Thursday, October 31, 2013

2013 Reformation Day Conference: John Knox

Last week I had the opportunity to be a guest speaker for the 2013 Reformation Day Conference at Word of Life Christian Church in West Allis, Wisconsin. The topic of this year's conference was 16th Century Reformers, and my assignment was to sketch the life and influence of John Knox in just 45 minutes. The link to all of the lectures from that conference can be found here (search for "Reformation Day" on October 26th, 3013). My lecture can be found here. Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

What does the "Kingdom of Heaven" describe?

As mentioned in a previous post, chapter 13 of Matthew's gospel consists entirely of parables and explanations about those parables. Also, within chapter 13 there are seven parables about the "Kingdom of Heaven" and an eighth, final parable, addressed to the twelve apostles about scribes being "trained" (ESV) or "instructed" (NKJV) for this kingdom of heaven. 

But what is all of this language about the "Kingdom of Heaven" supposed to describing? 

What exactly is this "Kingdom of Heaven" described in Matthew 13?

Commenting on Matthew 13, dispensationalists Ed Hindson and James Borland insist that the kingdom of heaven mentioned throughout Matthew 13 is a non-political Church-Age interval "during which believers are citizens of the kingdom that is in their midst."1 Commenting further about this spiritualized, non-political kingdom-dispensation, they write: 
The principles taught in these parables [of Matt. 13]...seem to point to the Church Age. ...Already sensing His impending rejection [by the Jews], Jesus now expressed the "mystery" form of the kingdom that would be the church. Jesus' early ministry involved a proclamation of the spiritual principles of the kingdom. The Jews, however, seeking a political and nationalist kingdom, were now rejecting Jesus' concept of a spiritual kingdom. To bring in a political kingdom before people were born again would be a travesty.2
Along similar lines of disappointing exegesis, Jakob Van Bruggen, admits the obvious imminence of the kingdom of heaven as preached by Jesus and his apostles, yet he relegates that kingdom of heaven to an entirely future "new order that will become a reality on earth when Christ appears" at the time of the general resurrection of all things. He writes: 
Jesus charges the Twelve with the preaching of the imminent coming of the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 10:7; 24:14). Thus in Acts, "preaching the kingdom" is a way of characterizing apostolic preaching in general (Acts 8:12; 14:22; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23). ...[In] the Acts and the Epistles, the path to the kingdom (Christ) is preached more directly and now receives all attention as the trajectory of faith immediately before us. Paul and Peter view the kingdom of God as the new order that will become a reality on earth when Christ appears. The nearness of the kingdom thus becomes the nearness of the Lord (Phil. 4:5; Rev. 22:12).3
The famous millennial preacher and theologian, Charles Spurgeon, in his commentary on Matthew's Gospel, thought the kingdom of heaven was a realm of Spirit-filled Christians, a kingdom promised to grow exponentially in its "conquering, all-pervading influence" until Christ's bodily return at the end of history to judge evildoers.4 In a similar, but not as optimistic dominion-oriented trajectory as Spurgeon, both D. A. Carson and Daniel Doriani interpret Matthew 13 as teaching a partial arrival of the kingdom of heaven already hidden within and among men, and those men are supposed to live with a tremendous hope of being "part" of this "kingdom," while at the same time expecting continued hostility from unbelievers as partial-kingdom participants await a future and final apocalyptic fulfillment at the end of human history.5

