In my research on wisdom on 1 Corinthians, I have taken some time to read through the wisdom of ben Sira in the Old Testament apocrypha. Without going into great detail, I believe that Sirach’s wisdom in one of three different forms of wisdom that stand in the background of 1 Corinthians (the other two being Stoic philosophy and Greco-Roman rhetoric).
But as I am reading, I can not help but but observe something important. On the one hand, Sirach clearly continues in the tradition of wisdom of the canonical Proverbs. However, there is also a particular shift in Sirach’s style. Whereas occasionally, Proverbs will praise the wise person, it more frequently focuses on wisdom as an idea, commonly personified in the form of Lady Wisdom. Sirach, by contrast, tends to spend more time humanizing wisdom, portraying specific persons as wise or its opposite of foolish, evil, etc. To put differently, where Proverbs spends more time idealizing wisdom, Sirach spends more time idealizing wise people.
This difference has a particular effect to it. The whole of Sirach 12 can be summarized as “Don’t spend time with sinners.” Proverbs has its own passages warning against sinners, but it is under the guise of warding off the specific influence they might have on one’s own actions, such as in Proverbs 13:20 and 22:24-25. The concern about proverbs is the effect that sinners can have on your own behavior. This concern about associating with sinners has morphed in Sirach 12, where the concerned is about the danger that sinners might have to harm and betray you. For Sirach, the immoral and foolish are considered enemies, either actual or potential, whereas for Proverbs, they are considered potentially bad influences on one’s own person. For Sirach, they are roadblocks to one’s well-being, whereas for Proverbs, they are roadblocks to one’s wisdom.
In other words, by focusing on the wise person, rather than on the ideal of wisdom itself, Sirach instrumentalizes wisdom for the purpose of the possessor of wisdom. Wisdom is increasingly not regarded something to value that then provides benefits, wisdom is values for its benefits. There always exists the tension between valuing something for its own sake and for its instrumental efficacy, but Sirach as shifted the pole increasingly towards efficacy. Consequently, persons are similarly portrayed in such a manner as their value to one’s own well-being: hence, sinners are seen as a threat.
It is against this background then that we may then consider Jesus’ own practice of eating with sinners and tax collectors. By being lumped with tax collectors, sinners could be considered on the treacherous side, just as tax collectors were deemed Roman-conspiring traitors to their own people. For the Pharisees and scribes, no doubt influenced to some degree by Sirach if his description on the scribe in Sirach 39 is any suggestion, they were questioning Jesus’ judgment more than the commonly modern political romanticization of “Jesus being on the wrong side of things.” It is interesting, then, that Jesus response to this question “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Mark 2:17) echoes more mentality of the concerns about social contagion in Proverbs, but in reverse. Rather than the foolishness of the sinners being “contagious,” Jesus can reverse the course for the sinners.
Against this backdrop we can make better sense of Jesus’ actions. Far from being the prophet of inclusion that many want to make him to be, Jesus is doing the opposite of that which motivates those who vouch for inclusion. For Sirach and those who are influenced by Sirach, they are concerned about safety, hence they question Jesus’ judgment. Later, this morphs into them seeing Jesus as a threat to their own interests. But for Jesus, the concern is to bring them to repentance.
But it is important to recognize the nature of Jesus’ own actions with the sinners. Nowhere do we reach the sense of: “Hey. You guys have been too hard on them. They are really good people that you just haven’t recognized.” or “You need to forget all they did and just accept them.” Nor do Jesus’ actions fit into questions access and inclusion that our modern social and political debates are concerned about. Rather, it boils down to a simple question: are sinners worthy of being reached out to or are they lost to the judgment of God? The Torah never directly addresses this question, as those who sin in a defiant, high-handed way are excluded from the community with no hope of atonement. (Numbers 15:30-31) In this ambiguity and gap, the judgment of the sinners as treacherous could very well have left the sinners as unworthy and unsafe of ever being restored. But for Jesus, the answer to this ambiguity is a bit different and isn’t deteremined by the self-preservation of Sirach’s wisdom.
But before getting to that, it should be noted that nothing Jesus says and does suggest that Torah’s principle of exclusion and vulnerability to the guilt of one’s stubborn defiant actions is no longer the case. For instance, Jesus association with sinners does not fit into the modern rhetoric of “grace” and “forgiveness” that allows abusers to keep their status, power, and access as has become the penchant of many who claim Christ and yet exonerate severe breaches of misconduct from political figures. Rather, Jesus’ actions are pointed towards this basic conviction: sinners can be redeemed and given a place at the table of fellowship, not sinners should be given the keys to the kingdom (sinners are included in God’s Kingdom, but it is because God has the keys, not the sinner).
Against this backdrop we can understand the Parable of the Prodigal Son: the father chases after his son upon seeing him making his way back, even after the high-handed defiant actions of his son. Why? Because the father’s love makes him go out and then provide a fatted calf. The son is not “unsafe” but is sought out to be restored by the father’s own actions. And the older son, far from simply whining about moral superiority of his past actions, portrays his younger brother in terms of self-serving and treacherous behavior who has not proven his worth. Paraphrasing Jesus’ words from the parable: “Immediately, as soon as he comes back, you bless him with something precious, even though he went so far as to waste all he took with prostitutes. You don’t seem to recognize who is worthy of trust!” The father’s words suggest that the older son is interpreting this as a matter of trust, saying “Son, you are always with me” as an expression of the recognition of faithfulness. But then the father reframes it to say this is a matter of a celebration of restoration, not a recognition of faithfulness. The Parable of the Prodigal Son is understood as a challenge against a culture that is so rife for distrust of the once fallen.
And it is this reading of the Prodigal Son against the backdrop of high handed sin and the treachery of sinners that Jesus’ action can make sense: God has provided the atoning sacrifice that goes far beyond the atonement of the Old Covenant; God has taken it upon Himself to invite those who have forgotten and rejected Him to come close again. Jesus is personally reaching out the dangerous. He isn’t simply reaching out to the unpopular, the disliked as the modern prophets of inclusion make him out to be. Jesus is going into a den of thieves so to speak.
Thus, recognizing Sirach as a probable influence on the Pharisees and a pattern of mistrust whereas Jesus’ actions fit closer to the mentality of the Proverbs in a pattern of behavioral contagion, it helps us to shed light on what it means to be like Christ eating with sinners. It is neither a story of absolute inclusion nor absolute absolvement, but rather a story with a point that the Torah itself never gave an answer to in the case of high-handed sin: God can and will reach out to and redeem even those who are considered dangerous and unsafe.
Deeply embedding within Christian discourse is it’s ethical views are fundamentally deontological. That is to say that certain actions are right or wrong in virtue of inherent status such actions have. You have a set of laws, commandments, rules, etc. that regulate the Christian life and the moral status of the person is determined by their adherence to the set of deontic regulations. Often times, such a view of Christian ethics stands in contrast to the more consequentialist and utilitarian brands of ethics that judge actions based upon the results that come about from actions, rather than conformity with any specific principle. Such views often times evoke ideas of the horrors of “means justifying the ends” sort of thinking.
