Arminianism and Predestination – Blog 2: Divine Concurrence

Arminianism and Predestination – A Suggestion

Blog 2:  Divine Concurrence

In the first blog of this series, I argued that from a biblical, narrative perspective human freedom is a consequence not of creation proper, but of God’s continued gracious intervention in the universe he has created.  I also contended that the natural state of the universe is to be entirely in subjugation to the word of God.  Any indeterminate freedom that humanity, or any other creature, experiences is rightly understood as a consequence of grace and not as a component of nature.

In this second blog of the series, I am going to deviate a bit from my biblical, narrative approach.  In fact, for some readers, this blog may be a bit too academic and nuanced to be useful.  If you find it to be such, then I’d encourage you to skip it and wait for future blogs to continue the series.  However, for those who are a bit more adventurous and aren’t afraid of a little academic rigor, I hope this blog will prove both challenging and exciting.

I want to explore a little discussed doctrine posited by James Arminius that, in my view, has attempted to balance a Reformed understanding of God’s sovereignty and providence with what he and I have understood to be a more biblical understanding of human responsibility.  The doctrine seems best described by the phrase divine concurrence.

Most of what follows comes from a much longer essay that I wrote on the subject, and that essay began with a detailed exploration of the writings of John Calvin and his theological successor Theodore Beza.  Consequently, my footnoting of Calvin and Beza occurred in the first two parts of the essay and was not reduplicated in this final section.  For those who are interested, I will provide a link to the full essay at the conclusion of this blog.

James Arminius – Divine Concurrence

As had been true of the Calvinist tradition in the 16th century generally, Arminius rarely spoke of the concept of human will apart from the doctrine of Divine Providence.  In his “A Declaration of Sentiments,” Arminius maintained:

. . . . I declare, that [God’s Providence] preserves, regulates, governs, and directs all things, and that nothing in the world happens fortuitously or by chance.  Beside this, I place in subjection to Divine Providence both the free-will and even the actions of a rational creature: So that nothing can be done without the will of God, not even any of those things which are done in opposition to it;. . . .[1]

Here, Arminius clearly stood in agreement both with the Calvinist tradition in his denial of fortune and chance and in his affirmation that both the will and the actions of a rational creature are subject to Divine Providence and cannot be actualized apart from the will of God.

However, Arminius departed from the language Calvinism when he continued:

. . . .—only we must observe a distinction between good actions and evil ones, by saying, that “God both wills and performs good acts,” but that “He only freely permits those which are evil.”  Still farther than this, I very readily grant, that even all actions whatever concerning evil that can possibly be devised or invented, may be attributed to Divine Providence,—employing solely one caution, “not to conclude from this concession that God is the cause of sin.”[2]

Calvinism in his day would have been comfortable with Arminius’ final caution—i.e., God is not the cause of sin.  Even so, the idea that God’s Providence in relation to evil must be understood as free permission was a conclusion specifically denied by Calvin, and carefully qualified by the leading Calvinist theologian of Arminius’ day, Theodore Beza.  It seems apparent that, for Arminius, the human will, though subject to Divine Providence, must have some measure of autonomy in order to avoid the conclusion that God, in His Providence, is the cause of sin.  It is as a consequence of this conviction, in my view, that Arminius’ most significant contribution to the Calvinist concept of human will began to take shape.  I’ll return to this point momentarily.

Arminius’ description of the human being both before and after the Fall remained very close to that of Calvin himself:

In his primitive condition as he came out of the hands of his Creator, man [sic] was endowed with such a portion of knowledge, holiness, and power, as enabled him to understand, esteem, consider, will, and to perform the true good, according to the commandment delivered to him: Yet none of these acts could he do, except through the assistance of Divine Grace.—But in his lapsed and sinful state, man [sic] is not capable, of and by himself, either to think, to will, or to do that which is really good; but it is necessary for him to be regenerated and renewed in his intellect, affections or will, and in all his powers, by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, that he may be qualified rightly to understand, esteem, consider, will, and perform whatever is truly good.  When he is made a partaker of this regeneration or renovation, I consider that, since he is delivered from sin, he is capable of thinking, willing, and doing that which is good, but yet not without the continued aids of Divine Grace.[3]

What was unique in Arminius’ discussion was his insistence that both before the Fall and after regeneration, the human will continues to depend on the perpetual aid of Divine Grace.  Certainly one could argue that Calvin’s comprehension of Divine Providence may have assumed such a conclusion.  Nevertheless, whereas Calvin located the will in the soul of humanity, Arminius seems to have conceived of the human will, as both naturally and spiritually endowed, as impotent (or perhaps even non-existent) apart from the continual grace of God.  For this reason Dr. Paul Bassett has argued that Arminius’ understanding of free will might better be termed free grace.

Despite the differences of emphasis that I have delineated, to this point Arminius stood well within the Calvinist tradition.  However, Arminius’ discussion of free will was far from complete.  As we have observed previously, Calvinism at the time generally taught that the conclusion that God was the author of sin could be avoided by drawing a careful distinction between necessity and compulsion.  For Arminius, at the heart of this contention was the assumption that a thing can be simultaneously necessary and contingent.  In the opinion of Arminius, such an assertion is logically untenable.[4]

Rather, Arminius believed that one is left with only two options regarding human sinfulness:

For if God resolve to use an irresistible power in the execution of his Decree, or if he determine to employ such a quantum of power as nothing can resist or can hinder it from completing his purpose, it will follow that the thing will necessarily be brought into existence:. . . . –But if he resolve to use a force that is not irresistible, but that can be resisted by the creature, then that thing is said to be done, not necessarily, but contingently,. . . .[5]

For Arminius, regardless of whether an act is done freely or under compulsion, if it is done necessarily, then God must be its efficient and principal cause.  Arminius was convinced that such a contention proclaims necessarily that God is the author, originator, and creator of sin.

However, Arminius did not believe that the contingency of a particular will or action effectively constrained God’s Providence.  Quite to the contrary, Arminius was insistent that God could work His will and fulfill his decree in spite of the contingency of individual events.  Arminius concluded:

Indeed if the Divine Wisdom knows how to effect that which it has decreed, by employing causes according to their nature and motion,—whether their nature and motion be contingent or free,—the praise due to such Wisdom is far greater than if it employ a power which no creature can possibly resist: Although God can employ such a power whensoever it may seem expedient to his Wisdom.[6]

Arminius embraced the idea of God’s determination, if it were understood to mean that God can accomplish whatever He has determined to do, irrespective of the contingency of the behaviors involved therein.  In Arminius’s words:

And this contingency and freedom of second causes does not prevent that from being certainly done, or coming to pass, which God in this manner works by them; and therefore the certain futurition of an event does not include its necessity.[7]

However, Arminius professed to “abominate” the idea of Divine Determination if it were taken to mean that “God by his eternal decree has determined to the one part or to the other future contingent things”—i.e., “those things which are performed by the free will of the creature.”[8]  According to Arminius, contingent things cannot be determined—they would be, by definition, necessary.[9]

It is at this point that we must return to Arminius’ conviction that God freely permits evil acts.  Calvin’s objection to the idea of Divine permission was that it seems to imply some sort of passivity on the part of God.  Calvin insisted that God’s Providence was active and contemporary in all things.  Permission, therefore, seems to suggest that God is not the principal cause of some events, but rather a passive observer.

Theodore Beza, similarly, was hesitant to use the term permission, but for slightly different reasons.  For Beza, permission seemed to imply that God was willing to permit certain activities which were either contrary to His will or regarding which He had little concern.  Beza was comfortable with the term permission provided it did not assume either of these conclusions.

Arminius seems to have attempted to settle both concerns in his articulation of Divine Permission.  He insisted that “. . . . whatever God permits, He permits it designedly and willingly,—His Will being immediately occupied about its Permission, but His Permission itself is occupied about sin; and this order cannot be inverted without great peril.”[10]

To say it another way, for Arminius, God’s Permission is both immediate and active, and it is always an act of His Will, even when it permits activity that is contrary to His Will.  Furthermore, Arminius did not conclude that God’s Permission results in providential passivity once it is willed.  Even after willing Permission, God, in His determination, both sets boundaries on the activity performed and works that activity to His own end.[11]

So, for Arminius, what role does God play in the evil that humans do?  It is at this point that Arminius both displays his thoroughgoing commitment to a Calvinist conception of Divine Sovereignty and Providence and makes his most significant contribution to the balancing of the doctrine of Divine Providence and the concept of human will.  Arminius agreed with Calvin, though perhaps not with Beza, that God is the principal and efficient cause of all things and that His Providence is active and immediate.  However, as we have already seen, Arminius was also convinced that these very convictions led necessarily to the conclusion that God, not humanity, is responsible, ultimately, for sin.

Arminius’ solution to the dilemma was to be found in the concept of, what he called, Divine Concurrence.  He defined the doctrine in the following way:

The Concurrence of God is not his immediate influx into a second or inferior cause, but it is an action of God immediately [influens] flowing into the effect of the creature, so that the same effect in one and the same entire action may be produced [simul] simultaneously by God and the creature.[12]

For Arminius, no activity of humanity can be brought to fruition without Divine Concurrence.  Arminius concluded, “And therefore God is at once the Effector and the Permitter of the same act, and the Permitter of it before He is the Effector.”[13]

According to Arminius, when God wills to grace a human being with the freedom to choose to act—i.e., to act contingently—, in order for that act to take place, God must will concurrently with the human to the realization of the consequent effect.  In this way, there is nothing that occurs apart from the Will of God, not even activities of wickedness.

God, therefore, can be said to perform acts of evil.  However, despite God’s responsibility in Divine Concurrence for the realization of evil, the origin of the evil lies in the contingent willing of the human, and therefore, though God may be responsible, to some degree, for reality of evil, He is not culpable for it.  In other words, the guilt lies in the human, but the effect lies in the Will of God as it wills concurrently with the human will.

As is perhaps clear, for Arminius the source of the Fall of humanity was contingent human will.  Consequently, salvation must also be offered to a contingent human will.  Yet again, we must remind ourselves that, for Arminius, the human will is only effective when God, through Divine Concurrence, both permits and effects its desires.  Furthermore, as we have observed previously, there is no human will, according to Arminius, apart from the perpetual grace of God.  In other words, Human willing is dependent continually on God, both in its origins and in its results.

Nonetheless, for Arminius, God both wills that the human response to incorporation in Christ to be a contingent response of a free human will and providentially acts in grace to guarantee such a response.  Arminius’ disputation on human will concludes with the following summary:

What then, you ask, does Free Will do?  I reply with brevity, It saves.  Take away Free Will, and nothing will be left to be saved: Take away Grace, and nothing will be left [unde salvetur] as the source of salvation.  This work [of salvation] cannot be effected without two parties—One, from whom [sit] it may come:—The Other, to whom or in whom it may be [wrought.]  God is the Author of salvation:  Free Will [tantum capere] is only capable of being saved.  No one, except God, is able to bestow salvation; and nothing except Free Will, is capable of receiving it.[14]

I cannot discern whether this final summation was original with Arminius, was a quotation placed by Arminius at the end of his disputation, or was inserted by the editors of his works.  Furthermore, I remain convinced that it states the soteriological significance of human will in stronger terms than was consistent generally with Arminius.  Nonetheless, it does appear to run consistent with the trajectory of his thought.

In my reading, human will, for Arminius, has never been natural, nor is it essentially free, if freedom is to be understood in terms of autonomy.  Rather, the human will is subjected to the Providence of God and depends continually on the gracious activity of God.

Thoughts?  Responses?  Stones?

Oh, and here’s the link to the full essay:

Human Will: Ephemeral or Efficacious?

J. Thomas Johnson



[1] James Arminius, “A Declaration of the Sentiments of Arminius, on Predestination, Divine Providence, the Freedom of the Will, the Grace of God, the Divinity of the Son of God, and the Justification of Man before God,” trans., James Nichols & William Nichols, The Works of James Arminius: The London Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1996), 1:657-658.

[2] Arminius, “A Declaration of the Sentiments of Arminius,” 1:658.

[3] Ibid., 1:659-660.

[4] see Arminius, “The Apology or Defense of James Arminius against Certain Theological Articles Extensively Distributed, and Currently Circulated at least through the Hands of Some Persons in the Low Countries and beyond Their Confines: In Which Both Arminius, and Adrian Borrius a Minister of Leyden, Are Rendered Suspected of Novelty and Heterodoxy, of Error and Heresy, on the Subject of Religion,” Nichols & Nichols, 1:750-752, 2:33.

[5] Ibid., 1:753.

[6] Ibid., 1:755.

[7] Arminius, “Disputations on Some of the Principal Subjects of the Christian Religion,” Nichols & Nichols, 2:127.

[8] Arminius, “The Apology or Defense of James Arminius,” 1:760-761.

[9] Arminius summarized neatly this entire trajectory of thought in “Disputation IV: On the Nature of God” in his “Public Disputations;” see Arminius, “Disputations,”  2:122-129.

[10] Ibid., 2:167-168.

[11] see ibid., 2:167-174.

[12] Ibid., 2:183.

[13] Ibid., 2:183.

[14] This appears to be a quotation from Bernardus.  Nonetheless, it is placed at the conclusion of Arminius’ “Disputation XI: On the Free Will of Man and Its Powers;” ibid., 2:196.

Arminianism and Predestination – Blog 01 Free Will

Arminianism and Predestination – A Suggestion

Blog 1:  Free Will

It is often presumed that to be an Arminian one needs to affirm what is commonly called libertarian free will or, more philosophically, metaphysical libertarianism.  The contributors of theopedia.com have defined libertarian free will in the following way:

Libertarian free will means that our choices are free from the determination or constraints of human nature and free from any predetermination by God. All “free will theists” hold that libertarian freedom is essential for moral responsibility, for if our choice is determined or caused by anything, including our own desires, they reason, it cannot properly be called a free choice. Libertarian freedom is, therefore, the freedom to act contrary to one’s nature, predisposition and greatest desires. Responsibility, in this view, always means that one could have done otherwise.[1]

Of course, there is a lot implied in that definition, and the definition itself could be nuanced a bit further.  Even so, this seems accurate to me so far as it goes, and it is readily accessible online to any who might want to find it.  So, there it is.

Now, if this were another venue, I would be tempted to venture into the terrain of incompatibilism verses compatibilism, metaphysical determinism verses metaphysical libertarianism, and so on.  In fact, it is hard to discuss the issue of libertarian free will with any integrity without interacting first with the rich variety of opinion represented in these philosophical perspectives.  For those who are interested, Wikipedia actually has a passable article that does a fair job of providing an outline of these positions.  It’s neither comprehensive nor sufficiently nuanced, to my reading, but the article seems helpful as a primer.[2]

In any case, I don’t intend this blog to be an academic article, nor do I wish for it to get bogged down in philosophical jargon.  At heart, I am a biblical theologian of a narrative sort, and I prefer to engage with the concept of human freedom within the context of biblical narrative.

The philosophical positions I’ve alluded to above, in my opinion, are best seen as derivative perspectives.  In other words, I approach the issue of human freedom as one rooted in the narratives and teachings of the prophetic tradition of Israel and the Apostolic testimony of Jesus (that is, the First and New Testaments).

Philosophy, for me, attempts to help us better understand, better conceptualize, and, in some cases, better systematize what the Christian Scriptures have delivered to us.  Therefore, for the purposes of this blog series I will be wrestling, primarily, with the narratives of the Christian Bible.

