Posted by: mattcolvin | October 24, 2016

Questions on PFG 9

Here are questions on PFG 9:

Questions on ch. 9

1. What was Jewish monotheism, polemically speaking? What was it directed against? What was it not concerned with?

2. What point about Jesus did Paul never have to argue or try to prove against his Jewish opponents?

3. How does the story of Israel provide Paul with the means for recognizing Jesus as included in the identity of Israel’s God? How does this work differently than the 19th century way of framing the question of how high Christology developed? Which is more plausible?

4. Do you agree with Wright’s claim that theology itself takes the place of boundary-marking praxis (kosher, sabbath, circumcision) in bearing the weight of defining the people of God in Paul’s thinking?

5. (Talk the group through 1 Cor 8, Philippians 2, and Colossians 1 so that they will be able to unpack the divine identity christology and the OT allusions.)

6. How has Paul changed the Shema?

7. What are the main ways Paul includes the Holy Spirit within the identity of Israel’s God?

8. How tightly enmeshed, how inextricable, are Jesus and the Spirit, in Paul’s doxological and hymnic statements? How has Paul woven them in?

9. Why is the problem of evil more acute for Jewish monotheism than for other religions? How is Judaism’s answer different?

10. What do you think of Wright’s opening and closing comparison of Paul and Akiba, dying for Jewish monotheism, but of radically different varieties?

Posted by: mattcolvin | October 24, 2016

Discussion Questions on PFG 1


Above: Another pastor takes delivery of Paul and the Faithfulness of God.

The Cincinnati/Dayton REC clergy, together with two friendly priests from TEC and the APA, have been studying N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God.

Here are the questions on chapter 1:

1. What did you think of Paul’s reading of Philemon? Any comments on objections? Appreciation for it?

2. What is the role of theology – of beliefs about God, Israel, and Jesus – in explaining why Paul urges Philemon to do certain things?

3. How does Paul in Philemon go further with “imputation” than Reformed theologians who insist that it is the core of the doctrine of justification? How might we do the same?

4. What does Wright think has gone wrong in Pauline studies in the past, especially with F. C. Baur’s history-of-religions approach?

5. What is the three-fold test of any interpretation (or of an exegetical “hypothesis”, as Wright calls it)?

6. What do you think of Wright’s opinions on the authorship of the Pauline epistles?

7. What is the role of history in Biblical scholarship? What effect does it have on interpretation?

8. What is the central thesis of Wright’s book, as stated in this opening chapter? How does it differ from other approaches to Paul that you have seen?

9. What benefits can you see to the church if we approach Paul in the way Wright recommends?

Posted by: mattcolvin | October 24, 2016

Sermon Notes on Joel 2


These are notes for a sermon I preached at Holy Trinity REC in Houston. The text is Joel 2, and the title is “An Army of Bugs”:

  •  “The Day of YHWH is coming”: judgment within history, not just at the end. 
  • God’s most common means of chastisement is military disaster, as described in Dt. 28:47-68. (Read it.) There follows a description of the horrors of conquest and siege warfare, resulting in cannibalism. And God did indeed bring foreign invaders to punish Israel at various times in their history. But here in Joel 2, the army marching to invade Israel turns out to be even more frightening because it is not human.
  • 2:2 – the lowering clouds threaten, but the symbolic threat turns out to be a literal threat: clouds turn out to be locusts. I have discussed the lexicography here
  • They are actual bugs sent by God to punish Israel. God cares more about Israel than about the rest of humanity. In the book of Jonah, we see him send Jonah to Nineveh because He cares about the 200,000 people who cannot tell their right hand from their left. But how many things does he send to focus on Jonah and ultimately change his attitude? Sea, winds, rain, Sun, a fish, a vine, a worm. God cares about His people and he focuses His created works upon them for their conversion. We’ll come back to Jonah later. 
  • This plague of locusts is a fulfillment of Deuteronomy’s threat that “the Lord will strike you with all the plagues of Egypt”, and especially 28:42’s threat that “locusts shall consume all your trees and the produce of your land.” 
  • Joel 2 calls these locusts “a people great and strong”. Some church fathers say that this means they aren’t really locusts, but a foreign army like locusts. But it’s pretty clear that they are real locusts. Their location moves across the country as a storm front on a weather map; a boundary between green and bare: the garden of Eden before them, a desert behind. But the way they are described reads like something out of a Stephen King novel. 
  • The science fiction author Arthur Machen wrote a classic story called The Terror. It opens with a series of puzzling deaths, apparent murders and freak accidents: airplane pilots downed by flocks of birds clogging their propellers; men trampled by sheep and gored by oxen; children suffocated by swarms of moths that appear as a cloud rising from the forest. The premise of The Terror is that God has somehow temporarily removed from every animal the fear of Man that had been put upon them by the Lord after Noah’s flood in Genesis 9:2. Joel 2’s locusts are intended to evoke similarly terrifying emotions. 
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book On the Banks of Plum Creek describes the inexorable march of migrating grasshoppers:

    “Caroline!” he said. “Here’s a strange thing. Come look!” All across the dooryard the grasshoppers were walking shoulder to shoulder and end to end, so crowded that the ground seemed to be moving. Not a single one hopped. Not one turned its head. As fast as they could go, they were all walking west.Ma stood beside Pa, looking. Mary asked, “Oh, Pa, what does it mean?” and Pa said, “I don’t know.” He shaded his eyes and looked far to west and east. “It’s the same, as far as the eye can see. The whole ground is crawling, crawling west.” Ma whispered, “Oh, if they would all go away!”

  •  Insects are wondrously made, but there is something creepy about them too. Owen Barfield summer it up: “The trouble about insects is that they are like French locomotives – they have all the works on the outside.” And that’s part of the terror of God’s arthropod army in Joel 2: they are the original robots – non-human, automated, operating in fearful synchrony and with no apparent will to be reasoned with or pleaded to. They are inexorable. Even to this day, if a movie director wants to make an army less sympathetic, he makes them more like insects. The faceless storm troopers of StarWars are clad in exoskeletons like insects. 
  • The locust army is without any of the weaknesses of humans on the march. Their synchrony is perfect: “every one marches in formation, and they do not break ranks.”(2:7) Compare my oft-repeated classroom demonstration of Greek hoplite warfare: break the shield wall or turn the end of the phalanx, and the fornation breaks down. Not so the locusts: “though they lunge between the weapons, they are not cut down.” (2:8) Walls and ramparts are no defense: “they run on the wall; they climb into the houses; they enter at the Windows like a thief.”(2:9) 
  • The overall effect is to make the reader more afraid of bugs than he would be of enemy soldiers. The people’s expected reaction is actually shown in the passage (2:6): “Before them the people writhe in pain; all faces are drained of color.”
  • So great is the terror that it is described in the cosmic imagery of the darkening of the sun, moon, and stars (2:10). These are the powers that had been set to rule the day and night, to govern times and seasons; they are the authorities set over the original creation, and their glory is bodied forth visibly as light. But now they are completely overshadowed by the Day of the Lord. “For the day of the Lord is great and very terrible; Who can endure it?”