However, it is my contention that this deontic view of Christian ethics is an unnecessary hangover from a particular deontological view of the Torah stemming from the Catholic usage of law framing how Torah was understnading. As laws often operate in accordance to deontic princoples, particuarly when they are legitimated through hierarchical pronouncements, through Protestantaism characterization the Torah in legal terms, Protestant ethical thinking, alongside Catholicism, retaining a deontic structure insofar as ethical and moral thinking was still related to Torah. In suggesting this source for deontological ethics in Protestant thinking, my argument is not contingent on how historically accurate this assessment is; only that deonotological ethics 1) primarily characterizing Protestant and even Western Christan thinking about ethics and 2) deontological ethics is not an adequate descriptor of the systems of ethical expressions in the Old or New Testament. Rather, I would content for the hypothesis that Biblical ethics, and New Testament ethics more particuarly, have an ungirding ethical framework that is implicitly a more consequentialist of a peculiar sort. Put differently, Christian ethics is fundamentally grounded upon ethical prescriptions built towards certain formative results as the consequence of actions, but does not fit with the the utilitarian ethics that classified Jeremy Bentham, J.S. Mill, and had a large influence on classical liberalism.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus rejected the commandments of the Torah as defining people who are genuinely righteous. His discussion of the Torah begins in Matthew 5:17-20 with three pronouncements. Firstly, Jesus states he is completing (πληρόω), not abolishing the Torah, as if the Torah on its own terms is somehow incomplete. From this explains a hierarchy of status of the kingdom of heaven based upon whether one breaks or adheres to Torah and teachers others to do the same. Finally, he puts the Pharisees and scribes, people who certainly held to Torah, as excluded from the kingdom of heaven, stating that one’s righteousness must exceed theirs.
These series of pronouncements can be understood in relation to other statements Jesus makes. For the Pharisees as the target of Jesus disdain in the term “hypocrites” in Matthew 6:1-18. Jesus remarks that their self-serving purposes have already received their “reward.” Right here, we see the connection between action and consequence. This falls right on the heels of Jesus conclusion to his teaching on Torah in Matthew 5:48, where the ultimate goal is to “Be mature (τέλειος) as your heavenly Father is mature.” (5:48) Thus, I would suggest that Jesus intends to contrast the purpose and consequence of their self-serving action with the God-directedness motivating Jesus’ employment of the Torah.
This is strengthened by the notion that Jesus describes following his teaching as making one like a ἀνδρὶ φρονίμῳ. (“prudent/wise man”) The word φρόνιμος recurs repeatedly in the LXX, recurring repeatedly in the Wisdom literature of Proverbs and Sirach with also another occurence in the Wisdom of Solomon. Therefore, it is highly plausible that Jesus is construing his entire Sermon on the Mount as an exercise in wisdom, which characteristically is attuned to the relations of one’s actions to the situations one faces. While the wisdom literature is not, strictly speaking, consequentialist in its ethical scope, it certainly pays attention to the relationship of one’s actions to what follows. This aligns with Jesus consequentialist statement that putting His words into practice will assure their stability in the time of distress.
This wisdom context also explains the usage of the word τέλειος, which was not exclusively used in the wisdom literature, but it does commonly occur in contexts of wisdom, such as Sirach 44:17, recounting the charachter of Noah1 as an exemplar of wisdom. Wisdom of Solomon 9:6 uses the term in the hyperbolic fashion of describing the case of a person who is τέλειος but lacks wisdom.2 In 1 Corinthians 2:6, Paul uses τέλειος in reference to who he teaches wisdom to. In each of these instances, τέλειος refers to a person who has attained a high sense of character, which we might today refer to as maturity. Thus, being τέλειος seems to go hand in hand with wisdom, which only reinforces being like a wise man being the consequence of obeying Jesus’ words.
All this leads to the purpose of the Torah in Jesus eyes. When Jesus employs the formula “you have heard it said,” referencing a statement from the Torah, with “but I say to you,” there is a relationship that remains between the Torah commandment and Jesus further instructions. It is as if Jesus is trying to show people how to see the Torah by breaking the hermeneutical blinders than the Pharisees and scribes as teachers would have laid upon the people through showing that the commandments of Torah should teach us something about how we should live as people. The commandments point towards something more about people than the literal words express. Thus, to have a righteousness that exceeds the Pharisees and scribes, one should have a life this broadened sense of awareness in mind, because all of it points towards the status of being full grown/mature (τέλειος). In this way, Jesus didactic purpose of completing (πληρόω) the Torah enables the acquisition of a matured status (τέλειος).
So, Jesus view of the Torah is contrasted with his of the status of the Pharisees and scribes. The hypocrites’ real purpose behind Torah is ultimately consequences that benefit themselves, whereas Jesus’ employment and instruction of Torah is ultimately geared towards the consequences of imitating the matured state of the heavenly Father, which has echoes of the Levitical prescription to be holy as God is holy. Thus, viewed in this manner, the ethical regulations of the Torah are not construed in some deontic sense of “you better do this because God said so,” but rather “If you do these things, for the right purpose, you will move towards possessing the type of character that God has.” Hence, Jesus refers to peacemakers as those who will be called God’s children, which evokes a sense of resemblance, even though peacemaking is not a literal command of the Torah.
In short then, the purpose of God’s instructions via commandments isn’t to define what is good and what is evil in a deontological sense. Rather, they function as pedagogical guides and instructions, which when put in practice for the right purpose, lead to formation of people who resembles God’s character who also are the types that bring peace/shalom through their actions. The problem with Torah throughout the Old Testament, however, is that this formation of Israel never occurs because they never retain this rightly directed purpose of the love of God and pursuit of His holiness, but that God Himself must circumcise their hearts (Deuteronomy 30:6), putting His instruction in their hearts (Jeremiah 31:33-34), giving them a new heart and new spirit in place of a hardened heart of stone. (Ezekiel 36:26) The problem of the Torah can be summarized by this: the Torah is not done for the right purpose.in terms of the setting of one’s relationship to God.
With this in mind: there are a few corollaries this this premise.
What is “good” and “bad” is ultimately defined by the experiences of human life which was created and fashioned by God. However, this need not be an oversimplistic manner of “if it brings pleasure, it is good; if it brings pain, it is bad.” Why? In this view, God’s commandments are not what simplistically define, delimit, and differentiate the “good” and the “bad.” Rather, God’s instruction form us into people who do the “good.” Therefore, we are free not to judge the people of the world simplistically based upon their conformity and deviance from Christian principles. Christian ethics are intended to form people to take upon the character of God; they are not, in and of themselves, the barometers of goodness and badness. For instance as relevant to today’s divisions in the Church as it pertains to sexuality, gay and lesbian persons are not be judged as “bad” because of their sexual activity, which has caused unnecessary degrees of shame and pain on people. However, that does not negate the Biblical call to sex within the confines of a relationship to marital relations between a male and female; rather it clarifies the nature of this call towards the formation is has on those who submit to God’s principles rather than a judgment on the world for failing to adhere to it. The practice of sex in a heterosexual *faithful* marriage3 or celibacy aside from that is about the nature of the impact those two particular type of practices have, not the status of goodness or badness the actions themselves transmit to or signal about the people who do them.