Bruner's description of the kingdom of heaven also seems to be an increasingly popular view among scholars today. He doesn't seem to emphasize much of the already/not-yet tension of apocalyptic fulfillment. Instead he describes the kingdom as individuals who encounter Jesus' words and are transformed by them into new creatures as a result, regardless of differing opinions about the timing of apocalyptic fulfillment. Bruner writes:
Jesus' Sermon of Parables is not only doctrine about the kingdom; it is teaching bringing membership in it -- Jesus' parables are "Speech Events" mediating the kingdom's nearness; they are not merely lectures concerning it. ...When the kingdom comes near through Jesus' teaching makes new creatures. The main interim answer to the church's "Thy kingdom come" simply and wonderfully this faith in Jesus.6
Perhaps the most straightforward typological description of the kingdom of heaven has been given by Stanley Hauerwas in his commentary on Matthew, who argues that Jesus is the Kingdom, and since believers are the Body of Christ, united to Him in baptism, then in that sense of union-with-Christ they are body-parts of the Kingdom as much as Jesus is its head. They are, as he describes, "the material reality of the kingdom of heaven" on earth. He writes:
Christians must continue to live as if all hangs on our faithfulness to this man [Jesus], because all does hang on the reality of the kingdom as well as our response to the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed and is. ...The parables of the kingdom of heaven make clear that the kingdom of heaven is not "up there," but rather is a kingdom that creates time and constitutes a space. The time and space that the kingdom constitutes requires that people exist in time and occupy that space. Jesus teaches us through the parables so that we might be for the world the material reality of the kingdom of heaven, for in Jesus we see and hear what many prophets and righteous people had longed to see and hear. Indeed he is the parable of the Father.7
What are we to make of all this?

I can agree with Hauerwas' typology and Spurgeon's optimism. I can even agree with Bruner's emphasis upon Word-transformation as being essential to membership in the kingdom. Admittedly, I'm less hesitant to accept the hopeful dissonance of partial-kingdom realization endorsed by Carson and Doriani, but I am thoroughly confused about Van Bruggen's insistence that the kingdom was pronounced as imminent, but really only was imminent so long as Jesus' physical body was near them, therefore concluding that Christians await a future return of the kingdom along along with the promised future appearing of Jesus. And of course, I am firmly opposed to the arbitrary silliness of dispensational exegesis as found in Hindson and Borland, such silliness as dissecting God's covenant-purposes into "spiritual" and "political" categories, leaving the latter for an entirely future age in which all people must, for some reason, be "born again" for it to be successful. 

When all is said and done, I'm not convinced that any of the above authors do justice to the very obvious message of imminence pronounced throughout Matthew's gospel. They all, in some way, shape, or form, skirt Jesus' own emphasis upon first century fulfillment (as I have argued elsewhere), the result of which is an impotent spiritual "form" of kingdom connected with a very distant, other-worldly heaven (i.e. a spiritual kingdom connected to a "real" kingdom in heaven), instead of being here and now the real kingdom of heaven in as much as a mustard-seed is really the same mustard-tree that birds nest on in later years (Matt. 13:31-32). Jesus' own emphasis upon first century fulfillment does not, as far as I can tell, hinder the reality of an earthly-oriented "kingdom of the heavens" beginning in the first century which continues to grow throughout later centuries--a kingdom which doesn't need to have Jesus' body on earth in order for there to be real growth, real expansion, and real fruitfulness as He promised. As God, Jesus can reign over all the earth from heaven under the new covenant, and there is no legitimate reason to presume otherwise. If Jesus' kingdom has already and really come, there seems to be no legitimate reason to conjure up explanations and false dichotomies to the contrary. 

As N.T. Wright has argued persuasively elsewhere, if 20th century Christians were one of the original recipients of Matthew's Gospel, we would have interpreted all the references to imminent judgment upon Israel and imminent kingdom coming to that generation.8 The primary connection between a first century fulfillment of imminent judgment and an imminent kingdom is that the kingdom of heaven would not grow exponentially as promised as long as that generation of unrepentant Israelites continued in their rejection of Jesus in order to worship idols at Herod's Temple. Structures of power were bound up in everything that the earthly Temple symbolized, and those structures of power needed to be removed before the royal priesthood of God could reign and serve without hindrance in the new creation.9

If you don't believe me, just consider the progressive revelation of Matthew's Gospel itself.

John the Baptist came preaching, "Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is near!" (Matt. 3:2). From the time of John's arrest onward, Jesus then began preaching the exact same message of the kingdom being near (4:17). In the Beatitudes, Jesus ascends a Mount like Moses, and He gives torah (instruction) about the kingdom of heaven belonging to them (5:3, 10). In Matthew 5:19-20, just a few verses after the beatitudes, Jesus tells them that their righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees, and that "righteousness" looks like doing and teaching others to obey Jesus' commandments, not the Pharisaical and scribal traditions. Indeed, it is doing the will of Jesus' father in heaven which is explicitly described as a prerequisite for entering the kingdom of heaven (7:21). And so, by that time in Israel's history, we know there was such a thing as a "kingdom of heaven" that existed, and it was possible for Jesus' audience to enter into it by faithful obedience to the Father and His Son.

