Seeing & Hearing: A Preliminary

I want to discuss briefly the connection between two biblical motifs, the senses of seeing and hearing. There has been a conflict between the two in a number of theological applications, some of which result in out-right or indirect idolatry when a balance is not maintained. I’m not saying the two are merely equivalent or need to be equally measured. They are different and have different places.

In fact, what I’ll argue is that the Word proceeds Vision, the former calling the latter into being. We must hear first in order to see.

However, when Sight is privileged over Hearing, idolatry will begin to flourish. Our minds are distorted and the voices of Creation are distorted to us. When we look upon ascending mountains surrounded by a throne of clouds, or we look upon the Ocean’s glimmering depth, or the beams of light dancing between trees, we might be tempted to fall on our knees. We are consummate idol makers. As the Apostle Paul, instead of looking on the Creation and giving praise, we worship the Creation.

Aesthetic traditions that make a liturgical form the esse, the essential, of the life of the Body, they have privileged Vision over Word. But Word does not merely disappear, as we are wordy creatures. We end up speaking alien and ugly words over the Creation. If a Peasant looks on his hearth, or a king looks over his domain, and says ‘God!’ they’ve opened an abomination.

This sort of process begins when Word completely displaces Sight. This is very much present in certain existential theologies that claim any use of Sight is an attempt at idolatry and blasphemy. People like Tillich or Levinas might claim they are standing for Biblical religion against a horde of murderous idolators who want to box God up. I used to hang onto such thinking. There is value in its iconoclasm, I will give it that.

But it rejects the notion that an Infinite God is, in His very Infinity, able to cross the divide. The Transcendent God became Flesh and Blood. No existential theologian is able to truly affirm that the fullness of the Godhead dwelt bodily in Christ Jesus. This means the Word became Visible.

But this very fact seems to be the MO of God amidst His Creation. Its very creation followed a similar pattern, He Spoke and it came to Be. God promised to redeem Man, and that redemption became visible in the life of Christ. We hold onto Christ by trusting in His Promise, and we are to one day see face to face. What is Spoken will be Seen. This is the constitution of all Creation. In fact, all things are, in fact, visible Words.

The Sacraments are that Mystery come to bear. In the Supper, with bread and wine, or in Baptism, with Water, we see reality enacted through material words. A promise is spoken and the elements become the means of experiencing the promise. I tell my friend I love him, and my hug thus becomes a sacramental affirmation of that spoken word. I tell my wife that I will never leave her and then kiss her. I decide to take up a project, so I sign my name.

Just because these material words can become abused (i.e. Judas kissing our Lord, Brutus hugging Caesar to stab him, forging a signature) does not remove their original intent. This is the presence of sin in the world that brings about a dysfunction between inner and outer (i.e. the ability to lie). It’s for this reason God confused language at Babel, and yet restores language at Pentecost. Man in rebellion will try to rewrite the grammar of the Cosmos, and God rejects such efforts. Man in faith (Christ) restores the original and raises it to its consummation.

Perhaps that consummation is in the sense of eating. Thus John ate the Scroll so he might fully imbibe the revelation of His Lord (c.f. Rev. 10). But this is a topic I will return to another time.

When situated with both in their right place, we need neither shut our eyes or ignore our ears. We must hear and then see. We can appreciate the beauty that is present, and understand truly what it means, making it all the more beautiful.

This is just introduction to the idea and possibility. I know its weird to think that ‘things’ are made of ‘words’. On a side note, perhaps this is a way to take Kant’s phenomena/noumena divide as a serious criticism and yet reject it. But anyway, I think it makes better sense of the world, and helps us appreciate Jesus Christ as the Supreme Word and Ultimate Ikon. The Word of God becoming flesh is truly, and fully, the Promise unveiled.

On Nature, Covenant & Words

This spark of this is the Eastern Christian, especially Greek, emphasis on the Incarnation and its role in the salvation wrought by Christ. A quick gloss of the topic is thus: Christ, being God and Man, purified Man by being God in the Flesh. Salvation was the Pure purifying the Impure. Now, some Eastern Christians focus on the cross, the resurrection etc., but some do not. I’m not parsing here, but entering into this theological topic.

Recently I’ve been immersed in a reading of Gregory of Nyssa. In his theology, Christ enters into Humanity and saves it by God’s presence. But it is not so merely by Incarnation. Simply put, the Resurrection is the key-focus, where Christ recreates Nature around himself. In Christ, God meets mankind and renews the Soul. Thus the Soul who was previously denied the presence of God by its own merits has Heaven thrown open before it. By participating in Christ’s Life the Soul enters into the same death (on the cross), and finds the same grace of resurrection.

Now I would never accuse Gregory of being a Pelagian, for he as many early Christians believed in the graced-ness of all Creation. If God called something out of nothing, if He imprinted His Image gratuitously, then we have no place to lay claim to anything. But, I will argue, Gregory’s conception (pun intended) of Christ’s birth is too much linked to philosophical categories of his day.

Now as a quick aside: we are all time bound creatures, linked as we are, providentially, to our own times and place. Our language conforms our thought-pathways. Our customs influence our ability to imagine and create paradigms. The point is not to escape language into the Ideal (even this Platonic fairy-land is linked to the concreteness of Hellenic culture).

What the Scriptures allow us to do is to put a question mark over our assumptions and ways. While the Scriptures were written in a particular milieu (one we neither reject nor try to reinstate), these were providentially chosen. The language employed in them still bears upon us (and influences us through the translation into the vernacular). We, who are Christ’s, are bound to stand under them as an authoritative, Spirit authored Book.

So when I say Gregory is too linked, I am not faulting him for using the Stoics, the Platonists, or the Aristotelians. This is Egyptian Gold we can use to make our way Home. In fact, I’m not really faulting him at all. What I am proposing, instead, is a different way forward.

Gregory speaks of a Nature that is singular, though with a diversity of persons. There is only One Man, though many human persons. This is the Man that Christ takes on, though He doesn’t merely do that. He has not just assumed the Ideal, but in the Real. As a Particular Human Person, He participates in Humanity. And as the New Man, He renews all persons. Christ recenters Human Nature around Himself.

What is Human Nature? For Gregory it is the life of the soul, which seemingly has a very Hellenistic definition. It is the Internal-Reality that contains all of Man’s inner faculties (will, reason, intellect etc.) But this is a diminution of any role the body (physical, matter) has. While he does not divorce the Body from the Soul (in fact they are analogously related to the Incarnation, being a mystical, inseparable, union), he privileges the latter over the former.

Modern times have rejected such a Dualism, and I can agree to a very limited extent. If the Mind, which for Gregory seems to contain all the elements of the Soul, is tethered to the physical, material Brain, what are we to make of the body then? Can we really just dismiss it as a carrying case? Can we really label it, as Gregory does, the mysterious provision of God for man’s inevitable sin? An inferior reality, a sacrament of sin (that is what Gregory labels our procreative functions)?