Let me begin by saying that despite being an Arminian, I am not persuaded that libertarian free will (or metaphysical libertarianism) is a helpful way of understanding human freedom in Christian Scripture.  Now, this is not to say that I am a determinist.  Quite to the contrary, I affirm that humans can have the capacity to make choices that have not been predestined or determined by God.

I am also not really a compatibilist.  Though I agree with compatibilists that humans, in our natural condition, are only free in a very mitigated and bounded sense, I embrace the belief that God can, has, and continues to intervene in human nature in such a way that human freedom, particularly when it comes to the human response to the Gospel, cannot be defined simply in terms of biology, physics, opportunity, and so on.

In any case, permit me to engage briefly with the early narratives of the First Testament in order to illustrate what I do believe in regard to human freedom.

To my reading, the initial accounts of creation in Genesis 1 and 2 narrate a universe which is entirely in submission to God.  When God spoke in Genesis 1 and 2, the universe obeyed.  Unlike the creation myths that we find in the surrounding cultures of the Ancient Near East (such as Enuma Elish), there is no yang to God’s yin.  There is no rebellious force in the universe, no antagonist, no rebel faction.  The consistent pattern in Hebrew remains, “vayy’omer ‘elohim yehi. . . .,” or “And God said let there be. . . .” in English.  And with each utterance of God creation obeyed without pause and without resistance.  The universe, in its creation for the Hebrew prophetic tradition, existed in complete subordination to the word of God.

I can see no reason to argue within the narrative that humanity should be viewed as somehow exempted from this natural state of the universe.  Humanity’s distinctiveness has been explained with respect to its creation as a being made in the tselem, the image, of God.  Whatever that is meant to imply, it does not seem to imply a natural capacity for self-determination. When that declaration was followed by a series of commands directing human life on earth in Genesis 1:28-30, the narrative betrays no hint that humans, in their natural state, would be free to refuse these directives.  In fact, the text itself concludes with the phrase, “vayhi-ken,” or “And it was so.”

Instead, the human capacity to disobey God seems to have been narrated as contingent, not on some facet of human nature, but on a later act of God.  It was God, in Genesis 2, who planted a garden in Eden, and it was God who placed the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life in its midst.  It was God who then provided the first humans with a choice through creation and law.  God created the opportunity for disobedience first by placing the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the midst of the garden and then by proceeding to prohibit the eating of it.

The first opportunity for humanity to make a decision in which our first ancestors were free either to follow God’s edict or to transgress it seems to have been created and facilitated by activities of God which occurred after the original creation.  I believe the narratives of Genesis suggest to us that whatever it means for humans to be free in terms of following God or rebelling against him, that freedom lies not in human nature fundamentally, but in the ongoing activity of God.

Now, I do not believe that this recognition then necessitates the conclusion that God intended humanity to transgress the law He gave to Adam.  But, I do believe that it necessitates the conviction that humanity, in its natural condition, was created in submission to the word of God.  Only God could grace humanity with the ability to transgress His word, which Genesis seems to insist God did.

There appears to be no indication in the immediate context that the prophetic tradition of Israel believed that God caused or necessitated the ultimate decision that humanity made.  Even so, I think we must confess that the choice itself, as indeterminate as it appears to have been, was a consequence not of human nature, but of God’s activity—of God’s grace.

In other words, I’m suggesting that human freedom is not natural or metaphysical, but rather contingent on God’s willingness to grace it.  This implies, I believe, that human freedom is a consequence of grace as opposed to an inherent quality of human nature.  In fact, one could argue that in the garden God graced humanity with a choice of masters—that is, God invited humanity to choose to whom they would be enslaved.  Would humanity choose slavery to God or slavery to disobedience (perhaps even slavery to freedom itself)?

Humans do not appear to have been free before that choice, nor do we appear particularly free in its wake.  We were graced the opportunity to choose a master, and our ancestors chose freedom, autonomy, libertarianism over God.  Consequently, in the sentiments of Paul, we find ourselves slaves to sin.

I am sympathetic to understanding this state of fallenness in terms of the compatibilists.  Our freedom is quite mitigated in this fallen reality.  We are free to choose within limits—limits I would say, as natural as they may appear, set by God.  Even more, I would argue that our freedom to choose again loyalty to God and slavery to His Word depends fundamentally not on our nature, but on the intervening grace of God.  As in the garden, I would argue, God seems to have willed not to determine the outcome of those choices for most humans.  Even so, it is a choice in essence that depends entirely on His activity and not on ours.

In my opinion, no human is naturally free to transgress God’s word, nor in the wake of Adam and Eve’s response to God’s offer of choice are humans free any longer to embrace it consistently and entirely.  Any indeterminate freedom to choose that humans experience remains contingent on the ongoing activity and will of God.

In light of all of this, as opposed to the concept of libertarian free will (or metaphysical libertarianism), I am a proponent of what might be called, sort of inelegantly, divinely graced contingent freedom.  Less precisely but also less cumbersome might be the phrase contingent indeterminateness.

I invite your responses, critiques, and conversation if you wish to engage with this issue in the terms I’ve attempted to delineate.  My intention is to write one blog in this series each week.  I hope you’ll continue to journey with me.

Blessings,

J. Thomas

Perhaps I should write about my commitment to an evangelical Arminianism…

I have not found the time recently to blog independently of my sermon writing.  This is regrettable for me, since blogs and sermon manuscripts are two quite different literary genres.  So, I believe it is time once again for me to begin writing some true blogs, and the topic of the first series I’ll be working on is evangelical Arminianism.

For transparency’s sake I should confess that I was raised in a Wesleyan-Arminian tradition.  However, most of my education has been at the feet of Reformed and/or Calvinist teachers and professors.  I went to a private Christian Reformed high school, attended Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, and began my seminary studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Now, apart from my high school Bible classes, I have encountered Arminian scholars both at Gordon and at Trinity and, more recently and predominantly, at Nazarene Theological Seminary.  But, I think it is fair to say that the majority of the professors I have become close with and consider even today to be mentors have been from the Calvinist tradition.

This history led me into quite substantial Calvinist v. Arminian debates during the larger part of my young adult life.  During those years, I wrestled fiercely with these theological poles, at times not being sure where I would ultimately end up.

The fact that Arminianism won out in my early years was probably less due to biblical or theological conviction and more due to pragmatic and egocentric concerns.  First, I was raised in a Wesleyan-Arminian context, and I was following a call to pastor within that tradition.  Pragmatically, it would have been difficult to turn my back on that history even if I felt convicted that it was wrong.

Second, I simply could not stomach the idea of predestination and determinism given the world in which we live.  It was easier for me as a young person to accept the state of the world if I could excuse its darkness and evil as the results of human freedom.  In my teens and twenties I desired God to be more or less absent from the evil in the world, and, to my thinking then, only a form of Arminianism could absolve God of culpability for the horrors that have littered and continue to litter human history.

Now, I am not trying to intonate that I no longer feel the pull of these convictions.  I do.  But, as I have continued to wrestle with the Scriptural texts over the years, at least three convictions have become increasingly pronounced for me, and I believe they have somewhat muted these more youthful concerns.

First, my desire for a coherent biblical theology has become a stronger motivation than my commitment to a particular Christian tradition.  Second, my desire to encounter God as He is, as opposed to how I feel I need or desire Him to be, has grown exponentially, particularly since my run-in with cancer some eight years ago.  And third, as I have continued to wrestle with the Christian Scriptures over the course of living, learning, experiencing, and thinking in more sophisticated ways, I have become increasingly convinced that an Arminian understanding of Scripture is the most biblically and experientially likely reading of God’s Word.

Since having left more diverse academic contexts and having moved into a more homogenously Wesleyan-Arminian tradition some eight years ago now, I have not had occassion to discuss Arminianism and my commitment to its fundamental tenets for some time.  Recently, I have been much more absorbed in arguing for an evangelical Arminianism, since for some in my tradition the two terms are mutually exclusive.

However, given the present debate and conversation in public venues such as this, I am becoming convinced that I can make some contributions to the dialogue.  So, all that is to say that I will be beginning a series of blogs on Arminianism and my commitment to it.  I will continue to update this introductory blog as the series develops with titles of the various entries and links to them in the list below.

Blog 1:  Free Will

Blog 2:  Divine Concurrence

Blog 3:  Contingent Human Freedom – What’s at Stake?

I look forward to dialoguing with you through comments and responses :).

Blessings,

J. Thomas

Demons: Myths, Misunderstandings, or Menaces Part 2

At the heart of this brief series on the subject of demons and/or unclean spirits is the Gospel according to Mark.  In Part 1 of the series we began with a brief survey of demons/unclean spirits in and around the context of the first century C.E. outside of Christian Scripture.   This week, I intend to complete our investigation with an exploration of these beings in the context of the Christian Bible, paying special attention to Mark.

Before we get to that, however, permit me again this week to begin by delineating some foundational presuppositions that I bring to the discussion of these sorts of issues.

First, to my reading the Bible presupposes the existence of beings that are not part of the narrated creation in Genesis 1 and 2–e.g., angels (in the sense of non-human messengers), unclean spirits, demons, Satan, etc.  With that said, however, apart from the historical necessity of their existence and the historical-narrative importance of the events in which they take part, the Biblical authors and editors have provided very little information as to the historical background or the essential natures of these creatures.

Secondly, I presuppose that to ask about the nature of these creatures is, in many ways, to step outside of the intention of the Biblical authors/editors and possibly even to step outside of their knowledge (whether we are speaking of inspired knowledge or otherwise).  I would argue that the Biblical authors/editors have been inspired to interpret the events which they have recorded and reflected on, and that they have even been inspired to identify correctly the principal actors in those events.  However, short of finding a Biblical author/editor whose intention was to preach the pre-history or essential nature of these sorts of beings, what exactly they are connects merely with a presumption of the Biblical contributors and may not be entirely accurate.

All that is to say that when we attempt to explore what precisely these creatures are, when, how, and why they were created, why they do what they do or want what they want, and so on, we are leaving the realm of inspired Biblical teaching/testimony, and we are engaging in conjecture.  For these reasons, this blog series  represents only my best guess as to what precisely these beings might or might not be.  I do, of course, believe these blogs represent educated estimations based on the scant information provided to us by the Biblical contributors.  Nevertheless, in the end I am merely exploring the historical circumstances narrated by these authors/editors and trying to piece together an undisclosed, unrevealed mystery.  For these reasons, in my opinion these blogs do not properly belong in the category of Bible study.

Demons and/or Unclean Spirits in the Canonical Christian Bible

(A great deal of the following material is dependent on Werner Foerster’s article on the Greek ‘daimonion’ in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, volume 2, pp 1-20.)

Beginning with the First Testament…

There is at least one reference to spirits of the dead in the First Testament (see 1 Samuel 28:3-25).  In the heart of this particular passage (1 Samuel 28:13) the term used for these creatures is actually elohim (the same Hebrew name used for God and for false gods).  Even so, for the most part any discussion of malevolent spirits and/or demons is on the fringes of the First Testament.

There are only two general Hebrew words that seem possibly to be associated with demons or evil/unclean spirits–namely, shedim and se’irim.  With that said, it is not clear whether these terms are meant to refer to actual entities or if they are terms which simply refer to idols.

Additionally, there are some proper names in the First Testament with are depicted possibly as malevalent spiritual beings and are associated with various Gentile nations.  For example, the names Lilith (see Isaiah 34:14), ‘aluqah (see Proverbs 30:15), and ‘aza’zel (see Leviticus 16:8, 10, & 26) all may refer to demon-like creatures.  But again, in reference to Lilith and ‘aluqah, there is no evidence that the authors/editors supported actual beliefs in these creatures, and the proper translation of ‘aza’zel is hard to determine (though, ‘scapegoat’ is the most common translation in contemporary English versions).

Whatever we conclude about these scant allusions to these sorts of creatures in the First Testament, to quote Foerster:

In general we may say that the O[ld] T[estament] knows no demons with whom one may have dealings in magic even for the purpose of warding them off (Foerster, 11).

Whereas the Greeks often associated destructive powers with demons, the First Testament ascribed those same powers to the rule of God.  (Compare, for example, the narratives of David’s numbering of the people in 2 Samuel 24:1-25 and 1 Chronicles 21:1 – 22:1.)  For the writers and editors of the First Testament, God was ultimately sovereign over all of life.

To focus more particularly on the language of demon (daimonion in Greek), the Greek translation of the First Testament–i.e., the Septuagint (often abbreviated LXX)–seems to have assumed that the Greek term daimonion referred negatively and generally to heathen/Gentile gods, as opposed to malevolent personal forces of evil.

More can be said, however, on the First Testament’s use of the word satan.  The term satan in Hebrew means “the accuser” or, in the context of a legal dispute, “the adversary,” and it is rarely used in reference to non-human agents in the First Testament.  In other words, in most cases, the term satan is used in reference to humans who are playing the roles of accusers or adversaries in various contexts.

With that said, there are a number of interesting passages in which satan has been used in reference to apparently non-human agents.  In Numbers 22:22 and 32, the angel of the LORD was called the satan (usually translated into English as “adversary”).  In Zechariah 3:1-10, the prophet described a scene in which a high priest named Joshua (the original Hebrew name later transliterated as Jesus) was standing before the angel of the LORD being accused by the satan, and in this context the word looks like it could refer to a particular being.  Of course, most of us are probably familiar with the story in the book of Job of the satan going before God to accuse Job.  And, finally, in 2 Samuel 24:1-25 the text indicates that God incited David to number the people of Israel in order to punish them.  When that story was re-narrated, however, in 1 Chronicles 21:1 – 22:1, God was replaced with the phrase “the satan.”

What I hope has become clear in this brief survey of the term satan in the First Testament is that satan appears to be more of a title to be associated with particular actions or roles than it is a name to be associated with a particular being.  To my study, it is only in the New Testament that the title becomes more specific and approaches the category of proper name.

Moving on to the broader category of spiritual warfare in general, there are only two overt references to these sorts of realities in the First Testament.  The first is found in 2 Kings 6:15-19, and the second is in Daniel 10:2-14.  I leave you to look up those narratives at your leisure.  Suffice it to say that in both cases some sort of spiritual reality seems to have been revealed, but we are given almost no detail as to what precisely these events have to do with the general unfolding of human history.

That’s about the extent of what we find in the First Testament in relation to demons and/or unclean spirits.

Moving on to the New Testament…

The New Testament follows the First Testament pretty closely in respect to demons and/or unclean spirits.  Demons have not been depicted as spirits of the dead in the New Testament.  Rather, the dead were more often described as sleeping until the resurrection (see, for example, 1 Thessalonians 4:15; 1 Corinthians 15:18; Hebrews 9:27; & Revelation 20:4, 11ff).  Furthermore, in the New Testament demons were never depicted as intermediaries between God and humanity.  In the New Testament (as in the First), only angels serve in this capacity (see, for example, Matthew 1:20-23; 2:13-15, 19-21; 4:11; 28:1-7; Luke 1:11-20, 26-38; 2:8-14; 22:43; Acts 5:17-21; 8:26; 10:1-8; 12:6-11, 20-23; 27:22-26; along with all the varied references in Revelation).

Jesus did not speak of individual seducing spirits (as some Jewish popular belief maintained).  Evil, in the teachings of Jesus, comes from the heart, not from without.  Notice Jesus’ teachings, for example, in Matthew 15:10-20:

10 Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. 11?What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.”

12 Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?”