In Matthew 8:11, Jesus publicly describes the great faith of the Gentile Centurion who came to Him for healing, and He does so by turning to the crowds following him and declaring that he had not found such a great faith in all of Israel, and for that reason "many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven," which seems, in the very least, to imply that the kingdom of heaven consists of future Gentiles who faithfully obey Jesus' Heavenly Father as much as fellow-saints were well known to have done (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, et al.). Another implication of this is that Israel's faith at this time in history, in contrast with the Centurion's, was very distant from their Heavenly Father, of whom Jesus was the Son.

In Matthew 10:7, Jesus commissions his twelve apostles to preach from village to village that the kingdom of heaven was near, and that they would not be able to make it through all the towns in Israel before the Son of Man comes in judgment upon the land (10:23). (See my posts about all of that herehere, herehere, and here.) That language, in the very least, implies that once the Son of Man came in judgment, weeding out evildoers, the great hinderance to first century kingdom growth would be removed and the land could then grow exponentially as promised. That first century fulfillment would therefore become a sure testimony of God's covenant faithfulness to future generations who keep covenant with Him. God would weed out idolatry from the land, just as promised, which ought to encourage Christians today to believe He will subdue all nations under His feet, just as promised. And the means which Yahweh will use to subdue all nations will include future "weeding" as well. There will be times of sowing and reaping, times of planting and times of harvest. But now, under the new covenant, the world becomes Yahweh's wheat-field, not merely the land of promise under the old covenant. 

In Matthew 11:11-12, John the Baptist is mentioned again as being the greatest witness to Jesus' messianic role and his soon-coming judgment upon Israel (as seen here and here); however, even the person who is least in the kingdom of heaven will be considered a greater and more effective witness than John the Baptist. The next statement which Jesus speaks flushes this thought out some more (11:12) by implying that the Kingdom of Heaven has already begun in time, in the days of John the Baptist's ministry to the Jews:
...from the days of John the Baptist until now the Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.
The next time Matthew writes about the "Kingdom of Heaven," it's in chapter 13 (our present chapter). In verse 11 He tells his apostles (on a private boat where the people on shore can't hear him) that "it is given unto you [apostles] to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given." This is very similar to what Jesus revealed to his apostles in his last private discourse with them in chapter ten. If these "mysteries of the kingdom of heaven" are consistent with all of the other previous comments about the coming kingdom made in private to His apostles, I'm convinced that Matthew's Jewish audience would not have concluded a lot of the strained interpretations as seen by modern commentators [above]. It seems to me that any future entrance into the kingdom of heaven, along with the saints, would still have been interpreted in a sense of nearness in light of Jesus' repeated remarks about soon-coming judgment upon the land of Israel. Entrance into the kingdom of heaven corresponds with entrance into the new covenant in Jesus' body and blood--entrance into his baptism of death and resurrection. If first century Jews wanted entrance into the kingdom of heaven, it would no longer be through an old covenant administration.

So what is the Kingdom of Heaven described as all throughout Matthew 13? 

I think it's rather simple. I think the Kingdom of Heaven is described as life in union with God in the new covenant. And as a united-life to God in the new covenant, it's also life under a new creation, not merely life as a new creation. The new creation under the new covenant is a new cosmos in which Jesus reigns over all now and remains the one and only mediator of all now between God and man; and that is set in direct contrast with the old creation under the old covenant. In Jesus we are made new creatures; we live as a new creation. But the cosmos under the reign of Jesus is also a new creation. The old covenant was at best a blueprint for new creation under a ministry of repeated death and temporary redemption for the people of God. But now, in Jesus, the priesthood of believers participate in a ministry which is much greater than the old one, a covenant enacted upon better promises than those given at Sinai.

