Monday, May 18, 2009

Short Break

I've gotten several welcome comments over the past couple days. I do want to respond to those, but I'm temporarily rather swamped (trying to finish my second chess book). I should be back in a couple days.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Discussion Topic: Israel, Judah, and Homosexuality in the Church

I'm off for a day to celebrate my fiancee's 30th birthday.

As a topic for discussion, does the modern divide on homosexuality remind anyone else of the difference between Israel and Judah after Solomon?

Israel fell away from God's law and was quickly assimilated into tribes and peoples who were not sons of Jacob. It seems that those churches that are totally "open and affirming" are doing the same and at the same risk.

Judah nominally kept God's laws but in the wrong proportion and with the wrong emphasis (to the extent they kept them at all). Those in the strict anti-homosexuality branch of the church appear to be doing the same thing.

I'm not just talking about people like Fred Phelps here. I'm referring to a much broader class of Christians who have taken the matter of homosexuality and made it central to Christian thought, as though being against homosexuality is on par with believing in the resurrection. For example, when Piper is describing how he personally views N.T. Wright, he praises him for such things as defending the resurrection and upholding the deity of Christ; then, in the same breath, he tacks on the defense of the traditional view of homosexuality. That's preposterous --- to somehow claim that the set of things that separate "real Christians" from others now includes something that gets so little ink in the Bible.

I think any church who wants to be closed to homosexuals should have already thrown out everyone who contributes to their own 401k.

Friday, May 15, 2009

What is Grace?

Evangelicals often attack any deviation from traditional understandings of the atonement or Judgment as an "attack on Grace."

"by grace you have been saved through faith; the gift of God so no man may boast." [Ephesians 2:8-9]


"being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus" [Romans 3:24]

have been rallying cries for protestants since the beginning. Paul uses the term "grace" more than all other NT writers combined. What does he mean?

The Greek word for grace, charis, refers to a general disposition of "favor." This can be warranted favor or unwarranted favor. However, even if something is done from "warranted" favor, it cannot be "contractual." So, if I give a chess student a free book because he has progressed well, I would be doing out of "warranted favor," but my doing so would not be contractual...unless I had somehow earlier agreed to give him a book based on a particular progress shown, in which case I would not be giving him the book out of favor.

To understand how Paul uses the term, we must understand why Paul wrote his letters and what was going on in apostolic Christianity. We also have to take some perspective of the general state of Israel prior to Christ's coming (since it is this coming that Paul sees as grace).

Humanity at the time of Christ's coming can be broken into two groups: Jews, who had nominally kept God's laws and worshipped the Living God, and Gentiles who were generally idolatrous and had a history of oppressing God's people.

That's the situation. It is extremely important to realize that the only way to be part of God's people at this point was to be a Jew.

Paul is addressing certain Jewish-influenced Gentiles who had been taught that all Christians must observe the "works of the Law" (circumcision, dietary requirements, observation of certain feast holidays, etc.) Circumcision in particular was a major roadblock to evangelism (records indicate there were three times as many women converts in the early church as men). For Paul this was all nonsense because Christ did not come due to the keeping of the Law.

And so Paul goes about showing that Gentiles certainly no "rights" to Christ (their entire history would suggest quite the opposite!) But, more importantly, the Jews had no right to Christ either. He shows this in many separate ways:
i) The Jews had not kept the Law in the first plact (by looking at their own history), so even if the Law had been a provoker of Christ being sent, the Jews would have no right. [Romans 3:9-19, noting in particular 3:19]
ii) The Law had not brought about righteousness in Israel (once again, evident by looking at its history). Since the purpose of Christ was to bring about righteousness, and the Law had historically not accomplished that role, then it would be stupid to suggest that one is better off both following the Mosaic Law and Christ. [The above verses plus Galatians 2:21-3:1, 3:21,
iii) Christ was given as the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham not as part of the Mosaic Covenant, so any belief that the law has anything to do with Christ's coming would be suggesting that commands given to Moses 400 years after a promise would nullify that promise.[Galatians 3:15-18, Romans 4:9-16]
iv) The purpose of the Law was to help the Jews identify the Christ. We no longer need the law to do that, so asking Gentile believers to keep the Law makes no sense.[Galatians 3:24-25, depending on the translation. There are other verses throughout the NT pointing to the Law as a shadow designed to point the way to Christ.]
v) The value of doing the Law is in serving God, so is it not logical to suspect that those who do God's will (as shown through the Spirit) are already deriving whatever benefit there is to be had by following "the Law"? [Romans 2]

With these arguments, Paul explains how the sending of Christ was a gift based on the unilateral promise made to Abraham. Thus, the amazing revolution whereby all people (not just Jews) have access to a covenant through faith had nothing to do with the law but everything to do with God's choice.

