

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

Matthew 25.40:

And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are my brothers, you did it to me.’

When it comes to what people we will receive and let into our life, finding people who will receive and affirm who we feel we are, whose own words and actions are consonant with what we value and think is an important part of building relationships. One of the most important considerations for human relationships is finding people who share our own inner, mental world. This is such an important pat of our relationships that the absence of this can become a great source of dismay and disturbance about others. As Daniel Siegel in The Pocket Guide of Interpersonal Neurobiology describes it: “The mind we experience in our own subjective world can become filled with frustration if the other person does not see and acknowledge with positive regard our own inner world.”1

This basic social principle leads to the all-too-common “like-attracts-like” principle of relationships. Men and women will build a home together because they share much in common with each other. Communities will be formed by people who more or less share similar values, characteristics, goals, etc. Churches, synagogues, and mosques are regularly filled with people who share similar theological and ethical beliefs and values. Such relationships and networks, when they become increasingly intimate and close, leads to the release of the neurotransmitter oxytocin, creating a deeper emotional bond with each other that serves as the basis for deeper empathy and personal accessibility.

Yet, there is a dark side to this basic principle of social life: it can make us more aggressive towards through who differ, including those who we deem to be a threat to our values and the values of those we love and care for. Oxytocin does not simply increase our bond and connection to a loved and valued person, but it also makes us more protective of them from the threats that we believe others may pose. This is usually a good thing when a mother is caring for their infant, making them protective of any threats to their baby’s wellbeing while they are unable to take care of themselves. Jesus Himself takes up this very maternal image of motherly care in the image of the mother hen shielding their chicks to describe His own ministry while expressing a warning those who have opposed, and have ultimately misled and harmed the people, that their “house” is desolate (Matthew 23.37-39). The protectiveness that the release of oxytocin creates can be directed in a good and healthy way. However, the way we understand the social world around us mediates the when and how our protectiveness and aggression towards others manifests itself. If we have deep-rooted beliefs that people who are different from us are evil, foolish, malicious, greedy, lazy, and other forms of strong negative characterizations, then the protective instinct that oxytocin encourages can become aggressive towards other, making us much more inclined to see people who differ from us as a threat. Close social bonds with those who are similar to us combined with a deep suspicion of those who differ from us leads us to become aggressive, arrogant, defensive, and demeaning to people whose way of life and values differ from us. Our beliefs about other types of people readily become stereotypes by which we can rationalize how we treat them in our disdain and contempt, ranging from the more overt forms aggressive to the more covert forms of aggression that can be demonstrated, such as trying to exert and power and influence over them and their life while refusing to listen to them and take them seriously.

The point undergirding this is that while our social bonds are a source of good for our life, they may also simultaneously become a motivator of evil against others to the extent that we look down upon people who are very different from us. This tension is really the tension we experience in the globalized, increasingly multicultural world. One of the early attempts to try to address this tension was to try to build broad, inclusive institutions that were defined by diversity. Insofar people did not have a deep personal connection to these institutions, such as some relatively invisible governmental institutions, increasing diversity would be little threat to other people.

However, when these institutions experienced as social networks that we experienced deep, close bonds with the people in and their missions and values, then increasing diversity would serve as a threat. For instance, the movement towards increasing representation of minorities and concerns for the social disadvantaged has been deemed as increasingly threatened the proportion of white Americans whose sense of values and community were established by the American values of liberty, freedom, and hard work. Now, the efforts to broaden the inclusion of vast people groups is often indiscriminately and derisively describes as “socialism” or “communism,” hearkening back to the feelings of cultural hostility and threats of the Cold War. For another example, take a look at the United Methodist Church, where people along the theological spectrum have become deeply mistrustful of each other. This has fostered increasing aggression towards those other people who seem to be a threat to the values they feel, or at least wish, the United Methodist Church to be an expression of. If a person has significant differences and threatens the very values that we feel unite our significant social relationships and networks together, then they will often be treated with hostility, overtly and covertly. We crave and need close social bonds and intimate social networks for our well-being and satisfaction. Yet, they can become a source of hostility.

The solution, then, isn’t to try to distance ourselves from close social connections and networks. Rather, the solution is to learn to be able to have both the closeness of social relationships and yet to not be derisive towards those who differ. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus mentions those people who love those who love them are not worthy of any reward, implicitly from the fact that they have already received their reward. Instead, he calls them to love the way God loves, who sends sun and rain to those who genuinely love Him, the righteous, and those who can oppose Him, the unrighteous. To receive and genuinely bless those who we might deem our enemy, that we might deem a threat to ourselves is the step towards loving God the way He loves. God is not like a self-righteous human who looks down his nose at those who he deems to lack character, are lazy, etc. God is concerned for the well-being of those who do not seek Him, who do not share His values expressed in creation.

Yet, there is something deeper here that just God loving those who might seem hard to love. At the heart of it is this: if you can not receive those who differ from you, you can not receive a holy God who is vastly different from you. When the social principle that forms our relationships does not simply become the glue that binds our close relationships but becomes the gate by which we distance ourselves from others and aggress upon anyone we deem to approach that gate, you become a person who becomes insulated from notable differences. It becomes something that rests in your own heart that makes you defensive to anyone whose life and values may rub up against your own. This can be another person, but it can also be God, including God speaking and working through a messenger God has sent.

There is a reason why the early Church placed a high emphasis on hospitality towards strangers. It wasn’t about an opportunity to show how good one is to another person, much as Southern “hospitality,” can often devolve into, but in being hospitable, one might receive a messenger from God. This theme occurs repeatedly throughout Israel’s Scriptures and is often the dividing line between the righteous, such as Abraham who hospitably receives three men who as messengers of God inform him he will have a child (Genesis 18.1-9), and the unrighteous, such as Sodom who seeks to dominate by rape the two angels who visited their town (Genesis 19.1-11). One’s openness to being hospitable to those who we don’t know share our values, our way of life, determines whether we are the type of persons who can receive a message from God. One’s response to the ‘other’ will determines our receptivity to the God who is utterly Other and works through those who reflect His otherness. Similarly, when Jesus portrays the final judgment between the sheep and the goats, those who Jesus receives are going to be those who received those who were who be outsiders in Jewish society. Far from just simply a message about the importance of charity, Jesus expresses a fundamental truth about how we respond to those who don’t immediately provide us much benefit and may feel like a threat: when one can show hospitality to those who dramatically differ from you, it is more about being the type of person who would also receive the Lord of the Universe.

Our responsiveness and receptivity to a holy God is revealed in our receptivity to hospitably and kindly recieve those who differ from us. Yet, if one’s posture towards others is more about controlling those because we deem a “threat” in the various ways we can overtly and covertly aggress, then one is a person who would be at risk of putting the holy God on the cross. You can know such people by the way they avoid, rationalize away, and don’t give much concern to the harder parts of Jesus’ life, ministry, and teaching that call people to really come to the true denial of themselves, but they focus instead on those parts that make them feel important and valued, not receiving the holy God but instead drawing a caricature that simply affirms their own values and person, as if Jesus is their close friend without being willing to love the in hard way that Jesus call us to love.ew 5.43-48:

The glory of the face

November 21, 2020

2 Corinthians 4.6:

For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

The face is the most important part of the human body. Four of the more important biological functions happen in the face: we see the world through our eyes, we have an (often unconscious) sense of smell that triggers our memories, we communicate through the usage of our mouth, and we also eat and drink through our mouth. Not too far off at the sides are the ears that allow us to hear. What happens in the region of our face is, to say the least, critical for our human survival.