Our understanding of sin as the failure to adhere to God’s instructions would shift from simply being that which disobeys God and His commands, to that which has a negative consequence upon our relationship to God, to others, and the creation God has made. Too long, people have heard the echoes of a harsh judge passing a terrible sentence when they hear the word “sin.” Rather, sin is concerned about the consequences such actions has upon ourselves and the world around us, echoed in Paul’s statement “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) as an expression of the consequences of human actions that God seeks to redeem us from, rather than itself expressing the judgment of God. (Paul expresses the nature of God’s judgment in Romans 2)
Jesus’ formative consequentialism takes one’s seeking of God and His righteousness as the hinge by which adherence to the Torah properly functions for Israelites. As such, formative consequentialism can put Paul’s statement about the faith of Jesus Christ against the works of Torah into context. For Paul, the most essential criteria for righteousness is what God does and our relationship to God’s action in the attitude of faith and trust. Through faith, one’s life set upon a new way of life by God that will come to define one’s life by righteousness, as we are formed in a new pattern in Christ through the leading of the Holy Spirit. Faith is the attitude by which we relate to God’s powerful actions on our behalf, in which also we are guiding towards the purposes that the Spirit leads us towards. Thus, problems of works by the Torah for Paul is that seeking to add adherence to it for Gentiles works against the Spirit who is at work in them, thereby taking them off course from “waiting for the hope of righteousness” “through the Spirit by faith,” as concerns about Torah obedience blinds one from the rightful direction and purpose of “faith working through love.” (Galatians 5:5-6) It isn’t that Paul is sayings our actions don’t matter, but rather not losing track of what God is doing by trying to add the Torah. One’s faith as being lead by the Spirit determines the direction and purpose of one’s actions rather than trying to conform to the words of the Torah.4 In other words, the problem of Gentiles trying to add on circumcision and Torah obedience is that it is taking the people off course from God’s purposes working themselves out through the Spirit.
Deontological ethics misses the entire point of God’s guidance of Israel and the guidance of the Church through Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Deontological ethics on its own terms is a spiritually dead ethic, done simply for the status of being “right” and “good” instead of “wrong” and “bad.” This leads the heart to find an motivation and purpose for doing “good,” which will commonly in curvatusse lead us to the motivation of “I want to be seen as right and good by others.” While this implicit, unconscious form of this isn’t by itself condemning as it doesn’t rule of the motivation for seeking after God, the more we define Christian ethics in a deontological manner, the more we leave a motivational vacuum that will be filled with our own, more “natural” purposes for doing what is “good” and “bad” rather than seeking God’s righteous character as the purpose of submission to His instruction.
In other words, I would put forth that formative consequentialism enabled by and accomplished through God’s redemptive actions in Christ and the Spirit best defines the ethical trajectory of the Bible, and when taken to is logical conclusions, would dramatically shift our theological, social, and psychological discourse and practices from what is the common practice in Christian circles.
[Note before reading: In what I offer here is a very roughly worked out approach to relating Biblical exegesis and the task of theology. At moments there some thinking that seeks to approach the ideals of analytical rigor, but at other moments it can only be described as inchoate thoughts still seeking for better and clearer expression. I write this for further reflection and analysis down the road for myself, while also allowing opprotunities for any others to mine anything that is useful. Furthermore, the narrative of thought is not perfectly coherent from point to point, but I hope the connections offered provide some grounds for seeing connections, even in the lack of precision. Perhaps, with time, further exploration and analysis will show this to be tenable or that it is incoherent, but for now it rests in this early form.]
I remember early on as I walked the grounds of seminary being ‘troubled’ by a specific question, although it is better articulated now than then: if the Christian life is to be lead by the Holy Spirit, how is it not problematic to make Christian thinking be controlled by Biblical exegesis?
The spirit, or if one wants to press further and say the Spirit, of the Protestant Reformation was that Christian faith and theology was to be infallibly regulated by the Scriptures alone. While strictly speaking, this did not rule out any other sources for thinking, as sola scriptura is about being infallible authority by which all other authorities and sources must be judged, it certainly lead to a certain way of practice: to be the best Christian, to have the right thinking, the most pristine and godly theology, one must know the Scriptures. Leaders such as Luther and Calvin committed themselves to the study of the Scriptures, and particularly Calvin demonstrated a certain exegetical skill through the study of languages. But as the study of the Bible continued in European history, the methods of Biblical criticism took on a greater prominence, eventually morphing into a practice that was commonly threatening to the Christian faith. With this challenge in mind, more and more time and energy were given to the apologetic task of protecting the Christian faith in challenging many of the methods of Biblical criticism. As a consequence, what has continued unabated even into our present age in the West is a smorgasbord of methods and interpretive options for the Scriptures. How then does one make sense of the sometimes cacophony? Either one commits to their tradition and insulates them from others, which is the common response of fundamentalism, or one is tasked to try to engage in a more precise, better grounded exegesis to validate one’s interpretation and theology. In the midst of this is the high value placed upon the role of skilled exegesis.
And in saying this, I am not in anyway criticizing the task of becoming a more skillful exegete. My academic aspirations largely surround developing any possible exegetical acumen that I could have. However, in the midst of the great emphasis that is put upon us as readers to make sense of the text through our exegetical rigor and methods, does that not present a challenge to the role of the Holy Spirit in grappled with the Scriptures? As I walked to halls of Asbury Theological Seminary, I saw this theme play out between the exegetically minded people who wanted to key the meaning of the Scriptures to the specific, historical circumstances whereas others who sought the inspiration of the Spirit argued for more freedom to understand the Scriptures beyond such a confining manner. Even today, in the Logos Institute at the University of St. Andrews, I engage with the question from others that the Church has long grappled with in seeing Christ throughout the Old Testament, which no responsible historically and grammatically grounded exegesis can actually arise at independent of the presupposition of Christ. If I may synthesize these two different experiences, there is a sense that faith and reliance upon Triune God can guide us to an understanding of the Scriptures that no exegetical method can itself arrive at.
In this, I have seen the judgment that can be dispersed from the sides of the aisle. The exegetically inclined cast judgment upon other that would go beyond what amounts to an epistemically justified interpretation of the Scripture is tantamount to mere subjectivism. Meanwhile, those whose faith extends beyond what is derived from exegesis treating exegesis as some lesser practice, that can miss the point. And I suspect if the exegetical and the theological minded were to not be challenged by the other, they would subject the methods of the other task to the purposes and goals of their task. In other words, many Biblical scholars would see theology simply asexpression of the Bible; whereas many theological would employ styles of exegesis that would arrive at the conclusions they already have.
All this leads to the critical question: if there is a Triune God who is testifed to by if not even speaks through the Scriptures, then what role does this have with exegesis? Are exegesis and faith/theology in conflict? Or, should we move towards a way of thinking where one mode is slave to the tasks of the other?
Allow me to suggest a manner of understanding based upon a specific approach to language that suggests that they neither conflict nor is one mode enslaved to the other. Simply put: language and thought are not coterminous. As a speaker language expresses thoughts; as a hearer/reader language can lead us to have certain thoughts. However, thinking is never entirely reducible to the expression of words in a specific context. However, language often times reveals more than what was primarily intended to be expressed.