One particularly startling passage showing that Paul is really referring to Jewish-Gentile relations here and the idea that Jews felt they had some right over the Gentiles because they were true sons of Abraham comes in Romans 3:27-29. Paul has just hit a climax in Romans 3:24-26 about how all are justified in the same way, and in Romans 3:27-29 we see that the focus here is precisely on the Jew's having no elevation [and hence the Mosaic law having no added benefit to Gentiles] because we read:

"Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded! By what principle? Of works? No, but by the principle of faith! For we consider that a person is justified by faith aparts from the work of the law." (Romans 3:27-28)

People point to the above and think Paul is talking about "boastin" in "good" works...but that is not at all what Paul is referring is shown quite clearly in the very next verse:

"Or is God the God of the Jews only? Is He not the God of the Gentiles too? Yes, of the Gentiles too!"

Paul is not talking about boasting about "good works." He is referring to the contemporaneous Jews' boasting in the keeping of the Mosaic Law and having Abraham as their father [c.f.,Luke 3:8, Matthew 3:9].

Note that Paul links God's Grace to two things: the "gift" of God and the "promise" of God. As I've pointed out in another blog, for the apostles, both of these terms pointed to the Holy Spirit. Paul is letting everyone know Christ became a curse for us so that the Gentiles could receive the Spirit (Galatians 3:13-14), allowing all nations to be blessed in Abraham as members of God's people by removing the wall of division between Jew and Gentile (Ephesians 2:16) so that the traditions of Judaism were no longer a hindrance to anyone (Colossians 2:14-16, noting the similarity of language between this and the longer Ephesians passage).

So, in short, the "Grace" applied here refers to the consecrations of our souls thruogh Christ to receivethe Spirit (a blessing no one had a "right" to) and the opening of God's people to include the Gentiles (who, from a historical standpoint, had about as little claim on the Living God as one could conceivably have!)

It is 100% about the New Covenant Christ has mediated in the present as a response to the absolute failure of the earlier covenant to effect a righteous people for God [Jeremiah 31:31-34, Titus 2:14]

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

When Propitiation isn't Propitiation

Nick has brought up an interesting point on his blog. In the context of a debate about Psub, he has essentially pointed out that those who favor Penal Substitution are rather misusing a term. If one follows the rabbit trail logically, it's hard to see how propitiation and Penal substitution can go together.

When we think of the word propitiation, most people think of God's wrath being vented upon Christ rather than on those who have sinned (i.e. everyone else). God's wrath is turned away from us and delivered to Christ instead. This upholds God's sense of Justice (so the theory goes) because the punishment for sin has been meted out.

But, as Nick points out, that is not what propitiation even means. Propitiation means "to (re)gain another's favor." Etymologically it refers to making another gracious toward you. In the 1st century it referred to appeasing pagan gods through sacrifice. These sacrifices neutralised these pagan gods.

The thing is, nowhere do we find the actual wrath of these pagan gods actually being vented. The idea was not that someone else received the wrath. The wrath was not "turned away (to someone else)." Rather the gods repented of the wrath due to sacrifice.

And so, it seems you cannot really have both propittiation and Psub. You can say God vented wrath upon Christ, but in that case the wrath was not turned away, it actually occurred (just not on us). Or, you can say that propitiation occurred because of any number of reasons ("Jesus, the new Adam, was faithful unto death and hence caused God to repent of the wrath humanity deserved" is but one of many, many options).

If you say "God sacrificed Jesus as a sacrifice to Godself, and that appeased God." then we have lost the substitution aspect because now Jesus is not being punished due to our sins but rather as a blemishless sacrifice. Jesus can either be a sinless sacrifice to appease (propitiate) God, Jesus can "absorb" or have "transferred to Him" the sin of mankind and suffer in mankind's place, but you cannot have it both ways. In the first case we have propitiation. In the second we have substitution.