Why is this life in the kingdom of heaven described as a wheat-field, a mustard-seed, leaven, treasure hidden in a field, a man in search of fine pearls, and a net thrown into the sea of mankind? Because that's what life under the new covenant was promised to be like. It was a life promised to inherit a wheat-field that would have it's weeds uprooted after all its seed had been sown. Even beginning in the first century, when the word of the kingdom was first sown on good soil, the expectant result in that generation was up to as much as one hundred-fold! It was a life of promised exponential growth like a mustard-seed that grows into a tree, and leaven that causes bread to rise to its fullest measure. It was a life promised to receive precious treasure more valuable than all other old-covenant inherited possessions. Such treasure was hidden from some and sought after by others, but like a net this kingdom would gather together all the people of the land, leaving the messengers of Yahweh to sort out the good from the bad, the wheat from the tares, the sheep from the goats. That is why Jesus asks in his final (eighth) parable if his apostles understand the meaning of his parables? If they do, they become "scribes" trained for the kingdom of heaven, bringing out what is new and what is old, in order to teach people the promises of both the old and the new creation.   

1.  Ed Hindson and James Borland, The Gospel of Matthew: The King is Coming (21st Century Biblical Commentary Series) [Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2006] p. 126
2.  Ibid. Italics mine for emphasis. Brackets mine.
3.  Jakob Van Bruggen, Jesus the Son of God: The Gospel Narratives as Message [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999], p. 82
4.  Commenting on the parable of the leaven, Spurgeon writes: "Is not leaven here used simply as another picture of an influence which appears feeble, but turns out to be active, conquering, and at length all-pervading?" Charles Spurgeon (Larry Richards, ser. ed.), The King Has Come [Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1987], pp. 176-7
5.  Doriani writes: "The parables of Matthew 13 both give hope and explain disappointment. They say the kingdom is here, in part, without its full might or glory. This creates dissonance for believers. If we know Jesus is Savior and Lord, why doesn't everyone believe in him? If the kingdom is here, why is there so much evil in the world? ...Jesus urges patience; we must expect continued hostility from those who reject him." (italics mine for emphasis). Daniel M. Doriani, Reformed Expository Commentary: Matthew, Volume I: Chapters 1-13 [Phillipsburgh, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008], p. 570. In a similar vein, Carson endorses the view that "...the Kingdom which is to come finally in apocalyptic power, as foreseen by Daniel, has in fact entered into the world in advance in a hidden form to work secretly within and among men." D.A. Carson, The Expositor's Bible Commentary: Matthew [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984], p. 307.
6.  Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew, A Commentary: Volume 2, The Churchbook [Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007 revised & expanded ed.], p. 1
7.  Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew [Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006], pp. 134-5.
8.  See N.T. Wright's The New Testament and the People of God [Fortress Press, 1992]
9.  There is a section on this blog which describes much of the temple/tabernacle typology of the Old Covenant administration. See that here:

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Book Review: The Bible and the Liturgy, by Jean Danielou

The Bible and the Liturgy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Danielou is a very good writer and careful christian scholar, and there definitely is a logic to all of his insights in this book. This book helped me see the very clear orthodoxy of the early christian church, while illustrating at the same time some of the silly interpretations of what would later come to be essential to the liturgy of the Roman Catholic church. Danielou, of course, defends the essential rites of the RC liturgy, but thankfully, in this book, he does so in a very tasteful manner.

However, since I'm not Roman Catholic, I wasn't convinced of every argument as being essential to maintaining a biblical liturgy. For example, I thought the rite of confirmation was very poorly defended, even by the early church fathers. Also, the rite of sphragis (the sign of the cross) was fascinating, but not fascinating enough to be entirely convincing. It did give me a greater respect for the rite though. All in all, this book is worth the read, especially if you enjoy the thoughts of the early church fathers in connection with essential RC liturgical rites.

Book Review: Theology After Wittgenstein, by Fergus Kerr

Theology After Wittgenstein

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If I could describe Theology after Wittgenstein in two words, it would be intriguingly disappointing. It's intriguing mainly because of what the title infers. Ordinarily, one does not associate theology proper with the philosophical investigations of Wittgenstein. Nor does one ordinarily think that Wittgenstein could help reshape Christian epistemology. Yet this is the road that Fergus Kerr attempted to pave.

