Why Reformational Philosophy?

faith seeking revelation:

Here’s an excellent post from a good friend of mine about a field of philosophy that is holistically Christian, called Reformed Philosophy–a model for me for what a Christian philosopher should look like.

Originally posted on Thought Thoughts and Mused Ideas:

On this Reformation Day, 497 years after Luther nailed the 95 theses to the Castle Church in Wittenberg, I reflect upon the wild course theology and philosophy has taken since that fateful day so long ago. The divide between Protestant and Catholic has led to an unbelievable amount of divisions within Protestantism, with thousands of separate (and often antagonistic) Christian denominations existing today. 

In the late 1800’s a man named Abraham Kuyper, a Calvinist philosopher, theologian, and politician, articulated a way of doing philosophy that was uniquely grounded in scriptural themes as he saw them. This philosophy gave rise to the political system which dominate in the Netherlands in the pre-WWII era of the 20th century. The philosophy was developed (and some argue reached its zenith) with the work of Dirk Vollenhoven and Herman Dooyeweerd in the mid 1900’s. Dooyeweerd recognized that all philosophy regardless of its orientation towards organized…

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Why do bad things happen to good people?: A dialogue from inside the Bible.

We have all had bad days before, it is just part of life. I remember the time that my high school (American) football coach moved me from fullback to offensive line. For those not familiar with the sport, the fullback is one of the positions on the team that gets the most praise: they run with the ball, they catch passes, they score points and win the game. For two years I was a fullback, and a good one. The offensive line, though, is one of the lowliest roles in the game. All they do all game long is push other people around. They don’t score points, they don’t create turnovers, they don’t make tackles, and as a result, they get very little attention. The day that the coach told me he wanted me to play offensive line I was heartbroken—convinced that he was making the worst decision in the history of the sport. In short, that was a bad day for me.

And while bad days happen to us all, they do not compare to the experience of a tragedy. A year or two after the coach moved me to the offensive line one of the families that attended my school had a house fire in the early hours of the morning. The mother died as did two of the children, leaving behind the father and one remaining child, both badly scarred from the flames. They were beyond devastated, and the entire school mourned.

There were many people in that time who were asking, “Why did you let this happen, God?” When faced with tragedy, they wanted to find solace in knowing that God had a reason to allow such a horrible thing to happen. Of course, this response is natural for those who grieve, and grief is as old as life itself. For thousands of years, people having been asking, “Why, God?” and some of the answers have been recorded in the Bible.

One such answer is found in Deuteronomy 28. Go ahead and read it: I will wait. Finished? Good. What the chapter portrays is Moses pronouncing a covenant (a contract, if you will) between the Israelites and God. If they obey God, then God will bless them with things like healthy children and livestock, bountiful harvests, and military strength. If they disobey God and sin, though, then watch out! Not only will their livestock and harvests suffer, but there would be disease and drought, they would be slain by their enemies and deported to foreign lands. It even says that things would get so bad that mothers would eat their own children because there will be no other food left. So why do bad things happen to people? Deuteronomy says it is because they sinned. This theodicy—an answer to the question “why does God allow bad things to happen?”—is called the Deuteronomic Principle: it says that good things happen to people who obey God and bad things happen to people who sin. And while its name comes from the fact that we find it most easily in Deuteronomy, you can see it in other books of the Bible as well. Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, and Proverbs all share this basic assumption about tragedy.

The problem with the Deuteronomic Principle, though, is that it oftentimes did not seem to match up with people’s lived experiences. People who commit horrible crimes often never get caught and many times the worst tragedies happen to the best people. People started to recognize that this answer for why bad things happen just would not stand to reason, and they began to challenge it.   Ecclesiastes demonstrates the difficulties people had with the Deuteronomic Principle:

7:15 During the days of my fleeting life I have seen both of these things:/ Sometimes a righteous person dies prematurely in spite of his righteousness,/ and sometimes a wicked person lives long in spite of his evil deeds.

8:10 Not only that, but I have seen the wicked approaching and entering the temple,/ and as they left the holy temple, they/ boasted in the city that they had done so./ This also is an enigma.

8:14 Here is another enigma that occurs on earth:/ Sometimes there are righteous people who get what the wicked deserve,/ and sometimes there are wicked people who get what the righteous deserve./ I said, “This also is an enigma.” (NET).

Job's Evil Dreams (illustration)

Job’s Evil Dreams (illustration) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These sorts of experiences were deeply troubling, and the anxiety that arises from it is given voice in the book of Job. Job was a rich man with good health, plenty of good children, and well-respected, and he was also very righteous. Tragedy came on him, though, and he lost it all—his children, his health, his riches—the only thing he had left was his insistence that he was righteous before God. Several “friends” came and tried to console Job, trying to encourage him to repent of whatever wicked sins he must have committed to deserve this punishment from God. Job continues in his defense, though, and says that his suffering was undeserved and he says he wants to take God to court for wrongdoings. Job and his friends reach a stalemate when God enters into the conversation. God entirely ignores Job’s plea for his day in court and refuses to justify what happened to Job. Yet at the end of it all, God does vindicate Job by telling Job’s friends “My anger is stirred up against you and your two friends, because you have not spoken about me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:7, NET). Here in the book of Job we have God directly rejecting the very principle that God established in Deuteronomy!