Consider the phenomenon of Freudian slips/slips of the tongue. A person’s intention in communication is focused on one topic, but as they speak, their words reveal other thoughts. Now, commonly, this slip of language becomes obvious when the words only make sense for the hidden thought but not for the presumed purpose. But, sometimes, the words would be suitable for both the pragmatic purpose at hand and other thoughts. These are not really slips in the classic sense as if there is some error in communication, but rather there is something approaching a functional polysemy. In circumstances like this, the words convey the thoughts of the person both in regards to the pragmatic purpose of their conversation AND their thoughts about other, perhaps related, topics. But, how can the hearer/reader catch these thoughts that span beyond the pragmatic purpose? If the words make sense in the context, then they wouldn’t necessarily be alerted to any further meaning.
By paying attention to the wider context. The normal practice of interpreting, which is generally attuned to the specifics pragmatic circumstances by skilled listeners, will not provide you with this further meaning. Instead, one can only make sense of this meaning by getting to know the person better and beginning to observe the patterns.
However, there is a distinct problem with observing patterns; pattern observation is fraught with subjectivity, especially when it comes patterns that we infer are there but we don’t directly observe. When we try to figure out what another person is thinking, the further we go beyond what they observably say and do, the more we are making inferences about what we do not observe, which entails us filling the gaps in with a combination of our own sense of ourselves (projection) and with our own experiences of others (transference). Thus, the practice of reading between the lines, of going beyond what is written is only as reliable in so far as a) our own sense of who we are resembles who the other actually is and b) our sense of who that person is matches the past experiences of others we unconsciously compare them to.
But if I do not have direct, independent access to the other person entirely independent of my projections and transferences, how can I ever know that my understanding matches theirs? You can’t. You will never have a good reason for an absolutely confident knowledge that your thoughts and feelings are in perfect match with another. But, there are workarounds. My thoughts about another need not be slaves to projections and transferences, even if they are influenced by them.
Allow me to use romantic relationships, where projections can easily run amok, to demonstrate how subjectivity can be altered: If one person dating another says “I love you,” those words are not a projection, even as the other person may at the same time project their feelings as the feelings of the other. Projection is joined together with an matching expression and behavior of the other. Or, consider a different couple where one breaks up with another saying “I no longer love you.” Even as the one being broken up with has feelings of love for the other, the words of the other alters the preceptions of the jilted lover, assuming they don’t go into denial. Projections are challenged by the dissonant expression and behavior of the other. The point is that the way one challenges one subjectivity is through paying attention to what you can pay direct attention described. Denial that maintains the projections, by contrast, will tend to divert attention away from what can not be directly observed and rationalize through more hidden inference.
Thus, there is the ever constant back and forth between attention to what is observable, which is what exegesis is based upon, and pattern-matching about the otherwise unobservable and inferred, which is what theology focuses on as God is not directly observable to us. But, what is different from pure exegesis is that theology emerges from seeing and making the connections drawn from wide-spread observations. In other words, theology emerges from a range of different observations across the spectrum. Much as the genuine feelings of romantic love do no rest simply on a single pronouncement, such as “I love you” or buying flowers, but on the whole way that person responds, so too does theology not rest on reading too much into a single pericope here or a single text there, but from making sense of the whole. But this sense of the theological whole can not be reducible to the meaning of individual words and actions in their original, pragmatic contexts.
If then Scripture testifies to and expresses the thoughts of God, then by attuning ourselves to the whole of it, we can being to see how the various expressions may express something more than what was intended for the pragmatic purpose of the original context. For instance, when God made a promise for Abraham’s seed, God was in that moment intending something for Abraham regarding having a child of his own with Sarah, but yet this expression of God also gives a glimpse into the mind of God that extends beyond the concrete fulfillment in the person of God. That is what I is what I would contends happens with Paul in Galatians 3:16, whose argument is not reducing the promise to Abraham simply as the promise of Christ, but rather sees in God’s expression one that reveals something about the way God fulfills his promise through a singular line of descent. Paul stills sees Isaac as fulfillment of the promise in Romans 9:6-8, which serves as a principle to show the relationship of God pruposes and genealogical descent. So we either take Paul a) to be ultimately contradicting himself, b) to be making ad hoc comments for different situations, c) a changing of thinking from the earlier Galatians to the later Romans, or d) allow a mode of interpretation that can incorporate both the history of the moment and a theological continuity in the minds of God that transcends the specific historical events. I would argue for D, in that what God made known to Abraham manifest the shape of God’s broader intentions of a Christological redemption, even as it also makes an intention pragmatically known to Abraham.
You don’t get that by simply reading Genesis and say “See! Christ is spoken of right here!” Rather, I would suggest that Paul got there by a) being deeply familiar with the Jewish Scriptures and b) being deeply familiar with Christ and through attention to both, making the connections between God’s various actions, including His speech-acts.
In short, I suggest the relationship between the exegesis of the Christian Scriptures and the reflection of Christian theology operates through the back-and-forth nature being interpretation attuned to the pragmatic, historical circumstance in exegesis combined with the theological reflection on making sense of the whole of what God has said and done. In this, we can see the connections between God’s word in the Old Testament with God’s self-disclosure in Jesus Christ. Yet, neither the methods and practices of theological reflection and Biblical exegesis are reduced to the concerns of the other, but they operate as distinctively different modes of thinking.
However, there is one roadblock still to overcome. What are the specific connections I should make between the various observations of my exegetically grounded readings? Even as I am consistently challenging my pattern-and-inferential thinking with the analysis-of-observations thinking, there are still many possible patterns we can perceive, even as we reject other possible patterns as untenable. In other words, two people can still have the same Biblical exegesis of various texts and still come to different conclusions. In other words, theology is underdetermined by exegesis. How then do we read to an understanding that is attuned with the will and thoughts of God?
The Spirit. But, by this, I don’t mean to say that we engage with some practice or word that the Spirit gives us that solidifies our interpretation over another. According to my understanding of Paul in 1 Corinthians, particulary chapters 2-3 and 12-14, the Spirit does not provide us with specific, epistemic justifications for our interpretations and theological reflections, strictly speaking. The words of people speaking by the Spirit must still be discerned; appeals to the Spirit is not a justification that one has confident knowledge. Rather, our lives are lived by the direction of the Spirit who leads us to follow Jesus Christ. Through this process, human thinking is transformed by practice itself. When one acts like Christ acts and experiences what Christ experiences, one’s thoughts will come into greater similarity to the minds of Christ. While imitation of action does not assure identical thoughts, it does promote some degrees of similarity. Through this, one feelings and even one’s desires may come to have a similarity to what Christ would have experience, thus fashioning our heart through the experience of action.
The heart transformed through practice would then transforms the types of patterns we observe. At the core, the patterns we observe are determined by what our desires, values, and fears make salient to us, since the focus of our attention is determined what it is we are looking for. This will impact the type of connections we make between our attention to the various expressions of Scripture (and then even our attention to the work of God in our own lives).
In summary then, there is a relationship between Biblical exegesis that is attuned to the historical moment and our theological reflections in which we see to know God as He has disclosed Himself in Jesus Christ because the disclosure of thinking can go beyond the pragmatic meanings of the specific moment. However, Biblical exegesis and theological reflection is mediated by a Spirit-led, Christ-conforming praxis, which influences the type of connections we make between responsible exegesis and the reflections of faith.