Yet, the face is important for more reasons that given above: it is also the region of our body where the most information about ourselves is visibly displayed for other people to see. Our emotions are expressed through our faces, meaning that people come to know where we are and what we are like through our face. The face is one of the most important regions of the face when it comes for forming social bonds with another person. When we want to find people who are warm, friendly, and receptive to us, we will look to the face to determine if they are people we can draw near to or if we should stay away. When it comes to social bonds, what we see on each other’s faces proves to be one of the most important aspects of building relationships.

Yet, the face isn’t the only important place when it comes to building relationships. For instance, it has been observed that when people are looking for potential mates, those looking more for sex will spend more time looking at the rest of the body at the more “sexual” regions whereas those who are looking for a long-term partner will spend more time looking at the face. Additionally, potential relationships, romantic or non-romantic, are also often evaluated by signs of wealth and status on their person, such as their clothing, their body posture, etc. The relationships we seek to form with others are impacted by the various parts of the body. Depending on what it is we value, we will pay attention to the bodies of other people in different ways. In addition, we may pay attention to other, non-bodily aspects of the person such as their voice, knowledge we have about their relationships with other people, signs of their intelligence, evidence of education, etc. All told, we can come to evaluate people for potential social relationships based upon a whole host of bodily and non-bodily “information” that provides signals of personality, character, wealth, sexual appeal, status and authority, etc.

Yet, for those who are most concerned about the type of emotional bond with another person, whether it be that of mutual love, that of leader-follower, etc., the face becomes one of the most critical regions of the body for us to pay attention to. While the other bodily regions and non-bodily knowledge about a person may still be noted, when people value the emotional bond with another person, the face will be one of the most important region we look to. Thus, it is through the face of another that we find what triggers something deep without our own hearts, at the deepest recesses of who we are. The gaze of two (potential) lovers is an example where the face of another person can imprint deeply on us as a person, stirring up something deep within us that we may never have aware that we wanted.

So, when Paul talks about the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ in 2 Corinthians 4.6, we are not just getting a fanciful metaphor of the incarnation that says we see God’s glory visibly through the person of Jesus. Paul’s meaning is much deeper here connected to the way a person perceives Jesus, as he earlier describes “all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror.” For Paul, the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ is not just a description of the person of Jesus alone, but it is a description of what happens to those who believe in and worship Jesus through the Spirit. Our own faces radiate the glory of the face of Jesus Christ, as our own faces as we are transformed by the Spirit become a mirror reflection of Jesus’ glory.

The glory of a person in the ancient world could be found in many other sources. It could be found in their social status and authority, in their impressive acts demonstrating their power and skill, in their wealth, in their beauty, etc. The magnificence of other people was evaluated based upon a lot of factors. Yet, for Paul, the ultimate place where God’s glory is to be found isn’t in all the other sources that we use to evaluate people’s glory, but the face. While God is all-powerful, has riches in heaven that surpasses all human imagination, has legions of angels reading to do His bidding, it is the face that demonstrates what is most fundamentally important about God as the region o the body that tells us more about personality, character, and relational openness than anything else. The face of a worshipper of Jesus in the Spirit is the zone where knowing God’s glory is most evident and made known. It is there where the emotional bonds of love, joy, affection, compassion, and concern for us are made known. As Paul says, this stirs up something within us that we were unaware of, shining light into our hearts.

Just as we can fall in love with someone through seeing the beauty of their face, we who are being led by the Spirit can also be stirred up to deep love of Jesus through the glory of a person’s face who has been transformed by the Spirit so that their face provides a demonstrative glimpse into the glory of God.

Jesus as the Grammar of God

November 20, 2020

John 14.6-7:

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

During the 20th century, the content of philosophy took a dramatic turn in beginning to give greater precedence to the nature of language and its relation to the world. This transition, which has been called the “Linguistic turn,” lead to the emergence of analytic philosophy, which has had profound impacts on the intellectual world of the 20th and 21st century, including in theology. For instance, the recent emergence of the discipline of analytic theology takes the aspirations of analytic philosophy as a launching point for describing God. Postliberal theology in the 20th century as developed by George Lindbeck is largely dependent upon the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was taken to be one of the fathers of the Linguistic turn. Even though he wasn’t a theologian, Wittgenstein made a brief about theology in his Philosophical Investigations: “Grammar tells what kind of object anything is. (Theology as grammar.)” (§373). While the meaning of Wittgenstein’s comment is not very clear, it does present a seminal idea that postliberal theology took to heart: theology is a set of rules about the appropriate way of speaking about and understanding God.

Lindbeck offers his understanding of religion as having the structure of a language:

Stated more technically, a religion can be viewed as a kind of cultural and/or linguistic framework or medium that shapes the entirety of life and thought. It functions somewhat like a Kantian a priori, although in this case the a priori is a set of acquired skills that could be different. It is not primarily an array of beliefs about the true and the good (though it may involve these), or a symbolism expressive of basic attitudes, feelings, or sentiments (though these will be generated). Rather, it is similar to an idiom that makes possible the description of realities, the formulation of beliefs, and the experiencing of inner attitudes, feelings, and sentiments. Like a culture or language, it is a communal phenomenon that shapes the subjectivities of individuals rather than being primarily a manifestation of those subjectivities. It comprises a vocabulary of discursive and nondiscursive symbols together with a distinctive logic or grammar in terms of which this vocabulary can be meaningfully deployed. Lastly, just as a language (or “language game,” to use Wittgenstein’s phrase) is correlated with a form of life, and just as a culture has both cognitive and behavioral dimensions, so it is also in the case of a religious tradition. Its doctrines, cosmic stories or myths, and ethical directives are integrally related to the rituals it practices, the sentiments or experiences it evokes, the actions it recommends, and the institutional forms it develops. All this is involved in comparing a religion to a cultural-linguistic system.1

Jacques Lacan considered the unconscious to be structured by language. Insofar as religion is an expression that comes from human psychology, it would make sense to describe religious doctrine as functioning like a language that shapes how we can even begin to describe the world around us, much as the psychological conscious is grounded upon the reality of the unconscious is psychoanalysis.

Yet, there is a question looming around the corner in structuring religion and theology with language: to what extent does the object of our thinking determine the nature of our thinking? It is one thing to suggest that religion and theology function as a linguistic system, but to what extent is the focus of our thinking, that is God, responsible for the construction of this cognitive “grammar?” In other words, does the living God determine the shape of our own ability to understand God, ourselves, the world, etc.?  As Michael Bird writes in Evangelical Theology, “Theology is speaking about God while in the very presence of God. We are intimately engaged with the subject of our study.”2 How is God responsible for the instantiation of our religious “grammars?”