This conflict between different parts of the Bible continued on even to the days of Jesus. At the time though, the Deuteronomic Principle was more popular than the ambiguity that came from books like Job and Ecclesiastes. We can even see Jesus responding to the conflict between the two positions in Luke:

13:1 Now there were some present on that occasion who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 13:2 He answered them, “Do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered these things? 13:3 No, I tell you! But unless you repent, you will all perish as well! 13:4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower in Siloam fell on them, do you think they were worse offenders than all the others who live in Jerusalem?  13:5 No, I tell you! But unless you repent you will all perish as well! (NET)

Apparently during Jesus’ days there was some sort of execution where Pilate killed some Jews from Galilee while they were offering sacrifices, and another time when a building collapsed on some people and killed eighteen of them. Many people were privately judging the victims, thinking that they must have committed grievous sins to deserve such a fate. Jesus confronted this mentality and rejected it. But then, with the wisdom of a sage, he turned around and re-affirmed the Deuteronomic Principle by saying that they would perish if they continued to sin! Undoubtedly, most everyone was left scratching their heads, wanting to ask, “Which is it, Jesus? Do people suffer because of sin or not??” By affirming that sin does indeed result in punishment and also affirming that bad things happen to innocent people, Jesus forced the people to re-frame the very way they thought about the conflict. If sin is always punished, yet experience tells us that oftentimes sin seems to go unpunished, then the question becomes when and in what manner do sinners receive punishment. When we ask questions differently, different answers appear to us, and in this instance, Jesus points us to the understanding that the sort of punishment sin creates is spiritual death, and although wicked people may get away with their crimes in their lifetime, they will not escape eternity. The danger, as Jesus warns us, is in judging other people according to the way things seem.

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Why Jude?

Hello friends, I feel that my post this week needs a preamble. I have been trying diligently to post something fresh and original, something timely and meaningful, every week. Due to a combination of major events happening in my life this week, though, I will not be able to put into the weekly post the effort that I would normally expect from myself. I offer my sincerest apologies, and instead of making something new, I am going to reach back into my vaults and share something I developed while at Divinity School.

Cover of "Jude and 2 Peter (Baker Exegeti...

Cover via Amazon

This was a short reflection paper from the end of a Greek exegesis course on the books of Jude and 2 Peter. Most laypersons are blissfully ignorant of the many troubling problems that arise when you study these books, especially when studying them side-by-side. Truth be told, these two books–more than anything else–almost ruined my belief in the inspiration of Scripture. Although I will not introduce these problems here, and my reflection paper only subtly brushes against the problems, I did want to lay out the context in which this was written.

As a further word of notice, I mentioned last week that in America spiritual authorities are generally disregarded if not despised. There are a lot of reasons for this, not least of all because people in religious leadership roles have earned it. However, as I said last week and as this reflection on Jude and 2 Peter repeat today, spiritual authority and the subsequent virtue of spiritual submission are valued in the New Testament, even if they are parts of our theological blind spots as American Christians. I don’t expect that many people will agree or appreciate with what I say in this paper. I am fairly confident in my position; I welcome disagreement, but please provide well-reasoned use of Scripture.

Why Jude/2 Peter?

            A few weeks ago I attended a weekend conference at a church in Massachusetts. As a student, though, I did not have the liberty to spend an entire weekend without doing homework, so I took Bauckham’s commentary on Jude/2 Peter to read in between sessions. Apparently, seeing me read a commentary took a few pastors attending the conference back to their seminary days, which led to conversations about what I thought about the two books. None had much to say about either Jude or 2 Peter, and one even admitted that he never preached from 2 Peter. Many sincere believers have a hard time finding relevance in these two works, as both of them seem to condemn largely unknown opponents and are delivered to vague audiences, peddling in what seems to be hollow exhortations to be good (compare 2 Peter 3:11-12 with Paul’s exhortations to live led by the Spirit followed by examples of how to live in such manner in Galatians 5:16-26).  And while at some level we might be tempted to say that since the two letters are part of our canon, we need to read them, as some bitter medicine, hoping that doing so will mystically do us some good, it would be preferable to find truly applicable lessons for contemporary issues. My claim is that Jude and 2 Peter do actually have such lessons, and that they are timely letters for today, as they both point to the importance of submitting to spiritual authorities—a virtue that is in complete contradiction with contemporary culture.