Kerr divided the book into three parts: 1) Stories of the soul, 2) Changing the subject, and 3) Theology without the mental ego. In part one, Kerr sorts through some the ways in which Rene Descarte’s philosophical writings and Saint Augustine’s Confessions have influenced the Western traditions of theology. His concerns are mainly aimed at those traditions of Cartesian-like ego that reduce objectivity in meaning to the mind of the solitary individual, thereby indirectly influencing a fixation of dispassionate objectivity in real knowledge, and the correlative retreat into subjectivism in morallity and aesthetics which dominates many people’s lives in Western culture. Kerr observes that, “The inclination to think of meaning, or any other mental or spiritual activity, as something that is radically private, ‘in our head,’ is explicitly related to the ancient religious myth of the soul” (p. 43). This radically private source of meaning, as Kerr derives from Wittgenstein’s work on the subject, is egocentric and “needs no demonstration” (p. 41). Working with a quotation from Augustine’s Confessions concerning an infant self already aware of its own identity and what is going on around it, prior to and independently of mastering a particular language, Kerr points out a serious dilemma regarding this epistemological identity of ‘self’ in the world. Utilizing Wittgenstein’s observations in this regard, Kerr writes:
Language is assumed to be necessary neither for framing one’s thoughts nor for identifying one’s desire. Prior to, and independently of, all ability to talk, one is supposed to be already aware of one’s mental states and acts. The self is pictured as ‘inside’, fluttering with its limbs, spluttering out words, striving with gruntings, and so on, to get its mind understood by the surrounding company. One has to be taught to read and write, but we apparently learn to speak by a sort of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps” (p. 41).

Kerr begins by paving a new way of appreciating Christian theology, and that new way is paved by beginning with Wittgenstein and reconsidering his approach to this epistemological dilemma, which was to learn the value of exposing our Cartesian and Augustinian metaphysical illusions about the place of the self in nature and history.

In part two, Kerr dives into the nitty-gritty of how Wittgenstein exposed certain Cartesian and Augustinian metaphysical illusions about the ‘self’ which the Western world has inherited. “Wittgenstein strives to voice our deepest metaphysical inclinations in order to permit ‘an acknowledgement of human limitations which does not leave us chafed by our own skin’.” (p. 76). “Again and again, Wittgenstein reminds the reader that all meaning, even the very gesture of pointing something out, must have conceptual links with the whole system of the human way of doing things together. There is nothing inside one’s head that does not owe its existence to one’s collaboration in a historical community” (p. 76). “Wittgenstein’s constant theme is that, for our inner life, we are radically dependent on customs, uses, and institutions.” (p. 77). Kerr’s unique contribution in this part of the book is to argue that Wittgenstein has been falsely labeled as a struggling realist or idealist of sorts, when in fact he offered a distinctive challenge to both—that our human experience and relation to the world is neither essentially cognitive nor a mere description of brute facts that are mind-independent realities. According to Wittgenstein, “what is primary and foundational” of our relation to the world is “neither ideas nor beliefs nor any other class of mental events, but human beings in a multiplicity of transactions with one another.” (p. 119). For Wittgenstein, even our experiential use of language is better understood as an expressive activity, with the ‘self’ as a responsive agent in vital connection with others (p. 134). “We are so much accustomed to communication through speaking, in conversation,” Wittgenstein observed, “that it looks to us as if the whole point of communication lay in this: someone else grasps the sense of my words—which is something mental: he as it were takes it into his own mind. If he then does something further with it as well, that is no part of the immediate purpose of language.” (p. 141).

In part three, Kerr offers a fresh perspective of Wittgenstein in light of some overlooked theological aspects present in his later writings. He then explores a handful of ways in which Wittgenstein’s insights affect the metaphysical implications of Christian theology.

Some of the most insightful questions in the book that Kerr asks the reader to consider are found on page 147:
Why is it that we doubt it can be in mere words or signs or bodily activities that we discover anything interesting about our inner selves or about the divine? Why is it that we are so strongly tempted to turn away from what we say and do, as if these were not ‘significant’ enough?”