Lindbeck’s conceptualization of religion regards a person’s engagement with the tradition as the primary formative component of a believer:

This stress on the code, rather than the (e.g., propositionally) encoded, enables a cultural-linguistic approach to accommodate the experiential-expressive concern for the unreflective dimensions of human existence far better than is possible in a cognitivist outlook. Religion cannot be pictured in the cognitivist (and voluntarist) manner as primarily a matter of deliberately choosing to believe or follow explicitly known propositions or directives. Rather, to become religious—no less than to become culturally or linguistically competent—is to interiorize a set of skills by practice and training. One learns how to feel, act, and think in conformity with a religious tradition that is, in its inner structure, far richer and more subtle than can be explicitly articulated. The primary knowledge is not about the religion, nor that the religion teaches such and such, but rather how to be religious in such and such ways.3

A couple of paragraphs later, Lindbeck regards the formation by the tradition as equivalent to having “the mind of Christ” that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 2.16. Ultimately, the mastery of religious grammar is a matter of one’s involvement within tradition that is expressed within “the total gestalt of community life and action.”4 Lindbeck’s analysis does not seem to take into account the role of direct religious experience or perception of God in the construction of a religious grammar. He doesn’t rule out the role of God in the religious life, but the Spirit is equated to the one who gives the capacity to hear and accept religion:

[T]o become religious involves becoming skilled in the language, the symbol system of a given religion. To become a Christian involves learning the story of Israel and of Jesus well enough to interpret and experience oneself and one’s world in its terms. A religion is above all an external word, a verbum externum, that molds and shapes the self and its world, rather than an expression or thematization of a preexisting self or of preconceptual experience. The verbum internum (traditionally equated by Christians with the action of the Holy Spirit) is also crucially important, but it would be understood in a theological use of the model as a capacity for hearing and accepting the true religion, the true external word, rather than (as experiential-expressivism would have it) as a common experience diversely articulated in different religions.5

Lindbeck’s linguistic-cultural model makes a critical distinction between truth-finding and sense-making capacities, associating religion with the latter. Consequently, religion does not provide the criteria by which we begin to discern truth. Furthermore, the hermeneutical, sense-making purpose of religion in Lindbeck’s description is focused on oneself and the world. Combined together, Lindbeck’s postliberal theology ascribes a purpose to religion that has little to do with discerning the truths about God.

Perhaps the critique to Lindbeck’s system may be best offered by attacking the foundation of Wittgenstein’s linguistic philosophy. Wittgenstein’s concept of language games stipulates that languages are a series of rules shared between persons, which then informs how we understand what the world is. Yet, language is not inherently rule-bound ways of describing and sense-making, but sometimes of deep expressions of the way things are. Language is not used simply to make sense of the world, but it is also an expression of oneself as an attempt to express the truth of what one sees, feels. experiences, etc. While the conventions that surround language certainly inform the way we speak so that those who hear can comprehend it, the speaker communicates because their experiences structures the nature of the thought the language gives expression to. When a Christian feels a powerful experience of God’s Spirit in their life, they may shout “Praise Jesus!” While this is a familiar form of expression that the religious community would interpret, the actual expression of praise in this familiar form is selected because of what it allows the person to express to God. It may invite onlookers to make sense of this person’s experience, but the person expresses it out of jubilation to say or do something, not to communicate. Or, consider a wedding where husband and wife exchange their vows and say “I do!” While such language usage may be formalized and follows a series of conventions that allow people to make sense of what the couple is saying, the power of these words are not in any sense-making they provide, but in the expression of oneself to commit their lives to the other person. As a speech-act, these words are a representation of the experience of a person that can not be readily understood simply by the rules of language.

To push this further, consider how poetry uses languages. Some poetry defies the conventions that language rules that cause people to often read without clarity as to the many. In so doing, the written word invites people to move beyond the conventions of language usage and probe deeper and to explore more into the fundamental nature of what is being said through word selection, rhyme, structure, etc. When a poet accomplishes this, it invites people to put away the rule-based conventional usage of language to invite a person to explore. In this case, the language of poetry is not sense-making, but rather it is the thing towards which a person is seeking to make sense. What initially may start a private language of the poet that would initially only have meaning for the poet, which Wittgenstein would theoretically reject, begins to convey an entirely different way of thinking, perceiving, feeling, and imagining precisely because it violates, if not deconstructs, linguistic conventions that lead people to have to think more in a non-verbal fashion to make sense of the written words. While the usage of the language on poetry may be a starting point for discerning the meaning of the poem, the meaning of the poem is often not reducible to the way language is used, but to the imagination the reader has in exploring the thought-world that the language of the poem simply points to.

To that end, language is multi-functional, providing the means by which people not only communicate so as to be understood through conventional, rule-based usage, but also express themselves and their experiences of the world, including in ways that may defy the rules of the language that are usually used to make sense of language. Sense-making and self-expression do go hand-in-hand as complementary functions, because the person who seeks to express themselves is often seeking to be understood by another. When the goal is to readily communicate meaning, self-expression aspires to become sense-making. Yet, self-expression need not be always locked to the sense-making capacities of language, in which case language functions less as a way to make sense, but it may take on a variety of functions. Similarly, while religion may fruitfully be compared to a language, its purposes should not be reduced to the rule-governing, sense-making function that Wittgenstein assigns to language and that the linguistic-cultural model assigns to religion. Religion and language can function in various other ways.

Consider Jesus’ parables, which were intended to teach His disciples the secrets of the kingdom, but yet to simultaneously keep other people confused and without understanding. Jesus takes an otherwise familiar, Rabbinic genre of instruction to make it easier for other people to understand and turns it on its head, using it to obscure meaning. The only way the disciples can understand is not by understanding the parable directly, but they had to have other knowledge elsewhere to then make sense of the parable (Mat. 13.12; “whoever has will be given more”). Ultimately, in order for the disciples to understand the parables of the kingdom, they had to know the King of that kingdom, their Teacher Jesus with whom they were deeply familiar. Jesus’ language wasn’t sense-making, but Jesus expressing Himself in a way that was sense-obscuring, which would entail relying on non-linguistic knowledge in order to make sense of these parables that were otherwise opaque and quite confounding. To that end, Jesus’ parables may be compared to a poet who obscures their meaning in the poem so that only a deeper reader who took the time to think and read would be able to comprehend. Since God is holy, making the kingdom of God unlike anything humans would be readily familiar with, then that means for Jesus to help people to comprehend the kingdom of heaven, He would not be able to communicate about it directly through language, as human language that is built for use in this world has no reliable way of making sense of the nature and reality of God.

So, this suggests a fundamental limitation of the employment of Wittgensteinian philosophy to make sense of the religion that Jesus taught. Jesus’ language oftentimes provokes mystery, confusion, and a need to inquire further through coming to Jesus that it does provide clear sense-making. Consequently, doctrine, at least doctrine the way Jesus taught it, can not adequately be understood like a set of grammatical rules that determine which theological statements are in and out of bounds. Jesus’ teaching is not regulative in function, but they challenge and call into question the very prerequisite understanding that is necessary to make sense of things and in turn regulate appropriate and inappropriate beliefs, expressions, etc.