One does not need to go far to find examples of how any and all forms of authority are despised. Media such as the movie Office Space or the cartoon Dilbert portray work authorities as incompetent, heartless, oppressive, etc. Teenagers are expected to think that their parents are idiots (whether they actually do or not withstanding). Police officers are often treated with contempt, as evident in their many derogatory nicknames. Perhaps stemming from the counter-cultural revolutions in the 1960’s and 70’s, or perhaps even further back, as our country was born out of rebellion, a strong distrust of authorities in now a major part of our society.

In the same way, religious authorities have also suffered contempt. Any statistic would fail to measure the migration of people away from “organized” religion to alternative, more personal, more individualistic forms of “spirituality.” Masses have turned away from the Gospel preached from the pulpit in favor of good news they hope to find inside themselves. Many would think this migration as freedom, but I say that in so doing, one restricts oneself to discover truth on their own. And while such a journey can be fruitful, most undergo the path haphazardly, not examining their own beliefs with reason, but relies on a vague and nebulous sense of “it feels good to me.” This process inevitably leads to swarms of errors, holding self-refuting or mutually exclusive opinions, either oblivious to the blatant falsehoods maintained or, even worse, unconcerned about their existence. The real problem with this, apart from the rejection of God-given reason, is that our beliefs are major components of our actions. Good beliefs lead to good actions, bad or false beliefs lead to bad actions. Furthermore, according to most Christian perspectives, it seems that our beliefs have some role in our salvation. So this individualistic style of spirituality is extremely dangerous, both morally as well as eternally.

This is where Jude and 2 Peter come in; often read as a sign of “early Catholicism,” these two letters warn us of the dangers of straying from religious authorities. Although we do not know who the opponents are that the authors of Jude and 2 Peter speak against, it is obvious that at the heart of the problems are false teachings. Both count it as a mark and a sign of their opponents doom that they reject authority (Jude 8, 2 Peter 2:10). Being out from under the authority of others, they develop false doctrines, ones that lead to immoral actions. As 2 Peter 2:2-3 tells us, the false teachers deny even Christ with their destructive teachings, ones that encourage licentiousness and used to further their own greed. Jude agrees, when in verse 11 he compares the false teachers to Balaam, leading others to destruction in order to line their own pockets, or in verse 16 when he states that they indulge themselves in the flesh while persuading others for their own advantage. Apparently, they are wicked people, having left the care of the Gospel which was given to them, they devise means to satisfy sin and to ensnare others.

But God is not unaware of their misdeeds. No, for the false teachers, there is a punishment so great that it has been forespoken—their punishment was foreordained. Jude tells us in verse 4 that, in denying their Lord and master, they were long ago condemned. 2 Peter agrees, saying in chapter 3 that it was prophesied that there will be scoffers and indulgers of the flesh, people who justify their actions through false doctrines: not knowing their destruction is nigh.

And what is the nature of their destruction? 2 Peter continues in chapter 3 by portraying the scoffers as pieces of kindle for the Day of Judgment, to be caught up in flames with the rest of heaven and earth, melting alongside the very elements of the cosmos. Jude does not give us such a direct warning of the type of destruction these ungodly teachers will undergo, but the author does suggest that past examples of similar condemnations foreshadow their own destruction. For example, it points to those who fell while leaving Egypt and to the angels spoken of in 1 Enoch who left their proper place (a place which would entail being under God’s authority). He points to Sodom and Gomorrah, to Cain, Balaam, and the rebels of Korah. Respectively, these figures’ destructions were: the many various means of death in the wilderness wanderings, chained in utter darkness, eternal fire, wandering as an outcast, accursedness and death, and being swallowed by the earth and incineration by the fire of the LORD. Whatever we might draw from these allusions, none of them suggest that the false teachers’ own ruination will be pleasant or mild.

So what is the remedy for those who might be tempted to follow the doctrines of the false teachers? “Now, I wish to remind you, although you already know all of this…” (Jude 5), or “Therefore, I will always remind you concerning this, although you do know and are established in this present truth…” (2 Peter 1:12). Such heresies are combated through reminders; in other words, the people do not need any new teachings, they merely need to place themselves firmly under the truth which they have already received—they must submit to the authority of the (proper) teachings handed to them.

Now, I do not wish to suggest that in order to be spiritually sound, one must blindly accept any and all of the teachings presented by various religious leaders. There have been many harmful things perpetrated, both intentionally and unintentionally, throughout the history of the Church that has been strengthened by a felt need for blind allegiance to a particular message. There is an important role for reason alongside faith in the life of the believer. For everyone is fallible, even good-intending preachers, therefore, we need to test what is given to us. At the same time though, human fallibility also means that we ourselves are fallible, which means that we need to take an honest appraisal of ourselves as to how fit we are to challenge our leaders. I would never challenge an engineer’s blueprints for a suspension bridge because I know absolutely nothing about such things. Likewise, most religious leaders are people who have received rigorous training and spend their professional life wrestling with matters of faith and doctrine. So, if I am to challenge their teachings, I need to remember that their authority has been earned. Humility is then truthfully recognizing the earned authority of our religious leaders and thus giving a favorable ear to their message. We might have good reason to disagree with them on occasion, but that is healthy and to be expected.

