Friday, December 16, 2016

My Strangely Unedifying Facebook Posts

This post is directed to friends who have found my “political” Facebook posts this year strange or off-putting.

Yes: they are strange. For me, this is an opus alienum, a strange work, a thing I am doing that is not the thing I have been primarily called and trained to do, not a thing I like doing, and what is worse a thing that is alienating for some of my friends.

In the family sphere, I was called—if not in any formal sense trained!—to be a loving and supporting son and brother and husband and father, and these are roles I embrace wholeheartedly and with deep gratitude. In the sphere of school and work, I trained to be a Christian pastor, a classicist, Bible scholar, theologian, and professor, and then found my calling in theological publishing; I am immensely grateful for all that I have been given in this realm, and I fully embrace this work to which I am called. In the larger sphere of life in God and in the world, I am called to be a follower of Jesus, a humble learner from and loving companion and servant of all who fear God and all whom God loves; this is my deepest and most important call, the one to which I most fervently hope and pray to attain to the goal, and in which I am probably always at greatest risk of failing. These things constitute, as far as I am able to discern, my opus proprium, my proper work, the thing I should do.

When I was doing my doctoral research, I focused on the life and writings of Athanasius of Alexandria, a fourth-century pastor, bishop, and writer who is remembered in the church as the most persistent and effective advocate for the homoousion, the strange and problematic word in the Creed of Nicaea that named Christ as being of the same substance as the one eternal God. Christians today who honor him as a saint and a hero of the faith are generally unaware that in he own day he was generally, by the Christian leaders and people of his day, regarded as an inveterate trouble-maker, a royal pain, a nitpicker who simply refused to get along with everyone else. He was accused (in some cases not without evidence) of acts of violence. He became deeply enmeshed in imperial politics, using, and being used and abused by, emperors and their delegates. His polemical treatises make for ugly reading in places. One modern historian compared him (in print) to a mafia thug. Another (in private conversation) suggested to me that he was a pious dolt. His ceaseless arguing definitely put a lot of people off. And I came to the conclusion, and stated along the way in my dissertation, that I do not believe it was at all what he wanted to be doing. It was his opus alienum, strange to himself and alienating to others. All he ever really wanted to be was a monkish pastor, learning prayer and devotion from the monks of upper Egypt and teaching the urban Christians of Alexandria how in the midst of their married, familied, and secularly working lives it was possible for them also to seek the face of God even if they could not go live as ascetics in the desert. His pastoral work was his opus proprium. But he believed, given the circumstances, given what he saw as the inevitably disastrous consequences of some ways of thinking and talking in the 430s and 440s that nearly everyone else was seeing as normal and acceptable, that he had to speak, had to act, could not just smile and encourage and teach people to pray.