13?He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. 14?Leave them; they are blind guides.?y If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”

15?Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.”

16?”Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. 17?“Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18?But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. 19?For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20?These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”

Jesus may have insisted that uncleanness and defilement come from within a person and not from without, but that does not imply that the New Testament contributors did not conceive of evil forces.  Among the writings attributed to the Apostle Paul, for instance, there is some sense that the Gospel and the Holy Spirit provide protection from the assaults of evil forces, depicted mostly as national/political forces, at least in Ephesians (see, for example, Ephesians 6:10-17).

The only significant references to demons in the New Testament occur in the context of possessed people.  Demons and/or unclean spirits were never depicted as wandering spirits, ghosts, or any other such thing.  Even so, to quote Foerster once again:

Nevertheless, the fact that demons are mentioned only with relative infrequency in the N[ew] T[estament] does not mean that their existence and operation are contested or doubted.  For Paul witchcraft is meddling with demons.  But there can also be intercourse with demons in the normal heathen cultus (1 C. 10:20 f.).  While idols are nothing, and the Christian enjoys freedom, demons stand behind paganism (Foerster, 17). 

As I’ve already indicated, the term satan occurs in the New Testament, as well.  In Ephesians 2:2 the satan has been called “the prince of the power of the air,” and all demonic activity appears to have been perceived as subject to that creature.  And though the satan was said to “masquerade as an angel of light” (see 2 Corinthians 11:1), there was no textual connection made between the satan and his demons (sometimes called his ‘angels’ or ‘messengers’) and God’s angels.

Some, but not all, sicknesses were connected overtly with the activity of demons in the New Testament.  However, there are passages in the New Testament that seem to have associated illness in general with the oppression of the satan, who was sometimes called diabolos–the devil or deceiver (see Acts 10:38).

Most demon possession in the Gospels and Acts related primarily to injurious spirits that had caused a person to harm him/herself and had overwhelmed his/her conscious mind and freedom of choice.  Furthermore, and somewhat curiously, demons in the New Testament often evidenced a knowledge of God that they were almost compelled to confess in the presence of Jesus.

With all that said, for followers of Jesus in the New Testament, there was no need to fear these evil forces.  Effectively, they have been conquered by Jesus’ ministry and the inauguration of the Kingdom of God.

Demons and/or Unclean Spirits in Isaiah 40-66…

So that is a general survey of the concepts of demons and/or unclean spirits in the First and New Testaments.  However, as we near our more particular interest of demons and/or unclean spirits in the Gospel according to Mark, we must first pay particular attention to this language in Isaiah 40-66.  This is necessary because it seems that Mark thematically depended quite heavily on these chapters from Isaiah.

There is an interesting use of a form of the word demon in the Greek translation of Isaiah 65:1-7 which may relate to the narrative of the Gentile demoniac possessed by a legion of demons in Mark 5:1-20.

1I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me.  I said, “Here I am, here I am,” to a nation that did not call on my name.  2I held out my hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices; 3a people who provoke me to my face continually, sacrificing in gardens and offering incense on bricks [the Greek translation of the Hebrew has inserted the phrase “to the demons” here]; 4who sit inside tombs, and spend the night in secret places; who eat swine’s flesh,  with broth of abominable things in their vessels; 5who say, “Keep to yourself, do not come near me, for I am too holy for you.”

These are a smoke in my nostrils, a fire that burns all day long.  6See, it is written before me: I will not keep silent, but I will repay; I will indeed repay into their laps 7their iniquities and their ancestors’ iniquities together, says the Lord; (Isaiah 65:1-7 NRSV).

Notice the common themes in the two passages–e.g., tombs, secret places, pigs, and the insistence that God stay away.

Additionally, Mark’s favorite term for “demons” was unclean spirits.  There is another interesting passage in Isaiah 40-66 relating to uncleanness that may help to decipher Mark’s emphasis on demonic activity in Jesus’ ministry.

4From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.  5You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways.  But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.  6We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.  We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.  7There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.

8Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.  9Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever.  Now consider, we are all your people(Isaiah 64:4-9 NRSV).

We are probably not accustomed to associating uncleanness generally with demon possession, but this passage is significant because, as I’ll make clear momentarily, I believe Mark has made precisely this connection.

Demons and/or Unclean Spirits:  The Contributions of Mark

Well, we’ve tossed a lot of balls in the air to this point.  How might we understand demons and/or unclean spirits in light of all of this?  Permit me to make a suggestion…

A significant piece of the puzzle for me lies in the way in which Mark has narrated the demons as addressing Jesus.  I invite you to notice with me the difference in the ways in which the demons in Mark identified Jesus in 1:24/3:11 and the way in which Jesus has been identified in 5:7.

1:24 “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”

3:11 Whenever the impure spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.”

5:7 He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!”

Both 1:24 and 3:11 record instances of demon confrontation within the context of Judaism–that is, both of the demoniacs were Jewish.  And, interestingly, the demons associated with these Jewish people identified Jesus using peculiarly Jewish phraseology.  However, in 5:7 Jesus was confronted by a Gentile demoniac, and in that context, the demons identified Jesus using language which was more commonly that of Gentiles–that is, the language of ‘Most High God’.  Might there be significant implications to the fact that the demons in these instances seem to have spoken with the language and worldview of the people they inhabited?

It also seems to me that we must include Jesus’ insistence that evil comes out of the heart, James’s insistence that each person is tempted by their own evil desires, and the implications in both Jesus’ life and Paul’s teaching that the satan is at work testing/tempting into account in our deliberations.

Demons and/or Unclean Spirits:  A Suggestion…

So, what I want to try to do in order to make a suggestion as to how we might understand the concepts of demons and/or unclean spirits both in Mark and in the canonical Christian Scriptures is to begin with Jesus’ insistence that evil comes out of the heart.  James has argued similarly:  evil is not something that comes from outside of us.  It is something that comes from within us.

Consequently, evil probably should not be associated with an external source.  However, we do need to piece that together with the New Testament insistence that the satan is at work testing and tempting humans and that there are such things as demons trying to harm us.  How might we hold these conceptualities together?

Well, to do this faithfully there are a number of additional things we need to be reminded of.  First, we need to recall the distinction between the Greek concept of the spirit/soul and their relationship to the flesh and the First Testament’s conception of these relationships.  For the First Testament, it would be inappropriate to say that spirit has been corrupted, impeded, or defiled by flesh.  Spirit was the ‘thing’ that animated flesh in the First Testament, and the quality of a person’s spirit, therefore, could be determined by the quality of that person’s life and behavior.  A person with a good or clean spirit, walked in ways faithful to Torah and honoring to God in the First Testament.  A person with an unclean or injurious spirit, walked in rebellious or injurious ways.

That’s pretty different from the Greek conception that the soul was the purified or ideal form of the person and that once it had been encased in flesh it suffered a number of debilitations.  For instance, the Greek philosophical tradition argued that the soul forgot some of the things it knew prior to being enfleshed; in the flesh it suffered the pull towards animalistic tendencies and passions, and so on.  The First Testament just didn’t operate from that sort of a perspective of the relationship between the soul, spirit and flesh, and, in my view, neither have the New Testament contributors.

So, again, this idea that a demon is a spiritual being entirely foreign to and independent of the human person may be reading quite a bit of Gentile or non-Jewish conceptualities into the way Mark has narrated these events.  For the First Testament, the spirit didn’t have an independent existence apart from the human person.  Rather, it was a force that animated the flesh and came together with it to make a living soul, a living being, a nephesh in Hebrew.

We also should recall the narrative of the Garden of Eden and the serpent’s role in that story.  This creature did tempt Adam and Eve to do something that they should not have done, but he has not been narrated as the source of their inclination to disobey.  They had it within them to want to be what the serpent offered them to become.  There is a sense in which the serpent pressured, but the desire to disobey has not been rooted in the serpent.  It has been rooted in Adam and Eve themselves.

And then we have to tie in, somehow, Paul’s teaching in Romans 1:18-32 in which he has said that Gentiles, when they failed to recognize God for who He was and thank Him for what He has done, have been turned over to their own evil desires.  It would seem both here and in the Isaiah 64 passage that I cited earlier that presumably God will hand people who determine to do evil over to the evil they have done, to the point that wickedness comes almost to control them from that point on.

And finally, we need to recall that a theme of wilderness and desert runs through the Gospel according to Mark.  Throughout the First Testament and in Mark, the wilderness represented a variety of things–for example, a place of testing, of learning, of intimacy with God, of judgment, and the list could go on.  Mark has associated the idea of wilderness with a new exodus of Jesus which has been symbolically represented in Jesus’ own baptism.

Through His baptism in Mark, Jesus leads His followers out of the permanent structures of human society and back into the wilderness.  In light of this, it seems fair to argue that Mark envisioned the existence of the Church in this time between the times in the unsettled and untamed spaces of wilderness.  And, more poignantly, this region has been associated with the work of the satan in Mark, so the Christian community does appear to have been led into hostile territory.

So, these are the primary themes and concerns that I am trying to hold together with the suggestion I’d like to make regarding the reality of demons and/or unclean spirits for contemporary Christians.

In light of all of this, it seems to me that, first, demons or unclean spirits should not be understood as independent or pre-existent beings that have their own history and their own background and their own reasons for doing what they’re doing, and so on.  I would suggest that there is a sense that the demon is the spirit that animates the human–our own spirit.  When we become bound to sin, and we begin to justify sin, and we begin to live in sinful ways, our own spirit begins to fracture.  We still retain, to some degree, what we originally have been created to be (Paul might associate this with some conception of conscience), but we become divided.  We begin to mutate–our heart begins to splinter.  Paul seems to suggest in Romans 1 that these distortions and fractures can become so severe, that we may no longer recognize the difference between good and evil.  And, for Paul, fundamentally it is God who turns us over to this type of slavery.

So, I might suggest that demons are not foreign to us, since, again, Jesus and James have insisted that evil is not an external reality in relation to the human.  Evil in both of their teachings seems to flow out of the human heart.  Perhaps, then, demons or unclean spirits are ways of speaking of an evil personality that grows out of us as we embrace sin and walk away from God.  And somehow the more we walk away from God the more injurious and twisted this evil personality (or even personalities) can become.  Perhaps in its final manifestation, it can almost take us over, and it can become an independent process within us to which we lose volitional control.

It is arguable, in my view, that Mark has described all sin as this sort of destructive force within us.  Individuals confidently identified as demon-possessed in Mark are those that have been so overwhelmed by the evil within them that their slavery to their twisted hearts has become impossible to conceal.

However, there seems to be a subversive realization in Mark, that in fact all who fail to follow Jesus reveal themselves to be animated and motivated by unclean spirits (note again the Isaiah 64 passage I quoted previously).  In Mark, it would seem, all are demon-possessed and all need a new animating spirit within them.  The great hope of the Gospel, is that God has offered to us, not simply a renewed human spirit, but the very Holy Spirit of God to replace the twisted and self-destructive spirit of the human.

Given the way that the Gospel according to Mark (and the rest of the New Testament) has depicted demons or unclean spirits, it seems to me that we do need to confess that this twisting and dividing of the human spirit can become, in extreme cases, supra-personal.  That is, they can almost take on a will and personality of their own within us and within societies, driving people and societies to do things even against their own conscious wills.

In fact, I am becoming convinced that when Paul spoke of the power that sin can have over human beings in Romans 7, describing it almost as a foreign force which dominates us, he was actually speaking of a reality that the Gospel writers have called demon possession.  The important observation, for me, however, is that we are the fundamental sources of these things–they did not find their origin prior to or apart from humanity.

I think the benefit of this suggestion (though it is only a suggestion) is that it permits us to conceive and speak of demons as supra-personal realities that can operate independent of their hosts without having to step away from Jesus’ and James’s insistence that the source of evil tendencies is from within us.  We can say both that we are the source of these things and that they can become independent powers controlling us apart from our wills.

However, more importantly, for Paul and for Mark, the dilemma that this creates is that humans have no hope of transformation without a spirit-replacement.  And, it would seem that this is the very hope of the Gospel.  God has promised to cast out these corrupted human spirits and replace them with the very Holy Spirit of God.  Even more, perhaps the satan‘s dominion over these spirits relates to the fact that they have come to share a common cause–i.e., the destruction of humanity.  In that way, our deliverance from our shared demon possession and the dominion of the satan involves the breathing in of the Holy Spirit of God into those who believe.

So, in the Church should we fear demon possession?  In light of this study, I don’t believe we need to fear some foreign entity that might sneak in somehow and take us over.  I don’t really think that’s what demons in essence are, despite centuries of mythologizing in the middle ages to the contrary.  I do think we need to be concerned with our own compromised spirits, our refusals to follow Jesus, our exercising of our own values without reference to the testimony of the prophets and apostles.  I do think we need to fear the twisting of our spirits–the dividing of our heart–because, in the end, I believe that the New Testament calls the condition that results from such twisting demon possession.

The only way, then, to remain free and to remain safe is to have the Holy Spirit of God animating us.  Who can rescue us from this divided heart, this twisted spirit, this slavery to sin, this demon possession?  Only God through the casting out of the unclean spirits that have resulted from our rebellion and taken us over and the breathing once again of a new spirit into our nostrils–this time, the very Holy Spirit of God.  I think this is what was at stake in Paul’s insistence in Romans 8 that those who do not have the spirit of Christ are not of Christ.

Controversial, I know, and all of this in the end is only a guess.  But, for what it’s worth, I hope it might prove helpful to some.

J. Thomas Johnson

Demons: Myths, Misunderstandings, or Menaces? Part 1

If an innumerable number of Christmas-themed songs are to be believed, apparently the Christmas season is a time for telling ghost stories.  I don’t know that I’ve ever partaken in this particular Christmas tradition, but it’s very existence was enough to encourage me to begin a series of blogs on the topic of demons or, more commonly in some contexts, unclean spirits.  More particularly, I’ll be discussing the role of demons/unclean spirits in the Gospel according to Mark.

I suppose the first question to be addressed is this:  Why pursue a study of demons or unclean spirits exclusively in Mark?  Permit me to explain my reasoning in four points.  First, Mark is the shortest of the Gospels, which allows for greater comprehensiveness in this venue.  Second, Mark seems particularly interested in Jesus’ confrontations with these beings–more-so, to my reading, than any of the other Gospels.  Third, I have recently completed an extensive study of Mark, and my engagement with the material is fairly fresh.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I am convinced that Mark’s treatment of this subject matter is fairly representative of what we find in the writings of the New Testament generally.

So, demons/unclean spirits in the Gospel according to Mark…  In my opinion, this is perhaps one of the more challenging discussions to initiate in my own context–that of 21st century America.  Why?  First, centuries of presuppositions and mythological development in European cultures, combined with very little overt teaching in the Gospels contribute to this difficulty.  Second, despite a fair amount of consensus regarding the existence of differences between Jewish and Gentile perceptions of unclean spirits/demons, it is often easier to identify Gentile presuppositions than it is the beliefs of their Jewish contemporaries.  Finally, contemporary secular understandings of illness, psychological maladies, evil (both personal and structural), and other such concerns tend to appear irreconcilable with any suggestion of the existence of these sorts of things.