The basis for why this humility is so desperately needed is because so often it is lacking among believers. We treat lightly things that are of utmost importance. We distrust those in authority and establish our own truths, not knowing the dangers we pose to ourselves in so doing. This is why the letters of Jude and 2 Peter are so timely, as well as timeless, for as the letters make clear, it is not only in our own time and culture where authorities are despised. Humble submission to authorities is a timeless virtue.

 

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Blind Spots

 

 

When they heard these words, some of the crowd began to say, “This really is the Prophet!”  Others said, “This is the Christ!” But still others said, “No, for the Christ doesn’t come from Galilee, does he? Don’t the scriptures say that the Christ is a descendant of David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?”  (John 7:40-42, NET)

 

 

Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before and who was one of the rulers, said, “Our law doesn’t condemn a man unless it first hears from him and learns what he is doing, does it?”  They replied, “You aren’t from Galilee too, are you? Investigate carefully and you will see that no prophet comes from Galilee!” (John 7:50-52, NET)

 

 

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath,  and a woman was there who had been disabled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten herself up completely.  When Jesus saw her, he called her to him and said, “Woman, you are freed from your infirmity.”  Then he placed his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.  But the president of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the crowd, “There are six days on which work should be done! So come and be healed on those days, and not on the Sabbath day.”  (Luke 13:10-14, NET)

 

 

From that time on Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and experts in the law, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.  So Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him: “God forbid, Lord! This must not happen to you!”  But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me, because you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but on man’s.” (Matthew 16:21-23, NET)

 

 

What do all of these passages have in common? In each of them the Kingdom of God is confronted by a misunderstanding from well-meaning people. The Jewish people had a hard time accepting Jesus as the Messiah because they thought he was from Galilee and they knew that the Psalms prophesied that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem. The leader of the synagogue, like all good Jewish leaders of the day, had taken to follow the oral traditions that had been built around the commandment to keep the Sabbath. Peter rebuked Jesus’ insistence on dying because Peter was a Zealot, someone who believed that the Messiah was supposed to be a military leader who freed the Jews from Roman occupation, so, since Peter knew Jesus was the Messiah, Peter thought Jesus was simply wrong that he would die before his political role was fulfilled. In each case, people who thought they were following God’s Word ended up missing the Big Picture that was right in front of their eyes. Their ways of understanding had created theological blind-spots–much like mirrors in a car create blind-spots.

Blind Spot

Blind Spot (Photo credit: Images by John ‘K’)

Just in case we might get complacent about our perceived theological superiority to the first century Jews, I would suggest that we still have blind-spots today. They are created by having an incomplete understanding of the entirety of Truth, and as such, they should be expected. But just like with driving, the most dangerous blind-spots are the ones we don’t even know exist. That is why on occasion we need to turn our head to the left and to the right to see what we might be missing.

 

So my question for you today: What blind-spots have you created that keep you from seeing what God is doing?

 

Personally, I am involved in what is called the Vineyard Movement. It is a low-structure “Third Wave” neo-charismatic evangelical denomination, all of which is irrelevant to my point. What is relevant to the point, though, is that although the Vineyard is generally considered theologically “loose,” it also has a very strong culture that is centered around their theology. For example, one common theme in the Vineyard is God’s overwhelming love for everyone and the spiritual freedom that comes with love. This framework for approaching God is biblically sound, and furthermore, it produces tangible fruit in the lives of those who adopt it. Problems emerge, though, when one takes this theological framework as the whole of who God is. You get stuck relying solely on this way of interpreting God. It is kind of like when you are driving a long distance on a highway. Over time you may get too comfortable or lazy just driving forward and trusting your mirrors that you neglect turning your head to check the blind-spots. In particular, some of the systemic problems the Vineyard faces as a result are dealing with the Judgment of God, falling into forms of anti-intellectualism, shying away from ecumenism, and having a strong distaste for submission to spiritual authorities. Of course, these characteristics are not shared by all Vineyardites, but they are common enough and are systematically propagated to the point where they might be considered part of the “DNA” of the Vineyard.

 

Not all blind-spots are created by the Church, though. As they are caused by incomplete worldviews, anywhere that supplies us with our worldview are sources for them. As an American, I am able to speak to how American culture contributes to our blindness to God. Two of the most important American values today are Democracy and Consumerism–one says that everyone is equal while the other says that only the most desirable deserve to survive. While ignoring the contradictions inherent in these two values for the moment, I will suggest that both of these lead to the general inability of American Christians to see God’s truth.

 

Consumerism, for example, has forced the local churches to shape the message of the Gospel to make it appealing to everyone. The Bible says, though, that the message of the Cross is offensive to the world, “For Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks ask for wisdom, but we preach about a crucified Christ, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:22-23, NET). And instead of having a shared communal life in the church, we instead split into segmented groups–young adults, children’s groups, singles ministry, elder care, men’s groups, women’s groups, etc ad nauseum–and if you disagree with something the pastor says, you do not dialogue with him or her; no, you pack your bags and move on to the next church that will be more accommodating to your tastes. Do you see how completely disruptive these patterns are to building a community of mutual love and acceptance?