Now a little theological excursus: The terminology opus alienum / opus proprium, as far as I know, originates with Martin Luther’s understanding and teaching about who God is and what God does. The proper work of God—the thing God is centrally out to do in our world—is the work of salvation. It is a work of restoring and building up and blessing. Why, then, all the words of judgment and condemnation in scripture? Why all the trouble and grief in the lives of believers and those on their way to belief? Because some clearing away has to be done before the building up. Some tearing down. In scripture the words of judgment and tearing down are unavoidable, they are everywhere. Anyone who knows the Bible at all knows this, and anyone who knows the history of Christianity knows that these words of tearing down have played out repeatedly, sometimes in ways that have been eventually edifying and sometimes in ways that have simply been permanently and lamentably damaging. Salvation and building up is God’s opus proprium, God’s own proper work; it expresses God’s love, and I believe God loves doing it. Judging and tearing down is God’s opus alienum; we do not like it, and at the risk of overstepping, I daresay God does not much enjoy it either. Any Christian who revels in judgment and tearing down, who can participate in it without experiencing anguish and regret, is sick and needs to withdraw and heal. But judgment and tearing down, while an alien work, is unquestionably part of what God has done and is doing in our world. It is no good attributing the opus alienum to the harsh God of the Old Testament and the loving opus proprium to Jesus. Taken to its logical conclusion, that is the way of Marcionism and anti-Judaism and the other bad things that follow from them. Grace and judgment flow inseparably through the whole Bible, and as Bonhoeffer taught us well, grabbing for the grace without the judgment cheapens the grace to the point where it is worthless, where it works not salvation but damnation. People who think Jesus was all loving and affirming all the time have simply not read, or have chosen to forget or disbelieve, the canonical gospels, in which he is quoted speaking with immense kindness to some while calling others vipers and whited sepulchers and promising that for them the flames of Gehenna will never cool and the worms never die. A Jesus of unconditional positive regard would never have been crucified because he never would have offended anyone. He would have made some people smile, either in genuine appreciation or indulgent disregard, but he could not have conquered sin and death, could not have bound Satan and liberated those long held captive. He would have done you and me no good whatsoever. He took the tearing down upon himself (both actively in his life and teaching and passively in his suffering on the cross) so that you and I could be built up; and as the whole of the New Testament shows, those who take up their cross and follow him will like their lord and master have as their proper work, their opus proprium, the work of building up, but they will also be unable, if they are consistently faithful, to escape their turn at the opus alienum, the tearing down, the condemning, the introduction of discomfort and discouragement—but never despair!—into the lives of those among whom they are called to serve and love and share life in God. Those who know the Bible will know that this dialectic of tearing down and building up is present in nearly all the saints who are given to us as models for imitation—the biblical characters and writers from Abraham, Moses, and David through Elijah and Jeremiah to Peter, Paul, and John, as well as the life of our Lord himself. This is why the life of a pastor, or of any faithful Christian, is a trail not of consistent rejoicing and blessing but also of tears and strife, of desolation as well as consolation. To deny either side is to tell a lie about God and life in God.

Back to this year and my Facebook posts. Early in the rise of Trump I had the amusing but discouraging experience of watching while an old elementary-through-high-school friend discovered my Facebook page and glowingly commented to another that “James is brilliant”! Then a few minutes later she discovered something I had said that was critical of Trump. She went back and erased her “James is brilliant!” comment. She doesn’t know that I ever saw it, but I watched this happen. I am glad the comment is gone, because I don’t think I’m brilliant; but I was perplexed to see that Trumpitude had become the criterion by which she was willing to reverse in an instant her opinion of a friend from long ago. Was this wise on her part? I know, or at least strongly suspect, that some Facebook friends who are church friends who formerly may have seen me as a kind of spiritual leader have recently concluded that I am not anyone they will particularly want to pay attention to in the future, because when they read my Trump-averse posts they recategorized me as a liberal Hillary-admirer (which I have never been, at least not until the Republicans nominated Donald Trump), or as one who unaccountably has taken to harping on political themes when they expected me to say nothing about politics but only to teach and pray and serve—the very things that I most want to do. Their opinions of me have altered. This is a price I have paid for this year’s opus alienum.

I do not regard myself as a prophet. I claim no special revelation. But I have felt every bit as called to the opus-alienum “political” posting I have done on Facebook as I have ever felt called to my opus-proprium work, because the brand of Christian discipleship in which I have been formed has never been world-ignoring. The heavens are full of the glory of God, and the earth will be filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea, and while the kingdom of God is not a matter of food and drink but of peace and joy in the Holy Spirit the teaching of the prophets and of Jesus himself is clear that we are not to ignore the world around us or willingly consign it to the powers of hell or neglect the poor and the oppressed or support—insofar as we have the power to support or resist—the powers of greed, violence, oppression. Every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess. All truth is God’s truth. Consequently every appearance of the demonic is a call both to prayer and to action. And especially is it the case that every appearance of idolatry and apostasy within the household of faith is a call not only to prayer but to resolute and uncompromising correction. When I pray every day “thy will be done on earth as in heaven” I am not thinking that I have been given a box seat from which to watch in serene detachment while it happens; I am thinking that I have consented to being dragged into a messy conflict that is in a certain theological sense already over but in the concrete is certainly not yet over, and in which I may—no, definitely will—be dirtied and bruised and in certain ways (since I am fallible) compromised. Did you know that the Apostle Paul’s normal Greek word for our walk as Christians is politeia? We should not draw too much from that lexical phenomenon, but it’s worth noting.

