Monday, October 27, 2014

Ignatius of Antioch on spiritual warfare

Labor with one another; contend together, run together, suffer together, sleep together, and rise together; as the stewards and assessors and ministers of God. Please him under whom ye war, and from whom ye receive your wages. Let none of you be found a deserter; but let your baptism remain as your arms--your faith as your helmet--your charity as your spear--your patience as your whole armor. Let your works be your charge, so that you may receive a suitable reward. Be long-suffering, therefore, towards each other, in meekness, as God is towards you. Let me have joy of you in all things. 
-- St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, fall 107 A.D. [Letter to Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna]

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Born of Water and Spirit?

Jesus's encounter with Nicodemus the Pharisee is a very well known story. "You must be born from above," Jesus says. Nicodemus wants to know how that can be. Jesus reiterates that "unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." Volumes of literature have been written about how to interpret Jesus' statements within this pericopae; and I'm probably not the first to make the following observations; but since this blog is about my observations, I'll jot down some thoughts anyway.

Immediately before this dialogue with Nicodemus, John inserts some words of his own worth taking into account beforehand (John 2:23-3:2):
Now when [Jesus] was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name, observing His signs which He was doing. But Jesus, Himself, had not been putting-belief-in Himself to them, for He knew all them, and because He did not need anyone to witness about mankind, for He Himself knew what was in mankind. And there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, 'Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him."
It is after the encounter with Nicodemus that we find John inserting further comments of his own (John 3:13-21):
Indeed, no one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes in Him will have eternal life; for God so loved the world that He gave his one-and-only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; but he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the one-and-only Son of God. This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.
Between all of these personal comments by John we find Jesus' discussion with Nicodemus. This happens in three brief phases of dialogue: 

1)  Nicodemus begins by saying: "...we know that you are a teacher come from God...". 
Jesus responds with a statement about an individual being born "from above" in order to see the kingdom of God. 

2)  Nicodemus follows that with something like, "How can that be and how does that even work?" (I'm paraphrasing, obviously). 
Jesus provides an answer for that question too: a person must be born of two things: water and Spirit to enter the Kingdom of God. And "do not marvel," Jesus says, "that I said to you, 'You-all must be born again.'"

3)  Nicodemus responds one more time, saying "How can these things be?" 
To which, Jesus replied: "...we speak of what we know and witness of what we have seen, and you-all do not accept our witness. If I told you-all earthly things and you-all do not believe, how will you-all believe if I tell you heavenly things?"

Now, at this point some questions remain. For instance, how do John's comments help us interpret Jesus' comments toward Nicodemus? The words of Jesus do not speak for themselves, and if left to interpret themselves within their own very narrow setting of John (3:1-21), we'll be left with curiosity at best and confusion at worst. 

I'll try my best (below) to illustrate what meaning I think Jesus' statements were intended to convey, according to the way John composed the narrative.

The most important place to start is by recognizing that John is writing a letter about Jesus' ministry to Judean Jews---Jews and Jewish authorities around Jerusalem and its Temple. Matthew, Mark, and Luke don't record much about this aspect of Jesus' ministry. 

A second important factor to realize is that John is recording a dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus that, in context, was entirely about Israelites. Sure, John comments about "man" and people generically; but he is utilizing those terms to illustrate Israelite "men," Jewish people. One would think that the context of this discussion taking place in Jerusalem at the time of Passover would be a clear enough indicator of this, but Christians often insist anyway that the references to "men" must mean something more. Well, they might have been intended that way originally, but I don't think they were, even though I think they teach principles which apply to all men today. But understanding John's point makes a whole lot more sense if it's kept in its original historical context about Jesus witnessing to Judean Jews in Jerusalem (which is where 9/10's of Jesus' actions in this Gospel take place). 

Notice also that Nicodemus begins by saying "...we know." This "we" must at least refer to Israelites in Jerusalem at the time of Passover, but it also highlights the other Pharisees and "rulers of the Jews" like Nicodemus himself. By the end of the discussion Jesus hands Nicodemus' words back to him, saying "...we speak of what we know...but you-all do not receive our witness". That "we" refers to Jesus' disciples: those disciples from Galilee who followed Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem (2:17, 22), some of whom heard John the Baptizer declare Jesus to be "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (1:29, 36); it refers to disciples who receive a certain "witness"---a witness of what they have seen.