 

Our society’s emphasis on democracy also leads to inherent blindness to God. An emphasis on total equality of everyone results in a distrust of hierarchies and authorities. This is one of the causes as to why Americans in particular are so resistant to scientific consensuses such as evolution and global warming. “Why should I trust a bunch of stodgy old scientists about the temperature of the earth,” they reason, “when I have a perfectly good thermometer at home? If everyone is equal, then they are no better than me, and by extension, my beliefs are just as valid as theirs.” The same attitude makes it near impossible to lay claim to authority in the traditional humanities. If someone has a problem with the electrical wiring in their house, they may call an electrician, but in America there is no such deference to experts in the fields of philosophy, theology and/or spirituality, literature, ethics, art, education, politics, sociology, psychology, etc. But Jesus himself supported the authority of the religious leaders of his day. Matthew 23:1-3 says, “Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples,  ‘The experts in the law and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. Therefore pay attention to what they tell you and do it'” (NET). Likewise, Paul approved of the positions of pastors and deacons, laying out the requirements for those to fill those roles (1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 for reference). If, as an American Christian, I refuse to place myself in submission to godly authority, it is I myself who suffers.

 

Now having given a few examples of what our blind-spots may look like and how they might originate, I again challenge you to discover your own. Seek them out, knowing that it is practically impossible to eliminate them all as we now are, seeing “as in a mirror, darkly,” but also realizing that when we do not know what we are ignoring, we run the risk of missing God.

 

 

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A Community without Shame

Previously I had written on sin and shame, drawing upon the Bible to demonstrate a new way to understand the nature of sin (The New Way and The Fruit of the Knowledge of Good

English: A cross close to the church in Grense...

English: A cross close to the church in Grense Jakobselv, Norway. Suomi: Risti kirkon lähellä Vuoremijoella, Norjassa. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

and Evil). As a summary, I will say that sin is whatsoever that makes you want to not be seen by God, and this one-sided isolation from God is the cause of our spiritual death. As Paul says, “Blessed is the one who does not judge himself by what he approves. But the man who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not do so from faith, and whatever is not from faith is sin” (emphasis mine, Romans 14:22-23, NET). The passages is dealing with early Christians and the question as to whether they should eat meat sold from the market which had likely been “blessed” in being offered to demons. The doubt here mentioned is talking about that internal guilty voice that says, “I don’t know if I should do this.” What Paul says is that if someone were having that kind of doubt, then they should not eat the meat, as it would be sin. However, if someone is capable of eating it without passing judgment on themselves, then it is fine. The point is that the act itself is not good or evil, but the problem is if the act causes guilt and shame. Part of the importance of the cross is the message that God loves us–even to the point of death–regardless of whatever shame we may harbor.

So my question today is this: What would a community of believers look like that fully lives out this realization of God’s love despite our sin-shame? Or put another way, what would it be like to be a part of a church that loves each other unconditionally and does not allow shame to hinder relationships?

All of us carry things we are terrified that others will discover: our addictions, our phobias, our past, our thoughts. And also we are all weighed down by self-doubt and criticism: “I am not as smart as him,” “I am not as talented as her,” “if only I could have as many friends as she does,” “why can’t I have a good marriage like they do?” etc. Sometimes these secrets and self-doubts become so painful to carry that we learn to justify them, or to ignore them, or even outright forget and repress them.

We get defensive when confronted by others about our problems. We try to find excuses and pass the blame for our own shortcomings, and when that is not possible, we deny the truth, we get indignant over them “judging” us, or we go on the offensive by bringing up their list of problems.

Day 003 - Shame

So imagine that all of these kinds of secrets were displayed before your entire church. All of your defenses are stripped bare as the horrid truth is manifest to everyone. As things are now I would be mortified–afraid to show my face ever again. But now imagine that you are part of a community that you fully know and trust would love you, accept you, and not think less of you if they knew those secrets. Do you see the kind of freedom that brings?? There would be no reason to be afraid of these people discovering your secrets: no reason to conceal your thoughts, your fears, or your sins. With this group you would never need to live a double-life. This is the foundation for honest, authentic, and supportive relationships. For me, at least, having these sorts of relationships would give me the courage to take risks that I have previously been afraid to take. I would also not strive find my identity in my personal acquired wealth or through my social status or my list of professional accomplishments.

Of course, this community only exists in approximation, but the improbability of perfection should never prevent us from striving to achieve it. In other words, never allow “great” to become a hurdle for “good.” Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream of a society of racial equality. That day has not come yet, but the dream itself has provided momentum for justice and change. Perhaps my dream will inspire some to be more gracious with one another–to put love before judgment.