I would still argue that the Biblical revelation contains a dualism between the inner and outer man, but not one that highly exalts the one or banishes the other. In fact, it is not enough for man to have a soul. Paul refers to the psychikoi, the ‘soulish’ people, in battle with the pneumatikoi, the ‘spritual’ people. The former is according to this World, the latter enlightened and freed by the Spirit to see the Eschaton, the prolepsis (historical fore-taste) that is Jesus’ resurrection.

In other-words, the Scripture do not untangle the body, soul, or spirit, yet they do not collapse one into the other. The body is not a mere case and domain of sins. The soul or the mind is not merely a bodily generation, in best cases, or an illusion or delusion, in worst cases. We possess a mind and a soul that is both distinguishable from the material body, but not separable.

Well, if the Bible never engages a Human ‘Nature’, then what are we to make of it? Given that the concept is so weighed down with millenia of linguistic baggage, we ought to avoid such a question. Allow me to elaborate.

In the Beginning, God breathed into Man, but God commanded Adam. The Word is central to all of this. Adam’s “nature” is verbally constructed. Adam is designated to be a ‘cultivator’ and a ‘protector’ of the Garden. Yet in the Fall, such is lost. Well, not entirely. Considering that the Image of God is hardly mentioned in the Bible, maybe we should not make too much of it in the story of Redemption. Let me rephrase: not that it’s unimportant (it is), but rather since the Fall, and the presence of Sin in Man, it is effaced (c.f. both Gregory and Augustine make similar comments). In other words, it is a broken mosaic or a marred painting. It is dysfunctional.

But wait, I just spoke of ‘Man’. How can I if I eschewed ‘nature’? What is it that bind Man together? It is the Covenant. When God spoke to Adam, He spoke to His Children. All our held under both the Vocation and Fall of Man. The Covenant is what links Man together. God’s Covenant with Man is analogically similar to God’s inner covenant.

Now before some languish over the seeming juridiciality of a concept, I am not speaking of contract. There is something ontologically dissimilar between the synonyms. Marriage exists covenantally, not contractually. It is sealed by a ‘Middle Space’, a ‘spirit’, a facing towards one another. Contract connotes a facing-apart, separation by void.

It’s for this reason I’m not comfortable with labeling myself Calvinist. I believe that many Calvinisms are too juridicially angled and this failure to understand  the outward and inner causes false dichotomies and divisions. Quite a few Calvinist accounts of salvation (many popular) are justly condemned as promoting a ‘legal fiction’. This has nothing to do with predestination, election, providence, or divine foreknowledge.

I’m with Augustine: if God calls us righteous (i.e. justification), then we will be so, not merely externally, but internally. Augustine’s explication of justification is not perfect, but it is much more balanced than future Protestant articulations. There is a Now and Not Yet in every call.

This is why I mention Marriage as an example of Covenant. In a Wedding, the two become one. This is not only a legal convention, but something deeper. Yet the couple, in that moment, are fully joined, though that joining is not fully realized. The hope is that the two more fully realize their vows in the course of their life. Similarly with friendship, one does not become more or less a friend (or married), but one’s appreciation of the bond subjectively deepens.

Thus a Covenantal defining of ‘nature’ is not one by mere external, but one that makes external all things, including the internal. It focuses on the disposition of the heart, it gives the inner stirrings words to understand. It makes the language of the soul visible. Here the Covenantal coinheres with the uniqueness of Human language.

Thus makes sense of many Biblical distinctives. God speaks the Creation into being and blesses it (He calls it good). God ‘calls’ Abraham. God constantly names and renames. The Word of God comes to Prophets. It is for this reason I argue for a verbal ontology: what we are is made of words.

Now I could go on longer to argue for a verbal ontology but will limit myself. And as a disclaimer, these arguments borrow from Speech-Act Theory, though I hope I am not so bound by these arguments not to transcend them or reject them when needed. I am merely stealing some gold from Egypt.

There are further implications for this, but perhaps this is a better way forward. Our ‘nature’ is brought into being by the Word, and we are constituted socially by the covenants we form. Our inner essence is a flowing language. We are not merely individual floating atoms in an empty cosmos, but linked together, in either death or life, by the words spoken over us and by us.

Our Humanity is such because God said “Let Man…” and our Salvation is assured by those sweet words “Come to Me those who are burdened and heavy-ladend and I will give you rest”. May all sons of Adam hear those words and may their hearts be cut. May our new ‘nature’ be constituted in the First-Born, the Only Begotten, the Eternal God, Christ Jesus.

 

Is there a conflict in Jesus’s birth stories?

Is there a conflict between Matthew and Luke’s birth accounts? It certainly appears that way initially. Matthew has Mary, Joseph and Jesus fleeing from Herod and going into exile in Egypt until his death (Matthew 2:13-15). Luke’s account of Jesus’s birth story ends with him being presented in the temple so that purification rites could be performed 33 days after his 8th day circumcision, as required by the Law of Moses (Luke 2:22-40, Lev 12:1-8), followed by the family returning immediately to Nazareth. It seems like there are two possibilities:

  1. The escape from Herod scenario happened first. This seems unlikely, given that Herod killed every child under two years old (suggesting that a year or so had elapsed) and you have to fit in fleeing to Egypt, Herod dying and them returning all leaving enough time to make it to the temple before 40 days had passed.
  2. The escape from Herod happened after the events recorded in Luke. This is the far more straightforward scenario chronologically speaking, however Luke 2:39 presents a problem as it teaches that instead of returning to Bethlehem, Joseph and the family went to live in Nazareth.

So what is the solution? Here are a few clues which I think point in the right direction:

  • Luke’s gospel (chapter 2) teaches us that Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem for a census, returning to Joseph’s town of lineage. Joseph would almost certainly therefore have had relatives living in the town.
  • It is thus extremely likely that the couple were staying with family whilst in Bethlehem, as most commentators now agree. The word for “inn” used in Luke 2 simply means the guest chamber of a house and Matthew simply refers to a “house”.
  • As the relatives of Joseph, seeing the newborn baby would have been a powerful and important event in the life of their relatives, especially since the shepherds showed up in the way they did! Joseph and Mary probably would have become very close with these particular relatives through the events which transpired.
  • So given all of this, it is not inconceivable that the couple would have visited their relatives again a year or so later to catch up, especially given that the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem was only four days or so.

I think this presents us with a workable solution which doesn’t do violence to either text, even if it involves some speculation. But what about the wise men and the star? Well, the passage in Matthew 2 is quite clear that they were trying to find the birthplace of the messiah, not where he generally lived. The fact that, under this explanation, you have Jesus and his parents just happening to be in the right place at the right time does not present a problem, for this is the nature of divine providence.

Another passage, which could present a challenge to this understanding, is Matthew 2:22-23.

But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, “He shall be called a Nazarene”.