In Jesus' first response to Nicodemus, he says that any Israelite (like Nicodemus, who just saw his "signs") must be "born from above" in order to see the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is  something visible, but not every Israelite could see it because, as John said immediately before the dialogue, Jesus "had not been putting-belief-in Himself to them, for He knew all them, and because He did not need anyone to witness about mankind, for He Himself knew what was in mankind." In other words, Jesus noticed that many Israelites believed in his name, believing that he was more than just a man sent from God. But Jesus knew them all, and he knew that not all would (or could) believe that he is more than just a mere man. He had visited the Temple throughout his life, seen the same kinds of people and their faithfulness to God, and he had seen their faithfulness to the traditions of their rulers (like Nicodemus) too. Jesus was not putting on a display of faith in himself before them,  even in his zeal for his Father's house; and he did not need anyone to witness about mankind either.  He knew he was Light sent into a world of darkness, and mankind loves darkness rather than light.  To men he was just another man, only he was a teacher sent from God too; but he was still just a man. To others he was more than a mere man sent from God: he was the Son of God. He was what John the Baptizer witnessed in the opening scene of John's gospel, saying "...I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God!" What is "in mankind" is disbelief that God became flesh, and that such flesh "tabernacled" among them (1:14).

In the middle of all this, Nicodemus asks (paraphrasing again), "How can that be and how does that even work?" Jesus' comments about being born of water and Spirit are supposed to be understood in this context--this very Jewish context about seeing and witnessing the Son of God face to face, along with his disciples, but not actually seeing anything more than a human "teacher sent from God." 

What does that have to do needing water and Spirit to enter the Kingdom of God? 

I don't think the reference to being born of the Spirit is the controversial part to answer. The controversial part has to do with what Jesus meant by needing to be born of water to enter the Kingdom. And that, I think is resolved by looking at the surrounding narratives. 

John's gospel begins with John baptizing with water in preparation for the Messiah to be revealed to Israel (1:19-27), followed by the Spirit descending from above and remaining upon Jesus. Jesus then performs his first miracle at Cana by turning water used for Jewish purification rituals into the best wine used to gladden the heart of the bridegroom. After this, Jesus travels to Jerusalem for the Passover, and his zeal for his Father's House (the Temple) leads into the discussion at night time with Nicodemus. 

Immediately following the discussion with Nicodemus we find more water imagery. Jesus goes out into the Judean countryside to visit John the Baptizer again, and to oversee his disciples baptizing alongside John (3:22-26; 4:1-3). Interestingly, but not surprisingly, it is in that context---the context which immediately follows Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus about "water and Spirit"---that we find John the Baptizer talking about Jesus receiving the Spirit of God without measure at his baptism (3:34), and to utter the words of God himself (v. 34), so that whichever Israelite receives Jesus' witness about the Father, and believes in Jesus his Son, will have eternal life (3:36). Following this pericopae, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well, and Jesus describes himself with very clear Edenic Temple imagery, offering something from himself (the Spirit that descended from above and remained on him) as the water that wells up to eternal life. 

Is this all a coincidence? Did John accidentally surround the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus with multiple references to baptism, water, and Spirit? Of witnessing, believing, and receiving?

This can be approached from another angle as well. It's obvious that John baptized Jesus with water, and the Spirit descended from heaven and remained on him from the time of his baptism with water. It's also obvious that Jesus believed an Israelite could not enter the kingdom of God unless he was born "from above," born "of water and the Spirit." And finally, it's obvious that Jesus visited John the Baptizer again, in a location where "water was plentiful" for baptisms (3:23). There John describes Jesus as the bridegroom, and himself as a guest at the wedding banquet. John is like one of Jesus' drawers of water, waiting for Jesus to turn that water into wine. There John also implies that those who witness and see Jesus as the Son of God are those whom Jesus has given his Spirit and those who have been baptized by his disciples. Those who witness and see Jesus as the Son of God are those who see him as the Lamb of God, the guilt offering to God for the world. They see him also as the Temple of God, who dwells in their midst and whose river flows out to the four corners of the world. They also see him as the baptismal font within the Temple, purifying bloody sacrifices into  food for God and man, turning clear fonts of water into wells of living wine.  