I suppose we might avoid the topic altogether by simply highlighting broad literary themes in the Gospel according to Mark in which these things play a narrative part.  Approached in this way, the passages discussing demons/unclean spirits are not overly complicated.  These episodes emphasize Jesus’ authority over sin and evil; they trade on the irony of who did and did not recognize Jesus in the Gospel; they underscore the question of what kind of spirit was animating Jesus; they help us to explore the ways in which Jesus’ authority corresponds to that of His followers; they testify to the reality of the conflict between the kingdom of God and the realm of evil; they raise the concern of Jesus that He choose those whom He would have testify on His behalf; and perhaps the list could go on.

However, when we begin to explore more basic issues that seem essential to understanding the broader implications of these events, things become a bit more complicated.  Several critical questions come to mind.  What is Mark’s basic anthropology–i.e., his understanding of what it means to be human?  How has Mark interpreted Jesus’ behavior and its relationship to evil in the human realm?  How does one know, according to Mark, if a person is possessed by an unclean spirit/demon?  How does Mark’s anthropology and understanding of evil communicate to our humanistic, materialistic, contemporary understanding of these issues?  What in Mark should be taken as an overt teaching–and hence, inspired, inerrant, infallible–and what should be considered as cultural assumptions of the day which may be inaccurate technically?  I’m sure you could think of some others, but those are the ones that come immediately to my mind.

This week’s blog is intended to flesh out extra-canonical (outside of Christian Scripture) presuppositions and assumptions regarding these sorts of passages and these types of issues.  In next week’s blog, I’ll attempt to lead us through an exploration of the Bible’s allusions generally and  Mark’s teachings specifically (and perhaps Mark’s assumptions) in these respects.  But, this week, my hope is to place a number of proverbial cards on the table.

Let me begin by delineating some foundational presuppositions that I bring to the discussion of these sorts of issues.  First, to my reading the Bible presupposes the existence of beings that are not part of the narrated creation in Genesis 1 and 2–e.g., angels (in the sense of non-human messengers), unclean spirits, demons, Satan, etc.  I believe this can be demonstrated in the observation that several historical events in the canonical Christian Bible have been interpreted as being in some way related to these creatures.  With that said, however, apart from the historical necessity of their existence and the historical-narrative importance of the events in which they take part, the Biblical authors and editors provide very little information as to the historical background or the essential natures of these creatures.

Secondly, I presuppose that to ask about the nature of these creatures is, in many ways, to step outside of the intention of the Biblical authors/editors and possibly even to step outside of their knowledge (whether we are speaking of inspired knowledge or otherwise).  I would argue that the Biblical authors/editors have been inspired to interpret the events which they have recorded and reflected on, and that they have even been inspired to identify correctly the principal actors in those events.  However, short of finding a Biblical author/editor whose intention was to preach the pre-history or essential nature of these sorts of beings, what exactly they are connects merely with a presumption of the Biblical contributors and may not be entirely accurate.

All that is to say that when we attempt to explore what precisely these creatures are, when, how, and why they were created, why they do what they do or want what they want, and so on, we are leaving the realm of inspired Biblical teaching/testimony, and we are engaging in pure conjecture.  For these reasons, this blog series  represents only my best guess as to what precisely these beings might or might not be.  I do, of course, believe these blogs represent educated estimations based on the scant information provided to us by the Biblical contributors.  Nevertheless, in the end I am merely exploring the historical circumstances narrated by these authors/editors and trying to piece together an undisclosed, unrevealed mystery.  For these reasons, in my opinion these blogs do not properly belong in the category of Bible study.

We’ll begin this week with a brief survey of demons/unclean spirits outside of Christian Scripture, and we’ll complete our conversation next week with an exploration of these beings in the context of the Christian Bible.

The concepts of unclean spirits, demons, and/or angels have received varied treatment in recent decades.  In popular Christian fiction, several authors have envisioned a spiritual battlefield which exists around us and has only been hinted at in the Scriptural texts.  The most notable among these a few decades ago was the author Frank Peretti.  The following description of a demon preparing to enter a church comes from his book, This Present Darkness.

It had arms and it had legs, but it seemed to move without them, crossing the street and mounting the front steps of the church.  Its leering, bulbous eyes reflected the stark blue light of the full moon with their own jaundiced glow.  The gnarled head protruded from hunched shoulders, and wisps of rancid red breath seethed in labored hisses through rows of jagged fangs.

It either laughed or it coughed–the wheezes puffing out from deep within its throat could have been either.  From its crawling posture it reared up on its legs and looked about the quiet neighborhood, the black leathery jowls pulling back into a hideous death-mask grin.  It moved toward the front door.  The black hand passed through the door like a spear through liquid; the body hobbled forward and penetrated the door, but only half way. . . . (Frank Peretti, This Present Darkness, 11-12)

This sort of a view of spiritual creatures and spiritual warfare still persists outside of the world of fiction in many contemporary contexts.

In the arena of contemporary psychology, on the other hand (even among Christian psychologists), the idea of demon possession is treated largely as a pre-scientific, superstitious and/or mythological understanding of various psychological ailments.  David G. Myers, the author of a best-selling introductory textbook to psychology and a Christian professor at Hope College, described the conflicts in the following way in his book, Psychology through the Eyes of Faith.

For many religious people the ultimate threat of science is therefore that it will demistify life, destroying our sense of wonder and with it our readiness to believe in and worship an unseen reality.  Once we regarded flashes of lightening and claps of thunder as supernatural magic.  Now we understand the natural processes at work.  Once we viewed certain mental disorders as demon possession.  Now we are coming to discern genetic, biochemical, and stress-linked causes.  Once we prayed that God would spare children from diphtheria.  Now we vaccinate them.  Understandably, some Christians have come to regard scientific naturalism as “the strongest intellectual enemy of the church” (David Myers, Psychology through the Eyes of Faith, 41).

In the realm of theology, some conservative Christian scholars, such as D. A. Carson, have sought to explain the apparent discord between our contemporary experience and knowledge and the testimony of the Christian Bible with a suggestion which I have termed, eschatological clustering.  In his book The Gagging of God, Carson writes the following:

Now let us take up a question that in most circles in North Atlantic countries would scarcely be a burning issue, but that in many parts of sub-Saharan black Africa is vital and pressing:  What does the Bible say about demons, and how are Christians to beat them?  In the semipopular Christian literature, patterned after a certain systematic mold, one trawls through Scripture and examines, in the first instance, the exorcisms practiced by Jesus and pulls out texts mentioning “demon” or “demonization” and gradually constructs first a theology, and then pastoral counsel, to help Christians address these matters.  But if one places these texts within the Bible’s plot-line, and asks fundamental questions about the nature of the conflict in which we are engaged and the nature of the victory that Christ has won, one soon perceives that there are other themes that are being overlooked.  How much of the presentation of demonic activity in the Synoptic Gospels [i.e., Matthew, Mark, and Luke] is bound up with the dawning of the kingdom and the coming of the King?  How is such activity related to the End?  How much of the proper confrontation of the demonic is bound up with gospel solutions–as in Ephesians 6 and Revelation 12?  This is not to say that there is no place for explicit exorcism.  It is to say, rather, that the framework of the discussion and the priorities that emerge look rather different when the Bible’s story-line, climaxing in Christ and his cross-work, resurrection, exaltation and reign, are taken into account (D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God, 546-547).

If I am understanding Carson correctly, he appears to be suggesting that the conspicuousness of demonic activity in the Gospels was clustering around the arrival of the Day of the Lord and the ministry of Jesus, the King.  Though Carson does not dismiss contemporary demonic activity, he does seem to encourage us to anticipate far less of such things in contemporary experience than one finds in the testimony of the Gospel writers.

So, from Frank Peretti’s demons on every leg to psychology’s suspicion that demon possession is a misunderstanding of psychological ailments to Carson’s suggestion that demonic activity is most prevalent in the wake of significant eschatological inbreakings of God, the question of what precisely the language of unclean spirits/demons might be referring to remains a difficult one to address.

The issue is complicated even further by the influence of what has been called syncretism.  When we speak of syncretism in Christian practice, we are talking about the beliefs and practices that result from a combining of Christian teaching and non-Christian religious beliefs and practices.  To my study, I would suggest that this was happening even in the earliest periods of the Church, particularly as the Christian communities were becoming more and more Gentile and less and less Jewish in their fundamental assumptions.  Even so, this syncretistic tendency has continued to entice Christians throughout Church history, first in Europe and then through the world as Christianity has spread.

However, for the sake of time, I will focus my attention on conceptions of angels, demons, and/or unclean spirits in the time of Jesus and the Apostles, beginning with the wider Roman/Gentile cultures and concluding with those of more Jewish communities.

(Most of the following material has been gathered from Werner Foster’s article on demons in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, volume 2, pages 1-20.)

As far as we can tell, the basic understanding of “demons” in the popular Greek culture of Jesus’ day was that they were the spirits of the dead.  Furthermore, they could appear in varied places, but especially in desolate areas and at night.  They often appeared in the form of beastlike creatures.  They could possess people, and they were seen as responsible for travesties both in nature and in human life.  It also appears that most presumed that these creatures could be controlled, to some degree, by magical means.

The Greek philosophical tradition of Jesus’ time, on the other hand, thought of demons primarily as divine beings.  The term was used at times to describe gods generally, but it was more often associated with lesser deities.  The main tasks of these beings, according to many philosophers, were to be messengers between gods and humans.

As popular beliefs intermingled with philosophical speculation, demons became associated primarily with misfortune and distress.  Relatedly, there was some speculation that these deities occasionally possessed human hosts for their own ends.  And some, primarily among the Neo-Platonists, argued for a hierarchy of spiritual beings in the heavens in which the ones which were closer to the earth were more evil than those that were further away (and by ‘further away’, we mean further away from the earth upwards into the heavens).  Interestingly, there is no sign of Greek belief in angels until after the influence of Jewish thought becomes apparent.

I trust that you might notice how many of these Roman/Gentile presumptions have informed Peretti’s description of the demon in the quotation I provided earlier.

Jewish culture seems to have approached this subject matter a bit differently.  Even though almost all Jewish beliefs regarding spiritual beings find their origin in the language of angels and such in the First Testament, our sources for most popular Jewish beliefs about spiritual beings come from the groups of books known today as the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha.

The work of demons in popular Jewish belief of Jesus’ day was primarily to seduce humans–e.g., they tempted humans to forsake or to disobey Torah.  The beginning of their fall was usually connected with the events just before the Flood, which are described in Genesis 6.  In popular Jewish belief, demons were already being viewed as subordinate to a larger figure called Satan.

As opposed to the Roman/Gentile beliefs, Jews did not appear to understand demons as souls of the dead.  They did, however, assume that there were demonic forces at work in Gentile nations and governments.

The rabbis seem to have understood demons in slightly different ways than the general Jewish populace.  (This tradition is sometimes called Tannaitic Judaism.)  Here, again, the Jewish conception of spirits is based on that of angels.  However, for the rabbis, the main function of demons was to do harm to life and limb.  For this reason, the rabbis often attributed sickness to demons or demonic activity.  Occasionally there were references to demons of seduction–e.g., leading men to lust.

Unlike popular Jewish speculation, there is no hierarchical connection in the teaching of the rabbis between demons and Satan, nor was demonic activity something the Torah observant need fear.  One was protected from demonic activity by God, His angels, and the study of Torah.

Contrary to the Greek philosophical tradition, the rabbis did not view demons as intermediaries between God and humans.  The spiritual world, for the rabbis, appears to have been divided sharply into good and evil–i.e., angels and demons respectively.  Only rarely is there any reference to the idea that an angel could become a demon, and these ruminations were associated primarily with the events of Genesis 6.

In summary, in this blog we have explored some popular manifestations of unclean spirits/demons in contemporary fiction, the tensions that persist between the Scriptural witness and contemporary psychology, and the contemporary evangelical tendency to relegate the activity of unclean spirits/demons to the events surrounding the ministry of Jesus, as well as the muddying of the waters, so to speak, that syncretism has contributed to this topic.  Finally, we explored the beliefs surrounding the demonic which were present in the wider Roman/Gentile culture of Jesus’ day as well as those more particular to Jewish communities.

In next week’s blog, we’ll examine the treatment of angels, demons, and/or unclean spirits in canonical Christian Scripture, including our central text of the Gospel according to Mark.  My intention is to conclude that blog with my own suggestion as to how these beings might be understood by contemporary Christians.

Blessings,

J. Thomas Johnson

Cancer Nearly Shipwrecked My Faith

I was diagnosed with cancer (Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma) eight years ago this past September, and it is this experience that I am going to reflect on for this week’s blog.  Perhaps I should begin by offering a qualification.  I recognize that I am not qualified to speak for all those who have been diagnosed either with cancer or with a disease or disorder that is similar.  I can only write out of my own experience.  Certainly, some of what I have written will resonate with those who have been touched by these sorts of ailments.  However, I am confident that some will not resonate.

There are two passages of Scripture that have functioned as barriers on either side of the road with cancer that I have been travelling.  The first is found in Ecclesiastes 3:18-21.  It reads:

I said in my heart with regard to human beings that God is testing them to show that they are but animals.  For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other.  They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity.  All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.  Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth?

 The second verse comes from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 15, verses 50-55:

What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.  Listen, I will tell you a mystery!  We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.  For the trumpet will sound, and we will be changed.  For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.  When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

“Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the cartoonist Dick Guindon, but in one of
his cartoon captions he wrote, “The good Lord never gives you more than you can handle.  Unless you die of something.”  It is possible that those who have not yet been faced with the reality of their own mortality find that funnier than those of us who have been confronted by our own.  I like it because it reminds me that even the faithful die.

That was a great comfort to me in cancer.  Some of you may understand what I mean, but for those who haven’t yet discovered this sort of comfort, perhaps you’d be surprised by how many people make cancer patients feel like dying is some sort of unforgiveable sin.  I’ve been given more advice in the last eight years than I had in my first 27—and believe me, there was no shortage of advice in the fist 27.

You need to exercise more, you need to claim healing, you need to take vitamins, you need to have faith, you need to take this supplement, you need to eat apple cores, there’s a special protein in the biologic remains of an underwater protoplasmic googly fish that could have prevented your cancer, but the FDA won’t approve it for public use because there’s a conspiracy to keep people dying with cancer because it’s good for the health care system…

You get the idea.  I asked people during that time, “What if I die?”  You’d think I just blasphemed the Holy Spirit.  I could hear the whispers, “I think he’s giving up.  We need to pray for him.”  Even my doctors said, “You can’t think that way.”

When I received my cancer diagnosis my first two questions were natural ones.  They were the same questions I imagine we might ask if we were told that a nuclear missile had been fired at the town or city in which we live, and it was going to hit in thirty seconds:  Who did it?  and Why?  Those are important questions, but they also prove to be the least pragmatic.  Practical questions in hindsight, might have been, “What do I do?” or perhaps “What are my chances?”  But, those seemed secondary.

Did God give this to me?  Did I do it to myself?  Is it my microwave?  Maybe my cell phone?  My diet?  And, above all else, why me?  Those were the questions that filled my mind, and then the real stuff started to come out—you know, the stuff you say when someone tells you that, without treatments you’ll be dead within a year.  What if I’m wrong?  What if there is no God?  What if this is it?  Or worse, what if God’s not who I expect?  I began to feel the significance of Shakespeare’s words in the mouth of Hamlet:

But that the dread of something after death, the undiscover’d country, from whose bourn no traveller returns, puzzles the will, and makes us rather bear those ills we have, than fly to others that we know not of?