The passage seems to suggest that Joseph’s decision to go to Nazareth was only because he was afraid of Herod’s replacement, not because he had lived there beforehand. So another possibility is that, given his ancestry, Joseph had decided to move permanently back to Bethlehem a year or so later and then changed plans due to the ascension of Archelaus to the throne. Given God’s repeated determination in scripture to see His plans fulfilled by any means, it is no surprise that the Lord would lead them back to Nazareth, as required for the fulfilment of prophecy (Mt 2:23)

In summary, here is my proposed timeline of events:

  1. The couple travels to Bethlehem from Nazareth for the Census and stays with relatives of Joseph.
  2. The child is born in the lower room of the guest chamber and the shepherds visit.
  3. The couple visits Jerusalem for purification rites, then returns to Nazareth.
  4. A year or so later they move back to Bethlehem to live with their relatives, just in time to meet the wise men.
  5. They escape from Herod and flee to Egypt for a long but unspecified period before returning to Nazareth instead of Bethlehem upon the death of Herod.

Promises, Calendars, & Eternity

Recently I’ve been reading (and being overwhelmed!) by Charles Taylor’s opus A Secular Age which tries to answer the question of why, socially and culturally, unbelief in any god or divinity is conceptually tenable, unlike 500 years prior. Why can we now call ourselves “secular” in a multitude of ways? I am not even half-way through the book, and while I disagree with some basic definitions of gods and religion and how this impacts his reading of society, I am reserving judgment until I finish.

But I want to bring up an interesting point he marks as a juncture between the pre-Modern and the Modern: Time. In Pre-Modernity, there was a distinctive division of time into the common and the sacred. Common time is mere linear progression, from yesterday into tomorrow. It is a mere movement forward.

Sacred time, on the otherhand, is a break through of the eternal. Now Taylor makes room for multiple definitions of what ‘eternal’ is (making a distinction between biblical eternity and Platonic, among others). But the point is a common agreement that on special days (or hours) there is some ‘other’ time breaking into what is merely Human.

Thus, in Medieval Europe, Easter was a moment that connected the participant into the eternal moment of when the Son of God was raised. It was closer in ‘time’ to this moment than, say, the day before. The event, the work of God, was connected through a particular set of rites. This was joint where the eternal plan of God met in the ordinary. This was the purpose of the Church Calendar.

In Modernity, the common time was maintained, but the concept of sacred time was abolished. This did not only occur in time, but in space and in object (the idea of shrines, consecration, and relics). Taylor charts this through the disenchantment enacted by the Reformation, which called the entire domain of ‘white magic’ (Rome’s Sacramental efficiency) into question. For the Protestants, either there was no magic (and this view became the dominant) or all magic was black, and therefore the Pope was acting as a Warlock against the Lord, trying to trap God’s domain into a series of spells and enchantments.

I’m not particularly keen on the use of the word ‘magic’, but this word is truthful. I think there is a way to maintain sacramental efficacy and presence but criticize the medieval practices. In fact, I think this was Chelcicky’s argument against both Romanists and the radical Hussites who made the power determinate by the participants state of faith. Man had no ability in an institutionalized mechanical ex opere operato or in good intentions to bring God down. Instead, it was rooted in the power of Promise.

And that’s where this question must go: Promise. I do not think that the Modern Project can ultimately coinhere with the Biblical projection of Heaven and Earth as overlapping exclusive domains. God’s Time breaks into the Human in strange and magnificent ways. Einstein has undone the Modern supposition that Time is basic, uniform and flat. There are strange complexities at work that man (and definitely I) do not understand.

So, as the Church, we need to recover a means to think about the “Sacred”, in time, place, and space. But this is not a call to return to medieval practice. Yes, like my medieval forbearers, I believe this world is the haunt of many spirits, both agents of the Divine (what we call angels) and the demonic. We are no impermeable, buffered, boundary-set selves that are maintained through mere inner practices. We can be afflicted by demons, or encouraged through angels, and we who are in the Lord are inhabited by the Holy Spirit, the Lord of all Spirits. Not every word in our mind comes merely from our own thoughts.

However, what do we do in such a world? The Apostolic practice is to find our root, per Chelcicky, in Promise.

We must ask: What has the Lord given to us? Well, the Medieval Abomination (I mince no words) came about by abusing the simple promise that the Lord will not abandon us, and will send us His Spirit while He reigns at the Right of Majesty. Thus came the flood of all sorts of condoned practices that made the Church into a Paganized preserve of ‘white-magic’. Now the Church was able to deign the sacredness of ‘time’, in a way that druids or pagans would.

Instead, we need a simple (but not simplistic) biblicism. In what time has Christ promised to meet us? He has promised to meet us in every time we take up bread and wine to remember His Death. This is the Sacred time, place, space. The Bread broken is the Body of the Lord, the Wine drunk is the blood of the new covenant. Here we meet the Lord because the Lord Spirit makes a way, based in His own Word.

But we have no such promises for any sacred time of Christmas or Easter. We have no promise for any bone or relic. We have no promise for offering any prayer up to this or that saint. This is the cut of the problem: whose authority? Does the Church have the ability to innovate in the provenance of the Lord’s Holiness?

While Luther was wrong about what the Pharisees were saying, he was right to call the Medieval Complex Pharisaical (though in ways, he embodied similar thinking). The Pharisees fixed new boundaries for God’s Commands and His Torah. Now God’s clear command (honor your mother and father) could be abnegated for an innovation (claiming your resources for the Temple, and giving the finger to your family). Rome instituted new traditions by which the People of God were held accountable. This is not the Tradition of the Apostles.

What if these traditions came from the Apostles (as the Unwritten Tradition argues)? Well, as Paul said, if he came preaching a different gospel, we have to reject Paul (even Paul!). We must evaluate everything said, counting character and past experiences. But we do not merely nod because of “who” speaks unless that “who” is the very Creator Himself (and yet even He gives us ‘rule-sticks’ for making sure it’s really Him speaking!).

So what I’m recovering is the notion of sacred-time, but we must respect what the Lord has given us. The Holy Spirit promises to meet us in the waters of baptism to initiate a son of Adam into the family of Christ. The Holy Spirit promises to bring us Christ in the sacrament of the Supper. The Holy Spirit promises to forgive sins in our confession of them. And many more.

This is what we call ‘holy’.

However, the Church’s liturgy does not belong to such. Our practicals differ, in the vein of the 39 Articles, on account of time and culture. How we orient ourselves may be more or less faithful to how we are to embody the Scriptures (i.e. James blasting the segregation of poor and rich). This, the disposition of our hearts towards God and each other, is holy. But not the forms (unlike the above promises). Therefore, if we have chairs or not is indifferent. But what matters is what we do with them.

So therefore, the application of counting days is fine, and we may do it in different ways. Let us celebrate the Incarnation in July (if we decide thus). The purpose of a Calendar, if anything, is to mark (as a community) times of intense focus. There’s nothing wrong in this. But these practicals are not holy, nor are they times of the sacred touching the mundane.