If you were almost any English translation of the New Testament, you would find a particular word repeated throughout the pages: law. Once you happen upon Paul’s letters like Romans and Galatians, you will see a high recurrence of the word. There are understandable reasons for this: the Greek word used is νόμος has in many instances a legislative connotation of the pronouncements of a ruling figure. For instance, James 2:8 talks about the “royal law.” However, the Greek lexicons give the primary definition as a matter of “a procedure or practice that has taken hold”1 or “that which is in habitual practice.”2 This is closer to our concept of culture rather than it is legal rules. However, since at least the Latin Vulgate, where νόμος was translated as lēx, which is Latin legislative language for a legislative bill or passed regulation, the words and commandments of God from the mouth of Moses, that is the Torah, has been given a distinctive legislative and legal sense.
This legal language isn’t without merit on the surface of it. After all, God’s commandments were given for the people of Israel to obey and some commandments had prescribed punishments for failure to uphold the Torah. Then perusal of the Mishnaic and Talmudic literature exhibtting many of the characteristics of legal practices, such as extending the application of laws to new and different circumstances, trying to figure out how to address instances where there seems to be a contradiction between commandments, etc. Most likely, this attitude was also true of the religious leadership during Jesus’ time.
But, this legal picture can also be quite misleading. For us, laws are considered something compulsory, something we are bound to apart from our own conscience. You may not like the laws, but you are obliged to obey them or you will be punished. In our experience, laws do not reach into the heart, but bind people’s actions. But this wasn’t the experience of obedience to the Torah. While the practice of understanding and applying Torah took on legal characteristics, the motivation for submission to the Torah was taken to be a matter of love and devotion to this one God, over and against other the pattern of other societies, whether it be the Canaanites in the nascent stages of Israel’s history or the paganism that peppered the landscape under Roman rule. Thus, Torah as a distinctive, holy way of life apart from other people’s ways of life and worship also bound the people together in common life and love.
So Torah wasn’t obeyed as a system of legal principles, but as a way of life as a people before this God who had redeemed their ancestors from Egypt. Your love for God and your love of your own Jewish people was the under-riding motivation for obedience to Torah. This is part of the reason that sinners are often talked about in the same breath as tax-collectors, who as agents of Roman power were considered traitors to their people; sinners who failed to obey Torah were regarded not simply disobeying God but disregarding their own people.
This is where I suggest that the problem of the Pharisees and scribes in the Gospels exists. The standard portrayal of Pharisees and scribes and fuddy duddies about the rules, who then coincidentally happened to exhibit a malicious streak towards Jesus, absolutely does mischaracterize the adherents to the Jewish Torah. The Pharisees and scribes were not legalists in the modern sense of the term where we see obsessive concerns about interpretation and application law that is separated from devotion. The Pharisees and the scribes were deeply devoted in their passions. And it was sort of a devotion and practice that would have even made them popular among their people. If you were a Jew, there is a good chance you would think the Pharisees were quite charming, and that those scribes were awfully smart. You would have like them.
They saw something important, if not even potentially powerful, in Torah obedience. In the Torah they could define Israel over and against the pagan nations with a hope that such obedience would merit God’s faithful protection that would give them victory over their pagan overlords. This sense of God’s protection was certainly the case for the Jews at Qumran and likely they exhibited radicalized versions of this tendency already present in the religious mainline of Israel. But whereas those at Qumran held dreams for a judgment in the present age, the Pharisees looked powerful victory from God that they were seeking would have been that of resurrection, or as Jesus refers to in John 5:39, eternal life. Whereas Qumran had no unequivocal hopes in resurrection, the Pharisees placed great hope in the resurrection, knowing they were powerless to fight Roman power. These were people of faith.
Meanwhile, as teachers of Israel, they were not simply focused on their own self-preservation, but they took on a role of leadership and concern to guide their own people. They would bear upon themselves the task of leading their people.
So, where does it all go wrong? How is it that people who had such noble intentions and tasks can go so wrong? Or, are the Gospels simply an unjust and anti-semitic aspersion?
Allow me to suggest it is begins with the combination of devotion with legal principles. The Pharisees had no mere bureacratic mentality, but they were zealously devoted to their task. And that is where the danger lies. Bureaucrats, who can have their own dangers, are not necessarily out to apply the rules and procedures to every aspect and zone of life: they tend to not want to rock the boat. But being zealous for rules has its own danger of judgment of those who do not share the same zeal and same degree of proficiency that they have. Highly passionate people rarely tolerate apathy, laziness, and ignorance from others.
So, when people fail to adhere to their degree of holiness, they either speak derision masked as informative questions as they did as Jesus disciple’s for not washing their hands before eating, or they go further to the entire disregarding of those who they deemed sinners of breaches of even Torah itself. Furthermore, as highly passionate people can have a certain charisma, they would have gotten immersed into their role of their appearances before the people and the rewards that came from such celebrity and status. Then, when someone like Jesus enters the scene, doesn’t engage in their brand of holiness, and steals some of their thunder, that only stokes the fires of their passion even more. So, they engage in the conflict with Jesus with the one skill they highly esteem, their understanding and obedience to Torah. It is what differentiates themselves from others in their mind and it is how they will try to win against Jesus.
Meanwhile, Jesus doesn’t criticize their adherence to Torah, despite the modern mythical Jesus that has been constructed. There is not a hint of the mentality “we need to just get rid of the rules and live.” He certainly criticizes how they use the tradition of the elders to cast aspersion of his disciples, while they through the traditions fail to uphold the more important concerns of the Torah. Rather, Jesus’ criticism is their very understanding of the Torah. They see in the words of the Torah a source of power that they should adhere to, particularly for their own self-aggrandizement and their resurrection/eternal life. Jesus, instead, sees the Torah more like a light into the heart of people. One’s experience of obedience the Torah and the struggle with such would show one’s heart to oneself. Paul alludes to this in Romans 7, where the commandment to not covet teaches about coveting. In the commandment to not murder, one would not simply want to adhere to the Torah but find what rests within oneself that leads to murder in the form of hostile anger. Not committing adultery would not be enough, but one would want to be averse even intending and planning to do such. The practice of obedience to the Torah sheds light on oneself and all that goes behind the temptation to do what the Torah instructs one not to. However, if the focus is on the application of Torah to all of life, to create a system of righteous behavior, all in a passionate interest for righteousness, you would miss that is within, directing all your attention outward. The end results is that they fail to truly comprehend the Torah in light of the two most important commandments of love, even if they recognized them as important.
For Jesus, and for the Old Testament, the Torah is not so much legislation as it is instruction for the people to obey out of love for God. Certainly, as mentioned, it did regulate the common life of Israel with systems of punishment. And no doubt it was a common experience in Israel to experience the Torah as more a social instrument of regulation than an inner, personal striving. Hence, the story of Israel is the story of a people who do not remain faithful to God and His instructions. Hence, the prophet Jeremiah speaks of a new covenant where God’s instruction would be in people’s hearts. But, the place where the godly passion for God’s instruction will come from isn’t merely by a self-induced passion or a passion merely stoked by the forces of social modeling and contagion, but a passion granted from God. It rests not within the socio-political and personal forces of passion, but the force and power that comes from God’s Spirit. Meanwhile, the Psalms recognize the role of the Torah as a light that comes from God. But when the emphasis is placed on the power of Torah itself rather than on the power of God who instructs and guides through Torah, then one’s heart is not open to the God who directs but on the human heart to appropriate and extend for oneself. Hence, Jesus says in John 6:45 that those who have heard, learned from and have been taught by God. They were not looking to the Torah itself as the source, but they were looking and attentively seeking God’s will and they used the Torah as an instructive guide.