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The Beginning of Wisdom (Proverbs 9:10)

I have always loved the book of Proverbs. As a child, I would read it and see the overall emphasis on the importance of righteousness over wickedness, and I appreciated the tidbits of wisdom that I could understand at that time. As a teenager, I began to notice the quiet nature of wisdom as it is described in Proverbs. Take, for example, Proverbs 10:19, “10:19 When words abound, transgression is inevitable, / but the one who restrains his words is wise” (NET). Here, as well as elsewhere in Proverbs, we see a coupling of wisdom and silence.

 

English: The School of Athens (detail). Fresco...

English: The School of Athens (detail). Fresco, Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

At the same time in my life, I tripped across Plato’s writings and saw a similar theme of the wise person who refuses to “speak” because he understands his own limitations.Indeed, the biggest reason I initially fell in love with Plato’s works is because I saw strong parallels between them and the Bible, particularly Proverbs. This infatuation led to 6 years of higher education in philosophy and religion. As an adult I still return to Proverbs, and now, steeped in my analytic training, I try to look deeper into the individual proverbs. Hidden underneath each saying is a whole worldview that the proverb presupposes. In other words, instead of just looking at Proverbs and seeing the “what,” I now try to find the “why.”

Today I wish to share with you one such verse which I believe I have been able to chip away a small corner of it’s “why.” Let’s look at Proverbs 9:10, “The beginning of wisdom is to fear the Lord” (NET). A first-level understanding of this passage tells us that fear of God’s judgment leads us to obedience, which is wisdom. We may not know what is best for us, but God does, so it is wise to obey God’s commands. If this is all that you get out of reading the proverb, then great! It is a solid interpretation backed by many other passages and themes throughout the Bible. What I want to do, however, is to look deeper into the relationship between fear and wisdom. 

“The fear of the LORD” is difficult. As adopted children of God, we ought not be afraid to approach our heavenly Daddy, but at the same time, a loving parent does provide corrective punishment for his children. Children should not cringe in fear when their parents walk into the room, but at the same time, there are few things in this world more frustrating as a child who ignores his or her parent’s warnings; “Get over here right now or else!” goes unheeded, as the child knows there is no reason to fear the parent’s empty threats. It is this sort of fear that is lacking in the undisciplined child that we as children of God should possess.

This sort of fear leads to obeying God, which is wise, but why is it that it is called the beginning of wisdom? As a philosopher (literally, a “lover of wisdom”), I have seen many different attempts to define what wisdom is, and how it differs from knowledge. One definition I have liked is that wisdom is the science of the proper techniques of thinking. Whereas knowledge is knowing informational content, such as who won the 1956 World Series, or what is the Lewis structure of acetic acid, wisdom is the ability to take knowledge and apply it properly–based on the rules of thought such as those found in logic. Proper thinking ought to result in proper actions, leading to the other side of wisdom, which is living righteously. Thinking of this sort of definition of wisdom, what occurs to me when I think of the fear of the LORD as the beginning of wisdom, I recall the Stoic principle that right action starts with knowing what to fear and what not to fear. The thought is simple: fear keeps us away from doing something, but oftentimes we are mistaken about what we should fear, and as a result, we end up doing things we should not and not doing things we should.  Plato said the same thing about cowardice and bravery; true bravery is knowing what we ought to fear versus what we ought not to fear. Soldiers should not fear dying in battle as much as they should fear dying dishonorably or, even worse, fleeing battle and living at the expense of others. This is why the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; as Luke 8:25 says, we ought not to fear death or those who can inflict death. Instead, we should fear God who is capable of destroying both the body and the soul. With this proper alignment of fears, we should no longer fear things like suffering, poverty, loneliness, or illness. In other words, we should not be motivated by these sorts of things to do evil. If we start with the fear of the LORD, we will not steal, we will not covet, we will not murder, and we will not commit adultery.   

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The Canaanite Genocide: Reinterpretation

This is the final entry in our current series on the Canaanite Genocide. Over the past weeks we have been exploring ways to handle the apparent contradictions in the Bible that tell us that God is good, yet God also commanded the Israelites to commit genocide as they took possession of the Canaan. As one of my overall purposes for Faith Seeking Revelation, I have been using this conflict as a case study demonstrating how we can integrate philosophy and logical reasoning into understanding the Bible and living a life of faith.

 

So let’s summarize the problem and the possible ways of solving the problem one more time. The conflict is that the Bible says that God is good and that God did something generally considered evil. Both cannot be true, so we need to reconcile (or reject) the conflicting passages. The four ways of doing this are:

 

  1. Define goodness as that which God commands; the genocide was not evil because it was commanded by God and thus, by definition, impossible for it to be evil.  (Divine Command Theory)
  2. Maintain that while genocide is generally evil, in this particular case, God was justified for commanding it.
  3. Deny that God is good
  4. Reinterpret the genocide passages in a way that avoids making God responsible.