I think it's difficult to overlook the overlapping themes of water and spirit, descending and receiving, witnessing and seeing in the beginning of John's gospel. All those terms are used by John to describe the salvation that God provided through His Son in the first century. And I think it would have been difficult for first century Jews--especially after the Temple's destruction in 70 A.D.--to overlook Jesus' connection with the Torah and Temple of God at that time. It's certainly not too much of a stretch to think John desired his first century Jewish audience to receive his letter in faith, seeing Jesus' Spirit  at work page after page, and witnessing his life-giving presence poured out from above in baptismal waters. I imagine that those Jews who read John's gospel also noticed that Jesus was not well received by many of his own people. Those among Israel who were baptized by John's disciples, were baptized into the Temple and priesthood that God had fashioned with His Torah; Jesus was baptized into that as well, in order to have solidarity with Israel. However, Jesus died and rose from death to life again in order to resurrect a Temple in his own body. The resurrected Messiah commissioned his disciples to baptize the nations in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, baptizing them into His body, the true Temple of God, so they could see and witness eternal life. 

According to John's gospel, and according to Jesus' own ministry, water is nothing without the Spirit, just as speaking God's Word is nothing without the Spirit; but according to Jesus, actual pouring of baptismal water is just as significant to the actual outpouring of His life-giving Spirit as the speaking of His Word is to receiving the true witness about him. So instead of choosing one over the other, as though receiving God's Word is more efficacious than receiving the waters of baptism, John seems to be pointing his audience in a different direction---a direction more familiar to first century Jews than it is to 21st century Americans. According to John's gospel, the waters of baptism flow from the Temple of Jesus himself. What we find is not a dichotomy between receiving the Word and receiving baptismal waters; instead we find a Temple in the Son of God, Jesus, Israel's Messiah, and from the "living waters" he pours out, the nations are called by Word and Spirit to drink so that they would never be thirsty again.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

John 4:14 and its Edenic motif

In The Theme of Temple Christology in John's Gospel, Stephen T. Um comments about the relationship between John 4:14 and "new creational blessing of life" mentioned throughout biblical and post-biblical literature, but especially its imagery used throughout Isaiah's prophecies. Some noteworthy remarks regard the significance of the Septuagint translation of Isaiah 44:3. He argues that the translator has "metaphorically interpreted" the 'thirsty land' as as "the thirsty people who walk in a dry land."1  Because the barren land represents its thirsty people, the translator of the Septuagint related the two metaphors of drinking and irrigation "to show that the act of irrigating the barren land can also be interpreted as an act satisfying those who are thirsty."2 

Um then makes numerous connections between water and Edenic motifs of the Bible. He writes: 
Although many of the Deutero-Isaiah passages do not explicitly refer to Eden, they do, however, develop the garden theme by describing a new creational place of blessedness where there will be wells of salvation and abundant fertility (Isa. 12.3; 35.6-7; 41.17-19; 44.3; 58.11). Once again, Isa. 58.11, 'you will be like a well-watered garden like a spring whose waters never fail', clearly connects water with the garden motif. These irrigation metaphors of water as a symbol of promoting life are highlighted by the revitalizing power of water restoring a barren desert to a luxuriant garden. These rivers, waters, streams, and bubbling springs representing elements leading to life describe a future paradisiacal garden of complete restoration. These Isaianic texts highlight the unique identify of God by attributing to him the source of eschatological, life-giving water.3
By illustrating further connections between the Edenic garden and the Temple, Um convincingly argues that John portrays Jesus as the true Temple in whom Israel's worship reaches its climatic goal.4 The old covenant expectation for building an end-time Temple reaches its telos or goal in the Messiah, Jesus, and out of that temple-of-his-body flows abundant new creation life to the rest of the world around Eden--the rest of the world around Jesus and his Body--irrigating it and quenching its thirst. Um sees this abundant new creational blessing of life culminating at the end of human history, but the significance of its beginning is worth further reflection and meditation as well. If Jesus began a new creational blessing of life for the whole world, that means his life-giving presence remains in the world until it reaches it's culmination at the end. That means people can always have hope in this world to be the hope of this world. In other words, the life giving waters flow in abundance from the Temple of Christ's body throughout the world to irrigate its land, and the Church, which is Christ's body, is the life of this world while the new creational temple-building process awaits its culmination. 