This mentality informs Jesus understanding of the Torah. When the adulterer was brought before Jesus, he saw no need to condemn her to death. He saw himself as the one without sin and so thus qualified to make a judgement. In this status as being fit to judge, he didn’t see the death of the adultery as a legal precedent that one must follow. He takes the opportunity to use this moment as a pedagogical moment to the adulteress, extending her grace and mercy as he tells her to sin no more. As one without sin, he could see what the purposes and uses of the Torah are for, and in the end, the goal is guidance and instruction of God’s people. Whereas the other people were certainly passionate and zealous for the Torah, their zeal blinded them to the ultimate pedagogical, instructive purpose, so they saw the Torah as regulations that can not and should not be abrogated.
So why do I tell this story? Because we have Godwin’s law-ed the Pharisees in Christian circles, treating them as a vacuous, catch-all derision for anyone who upholds any sort of law or principle. Consequently, we have been (wrongly) immunized from their negative examples. But, the true danger of the Pharisees were not in their love of God or even their seeking obedience to Torah, but to the power they found in Torah for their own virtue signaling to the people and compelling their vision upon the Jewish people as the educated and popular leadership of Israel. This is the danger that exists for all people, particularly when they have a system of justification purported to be from God that they employ for their own side. They have all the trappings of education, charisma, righteous appearances, and moral justifications, none of which are evil, but they lacked one thing: the actual type of heart that would lead them to bear the fruit that resembled the pictures they painted with their words. And this danger is only heightened today in the day of social media, where we must rely even more on the credentials, first impressions of charisma, selective stories of character, social justifications of them due to our personal distance the people we are an audience of. And thus, the Pharisees would have been seen as the heroes of their day as they looked for the day of their preferred future to arise, but time would reveal them to be far from the ideals they sought to progress. For instance, when you see people using positive sounding terms like “ethically sourced” to avoid weightier matters be aware, very aware, of what could stand behind those words and watchful to see what type of fruits are available for harvest.
A few days ago, I happened upon a facebook conversation with a friend of mine, James-Michael Smith, about the relationship of Scripture and love. He posted the follow picture as a summation of the wrong attitude some people have about the Bible.
Embedded in this is the cliche that “Jesus taught us to love.” I say cliche because while it is true at one level, what is misunderstood is that Jesus didn’t simply teach people to love, but challenged the very definitions people used when it came to love, both in what it means to love and who is it we are to love.1 But in common discourse, it is assumed that we already got the meaning of love down, but that we simply need to learn to show love to people. We are inclined to assume we know and that our problem is merely an emotional and behavioral problem.
Then, as we join together the love-cliche with an assumption we know what love is, we read the words of Jesus about the two most important commandments and say “See! Jesus says we should love! Let’s do it!” We already understand what it is to love, so lets get on with it. As a consequence, there is a tendency to reduce the meaning of the Scriptures down to the idea of “love,” as the above picture demonstrates.
But allow me to draw a personal analogy that illustrates the fundamental problem in this mindset. At the age of 34 and as the result of trauma in my life, I have never been in a long-term romantic relationship. While I have had feelings at various points in time for women and gone on plenty of dates, nothing has ever materialized. As a conqeuence, I have never experienced what it means to be a committed relationship with someone at that level. However, when I hear words about love in a romantic context, I might be inclined to think “I know what love is.” But in fact, I only have the faintest recognition of what love is, whether it be derived from pop culture, teachings from Church, the scant experiences I have had, my education and training in psychology, etc. but I don’t know what it means to be in a loving, romantic relationship. I recognize the word and I know what it might look like on the surface, but I have no real depth of understanding or comprehension beyond an intellectual level.
So, imagine the folly that would come from me giving dating or marital advice. Now, I could probably give advice on dealing with conflicts or maybe addressing a specific critical event in people’s lives. I could probably even tell you that there are just some bad ideas you shouldn’t try. But, it would be folly for me to presume to give advice as if I some love guru, who has mastered the art. Why? Because I don’t actually understand romantic love, even if I recognize it from a distance.
This very mistaken mentality is what I would suggest undergirds much of the rhetoric that people use regarding Jesus. Jesus says to love, and so the assumption is that we understand all of that so that a) we don’t need the rest of the laws and b) are fit to be able to guide other people in what it means to love. The criticism is rooted in what Jesus warned about judgment in Matthew 7, where people try to take out the specks in other people’s eyes, acting as if they can see while they have a plank blinding them from actually seeing.
I cite as one target of this criticism the progressive political culture in America and the Church, including within progressive Christianity, which while it has noble intentions about love and justice has failed to truly comprehend love and justice, so that through their incompetency they contribute to the very hatred and injustice they seek to fight against. They may recognize love and justice, but I would suggest there is little comprehension. For instance, they recognize the power that Martin Luther King Jr. had to create change for movements towards justice, but they fail to comprehend the nature of the power of MLK’s resistance. Nor is it readily understand that MLK was a deeply flawed person in other areas like plagiarism and accusations of adultery, even while he was exemplary in pursuing justice. And so, people imitate the methods of MLK’s non-violent resistance because they recognize its power, but not comprehending the power stemming from how you use the methods nor the potential downfalls of even this way of trying to achieve a goal, because even MLK did not have perfect comprehension.
My point: recognition without comprehension leads to something branded as “love” and “justice” but is commonly reduced to the lowest common denominator. How then do we move beyond recognition to comprehension? We learn, which to happens entails that we recognize our own ignorance, if not even culpability. We call this repentance.
But then, the next step entails finding and recognizing there is someone we can learn from who can treat our ignorance, our lack of recognition. But this puts us in a particular bind. If we truly don’t know and comprehend, how can we know and recognize those who do know and comprehend? Our ignorance means we don’t have the right criteria in our minds to know who can truly dispel our ignorance.
This is where recognition comes in to play: we can recognize from the whole of someone that they do seem to know and comprehend in a way that we ourselves can not analyze and articulate ourselves. We can call this faith/trust, where we place our hands into someone that we ourselves neither have perfect comprehension of nor control over. So when the crowds see Jesus as teaching with an authority that the Pharisees and scribes did not have, you see this taking place.
Of course, this faith may be shallow or deep, with genuine or duplicitous motives. For instance, the Gospel of John notes that there were people who believed in Jesus that Jesus did not entrust himself to because he saw who they really were (John 2:24-25). So, while faith is certainly a necessary starting point in the journey to move towards the comprehension of love, it isn’t sufficient. Jesus didn’t teach everyone who came to Him, which is a hard truth to accept to our modern ears as our society has made Jesus the patron saint of belonging and inclusion.
Then, in the Gospel of John, we note that in the time before he goes to his death, Jesus brings together his disciples for what might be said to amount to a farewell address. Jesus has taken his disciples as they followed him, teaching them, showing them wonderous things, all while also confusing and confounding them along the way. And it is during this time together he says to them “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 13:34) But didn’t the Torah already have the commandments to love one’s neighbor? How is this a new commandment then?