Moreover, I do not think it is wrong for a Christian to love his city and his country, and I do love America. This is my country, and while the history that I was taught as a child covered up much that was heinously unjust in its founding and growth, that history also conveys certain ideals, including ideals expressed here and there in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, the speeches of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and George Bush and Barack Obama. There is gold along with the dross in all these sources, and—subordinate to the gospel always—I  am deeply moved by and committed to this heritage, which for all its flaws nevertheless in imperfect ways deploys the teachings of the prophets and apostles as well as various secular sages for the sake of the construction of a just human society. I do not think that political action—i.e., concrete involvement, alongside believers and unbelievers, in the life of my city and our nation, including paying taxes, voting, and even if necessary taking up arms in defense of the homeland—is forbidden or even optional. It is part of the web of obligations that I accept as a Christian who is still also an embodied human being in a world of dirt and water and air and fire and highways and houses. Some Christians through the ages have heard a call to withdraw, to drop out, to separate, to maintain a pure witness unentangled with, feeling no responsibility for, the plight of the Christian and non-Christian brothers and sisters among whom they live. God bless them. I am sure that we need their witness and their ministry. I have experienced no such call. I am called to the messiness of living as a human being among human beings in the midst of economic and political entanglements that I do not particularly enjoy. I have felt called mostly to be quiet in my public socio-politico-economic engagements. I have never been or aspired to be an activist and don’t think I would make a very good one. I would rather carry out my civic responsibilities quietly so as not to distract any more than necessary from my opus proprium, my life as a theological publisher, and a family man, and above all as a follower of Jesus in the community of Jesus-followers, doing whatever I can to make this community supportive and edifying for those on the inside and inviting and welcoming to those on the outside. But the first time I voted in an election, the die was cast. I am responsible for what my city and my nation do, and I can no longer opt out.

To get to the point—and here I want to emphasize that I am speaking primarily to those who have known me, have considered me their friend, who have therefore seen at least some of my weaknesses, but who nevertheless have had occasion to form some kind of positive impression of my learning, my discernment, my judgment, whether in history or scripture or theology or in any other branch of wisdom. I am therefore speaking to very few people! But to people who matter greatly to me. So to you who have ever thought that I see anything clearly, I will tell you what I have seen this year. This year I have seen folly and blasphemy of a sort that I have not seen before. I have seen a selfish, immoral man who like the horn of Daniel’s beast boasts arrogantly, who like Matthew’s false prophet spouts nonstop obvious lies that nevertheless, miraculously, deceive many. I have heard this man tell us as clearly as anyone could, that while he claims (with no support from his pastor or anyone else) to be a Presbyterian, he has in fact never been and is not now a Christian (in that he has never believed that he needed to repent of anything and has no understanding at all of the central rite of our worship—he eats the little cracker!). I have heard him speak abusively and disrespectfully about almost everyone that he has ever spoken about at all. I have heard him slander the sitting president (especially with lies about his birth). I have heard him slander Hillary Clinton—a politician whom most of us (myself included!) never really trusted or liked but nevertheless a credible Methodist Christian and—unlike himself—a plausible and in some ways outstandingly qualified candidate. Among other things, he had the audacity to label her as “lying Hillary” when by any objective measure her record for truth-telling in political discourse places her among the most truthful and his makes him the most consistent and outrageous liar in the history of American politics. (Pop quiz: who is the father of lies?) On the world stage, I have heard him express admiration for, and receive support from, no credible leaders anywhere but only thuggish, self-enriching, other-oppressing dictators. I have heard and seen him solicit and receive vandalizing, espionage-based assistance in his election campaign from the most dangerous trouble-maker on the current scene, an unreconstructed KGB officer who is out to destroy everything that post-WW2 American foreign policy has so laboriously accomplished. I have seen him dismiss the knowledge and judgment of the military and intelligence leaders upon whose knowledge and judgment any sane incoming president would be planning to rely, while at the same time recruiting some of the bad apples among them to serve in what is shaping up to be an excessively militarized  administration. I have watched him deliberately stir up mistrust and hatred of foreigners and immigrants. I have watched and heard him cultivate the support of white supremacists. I have heard this unrepentant adulterer brag that he can commit sexual assault with impunity, and I have listened and watched while—with nothing at all in his history to make the claim credible—he has called himself pro-life and suggested that he will appoint pro-life judges in order to enlist the votes of those who (rightly!) were put off by Hillary’s pro-abortion rhetoric; and I saw that strategy succeed despite the well-documented fact that abortion has risen under putatively anti-abortion Republican presidents and declined under pro-choice Democratic administrations. We have seen and heard him Tweet and spout inanely and voluminously on every topic, always in a petty, self-centered vein, demonstrating to all the world that our president elect is—there is no other word for it, and as many have pointed out he fits the biblical definition of this word perfectly, so that in this case it is not a term of angry abuse and I will not go to hell for saying it—a fool.