To ultimately understand Jesus’ teachings, one could not simply pay attention to the words and try to make sense of them. Ultimately, one had to pay attention to the One who uttered them, that His own life makes sense of His word. In other words, the person of Jesus is the grammar of His instruction. To come to rightly understand and make sense of what Jesus teaches, one has to give greater focus and attention to the events that occurred in His own ministry, most particularly the cross and resurrection that is the consummation of His incarnation and brings about the consequence of His Lordship from where He will judge the world. Jesus’ is the “grammar” that gives understanding and meaning to His teaching.

What happens if we don’t put Jesus’ words within the context of His own life, if His person is not the “grammar” by which we make sense of His teaching. We begin to interpret Jesus against the backdrop of other human concerns, where the sense-making capacities of our language have been formed by the concerns of human engagement with the world without the robust knowledge of God or Jesus. To wrestle away Jesus’ words from the context of His life is to interpret them according to the interest and purposes that define our life, whether they emerge from our personal way that we understand the world and speak about it through language or the way meaning and significance has been passed on to us from our families, cultures, societies, etc.

One example where this becomes salient is when we interpret Jesus’ words in Matthew 7.13-14:

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

The backdrop when these words have often been interpreted is against the backdrop of heaven and hell. Many Christians have understood the significance of Jesus is that His death allows our sins to be forgiven so that we can go to heaven, which stems against the all-too-human desire to stave off death. Our own desire to preserve our lives is responsible for how then make sense of Jesus’ teaching here as the distinction between getting into heaven or hell, which is determined by our choice to believe in Jesus to extend our life eternally. As a consequence, it has been interpreted that many people will go to hell and only a few will go to heaven. Yet, when Jesus calls His disciples to take up the cross and to lose their life to save it, He is foreshadowing His own crucifixion which culminates with resurrection. Jesus’ words here are not about getting into heaven, but experience the resurrection power that gives life after one faces with the hard path of taking up one’s own cross. Jesus’ death and resurrection is the grammar by which we can understand these words.

Furthermore, the background of this teaching is Jesus’ role as a teacher in contrast to much of what was being taught by other Jewish teachers. When we see this teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, it is part of a broader body of teaching that is antithetical to the religious instruction by the Pharisees and scribes (Mat. 5.20). Also in Luke 7.22-30, Jesus is teaching as he travels to Jersualem. He is asked if only a few will be saved, to which Jesus responds with similar words to 7.13-14. The implication of those who do not enter through the narrow door (Luke 7.24) is that many will be excluded from the kingdom of God, even as there will be people from across the world who will be in the kingdom of God. Undergirding Jesus’ discourse is the idea that many Israelites will be excluded, while there will also be an inclusion of the Gentiles. The implication of Jesus’ teaching is not directed towards the amount of the world who will be saved, but that Jesus’ words should be understood in the context of His own teaching ministry that opposed Israel’s religious leadership. Israel as God’s people were misled by other teachers and Israel would only be saved by following Jesus through the narrow path that He teaches.

The life of Jesus is the grammar by which we understand Jesus’ teaching. On the one hand, to understand a person’s words by their life and action isn’t that profound. On the other hand, what is profound is when this gets paired with the Incarnation. If Jesus is God, then this means the life of Jesus is more than simply a grammar for the words that are spoken from Jesus’ mouth. Jesus’ life is the grammar by which we understand God Himself, including all of His word. In other words, to be able to understand and comprehend God and what He communicates, we have to do so through our knowledge about Jesus, most particularly through His crucifixion and resurrection. It is here where God’s will is comprehended and understood. To understand what God is doing, to know what God wants and desires for His creation, we have to go through the cross of Jesus to be able to make sense of God.

Yet, for so many, the significance of the cross of Jesus is simply about a cosmic transaction that affords us our forgiveness so we can get into heaven. Ultimately, such persons understand Jesus by reference to their own desire to preserve their life, which in the end is actually a motivation that is opposed to Jesus’ call to face one’s own mortality in taking up the cross. Consequently, when such people speak about God, they speak not from the point of view that the cross and resurrection make sense of God’s will, but rather a combination of their own purposes, their own goals, their own desires that determine how they understand language and the broader interests that formed their understanding of religious language and doctrine controls how they understand God. The grammar that controls their understanding of God is human interests that have not gone through the redemptive fire of cross and resurrection.

To understand God, one must understand God through the person of Jesus, which necessarily goes through the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Yet, for us to be able to natively understand Jesus’ life and His words, we ourselves much go through similar experiences of bearing our own crosses by facing our mortality and the subsequent experience of the life-giving power of God. Only then can we have a mind that can rightly discern God’s will and purposes (Rom. 12.1-2). If one tries to understand God apart from this, then the grammar we use to make sense of God comes from the grammar formed by unredeemed human purposes which are insufficient to understand a holy God who is distinct from the world.

As a result, religious instruction and teaching, aside from that which tells the story of Jesus Christ, in the Christian faith can not serve as the grammar by which we regulate religious expression and activity if the actual purpose is to know God and do His will. Instead, they are at their best serve as invitations to understanding mysteries by a deeper, meditative probing on the words that look to Jesus as the One who ultimately makes sense of the mystery of God’s will. Furthermore, if we want to discern God’s will for our life, where He is leading and guiding us personally, we must pass through the purifying fire of the cross to be able to perceive and understand what God is doing in us and for us.

It is that this point where the problem of much religion becomes apparent. Insofar as the life of Jesus Christ that culminates in the cross and resurrection is not truly taken to be how we make sense of God’s will, truth, etc., religion becomes a reflection of the various human interests that appeal to Jesus as a legitimation for their doctrines. Jesus’ doesn’t make sense of God for them, but rather their own understanding and purposes make sense of God and Jesus is appealed to as a justification for that, both in what He taught or what He did. The “grammar” of religious doctrine is formed by unredeemed human desires, even if these purposes and desires are draped with the sheep’s clothing of Jesus’ words and “depend” on Jesus’ cross. Talking about God, talking about Jesus, appealing to the cross, etc. does not itself provide insight into God’s will. One must see the person of Jesus as the One who helps us to come to the Father by being the One who makes sense of God for us, where we are then invited to press further into following Jesus by taking up one’s own cross and trusting in God’s life-giving power.

The life of Jesus must become our grammar for making sense of and His will.

Salvation in the cross through demonstration and participation

November 17, 2020

Romans 3.21-26:

But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been shown, and is attested by the law and the prophets, namely, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; being freely vindicated by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God publicly displayed through faith as a mercy seat by his blood for the demonstration of His righteousness through the disregard of the previously committed sin by the tolerance of God, aiming at the demonstration of His righteousness in the present time for at the present time with the result that He is righteous even as He vindicates the one by the faith of Jesus.

Romans 5.8:

But God shows his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.

Romans 8:31-32:

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who will be against us? He who indeed did not spare His own Son, handed him over for all of us, how will he not also freely give to us all things with him?