Therein lies the whole point of Jesus’ instruction to his disciples. These were Jews, who knew the Torah to some degree or another, including the commandments to love God and to love neighbor. But this commandment isn’t an old commandment, but a new one that goes beyond the letter of the Torah. The commandment to love one’s neighbor in Levitcus 19:18 was said in the context of speaking truth to one’s neighbor, presumably so that they do not incur severe consequences upon themselves, and not taking vengeance. But to his disciples, Jesus is talking about love for each other that takes on a fresh new understanding: they are to love in the way that Jesus Himself loves. Later, Jesus goes on to describe His commandment to love in John 15:12-13: “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.” This commandment to love extends beyond the old commandment that pertains to speaking truth and not taking vengeance: it extends to sacrificing oneself for one’s friends for their benefit.
So, Jesus teaches his disciples a new commandment, because what the Torah provided didn’t directly spell out to the letter. This mentality undergirds Jesus’ usage of the Torah in the Sermon on the Mount. There were the commandments of the Torah that many people were trying to fulfill but for ulterior motives and purposes, particuarly for their own self-image. Consequently, they did not truly see what the commandments were really about. But Jesus did, and through a series of hyperbolic statements, brings to the forefront that there is something more important than simply obeying the commandments, but to grasp what the concerns that lay behind the commandments. Rather than just avoiding murder, the commandments should point to understanding the danger of anger that leads to murder. Rather than just avoiding committing adultery, one should be concerned about the intentions to commit adultery. Rather that simply giving a certificate for divorce, as if that was the humane thing to do, one should seek to avoid the evils of divorce itself. Rather than simply obeying one’s vows, one should be a trustworthy and honest person without making any vows. Rather than seeing the lex talonis as a justification for a certain degree of revenge, it is actually a hedge against the human predilection towards vengeance that one should seek to avoid. Rather than seeing “love your neighbor” as an excuse to hate those who are not your neighbor, you should recognize the importance of love in the first place. All of this puts cracks through the legalistic mentality of obedience, opening the door to show that type of love that God has for the righteous and the unrighteousness alike, as as to demonstrate Jesus’ climactic moral proclamation: to be complete as the heavenly Father is complete. Thus, the Sermon on the Mount was a didactic action that reveals people’s ignorance through what they do recognize in Jesus and His words and help them to begin to recognize what the Torah was ultimately all about.
But notice that even here, there is a gap between the meaning of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount regarding love and then Jesus’ own words to his disciples in John 15. Even in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus hasn’t fully made everything known. Why? Because the people weren’t ready to receive and comprehend it. This is why immediately after defining the greater form of love is sacrificing one’s life for one’s friends, Jesus tells his disciples that they are no longer servants but friends in John 15:15. Now they have the capacity to comprehend what Jesus is doing, so they can do what Jesus’ commands to love one another as He loved them. Their whole discipleship under the guiding hand of Jesus saw them as learners, who could recognize at times but failed to comprehend. But now, Jesus saw them as friends because he made what he heard from His Father known to them.
In other words, the disciples at the beginning of their journey did not comprehend God’s type of love, even if they were capable of recognizing it. They themselves had to learn what it meant to love as God loves before they themselves would be commanded to love in the way God loves. Their pre-discipleship days of hearing the Torah had not provided them enough instruction for them to comprehend.
Which leads me to one of my two main points here: you have to learn what God’s type of love is before you can tell others what it means to love like Jesus loves. Without this, any attempt to try to reduce the message of Jesus and the Gospel to love is like trying to say all you need to know to understand Shakespeaere’sRomeo and Juliet is that they die for the sake of love. There is a WHOLE lot that goes into their love that is necessary to comprehend to understand that play. Similarily, and more importantly, you need to comprehend the nature of Jesus’ love before you can really show others how to love like Jesus commands.
Which leads me to my second point: you learn to love through discipleship. Discipleship is not, however, simply a matter of information transfer through a linguistic medium such as spoken or written language. It is a matter of life, where people act and put into practice what they have witnessed and seen. Jesus didn’t provide theoretical comprehension that people then put into practice; Jesus’ teachings often confused his disciples. But rather, they saw Jesus and through seeing Jesus they began to imitate what they recognized in Jesus, along with doing the things Jesus would ask them to do. Through this life of action, they were being formed to be people who could then comprehend.
This is where the Torah for the Jews and then all of the Scriptures for us as Christians fits into all of this. While we might tempted to look at them as a set of behavioral and cognitive rules for behaviors and beliefs, we can also look at them as guidance to help us attain comprehension through putting into practice in behavior and exploring through cognitive consideration, meditation and imagination. Through putting them into practice with the rightly directed purpose, they form us to be capable to comprehend. Even as we fail in putting them into practice, our recognition that we failed to fulfill our purpose can further our comprehension. Thus, we came to comprehend God’s type of love in Jesus Christ as we seek to put to action what we recognize of God’s love in Jesus Christ.
So, while we can say to some degree, that the picture above has an element of truth to it, it is also fundamentally mistaken. Yes, the love of God and the love of neighbor is the commandments above all other commandments, which should be honored and followed if there are ever circumstances where another commandment would call for a contradictory action, such as loving one’s neighbor through healing and the commandment to obey the Sabbath. But it is false to say that love is the meaning of the Sabbath commandment, as if you know and show “love” there is no need for the commandment. Rather, it is the reverse: one needs the Sabbath commandment to be put into practice in order to comprehend what it means to love God and to love neighbor: we should set aside time to honor God where nothing else distracts us and we should allow others to also have such a time of rest rather than always binding people to work and activity. While there are times where practicing the Sabbath may contradict the commandment to love God and to love neighbor, the commandment is also a vital instruction when put into practice for the rightly directed purpose helps people to comprehend what is means to love God and love neighbor.
For the Torah and the Old Testament, you don’t grow to comprehend loving God without putting the God’s instruction into practice. And so it is for us as Christians. Even though we don’t follow Torah today in a strict legalistic manner because the New Testament suggests ultimate purpose of the the Torah was to recognize Jesus, rather than provide full comprehension, in a similar manner we recognize that we don’t comprehend Jesus’ type of love until we put into practice what Jesus put into practice, including Jesus’ own pattern of life that was lived in obedience to Torah (so, when we seek to imitate Jesus, we are seeking what will fulfill God’s intentions for the Torah). This starts, however, with the recognition of our own ignorance and culpability that then places our trust in Jesus as one whose guidance and teaching, when put into practice, will lead to comprehension (and then as followers also recognizing the work of the Holy Spirit in all of this).
The passage of Scripture that echoes it best is one that one of my favorite professors from seminary who had a huge influence on me, Dr. Joseph Dongell, gave a wonderful sermon at the chapel of Asbury on 2 Peter 1:5-8:
For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ
Love is the end result of one’s discipleship, not the starting point. Along similar lines, In Romans 5:1-5, Paul traces the journey through the starting virtue of faith, providing justification, leading to hope through endurance, which in the exercising of hope culminates into the pouring of God’s love into our own hearts through leading of the Holy Spirit. Similarly in 1 Corinthians, Paul establishes that his initial purpose in coming to the Corinthians was for them to have faith in the power of God (1 Corinthians 2:1-5) but he seeks for them to move beyond even that the greatest virtue of love that always remains. (1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13) Love, the type of love that God seeks, is something one must grow into and comprehend; it isn’t some we start off with and understand.