I have heard and seen a small number of  the most spiritually and intellectually stunted so-called evangelical leaders endorse Donald Trump while the vast majority of wiser evangelical leaders (not to mention Christian leaders more broadly) have denounced him or distanced himself from him or at most remained silent. I personally am privileged, through my work, to know many dozens of deeply learned, wise, and good Christian thinkers, teachers, and writers, people much smarter and better than myself, and I will tell you—without intending to insult anyone among my friends who may on some occasion have let slip some kind of support for or openness to Donald Trump—that I am not aware of a single person whose Christian learning and character I greatly respect who thinks that Donald Trump is anything other than a charlatan and an outrage. Read that sentence again. I have never been in a position to say that about anyone on the American political scene and hope never to be so again. And yet I have read that a high percentage of white evangelical Christians voted for this man, and I can only believe that many of my friends have done so. I am astounded and dismayed.

I am not omniscient. It is always the case—always—that anything I say may be mistaken. Maybe Donald Trump could become president and hold that office for four years or eight years, and the country would be OK and the world would be OK. But that is not what I am seeing. I am seeing a threat to democracy in America. I am seeing threats to large sectors of our diverse population. I am seeing a threat to the stability of the global political order. I am seeing a very great likelihood that what this presidency will be about will be about getting more money and power and notoriety for Donald Trump while he continues to deceive, abuse, and betray everyone else. Everyone. Or everyone but his richest cronies in this country and his similarly treacherous and deceptive comrades in high places overseas—or in the case of Putin, the much smarter operator who will dupe him and ruin him, and us. I do not think that he knows or cares about our poor, our working people, our minorities, our majorities, our culture, our constitution, our environment, or anything else that is dear to all of us. He has massive financial conflicts of interest and has given every possible indication that he will not free himself of them but will to the contrary draw his family members into his governmental duties while continuing to involve them in his financial affairs precisely in order to use the power of the office of the presidency to increase his own personal power and wealth. He has promised to appoint cabinet secretaries who have no competence to run their departments and have expressed ignorance-based hostility to the missions of those departments. Worse than that, I believe he has given every sign one could possibly give of being a nascent tyrant in the mold of Hitler or Mussolini. I am aware that the name of Hitler has far too often been thrown about as a term of abuse in the political arena, and I am also aware that as things stand Trump has done nothing, and could not threaten to do anything, rivaling the horrors inflicted on the world by Hitler. But for me (and others whose historical judgment and political awareness I respect) the mood and feel of the Trumpist movement is far too close for comfort to the rise of National Socialism in Germany in the 1930s, and the utter moral, spiritual, and intellectual vacuity of the man means that he could readily become, if he is not already, the host of any number of malignant demons who may through him accomplish things that will dismay even the most devoted deceived Trumpists.