As we have already covered the first three options (1, 2, 3), this week we will flesh out how the fourth alternative would work.

 

 

Reinterpretation Strategy

 

The heart of the strategy of reinterpreting the Old Testament passages lies in separating the biblical texts from a historical account of Israel. Imagine a legal court setting where a witness testifies she saw the defendant commit the crime. If the defendant can provide an alibi, or if he can prove that the witness is wrong, then the defendant is acquitted of the charges. Likewise, if a reinterpretation of the genocide passages results in an understanding that the command of genocide never actually happened, then there is no longer any conflict. There are several ways to go about this; we will discuss three.

 

 

Progressive Revelation

 

The first way to reinterpret the Old Testament passages is under the umbrella term of “Progressive Revelation,” which states that the revelations of God to humanity grew over time, first blurry (as in the Old Testament) but increased in clarity to the point of the Incarnation of Jesus, which is the perfection of God’s self-revelation to the world. With this understanding, one could read the problematic passages as a lesser revelation of God, and we would expect them to have conflicts with New Testament revelations of God. We would then ignore the older passages in favor of the newer. God is not guilty of commanding genocide because the OT authors did not receive as clear of a revelation of God; they must have gotten that part mixed up when writing down the Bible.

 

This interpretation has its merits; Christ is definitely the keystone of the Bible and God’s revelation to humanity. It also has a broad application. This one theory could be applied to almost anything in the Old Testament that is problematic. Another merit is that it maintains a straight-forward understanding of Scripture whenever possible, just with the one caveat that the original authors were sometimes mistaken.

 

Progressive revelation has its problems too. First and foremost, it sometimes borders on the edges of doctrines of the inspiration of the Bible—other times it simply crosses the line. If the human authors of the Bible were wrong in presenting God’s nature, then in what sense can we say they were inspired? Another problem is that with the theory’s broad application, it can often be used to throw undesired parts of the Bible under the rug. Even if God did not command the genocide, there is still a reason it is part of the Bible; simply disregarding it as error misses the purpose of its inclusion.

 

Israel’s Origin Story

Library--New Testament Studies

Library–New Testament Studies (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A second method of reinterpretation comes from archaeology and higher criticism biblical scholarship. The argument is that much of the Old Testament, including the passages on the invasion of Canaan, were created much later than the time frame of the stories portrayed. The northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians in approximately 722 BC, who subsequently collapsed and was subsumed by the Babylonians. Later, in 582 BC, the southern kingdom of Judah also fell to Babylon. Many of the social elites–the political, religious, and educated leaders–were deported to Babylon while the common folk were left behind to maintain the land. During this Babylonian Captivity the deported leaders had some hard thinking to do. Israel and Judah always had a tradition of polytheism, but prior to the Captivity, the royal courts of Judah had adopted political/religious monotheism centered around worship of Yahweh alone. Now in Babylon the deported came to understand their situation as a result of divine punishment for not strictly adhering solely to Yahweh worship. To remedy the problem, the history of Israel was rewritten, starting with a fiction of an Egyptian exodus that centered on Yahweh’s deliverance. The authors then blended oral traditions with a revised history of Israel/Judah to portray their nation as unfaithful to their God, thus breaking their agreement of obedience and protection. Their new rewritten history resulted in a greater sense of unity and new religious practices as the Hebrews returned to Israel/Judah during the Second Temple era.

 

As far as providing an ‘alibi’ for God’s commanding the Canaanite genocide, this understanding of much of the Old Testament definitely fits the bill. According to this interpretation, not only did God not give the command, but nothing like the Exodus and Canaanite Invasion ever happened. Clearly God cannot be held accountable for something that never happened!

 

This sort of higher criticism understanding of the Old Testament is very controversial, and I will try to handle its evaluation even-handed (most likely resulting in upsetting conservatives and liberals alike). First with the strengths. The greatest advantage this interpretation has is that it fits with the best archeological and literary evidence we have. Although I do not reject the possibility that someday we will find sufficient archeological evidence to support the Old Testament narratives, there is a larger issue at hand of how we are to relate science (including archeology) and Scripture. There are many modern-day conflicts between science and faith, but I will illustrate the point with Galileo’s controversy. Galileo said that the sun was the center of the universe, but the Catholic Church said that the Earth must be the center. The Church had good reason to think so, as the Bible “clearly” states the Earth does not move. Take Psalm 104:5, “He established the earth on its foundations; it will never be upended” (NET, the NIV translates it “it can never be moved”). Or look at Joshua 10:13, “The sun stood still and the moon stood motionless while the nation took vengeance on its enemies. The event is recorded in the Scroll of the Upright One. The sun stood motionless in the middle of the sky and did not set for about a full day” (NET). These and other passages led the Church to support a cosmology with Earth at the center of the universe, backed with the force of Scripture and faith. Galileo, however, did not let up: he kept on sharing his sun-centered universe model along with his motto,the intention of the Holy Spirit is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how the heavens go.” The Church disagreed, claiming that Galileo was undermining the reliability of the entirety of Scripture.  The Church forced Galileo to either recant his theory or face excommunication, but Christianity as a whole has never finished eating crow for the decision. Perhaps in a couple hundred years, people will laugh at our modern-day conflicts between science and faith–including the distaste for archaeology and higher criticism.