II. Turn to Me

  • The horror of the locusts is revealed and described so luridly because God has a purpose for it: to frighten Israel into repentance:”Now, therefore, says the Lord, Turn to me with all your heart…”(2:12) This repentance is to be expressed with the usual Biblical gestures and rituals: fasting, weeping, and mourning. God’s people abase themselves and show contrition. They turn away from their sin. But it is also a turning toward God. 
  • This language of “turning to” God of course denotes repentance, but I wonder if perhaps we can get more out of with by considering it within the divine “marriage” of YHWH and Israel. Secular marriage expert John Gottman speaks of spouses “turning away, turning against, and turning toward”, where the former two responses are bad news for a marriage, while “turning toward” your spouse is what will preserve or save a marriage. YHWH is the husband of Israel; Israel is God’s wife. He urged her to turn toward Him, shuvu adhay.
  • And why? “For He is gracious merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness; and He relents from doing harm.” (2:13)
  • We cannot help recalling the words of Heinrich Heine: “Dieu me pardonnera; c’est son metier.” Yes, this is presumptuous, but it is also true. Exodus 34:6-7 (read it) is “God’s business card”. And it basically says that God is a professional forgiver. Our Anglican Prayer of Humble Access puts it well: “thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy.”(Property=distinctive attribute.)
  • Not everyone is happy about God’s business card. In Jonah 4:1-4, Jonah hates it. He kvetches about God’s forgiving character in a blasphemous parody of Exodus 34:6-7 that would be comical if it weren’t so sad. 
  • Notice the king of Nineveh’s decree and its rhetorical question: “Who can tell if God will turn and relent and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?” (Correct our usual English understanding of “Who knows…?” – Esther 4:14, 1 Cor. 7:16.) Back in Joel 2, we can now understand properly 2:14’s rhetorical question. “Who knows if He will turn and relent…?” In Hebrew idiom, the question implies that He probably will; after all, it is His property to have mercy.
  • Israel’s repentance is described in Joel 2:15-16, but with imperatives: a series of staccato commands urging the response of national repentance. Like Nineveh, which repented in sackcloth and ashes from the king on his throne down to the beasts of burden, Israel’s repentance is total, from old men down to babies, encompassing every sex, age, status, and station of life.  
  • Just as Moses insisted that Pharaoh could not just let the men of Israel go out of Egypt, but said to Pharaoh, “We will go with our young and our old; with our sons and our daughters, with our flocks and our herds we will go, for we must hold a feast to the Lord.” (Ex. 10:9), so in Joel, the repentance is total, involving everyone, even those who because of age or extreme youth would not have been usual participants in temple worship. Even the bride and bridegroom, who are the last people you would expect to engage in mourning, leave the bedchamber where they would have enjoyed their wedding night, and trade their nuptial raiment for sackcloth. 
  • They are engaged in pleading the covenant, a God-and-Israel business. So we also repent corporately, and not just through representatives. The covenant was a means by which God was able to dwell with Israel. This involved a continual disinfectant process to deal with Israel’s sin, and that meant sacrifice. Thus, the priests are told to weep “between the porch and the altar” – the usual space they would have traveled on their way to sprinkle blood from the sacrifices before the veil of the holy of holies. 
  • Utterly absent here is any sense of entitlement: no pleading of Israel’s merits or good works; nothing but the covenant, God’s love for His people.
  • “Spare Your people, O LORD, And do not give Your heritage to reproach, That the nations should rule over them. “Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” The plea is like that of Psalm 115:1-2: “Not unto us, O LORD, not unto us, But to Your name give glory, Because of Your mercy, Because of Your truth. Why should the Gentiles say, “So where is their God?”” It is a plea for God to be concerned about His reputation. 
  • Or again, it is an echo of Deuteronomy 9, when Moses recounts how he pleaded with God for Israel after their rebellions; how the Lord told Moses that He would destroy Israel and make a new people from Moses himself. Note the pleading, how it is the same as in Joel 2: “Therefore I prayed to the LORD, and said: ‘O Lord GOD, do not destroy Your people and Your inheritance whom You have redeemed through Your greatness, whom You have brought out of Egypt with a mighty hand.” – so it is in order not to waste the effort of the Exodus. “Remember Your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob;” – not their merits or good deeds, but the fact that you made a covenant with them. “do not look on the stubbornness of this people, or on their wickedness or their sin,” – if you do hat, you will find plenty of reasons to destroy them — “lest the land from which You brought us should say, “Because the LORD was not able to bring them to the land which He promised them, and because He hated them, He has brought them out to kill them in the wilderness.” Yet they are Your people and Your inheritance, whom You brought out by Your mighty power and by Your outstretched arm.’” (Deuteronomy‬ ‭9:26-29‬)
  • This is how we too approach God today: we do it corporately, together; we rend our hearts, not our garments; and we plead the covenant, and the blood of the sacrifice by which we were redeemed; we plead with God for His name’s sake, and that His name not be blasphemed, slandered, among the nations. It’s in our prayers in the BCP: “O Lord, save thy people. // And bless thine inheritance.” And in the Penitential Office (REC BCP, p. 51): Minister. O Lord, save thy servants; Answer. That put their trust in thee. Minister. Send unto them help from above. Answer. And evermore mightily defend them. Minister. Help us, O God our Saviour. Answer. And for the glory of thy Name deliver us; be merciful to us sinners, for thy Name’s sake.
  • Or again, p. 52 in the REC BCP: “TURN thou us, O good Lord, and so shall we be turned. Be favourable, O Lord, Be favourable to thy people, Who turn to thee in weeping, fasting, and praying. For thou art a merciful God, full of compassion, long-suffering, and of great pity. Thou sparest when we deserve punishment, And in thy wrath thinkest upon mercy. Spare thy people, good Lord, spare them, And let not thine heritage be brought to confusion. Hear us, O Lord, for thy mercy is great, And after the multitude of thy mercies look upon us; Through the merits and mediation of thy blessed Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Posted by: mattcolvin | October 24, 2016

Sermon Notes on Prodigal Son


These are some further notes on the parable of the prodigal son, pasted straight from my phone’s Notes app, from which I delivered the sermon earlier this year. There is doubtless some overlap with this earlier post from six years ago. See also my response to Kenneth Bailey