So I have reflected: what is the duty of a Christian of my sort, in my position, under such circumstances? Is it so be quiet, aloof, dignified? Is it to say encouraging things like “God is in control” or “Set your mind on things above”? Was that the responsibility of a (real) German Christian in the 1930s as Hitler successfully enlisted churches and biblical scholars and theologians for his (counterfeit, coopted) “German Christian” church of blood and soil and xenophobia and Aryan supremacism? I think not. We are not that far down the road, but we have taken the first steps down the road. We have brothers and sisters among us who are deceived and corrupted. We have “leaders” in the Christian movement who are sold out to a profoundly sub-Christian ideology and who urge their followers in that direction. For the sake of the church I could not be silent. For the love of whatever good America has stood for, I could not be silent. As long as there is any chance—and at this moment I think there is still a slender chance—of avoiding the election and inauguration of this person as president of the United States, I had to say something. In a setting where I have heard other Christians counsel that we must encourage and build up, I hear a clear call to denounce and discourage. This denouncing and discouraging is an opus alienum, a strange work, but it is unavoidable and essential. There is a time to bless and a time to curse, a time to build up and a time to tear down. When you see a red sky in the morning you say that bad weather is coming. Should we refuse to read the signs of the times? When the storm is past, please God, we will return to encouraging and blessing and building up. If it worsens, we will once again have to discern our calling under even worse circumstances.

There you have it: my account of my recent, and perhaps not yet finished, strange work. It’s just a handful of Facebook posts, mostly just a few words of my own, framing a reposted article by someone else. A pitifully weak contribution, really, for good or for ill. This strange work has brought me no joy; I feel sickened by it. And I know that it has been enough to give offense, or at least to cause concern, among some of my friends. Hence this apologia. My question to you—and this is a bold and deliberately challenging question of a sort that one would only dare pose to a trusted friend: if my perceptions in these matters do not coincide with your own, how quickly, and on what basis, knowing me as you have known me, will you conclude that I am wrong? You are welcome to let me know. Perhaps I will learn something from you. Or at least, knowing where I am coming from, you may forgive me for being so wrong.

Monday, July 25, 2016

God Bless America?

Last Thursday evening my wife and I went with a group of my work colleagues to a West Michigan Whitecaps game. A good time was had by all, as they say. The fact that this was minor-league play at its furthest remove from the majors didn't bother me; in any sport, I'd rather watch the local high-schoolers in person than the pros on TV. (To tell the truth, I'd rather pick up a bat myself, take ebullient swings at slow pitches by good friends, and trudge as far as possible around the bases before total knee-joint collapse; but I haven't swung a bat for decades.) For me, and I think for most of the crowd, being at a White Caps game was not so much about watching the game as such; it  was about participating in a whole complex of community-celebrating rituals. Among which: the seventh-inning stretch, when the whole crowd stood up to sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

For a number of years following 9/11, the seventh-inning-stretch song was "God Bless America." I guess that was a song that we needed to sing when we felt bereaved and assaulted and threatened. Has some of that feeling worn off, or did we just get tired of singing that song at baseball games? I remember "God Bless America" from my childhood. At Dupont Elementary School in Hopewell, VA,  we sang it in music classes during the Cold War era, when we also had nuclear-attack drills. But I don't think the song was ever for us only about feeling threatened. It was also, like another favorite of our music teachers, "This Land Is Your Land, This Land Is My Land," a celebration of the length and breadth, the natural and human expanse and diversity, of our beloved country. There were, and are, shadow sides to such celebration, but for me the shadows have never vitiated the positive impulse. At any rate, the song and the phrase stick with us. An expansion of the phrase is, for example, a common ending to speeches by our national political leaders. "And God bless the United States of America."

Do we not need to ask ourselves now and then what we mean by saying that? Perhaps especially in an election year, when we have to talk about our country a lot? I'm not going to ask here what our politicians mean by using that phrase in their speeches. I'm going to ask what it means for a Christian, specifically, to say "God bless America." The two questions overlap, of course, because some of our politicians are Christian, or want to get votes by being accepted by Christians as Christian, or both. But in what sense can an American Christian rightly say "God bless America?"