 Now I recognize that I am being a bit morbid and perhaps even self-indulgent in recounting some of this for you.  My intention is to invite you into the space in which I experienced the initial realization of cancer so that we might be able to explore both my interpretation of my experience and the theological ramifications of these sorts of diseases.  What I began to discover is that, for me, no matter how profoundly I might have described my personal relationship with God, no matter how clear and consistent my theology to that point had been, no matter how many times I had experienced something, either individually or in community, that I was sure was a fruit of the presence and power of God, God remained a theory to me until I was told that I was going to meet God soon.  In all honesty, that reality surprised me.  And, what was worse for me, it seemed that my Christian faith resisted the honesty and intensity of my response.

As Arminian-Wesleyan as I always have considered myself to be, my first instinct was to come back to theological orthodoxy by way of deterministic Calvinism.  God must have a plan.  Maybe I’m supposed to witness to these doctors.  Maybe God wants me to have an influence in the chemo ward.  Or, even better, maybe God wants to heal me in a miraculous way so that God’s Name might be praised.  For the first time in my adult life, I heard myself saying the words I had rolled my eyes at in the past… “Everything happens for a reason.”  It seemed like I either had to become a determinist or I had to embrace a conception of God that I found very difficult to accept.

For those who are thinking, that’s either/or thinking; perhaps you should have considered a both/and approach; I have a response for you.  Diagnoses like cancer are either/or diagnoses—either you will live or you will die; either the chemo will work or it will not.  And, for me, it pushed my whole world into an either/or reality.  Either there is a God or there is not; either God is merciful and forgiving and I have a chance, or the New Covenant is more similar to the Old Covenant than I’ve been led to believe and I just may hear those words, “I don’t know you.”  For me, the subtleties of philosophical and theological speculation were shattered by the reality of my situation.

I started to read the stories of the Bible, not from the perspective of the hero, but from the perspective of the extras.  I had some people tell me to take hope from the story of Job.  Maybe God was testing me.  Certainly God would bring me through.  And I thought, “What if I’m one of Job’s kids?  They don’t make it to the end of the story.”  Rather than being at the center of the narrative of God, I began to feel like I had been moved to the periphery—like I got next week’s script, and they were writing my character out of the show.  C’mon, right?  It’s cancer…everybody gets cancer nowadays.  Get over it, kid.  I know.  But, what can I say?  It was different when it was me.

I used to get pretty severe earaches as a kid—lots of them—, and I can remember how long the nights seemed when I felt the throbbing of the pain in my ear every second of every hour.  In many ways cancer treatment felt like that.  It felt like a seven month long night, and I looked for God and God’s will everywhere, and saw neither.

I wanted to be a witness, but it seemed like nobody needed my testimony.  I wanted some enlightenment that would give my suffering a purpose, but every interpretation I offered proved to be presumptuous.  I wanted to have a changed perspective on the world and life that was positive and life-affirming, but I was getting more and more depressed.  I had moments with God that were precious, but my faith in God slowly changed.  I continued to trust that God would accomplish God’s will and that God will fulfill God’s promises.  But, I no longer trusted God to protect me from that which I feared.  I trusted God eschatologically, but I no longer trusted God today.  My early return to Calvinistic determinism was deteriorating into deism, at best, and practical agnosticism at worst.

I gradually realized that, for me, the best way theologically to survive the dark night of chemotherapy and cancer was to stop reflecting on it and start concentrating on the task ahead.  I just pretended that my faith in God was the same during this time as it had been before.  I talked about God’s provision and strength; I continued to work as a full-time pastor, even twice going on youth retreats the day after a chemo treatment; and I focused on the moments…chemo today, youth group tomorrow, preaching on Sunday, dad’s coming this weekend, gotta stay positive for the church people, for my parents, for my wife.

But, then chemo ended, and they told me that I was in remission.  I began getting quarterly scans to determine whether the cancer would return, and I settled back into life.  But, somehow, life was not the same.  Where I had been optimistic, energetic, and full of life, I now was fearful, nervous, and empty.  I left the church I had ministered in for the previous four years, and I moved to Kansas City to continue my seminary education at Nazarene Theological Seminary.  But, I didn’t even want to start that, so for the first year I
volunteered at a church I knew was dying a slow death.  It felt safer somehow.  It was in that context, that I started really to reflect on my experience and attempt to understand it.

During my last month at the church in Chicago, before I moved to Kansas City, an older gentleman from the church had asked my wife, Jennifer and I to come to his house.  During that meeting he told me that God had told him that I had been given cancer as discipline and warning from God.  He had some specific things that he felt God was warning me about, but I sat there in the conversation almost complacent.  One more chemotherapy drug, one more hurt, one more betrayal.  His was the only critical comment I received as I said goodbye to friends and colleagues, but I carried his words with me.

Perhaps that’s why, when I attempted to reflect on my experience with cancer a year or so later, I asked myself, “Was there any measure of discipline in that experience?”  I am unprepared to discern the exact way in which each of the experiences of our lives connect with God’s Sovereignty and Providence, though, with James Arminius, I am convinced that they do connect.  Consequently, my question was not, did God give me cancer? or did God intend me to get cancer?  Rather, I began to consider how God had used the cancer in my life, and gradually, I began to feel as though my rather abrupt friend had been at least partially correct.

Slowly, over the course of my young life, God had ceased to be a Person to me and had become a concept…an idea I was attempting to grasp and live out of.  When I felt my call to ministry, God was as real to me as any person sitting in this room.  But, as I graduated from college, entered full-time ministry, and began to see some quantifiable fruits of my ministry, God became sort of like the wallpaper on my laptop—God was never out of sight, but I really believed, when it all came down to it, that life and ministry were, for all practical purposes, entirely in my hands—God was just window dressing.

I believed hypothetically that God might show up at any moment, that Christ might return, that fire might fall from heaven, or that I might meet a divine messenger on the way to church, but I didn’t really believe such things.  God did God’s thing and I did mine, and I’d only find out the difference (if there was such a thing) and the concurrence at the last day (if I even found out then).

My initial experience with cancer confirmed these convictions.  God didn’t heal me miraculously; I was healed through medicine.  I didn’t have any outstanding opportunities to witness that had any reasonable chance of bearing fruit.  At first I thought I was spared the worst side-effects of chemotherapy, but by the time I hit my fifth treatment the psychological side-effects were causing me to vomit and panic just in walking into the cancer center.  I was alone.  I was willing to accept the reality of God, but that reality had very little to do with my practical life.  God’s teaching had an impact on the way I chose to live, but it was my choice.  God was either a passive participant or perhaps even a disconnected observer.

As I reflected (and continue to reflect) on my journey with cancer, I realize that my feeling of isolation and loneliness had a very positive consequence.  I had ceased to think of God as a concept, and I was becoming desperate to encounter God as a Person—a feeling I had not felt since high school.  I had heeded the voices in my academic training that said that young Christians and children seek ‘experiences’ of God; mature Christians realize that such experiences are emotionally charged, deceptive, and far too intermittent to build a faith on.  However, none of that rational and practical advice meant anything to me anymore.  I wasn’t interested any longer in a theory, or in an ethic, or even in a community—I was interested in God.  As a side, that very individualistic and even self-centered desire, curiously, has led me deeper into theology, ethical living, and Christian community than has ever been true of me in the past.

What have been the results?  I remember just last year sitting in a class with Dr. Henry Spaulding in which one of the authors we were reading began to speak of criteria by which we can evaluate whether a concept is a concept of God or not.  My shift from God as theory to God as Person, pushed me to question that line of thought.  A Person is not logical, predictable, or even, in many ways, quantifiable.  A person is whatever that person is and any definition must be curtailed by the reality of the individual.  I want to know God as God is, not as my philosophy, theology, sociology, psychology, or even cosmology tells me that God should be.  I’ve given up trying to predict God’s behavior with sophisticated algorithms and projections—read, theology and doctrine.  I want to know God…even if God is a monster by human evaluative standards, I want to know God.

Now, I’m not saying that this is the right approach, but I am convinced now that there is something right about it.  I no longer feel qualified to say with absolute certainty what is true about God beyond the often ambiguous narratives and teachings in the canonical Christian Bible.  I want to be surprised.  Honestly, who could have predicted with absolute certainty the cross given just the writings of the First Testament?  And, with all due respect to Tim LaHaye, who can really predict what will come next?

What I am becoming convinced of is this:  we have to trust God without being entirely certain of the kind of God that God is.  The evidence regarding who God is, it seems to me, could go a number of ways.  The cross is a powerful and revelatory event, as are the flood, the Canaanite genocide, and the language of final judgment.  Which of these is more reflective of the true nature of God? or are all equally revelatory?  Can we really know for sure?  Even when I testify to surviving cancer, I am painfully aware that my testimony can be offset by the countless stories of Christians who did not survive the same disease, including a woman in my own church who was diagnosed right around the time that I was.

Pre-cancer, I had constructed for myself a very safe God.  A God I understood and approved of.  A God that, curiously, looked a lot like me—but, in the words of Karl Barth, writ large.  I learned how to operate with that God because I could predict and even preach God’s responses by forecasting God’s reply based on what was consistent with God’s unchanging character—which I had all worked out, theologically, of course.  To say it another way, my theology had allowed me to control God.

After cancer, Lucy’s question in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, “Is He a safe Lion?” takes on new meaning for me.  What a wonderful response… “No, He’s not safe.  But, He is good.”  But, what does good mean?  Do I get to decide?  Does it mean that I shouldn’t die from cancer?  For me, and I recognize how controversial this is: God is either the only one who knows or the one who determines what Good really is.  Even knowing God is good doesn’t give me a clear and safe forecast for the future.  I (or perhaps we) may be the context in which I come to know God, but I no longer believe that I am the medium through which God is known any more than I determine who my wife, in reality, is simply through my perceptions of her.

I do believe now that God used my cancer to discipline my arrogance.  When my experience suggested that God no longer fit in the box I had built for God, then I might have been tempted to build another box, perhaps a larger box, more theologically and philosophically sophisticated.  And I have, to some extent, endeavored to do that.  But, more than all that, I am attempting now to conceive of a box that is open and made of a more flexible material than wood, steel, or stone.

I believe that the Scriptures themselves—particularly if one is willing to encounter all the Bible, and not carefully selected sections, on its own terms—embrace such a paradoxically fixed and fluid understanding of God.  Habakkuk wrestles with God because God has determined to do something in his time that he, prior to this recent revelation, would have thought to be completely inconsistent with God’s character.  Similarly, the apostle Paul, on the road to Damascus, was surprised to discover that he had been persecuting the God he thought he had been serving.  Revelation even suggests, metaphorically of course, that the humility, weakness, and mercy of the cross will be translated into a battle in which the blood of the wicked runs knee deep.

If my understanding of my journey with cancer can benefit anyone other than me, and it is possible that it cannot, then I offer it to you now as a voice amidst the many voices that have shaped and are shaping your worldview and your living.  I needed to be reminded that God is not safe.  If I have learned this lesson well, I hope that I have begun to move to that next critical step of faith and say, despite some powerful evidence at times, that God is good.  Standing at the foot of the cross, it must have been hard to believe that that sweating, bleeding, moaning, dying, and apparently powerless human being was, periphrastically in the words of Athanasius, simultaneously holding together the entirety of the cosmos.  Cancer has allowed me to accept that God, as I experience God, will not always look like God—at least, not according to my criteria.  In that way, all of life on this side of eternity is lived in the shadow of the cross.

But, even in the darkness of doubt and despair, I am choosing to believe that this image not only reveals, but also conceals the truth.  The disciples witnessed the Resurrected and Ascended Christ, and they experienced the fire falling on Pentecost.  The evidence, at times in our history, seems to countermand their testimony.  But, with the thief on the cross, I am asked to believe in more than my eyes can see.  Cancer brought me back to the cross and challenged me to believe in a dying Lord, not just in the resurrected Christ.  Perhaps this is why it is so important that we remember in our celebration of the Lord’s Supper, Christ’s death until He returns.

If life and experience have threatened to shipwreck your faith, I pray that you will find the strength and hope to believe, whatever the present evidence may be.

Blessings,

J. Thomas Johnson

P.S.  I routinely read blog posts by people wrestling with life-threatening illness, and the following post by Andy Root of Princeton Theological Seminary was particularly poignant in regard to a very human Christian response to cancer.  He’s uses some foul language near the end that I wouldn’t condone, but I do understand the sentiment.  Here’s the link:  http://www.jakebouma.com/andy-root-on-cancer-theology/.

The Chosenness of Israel and the Interpretation of Scripture – Part 7 (“The Art of Reading Scripture,” Thesis #9)

Summary of the Five Previous Blogs in This Series

(This summary is for those who have not been reading along or who would benefit from a review.  If you’re already abreast of the conversation thus far, simply skip down to the section following the part 7 subtitle.)

Essentially, in this series of blogs I have been arguing, in accord with T. F. Torrance‘s The Mediation of Christ, that the chosenness of Israel extends to more than simply understanding Israel as a repository of salvation history or sacred texts.  Rather, I have maintained that the living, thought, and narrative world of Israel, as it had been shaped by Israel’s unique history with God, is as necessary for the revelation of God to humanity as the texts that have been preserved in what is now called the Scriptural canon.

As I brought these observations into conversation with George Lindbeck‘s “The Story Shaped Church” in the second part of the series, I noted that Lindbeck argued that the Church should be understood to be Israel in the time between the times.  I disagreed with Lindbeck on that point and concluded instead that the Christian Church may appropriately be understood as a believing remnant within Israel.

In part three of the series, I attempted to bring Brevard Childs‘s Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture into the discussion.  With Childs I maintained that the First Testament should be recognized as the theologically interpreted history of the Israelite people that has been worked and re-worked as a multi-generational endeavor for which God gave Israel a unique responsibility.  The First Testament is the nation of Israel and the nation of Israel is the First Testament–the two grew up together, interpenetrated each other, and cannot be understood apart from one another.

In week four, I began a series of interactions with the compilation The Art of Reading Scripture which has been edited by Ellen Davis and Richard Hays.  That was the first of a series of blogs in which I intend to critique constructively a selection of theses from the introductory article “Nine Theses on the Interpretation of Scripture,” by The Scripture Project–namely, theses 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, and 9.

In part four of the series I interacted with thesis number 3, which read:

3. Faithful interpretation of Scripture requires an engagement with the entire narrative:  the New Testament cannot be rightly understood apart from the Old, nor can the Old be rightly understood apart from the New (The Scripture Project, “Nine Theses on the Interpretation of Scripture,” The Art of Reading Scripture, 2).

After highlighting some points of agreement, I went on to argue that it is not simply the First Testament which must be the context in which Jesus is understood.  We must situate Jesus within the First Testament as it had been interpreted by the larger Jewish culture of Jesus’ day.  I maintained that this implies, at the least, that we read and interpret Jesus in the context of the Apocrypha, the Pseudepigrapha, Jewish writers even of the like of Philo, the portions of the Talmud associated with the time periods prior to C. E. 70, and so on alongside of the First and New Testaments.

In week 5’s installment, I wrestled with The Scripture Project‘s thesis number 4, which read:

4. Texts of Scripture do not have a single meaning limited to the intent of the original author.  In accord with Jewish and Christian traditions, we affirm that Scripture has multiple complex senses given by God, the author of the whole drama (The Scripture Project, 2).