 

Another great advantage of this reinterpretation is that it is a powerful tool for reconciling many similar conflicts in the Bible. For example, there is a back-and-forth argument in between books of the Old Testament about the relationship between disobeying the Law and God’s punishment. Books like Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, and Ezra say that bad things happen to people because they disobey the Law. Other books like Ecclesiastes and Job disagree, saying that bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people. While this could be a troublesome contradiction for people who interpret the Bible literally, it makes perfect sense if understood as a debate between the historical revisionists and later authors who saw the everyday life shortcomings of the disobedience-punishment principle.

 

On the other hand, there are some deep challenges facing this reinterpretation of the Old Testament. One would be the question of just how frequently should the community of faith recreate their own understanding of Scripture in order to accommodate the latest scientific findings or the newest literary theory? Things that were once considered good scientific theories are now discredited–that’s the way of science.. Maybe tomorrow we will find a copy of the book of Deuteronomy that dates back to the 13th century BC and this entire hypothesis of the Babylonian era authorship will disappear. While I think that the Church made the wrong choice with Galileo, jumping full in with every theory de jour will only add confusion and discredit the faith as a whole.

 

Once again, another challenge is to maintain the inspiration of Scripture. Although it is possible to hold that the Bible is God-breathed while large parts of it were written as historical fiction, in practice it is often hard to hold that balance. In many ways higher criticism can be the Pandora’s Box of faith: Once you start looking down that road, it is easy to take an attitude of unbelief towards anything the Bible has to say, or even worse, to treat the Bible as a tool meant to promote your own agendas. There is good reason why so many laypersons think of Seminary as a cemetery–a place where people’s’ faiths die.

 

 

Allegory of Spiritual Warfare

 

The final method of reinterpretation I will describe is an allegorical reading. An allegory is a symbolic way to speak about one topic while talking about something else. Some examples of allegory would be The Wizard of Oz, Animal Farm, and the movie Avatar. While you could watch The Wizard of Oz and think it is about a girl who is dreaming about a way to get back home from a fantasy realm, many people think the story is about the political/economic events that were current at the time of the story’s creation. The scarecrow represents the agricultural sector, the tin man represents industrial, and the yellow brick road represents the gold standard by which the American economy was based. In the same way it is possible to understand the events of the Canaanite genocide as an allegory for spiritual warfare. In this interpretation the various nations that Israel was commanded to destroy would represent sins and temptations and the conquest would be a metaphor for overcoming spiritual impurity. Since no physical genocide was commanded, there is no more conflict between an evil command and God’s goodness.

 

What I like most about this perspective is that it recasts the difficult passages of the Old Testament into a theological framework that is consistent with that of the New Testament while maintaining the overall themes of the Old Testament–those of holiness, God’s protection and provision, and the general struggle of humanity to follow God. What we do lose is a sense of the historicity of the Old Testament, which, if the above-mentioned conclusions of archaeology and higher criticism are correct, would be yet another boon for an allegorical reading.

 

The problematic side of an allegorical reading of the Old Testament is that it really challenges many of the assumptions of contemporary Bible study. The most foundational principles of studying the Bible is that it cannot mean today what it had never meant in the first place. Stated another way, you cannot read into the Bible something that was never intended by the original author. And there is good reason for this principle: for over a thousand years the church had read their own situation into the Bible, resulting in bad interpretations and misguided consequences. A quick example: although I don’t want to say bad biblical exegesis caused the Crusades, I will suggest that it was used to support the war cause. As a result of these sorts of bad interpretations and applications, biblical scholarship has placed safeguards around how we should and should not read the Bible, all intended for avoiding error. So our problem here is that regardless of who we think originally wrote Deuteronomy for example–whether Moses or a captive in Babylon–none of these authors wrote the story as allegory. If it were Moses (or another author contemporary with the events described in the book), then the genre of the book  as a whole is the historical biography of a nation. If revisionists wrote it during the Babylonian Captivity, then the work is historical fictional narrative and is used as political and religious propaganda. In neither case was the author intending for the book to be understood as allegory. So if you want to take the allegorical reading of the Old Testament, you need to be ready with an explanation as to why you should read against the natural purpose of the Bible.

 

 

Conclusion

 

I have really enjoyed doing this series on the Canaanite Genocide. It is my hope that I have not been too heavy-handed with any one particular “solution” to the problem. My goals have been to model an analytical approach to Scripture and present tools for interpretation that are not common either in Academia or among the laity of the church. Although I do not think it is the only–or even the best–way of reading the Bible, I do find it useful myself. Thank you for joining me as we walked through this puzzle.

 

 

 

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