1. Stephen T. Um, The Theme of Temple Christology in John's Gospel [New York, NY: T&T Clark; 2006] p. 142
2. Ibid. p. 143
3. Ibid. p. 147
4. Ibid. p. 152

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

"This water" vs. "That bread"

In John 4:15 a Samaritan woman asks for "this water" that Jesus offers, and later on in 6:34 certain Jews ask for "this bread" offered, again, by Jesus. The parallel is strikingly intentional. Jesus came to his people to provide another exodus for them. He was the rock who followed them through their wilderness wandering (Ex. 17; Num. 20; I Cor. 10:4), pouring out water to drink for all forty years. Likewise he was the manna--the bread of heaven--that sustained Israel for forty years until they came to a land that was settled (Ex. 16:35). More importantly, Jesus comes to the same land for both of them, but the Jews reject him while many Samaritans offer a warm welcome. 

The location of each offer made by Jesus is striking too. At the time of offering himself as "this bread" Jesus had just finished miraculously crossing a sea, and John writes it with a very clear "exodus-crossing" motif in mind; then certain Jews cross the sea over to where he could be found, but they don't want what Jesus himself has to offer them--they just want their stomachs filled with bread. When Jesus offers himself as that bread they must eat to be satisfied, they murmur just like their fathers in the Wilderness of Sin (Exod. 16), and they depart from him.

With the Samaritan woman, the location and response to Jesus' offer is different. That encounter occurs at a well, and throughout the Bible encounters at wells often signify bridal imagery of some sort. Jacob, for example, meets Rachel, rolls away the stone-cover on a well, gives her and her flock water to drink, kisses her, and weeps for joy; their marriage followed shortly thereafter (Gen. 29). Likewise Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman is laced with bridal imagery too, especially since it is Jacob's well at which the encounter takes place (John 4:6). Only this time, the point is to portray Jesus as the greater Jacob, the greater bridegroom who gives himself as the water that, when drank, wells up to everlasting life (v. 14). 

In John's gospel, when Jesus enters the land he visits his own to obtain a bride for himself; but when his own receive him not, he goes to those who are excited to drink the living waters he has to offer. In John's gospel the contrast is not between partaking of "this water" or "this bread," as though only one would suffice for eternal satisfaction. Rather the contrast is between "this water" which can and does satisfy, and that "bread" which the Jews wanted but does not satisfy because it is not bridal food. By rejecting bridal food and drink--food and drink prepared for the promised wedding feast of their Lord--they rejected the wedding invitation altogether. And by rejecting the invitation this way, such examples are given to us to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. 

To this day Jesus freely offers the living waters of baptism welling up to eternal life, but are we willing to drink and feed our flock with the waters he offers? Every week in the liturgy, Jesus spreads a table and offers his own flesh as "true food" and his blood as "true drink" (John 6:55) so that we may abide in him and he in us. But how do we respond to the invitation of his feast? Do we respond by questioning the legitimacy of his words, or do we respond in faith, trusting that he has the words of eternal life (John 6:60-68)?