  • Context in Luke 15: Pharisees appalled that Jesus is eating with sinners: “This man received sinners and eats with them.” For that’s the issue: what is the attitude of the Pharisees toward those who are joining Jesus’ movement?
  • Pharisees were actually not far from the kingdom of God. Doctrinally, they were orthodox. The scribe in Mark 12 was a Pharisee; Jesus tells him that he is “not far from the kingdom of God.” In Matthew 23:2, Jesus says that the Scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat and tells his disciples to obey their interpretations of the Torah. The Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead; when Paul is on trial in Acts 23, he says, “Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee; concerning the hope and resurrection of the dead I am being judged!” (Acts 23:6)
  • — No, the problem with Pharisees was not that they had the wrong beliefs, so much as that they had the wrong attitude. Their agenda was to bring about the kingdom of God by heightened and ostentatious purity and Torah-observance. That is why they regard those who did not comply with this agenda as “sinners”. And this term needs to be understood very precisely. In the Pharisees’ usage, it did not denote merely anyone who ever sinned; the Pharisees would have included themselves in that class of people. 
  • No, “sinners” has eschatological reference: “sinners” are people whose actions are preventing God from restoring the kingdom to Israel. Prostitutes who sat loose to laws of sexual morality; tax collectors who colluded with the occupying Roman imperial authorities to suppress Israel in the most offensive way; and anyone who by failure to wash hands up to the elbow, violating the Sabbath, or fraternizing with Gentiles and other unclean groups showed that he was not helping out with the Pharisees’ agenda, but hindering it. Jesus is in this category. 
  •  The Pharisees have a heart problem. They have mostly correct beliefs, but their affections are not loving what they ought to love. And heart problems are best addressed by stories. Consider David and Nathan. No one knew better than David what he had done. Nathan’s parable isn’t designed to impart that information, but to change David’s affections, his attitude toward what he had done. Jesus tells other stories designed to illustrate this heart problem: the parable of the Good Samaritan is one such. It shows someone whom the Pharisees would have despised actually loving his neighbor, while the priest and Levite, concerned with Pharisee-style purity, fail to love and pass by on the other side. 
  • It’s to address this Pharisaic heart problem that Jesus also tells the other parables of Luke 15. Two other parables were skipped over in our gospel reading: lost sheep and lost coin. They are about finding and recovering – to seek and to save – the lost. In these two parables there is a key word used that also occurs in the parable of the Prodigal Son: namely, συγχαίρω, the verb that means to rejoice together.
  • Rejoicing is central to what Jesus was all about. The Pharisees and disciples of John fasted a lot, but Jesus’ disciples did not fast (Mt 9:14): “And Jesus said to them, “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.” Thus, Jesus’ movement resembled a perpetual party, feasting and dining with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus celebrated with His followers: He celebrated what His coming meant for Israel.
  • Understanding what the issue was between Jesus and the Pharisees, we are in a position to see how he addressed their heart problem by the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
  • Parable begins with “a certain man had two sons”. Straight away, we know that the father is Israel’s God; and we expect, rightly, that the two sons will have divergent fates, like Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Ephraim and Manasseh, and nearly all the other pairs of sons. And these two sons represent two groups of people within Israel:
  • Both start out in the household of the Father. Thus, neither represebts Gentiles. 
  • The experience of the younger son involves losing the presence of the Father; he goes “to a far country” and suffers in a severe famine. These are the experiences of Israel: of Jacob’s family going down to Egypt; of Elimelech and Naomi fleeing famine in Bethlehem to sojourn in Moab. These are not stereotypical Gentile experiences, but experiences of Israel. 
  • The younger son’s degradation reaches its deepest pitch in his job herding swine – a job especially calculated to be repugnant to Jews. Thus Jesus focalizes the experience of exile for His Jewish audience: they share in the younger son’s humiliation, are privy to his inner thoughts and desires (read verses 16-18). Because of these ways of telling the story, the audience sees the situation through his eyes; and thus they identify with him. But that means he cannot be a symbol of Gentiles. Rather, his narrative and his emotional situation is that of sinful Israel, Israel suffering continued exile.

The story presupposes certain Jewish social norms and practices:

  • Dividing inheritance before the death of the father. Kenneth Bailey says this is offensive and implies a wish that the father were dead. But while that might be true of the modern Middle East, it is not accurate for Israel in the Second Temple period. It says in 15:12 that the Father “divided his livelihood to them.” Plural: so both sons received their inheritance. Nor does anything in the story suggest that the father saw the younger son’s request as a horrible wish that the father were dead; if that had been the implication of it, surely the older son would have mentioned it in his complaint against the father’s welcoming of the younger. But he does not, restricting his grounds of complaint to the younger’s “squandering your livelihood with harlots”.
  • The problem with the request is rather that it breaks up a family’s shared livelihood and life together, an arrangement called CONSORTIUM. Psalm 133 celebrates this: “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity…” We see consortium is the arrangement in Genesis 29:14 when Jacob is part of Laban’s family (“surely you are my bone and my flesh”), and shares in the family livestock and wealth; this lasts for one month later, Laban demotes him to a hired hand: “Are you my relative? And should you serve me for nothing?” Implication: you are not my relative and you should receive wages. This ultimately ends with Jacob taking his own flocks and leaving from Laban’s land. Again, in Genesis 13, Abraham and Lot’s possessions were so great that “they could not dwell together”; they therefore go their separate ways.
  • To return after breaking consortium is this an affront to the older brother, to whom the remainder of the estate belongs. He is the one offended. 
  • Confession: “I have sinned against heaven and against you.” That is, against God and against you. It is as full and contrite a confession as can well be imagined. 
  • The father runs to embrace the younger son. He commands that a robe be brought, a sign of a father’s favor, as Jacob gave to Joseph; that a ring be put on his finger, as a symbol of the authority that he shares as the son of the father — no slave, but a son. And he commands that the prize animal, the fatted calf, be butchered for him: because his lost son has been found, there will be feasting, rejoicing together, sugchairo, even though with a different verb. “It was necessary for us to rejoice”. 
  • Notice how the parable cleverly shifts its point of view. We see the return of the younger son from the perspective of the father: ““And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.” (Luke‬ ‭15:20‬) Thus our response to the younger son’s return is conditioned by the father’s response. We are being trained in what we ought to feel; our heart is coached by the parable to have the right sort of response. Remember that this parable is told along with the lost coin and the lost sheep, to a room full of Pharisees who were failing to respond rightly. 
  • This is the standard type scene of reconciliation: In Genesis 33, when Esau and Jacob meet again after a long estrangement and hostility, ““But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” Or again, when Joseph finally sees Jacob again, who thought he was dead: “So Joseph made ready his chariot and went up to Goshen to meet his father Israel; and he presented himself to him, and fell on his neck and wept on his neck a good while.” (Genesis‬ ‭46:29‬)
  • But the next shift of perspective, the next focalization, is that of the older son: ““Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant.” ‭‭(Luke‬ ‭15:25-26‬) We hear from his perspective, see with his eyes, and are privy to his emotions — because the parable is designed for Pharisees who would share these emotions, and Jesus intends to challenge these emotions. He intends to do a Nathan to the Pharisees’ David. 
  • And it is telling that the return of the younger son, the end of his exile in a far country, the restoration to the presence and favor of his father, is described using the language of resurrection: “for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ (15:24)
  • Remember that Jesus is telling this parable to Pharisees. The older son “was angry and would not go in”; he cut himself off from the banquet, from the rejoicing together, from the Father’s love. The father, for his part, loves the older brother too. He longs for him no less than for the younger; he goes out and pleads with him, and he assures him, in words that I have rarely heard any preacher explain, “Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.”
  • Let us give the older son his due. Let’s not shortchange him the way people shortchanged Martha of Bethany. The older son did better than the younger by not leaving his father’s house; he loved him and stayed with him. He obeyed him: “I never transgressed your commandment at any time” – and so the younger son’s faithlessness appalls him. But by his failure to understand and welcome the younger son’s repentance, by his anger, he cuts himself off from the father. Jesus was not against obeying the Torah; He affirmed that His Jewish disciples had to obey it. When the rich young ruler responded to Jesus that “all these commandments I have kept from my youth”, Jesus’ response was not to rebuke him and tell him that “all your righteousness is filthy rags.” No, obedience to God is pleasing to God. Jesus “looked at him and loved him.” But it is not ultimately what marks out who will be with the father. That is determined by whether the older son has a heart like the father, or if his affections are at odds with the affections of the father. True faith, true loyalty, has love as its unfailing mark. And the relationship of love with the father is not earned by obedience; nor can past disobedience prevent its restoration. 
  • A parallel parable, Luke 7:36-50, gives us a similar rebuke of a Pharisee’s failure to love and failure to rejoice at the salvation of Israel being extended to sinners.
  • That, ultimately, is what the parable is for: Jesus would perform heart surgery on his Pharisee listeners: to change their affections, their loves. He wants to bend their pride and kindle love for the lost. And now, 2000 years later, the story works upon us as well. 
  • We Anglicans, in our Book of Common Prayer, pray for the impenitent: “O Merciful God, who wouldest not the death of a sinner, but rather that he should be converted and live, and hast revealed thyself as pardoning iniquity through thine only Son; We beseech thee to have mercy upon the impenitent and unbelieving, especially upon such as may be here present. Awaken in them by thy Holy Spirit, a deep sense of their sinfulness and peril. Take from them all ignorance, hardness of heart, and contempt of thy Word. Make them to know and feel that there is none other name under heaven given among men whereby they must be saved, but only the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ. And so fetch them home (I love this phrase!)and number them among thy children, that they may be thine for ever; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.”
  • We are called to have hearts that rejoice at repentance. We dare not see the father’s generosity as an affront to our own poor faithfulness. We pray “have mercy on us, miserable sinners.” We are called to rejoice together in the kingdom of God, because we have been forgiven much, so that we may love much. And that rejoicing together is best done at a feast, to which we now turn.
Posted by: mattcolvin | October 24, 2016

Prophesy: Who Smote Thee?