Sadly, churches that eschew this end up being captured by our culture’s liturgical practices without much reflection. The Church may interact with these cultural events, or ignore them, but they are not places of celebration. What has Christ to do with the American Revolution? It is not His Kingdom being built, but another revolution in the grand course of Human History. Empires rise and fall.

The Church needs a more robust calendar. The Church of Americana lionizes dead military as ‘martyrs’ who ‘sacrificed’ their lives for a ‘greater good’. What has become of the Church actually celebrating those who gave their lives in service of the Kingdom of God? But the subtle reality is that much of the Americana are, in fact, saying this. What a delusion that has afflicted American christianity.

I’ll stop here because this could go on and on. These are basic thoughts and still have many problems in implementation. But that’s ok. While it may be helpful in the formation of Christians, the majors need the majoring. We need a recovery, especially for evangelical Christians, of the sacredness of the Promises God gives and meets us in. The folk Zwinglianism needs to be eradicated. Why? Because it opens the door to alien and demonic sacralizations. It’s why (in my opinion) the non-conformist traditions ended up, in the end, becoming culturally Erastian.

May we, God’s People in the Name of the Christ, trust the very words He spoke. May we know His Presence in where He promised to meet us, and be open to surprises that His Spirit works. God bless us. God save us. God have mercy on us. Amen.

On Bible Translation

Just a prior warning – I’m a conservative evangelical who is going to talk about Bible translation.

My natural preference is for more literal (word-for-word) Bible translations. However, too many literal translations of the Bible (ESV, NASB etc) get caught up with the issue of original word order. But surely when translating into another language, the word order should reflect the most natural wording in that receptor language? When producing a Bible in French, for example, the translation should read as good French. Anything other than this is not really translation at all, it’s just copying and pasting the entries from a concordance whilst choosing the most appropriate meanings. No one translates that way in any other context.

For me, the real problem with most “thought for thought” translations (NIV, NLT etc) has nothing to do with word order. Here’s where I think the real issues lie:

(1) They often translate the same underlying words in too many different ways, such that it’s not clear when the author is trying to draw our attention to a particular theme or to draw a parallel between two things. A good example of this would be Deuteronomy 28:11, which poetically compares the “fruit” of the land, with the “fruit” of the animal and the “fruit” of the womb. Although the same Hebrew word is used all three times, the NIV and the NLT translate the word differently in each case, which ruins the poetic comparison between different kinds of “fruit”.

(2) They often fail to preserve ambiguity in a text where several meanings are possible. For instance, 2 Thessalonians 1:9 speaks of eternal destruction (or ruin) “from the face of the Lord and from the glory of His might”. This could be referring to separation from God – being shut out from His presence. Or, perhaps it could be referring to God’s presence and might as the cause of the eternal destruction/ruin. However, the NIV unhelpfully translates the last part of the clause as “and shut out from the presence of the Lord…” which forces the meaning in one particular direction when the text is actually more ambiguous.

(3) They often miss crucial allusions to other passages of scripture. Take for example 1 Peter 1:13, which says “Therefore, gird up the loins of your mind”. This curious expression is a clear allusion to Exodus 12:11, amongst other Old Testament passages. The “loins” have a clear connection with offspring and therefore, with the promise made to Abraham. Most translations fail to bring out this allusion, although it is admittedly difficult to understand the meaning of the phrase if you are unfamiliar with the Old Testament usages.

Obviously I’m no expert in Bible translation. And I do appreciate that there are some really difficult decisions involved in the process. But I do wish we could get the whole debate about Bible translation moving in a more helpful direction.

On Being an Alien in the City of Man

In this world there exists two cities, the city of God and the city of Man. As I’ve said elsewhere, the citizenship to each belong to the heart. In the former, one is born from On High, with a heart for love of God and neighbor as oneself. In the latter, one is still dust born, with a heart for love of self and advancement.

This is a simple paradigm employed by Augustine, and it’s not supposed to be flat or two-dimensional in its application. The one who is a citizen of Christ’s Kingdom is not so unwoven from his habits in the City of Man. We are all born under the curse of Adam, and afflicted with the sins of his dominion. We are wretched creatures, disintegrating and disordered, who are tortured from inside and out. We are doomed to die, we are under the throttle of spiritual darkness, and are corrupted in our hearts.

It is from this that we are imprinted with the Law of God, on hearts now made of flesh. The waters of baptism, the washings of regeneration, are where the Spirit meets us and reforges us, born again as new citizens. The battle, the struggle, is the growth into this new identity. And yet we have hope, for those who belong to the Elect (namely Christ, the true Israel), we are predestined to become His Image. Our hearts will be made to look like Jesus, full of true burning love.

As a side-note, this is one reason I have become a strong predestinarian. I don’t believe that God is a puppet-master, far from it. To say such would be making the Lord into something, creaturely though supreme. God can turn the heart, and yet we are making decisions, plotting choices. There is no interference.  But I believe that it is His hand that opened my eyes, unblocked my ears, gave taste to my tongue, and delivered me a heart that yearned for His presence.

It was not my choice, nor merely wallowing in contrition that earned me a place at His table. He ignited my hunger so that I might seek the Bread of Life. This is the only way I can act and live day to day. Without such confidence, I would be terrified of the shadows, my own feeble abilities.

Anyway, if we are freed to live, with refreshing hearts, renewing minds, and respiriting bodies, then what do we make of the Exile that we currently endure?

Allow me to qualify a few things.

The Church is the People of God, one that has visible and invisible qualities. I say visible in the sense that it has structures and order. When we see a congregation, when we see two or three meeting in the name of Jesus, when we see the bread lifted up and partaken of, we are seeing the structures of the Church. But there are invisible qualities. I’m talking the intentions of the heart. A congregation may meet in the name of Christ, but have abandoned Him. Jesus warns of false teachers, and Revelation depicts many kinds of false churches. We will not see the full order until the Day of Judgment.

The visible qualities of the Church are structures of Pilgrimage. We are a Kingdom whose King, while ascended, has not returned to consummate His Reign. We have His Spirit, who builds and grows us, who keeps us while the times continue. We have His Spiritual Presence, but await His Physical Presence (as Paul says, we wait to see Him face-to-face). Thus, our structures are reflective of living in a Creation that has not been liberated.

This is why I talk about the typology of Israel living in Babylon. God had not abandoned His People, but it was not time to return. We await the Anointed Conqueror (which the Persian Cyrus is called ‘christ'(!)) to overthrow the evils of Babylon. God is with us, but we do not have the Temple with us. God is with us, but we still await a return to the Land. God is with us, but we await the Son of David to lead us directly.

The Church is Political. But I mean this in the literal sense: we have business about the ‘city’. We belong to Christ first and foremost as our King, Caesar is a mere pawn, a rabid beast, that God maintains. The Lord’s ordinance do not validate or approve the Cities of Man. God allows disobedient and wicked evils to exist, which we are to resist in obedience to Christ. It’s certainly a strange providence.