Kerr responds to these questions by, of course, appealing to Wittgenstein’s insights:
“Wittgenstein reminds us that we have no alternative to attending to the signs, the repertoire of gestures and so on that interweave our existence. We have no access to our own minds, non-linguistically. We have no access to the divine, independently of our life and language. It goes against the grain, so captivated are we by the metaphysical tradition, but Wittgenstein keeps reminding us of the obvious fact: we have nothing else to turn to but the whole complex system of signs which is our human world. The great question remains: why do we retreat from our world; why do we withdraw from the body in hope that more direct illumination about our minds and about the gods is to be found by gaining access to something other than what we say and do? This is the hidden theological agenda of Wittgenstein’s later writings.

All of this leads me to finally mention why I originally described this book as intriguingly disappointing. As I trenched through the muddy terrain of Cartesian philosophical bias’ and epistemological dilemmas, I longed for the goal of practical application. Instead, when I reached the end where I thought I would learn the profound impact of Wittgenstein upon practical theological affairs, I found more of the same regurgitated ideas about radically questioning the whole way of thinking about one’s ‘self’ in relation to God and others in this world. That, to me, was a big let down. Even though the journey through Kerr’s research of Wittgenstein initially peaked my interest and held it for a while, in the end I found it to be disappointing, at least, as far as his own stated application of those insights are concerned. I might have missed it, but Kerr seems to have overlooked all of the orthodox Trinitarian insights that arise from his research. I suspect that he avoided a full-fledged discussion of those insights because Wittgenstein would not have contributed favorably, having repudiated any need to advance traditional metaphysical jargon altogether in the way we speak about God and the nature of reality.

Monday, October 21, 2013

God is not nice

Commenting on I Kings 22:1-40, Peter Leithart makes some interesting observations about Yahweh being a God who challenges our plans in order to reform His Church. Leithart even approaches the story of Micaiah's prophecy and the deception of King Ahab in a very practical, pastoral manner, treating Yahweh exactly as He has revealed Himself. Dr. Leithart writes:

According to Torah, the true prophet is ultimately revealed by the outcome; if he is a true prophet, then what he prophesies will happen (Deut. 13:1–11), and in this story, Micaiah is shown to be the true prophet because Ahab dies in battle. But Ahab and Jehoshaphat have to make a decision before they know the outcome. How can they know which advice to follow? How can they tell a wolf cleverly disguised in sheep’s clothing from a sheep?