Above: The Mocking of Christ, Fra Angelico, 1437-1446


2 Chronicles 18 is a strangely inverted Balaam story, and the fact is sealed by 18:15, which is a variation on Num 22:38: “And the king said to him, How many times shall I adjure thee that thou say nothing but the truth to me in the name of the LORD?” (Cf. Num 22:38: “And Balaam said unto Balak, Lo, I am come unto thee: have I now any power at all to say any thing? the word that God putteth in my mouth, that shall I speak.”) In 2 Chronicles, we have a reluctant prophet telling an importunate and unfortunate Israelite king that he will be destroyed by the armies of Syria. He has to be cajoled because he is unwilling. But Balaam is a reluctant prophet telling an importunate Moabite king that his land will be conquered by the armies of Israel. 
We may also compare this:

“Then Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah came near, and smote Micaiah upon the cheek, and said, Which way went the Spirit of the LORD from me to speak unto thee?” (2 Chr. 18:23)

with this from Christ’s passion:

“others smote him with the palms of their hands, Saying, Prophesy unto us, thou Christ, Who is he that smote thee?” (Mt. 26:67-8

Note that this blow on the cheek is exactly the insult to which Jesus enjoined his disciples to turn the other cheek. 

Posted by: mattcolvin | July 12, 2016

OT Notes: Psalm 98 Cantate Domino


1: “O sing unto YHWH a new song!” — The use of this verse as a slogan in the “worship wars” is highly ironic, since Psalm 98 is itself a cento, a poem composed almost entirely of snippets of other poems. And this opening line itself is a formula used also in Isaiah 42:10, and in two other Psalms (96:1 and 149:1).

2: God’s salvation (יְשׁוּעָתוֹ) and his righteousness (צִדְקָתוֹ) are synonymous by the poetic structure of this verse. 

Verse 2 develops the initial idea of God’s victory from verse 1 by placing that victory in the context of what I call “covenant theatre”. It is a matter of God’s covenant-faithfulness, his righteousness, that he rescues his people and gives them victory over their enemies. This always involves public action on God’s part. That is why, when he does not save, his people are “put to shame” (cf. Ps. 44:9-19). I am reminded of Andrew Perriman’s excellent statement from The Future of the People of God, asserting that the definition of “God’s righteousness” is not any different in Paul’s letters from the definition at work here in Ps. 98:

“When Paul speaks of the “righteousness of God,” what he has in mind is not an abstract ethical quality which might, for example, be imputed or transferred to the unrighteous, but divine action at critical moments in the history of his people, in keeping with contextually appropriate commitments, interpreted with reference to paradigmatic biblical narratives, by which the God of Israel is publicly vindicated, shown to be in the right”

This keeping of his covenant promises is described as “winning a victory” (הוֹשִׁיעָה) by God’s strength (“right hand…holy arm”). In covenant history, this victory turns out to be the end of the exile as described in Isaiah 62. It also includes the sending of the Messiah in Luke 3:6 (“And all flesh shall see the salvation of God”), in which the words of Isaiah 52:10 (“The Lord has made bare His holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; And all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.”) are applied to John the Baptist’s announcement of Christ.

3: Structurally, 2a is parallel with 3a:

“The Lord has made known his salvation” (2a)

“He has remembered his mercy and faithfulness to the house of Israel” (3a)

And 2b is parallel with 3b:

“His righteousness he has revealed in the sight of the nations” (2b)

“All the ends of earth have seen the salvation of our God.” (3b)

Thus both verses move from what God has publicly done to the consequent beholding of His deeds by the nations in the “covenant theatre”.

4: By calling upon “all the earth” (כָּל־הָאָרֶץ) to “shout joyfully”, the psalmist is able to play upon the ambiguities of the word הָאָרֶץ, which may mean metonymically “the inhabitants of the world” (as in vss. 4-6) or else “the physical features of the world” (as in vss. 7-9). 

4b uses triple synonyms: פִּצְחוּ וְרַנְּנוּ וְזַמֵּרוּ — “break forth in song, and rejoice, and sing praises”. 

4-5: These verses are woven together using a “terrace” pattern (cf. W. Watson, Classical Hebrew Poetry, p. 208) in which each new clause begins with a catchword that ended the preceding clause:

Burst forth in song and sing (וְזַמֵּרוּ);

Sing (זַמְּרוּ) to the Lord with the lyre (בְּכִנּוֹר);

With the lyre (בְּכִנּוֹר) and the voice of a song. 

Yet despite such tightly knit composition, verse 5 is also bound with 6 by another device. To wit…

5-6: These verses are in a chiastic ABBA order, with the verbs (“Sing to the Lord…shout joyfully before the Lord, the King”) bookending a list of the musical instruments by which this song is to be accompanied.

7-8: The actions proper to the inhabitants of be world (roaring, clapping hands, and being joyful) are transferred to the personified physical features of the earth: the sea, rivers, and hills. We are reminded of Jesus’ answer to the indignant Pharisees at His triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday: “I tell you that if these [inhabitants] should keep silent, the stones would immediately cry out.”

9: The poem ends with the joyful expectation of the eschatological reign of YHWH that dawns when He comes “to judge” the earth or the habitable world (הָאָרֶץ/תֵּבֵל). This expectation of the “coming” of YHWH will turn out to be fulfilled in Jesus, so that Paul preaches precisely the same idea in his Acts 17 sermon (“[God] has appointed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by the man whom he has ordained”). 

98:9 is identical to 96:13. Both are the last verses of their respective psalms, leaving the worshiping Israelite to finish with a joyful hope in the victorious reign of Israel’s God. 

Posted by: mattcolvin | July 9, 2016

Begging the Question about Episcopacy


Above: Ambrogio Borgognone da Fossano (1453-1523), Ordination of Augustine of Hippo. 

A friend recently recommended Archibald Boyd’s Episcopacy, Ordination, Lay Eldership, and Liturgy: Five Letters as a good defense of jure divino episcopacy (of the plene esse persuasion). 

I’m a jure humano man. I believe what the REC believed when it was founded: 

“This Church recognizes and adheres to Episcopacy, not as of Divine right, but as a very ancient and desirable form of Church polity.” 

And again,

“This Church condemns and rejects the following erroneous and strange doctrines as contrary to God’s Word: First, That the Church of Christ exists only in one order or form of ecclesiastical polity.”