This is where the question of exile appears: how do we live? As I said above, gatherings, leadership, sacraments etc. all represent visible structures of the Kingdom of God as Pilgrimage. Thus, all the order, leadership, gathering, and, yes, sacraments elsewhere represent the Cities of Men. These include from America to ISIS, from Holland to Mexican Cartels, from Tibet to Russia. All are attempts to create a ‘polis’, literally a ‘city’. All are visions of a political order.

It is my contention that if the Blood of Christ forges a new family, a new Body, then while we may belong to many Nations (with our own peculiar customs and languages), we have no need for building a new political order. If we were all Christians, the visible Pilgrim structures of Church would be all the government we need.

But that is a hypothesis never realized. We live in a creation afflicted with the world, the flesh, and the devil. The New Testament never promises us (except when Christ returns) an end to the ordained cities of men. These structures (orders, sacraments, gatherings) will continue to exist for their season of time. So how can we live?

Well, let’s consider the Jews in Babylon. They remained in the ‘city’ and did not leave to build a psuedo-Jerusalem for the mean-time. They maintained their distinct identity in a vast Empire. In fact, Babylon had tolerance for many gods and diverse cultures, as long as the Emperor, and the gods of Babylon, retained primacy. The Jews suffered for their insistence that they did not bow to any other god or king, yet they were instructed to not overthrown Babylon. The Jews never tried to conquer Babylon for Yah. That was not their task (though it was coming). Their task was to promote justice and learn to live.

Let it be said, before I continue, that this is not mere instruction, but typology. Of course, it’s not exactly the same. The Mission of God has expanded to include all people in the People of God. Preaching the Good News and expanding the size of the Kingdom of God is at work in a different way. We are not confused about who will rule us, He already rules. There are differences in the reality from the shadow (type).

In our own times, we can see parallels to the potential errors and begin to think out possibilities in how we, as reborn, might relate and live in the world.

The Amish, and other quietistic or separatist groups, have abandoned Babylon completely. They’ve misunderstood the concept of antithesis. In an attempt to remain pure, they’ve set up their own purity. This is the error of the Essenes, which when compared to the Greco culture around them, they don’t seem so bad. But it rejects God’s Sovereign reign and insists upon a false dualism.

Yet Constantinianism represents the twin error. This is trying to conquer, synthesize, or assume Babylon as a throne to be “won” for the Lord. Daniel is usually pointed to as a representative that God’s people may serve in the court of an evil king. But Daniel actually proves the Pilgrim life, not otherwise.

Here is where the Church is called to shaky grounds. In strange times and circumstances, kingdoms of Men may call upon the Body of Christ to render aid. I think of Leo the Great (bishop of Rome) rebuilding the city, and negotiation with Atilla the Hun. I think of Augustine both organizing Hippo’s defense against the Vandals, and acting as a mediator so that the city won’t be destroyed. The examples are rare, and these are more ambiguous then I make them out to be.

Erastus, a Christian believed to be a public works official, represents the possibility that a Christian may still work in the structure of the City of Man without belonging to it. We render aid and promote justice, without any attempt to usurp or own.

Sadly, this logic can flow another way, which is where Erastus’ poor name has become a philosophy of ecclesial captivity to the World. Many time the Church has ceased to be an outpost of the Kingdom of God, and become a social service to the Kingdom of Men. This is like Daniel’s three friends never being thrown into the fire, they had no problem bowing before the idols of the King. This is the Church of England through most of its history. As Jacques Ellul put it, the Erastian church has been monarchic during monarchy, republican during republics, socialist during socialism. The list could go on.

Yet we are not to abandon our voice in the public domain. We don’t need to be pushy or lust for a seat at the table. But it doesn’t mean we need to hide the public implications of what we believe. Paul was more than happy to preach the Gospel and get arrested. He was more than content to let Festus burn as he complained that the Apostle was “turning the world upside down”. Paul was more than content to let officials in the City of Men see their religion and magic, as in Crete, be shown to be worthless. Paul was more than joyous to see the people of Ephesus reject their old ways and burn their scrolls. Yea, he even created economic disaster among the idol-smiths.

The Gospel has meaning for political arrangements and economics, but sadly Christians have failed to discern this role. Instead, many a church has become apart of the Great Whore who lays in the Emperor’s bed, inviting all kings to enter her. She is drunk on the blood of the saints and the oppressed.

Hopefully this littany of examples and errors can keep a strange balance. Can we trust in the Spirit of God to maintain us as we move through these structures of the City of Man? Can we know that the demons are powerful evils awaiting their destruction, and yet powerless before the Finger of God? Can we be content with our station amidst idolatrous institutions, and sing hymns to a different Prince?

May our Politics be a Politics of Pilgrimage, eyes set towards the Revelation of our King and City. Amen.

The Market Consumes

Let me start off by saying that the death of any man is sad, even wretched and evil men. This is not my natural disposition, but one that I am learning (yea, even trying to learn) because it is the attitude of my Lord. He wills all to repent, to come to Him, even the worst. So I do feel for those who celebrate Memorial Day in its traditional mores, as a day of mourning and remembrance. It is no easy thing to lose a father, a brother, a son, a friend etc. Death is the last enemy, the one Jesus overcame in His Resurrection.

Having said that, this day is even more reason to be disgusted with flag-waving and patriotic fervor. Those boys and girls who wore the uniform died for the greed of an Empire. The United States, as the super-power of the world, is a scheming geo-political titan, with its fingers in every pie, its tentacles all across the globe. Yes, I appreciate the liberties that are enshrined in documents like the Bill of Rights. Yes, I appreciate the material prosperity here. And yes, i appreciate the fact that there are social services (even if limited when compared to other Western countries).

However, we need to ask what the cost is. Why can we afford all sorts of cheap stuff at megastores like Walmart or Target? What has the United States done to effect these realities? Whose blood is on our hands?

One striking feature is that the United States is a kind of reincarnation of Rome. We truly are as ambitious, insufferably arrogant, unrelenting, and pragmatic as those rugged Italians. America was conceived intentionally so. We had slaves, but not quite anymore, and emphasis on not quite. Like Rome, we are incredibly violent. But it’s different, we have movies, and we’ve eschewed blood-sport (though UFC comes close). In a similar vein, we have slaves among us, but they do not look like victims of a salt mine. It is called economic slavery.

This is the brilliance of neo-Imperialism. We do not need to plant a flag anywhere. That is too much work and too bloody. The British learned the lesson before us. All one needs to do is control the market, and one owns another. So we don’t need slaves in plantations anymore. We just have Chinamen, Indonesians, Malaysians, Indians etc. labor and slave for nothing, exported to their own countries, endorsed (in some measure) by their own governments. Economics is the new Empire. We don’t need generals, only CEOs.

What has happened?

It’s because America, unlike Britain, had an apotheosis of its one and true god. The Market has developed and grown in strength, drinking enough blood off the altar, to become a completely comprehensive system. What am I talking about? This isn’t a Marxist screed, though informed by such, sneering at Capitalism. Yes, Capitalism is the Darwinian and Brutal face of the Market. But Socialism is just as enthralled to the Market. It’s why Marx was wrong, he couldn’t see that he was trapped within the same paradigm that his bourgeois factory owner compatriots were enforcing.