In other words, you call tell other people they need to love, you can use it as a motto in political and religious signs, you can speak the most powerfully moving sermons, homilies, and speeches about love, but if you have yet to comprehend God’s type of love in Jesus Christ, your words are simply noise that do not serve God’s purposes. And without that comprehension, any attempt to try to summarize and confidently reduce the importance of the Bible down to some vague, shadowy concept of “love” misses the whole point and serves as big plank blinding the eyes of the reader of the Scripture. But, if we recognize our own ignorance and culpability and in that trust that God is revealing His type of love in His Son Jesus Christ and His Holy Spirit, we may yet grow to comprehend truly what it means to love.
“Surrender to God” is a common phrase in the evangelical lexicon of evangelism and discipleship. It is taken almost as an obvious axiom of Christian evangelism: the only way to experience God is to surrender to God. After all, we are all sinners and we have been obstinate to God’s will and purposes in our lives. So, the logic goes, if we have been resisting God, then the solution is to just let go of that resistance.
But allow me to state something: surrendering to God doesn’t make you a Christian. It makes you captive; a captive to a theology and worldview in which submission and obedience is framed in terms of power and control and the lack of it. The Bible doesn’t talk about “surrendering to God.” It talks about trusting God, loving God, having the fear of the Lord, obeying God, submitting to God, humbling oneself before God, following Jesus, walking by the Spirit, etc. But none of those phrases mean “surrender.” Sure, you can interpret some of these phrases in a framework of captivity where there is the all-powerful one who takes other people captive. You obey your captor, you reject your sense of self before the captor, you may even fear them. (but not in the way the Bible means “the fear of the Lord.”) But other of these phrases do not readily fit with surrender, such as trusting God or loving God, unless one wishes to think about love in manner of Stockholm syndrome.
Now, one might say that my characterization of “surrender” is unfair, misconstrual, and missing the point, that people don’t mean that God is taking you captive. Perhaps that is genuinely the case in many individual instances. But when “surrender to God” is an evangelistic meme that is an “obvious” axiom of preaching that is used in substitution of the language of the Bible, then it starts to be decontextualized from the Bible, as it attains it’s own status of authority and rightness that approaches Biblical authority. The way people interpret that language is very prone to misunderstanding, thinking that God is taking control of them and putting them into captivity; even if you as a speaker mean “surrender” in a metaphor to get people to simply allow God to work. You do not have direct control over how people interpret your words; so the more the language and metaphors diverged from the Biblical language that impacts how people interpret, the less likely your own words will convey the testimony of God from the people of the Scriptures. Many people hear a more top-down “God controls” rather than a more bottom-up “God guides.” And you wonder why people are scared of the God you preach about? You do probably have good intentions, but even in that, you fail to see how the metaphor a) conveys languages that is far from the Biblical language and thus, b) unnecessarily evokes feelings of fear.
Furthermore, even as there are many people who use such language with no ill intentions, there is the possibility of those who when they say “surrender to God,” they actually mean “surrender to me/us as God’s agents.” Much like a con artist relies upon getting around people’s defenses by using reasonable and trustworthy sounding language, the more we use the language of “surrender” the more we make it ripe for misuse. While this danger exists for all language, even the language of love which can be marshalled in many exploitive means that has little to do with the love of God as made known in Jesus Christ, at the very least most of the Biblical language doesn’t seek to directly challenge the resistance that protects us from the exploiters. But the language of “surrender” even as it may be used for well-intended directions is also prone to use for other reasons.
But let’s note: Jesus didn’t “surrender” to God’s will. God didn’t corner Jesus and force his hand into going to the cross; God wasn’t nagging Jesus “You need to do this.” Jesus laid it down on His own voluntary accord. He accepted God’s purposes as he simultaneously pleaded to God in the garden for a different way. He does this out of love for his friends. And as he was present to Israel, he didn’t come to take captives for God, but to liberate people so that they could serve God. The only actions of surrendering he took was to those who would try to steal his life.
The closest we get to the language of “surrender” when it comes to Christian discipleship that I am aware of is Paul’s language in Romans 6:18 when he talks about becoming “slaves of righteousness.” But it bears mentioning that while perhaps rare in the Greco-Roman world, voluntary slavery was a concept in which someone gave themselves as a slave to become a Greek or Roman citizen; it was someone people participated in on their own accord. When Paul talks about liberation from slavery to sin, his warfare language in Romans certainly connotes that slavery to sin was enforced servitude, but his language about slavery to righteousness evokes that of a voluntary servitude. In the prior verse, Paul talks about becoming “obedient to the heart,” whereas the language of surrender often times conveys outward conformity that does not have a matching inward attitude. Furthermore, in v. 19, Paul clarifies this slavery to righteousness as the consequence of a process of controlling one’s (bodily) members that leads to sanctification. It is not a moment where a person says “I surrender” but a person becomes a slave to righteousness because they have been acting on a commitment.
But what does Paul talk about in the Christian journey? The faith of Jesus Christ and in God and putting to death the deeds of the flesh by the leading of the Spirit. Trust and commitment, not surrender. Furthermore, Paul calls people to imitate him as he imitates Jesus, which means he is joining them in very same journey, rather than calling people to submit to his words.
God is not a conqueror, seeking to take captives and then extinguishing everyone else who resists and doesn’t surrender. Rather, God in Jesus Christ is the conquered who overcomes his conquerors through a power that isn’t of human origin, who through his overcoming his captors he provides liberation to the captives.
Now, let me be honest about the concern that undergirds this: fear reaches deep into my bones when I hear someone talking about “surrender” in religious contexts, even as I know most people don’t mean it in its worst possible usage. This is not because I have a crippling fear of God, but a fear of what the person who says I should surrender is expecting and how they view people. If you expect people to “surrender to God” are you the type that is expecting compliance? And then if they are the type that expects compliance, how do you respond when you don’t get the type of compliance you expect? And if they join compliance to a sense of moral obedience to God, do they expect people to just know what you expect of them to comply with, failing to give clear directions to guide, since often obedience to God is treated as if it should be obvious what God wants (or rather other people projecting onto God)? And as they experience people honoring them with their lips and doing what they command and yet at the same time those people resist them in their hearts and where they have the safe space to do so, are they the type that becomes quickly and deeply suspicious of other people’s motives, thinking they can see people’s hearts, overlooking that Jesus did not say you will know that who wear sheep’s clothing by figuring our their intentions or heart, but by their fruits as those things that are tangible and observable? Are they aware that they way manner try to implement compliance, even as they try to label this compliance with sweeter sounding words, is creating the very resistance they want to see end?
So, let me ask: do you think God is more like a conqueror who wants people to surrender, or is God more like a liberator who wants people to be free and to show them how to learn how to live out this freedom? Are we surrendering to God or are we accepting God’s liberation? Are we conquered or are we free? To preach about surrender is certainly much easier and more pragmatic to get people to do what we think good Christians should do as it tries to stifle anything remotely sniffing of resistance in the person, but to preach liberation that gives us an opportunity to learn how to rightly love God and love one another is the only way to go beyond compulsion on the surface to becoming sanctified, slaves of righteousness, obedient to the heart.