I want to point out the main methodological problems with Boyd’s book. He begins his discussion with these words:

“I conceive that the great Head of the Church did not intend to leave a matter so important as the church’s government to be settled by chance or expediency.” (p. 54)

Thus Boyd forecloses the question. Jure humano is ruled out ab initio with no reasons given other than the author’s prejudice that “so important a matter” as polity could not have been left to human devising. Nevermind that leaving polity to be devised by humans is precisely what God did with Israel of old. Their lower magistrates in the time of Moses were a suggestion of Jethro, not a prescription of the Lord. The monarchy that followed after Samuel was demanded by the people out of a desire to imitate the monarchies of the nations around them. God did not prescribe either of these polities, but accommodated the historical choices that arose jure humano.

Virtually every advocate of jure divino episcopacy begins with this same false assumption. Like the immaculate conception of Mary, it is a projection of its proponents’ sense of what God ought to have done. “Potuit, decuit, ergo fecit.” Well, no. Bring the Scriptures, please. Show us where this three-fold office was instituted. Demonstrate the laying on of hands being applied by the apostles, with instructions to pass it on. No, you say? It isn’t there? Of course not. Because neither Christ nor the apostles was in the business of reinventing the wheel. They were Jews. Jews operated with eldership. Jews had apostleship as a well-known and legally recognized social convention. Jews used the laying on of hands to delegate authority and to create shaliachim. None of these things was invented by the church. That is why there is no discussion of their institution, but only of filling these well-known offices with appropriate persons, by the appropriate ritual means. 

Boyd’s argumentation relies on false dichotomizing: either his opponent’s presbyterian interpretation is correct; or else, his own jure divino episcopalianism. Thus, about the letters to the seven churches of Asia in Revelation, he writes:

You are met here with endless difficulties. Your system cannot free you from them. On the system of episcopacy, …the letters to the seven churches are easy of comprehension ; but upon yours, they are confusion itself, they are documents addressed to individuals,—no one can tell who, and for reasons no one can tell why. (Boyd, p. 86)

Given a choice between presbyterianism and Boyd’s jure divino episcopacy, I choose neither.  Neither is able to account for the data of Scripture and history. Neither takes the Jewish background adequately into account.

Boyd glosses over a glaring problem with his own interpretation: namely, that to call the alleged bishops of the seven churches “angels” is a usage without precedent or parallel. The letters also shift freely between the singular and plural second person, a fact for which he has no explanation other than that “portions of them are addressed to the people.” He is unaware that the synagogue of NT times had an officer called the shaliach tsibbur, literally the “messenger of the congregation”. The job of this officer was to lead the congregation in prayers and to make announcements. The main qualification was a loud and clear speaking voice. The shaliach tsibbur was not invested with ruling authority, and was not a priest or Levite or rabbi. In theory, any layman could have filled the office. For our purposes, what matters is that this is precisely the person who would have read aloud such epistles as the ascended Christ commands John to write to the churches. But of course, this Jewish background is not taken into account by Boyd, who bids us rather choose between his claim that the “angels” were bishops, or else his opponent’s that they were presbyters. In support of his view, he cites fourth century church fathers like Augustine and Eusebius — men who were just as ignorant of the Jewish background as he is. (Lightfoot, on the other hand, is aware of it and cites Vitringa on the topic in a footnote, though he does not in the end approve.)

Boyd also claims that Timothy and Titus were bishops, and that 2 Tim 1:6 shows that Timothy was consecrated a bishop by the laying on of Paul’s hands. 1 Tim 4:14, by contrast, addressed to the same Timothy, speaks of the laying on of hands of the presbytery. We thus have a war of prooftexts: Boyd and his fellow jure divino episcopalians camp out on 2 Tim 1:6, while jure divino presbyterians wield 1 Tim. 4:14 as their weapon; and each side finds the other’s prooftext a “problem passage”.

Boyd again marshals his fourth-century church fathers — Ambrose, Jerome, Eusebius, Chrysostom, Leontius of Magnesia — in “proof” of the claim that Timothy was a bishop, all with plenty of taunting and 18th century smack talk directed at his presbyterian opponent.  Yet Lightfoot is clear:

It is the conception of a later age which represents Timothy as bishop of Ephesus and Titus as bishop of Crete. St Paul’s own language implies that the position which they held was temporary. In both cases their term of office is drawing to a close, when the Apostle writes. But the conception is not altogether without foundation. With less permanence but perhaps greater authority, the position occupied by these apostolic delegates nevertheless fairly represents the functions of the bishop early in the second century. They were in fact the link between the Apostle whose superintendence was occasional and general and the bishop who exercised a permanent supervision over an individual congregation. (The Christian Ministry, p. 199)

 

It requires some explanation to realize just how brilliant a paragraph this is. Lightfoot does not realize, as David Daube does (cf. “The Laying on of Hands” in CWDD vol. II) that there is only one ordination of Timothy, not as a bishop but as Paul’s emissary or shaliach; that the phrase ἐπιθέσεως τῶν χειρῶν τοῦ πρεσβυτερίου in 1 Tim. 4:14 is a direct translation of the Hebrew semikath zeqenim; that this genitive phrase never meant that the presbytery laid hands on a man, but designates the ritual used to make a man an elder. We may thus apply Occam’s razor and realize that the two dueling prooftexts, 1 Tim. 4:14 and 2 Tim. 1:6, actually refer to the same singular event. 

(I have discussed some of the phrases in 1 Tim. 1 in light of all this. See also my posts on the ordination of the Seven in Acts 6, and on the ordination of Timothy as Paul’s emissary.)

Lightfoot, I say, is ignorant of all this, but ‭‭he has nonetheless hit upon the very thesis that will make sense of all the data, and though it is not fully specified, it is the same thesis argued more fully in our day by Canon Roger Beckwith: namely, that though Paul did not make bishops, the men whom he had made his temporary shaliachim were natural choices to exercise oversight as the needs of the church and the deaths of the apostles made episcopacy a desideratum. In their earlier career as the emissaries of Paul, the shaliachim of a shaliach of Jesus, an apostle’s apostles, they were indeed “of less permanence, but greater authority” than a bishop. Lightfoot is precisely right. 

The Jewish background of the ritual of laying on of hands that is supplied by Daube not only accords perfectly with Lightfoot’s and Beckwith’s theory of the jure humano origin of episcopacy, but it also sheds new light on Acts 6 and makes clear the reasons behind many phrases and choices of words in that passage and in the pastoral epistles.

It is dismaying to me to see the jure divino position making gains in our day even among Anglicans who ought to know better. There really have been no new arguments in its favor since the Oxford movement, and it was rightly weighed and found wanting by Lightfoot, whose scholarship vindicated the earlier jure humano view of the English reformation. Evangelical Anglicans in our day should be proud to profess the jure humano position. It has the best scholarship on its side; it clarifies the Scriptures rather than torturing them; and it has the blessed and beneficial result of encouraging respect and ecumenical charity toward the orders of non-episcopal clergy. 

Posted by: mattcolvin | March 11, 2016

Reading With and Against Biblical Narrative

  
As I prepare to teach the Bible and Biblical languages in Indonesia, I am pondering what the necessary lessons are for the clergy and seminarians of a fledgling Anglican diocese in the making. What is necessary in our day to equip a national church with a strong theological immune system, so that it can detect and refute errors, especially those being propagated by affluent churches in the West?