And this really gets back to another observation: the only sacrifice in the OT that involved transfer of sin was the scapegoat sacrifice (and the "live bird" sacrifice for lepers, perhaps), and that is the one sacrifice that was not killed. And for very good reason: had the sacrifice died in the camp, it would have defiled the camp. The scapegoat was meant to "take away" the sin, not merely suffer for them. The lamb that was sacrificed would have defiled the temple (rather than cleansing it) if it had sins transferred to it. [See Leviticus 16:21-22]

Jesus is not mentioned once as a scapegoat offering, which is odd, as He is mentioned as almost every other type [passover, sin offering, guilt offering, burnt offering come to my mind without looking].

So, those who adhere to Penal Substitution need to come up with a different term because what they claim is happening does not fit the meaning of "propitiation."

If you absolutely want to make Jesus a scapegoat and want to adhere to penal substitution, then you should no longer consider Jesus' death as a sacrifice. The "sacrifice" would then be God's releasing Jesus into the hands of men (Luke 22:53 and note Jesus words to Pilate in John 19:11).

There is actually some support for this notion, as it makes more sense of the "three days and three nights in the belly of the earth" prophecy. The idea is that Jesus time in "the belly of the earth" was the time He was within the power of humanity to do what they pleased.

Thus we have an odd role-reversal here. In cultic Judaism, the sins are placed on the goat and let loose for God to punish. Now God (in Jesus) is given the sins of humanity and let loose for humanity to punish. In this sense, God was not sacrificing Jesus to Godself but rather was sacrificing Jesus to mankind to do with what they desire.

NOTE: I'm not supporting the above theology...just presenting the sort of atonement theology you have to accept if you really want a "substitution" atonement where sins are transferred to Jesus. Now, if you do not want the actual sin transferred to Jesus. Most Penal Substitution types adhere to this type [where both sin and punishment are commuted to Jesus], but one could allow for a type of Penal Substitution wherein the sins were not transferred to Christ while God's wrath was. I know this sounds like God is then being unjust, for Christ is now being punished for sins Jesus never did...even statutorily. But I think a case could be made for it. There are other examples where someone bore the burden/consequences/punishment of a sin without bearing the guilt. Indeed, that is how Athanasius saw original sin. We all bore the consequence of Adam's rebellion but not Adam's guilt.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Matthew 8:16-17 and Substitution atonement

I'm currently doing a Bible study where all the discussions of Christ's work [and all the discussions of the Final Judgment] are collected together. I find these aggregations useful because they often reveal patterns not obvious from casual reading. Indeed, my very first blog was on how the evangelism shown in Acts is really not what we would expect given what most people are taught as "the gospel." [that post is here.]

While doing this I ran across Matthew 8:16-17. The interesting thing about this passage is that it puts a completely different frame on the "Suffering servant" prophecy of Isaiah 53.

The standard explanation of the prophesy in Isaiah 53:4-5 is that Christ took our sins upon Himself. Now, there is an immediate problem with this in that Isaiah describes the sacrifice of the suffering servant as a "reparation/guilt sacrifice"in Isaiah 53:10. This sacrifice was not one where the offenses were placed upon the sacrifice (indeed, often the "sacrifice" was not even a living creature.) It was a "paying back" not a "transfer of sin."

Indeed, if you read Isaiah 53 you'll see that Christ appears to be offered up as a "guilt offering" for sickness. The wording closely matches the discussion of how one was supposed to deal with lepers who had been healed in Leviticus 13 and 14. The word used in Isaiah 53:10 is the same as the word in Leviticus 14:13 to describe the offering. This was one of the three offerings made to cleanse a leper, allowing him back into the temple.

But Matthew 8:16-17 gives another reason not to see this prophecy as a defense of Penal substitution because Matthew claims Jesus was fulfilling it prior to His death when He healed those around Him. Hence, the focus is not on the infirmity being "placed on" Jesus statutorily, but rather that Jesus was "taking the sin away."

Now, the point here is not that Isaiah 53 was not also pertinent to Jesus' crucifixion. After all, the quotation in Acts 8:32-33 of verses 7 and 8 appear to refer to his death, and 1st Peter 2:24 could hardly be more clear that Christ's death is in mind.