Ultimately, I agreed that the writers and editors of Scripture gave new contexts and senses to earlier traditions.  In fact, I have maintained throughout this series of blogs that that was part of what Israel was elected and inspired to do.  However, I argued that this observation has not authorized the post-Apostolic, principally gentile, Christian community to do likewise.  Even in the wake of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the Christian community, I contended that we need to distinguish our inspiration from that of the historic people of Israel.

In last week’s engagement (part 6), I interacted with The Scripture Project‘s theses #6, 7, & 8, which read in the following way:

6. Faithful interpretation of Scripture invites and presupposes participation in the community brought into being by God’s redemptive action–the church.

7. The saints of the church provide guidance in how to interpret and perform Scripture.

8. Christians need to read the Bible in dialogue with diverse others outside the church (The Scripture Project, 3-4).

In response to these three theses, I provided three cautions.  First, I maintained that Christians are not first Wesleyans, Calvinists, Arminians, Pentecostals, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or whatever other designation we often think of when we think of our particular Christian communities.  Christians are followers of Jesus and His Apostles, followers of a Jewish Messiah, followers of the God of Israel who became flesh in the Person of Jesus.  We gentiles have become co-heirs with Israel.  This is who we now are.

Second, I maintained that our study of exemplary European followers of Jesus should be read within the context of the people of Israel.  In other words, the readings, interpretations, and performances of gentile saints of the church should be, in my estimation, subordinated to the living context of Israel in order to allow Jewish culture to reveal distortions in gentile readings of Scripture.

And third, I insisted that Christian-Jewish dialogue from a Christian perspective should be seen as an intra-community conversation and not as an inter-community dialogue.  Consequently, I argued that Christian-Jewish dialogue is a categorically different engagement than a Christian confrontation with Buddhism, for example.

The Chosenness of Israel and the Interpretation of Scripture Part 7: Wrestling with Thesis #9

I trust that this lengthy overview has brought us all up to date on the conversation thus far.  The present blog will constitute the final in this series.  Whatever conversation develops from here, I hope will be instigated by you with comments, either critical or clarifying.  In any case, this week I will wrestle with the language of The Scripture Project‘s thesis #9, which read as follows:

9. We live in the tension between the “already” and the “not yet” of the kingdom of God; consequently, Scripture calls the church to ongoing discernment, to continually fresh rereadings of the text in light of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in the world (The Scripture Project, 5).

My first response to the language of this thesis is not a criticism precisely, but rather a constructive contribution.  This idea of living in the time between the times, ‘in the tension between the already and the not yet’, in the reality often termed inaugurated eschatology in theological circles often fails to appreciate a significant Hebraic conceptuality which I believe undergirds the biblical language that has given rise to it.

A few weeks ago, I attempted to initiate a dialogue along these lines in response to a blog posting by Everett Berry, entitled “Inaugurated Eschatology and Holiness: Is There a Link?”  My comment was approved, but to this point I have not received a response.  Perhaps this blog posting will help to initiate that conversation by providing a practical, theological application of what I have been suggesting throughout this series of blogs–namely, that we attempt to allow Hebrew culture to be the space in which a Christian reading of Scripture and Christian theology are worked out.

So, let us begin at the beginning.  What is at stake in The Scripture Project‘s insistence that ‘We live in the tension between the already and the not yet’?  Most Protestant theologians today use this language to describe a previously unanticipated reality that the events of Jesus’s life and the successive history of the Church has thrust upon us.

Prior to the Incarnation–that is, the event of God becoming flesh in the person of Jesus, the Messiah–it appears that Jewish eschatology assumed that the present age would come to an abrupt, and quite violent, end in the events surrounding what the prophets often termed the Day of the LORD.  Those events would then, presumably, usher in a new age in which Israel would be re-established, the gentile nations would be subdued by Israel and become something like vassal states or commonwealths to the Israelite capital, the Covenant of Sinai would be renewed, this time to incorporate gentile nations within its charter, and the peace of the LORD would be established on earth.

However, when God came in the flesh in the Person of Jesus and the Day of the LORD presumably dawned, the timeline did not unfold as the extent Jewish sources to which we have access seem to have predicted.  In fact, the Day of the LORD was revealed to be an extended period of time.  Instead of simply dawning and resulting in the end of the old age, it was a day which proved in fact to be bracketed by two comings of God.  The first of these comings was the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.  The second, according to New Testament apocalyptic passages such those found in the book of Revelation, will be the return of Jesus at the end of this age.

This dual-coming of God resulted in a gap between comings.  Some theologians believe that this gap has proven to be much longer than the New Testament writers expected it to be.  Even so, the idea of a time between the times, however brief it was expected to be, seems present in the New Testament, nonetheless.

Furthermore, the Apostolic writings seem to suggest that realities properly associated with the new age (what Revelation calls the ‘new heaven and the new earth’) have broken in to this time between the two comings of Jesus.  However, it also seems clear that the old age (the age of sin and corruption) has not been entirely evacuated.  This, to my understanding, is what The Scripture Project means to say when they confess that ‘We live in the tension between the already and the not yet of the kingdom of God’.

What I would like to contribute to this conversation is the observation that what God may have been employing in this reality we call inaugurated eschatology is perhaps the Jewish practice of a two-stage marriage.  Marvin Wilson, in his book Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith describes marriage from a first-century Jewish perspective in the following way:

In early rabbinic literature, the first part of the marriage ceremony which contractually sets the couple aside in betrothal is known as ‘kiddushin’ (or ‘qiddushin’), properly an act of “sanctification” or “consecration.”  The basic meaning behind the term ‘kiddushin’ is “be set apart,” “be holy.”

. . . .In early rabbinic literature the second part of the marriage ceremony–that which consummated the event personally and privately rather than legally–was known as ‘nissu’in’.  In modern Hebrew, ‘nissu’in’ is one of several words translated “marriage.”  ‘Nissu’in’ and the related form ‘nasu’, “married,” derive from the verb ‘nasa’, “to lift up,” “to bear,” “to carry” (Wilson, Our Father Abraham, 205, 213).

Both of these ‘stages’ of intimacy were properly marriage from this perspective.  Unfaithfulness, even in the act of having sexual relations with each other, during kiddushin was considered adultery by the early rabbinic tradition.  Kiddushin set the couple apart to one another, but the husband was not yet to take his wife to live with him, nor were they to consummate the relationship during this stage of the marriage.  The husband was to go and finish preparations for a way of supporting his future family, as well as preparing a place in which he and his wife would one day live.  Only after these preparations were complete was the relationship consummated in nissu’in, the lifting up.

It seems most likely to me that this time between the times in which we, as Christians, now live is best explained as the space between kiddushin and nissu’in.  The New Testament language of presently being ‘set apart to God’, of being ‘the bride of Christ’, as well as Jesus’ own insistence that he was ‘going to prepare a place’ for His followers, all seem to be contextualized in the insistence that what it means to follow Jesus in this time between the times is to enter into kiddushin with Him–the first stage of marriage.  The time will come, when the bridegroom returns to take His bride to be with Him in nissu’in–the ‘lifting up’.  Now, the relationship has been initiated, then the relationship will be consummated.

My hope in that brief critical contribution is two-fold.  First, I trust that the kiddushinnissu’in dynamic will illustrate the deep Hebraicness of the teachings and promises of Jesus.  Second, I pray that we in the largely gentile Christian community will begin to speak from a Hebraic perspective utilizing conceptualities such as kiddushinnissu’in in the place of more de-contextualized philosophical constructs such as inaugurated eschatology.

Returning now to the successive language of thesis #9, in light of the tension between the already and the not yet of the kingdom of God (what I have called the reality of kiddushin and the expectation of nissu’in), The Scripture Project goes on to conclude:

. . . .consequently, Scripture calls the church to ongoing discernment, to continually fresh rereadings of the text in light of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in the world.

What I suspect beneath this language is a conceptuality that I have been trying to warn against in this blog series.  I believe that this language fails, again, to distinguish between the inspiredness of the historic people of Israel and subsequent followers of Jesus in the context of the Church.

I do agree that the Holy Spirit is still at work in the world, and that the Holy Spirit of Jesus (or of God, since some traditions prefer that language) has been poured out on the Church in quite a different manner than it had been poured out on Israel generally.  However, I remain insistent that the community of Israel was elected and inspired to reflect and re-reflect on their unique history with God in order to produce a corpus of generationally developed texts which would henceforth be authorized by God as the revelation of God to all peoples for all time.

Understood in this way, the re-readings and re-workings of biblical texts that we see evidenced throughout the history of the ancient people of Israel, up to and including the teachings of Jesus and His Apostles, came to an historical point of completion with the end of the Apostolic era.  We, of course, must read and re-read these texts.  In other words, we must not presume that a single reading has exhausted the intent and purpose of these documents.  These texts should never be replaced with creeds, doctrines, principles, or propositions.  We must continue to engage with these texts as the Holy Spirit enables us.  If this is all The Scripture Project has meant to contend, then I agree.

However, the language of ‘in light of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in the world’, combined with the later comments made in the essay under that subheading cause me to suspect that the assumption at work here is that the prophets and apostles have not simply done what they have done in Scripture on God’s behalf for us.  Rather, I suspect that this group believes that the prophets and apostles have demonstrated how this re-reading and re-working might be done, and we are then authorized to do as they did.  As should now be clear, I couldn’t disagree more.

Whatever it now means to read and interpret Scripture, I believe the endeavor must take a posture of submission to the people and culture of ancient Israel.  That people and the times in which they lived have been given a singular priority for all peoples and all times.  As difficult as such meekness may be for those of us who believe we live in far more educated, far more progressive, far more evolved, far more enlightened contexts than they did, I am arguing that God has elected those people and those times as His vessels of revelation to the rest of humanity for the rest of time.  However the Holy Spirit speaks to us, I believe He now speaks to us through them.

I do not believe that this sort of a confession necessitates the embracing of everything that these cultures presumed to be true (scientifically, philosophically, morally/ethically, and so on).  However, I do believe that this conviction requires that we submit ourselves to all that the resultant texts appear to intend to contend.  Future blogs and blog series will help to illustrate what I’m getting at here.

For now, suffice it to say that simply because Jeremiah presumably believed that the world was flat does not mean that God has authorized that cultural presumption to be authoritative for all time.  However, what I’m arguing is that all those things that Jeremiah presumed to teach on God’s behalf, all of the interpretations of Israelite history that the text of Jeremiah posits, all of the warnings and prophesies put forward in the book as we now have it, are authoritative for all peoples for all time.  To be a Christian is to sit at the footstool of the prophets and apostles of Israel, and to recognize them as God’s chosen instructors for the rest of us.

My prayer is that we in gentile Christian communities will come to recognize this God-inspired, God-authorized space of learning.  I’ll conclude this series of blogs with a final quotation from Marvin Wilson:

A study of the last nineteen hundred years reveals how the Church left its original Jewish nest and considerably distanced itself from the Semitic culture that gave it birth.  The Church paid little heed to the exhortation of Paul to continue in what it had learned and believed in the context of its Hebrew beginnings.  Rather, as it became more and more Hellenized by moving westward through the Mediterranean world, it began to be led away into strange teachings (cf. Heb. 13:9). . . .

We are still reaping the results of this severance today.  Westerners have often found themselves in the confusing situation of trying to understand a Jewish Book through the eyes of Greek culture.  This situation has led, in Dom Gregory Dix’s view, to a “spiritual schizophrenia in the process.” [citation omitted]  What is more, over the centuries, it has had detrimental and ofttimes dire consequences for the life and teachings of the Church (Wilson, 166-167).

Thanks to all who have persevered through this lengthy series with me!

Staying engaged with the conversation,

J. Thomas Johnson

The Chosenness of Israel and the Interpretation of Scripture – Part 6 (“The Art of Reading Scripture,” Theses 6,7,8)

Summary of the Five Previous Blogs in This Series

(This summary is for those who have not been reading along or who would benefit from a review.  If you’re already abreast of the conversation thus far, simply skip down to the section following the part 6 subtitle.)

Essentially, in this series of blogs I have been arguing, in accord with T. F. Torrance‘s The Mediation of Christ, that the chosenness of Israel extends to more than simply understanding Israel as a repository of salvation history or sacred texts.  Rather, I have maintained that the living, thought, and narrative world of Israel, as it had been shaped by Israel’s unique history with God, is as necessary for the revelation of God to humanity as the texts that have been preserved in what is now called the Scriptural canon.

As I brought these observations into conversation with George Lindbeck‘s “The Story Shaped Church” in the second part of the series, I noted that Lindbeck argued that the Church should be understood to be Israel in the time between the times.  I disagreed with Lindbeck on that point and concluded instead that the Christian Church may appropriately be understood as a believing remnant within Israel.

In part three of the series, I attempted to bring Brevard Childs‘s Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture into the discussion.  With Childs I maintained that the First Testament should be recognized as the theologically interpreted history of the Israelite people that has been worked and re-worked as a multi-generational endeavor for which God gave Israel a unique responsibility.  The First Testament is the nation of Israel and the nation of Israel is the First Testament–the two grew up together, interpenetrated each other, and cannot be understood apart from one another.

In week four, I began a series of interactions with the compilation The Art of Reading Scripture which has been edited by Ellen Davis and Richard Hays.  That was the first of a series of blogs in which I intend to critique constructively a selection of theses from the introductory article “Nine Theses on the Interpretation of Scripture,” by The Scripture Project–namely, theses 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, and 9.

In part four of the series I interacted with thesis number 3, which read:

3. Faithful interpretation of Scripture requires an engagement with the entire narrative:  the New Testament cannot be rightly understood apart from the Old, nor can the Old be rightly understood apart from the New (The Scripture Project, “Nine Theses on the Interpretation of Scripture,” The Art of Reading Scripture, 2).

After highlighting some points of agreement, I went on to argue that it is not simply the First Testament which must be the context in which Jesus is understood.  We must situate Jesus within the First Testament as it had been interpreted by the larger Jewish culture of Jesus’ day.  I maintained that this implies, at the least, that we read and interpret Jesus in the context of the Apocrypha, the Pseudepigrapha, Jewish writers even of the like of Philo, the portions of the Talmud associated with the time periods prior to C. E. 70, and so on alongside of the First and New Testaments.

In last week’s installment (part 5), I wrestled with The Scripture Project‘s thesis number 4, which read:

4. Texts of Scripture do not have a single meaning limited to the intent of the original author.  In accord with Jewish and Christian traditions, we affirm that Scripture has multiple complex senses given by God, the author of the whole drama (The Scripture Project, 2).

Ultimately, I agreed that the writers and editors of Scripture gave new contexts and senses to earlier traditions.  In fact, I have maintained throughout this series of blogs that that was part of what Israel was elected and inspired to do.  However, I argued that this observation has not authorized the post-Apostolic, principally gentile, Christian community to do likewise.  Even in the wake of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the Christian community, I contended that we need to distinguish our inspiration from that of the historic people of Israel.

The Chosenness of Israel and the Interpretation of Scripture Part 6: Wrestling with Theses #6, 7, & 8

So, that summary should bring us all up to date.  For this week’s blog I will wrestle with the language of The Scripture Project‘s theses #’s 6, 7, and 8, which read as follows:

6. Faithful interpretation of Scripture invites and presupposes participation in the community brought into being by God’s redemptive action–the church.

7. The saints of the church provide guidance in how to interpret and perform Scripture.

8. Christians need to read the Bible in dialogue with diverse others outside the church (The Scripture Project, 3-4).

Perhaps after arguing what I have argued for the previous five blogs in this series on the chosenness of Israel, you might be able to predict my response to this series of three propositions.  However, I also recognize the need for carefulness in this week’s discussion.  As pivotal as the historic people of Israel are for a proper reading of Christian Scripture, I actually have no interest in simply setting aside the hermeneutical (or interpretive) significance of Church history.