The history of Christianity has been haunted. It has been haunted by what I call the “ghost of atonement.” The attempt to try to explain how exactly it is that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ contributes to our salvation. The intellectual attempt to reflect on this is noble, as the redemptive nature of Jesus’ death is indeed a central part of the understanding of the whole New Testament. But yet, the way the Church has tried to explain the atoning death of Jesus has persistently lead to the temptation to appeal to what I refer to as “intellectual ghosts,” abstract concepts that become reified in the human imagination, to offer a “theory” as to how Jesus’ death saves the world from our sins. Whether it be redemption from a curse that hung over all humanity as Justin Martyr explained the cross, some reified notion of ransoming from Satan, repayment for a debt of honor per Athanasius, some substitution for punishment to be delivered for sins, etc. the significance of the cross has been repeatedly explained by reference to some abstracted idea about a negative state of affairs, whether it be that of a curse, slavery, debt, guilt, that is treated not merely as a metaphor but as the metaphysical reality behind the cross.

The problem with the “ghost of the atonement” is two-fold. First, the Scriptures do not testify to these various “ghosts” in any sort of clear, resounding way that should make us confident about our metaphysical portrayals of the power of the cross. Most, if not all, attempts to find a metaphysics behind the cross are simply the intellectual imagination demanding an explanation of the cross that the Scriptures do not give. Worse than that, they often (unintentionally) mutilate the Jewish Scriptures and misunderstand Israel’s story to validate the overall theory. For instance, the curse in Galatians 3.12-14 is often taken to be a curse upon humanity, even though Paul explicitly connects the curse to those who seek to live according to a pattern of deeds derived from the Torah. The curse is a curse placed upon Israel for failure to upon Torah, not a curse upon the world.

Second, by searching for the “ghost of the atonement,” we begin to give this ghost greater influence in our worship and life, often unconsciously, to the point that we can even begin to portray the nature of God as conforming to this intellectual ghost constructed by human imagination. As a consequence, we take a is a reified abstraction, that is we imagine an abstraction of reality itself to become something real, which may even then come to be a projection upon God. The most glaring example of this is the picture of atonement where God’s wrath is going to send people to hell for anyone sin, but only because Jesus takes the punishment in our place can we escape this. The nature of a persistent entity called “guilt” hangs over us after the committing of sin is ultimately projected onto the character of God who stays angry at our sin except until God punishes it. However, this picture is antithetical to Israel’s testimony that God is slow to anger (Exodus 34.6). Insofar as this trickles down to the way we understand issues such as justice, sin, etc., this forms people to become somewhat two-faced, talking about love and forgiveness and yet being quick to anger like the portrayal of God that they have.

The problem with all of these “ghosts” is that they are a reification of abstractions that make them two steps away from the original thing they are derived from. For instance, the phenomenological feelings of guilt and fears of punishment become abstracted into the idea of guilt and punishment which is then metaphysically imagined as an inherent nature of reality where something nonpersonal entity of guilt and inherent necessity of punishment is given ontological priority over the significance of the cross. Ultimately, however, these “ghosts” are nothing more than simulacra that one can not definitively demonstrate in the Scriptures, but only pointing Scriptures that speak about the original phenomena. It is thought that original phenomena and the “ghosts” are the same things, when in fact there is a veiled equivocation that confuses the regular phenomenon we all experience and that the Scriptures speak to with the highly altered simulacra of reified abstractions. Even more than this, though, the raising of the “ghosts of the atonement” to metaphysics leads to the even more pernicious hermeneutical that sees the hands of the “ghosts” behind every passage of Scripture and even the study of the historical and linguistic sources that one relies upon for the study of the Bible, without demonstrative warrants for them.

Yet, if we pay close attention to the one letter of the New Testament that gives perhaps the greatest attention to the significance of the crucifixion of Jesus for salvation, Paul’s letter to the Romans, we see language that doesn’t describe these veiled forms of metaphysics. For Paul, the cross is not the satisfaction of some metaphysical reality or even the change of some theological necessity that God’s anger demanding punishment, that must happen before we can become saved from our sins. Rather, at the heart of Paul’s understanding of the significance of the cross is demonstration and participation.

When we read Romans 3.21-26, there is a clustering of language that pertains to the act of making something visible and evident. The righteousness of God has been shown (πεφανέρωται) (vs. 21). God publicly displayed (προέθετο) Jesus as a mercy-seat (vs. 25). God’s righteousness is said to be demonstrated (ἔνδειξιν). This clustering of language is not coincidental, but it expresses the very way that Paul construes God’s action through the cross of Jesus Christ. The cross is demonstrative in that it makes something known and clear.

What is it that the cross demonstrates? The cross of Jesus Christ demonstrates God’s tolerance (3.25-26a: τῇ ἀνοχῇ τοῦ θεοῦ). Later, Paul says in Romans 5.8 that God shows (συνίστησιν) his love by Christ’s death. Then, in Romans 8.31-32, Paul uses the handing over of Christ by God as evidence of God’s bountiful intentions. Paul understands the cross to be the event where God so clearly makes His own loving character visibly known to the world.

To be clear, though, Paul does not understand this love of God to be forgiveness, per se, but rather the way that God overlooks all the sin that had been previously committed (Rom. 3.25). The logic of this statement becomes evident when we understand the Greek word ἱλαστήριον to refer to the mercy seat on the ark of the covenant, as it is used in the Greek Septuagint, rather than the more abstract concepts in translating it as a propitiation, atonement, etc. The demonstrative language προέθετο in Romans 3.25 that generally describes a public display gives a strong preference for ἱλαστήριον to be understood as something concrete and tangible. Given that the Ark of Covenant was to be stored in the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle where only the High Priest could approach once a year on Yom Kippur after they made purification for their own sin, describing a ἱλαστήριον as something that is publicly accessible to everyone as God overlooks their sin best fits with Jesus’ blood as a radically new type of mercy seat that the world can see and know. Even though the world has not been cleansed of their sin, God displays a new mercy-seat through Jesus’ cross before the world. This tolerance of God, this love of God is not understood by Paul to be the forgiveness of sins, strictly speaking, but rather that tolerance and patience (cf. Rom. 2.4).

What then is being demonstrated? That God’s tolerance and love for sinners, even the ungodly, extends even to the point of Christ’s death on the cross. While we might think of this as how far God will go to save sinners from their sins, I would put forward a slightly different twist to this. The cross is the place where God’s mercy intersects with the beginnings of God’s wrath, metaphorically (and not metaphysically) speaking. Israel was so imprisoned in sin, even though they had the Torah from God (Rom. 3.9-20), that they crucified the very Son of God. They ultimately rejected God and His reign over them through His Son (cf. Rom. 1.3-4). How egregious an offense this would be. It is one thing to die for someone who is good to you, but it is another thing to die for someone who spites you (cf. Rom. 5.6-7). Yet, this is how far God is willing to go in sending His Son to die at the hands of the ungodly who set themselves again Him.

Yet, God’s patience does have an endpoint, where wrath becomes the final outcome. Those whose lives refuse to acknowledge God and continue in their sin and thus become full of evil are primed for God’s apocalyptic judgment of sin and death (Rom. 1.19-32), so that anyone who refuses to repent as God is extending tolerance and forgiveness is storing up wrath for their future (Romans 2.4-5). The cross of Jesus Christ was the wide-spread refusal of much of Israel to recognize God. At this point, then, people are at a crossroads, either repent while God has shown how far His patience and love goes towards those who spite Him or continue the downward trajectory that ultimately sets people’s hearts to be wicked towards other people. The cross demonstrates God’s loving patience with an implicit warning: continue further down this line of injustice and you will become worth for this death

While the logic of narrative is based upon stating that Israel rejected God through crucifying His Son and their Savior, this is not for non-Jews to cast judgment on Israel. They shouldn’t arrogantly embrace anti-semitism in response (cf. Rom. 11.17-24). If Israel, who had God’s Torah, was unable to overcome sin because human nature in the flesh is stubbornly resistant to God’s will and purposes, how much more so would the rest of the nations be susceptible to the same reject of God if He had come to the flesh to them. Indeed, even Pilate as representing Roman power didn’t have the character to save this innocent man. So, all humanity is implicated in the cross as what we were just as susceptible to do apart from the transformative work of God in our life.