One of the most powerful theological developments in the last 60 years has been a greater emphasis on Scripture as narrative. I think, for instance, of chapter III.4 of N. T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God, where Wright applies the heuristic diagrams of Algirdas Griemas in order to focus more precisely on different aspects of the parable of the wicked tenants. One of the fruits of such a method is a clear delineation of what roles are played by the various “actants”: viz. that the messengers and the son are on the side of the owner, and are opposed by the tenants; that the owner, his son, and his messengers are the “good guys” and the tenants are “bad guys”. This seems a simple enough point, and yet there are some who miss it.

Wright also uses the folktale about Little Red Riding Hood as a demonstration of his methods. Folk tales of this sort often have very clearly defined protagonists and antagonists, so that much humor can be had by inverting the usual focalization and telling them from the perspective of the antagonist. Indeed, there seems to be a burgeoning genre of inverted folktales: witness The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, “by A. Wolf, as told to Jon Scieszka”, or Eugene Trivizas’ The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig, or Trisha Speed Shaskan’s Honestly, Red Riding Hood Was Rotten: the Story of Red Riding Hood as Told by the Wolf (the Other Side of the Story).

Now, we do not want to foist upon Biblical stories a moral clarity or black-and-whiteness that is alien to their own composition. Yet it should be clear in most stories just where moral true North lies. Biblical narrative marks it out for us by the arc of the story as measured by the fixed stars of God’s goodness and His commandments. It clothes its protagonists with virtues and sympathetic traits, and depicts the “bad guys” as being involved in wickedness.

A sensitivity to the ways in which the Biblical authors signal the moral allegiances of characters and actions is essential if we are not to be taken captive by bad theologians. For instance, the former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, preached a sermon on Acts 16, in which she offers a reading of the story of Paul exorcizing the “spirit of divination” (Gk. python) from a slave girl in Philippi:

Paul is annoyed, perhaps for being put in his place, and he responds by depriving her of her gift of spiritual awareness. Paul can’t abide something he won’t see as beautiful or holy, so he tries to destroy it. It gets him thrown in prison. That’s pretty much where he’s put himself by his own refusal to recognize that she, too, shares in God’s nature, just as much as he does – maybe more so!

I have commented on this sermon before. The motives for this twisting of the story by the presiding bishop are fairly obvious: egalitarianism, feminism, an animus against conservatives who attempt to draw the boundaries of the faith, etc. But my concern is with the way she has trampled every moral signpost offered by the story’s text: far from being a deserved punishment, Paul’s imprisonment is justly overturned by God in a miracle; far from being a beautiful or holy gift, the slave girl’s demon keeps her in bondage, not only spiritually (by possession), but also physically: she is a slave owned by human masters who profit financially from her demon-possessed state. Far from doing her an injustice by trampling on her spiritual gift, Paul frees her from oppression. Pace Bishop Jefferts Schori, it is Paul, and not the slave girl’s owners or her demon, who affirms her participation in God’s nature. 

Jefferts Schori offers an attempt to justify her identification of the spirit of divination as a morally good and beautiful thing: she says that “[the demon-possessed slave girl] is telling the same truth Paul and others claim for themselves.” Yet demons in the gospels always recognize Jesus accurately, and James 2:19 reminds us that demons are all orthodox monotheists. Yet for all that they are evil and to be driven out. 

 Jefferts Schori wonders “what would have happened to that slave girl if Paul had seen the spirit of God in her.” Yet it is clear from the story that this pneuma python was emphatically not the spirit of God, since Paul, when he exorcizes it, says “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” If Jesus had not approved and assented to Paul’s invocation of His name, the pneuma python would not have been driven out. Indeed, within the framework of the Book of Acts, this exorcism must be considered an act, not of Paul, but of the risen and ascended Jesus. Freeing this girl is one of the things that Jesus continued “to do and to teach” after His ascension. If questioned about it, Paul could have replied what Peter replied when asked about his healing of the lame man in Acts 3:

“Men of Israel, why do you marvel at this? Or why look so intently at us, as though by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk? The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified His Servant Jesus …”

‭‭(Acts‬ ‭3:12-13‬)

Jesus drove the spirit of divination out of this slave girl by the hand of the apostle Paul. Acts 16:18 marvels, “And it came out that very hour.” This is an acclamation of a righteous miracle. Similar words are used to acclaim miracles by Jesus by remarking on their immediacy (Matthew 9:22, 15:28, 17:18).  Yet KJS cannot abide this silencing of a female voice, even though its utterances are made by a demon. 

She claims that Paul’s attempt to “destroy” this girl’s “beautiful and holy” gift “gets him thrown in prison.” But attention to the text shows that Paul’s imprisonment is the work of the slave-owners who had been profiting from the girl’s demonic affliction: “But when her masters saw that their hope of profit was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to the authorities.” (‭Acts‬ ‭16:19‬) Note also the persecution of Silas, unremarked by KJS.

What we have, then, is a classic instance of a postliberal theologian reading against the text in the service of a progressive/egalitarian theological agenda.

Secondly, consider the remarks of current Presiding Bishop Michael Curry at the January 2016 gathering of the Primates of the Anglican Communion:

Curry told the primates that he was in no sense comparing his own pain to theirs, but “I stand before you as your brother. I stand before you as a descendant of African slaves, stolen from their native land, enslaved in a bitter bondage, and then even after emancipation, segregated and excluded in church and society. And this conjures that up again, and brings pain.

Curry was responding to the vote of the Primates to affirm Resolution 1.10 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference upholding the Bible’s teaching that sexual relations can only be morally approved within the bonds of marriage between a man and a woman, and to censure the Episcopal Church for its unilateral and unrepentant flouting of that resolution and the Biblical doctrine behind it. 

In Curry’s narrative, the “pain” of sexually active homosexuals at being excluded from the church is of a piece with the pain inflicted on black Americans by racism and slavery. Curry chose his narrative pointedly, since the impetus for upholding Biblical sexual morality in the Anglican Communion comes largely from African bishops. They share his skin color, but they are wholly unpersuaded by his implicit claim that active homosexuals are a righteous group of victims.

Curry’s narrative is the favorite one of the modern Social Justice Warrior: “the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice” (in the words of abolitionist Theodore Parker). Yet what evidence is there in the Bible for plotting homosexual liberation as a point on that arc? Instead, we have the apostle Paul’s promise that “Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.” (‭‭I Corinthians‬ ‭6:9-10‬) So the very exclusion that Bishop Curry says will “cause pain” is in fact Biblically warranted and will, in the end, be accomplished. If the church does not exclude these unrepentantly immoral persons, then God himself will exclude them at the last.

Rather than simply misreading the Bible’s narrative as Schori did, Curry frames the issue of homosexual sex acts by removing homosexuals from their role in the Bible’s stories (e.g. Genesis 19 or Judges 19, where societies full of homosexuals are depicted as radically depraved and broken) and casting them as protagonists in the Whig history favored by progressive political and theological liberals: homosexuals are righteous victims of oppression, heirs to the mantle of liberation worn in turn by African-Americans, women, and nations under the yoke of colonialism.

Yet in the eyes of the African bishops and their churches in those very ex-colonial nations, the Episcopal Church occupies a quite different role: the African bishops see the pushing of acceptance of homosexuality as a continuation of Western condescension and colonialism. That is why the Diocese of Egypt with North Africa and the Horn of Africa has repudiated TEC’s Good Friday offering since 2003: 

One of our clergy in Ethiopia states our situation in graphic terms: “We rather starve and not receive money from churches whose actions contradict the scriptures.”