It is true that I want to advise cautiousness in the way in which we approach Church history and the lives and teachings of significant, principally European, followers of Jesus.  But I am convinced that we need to dialogue with the history and traditions of European, overwhelmingly gentile, Christianity.  Permit me to flesh some of this out.

Thesis #6 has said:

6. Faithful interpretation of Scripture invites and presupposes participation in the community brought into being by God’s redemptive action–the church.

I think that what’s at the heart of The Scripture Project‘s contention here is that Scripture is not read appropriately in isolation from living involvement in Christian community.  Fundamentally, I agree with this assertion.  The Scriptures are not simply documents to be perused, or ancient texts in which one should endeavor to become expert in reading or dissecting.  The Scriptures are to be embodied.  And though study may help us to discern how to live in light of the Scriptures, living in light of the Scriptures also informs our reading of them.  In other words, the Scriptures are best interpreted by those wrestling to live in submission to them in the midst of a community of people doing likewise.

The only addition that I would suggest for this thesis is that the community in which these texts are read, interpreted, and embodied should see itself as properly situated within the larger people of Israel.  In my view, any Christian community that isolates itself from that context, has cut themselves off from the nourishing sap of the Olive Root which supports them (see Romans 11:1-27).

We can begin this process of re-imagining Christian community through an intentional engagement with Jewish culture and sources from the first century C. E. and before (as I’ve advised previously).  But perhaps also, at the very least, our Christian communities, particularly those who are primarily gentile in composition, should seek contact and communion with the congregations of Messianic Judaism (e.g., The Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations, The Association of Messianic Jewish Congregations, The International Alliance of Messianic Congregations and Synagogues, etc.).

Christians are not first Wesleyans, Calvinists, Arminians, Pentecostals, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or whatever other designation we often think of when we think of our particular Christian communities.  Christians are followers of Jesus and His Apostles, followers of a Jewish Messiah, followers of the God of Israel who became flesh in the Person of Jesus.  We, gentile Christians, are wild olive shoots that have been grafted into the Olive Tree of Israel through our faith in this Jewish Messiah who has brought the salvation of God to all nations of the earth.  We have been grafted into Israel.  Once we were not a people–i.e., gentiles–but now we have become the people of God.  We gentiles have become co-heirs with Israel.  This is who we now are.

Thesis number 7 has stated:

7. The saints of the church provide guidance in how to interpret and perform Scripture.

I want to be careful with my comments here, but I also need to be candid.  I fully believe that the Holy Spirit has been poured out on Christian community and has been working in and through the Christian Church throughout its history.  But I also recognize that much of European Christianity has been saturated, whether consciously or unconsciously, by a systemic anti-Semitism (see, Chapter 7 of Marvin Wilson’s Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith).

I am not opposed to idea that the saints of the church might provide guidance in the reading, interpreting, and performing of Scripture.  However, I believe that our study of these persons should be read within the context of the people of Israel.  In other words, the readings, interpretations, and performances of gentile saints of the church should be, in my estimation, subordinated to the living context of Israel.  Perhaps by situating Christian history in this context, we might allow Jewish culture to reveal distortions in gentile readings of Scripture.

For example, much of European Christian practice historically has emphasized a strict control over the emotions, particularly those emotions considered to be dark or brooding.  Marvin Wilson has contrasted that mentality with that of Hebraic culture in the following passage.  I should admit that some of the expectations Wilson delineates are a bit dated (he was writing originally in the 80’s), but I think the contrast still speaks.

Modern man [sic] in the Western world thinks he has an image to defend.  He is supposed to be macho and keep his cool.  He is expected to be made of steel, always in control.  He does not allow himself to become vulnerable by revealing much of his emotions.  It is usually considered unmanly for him to cry.  Yet Jesus, the exemplary man, wept (Luke 19:41; John 11:35).  This display of emotion was in sharp contrast to the Greco-Roman world of the Stoics, who sought to be indifferent to pleasure or pain; they were determined never to submit or yield; they were resolved to overcome their emotions and desires.  The Hebrews, however, were a very passionate people; they did not hide or suppress their emotions.

The Hebrews–both men and women–were able to affirm their full humanity.  They gave vent unashamedly to their feelings, for each emotion had “a time” appropriate for its expression: being angry, crying, laughing, singing, feasting, dancing, hand clapping, shouting, embracing, and loving (see Eccl. 3:1-8). . . .The book of Psalms–particularly those penned by David–allows us to peer into some of the deepest emotional crevices of the human heart.  And in our recitation of them, the Psalms provide a vehicle for us to express our own emotions before God (Wilson, Our Father Abraham, 139-140).

Some Psalms, for instance, have proven especially difficult for European Christians, particularly those which pour out curses on enemies–usually called imprecatory Psalms.  In my own Wesleyan tradition, we are frequently told that when John Wesley put together a collection of Psalms for American Methodists, he edited out this sort of language because “he regarded it as unfit for Christian worshippers” (see, e.g., http://www.laudemont.org/a-ptsoi.htm).

Some of this difficulty, no doubt, stems from the teachings of Jesus regarding our treatment of enemies.  But, I believe that Wilson has revealed that the difficulty has been compounded by the more gentile context in which Jesus’ teachings have been read and interpreted in gentile Christian communities.  The saints can provide guidance, but we must first allow Israel to inform our reading of them.

Finally, thesis 8 has stated:

8. Christians need to read the Bible in dialogue with diverse others outside the church.

In The Scripture Project‘s successive explication of this thesis, they confess that “Christians need to read Scripture in respectful conversation with Jews,. . . .” (The Scripture Project, 4).  However, they include the Jewish people in the larger body of ‘others’ who should rightly be considered outside of the church.

In some ways, we certainly must argue that the larger portion of ethnic Israel, insofar as it has rejected Jesus as Messiah and the incarnation of God, is outside of Christian community.  However, I have argued that the Christian community must see itself as a believing remnant within Israel.  At the very least, this should distinguish our conversations with Jewish people from those with others ‘outside’ of the church.

But, I would also further insist that Christian-Jewish dialogue from a Christian perspective should be seen as an intra-community conversation and not an inter-community dialogue.  In other words, when we converse with the Jewish people, we are conversing with a people who claim to be part of Israel–part of the very people with whom we identify.  Consequently, I would argue that Christian-Jewish dialogue is a categorically different engagement than a Christian confrontation with Buddhism, for example.

Well, this has been a long article, and I need to bring this portion of our conversation to some sort of conclusion.  As I have so often in this series, I will conclude with a quotation from Marvin Wilson:

These authors, in both Old and New Testaments, find their primary orientation in the Semitic culture of the East.  Accordingly, we have argued that Christianity does not derive from pagan, Hellenistic sources, or from speculative worldviews.  Neither is it a syncretistic religion deeply rooted in mystery cults, Gnostic sects, naturalistic philosophies, or polytheistic thought.  Rather, the Christian faith is divinely revealed and is securely anchored in the Hebrew Bible–the Law, Prophets, and Writings.  God breathed his word into the minds of the biblical authors within a Jewish cultural environment.  Consequently, for us, in the most succinct terms, “to ignore Hebraic ways of thinking is to subvert Christian understanding” [citation omitted] (Wilson, 135). 

Staying engaged with the conversation,

J. Thomas Johnson

The Chosenness of Israel and the Interpretation of Scripture – Part 5 (Davis & Hays’s “The Art of Reading Scripture”)

Summary of the Four Previous Blogs in This Series

Essentially, in this series of blogs I have been arguing, in accord with T. F. Torrance’s The Mediation of Christ, that the chosenness of Israel extends to more than simply understanding Israel as a repository of salvation history or sacred texts.  Rather, I have maintained that the living, thought, and narrative world of Israel, as it had been shaped by Israel’s unique history with God, is as necessary for the revelation of God to humanity as the texts that have been preserved in what is now called the Scriptural canon.

As I brought these observations into conversation with George Lindbeck’s “The Story Shaped Church” in the second part of the series, I noted that Lindbeck argued that the Church should be understood to be Israel in the time between the times.  I disagreed with Lindbeck on that point and concluded instead that the Christian Church may appropriately be understood as a believing remnant within Israel.

In part three of the series, I attempted to bring Brevard Childs’s Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture into the discussion.  With Childs I maintained that the First Testament should be recognized as the theologically interpreted history of the Israelite people that has been worked and re-worked as a multi-generational endeavor for which God gave Israel a unique responsibility.  The First Testament is the nation of Israel and the nation of Israel is the First Testament–the two grew up together, interpenetrated each other, and cannot be understood apart from one another.

Finally, in last week’s segment I began a series of interactions with the compilation The Art of Reading Scripture which has been edited by Ellen Davis and Richard Hays.  That was the first of a series of blogs in which I intend to critique constructively a selection of theses from the introductory article “Nine Theses on the Interpretation of Scripture,” by The Scripture Project–namely, theses 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, and 9.

In the last blog I interacted with thesis number 3, which read:

3. Faithful interpretation of Scripture requires an engagement with the entire narrative:  the New Testament cannot be rightly understood apart from the Old, nor can the Old be rightly understood apart from the New (The Scripture Project, “Nine Theses on the Interpretation of Scripture,” The Art of Reading Scripture, 2).

After highlighting some points of agreement, I went on to argue that it is not simply the First Testament which must be the context in which Jesus is understood.  We must situate Jesus within the First Testament as it had been interpreted by the larger Jewish culture of Jesus’ day.  I maintained that this implies, at the least, that we read and interpret Jesus in the context of the Apocrypha, the Pseudepigrapha, Jewish writers even of the like of Philo, the portions of the Talmud associated with the time periods prior to C. E. 70, and so on alongside of the First and New Testaments.

Wrestling with Thesis #4

So, that’s where we’ve been.  For this week’s blog I will wrestle with the language of The Scripture Project‘s thesis #4, which reads as follows:

4. Texts of Scripture do not have a single meaning limited to the intent of the original author.  In accord with Jewish and Christian traditions, we affirm that Scripture has multiple complex senses given by God, the author of the whole drama (The Scripture Project, 2).

When I read this sort of a contention regarding Christian Scripture I get a bit unsettled.  Now, it’s not that I disagree with the language precisely or even the underlying conceptuality.  For instance, it seems hard to argue that the idea of God becoming flesh and entering the human world through the womb of a virgin was what Isaiah had in mind when he prophesied:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.  Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel (New Revised Standard Version, Isaiah 7:14).

The Hebrew of Isaiah, as many have observed, did not necessarily refer to a woman who had never had intercourse.  It more naturally referred to a woman who had not yet given birth to a child.  And, furthermore, the ensuing context of Isaiah indicates that this prophesy was fulfilled in the context of Isaiah and King Ahaz’s immediate future.  The natural reading of Isaiah indicates that this was a near prophesy volunteered by God in response to King Ahaz’s refusal to do as he was commanded–that is, God had commanded him to ask for a sign.  The fulfillment of the sign was intended to be for Ahaz.  In all likelihood, Isaiah seems to have been satisfied with the fulfillment he witnessed.  There simply is no reason in a plain reading of the text to believe that this prophetic word had any other meaning or any other referent.

However, once the events of Jesus’ life had unfolded, the Gospel writers seem to have returned to Isaiah–this time probably relying on the Greek translation which used a word that usually did mean virgin.  It would appear that it was only in hindsight that the Apostolic writers realized that Isaiah’s prophecy had another, somewhat hidden meaning.  As I have said, it would be difficult to argue that Isaiah intended this Christological implication.  In these sorts of instances, The Scripture Project‘s insistence that the meaning of Scripture cannot be discovered solely in the intention of the author but that Scripture has multiple possible meanings, some of which have been incorporated by God, makes a good deal of sense.

However, again, it is the way in which this statement seems to fail to appreciate the distinctions between texts in the Christian canon that makes me somewhat uneasy.  I have already revealed my affinity for Brevard Childs and his canonical approach to the reading and interpreting of Scripture.  However, the recognition of canonical priority must not be permitted to homogonize what is really a diverse collection of writings, particularly as we dissect the very different histories that gave rise to the First Testament and the New Testament respectively.

I hesitate to get into a discussion of genre for a couple of reasons.  First, I fear that the Western European/American dependence on genre distinctions for literary criticism may introduce quite a number of foreign assumptions to the more Hebraic writings of Scripture.  And second, once the issue of genre is introduced a great number of scholars seem convinced that a text can’t even be read without first discovering which literary category each pericope should rightly be indexed under.  I see value in these conversations to a degree, but I am not attempting to bring those debates into this context.

Instead, I want to sketch some slightly broader ‘genre’ strokes, here.  I should probably begin by saying that there appears to be quite a large distinction between the First Testament and the New Testament in regard to the apparent openness to multiple meanings that go beyond what might be called a plain reading of a given text.  And I’ll return to this substantial distinction momentarily.

However, let me begin by arguing that even the First Testament is not treated simply as a respository of possible hidden meanings generally by the Apostolic writers.  In fact, with very few exceptions, the texts that the writers of the New Testament seem to have re-interpreted were nearly always either prophetic texts in which the final form of the text in question implied that the words recorded were nearly dictated to the speaker by God or they came from poetic texts (like the Psalms) which, by their very nature, are quite open-ended in their details and applications.

In the context of the Isaiah passage that we discussed earlier, Isaiah simply said what God told him to say to Ahaz.  There’s no need to hypothesize an intention for Isaiah, since the words were not his and the intention was that of the God who told him what to say.  Those passages are the most common ones in which we find New Testament writers uncovering concealed meanings which found their fullness in Jesus.  All one needs to make room for in such instances is that God intended more than Isaiah or the other characters could comprehend.

The New Testament’s various uses of the Hebrew Psalter are somewhat more difficult to quantify.  Certainly the Psalmists had intentions when they wrote, but then again, these are poems, songs of praise, theological attempts to wrestle with or to confess Torah sometimes in spite of the evidence.  Furthermore, though the Hebrew scribes often tried to guide our readings by associating Psalms with various writers and circumstances, for the most part the occasion of the writings of many Psalms have been obscured.  The Jewish culture of Jesus’ day seems to have embraced the idea that many of the Psalms functioned in ways similar to prophetic sections of the First Testament.  It would appear that the Apostolic writers had similar interpretive presuppositions.

Genesis is perhaps another exception, but I’m still convinced that the New Testament’s use of Genesis is more tied to the events themselves that we often find in prophesies or Psalms.  Paul certainly believed, for instance, that the language of Genesis which used a singular descriptor for Abraham’s offspring was a veiled prophecy of Jesus.  That certainly qualifies as a veiled meaning which is quite hard to believe was in view of the author(s) and/or editor(s) of Genesis at any point of the book’s historical development.  But, again, the particular language that Paul was discussing referenced words that proceeded from the mouth of God directly.  Paul may have simply been arguing that God chose His words carefully so as to be faithful to what He intended to do.

In any case, the point here is that many texts and passages of the First Testament do not appear to have had these sorts of ‘hidden meanings’ for the Apostolic writers–at least, not in the way we’ve been talking about to this point.  It seems that First Testament texts which were simply narrating or interpreting historical events rarely if ever were read in these ways.