Now one might make the accusation that much of this reading that implies the cross is redemptive by demonstrating God’s love in response to Israel’s sin is not explicitly in the text, much like I accuse many metaphysical atonement theologies interpretations of lacking exegetical warrants. This is true, yet at the same time I would put up that my reading makes coherent sense of the way the various parts of Paul’s discourse function as part of the whole epistle. Furthermore, I can offer up a good explanation why it is missing: because the Jews were most likely expelled for disturbances about as “Chrestus,” it is likely that now that they have returned, Paul would want to minimize any explicit mention of the past conflicts about the Jewish for fear of stoking the same conflicts again, or even inviting the leering suspicions of Jewish Christians by Roman officials. With this in tow, I strain to think of a historically plausible reason for Paul not giving a clear description of the metaphysics of atonement that many put forward as explanations of the saving power of the cross, while at the time finding most of them lacking coherency with the rest of Paul’s letter.

The reason the cross can have this sort of power is that the cross was paired with the vindication of Jesus in the resurrection, demonstrating that Jesus is indeed the Son of God (Rom. 1.3-4). This makes clear that Jesus is on God’s side, that He was the righteous one in God’s eyes as the resurrection of life from the dead in Daniel 12.1-3 was to be evidence of those people who are wise and lead people to righteousness. Thus, the resurrection makes evident that to crucify Jesus is to set oneself against God by putting to death the One who displays God’s righteousness. So the crucifixion can be seen as the great extent that God endures the hostility of the sin of the ungodly, with an implicit warning that comes with continuing further down this line of sin.

Jesus’ cross is God’s tolerance shown to the world, the great extent of God’s patient love made evident to the world. When one realizes this love, when one recognizes that God is willing to vindicate even the ungodly who set themselves against Him (Rom. 4.6) yet at the same time that God will by no means leave the wicked unpunished who refuse to turn from their sins, what can one do but repent of one’s wickedness and seek God’s help to lead one into a new direction in life?

This is where the demonstration leads to participation. If Jesus is the revelation of God’s righteousness and we are stuck in sin, then the step towards God’s type of righteousness, rather than the illusory sense of “righteousness” we might have imagined ourselves to have, begins where it was shown to the world: in the cross. As we offer our lives as living sacrifices, our minds start becoming transformed so that we can actually discern what God’s will looks like (Rom. 12.1-2). Participating with Jesus in His death and suffering (Romans 6.1-14, 8.17; cf. Rom. 5.3-5) gives power to our repentance, enabling us to realize a new life of righteousness through being also united with Jesus’ resurrection.

Yet, the appropriate explanation for participation isn’t some other “ghost of atonement.” Rather, it is the Ghost of Holiness, that is, the Holy Spirit. For Paul, life in Christ is made possible and powered by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8.1-17). Just as the mercy seat at the Ark of the Covenant has a pillar of cloud and smoke representing God’s presence hovering above it like it also lead Israel in the wilderness, so too is the mercy seat of Jesus’ blood paired with the Holy Spirit who teaches and guides us how to put to death the deeds of the body. To that end, we can understand Jesus’ death as the prophetic act par excellence that demonstrate’s God’s love and power that outstrips even the recognition that Jesus has as Lord with those who believe, but His own sacrificial act lead by the Spirit is also a taste of the Holy Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead and who is at work in the whole world through Jesus.

Therefore, the only explanation I suggest we need to appeal to make sense of the atonement asides from God demonstrating His righteous love to us through Jesus and His crucifixion is the Holy Spirit. Atonement is fundamentally shaped by the Triune God, rather than pushing God to the periphery of atonement to put whatever metaphysics one imagines to explain the atonement in His place. Such metaphysics may provide an illustrious show of cognitive smoke and mirrors, but it is the agency of the Triune God that is responsible for our atonement, as the demonstration of the Father’s patient love in Jesus Christ leads us who believe towards the transforming, resurrecting power of the Holy Spirit in our own lives. AS we look to the face of Jesus Christ, rather than to the “ghosts of the atonement,” we become transformed by the Spirit of the Lord who brings forth the glory of God seen in the face of Jesus Christ in our own lives.

In saying this, I offer it not just simply as some abstract, philosophical reflection on atonement, but as an expression rooted deep in my own life, in my own experiences with pain, struggle, trauma, faith, love, and hope that serve as a paler prophetic demonstration of the power and work of God in salvation from our sin and weakness of the flesh.1 Either I am a fool in all of this (but at least I am a fool for Christ) or I hope my life and experiences are a prophetic demonstration of this Gospel of Jesus Christ that I hope God is using to transform the world in Christ and through the Holy Spirit. Yet, this understanding is not something I came to myself, but it was only because of the gifts of God, including through the Diamond formed by heaven, who herself was a prophetic demonstration of God’s compassionate love that watered me while the Spirit was interceding for me in my time of great weakness, allowing for God to do a work in me that far outstrips the love I have for the Diamond, whose face demonstrated what the face of the Hyperdiamond, Jesus Christ, would have looked like in response to my painful weakness.2

In all this, I also have the Diamond to thank for helping remove my… mask.

Prophetic ministry as demonstrative, not declarative

November 15, 2020

Deuteronomy 18.20-22:

But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die. You may say to yourself, “How can we recognize a word that the LORD has not spoken?” If a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the LORD has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it.

Jeremiah 1.9-10:

Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me,
“Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”

Ezekiel 2.3-4:

He said to me, Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day. The descendants are impudent and stubborn. I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, “Thus says the Lord GOD.” Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.

What does it mean to be a prophet? The image that dominates the modern consciousness about a prophet is someone who predicts the future. However, this definition is also commonly criticized in favor of the prophet as “forthtelling” God’s word to God’s people. Walter Brueggemann offers a more specific definition in his widely acclaimed The Prophetic Imagination:

The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us… The alternative consciousness to be nurtured, on the one hand, serves to criticize in dismantling the dominant consciousness. To that extent, it attempts to do what the liberal tendency has done: engage in a rejection and delegitimizing of the present ordering of things. On the other hand, that alternative consciousness to be nurtured serves to energize persons and communities by its promise of another time and situation toward which the community of faith may move. To that extent, it attempts to do what the conservative tendency has done, to live in fervent anticipation of the newness that God has promised and will surely give.1

Yet, it may be said that Brueggeman’s definition is more of an analysis of what happens when the prophet speaks and acts, but that is not necessarily the specific purpose the prophet seeks to accomplish.