However, Matthew's version proves that there is no requirement for the healing to be through transfer, and 1st Peter concurs that it is healing that is in mind here, not transfer of wrath. [In other words, the state of sickness people were in rather than future divine punishment.]

Neither does 1st Peter's version suggest transfer of guilt. Rather that passage puts Christ forth as an example [1st Peter 2:21] of enduring the persecution that people of God endure and leaving justice up to God [2:23]. The purpose suggested is not "to save us from God's wrath" but "that we may cease from sinning and live for righteousness."
1st peter 3:18 gives a similar reason for Christ's suffering.

Indeed, if one takes 1st Peter 3:1-2 seriously, we have to accept that Peter was very much putting forward a "salvation by Christ's example turning us back to God." 1st Peter 4:1-2 hits this topic again.

Now, I don't want to indicate that I'm supporting a "Christ as good example" salvation here. Indeed, 1st Peter 3:21 shows that Peter is not going for this interpretation either. Christ as a mere "good example" could not have accomplished the sending of the Spirit. I'm merely pointing out that the passages that quote Isaiah 53 (as well as the typology of Isaiah 53:10 and Leviticus 14) do not suggest Christ's sacrifice as substitutionary.

Finally, it should be noted that Isaiah 53:10 is never quoted by an NT writer, and the Hebrew is rather hard to understand, so the application of that verse [both in ways for and against PSA] have to be taken as circumstantial at best.

Friday, May 8, 2009

And in the Born Again Pharisee department...

I'm hoping to write a book entitled "Born Again Pharisees" sometime, discussing how the Christian church has (through the years) more or less done everything Christ excoriated the Jewish leaders for. This would include some pretty non-obvious things (such as misunderstanding what they were being saved from) and more obvious examples.

This,, describes one of those more obvious examples.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

What John 3:16 does (and does not) say

Of course, most people reading this blog will have heard a version of John 3:16. Many people consider it a concise description of "the gospel," and I would agree with that. The question is, if John 3:16 is a summary of the gospel, what gospel does it summarize?

The reason I bring this up is that the surrounding verses indicate that John 3:16 cannot possibly be a summary of the gospel of evangelical Christianity. Let's take a look at what John says after this oft-quoted verse.

John 3:16-17-
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.

So far, so good. Nothing odd there.

John 3:18a-
He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already,

At first this appears to drive home the commonly accepted gospel even more. We are told that those who do not believe have "been judged already." That sounds a lot like the idea of everyone being condemned to hell "by default" for their sins, and Christ is pictured as saving them, hence showing the love mentioned in John 3:16

But then we get to John 3:18b-
because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

And this really should raise an eyebrow or two. The evangelical gospel is primarily focused on heaven and hell, and how everyone more or less deserves the latter but through God's grace some receive the former. The issue here is that the "condemnation" John speaks of is not a condemnation for general sin, but rather a condemnation because someone "has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God."

Reformed Christianity in particular is adamant that we are not condemned due to rejecting Christ (if so, that would not condemn the millions who never knew of Him). But here that is exactly what John is referring to.

Some would say that John is not speaking of "rejecting Christ" but simply "not believing." Those who "do not believe" (for whatever reason) are still "being judged" rather than having escaped that judgment. (Of course, this whole line of thought is contrary to those passages that describe the Judgment, where all are clearly Judged, believers and non-believers.)

But John is not talking about mere ignorance or "not believing," because he tells us exactly what the Judgment is for in the next verse, John 3:19-21

This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.

John is clearly describing two groups of people everyone who does evil and he who practices the truth. This latter forms another problem for evangelical Christianity, which says that no one can really practice the truth until they have already come to believe. But here John says the opposite: those who desire to please God are exactly those who come to Christ.

In any event, this last section shows that John is not saying "those who believe" versus "those who do not believe." He is making a separation between those who actively rejected Christ and those who actively came to Christ. You cannot with any intellectual integrity claim that a 12th century Native American "failed to believe" for the reason John gives here.
The same applies today even where some version of the Gospel is preached everywhere. If someone rejects the message of the church because history has exposed too much hypocrisy in the church to find it a solid source of spiritual wisdom, you certainly cannot say that person rejected Christ for the reason John gives.