What I’m suggesting is that it is the language of God in the First Testament that often proves to have been multifaceted for the Apostolic writers.  And it seems to me that it would be an oversimplification to say that the First Testament or the Apostolic authors present all the material in the First Testament as the language of God, specifically–that is, dictated words.  God may prove to have meant more than the original audience could comprehend, but that is not true of all of the writers and editors of the First Testament generally.  At least, that’s what I’m arguing here.

When we move to the New Testament, these distinctions become much more important, for me for a number of reasons.  First, let me observe that whereas the First Testament often obscures the kinds of details we might require to determine authors, occasions for writing, audiences, and so on, the New Testament often gives us precisely these details.  To approach Deuteronomy (see last week’s blog) in precisely the same way that we approach 1 Corinthians, for example, seems irresponsible to me.  1 Corinthians seems to intend us to have information that Deuteronomy has not–e.g., the author, the audience, some details regarding the occassion for writing, and so on.

To approach these texts in their final form (as Childs and The Scripture Project both seem to advise), must also imply that we should appreciate the distinctiveness of their respective presentations.  In other words, it seems to me that Paul’s intention in writing 1 Corinthians is both more accessible and more necessary for our reading than that of the writer(s) and/or editor(s) of Deuteronomy, precisely because Deuteronomy obscures these details where 1 Corinthians puts them on display.  I hope that makes some sort of sense.

Furthermore, and this is my primary concern with the language of thesis #5, I again want to insist that we need to distinguish between the election of Israel in terms of inspiration and revelation and that of the post-Apostolic Church.  I’m convinced that the cessation of the Covenant of Sinai that was precipitated by the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 C. E. brought the historic nation of Israel as a people endeavoring to be faithful to Torah to an end.  From that point on faithfulness to Torah, from a Jewish perspective, had to be radically reinterpreted.

I have suggested in this series of blogs that the election of the inspired community of Israel which God set apart to be the vessels of His revelation–a community that included Jesus and His Apostles–has come to a historic end.  The Jewish people still persist, of course, but their capacity as revealers of God who could live and write inspired texts was tied to Torah and to the presence of God in their midst in the context of Torah and Tabernacle/Temple, in my view, anyway.

What is important to me in this respect is the contention that the closing of the New Testament canon which seems to have prioritized the writings of the Apostolic era above all later writings of the Church might be seen to reveal a recognition of the Fathers of the Church that the elected era of God’s inspiration and revelation which gave rise to a community who wrote, re-wrote, edited, and generationally produced a set of texts now sacred for all believers had come to an end in the first century C. E.

The implication of this line of thought is that we are simply no longer free to speculate about God’s veiled intentions in the Church the way Israel was.  What that elected people has given to us, now must be read for what it appears to have contended–for its plain sense.  Certainly where the Apostolic or Prophetic writers saw veiled meanings, we should presume and embrace their authority to re-visit the words of God in authoritative ways, but I would suggest we should not presume that we have been given the authority or the inspiration to do likewise.  I believe a cursory survey of post-Apostolic Christian history should more than suffice to show the value and wisdom of this sort of a contention.

Now that, of course, is not to say that Scripture does not have multiple possible meanings.  Let’s face it, even attempting to exegete the plain meaning of these texts still often produces a multitude of possible meanings in many instances.  I am not here arguing that Christians will be able to say with certainty in every context what a passage meant or means.  But, I am convinced that our task is to wrestle with the plain sense of the text which in some circumstances necessitates that the meaning be limited to the intent of the original author–particularly in texts which intentionally reveal the author and that author’s credentials.

The Scripture Project goes on to write the following:

The authors and editors of the canonical texts repeatedly gave new contexts and senses to earlier traditions, thereby initiating the process of discerning multiple senses within the text.  The medieval “fourfold sense” is a helpful reminder of Scripture’s multivalence.  The church’s traditions of bliblical interpretation offer models and guidance about how the fuller sense of Scripture should be understood (The Scripture Project, 3).

John J. O’Keefe and R. R. Reno in writing about this idea of the ‘multivalence’ of the text in the Patristic Fathers, wrote the following in their book Sanctified Vision:

Thus, for the church fathers, what Scripture does in any particular verse or episode, which may entail presuming reference to historical events or intentions or theological ideas, was very much a matter of debate.  However, Origen and the rest of the patristic tradition presumed, as their tacit theory of scriptural meaning, the importance of the words themselves.  To know the words is prior to and more decisive than knowing if they refer and to what.  Scripture is the center of reflection.  This assumption  is the foundation of patristic exegetical practice (O’Keefe & Reno, The Sanctified Vision, 12).

I have included both of these quotations because I think they get to the heart of what I am trying to warn the Christian community against.  I agree that the writers and editors of Scripture gave new contexts and senses to earlier traditions.  In fact, I have maintained that that was part of what Israel was elected and inspired to do.  However, I do not believe that this observation somehow authorizes the post-Apostolic, principally gentile, Christian community to do likewise.  Even in the wake of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the Christian community, we should not confuse our inspiration with that of the historic people of Israel.  If O’Keefe and Reno are correct and the patristic Fathers allowed this presumption to be the foundation of their exegetical practice, then I would suggest they presumed too much.

I am much more sympathetic with Martin Luther when he wrote:

In my view, no theologian should waste time on allegories until he has become expert in the proper and simple sense of Scripture.  Otherwise, as in Origen’s case, he will endanger his theological reasoning (Martin Luther, “The Pagan Servitude of the Church,” Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, 343).

Staying engaged with the conversation…

J. Thomas Johnson

The Chosenness of Israel and the Interpretation of Scripture – Part 4 (Davis & Hays’s “The Art of Reading Scripture”)

Essentially, in this series of blogs I have been arguing, in accord with T. F. Torrance’s The Mediation of Christ, that the chosenness of Israel extends to more than simply understanding Israel as a repository of salvation history or sacred texts.  Rather, I have maintained that the living, thought, and narrative world of Israel, as it had been shaped by Israel’s unique history with God, is as necessary for the revelation of God to humanity as the texts that have been preserved in what is now called the Scriptural canon.

As I brought these observations into conversation with George Lindbeck’s “The Story Shaped Church” in the second part of the series, I noted that Lindbeck argued that the Church should be understood to be Israel in the time between the times.  I disagreed with Lindbeck on that point and concluded instead that the Christian Church may appropriately be understood as a believing remnant within Israel.

Finally, in last week’s installment (part three of the series), I attempted to bring Brevard Childs’s Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture into the discussion.  With Childs I maintained that the First Testament should be recognized as the theologically interpreted history of the Israelite people that has been worked and re-worked as a multi-generational endeavor for which God gave Israel a unique responsibility.  The First Testament is the nation of Israel and the nation of Israel is the First Testament–the two grew up together, interpenetrated each other, and cannot be understood apart from one another.

By looking at these contentions of Childs through the lens of Torrance, I pushed Childs’s claims further.  I contended that to know one necessitates the other…to understand one, one must comprehend the other.  Fundamentally I was suggesting that the words of Scripture are not inherently inspired or inherently revelatory.  In my opinion, there are ways of reading these texts which make them little more than human documents.  More directly, the First Testament is not inspired or properly the revelation of God if it is read outside of the cultural, conceptual, and narrative framework of the people of Israel.

Plenty of controversial stuff in these contentions, I realize.  However, my agenda in writing these blogs is to bring this intepretive trajectory into a public forum.  So, if you have comments, criticisms, or whatever else in regard to what I’ve offered so far, please don’t hesitate to comment on any of these blog entries.  In fact, that is what I envision one of the purposes of these sorts of forums to be.

Well, without further ado, permit me to expand the scope of this exploration.  To this point we have been speaking primarily about the First Testament.  I have made allusions to my conviction that both Jesus and His Apostles should be understood properly as part of the community of Israel.  However, I have only tangentially discussed the implications of these observations for the New Testament and for the successive history of the Christian, predominantly gentile, Church.

I’d like to touch on these subjects through an engagement with the anthology The Art of Reading Scripture which has been edited by Ellen Davis and Richard Hays.  I have chosen this particular text because, as was true with Torrance, Lindbeck, and Childs, I find myself to be sympathetic to the fundamental approach to Scripture that the scholarly contributors advocate–an approach which, at the time, was sometimes called ‘theological hermeneutics’ or the ‘theological interpretation of Scripture’.  With that said, the purpose of this essay is not to highlight primarily points of accord but rather to offer critical contributions to the conversation.

The opening article of the book is an essay entitled “Nine Theses on the Interpretation of Scripture” by a group called The Scripture Project.  Over the next few weeks, I intend to engage primarily with theses 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, and 9.  This week, I will explore thesis 3, and it reads as follows:

3. Faithful interpretation of Scripture requires an engagement with the entire narrative:  the New Testament cannot be rightly understood apart from the Old, nor can the Old be rightly understood apart from the New (The Scripture Project, “Nine Theses on the Interpretation of Scripture,” The Art of Reading Scripture, 2).

In the explanation of this thesis, the authors go on to describe an almost circular approach to reading and interpreting the Biblical text.  They contend that the beginning of the narrative (i.e., the First Testament) should be read in light of the climax (e.g., the events of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus).  But they also maintain that the climax must be understood in light of what has preceded it.  I have no particular objection to this way of explaining the interrelationality of the First and the New Testaments.  Though admittedly, a great deal depends on precisely how this circularity is understood.

However, as the explanation progresses I begin to get more uncomfortable.  The following quotation makes me particularly uneasy:

Against the increasingly common contention that Christians should interpret “the Hebrew Bible” only in categories that were historically available to Israel at the time of the composition of the biblical writings, we affirm that a respectful rereading of the Old Testament in light of the New discloses figurations of the truth about the one God who acts and speaks in both, figurations whose full dimensions can be grasped only in light of the cross and resurrection.  At the same time, against the assumption that Jesus can be understood exclusively in light of Christian theology’s later confessional traditions, we affirm that our interpretation of Jesus must return repeatedly to the Old Testament to situate him in direct continuity with Israel’s hopes and Israel’s understanding of God (The Scripture Project, 2).

Now, not everything in those lengthy sentences causes me discomfort.  I agree that  the common contention that “Christians should interpret ‘the Hebrew Bible’ only in categories that were historically available to Israel at the time of the composition of the biblical writings” appears irredeemably problematic.  As Childs has observed, the very process of the canonization of the First Testament seems to have obscured deliberately the kind of information that we would need to determine the authorship, dating, and original audience(s) of a majority of the texts with any certainty.

It may be near impossible to say what categories were available to Israel at the time of most of these writings, since we cannot say for sure when many of them were written.  Deuteronomy, for instance, presents itself as a Mosaic record of events which preceded the Israelites’ conquest of Canaan.  However, it includes details that indicate that at least parts of the text were written after the events which it records (e.g. the death of Moses).  How long after?  It’s hard to say.

Perhaps some was written by Moses and the rest by Joshua, or someone contemporary with Joshua.  Or perhaps the text continued to be reworked as the Israelite prophets, guided by the Holy Spirit, continued to reflect on their history as more and more of that history unfolded.  Perhaps the text was originally written to some degree prior to the conquest, but didn’t reach its final form until the time of King Josiah, or perhaps the exile.

The point here is not to debate the validity of various historical reconstructions of Deuteronomy.  The point is simply to illustrate Childs’s observation that Deuteronomy seems to have obscured the process deliberately.  The final form–the final product of this likely multi-generational Israelite endeavor–is what was eventually called canon, considered inspired, and codified as authoritative for successive communities.

Given this lengthy process, who’s to say who the original audience might have been?  Was Deuteronomy as we now have it intended for the people standing on the cusp of Canaan in the 15th or 13th century B.C.E. (depending on the date of the Exodus)?  Is it with their ‘categories’ that we are to limit our reading of Deuteronomy?  Or perhaps Deuteronomy was the text found in the days of Josiah (as many commentators maintain).  Certainly the categories in Josiah’s day might have differed from those of the conquest, to some degree anyway.  Is it Josiah’s categories with which should limit our reading of Deuteronomy?  Or perhaps the text reached its final form in the exile…I’m sure you can see how the argument might proceed.

Furthermore, I find myself in tacit agreement with the affirmation

. . . .that a respectful rereading of the Old Testament in light of the New discloses figurations of the truth about the one God who acts and speaks in both, figurations whose full dimensions can be grasped only in light of the cross and resurrection.

In fact, I believe this principle of re-intepreting previous writings in light of the continuing revelation of God might be at the very heart of the Israelite canon project.

It seems to me that one real benefit of higher criticism has been the discovery that there was likely a process through which the books of the First Testament arrived at their final forms.  In fact, I would even go on to argue that the Apostles of Jesus saw themselves to be in continuity with Israelite prophetic tradition at this point, as they re-read the First Testament in light of the revelation of God in Jesus.

What is of particular significance to me in this regard is that the Apostles, too, were of the people of Israel.  Jesus was not the first prophet and/or event in Israelite history to cause a split in the interpretive tradition.  Much of what has been preserved in the First Testament, and certainly in the post-exhilic rabbinic tradition does not seem to reflect, for instance, much from the Northern Kingdom of Israel.  The very contemporary name of Judaism associates the people of Israel in Jesus’ day with the southern kingdom of Judah.

Perhaps we might understand Jesus in a similar way.  Like the tribe of Judah before them, the Apostles were the heirs of the prophets, and their theological re-interpretations of Israelite history were to be seen as authorized by God by the Israelite people.  The split between Rabbinic Judaism and Messianic Judaism might have been akin to the split between Northern and Southern Israel–that is, if the Christian community had continued to see itself as a remnant within Israel.  Instead, the split seems to have become, regretably, a split between gentile followers of Jesus and the Jewish people.

We could pursue that line of thought further, but I fear that might take us dreadfully off course.  To return to our discussion of thesis number 3, it is the next contention that makes me particularly uneasy:

. . . .At the same time, against the assumption that Jesus can be understood exclusively in light of Christian theology’s later confessional traditions, we affirm that our interpretation of Jesus must return repeatedly to the Old Testament to situate him in direct continuity with Israel’s hopes and Israel’s understanding of God.

I am, as might be evident by now, in agreement with the rejection of the idea that Jesus might be understood exclusively through the confessional tradition.  However, my concern is that this statement appears to assume that the First Testament itself is a sufficient context in which to situate Jesus.  As I’ve been arguing throughout this series, I believe that reading the First Testament as gentiles, or as Americans, or as Wesleyans, or as Calvinists, or even broadly as Christians will effectively transform the inspired revelation of God into a merely human text, devoid of divine inspiration.

I would suggest that it is not simply the First Testament which must be the context in which Jesus is understood.  We must situate Jesus within the First Testament as it had been interpreted by the larger Jewish culture of Jesus’ day.  This implies, at the least, that we read and intepret Jesus in the context of the Apocrypha, the Pseudepigrapha, Jewish writers even of the like of Philo, the portions of the Talmud associated with the time periods prior to C. E. 70, and so on alongside of the First and New Testaments.

What I am arguing is that we must come to appreciate the revelatory necessity of the Israelite people themselves, comprehending the reality that God’s election of Israel is the election of a people who have interpreted their history with God, not simply a text.  The First Testament, if read in isolation from the living people of Israel prior to the destruction of the temple in C.E. 70, is an inadequate context for Christology.

Next week, I will move on to thesis 4 of The Scripture Project‘s “Nine Theses on the Interpretation of Scripture.”  Until then…

Staying engaged with the conversation,

J. Thomas Johnson

A Christian interaction with Scripture, theology, and practical living.


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