When I say ‘Market’ what am I talking about? Granted, there is no ‘thing’ called the market. It’s an invisible entity and more than that. it is an entity that is sublimated, no longer in existence as ‘something’ but an atmosphere. It is now vapor that we breathe in and exhale, without realizing what it is that we are believing and what it is that we are doing.

The Market is an ideology that creates value based upon trade, re-sale, pricing. It is the belief in a zero-sum game, between haves and have nots. It is an ideology based on necessity, where the Totality is all there is, and how to carve it up is subject to debate. The Market is the great commodifier, turning everything into trade. Whether it’s physical objects like books, food, houses, or it’s immaterial objects like affection, time, energy, we are born to think in terms of finitude and value. We speak of ‘wasting time’ as if it was mere expenditure.

The power of the Market is Mammon, the ikon of the god, his only begotten son. This may sound rather insane, and I’m not advising to burn your money and live out in the country. But it takes a certain death and resurrection to live to God in a world full of idolatry. We cannot so lightly consider these issues. Sanctification is a painful process, having the parasites and barnacles of worldliness ripped from our mind. Like the Sci-Fi horror Puppet Masters, we have ideological slugs on our spines, putting us in the backseat as they direct our bodies. Thank God for His Holy Spirit, lest we all be doomed.

But commodify is what the Market does and it turns all art into advertisement. This is the story of Don Draper in Mad Men. For him, he returns to the vortex of the abyss in a nirvanna of sorts, where Coca-Cola becomes the climax of the show. What this means is that Coke, a huge company and the greatest client for an Ad Man, is the engine that is able to enact the Market’s greatest ability: synthesis.

This is what Marx got wrong. Capitalism, as the most potent face of the Market, will not collapse. Counter-Culture appears, revolution stirs, and underground forms. But this does not mean the end of The Market, only a time of crisis. Mad Men seems to chronicle this crisis, seeing the 60’s go from the hollow facade of old-timey 50’s values to hippies, sexual revolution, and ‘progressive thinking’. But the Market can handle this. Rebel becomes a brand-name, hippy becomes a theme, untraditional sex becomes a product. The Market is wounded in the attack, but absorbs and grows stronger. The Grunge scene, again, was once a resistance, but now a genre. Goth is something you can buy at the store.

This is the horrifying evil at work across the Globe. The Earth is infected with it. The United States is not the cause of this, but she is the prime agent in enacting its spread. It turns everything into something that can be bought and sold, everything is placed with a price.

This is why I’ll never wave a flag on Memorial Day. Those poor kids were devoured for the sake of the Market. They didn’t serve anything noble, they didn’t die for anything. I won’t deny there are great acts of valor and brotherhood in war, but that’s no reason to bring about wars, violence, invasion. Horrible crises might bring people together, but you’d be a monster if you artificially instantiate one.

You have kids who are lured with the promise of meaning and adventure, but the greater reward is the idea that you’ll get education, skills, and a great employer. The promise is thus: The Military will make you, a down-and out or a slub, into something Marketable. The Marines have resisted this branding (proud and brash as they are), but this MO is for the rest. It’s why you see the Military at job fairs.

I hope whoever is reading this is not too offended to begin to count the cost. The Church is the Body of the Prince of Peace. We believe in the Father of Jesus Christ, the One who gives Himself to us. He enters into the demonic realm, only to surpass it. When Jesus wipes out the accounting of sin, He is the redemption of the whole Creation, but that is not one to one. God is the Infinite God who can cross all boundaries. There is no limitation with Him, there is no necessity, there is nothing but grace (literally, free-gift) and joy.

In Jesus Christ, the Market is dead and we may live free. May we not become slaves to its thinking. May we become slaves to righteousness

Test the Spirits

I was dumbstruck by an insight that came through Slavoj Zizek’s Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (it’s not what it sounds like). He gives a scenario (and forgive the crassness): there are times where someone, in the midst of sex, will be disenchanted and be perplexed. Why am I doing this? Why am I engaged in these repetitive motions, acting almost machine like? There a sense of stupidity pervades, as we become aware of what we’re doing and its emptiness.

Out of my own sexual insanity, I can testify to this feeling and experience. It’s also the same pervading sense that drove me away from my pornographic addiction in High School. There is an overwhelming sense of emptiness and foolishness. As I put it above, the enchantment is gone and we’re left with barebones physicality.

Zizek has an explanation for this. What drives sex, for both a man or a woman, is what he calls the ‘phantasmal’ element. There’s a fantasy at work that colors the context of everything that’s happening. There’s a dream or idea that motivates the on-going story.There’s a psychological projection that maintains the romantic relation.

It’s perhaps why lingerie and the ‘act’ of disrobing is more attractive than sheer nudity. The former leave a mystery to be explored, a lacuna to be filled in with the imagination. These objects and acts encourage desire. They excite the imagination, Mankind’s creative reason, to compose and make sense of things. More on that another time.

Now for Zizek, these are abstractions and artificial constructions. Humans create these feelings, moods, stories, and symbologies. It’s what they need to give meaning. But Zizek is a materialist and an atheist. What if, instead, these are not mere Human projections but part of the outworking of another dimension of reality? What if the spiritual dimension is indeed present, the folded fabric of the world we already indwell?

Now I’ve always had to take, at some value, the Biblical reality of spirits, demons, angels, and pervading darkness. In our modern world, it’s a bizarre and alien conception. Some have banished it to the text, a world away from us where, for some reason, these kinds of things no longer occur. Perhaps it’s on account of a new dispensation. Or perhaps it’s apart of a mythologizing that we no longer believe in or need. Whether you take a more biblicist approach or a liberal one, both are attempts to disconnect.

But I’m convicted otherwise. We are not in a world come of age. We live in an age that is as superstitious as the days of the Apostles. We live in a world full of religious rite, sacred symbolism, and cultic celebration. Our age of science is a new highly religious age, full of the demoniac and spiritual. I still believe in the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit to combat the Darkness, and give His people weapons to topple strongholds. Of course part of that work is to see Scripture rightly, which is cannon. But I digress.

In the Trinity, the role of the Spirit is the purveyance of love between the Lover (Father) and the Beloved (Son). Whether this is a helpful description of the Unity of the Godhead, there’s something there perhaps to glean. What if we do not have or participate in relationships or groupings without the presence of a spirit? This is present in off-hand sayings like esprit d’corps , but what if this means that all of relations are mediated through the presence of a ‘third’?

What I’m offering is something distinctly Human, distinctly 3rd dimensional, that is apart of relationships. Unlike mere animals, Mankind possesses a breath from On High. We are enspirited creatures, which does not mean we are mere hybrids between beast and angel. However, this touches on something that we may otherwise miss. C.S. Lewis believe mankind was amphibian, able to indwell both a world of water and land, a foot on both Earth and Heaven. This may be too much as well.