So, if this passage serves as your gospel, you have to accept that it does not give a definitive description of who is condemned and who is not, for by its own words it would not apply to all people. Secondly, you would have to accept that the reason people come to Jesus is because they are dispositionally inclined to do God's will. That is very different from the reason most people accept for how or why someone believes.

This latter idea, that people believe in Christ or not based on whether they already have a desire to do God's will is a recurring theme of John's. Jesus says it about as clearly as one could hope for in John 7:17-

If anyone is willing to do [God's] will, he will know of the teaching, whether it is of God or {whether} I speak from Myself.

This is repeated over and over, Jesus wants people to believe in Him because His words make sense. The commands He gives are ones that those who desire God naturally find value in, while those who were interested in their own gain are humiliated by Christ's commands.

This might all seem a bit odd, but it isn't odd if you take into consideration why and when John was written. John was written to Gentiles after the Temple had been destroyed which represented God's prophesied judgment against the Jewish leadership for rejecting Christ.

This is what John has in mind when saying This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.

Obviously, the men here does not everyone. "Everyone" didn't reject Christ. The Jewish leaders did. And why did they reject Christ? As John tells us: For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.

That is the reason the Jewish leaders rejected Christ. We are often told this fiction that the reason the Jews rejected Christ was that they were looking for a political leader rather than a spiritual one. That is simply not true. If that were the reason for rejecting Christ, then everyone would have done so. All the Jews (including Jesus' disciples) were expecting Jesus to eventually be anointed and become the new David, the new King (just as David had to wait on the fringes for Saul to be deposed). That is why the disciples are so shocked when Jesus is actually killed. The notion that He would rise from the dead to be king was unfathomable. They thought the game was up when He died [hence their forlorn response in Luke 24:21.]

You might be asking, so what is the point if John is just talking about the Jewish leaders?

To see the point of this you have to once again look at John's purpose. He is sharing the gospel with Gentiles, broadcasting that God's Kingdom is now open to them. The focus is not on the God so loved the world. The focus is on the whosoever. This notion of everyone (not just Jews) shows up throughout John. In particular it shows in the verse immediately before John 3:16. John 3:14-15 reads

As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.

The "lifted up" has a double meaning. It refers to both Christ's crucifixion and ascension, but it also refers to the "lifting up of Christ" for the world to see. Why? so whoever believes can receive eternal life. Note the similar language Christ uses when discussing this very idea later in John 12:32 -
And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.

So, what we are seeing in John 3:16 is really a commentary on the destruction of the Temple [has been condemned already] and the reason for that judgment against the Jewish leaders.

You might wonder why John uses the term eternal life here if it is referring to the physical destruction of the temple as an indication of the judgment on the Jews. That's a topic for another blog, but it is linked (once again) to the context of this passage. The John 3:16-21 passage is a commentary on Jesus' discussion with Nicodemus. The eternal life here is linked to the kingdom of God Jesus refers to in John 3:3.

This Kingdom of God is not "heaven after we die," as Jesus makes clear in that dialogue. It is the baptism by the Holy Spirit, the seal of the new covenant God makes through Christ, a covenant in which everyone is invited to participate. The term that gets translated eternal life by John, when writing to Gentiles who do not know much about the Jewish O'lam Ha-Ba was the best way to get across the blessedness of living in the spirit. Eternal life is not even the best translation. Boundless life is probably a better one. [Greek does have a word that means "eternal" in the way we would think of the term, but it is not the word used here. It is used in Jude 13]. This shows in John's amazing definition of eternal life in John 17:3

This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.

Note that this is really meant as a definition (or as close as a definition as you can get) to eternal life (or, rather, the Greek John used for that term). The grammar here is one John uses elsewhere when giving a dictionary definition or precise explanation of what something is. Other examples where John uses the exact same grammar are: John 1:19, John 3:19, John 15:12, 1st John 1:15, 1st John 3:13.

And that is why John 3:16 is a fine description of the gospel: God sent Jesus to allow all people to recieve the Holy Spirit (which, if one reads Galatians 3:13-14 closely, you'll find Paul saying the same thing!!!) It just is not necessarily the gospel people generally think of.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Topic for discussion: salvation, faith, repentance

Agree or disagree: "Most of what evangelicals claim about the gospel would be more or less accurate if every time someone mentions 'believe,' we replace it with 'repent.' We might further replace 'believer' with 'disciple.'"