Jehoshaphat apparently discerns that something is wrong. When he hears all four hundred prophets in agreement, all agreeing that Yahweh promises success, he still wants to hear a prophet of Yahweh (1 Kgs. 22:7). Jehoshaphat is probably spiritually attuned enough to know that the word of God does not come with the message, “Everything is perfectly okay. You’re okay just the way you are.” As Barth says, dogmatics is the science that tests the church’s proclamation by the standard of the word of God, and if dogmaticians emerge from their study to announce “all is well; steady as she goes,” they have made a mistake in calculations. Or, to put it in the blunt terms that Long uses, “God is not nice” (2004). He does not exist to underwrite our projects, to ensure that our pursuit of money and fame and American empire goes smoothly. He is the “judge of all the earth,” whose word is an instrument for bringing all our projects, intentions, and aims, especially the most pious of them, under scrutiny and judgment.
It is always a temptation to prefer a smooth, self-affirming word over a confronting word, and that temptation has been institutionalized, systematized in many contemporary churches. The word “sin” is avoided as needlessly offensive, especially to wealthy church members. Churches advertise their welcoming, nonjudgmental atmosphere, not so subtly (and viciously) implying that there are harsh judgmental churches out there and we all know which ones they are. American churches mirror consumer culture, offering a range of choices so that everyone can settle back into a Muzak spirituality, confident that they will not be confronted by any demands for radical change. But the word of Yahweh does not affirm us in our plans. It challenges our plans, confronts them, undoes them.1
...Micaiah’s vision of Yahweh asking for a volunteer to entice (פתה) Ahab is one of the most puzzling passages in the Bible and difficult on many levels. The least problematic aspect of this incident is that Yahweh is seeking help from surrogates, though the quaintness of the scene almost seems more at home in Goethe than in the Bible. The more troubling problem is the moral one: how can the God who is truth, whose word is truth, send out a lying spirit to inspire people to lie to Ahab? Is Yahweh ultimately just another trickster God, unreliable and deceptive?2 
...What kind of God is this that puts misleading prophesies into the mouths of the court prophets of Israel? How is this consistent with the New Testament’s affirmations that “it is impossible for God to lie” (Heb. 6:18) and that “in him is no variation or shifting shadow” (Jas. 1:17)?
As Davis points out, there is ultimately no deception here or, more accurately, the deception is completely telegraphed (2002, 327). Yahweh’s Spirit inspires the prophets to mislead and lure Ahab to his death, but then Yahweh sends Micaiah to tell Ahab he is being lured to his death. Yahweh sets a trap for Ahab, but politely shows Ahab the trap before he springs it. Yet, Ahab blindly goes to Ramoth-gilead, confident that he can cheat death and escape the word of Yahweh. Further and more basically, this passage makes it abundantly clear that Yahweh is not a great marshmallow in the sky. He is not a God who plays softball. Nor is he the god of the philosophers, a gorgeous but impotent force in heaven. He is a warrior who fights to win, and deception is part of his art of holy war. Elsewhere, Yahweh encourages his people to use deceptive military tactics (e.g., Josh. 7), and on more than one occasion he deploys an “evil spirit” to set traps for his enemies (Judg. 9:23; 1 Sam. 16:14; 18:10; 19:9; Ezek. 14:9).
Many of the church fathers gesture toward the insight that God is a trickster when they develop atonement theories that suggest the cross is a divine trap laid for Satan. Recent work on the historical Jesus confirms the patristic insight into God’s shrewdness without adopting the “bait theory.” Jesus’s challenging parables, his provocative prophetic actions, his counterintuitive images and exhortations, his shrewdness in debate—all this testifies that Jesus is the incarnation of the God who lured Ahab to the battlefield of Ramoth-gilead.
He is straight with the straight, merciful to the humble, but cunning with the wicked (ועם־עקש תתפתל) (Ps. 18:25–26), the God who catches the wicked in their own devices, who leads his enemies into the very traps that they set for the righteous. This is a God to be loved. But he is also a God to be feared. One should be grateful to be and remain in his good graces, for it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of this God. Yahweh is the ultimate trickster that outfoxes all human attempts to escape him. Yahweh is not only cunning. He is transcendently, infinitely cunning. The conclusion that God employs deception against deceivers should not lead to distrust or anxiety. There is a simple way to avoid falling into the traps of the infinitely cunning God: humbly trust him, for he is merciful to the merciful, and to the pure he is pure.3

1.  Peter J. Leithart, 1 & 2 Kings [Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006] pp. 160-1
2.  Ibid. p. 162
3.  Ibid. p. 163-4

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Center of Matthew's Gospel (Matthew 13 & it's literary structure)

Continuing where I left off in this series of Matthew's Gospel, we finally arrive at the center of the book: chapter thirteen. As usual, with the way I prefer approaching each section of the Bible, identifying the literary structure is very important. It's not crucial or absolutely essential to a proper interpretation of every section, but it's extremely valuable to identify nonetheless. But chapter thirteen poses a few dilemmas in this regard. Some aspects of the structure are obvious, but because of multiple overlapping layers, it's difficult to reduce the overall structure to something simple.

At first glance, what is most obvious about chapter thirteen is that it's one of the five "pillar" discourses of Matthew's gospel, and it clearly begins at verse 1 and ends at verse 52. Verse 53 begins a new section with the literary marker, "and when Jesus had finished...", as found at the end of each of the five "pillars" of Matthew's gospel. 

A second glance will show that chapter 13 consists entirely of parables and explanations about parables. There are seven parables about the "Kingdom of Heaven" and an eighth parable addressed to the twelve apostles about scribes being trained for the "Kingdom of Heaven."