Any talk of God's blessing a nation inevitably recalls the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12: 

     I will make you into a great nation,
       and I will bless you;
     I will make your name great,
       and you will be a blessing.
     I will bless those who bless you,
       and whoever curses you I will curse;
     and all peoples on earth
       will be blessed through you. (NIV)

Some have imagined a simple and total transfer of the covenant promises from Israel to the British Commonwealth and the United States of America. Haven't ever heard of that? Good. It's called British-Israelism. As biblical interpretation it is profoundly confused, as theology it is heretical, and as ecclesial identifier it marks off one deviant sector of the lunatic fringe.

More commonly these days we hear the notion that God wants to bless America to the extent that America will single-mindedly and uncritically support the military and land-use policies of the most Zionist factions in the modern state of Israel and steadfastly ignore the plight of the Palestinian people. Maybe this is better than British-Israelism insofar as it recognizes one of the axioms of any Christian meditation on the topic of God and Israel, namely, that we should by no means say that God has rejected "his own people, the nation of Israel" by physical descent (Romans 11:1). I am not going to get into debates about who is at fault and what US policy should be in the painfully complex mess that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All I am going to say is that as biblical interpretation and as Christian theology, this notion of what it means for God to bless America is only minimally better off than British-Israelism and is more pernicious because it is more widely sold and bought.

I submit that the properly Christian way to pray for God to bless America means something different. For one thing, it means praying for the conversion of millions of hearts and minds in this country of ours to the way of Jesus Christ. It also means praying that we who call ourselves Christians will be given the wisdom and the grace to conduct ourselves, in all the contexts of our civic life, in such ways as to be a blessing to our fellow citizens, i.e., to be models and channels of the grace and truth that are in Christ. That grace centrally entails generous, self-emptying speech and action undertaken for the good of others (Philippians 2:6-11).

For various complex reasons (can't get into this without getting into the whole history of Christian understandings of the nature of secular government), I do not think Christians should expect our US government or its policies to be specifically Christian in this self-emptying way, nor do I think we should wish to elect only Christians to positions of authority in government. Rather, we should pray (in words cribbed, with minor adjustments, from Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon's Daily Devotional Guide) "for the peace of our troubled world and all her people, that evil and violence may be restrained, and that peace and justice may prevail; [and] for those who govern our country and our city, that they may govern with wisdom in these troubled times, with compassion for those in need, and with justice for all."

To pray or sing "God bless America" in the sense of asking God to enable our nation (or party, or candidate) to win by making losers of other nations (or parties, or candidates), or to ask God to bless us mainly or only by expanding our borders and further empowering and enriching us, or to ask God to bless us otherwise than in order to bless all peoples on earth through us, or to ask God to bless us in any other way than by transforming us individually according to the pattern offered in Jesus Christ and nationally according to the patterns of justice, righteousness, and benevolence that the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, and other moral and religious traditions from cultures across history and around the globe, entail as obligations for all nations is not prayer (sincere offering of ourselves for conformity to God's goodness) but blasphemy (abuse of God's name for selfish aims in disobedience to God's gracious, self-giving instruction).

With that preunderstanding in place, yes, please! God bless America! Take me out to the ball game, and may all the bats be swung only at baseballs.

P.S. In case you are not yet so sick of current events that you actually want an explicit link to current events, I will offer: The benedictions at the Republican National Convention included at least one blasphemy (by Mark Burns, Monday night, and one prayer (Steve Bailey, Thursday night, That is not a personal opinion or a liberal or conservative political opinion; it is the straightforward finding of a Christian theologian. That doesn't mean that it is infallible, but it does mean that if you want to disagree in a way that interests me (or is allowed as a comment in my space), you will need theological arguments. My personal opinions: the latter might have been stronger if it had been shorter, but its heart is in the right place; the former was garment-rendingly abominable.

P.P.S. Yes, for any who caught the echo and are wondering, I did along the way deliberately say that it is possible for a Christian to pray the "prayer of Jabez" in a sub-Christian and in fact blasphemous way.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Hawkins Questions at Wheaton

There is confusion.