Paul commands us to keep in step with the Spirit, to be ‘in the Spirit’, which is equivalent, but not merely collapsed, with being ‘in Christ’. Being in the Spirit is the means for producing life-giving fruit (c.f. Galatians 5) and being in the Light. All of these fruit are not mere individual traits, but have consequence for group harmony and as group dynamics. Church communities are to be kind, self-disciplined, patient, loving, etc. To obey the Law of the Christ means to be indwelled by the Holy Spirit.

Now I don’t want to make much of it, but even the titular name ‘Angel’ has connotations of messenger, a medium, a go-between two parties. If our actions, like Zizek’s example, become mere mechanical and meaningless, perhaps this is a moment of absence. Perhaps our relationships are not uninhabited. Whether good or bad relationships, there’s a spirit at work and one that needs to be discerned.

In the life of the Church, we can see the difference in either the presence of a ‘Candlestick’ (the angel of the Church), or what the Christ refers to as a ‘synagogue of Satan’. That is, a community that has betrayed the brethren and now turned against the grace of God. A Church Community that is laden in gossip, in abuse, in manipulation, in deep seated and commended conflict (I could go on), perhaps is one that is under spiritual attack. Then, of course, there is the possibility is has ceased to be a Church of Christ, and now belongs to the demonic.

We can all think of examples of this. Mega-Church pastors that act as dictators. Legalistic enclaves that practice shunning and shaming and are hostile to the outside. Quiet communities where abuse, sexual immorality, viciousness, goes on unabated and unspoken. Communities that have openly sold their soul (candlestick?) for a particular set of cultural mores, national allegiance, or practice. This includes everything from churches bedecked in American flags and full of patriotic fervor, open-and-affirming bedecked in rainbow flags.

Perhaps 1 Corinthians 10, about headship and headcovering, needs re-examining. Maybe Paul’s argument ‘because of the angels’ has more punch. But this is for another time.

Then maybe there are spirits working in personal relations. Perhaps abusive, fear-driven, controlling, cold relationships are the haunt of the demonic and under another influence than the stubbornness or cruelty of one of the two parties. Maybe loving and thriving relationships have an angel over them.

Relationships are not mere anything, we are never just with another person. There is a third-dimension to it, and perhaps this is where we are called to ‘test the spirits’. For both communities and for individual relationships. This is the charisma of discernment, reading whether the voice of a community is preaching the Lamb or speaking like the Dragon. This is where we see if a particular relationship is health or unhealthy.

This topic needs further investigation and thought. But we need not fear. For The Holy Spirit is the Lord of the Spirits, and it is He who raised the Christ from the dead. He indwells us, protects us, and teaches us. He will continue to do so.

Taste and See

I’ve started the long trek through David Bentley Hart’s Beauty of the Infinite, a polemic/dogmatics against the Post-Modern mood of our era. One appreciative element in his introduction is how he scripts the narrative (though he dislikes the connotations of the word) as one of two cities. Depending on our vantage, when we look on Creation, we will see a theater of God’s Glory or a barren waste. Now, I am not talking at the level of the now or the visible, but of purpose and eschaton. A huge question of the book deals with the created world and what it is. Is it nothing but a violently conceived illusion, a means only to be transcended in a paradox of finitude? Or is this the good creation which the Lord brought into being through the Word, Jesus Christ?

I will report intermittently as I continue, but I wanted to stop at one point that struck me. One distinction in attitudes and suppositions is that of beauty and desire. Post-Modernity has struck at beauty as a synthetic violence forced upon others, an order that is inherently oppressive. Beauty is the realm of the elite, those who are capable of building empires and cultures. This is just a rouse for others to continue the dialectic of their own attempts of bringing order to chaos. According to the Bible, this is in line with how God created, but Post-Modernity sees this as a violent seizure of what, inherently, cannot be seized. I am speaking in a lot of broad-strokes.

The vicious deconstruction and demolition by Post-Modernity is not something to be utterly rejected. Christ is the unassailable Word, but all other idolatrous words spoken against will collapse. The project of Apollo, which is the project of speculative philosophy and culture fabrication, won’t stand up against his brother god. Dionysus’ madness is an onslaught upon the shaky pillars of the Apollonian Temple. But thanks be to God that Christ is both True Wisdom and True Joy, overcoming all pagan conceptions with a deeper music and a richer wine.

And it’s for this reason that I ask, in defense of Beauty, if desire and appetite is mere fancy, subjective appreciation, and constituted only by belly and hunger? By this I’m asking: is Beauty an objective Outsider who seizes us, or is it internally generated lust for the passive object before it?

The reality, as I’d see it, is a qualified yes. Beauty is a Person, an objective movement that seizes us, whose imprint can knock us over. Yet, this is not inherent in fallen and sinful man. We have a belly-god who directs us to slobber and lurch. Both points are true, but not because of a Post-Modern deconstruction. Instead, Post-Modernism has shown how the Apollonian temple of refined taste is nothing more than dressed up and masqueraded hunger. Feurbach’s critique, that all talk of god is Human desire projected up, levels the land of all our attempts to reach up. We stumble in the dark looking for answers.

Our society’s embrace of Consumerism, becoming more and more comprehensive and internal, is an opportunistic embrace of the Fall. We are bombarded with images, advertisements, scenery, pornography, bloodshed, saccharine emotion etc. It is so overwhelming that our ability to taste changes as a result. It’s always been like this, but never at this level. Goebbels would die from glee in seeing the American Media-Complex.

We are recondition to think only in terms of buying, using, consuming. Man is only a complex beast of many hungers. Some are base (sex, food, drink), some are higher (family, fashion, sport) and some appeal to a synthetic climax of Humanity (spirit, god, ultimate concern). Tillich may have thought man is driven by an ultimate concern, an anxiety over death and destiny. Ad Men have flipped this in the guise of Oprah books.

While this is all true, it is only conditioned by the Fall. While Man’s attempt to universalize are, by nature, oppressive, this does not eradicate the reality of a true aesthetic. If God is the one whom we taste and see that He is good, the one who promises flowing rivers of milk and honey, then we are wrong to think man’s god is only the stomach.

In Biblical Typology, while the Land was fruitful and good to the Israelites, it pointed out to a fulfillment, which is revealed to be found in Christ. He is our bounty and our good, our portion and our plenty. And lest we be duped by our conditioning, He is God and is not able to be boxed. In finding Him and grabbing His robe, we are mastered. Desire is fulfilled in the Beauty He reveals.

Yet He comes as ugly and bloody. This is not contradictory, but rather, a paradoxical revelation. It is in sacrifice that we see the fullness of God. It is not emptiness as such, but seeing Christ, the Prince of Glory, take the shape of a servant, that sets our souls ablaze. Christ awakens us, allured by the honey-power of the Spirit, to reshape our twisted hearts around Him.