"Inerrancy" often works like that

Commenting on God's communication to mankind as mediated through the Holy Scriptures, and the way "biblicism" often fails to understand and appreciate the differences of meaning communicated throughout Scripture, Christian Smith makes these fascinating observations:
   Locutionary acts utter or inscribe words, illocutionary acts use uttered or inscribed words to perform communications concerning the purpose or disposition of the speaker or writer, and perlocutionary acts rely on uttered or inscribed words to accomplish a particular effect in the hearer or speaker. All of it concerns getting things done with speech. But the things gotten done are different in quality and "locution," even when they are all gotten done by means of a single speech act, such as uttering the phrase, "Let him have it."
   The point of distinguishing these three speech acts is to help us to recognize that the use of speech to communicate is not a simple matter of speakers intending to make clear propositional statements that, when properly interpreted, reproduce the original propositional meaning in the minds of those receiving the statements. It is more complicated than that.  
...The meanings of terms such as "error," "mistaken," "inaccurate," and "fallible" become not entirely straightforward when speech acts are understood in this way. Of course, certain kinds of cases can be straightforward about descriptive truth or falsehood. If the illocutionary action of the locution, "Jesus went throughout Galilee," for example, is to inform hearers or readers about actual events in specific locations, then if Jesus had never been to Galilee, the locution would be in error and the related illocutionary act would be performed fallibly. In such cases of reporting mistakes, the readers or hearers would then have good reason to increase their distrust of the speaker or writer.  
   But many cases of speech communication are not that simple. Consider some of the illocutionary acts named above [previously]: commanding, promising, warning, asking, assuring, appealing, criticizing, offering, honoring, bequeathing, and challenging. What would it mean for them to be in error or mistaken? Is it even strictly possible? Can a command itself be inaccurate? No. Commands can be unauthorized or misguided but not inaccurate. Can an appeal be mistaken? Not really. Appeals can be hopeless or unnecessary but not mistaken. Can a promise itself be in error? No exactly. A promise, by virtue of its own future orientation, may later prove to have been empty or untrustworthy. And present knowledge about the one making the promise may provide grounds to judge his or her promises as unlikely to be fulfilled. But promises as promises per se are not the sort of things that either entail errors or do not. 
   Given the richness of the variety of kinds of speech acts that appear to be at work in the Bible, therefore, it seems quite inadequate to try to describe or defend scripture's truthfulness, reliability, authority, and whatever else we might say on its behalf with single, technical terms like "inerrancy." That particular term---a favorite of many evangelicals---tends to zero in on matters of accuracy in reporting on facts and events as a matter of correspondence between propositions and the real states to which those propositions refer. But that term tends not to capture the multitude of other ways in which the locutions of texts and their illocutionary and perlocutionary acts may or may not be reliable, authoritative, compelling, powerful, inviting, and so on.  
   Imagine, for instance. that you comfort someone in distress over her deep personal loss and then the next day have her thank you profusely for your being so precise or aesthetically stimulating. It would not compute. Those terms would simply not capture the quality of the merits of your comforting actions that deserve appreciation and gratitude. "Inerrancy" often works like that. 
   Evangelical defenders of biblical inerrancy are used to the typical charge by more liberal critics that "inerrancy" is too strong, extreme, or demanding of a concept to accurately describe what the Bible is. What I am suggesting here is quite the opposite. "Inerrancy" is far too limited, narrow, restricted, flat, and weak a term to represent the many virtues of the Bible that are necessary to recognize, affirm, and commend the variety of speech acts performed in scripture. I suspect that most evangelicals, including biblicists, more or less intuitively know this. Nevertheless, lacking a richer and more appropriate vocabulary with which to work in thinking about and describing the Bible, far too many evangelicals---who understandably feel the need not to compromise on their "high view" of the Bible---stretch the technical term "inerrancy" to applications and meanings beyond its reasonable use value. But in the end it is not a helpful situation for enabling people to read, understand, and live from the Bible. 
   In sum, recognizing the distinctions between locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary speech acts forces upon Bible interpreters a difficult set of questions. God may be doing quite different things by "saying" quite different things. So, we need to ask not only what the text appears to say in our English translations and what is as a locution apparently said in the linguistic context in which it was originally spoken or inscribed. We also need to consider what illocutionary and perlocutionary acts the writers and divine inspirer were performing in expressing their various locutions. They could often be any number of things. Insofar as the Bible is at once both a fully human and divinely inspired collection of texts, as evangelicals believe, we also need to ask whether the illocutionary acts of the human writer are the same as the illocutionary acts of God in inspiring them.  
   ...The point of all of this is not to complicate scripture reading so much that we all collapse into exegetical despair, but rather to complicate the scripture reading of evangelical biblicists enough to provoke a shift away from their overconfident, simplistic readings of the Bible in problematic ways. It is never enough to argue, "Well, that's just what it says right there in black and white." If we believe that God wants to communicate to us through the mediation of the Bible, we have to ponder the various things God may be doing in, to, and among us through the locutions of scripture.1

1.  Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture [Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press; 2011], pp. 157, 159-162