Finally, we turn to the masterpiece of narrative misappropriation: the speech delivered by homosexual TEC Bishop Gene Robinson at the fifth annual prayer breakfast for Planned Parenthood. I quote only a few brief passages:

Our defense against religious people has to be a religious defense… We must use people of faith to counter the faith-based arguments against us…We have allowed the Bible to be taken hostage, and it is being wielded by folks who would use it to hit us over the head. We have to take back those Scriptures…You know, those stories are our stories. I tell this to lesbian folk all the time: The story of freedom in Exodus is our story… That’s my story, and they can’t have it.

Here the liberation of YHWH’s bride from bondage in Egypt — the Bible’s master pattern of salvation, in terms of which even the Christ-event is interpreted in the pages of Scripture — is compared to modern homosexuals’ triumphant escape from the deserved stigma of social opprobrium and the constraints of traditional Biblical sexual morality. In the name of the Exodus accomplished by the hand of Moses, Robinson claims the right to violate the moral laws delivered by Moses (Lev. 18:22, 20:13). Thus, he pits the Biblical story against itself.

It is important that seminarians in fledgling Anglican dioceses in the majority world be equipped to diagnose and refute such abuses of narrative theology coming from leaders of the affluent churches of the West. By learning how to recognize such tricks, they will build a strong immune system and be empowered to resist the specious misinterpretations of North America’s modern Nicolaitan heretics. They will also have a bulwark against other errors and be empowered to read the Scriptures accurately and exposit them faithfully to their parishioners. It is partly to equip the Anglican church in Indonesia with these abilities that I will be going to Bandung, West Java later this year. 

Posted by: sorac | January 10, 2016

The Gospel in Harry Potter

[At the request of our friend Michael Jones, I’m reposting this old gem by Sora, originally published on her old Upsaid blog, called “Parah”. It was written on July 22, 2005, just after Sora had finished reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. I’m listing her as the author of this entry. Note that she pretty much predicted the ending of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows before it was written. – MC]

I consider the Harry Potter books to be Christian novels not merely because they “have the theme of a battle between “good” and “evil” but also because I find that both the overarching themes and the carefully chosen historical and literary symbols throughout all 6 books published so far tell a very clear story, one that I believe is quite intended on Rowling’s part. In Fantasia: The Gospel According to C.S. Lewis Michael Nelson writes:

Like the Chronicles, the Harry Potter books are infused with a Christian worldview: Both Lewis and Rowling celebrate courage, loyalty, friendship, compassion, forgiveness, persistence, and self-sacrifice with a compellingness that puts William Bennett’s Book of Virtues to shame. She’s a member of the Church of Scotland and, whenever she’s asked, says, “I believe in God, not magic.” In fact, Rowling initially was afraid that if people were aware of her Christian faith, she would give away too much of what’s coming in the series. “If I talk too freely about that,” she told a Canadian reporter, “I think the intelligent reader — whether ten [years old] or sixty — will be able to guess what is coming in the books.”

In Looking for God in Harry Potter John Granger points out that in each book, Harry dies a figurative death and is resurrected (after three days in book 1). Granger adds that “Harry never saves himself but is always saved by a symbol of Christ [for example, the phoenix] or by love.” He notes that Rowling’s books grapple with the “big questions” of change, death, love, and what it means to be human, and that the books are “both consistent with Christian answers to these questions and written in implicitly Christian language.”

(I do not agree with all of Granger’s speculation and “Harry Potter exegesis”, but his book is an edifying read. I have had my 10-year old read it, and would recommend it for young Harry Potter fans as well as their parents.)

In her comments on this post Carmon asked: Why is HP okay when Deuteronomy 18 specifically prohibits believers from the activities spoken of approvingly in the books?

Let’s put the generally quoted verses — Deut 18:10-12 — into a little bit more context.

Deuteronomy 18:9 When thou art come into the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not learn to do after the abominations of those nations. 10 There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, one that useth divination, a soothsayer, or an enchanter, or a sorcerer, 11 or a charmer, or one that consulteth a ghost or a familiar spirit, or a necromancer. 12 For whosoever doeth these things is an abomination unto the LORD; and because of these abominations the LORD thy God is driving them out from before thee. 13 Thou shalt be whole-hearted with the LORD thy God. 14 For these nations, that thou art to dispossess, hearken unto soothsayers, and unto diviners; but as for thee, the LORD thy God hath not suffered thee so to do.

In this passage, God is warning his set-apart people not to fall into the evil religious practices of the idolatrous Canaanites. It is my understanding that all of the practices refered to involve the invocation of demons, spirits, or false gods (or of the dead) with the intention of either predicting (divining) the future (think Saul and the witch of Endor) or causing harm / calling down curses upon others (think Balaam.)

Rowling has a name for “causing harm / calling down curses” in her books. It is called “the Dark Arts.” It is what the bad guys do. The Dark Lord and his followers torture, murder, and terrorize with magic, but their activities are absolutely not spoken of approvingly. (I’ll address divination in Harry Potter a little further down.)

Further, magic in Rowling’s invented universe is mechanical. It is the manipulation of natural (not supernatural) forces that some people (wizards) have the ability to do and others (Muggles) do not. It never involves calling in demonic powers a la Dr. Faustus. If you say the right words or mix the right potion ingredients you get the desired effect — something that involves training and practice, like baking a cake or programming a computer. My sons never walk through the automatic door at the grocery store without pointing their fingers (or pencils, or knitting needles) at it and shouting “Alohomora!” in imitation of Harry Potter. They like to pretend that it is their “spells” and not the motion detector that causes the door to open. I click the remote control on my keychain when approaching my locked minivan. The spells in Harry Potter are much more akin to the motion detector or the remote on my keychain than they are to ancient Canaanite sorcery. There are no “occult forces”, no demons, and no idolatry involved.

I think I can fairly safely say that no ancient Jebusites, Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, etc. were riding broomsticks, wearing cloaks and pointy hats, brewing potions, or pointing wands at things and speaking Latinate words to transform one object into another, make an object or person float into the air, or open a locked door. The “witchcraft” Rowling portrays is a literary device that has little or nothing to do with the prohibited religious acts of Deuteromy 18 and everything to do with our shared, post-medieval Western literary tradition.

“But isn’t divination one of the subjects taught at Hogwarts?”

Yes, divination is taught at Hogwarts. But divination is hardly spoken of “approvingly” in the books. Indeed, it is mocked. The divination teacher, Sybil Trelawney, is a caricature, a quack and a fraud whose interpretations of tea leaves, palm readings, and crystal gazing are repeatedly exposed as the meaningless ear-tickling of “cross-my-palm-with-silver” style fortune tellers throughout the ages. When the teacher actually makes a real prophecy in Book 4, she is entirely unaware of it. We later learn that the headmaster “was against having the subject continue” and keeps Trelawney at Hogwarts as an act of mercy, to protect her from the Dark Lord. Later, a star-gazing centaur (a figure of great literary renown, found in ancient Greece and Narnia as well as at Hogwarts) is likewise taken on as a divination teacher, partly because the school is the safest place for him. He tells his students “…that humans were hardly ever good at [divination], that it took centaurs years and years to become competent, and finished by telling them that it was foolish to put too much faith in such things anyway, because even centaurs sometimes read them wrongly. He was nothing like any human teacher Harry had ever had. His priority did not seem to be to teach them what he knew, but rather to impress upon them that nothing, not even centaur’s knowledge, was foolproof.”