One critical aspect of the prophetic ministry is that prophets verbally communicate. While this may seem obvious, it is important to emphasize that speech and writing is a common medium by which the prophet communicates what God is speaking. Moses is sent to speak to Pharoah. God puts His words in the mouth of Jeremiah. Ezekiel is called to speak with the authoritative “Thus says the Lord God.”

However, to define the prophet as simply communicating words that come from God is needlessly reductive. The prophets not only communicate God’s purposes through words but also through actions. God repeatedly tells Moses to take some action and then God powerfully acts at the same time, such as when Moses stretches his hand over the sea as the Red Sea divides. Repeatedly, Ezekiel is to portray the future judgment upon Israel. Hosea’s prophetic ministry is intertwined with his dysfunctional marriage with Gomer as a sign of God’s relationship to Israel. While the prophets spoke on behalf of God, they did not simply speak but they also acted.

The nature of these prophetic actions, both verbal and non-verbal, were not intended to declare something true from God, whether it be about the future or simply to give knowledge about God. Rather, prophetic action is to be properly understood as participating in God’s bringing about His purposes in the world. Israel is lead and sustained in the wilderness by God acted through Moses. Samuel does not predict who will become king of Israel, but rather God through Samuel anoints Saul and later David to rule over Israel. Isaiah is called to make the people dull of understanding. When Jeremiah is called, God does not say that he will predict what will happen to nations, but that Jeremiah will himself determine political futures. The prophets speak and act with power that brings about a new future.

Yet, this power is not the native power of the prophet. There are many people who speak and act who can change the world through their own power and authority. Political leaders, CEOs, popular pastors, etc. all have a power with their words and actions that can impact what happens in the future. This power comes from the status that is intrinsic to them, as their popularity, wealth, position, etc., procures the ability to impact the future. Yet, for the prophet, their power can not be reduced to their authority and status within society. While they are like any other human whose words and actions can impact those around them, the power that their words and actions have upon the world around them is not determined by their influence. Instead, the power that they have is ultimately rooted in the power of God to change the world in accordance to the words and actions of the prophet. The power of their own actions by themselves would be puny and ineffective by itself. However, insofar as they are speaking and acting in accordance to God’s will, their words exhibit and demonstrate a power in the world that spans beyond the capacity of their own influence.

What this means is this: the effectiveness of the ministry of the prophet is not connected to the social status and approval the prophet has among the people. We may be inclined to think of prophets as authorities over people for multiple reasons. One looks as Moses and the later judges of Israel, where the prophetic ministry of communicating God’s word and the administrative ministry of leadership are combined, and we may be inclined to think a prophet has social power. We may also look after the fact of how the words of the prophets in the Scriptures now have authority over us as believers and so we may be inclined to transfer the authority of Scripture to the authority that the prophetic role has. Consequently, we may look at the prophet as one whose words declare what people should think and believe. Yet, a close look at the role of the prophet is not as a person who has authority over people, even if they may have an additional role that gives them authority. Prophetic action is not about making declarations about God that people are to listen to simply because the prophet speaks; their words are not an authority. Instead, the power of prophetic action is always tied to the God who acts through and alongside the prophet.

So what then is the purpose of the prophet, if it isn’t to authoritatively declare what people should believe? It is to demonstrate God’s purposes, both through word and action, that brings about a transformation of the world around them that far outstrips the social status that the prophets have. God works in synergy with the ministry of the prophet, where the words and actions of the prophet portray God’s purposes to the people, which the people either accept or reject. Through the prophet, people catch a glimpse of God’s will, whether they believe the prophet is sent from God or not, and it this glimpse from a true prophet that will allow those who receive the prophet to comprehend when God does act, or when they reject the prophet they are then setting themselves against God’s purposes. At the center of the power of the prophet is that by demonstrating God’s will, the hearts and the minds of those who hear and witness them are changed to either receive or reject God when He manifests His power and love to the world.

John the Baptist is a prime example of this, as the forerunner to Jesus Christ. John calls people to repentance in preparation for the coming of the Lord and he baptized people as a demonstration of the baptism of the Spirit that Jesus gives. The ministry of John the Baptist is a prophetic ministry that provides a demonstrative glimpse of what the Word made flesh accomplishes. John the Baptist understood this, as he recognized that the visibility and status that his prophetic ministry did have would decrease as the One who ministry was to prepare people to receive came to the forefront. Whatever influence and de facto authority John the Baptist may have come to have, it was this type of power that defined his prophetic ministry, but it was the demonstrative foretaste of God’s love and power that defined his ministry.

Perhaps this is why Deuteronomy 18.20-22 defines the true prophet as one whose words come to pass. Rather than trying to say that prophets predict the future, perhaps it is in effect understanding that the words of the prophet are a foretaste of God’s purposes that demonstrate what God is doing. To that end, perhaps future fulfillment is not to be understood as a sign of prophetic authority, but rather it is the power of the prophet whose demonstrative words and actions inspired by God are participating in God’s activity among His people and the entire world. While Israel is called to listen to the prophet (Deuteronomy 10.15), nothing is said about obeying what the prophet says. Perhaps this is because the prophet is not an authority, but simply an agent by which people can come to comprehend God’s will because people would shrink in fear at God directly speaking to them (Deuteronomy 10.16).

To that end, this leads to a radical way of understanding the prophetic ministry of Jesus and the cross, which I will address in a later post. To give a preview, rather than trying to ground the significance of the cross in terms of something atonement theory about the effect of Jesus’ death based upon some metaphysical change that occurs as a consequence which allows us to be saved, the cross is the place where Jesus’ prophetic ministry comes to the fullest demonstration of God’s loving purposes to the world that has rejected Him. In other words, salvation comes by perceiving God’s love of sinners in the cross, with the resurrection as the prophetic demonstration of the general resurrection of the eschaton. More on that later, though.

The mother hen as a replacement of the Rabbinic schools – Matthew 23.37-39/Luke 13.34-35

November 14, 2020

Matthew 23.37-39:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’ ”

In the Gospels of Matthew 23.37-39 and Luke13.34-35, Jesus spoke an apparent riddle to his audience that is a bit perplexing to make sense of on the surface. Four statements that do not readily suggest a coherent interpretation are given:

1) Jerusalem kills the prophets sent to her.

2) Jesus wanted to gather Jerusalem like a hen her chicks.

3) The desolation of their house.

4) Jesus’ absence until they say “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”

The connection between these four pronouncements is not readily apparent on the surface. What does killing prophets have to do with hens and their chicks? What does that have to do with the desolation of the “house?” And what connection is there between all of these and Jesus’ statement about their no longer seeing him until that acknowledge He was blessed as one sent with the name of the Lord?

One way to offer a coherent reading of Jesus’ riddle is to consider the possibility that Jesus’ speech has a small chiastic structure. Pronoucements #1 and #4 are connected to each other along two lines: (1) Prophets are are sent and come and (2) the death of the prophets, which is implied to happened to Jesus by his statement “you will not see me again…” In the outer ring of of the chiasmus is a proclamation of the murderous behavior that Jerusalem has and will have towards those sent to her. While Matthew and Luke differ as to what circumstance Jesus said these words, they both agree that Jesus’ words occur in a circumstance where Jesus speaks of the Pharisees murdering the prophets (Matthew 23.29-36) of or is threatened by the Pharisees to be murdered by Herod (Luke 13.31-33).