A few more glances will show similarities between parables. For example, the first parable (the parable of the sower) is presented and explained later on. The same is true for the "parable of the tares." That too is presented and then followed by a detailed explanation. Also, between these two parables (the parable of the sower with it's explanation and the parable of the tares with its explanation), there are two quotations from the old testament Scriptures in reference to "fulfillment." Even a cursory glance at the way modern bibles often subdivide each chapter into smaller sections will make this appear very obvious. This arrangement certainly seems intentional on Matthew's part. But that's not all. There are also a handful of very brief parables, sharing similarities between them. The third and fourth parables, the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the leaven, are similar in meaning to each other. The fifth and sixth parables (of hidden treasure and a merchant who finds a pearl of great value) are both similar in meaning to each other

Below are a number of ways in which this structure can be laid out pictorially. Davies & Allison structure chapter 13 in three sections of three (as seen below)1:

13:1-9            Parable of the sower
13:10-17        Discussion of parables (+ scriptural allusion)
13:18-23        Interpretation of the sower

13:24-30        Parable of the tares
13:31-32        Parable of the mustard seed
13:33             Parable of the leaven
13:34-35        Discussion of parables (+ scriptural citation)
13:36-43        Interpretation of the tares

13:44             Parable of the treasure
13:45-46        Parable of the pearl
13:47-48        Parable of the net
13:49-50        Interpretation of the net
13:51-52        Discussion of parables (saying on treasure)

R.T. France attempts to lay the structure out somewhat chiastically2:

1-3a      Teaching by the lake
      3b-9      Opening parable: the sower
            10-17      About teaching in parables
            18-23      Explanation of the sower
      24-33      Three further parables of growth (weeds, mustard seed, leaven)
            34-35      About teaching in parables
            36-43      Explanation of the weeds
      44-50      Three further short parables (treasure, pearl, net)
      51-52      Concluding parable: the householder
53      Moving on

In my own attempt to outline the structure of chapter thirteen, I came up with three potential layouts, the first of which is very similar to France's chiastic outline above, and the last of which is similar to the triadic outline of Davies & Allison. Perhaps most important aspect worth noting about each of my outlines  (below) is the three fold division & progression of sowing, cultivating, and harvesting. That, to me, seems to be the logical progression of each triad of parables. 

Layout #1

A)  Teaching many things in parables (vv. 1-3a)
     B1)  Parable of The Sower, sowing the word of the kingdom (vv. 3b-9)
            C1)  Understanding parables (vv. 10-17)
            C2)  Parable explained (vv. 18-23)

     B2)  Three parables of cultivating the Kingdom (vv. 24-33)
            C1’)  Understanding parables (vv. 34-35)
            C2’)  Parables explained (vv. 36-43)

     B3)  Three parables about harvesting the Kingdom (vv. 44-50)

A’)  Understanding all these things in a parable (vv. 51-52)

Layout #2
A1)  Parable of The Sower, sowing the word of the kingdom (vv. 1-9)
      B1)  Understanding parables (vv. 10-17)
            C1)  Parable explained (vv. 18-23)
A2)  Three parables of cultivating the Kingdom (vv. 24-33)
      B2)  Understanding parables (vv. 34-35)
            C2)  Parables explained (vv. 36-43)
A3)  Three parables about harvesting the Kingdom (vv. 44-48)
            C3)  Parables explained (vv. 49-50)
      B3)  Understanding parables (vv. 51-52)

Layout #3

A1)  Parable of The Sower, sowing the word of the kingdom (vv. 1-9)
      B)  Understanding parables (vv. 10-17)
A1’)  Parable explained (vv. 18-23)

A2)  Three parables of cultivating the Kingdom (vv. 24-33)
      C)  Understanding parables (vv. 34-35)
A2’)  Parables explained (vv. 36-43)

A3)  Three parables about harvesting the Kingdom (vv. 44-48)
      D)  Parables explained (vv. 49-50)
A3’)  Understanding parables (vv. 51-52)

1.  W.D. Davies and D.C. Allison, International Critical Commentary: Matthew 8-18 (vol. 2) [New York, NY: T&T Clark, 1991] p. 371
2.  R.T. France, New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Matthew [Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; 2007] p. 501