It’s not that Beauty is not real, He is. And we need Beauty Himself to teach us anew, reshaping our desires around what is true and what is good. This is true in the aesthetic, where we give glory to God in seeing the Creation worship Him. Whether it’s in the trees or the rocks, in a painting or music, we praise God for the shallow joy. This is not an endorsement for a particular culture, which is the Constantinian synthesis, Christ’s Church turned into an Apollonian Temple to demons. It is a wide and rejoicing evaluation. Whatever lifts our hearts and imaginations to the Lord Jesus, revealed in Scripture, ought to be received with praise.

But this sense of beauty also reaches over into the ethical and the true. The Fruits(!) of the Spirit are pleasing to God and to the heart renewed. We probably will never see this fully in this life, but when we rejoice to witness love, compassion, peace etc., we are appreciating the beauty of the good.

There are many other places this could be thought out and unrolled. But it is our work as God’s People to be mastered by Christ, to seek Him and rejoice in what He rejoices in. For God is the God of wine, salt, honey, breasts, hair, eyes, kittens, and so much more. To call this list vulgar is to deny a good creation. We live in a fall and our corrupted hearts twist these. Under the domain of Adam, even the fruits become rotten. Wisdom becomes deceit, peace becomes sloth, patience becomes indifference, faith becomes grasping, love becomes lust.

Let us taste Jesus, see that He is good, and live conformed to His life. He is the Lord of the Resurrection. He is the Light that opens eyes. He is Word that unstops ears. He is Bread and Wine that give us fullness. He is the Beautiful Lord. Amen.

Disagreeing with God…

We encounter problems when our moral sensibilities conflict with scripture.
Here are a couple of brief personal examples to illustrate:

I have always found the homosexuality passages difficult… left to my own instincts I would not understand homosexuality to be in any way wrong provided the relationship is honest, egalitarian, committed, exclusive and not manipulative or abusive.  I also find the genocide passages in the OT difficult… left to my own instincts I see the extent and quality of such violence as repulsive especially given the absence (even exclusion) of mercy, redemptive purpose and on occasion the targeting of persons based on the actions of their ancestors 400 years prior.

But rather than getting bogged down in specific examples, my aim here is to discuss the relationship between our moral sensibilities and our interpretation of scripture more generally.  I suggest that we can adopt either one of two interpretive approaches:

  1. I interpret scripture under the guidance of my own moral sensibilities re right and wrong. Here I can interpret difficult passages as unclear, contextually isolated, poetic, hyperbolic, metaphorical or even as errant (note that it is possible to maintain a belief in the “God breathed” nature of scripture without committing to its total inerrancy – after all I would hope my own life is “God breathed”, yet at no point would I equate this to inerrancy or infallibility).  However this approach is problematic for several reasons.  It allows our subjectivity to run riot over moral absolutes (which most of us wish to believe in), it ignores the problem of humanity’s very obvious moral confusion and it defeats the corrective function of revelation if we can mold scripture to suit our own sensibilities.
  2. I subjugate my own moral sensibilities to scripture. In this case my own feelings on what is good become redundant. I must take x as good/bad, irrespective of my feelings to the contrary.  This latter view gels with the idea that God is supreme and provides a counter-point to by which to address our moral confusion/relativism.

However (2), despite being more theologically appealing also comes with an assortment of problems.  Abandoning our own moral sensibilities means that absent specific examples and precise definitions of terms, general commands such as “do justice” or “act kindly” are emptied of meaningful content as they rely on my own subjective instincts as to what “kindness” is.  It might be argued that “love your neighbour as yourself” overcomes this problem by allowing us to define love in subjective terms.  However when Jesus comes he says “love one another as I have loved you” – insisting that love is defined by his example over and above our introspective assessment.  Jesus’ example however may not be clearly or straightforwardly applicable to all contexts – meaning that there is still a need for interpreting what Jesus-shaped love looks like in any given situation.  While we have guiding principles, the extension of these principles to our everyday lives require input from our own sensibilities as to what is ‘wise’ etc.

Subjugating our own moral sensibilities to scripture also seems to conflict with the scriptural notion of conscience – that morality can be inferred from ‘the very nature of things’ (1 Cor 11:14).  I’ve always struggled with Paul’s statement here… it seems so profoundly naïve, as if Paul has zero recognition that the ‘very nature of things’ can appear radically different from one person to another.  Corinthians isn’t the only passage which speaks of conscience – Romans 2:15 says of the Gentiles that “the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness… their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them”.  Putting aside the seeming contradiction with Jeremiah 17:9 (“the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked”) Paul still seems confident that even apart from God’s scriptural revelation our thoughts/hearts still function as a guide to God’s morality – in which case our sensibilities might well be able to guide our interpretation of scripture per (1).  However, the necessary corollary of Paul’s comments is that all our moral disagreements are cosmetic and disingenuous; that beneath the surface we do in fact all agree on all moral issues. How on earth do we reconcile this with the fact that our moral sensibilities not only seem to differ inter alia, but also differ from scripture?

Finally, subjugating our own moral sensibilities to scripture also renders giving thanks and praise somewhat meaningless.  Thanks and praise rest on our ability to recognise God’s goodness – but on this model we are incapable of volunteering such an assessment. Praise and thanks become robotic rather than heartfelt – we thank God for things because he tells us they are good, not out of some heartfelt appreciation.


 

So what is the solution here? We either guide our interpretation of difficult passages by invoking our preconceived notions of right and wrong, or we dispense our preconceived morality and prioritise the prima facie meaning of scripture, accepting it as a corrective to our moral confusion.  Both approaches have deep problems.  If we use our own sensibilities to govern our interpretation of scripture we have in principle placed ourselves above God’s revelation, defeating its function as a corrective and abandoning moral absolutes in favour of subjectivity.  If however we abandon our existing sensibilities to scripture we are left unable to interpret general commands to “love” or to be “kind”, we are left unable to make sense of Paul’s comments re conscience, and we are left unable to credibly give heartfelt thanks or praise as we are incapable of volunteering our own appreciation of goodness.

Now one might try to resolve all of this by an appeal to the Holy Spirit.
It is argued that while Scripture remains authoritative, our own sensibilities need not be demolished but rather remade by the Spirit of Christ living in us so that, over time, our own moral assessments converge in alignment with scripture and with Christ – (a) dissolving our subjective disagreements (b) maintaining moral absolutes, (c) guiding our interpretation of general commands to “love” etc and (d) allowing us to give genuine praise and thanks.  However (will my inner cynic never die) this still runs up against the problem that in over 2000 years, Christians still wrestle inter-alia with moral disagreements (both old and new) and, despite subordinating ourselves to scripture in principle, we still find particular areas of scripture offensive and are forced to try and interpret them fairly without letting our repulsion override the process.

My only comfort is this…
That God’s seeks servants who are faithful not morally/doctrinally perfect.
Faithfulness looks to attitudes over outcomes… it’s about our attempt to deal with the mish-mash of scripture with our own hearts and minds in the best way we know how.  Thoughts?