On the other hand, the inner ring of the chaismus between pronouncements #2 and #3 do not readily suggest themselves in our English translations. However, a little bit of knowledge of Jewish culture can shed some light on a possible thematic connection. First, Jesus uses the word the relatively rare word ἐπισυνάγω to describe the way hens gather chicks. While it is not a technical word itself, it is lexically associated with the word for the Jewish gathering for instruction in the Torah, the synagogue/συναγωγή. Then, houses were a metaphor regularly used to describe the schools of Rabbinic instruction, like the houses of the Rabbinal teaches of Hillel and Shammai. Together, this suggests that Jesus riddle is connecting to Jesus intentions to be a teacher of Israel yet his rejection has left the house/Rabbinic bereft desolate. Given that in both Matthew and Luke place this speech where Jesus is directly/indirectly addressing the Pharisees, it makes sense for the inner ring of the chiasmus to be connected by the idea of Rabbinic instruction.

Putting the two rings of the chaismus together, it would imply that Jesus saw Himself as a prophet who was sent to teach Israel and would, in the end, be rejected. Jesus portrayal of His intentions like a mother hen would serve as a contrast to the intentions of the Pharisees in their pedagogical authority. Whereas the Pharisees ultimately have hearts that ultimately seek to murder, the heart of Jesus is to protect those who would receive Him. Jesus’ words are an echo of Isaiah 31:5

Like birds hovering overhead, so the LORD of hosts
will protect Jerusalem;
he will protect and deliver it,
he will spare and rescue it.

NT Wright suggests that the image of the hen is about protecting her chicks from a farmyard fire in order to turn away the divine wrath that Israel is about to receive.1 Yet, the context of Isaiah 31.5 portrays a different picture, where the protection of the Lord is contrasted with those who trust in human strength (Isaiah 31.1-3). Similarily, Jeremiah 17.5-6 provides an example of the regular warning that trusting in humans rather than the Lord would lead to them to be people who lived in the desolate regions (ἔρημος), just as Jesus spoke of the house being desolate (ἔρημος also). Rather than the image of the hen being that of one who protects from the coming wrath, it is an image of God’s provision and protection that Israel should place their trust in. However, because they have not chosen to trust in and learn from the one who God has sent, their dependence upon human strength will fail them.

One of Jesus’ consistent criticisms of the Pharisees is that they seek to be adored by people (Matthew 6. and for people to lifted up as a trusting figure, such as a rabbi, teacher, and father that leads them to place burndens upon those they teach rather than provide help and support to those who they teach (Matthew 6.1-6, 16-18, 7.1-5, 23.1-12). Their use of the Torah was regularly done to give them exemptions from God’s commandments (Matthew 5.17-20, 15.1-9).The world of the Pharisees was ultimately centered upon human power and authority that was used for self-aggrandizement rather than trusting in and obeying God and reflecting His caring, nurturing, shalom-making love. In the end, they would murder and threaten murder to retain their power. Beyond that, to the extent that the Pharisees were secretly involved with a rising Maccabean-like zeal in resistance to Roman power, they would be further placing their trust in human strength.

Consequently, their aggressive, self-aggrandizing ways lead them to reject the ways of shalom/peace that Jesus instructs. For instance, they have trouble accepting that Jesus heals on the Sabbath and that he would forgive sins, suggesting that their hearts do not ultimately value human life and well-being, but that they have set themselves against the others. Jesus quotes from Psalm 118.26, which is a Psalm expressing a trust in the Lord in the face of mortal threats:

With the LORD on my side I do not fear.
What can mortals do to me?
The LORD is on my side to help me;
I shall look in triumph on those who hate me.
It is better to take refuge in the LORD
than to put confidence in mortals.
It is better to take refuge in the LORD
than to put confidence in princes. (Psalm 118.6-9)

Yet, there are those who reject and do not trust in God’s protection that the Psalmist is saved from:

I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the LORD’s doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes. (Psalm 118.21-23)

Psalm 118.22 was used by the early church to describe the way people, most notably religious leaders, rejected Jesus. (1 Peter 2.7) So, when the words “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD” are heard from Psalm 118.26a, we see similar themes of trusting God and of rejection of the way of God’s salvation.

Furthermore, Jesus’ language of the house echoes Psalm 26.b: “We bless you from the house of the LORD.” Whereas the house was an idiom for schools of Rabbinic instruction, here house is used as a metaphor for the temple of God. This different use of the house metaphor represents the distinction in whose is trusted. By calling Rabbinic schools “houses” such as the houses of Hillel and Shammai, they ultimately placed their religious trust in human teachers, which Jesus forbids his disciples to engage in (Matthew 23.8-12). On the other hand, the house oas the temple of the Lord places God as the center of religious trust and hope.

At the heart of Jesus’ criticism towards the Pharisees and the religious leadership is their trust in human power and status. Their trust in human power revealed by their reverence for the social status that they could accumulate through their religious piety is a contributor to why they rejected Jesus as the Teacher send from God. This trust in human power would ultimately seal the fate of the religious leadership as a whole in Jerusalem over 3 decades later as the Jewish rebellion rooted in human power would lead to the destruction of Jerusalem 70 A.D.

So, in contrast to the self-aggrandizing ways that devalues mercy and compassion, Jesus’ portrayal of his own Rabbinic intentions are that of love and protection. Jesus’ gathering as a hen her chicks is a vision of an alternative “synagogue” with a different attitude of helping people with the burdens of life (Matthew 11.28-30; contrast with Matthew 23.4). The hen is not an image of protecting Jerusalem from the coming wrath as per NT Wright, but the very nature of Jesus’ ministry that the religious authorities in Jerusalem rejected. However, it is this rejection of Jesus that is instrumental in their coming desolation and destruction.

Yet, Jesus does not speak this with utter hopeless for the Pharisees and other religious leadership. He tells them they will not see him UNTIL they say “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Such language suggests that Jesus will be vindicated in the eyes of some of them, when they were wrong to put him to death but that He was actually sent by God like the prophets before Him The foreshadowed vindication of the resurrection will provoke those who crucified Jesus to repentance (cf. Acts 2.36-37). Even with thier rejection of the One whom God sent, Jesus still leaves open the possibility that they will come to see and recognize Him in the future. Acts 6.7 states many priests in Jerusalem did come to believe and Acts 15.5 implies some Pharisees did come to accept Jesus, even as they rejected the entrance of Gentiles without circumcision and Torah-observance. Utlimately, some came to embrace Jesus as their Rabbi, which ultimately came through the instruction/discipline of the cross of Jesus (cf. מוּסָר in Isaiah 53.5).

In summary, Jesus’ description of himself wishing to gather Jerusalem like hens do their chicks is an image of a different synagogue/gathering of Israel’s people that ultimately as God through Jesus as the One He sent at the center, with mercy and compassion that seeks to protect defining the nature of this religious instruction. Even though Jesus was initially rejected, through His crucifixion He did become the Rabbi who taught and healed those who believed in Him, including of their sins. In that way, Jesus’ intentions to create an alternative synagogue with a different form of instruction is a fulfillment of the words of Isaiah 2.2-4:

In days to come
the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!