I’m not too worried about my children getting into Tarot cards, I Ching, or compulsively reading their newspaper horoscopes because they’ve read Harry Potter. Rather, the books reinforce these “divination” practices as superstitious nonsense. Genuine prophecies do exist in Rowling’s stories — there have been two in the 6 books so far — and these real prophecies, far from being forces that wizards and witches can call upon on demand or control, are “mysteries” studied in the Department of Mysteries along with death, time, and love.

My conscience is no more troubled when my children read Harry Potter than when they read C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein, Howard Pyle, George MacDonald, or many traditional fairy tales. I realize that other families have chosen not to read any of the abovementioned authors because they believe that all fictional portrayals of magic are out of bounds according to the Bible. I don’t expect to convince any of them otherwise! If you love Narnia and The Lord of the Rings but have been avoiding Harry Potter, however, you might do well to actually read the books before deciding whether or not Harry belongs in your home.

Michael O’Brien claims that there is a dangerous difference between the use of “magic” in C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein’s fantasies (which he approves) and in Harry Potter (which he warns against). He writes:

Harry resists and eventually overcomes Voldemort with the very powers the Dark Lord himself uses. Harry is the reverse image of Frodo. Rowling portrays his victory over evil as the fruit of esoteric knowledge and power. This is Gnosticism. Tolkien portrays Frodo’s victory over evil as the fruit of humility, obedience and courage in a state of radical suffering. This is Christianity. Harry’s world is about pride, Frodo’s about sacrificial love.

Frankly, I don’t think O’Brien could be any more wrong. In book after book, Harry’s triumphs are not the result of his “esoteric knowledge and power” — he is not a particularly great or powerful wizard, certainly nowhere near a match for the evil Voldemort. Again and again, sacrificial love — identified in the latest books as “the power the Dark Lord knows not” — is all that saves him. In Book 1, Harry is saved (twice) by the power of his mother’s sacrificial love, a love which took the curse meant for him and saved him from death.

In Book 5, Harry, after the murder of his godfather by one of the Dark Lord’s followers, attempts to use the “very powers the Dark Lord uses” — one of the forbidden “unforgivable curses” — against her. She mocks him for his inability to do so effectively: “Never used an Unforgivable Curse before, have you, boy?” she yelled. …”You need to mean them, Potter! You need to really want to cause pain — to enjoy it — righteous anger won’t hurt me for long — I’ll show you how it is done, shall I? …” And a few pages later, Harry, about to die, is overwhelmed with love for his godfather and joy at the prospect of being reunited with him again in death — and this is the power that saves him from possession by the Dark Lord, who “could not bear to reside in a body so full of the force he detests.”

Two further notes: Rowling does portray what one might call “typical teenage behaviour” (but not at all typical for what we expect from ourchildren!) in her books. For this reason, we have not allowed our 8 and 10 year olds to read books 5 and 6 yet and will supervise and discuss these readings when the time comes. In fact, I’m thinking of having them write a series of essays on “Stereotypical Teenage Behaviour in Harry Potter” when they’re finally allowed to read the last few books. 🙂

Lastly, those who feel the books are “getting darker” and “blurring the line between good and evil” will, I hope, be reassured by the release of book 6 (if they get that far!) After some very human struggles in books 4 and 5, the innocent child hero of book 1 has matured into a man with drive, mission, and principle. Far from a Gnostic battle of esoteric forces, I expect book 7 to bring us an imaginative and compelling portrayal of the Gospel, in which the red lion crushes the head of the serpent and evil, sin, and death are conquered by sacrificial love.

Posted by: mattcolvin | July 31, 2015

The Eye is the Lamp of the Body

    
I had a major “Aha!” moment some months ago when preparing for my men’s Bible study. The passage in question was Matthew 6:22ff:

Ὁ λύχνος τοῦ σώματός ἐστιν ὁ ὀφθαλμός. ἐὰν οὖν ⸂ᾖ ὁ ὀφθαλμός σου ἁπλοῦς⸃, ὅλον τὸ σῶμά σου φωτεινὸν ἔσται· ἐὰν δὲ ὁ ὀφθαλμός σου πονηρὸς ᾖ, ὅλον τὸ σῶμά σου σκοτεινὸν ἔσται. εἰ οὖν τὸ φῶς τὸ ἐν σοὶ σκότος ἐστίν, τὸ σκότος πόσον. (ΚΑΤΑ ΜΑΤΘΑΙΟΝ 6:22, 23 SBLG)

“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! (Matthew 6:22, 23 ESV)

Most of the evangelical interpretations of this passage have applied it to pornography and other occasions of lust. Connections are made with Psalm 101:3 (“I will set nothing wicked before my eyes”) and Proverbs 4:25 (“Let your eyes look directly before you, and your gaze be straight ahead”).

Such applications are certainly wholesome. Yet they have always struck me as forced, robbing Jesus’ sermon (or Matthew’s report of it) of any flow. Neither the preceding passage (“Do not treasure up for yourselves treasures on the earth…”) nor the following one (“You cannot serve both God and Mammon”) has anything much to do with sins of sexual lust. Where’s the train of thought?

The answer – and it is readily available in good commentaries, so I cannot claim to be the discoverer of it – is that the OT and Jewish background gives a very different meaning to Jesus’ words in 6:22-23.

Deuteronomy 15:9 warns the Israelites against stinginess during the advent of the Sabbath year:

Take care lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart and you say, “The seventh year, the year of release is near,” and your eye be evil (wera’ah ‘eynekha) toward your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the Lord against you, and you be guilty of sin. (Deuteronomy 15:9)

Likewise Dt. 28:54-56, speaking about the horrors of cannibalism in the straits of a siege:

The man who is the most tender and refined among you, his eye shall be evil (terah ‘eynow) to his brother, to the wife he embraces, and to the last of the children whom he has left, The most tender and refined woman among you, who would not venture to set the sole of her foot on the ground because she is so delicate and tender, her eye shall be evil (terah ‘eynah) to the husband she embraces, to her son and to her daughter… (Deuteronomy 28:54, 56 ESV)

The eye here is not the receptacle of bad influences coming in, but the portal of malice going out. (And such emissionistic theories of the eye’s operation were not unusual in be ancient world: Empedocles, for instance, compared the eye to a lantern with sides of horn, DK 31 B84, 87.) Jesus is talking about miserliness, begrudging, envy – Latin invidia, from in + videre, to look against, to give someone the evil eye. Pirke Avoth is the Rabbinic source that has the most to say about it, and all its uses are consistent with Jesus’ mention here in Matthew 6:

“he who desires to give, but that others should not give, his eye is evil toward what appertains to others; he who desires that others should give, but will not give himself, his eye is evil against what is his own…” m.Avot 5.15

“R. Joshua said, “The evil eye, the evil inclination, and hatred of his fellow-creatures, put a man out of the world.” m.Avot 2.16

““A good eye, a humble mind, and a lowly spirit (are the tokens) of the disciples of Abraham, our father; an evil eye, a haughty mind, and a proud spirit (are the signs) of the disciples of Balaam, the wicked.” m.Avot 5.19

We may fairly conclude that Jesus’ saying is about one’s attitude toward one’s fellow men. What, then, is meant by “if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light”? Those who are generous to their neighbors are themselves in a good state with God: if you with your own lamp give light to others by giving generously to them, God will shine the light of His countenance upon you. With the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

The result of understanding this background in Hebrew idiom is  a newly revealed consistency and rhetorical force to Jesus’ arrangement of His sermon, in perfect agreement with other statements from the same sermon. (And if you need to preach against looking at pornography, there are plenty of other passages to use.)

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