The pertinent question with regard to Wheaton College's process against Larycia Hawkins is NOT any of the following:

  • Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?
  • Are Allah and Jesus the same God?
  • Is it appropriate or inappropriate for a Christian woman to wear a hijab to express solidarity with Muslim women who are mistreated because they wear a hijab?
  • Is Islam true?
  • Is Islamic theology compatible with Christian theology?
  • Are Muslims saved or damned?
  • Is Allah really Satan in disguise?
  • Is Christianity true?
  • Is there salvation in any other name than the name of Jesus?
  • Is God a Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
  • Can Christians be Democrats?
  • Can evangelical Christians be politically liberal?
  • Should Wheaton have a Statement of Faith?
  • Should adherence to Wheaton's Statement of Faith be a condition of employment as a faculty member at Wheaton College?
  • How do politically conservative big donors feel about politically liberal professors at Wheaton?
  • Is Larycia Hawkins politically liberal?
  • Should Wheaton College exclude or embrace women and people of color?
  • etc., ad infinitum

Some of the preceding question are interesting, and some of them are stupid. But they are not the pertinent question.

The pertinent question is this:
  • Has Larycia Hawkins, by commenting, in the context of an expression of solidarity with Muslim women who are mistreated because they wear the hijab, that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, breached the Wheaton College Statement of Faith?

The answer is: certainly not.

Answers to the other questions are not answers to this question.

A further pertinent question is:

  • Is Larycia Hawkins in any other way out of step with the Wheaton College Statement of Faith?

Answer: she says that she is not, and I have not seen any credible suggestion that she is.

Further question:

  • Why is this so hard?

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Wheaton College, Larycia Hawkins, and the One True God

As a grateful Wheaton College alumnus (BA, 1981), I have been observing with dismay the controversy surrounding Wheaton College’s reaction to Wheaton professor Larycia Hawkins’s expression of solidarity with Muslim women who face hostile treatment because they wear the hijab, and in particular to her comment that Muslims, after all, worship the same God. I will not bother providing links to news coverage. If you are not already closely tuned in to that news, you probably aren’t going to be interested in what I have to say here.

If you are tuned in to the controversy, but have not seen Dr. Hawkins's own statement, it is worth reading. Find it here.

For my part, I will start by saying that Islam is not Christianity, Muslim understandings of the implications of monotheism are incompatible with Christian trinitarian theology, and certain elements in the Quran and in Muslim practice are incompatible with Christian understandings of the character of God; and in that sense the Muslim god is a different god from the Christian god. I think any informed Christian or Muslim would agree with these statements.

I further reckon that the Muslim god (whom Muslims call simply God) is more different from the Christian god (whom Christians call simply God) than is the Jewish god (whom Jews call simply God, and whom most Christians will say is the same God), though I do think some of the Christians who assert that Muslims worship a different god because they are not trinitarians need to pause long enough to ask themselves what St. Paul (the author of the Epistle to the Romans, including chapters 9–11) would say if he caught them asserting that anyone who claims to worship the god of Abraham, but denies trinitarian Christian theology, is worshiping a different and false god.

So I will go on to say also: in a sense one can say that not only Jews but also Muslims worship the same God as Christians. Others (see, e.g., Kelly James Clark’s blog post) have offered such arguments, so I won’t elaborate, except to note that Christians, Muslims, and Jews all affirm that there is no god but God, the god of Abraham. In a very obvious sense, notwithstanding the very significantly different Muslim, Jewish, and Christian understandings of God, they are all talking about the one true God who called Abraham.

But is something beyond that obvious but limited sameness at stake in same-God claims? Maybe so. Maybe what is really going on is the assertion of legitimacy by proponents of a later development, and rejection of that assertion by apologists for the earlier orthodoxy. But there is more than one way to reject the legitimacy of a later development. You can (1) reject the same-God claim, saying they are worshiping a false god (i.e., they are idolatrous); or you can (2) allow that they are trying to worship the same God but point out that they are getting some important things very wrong (i.e., they are heretical).

Thus Paul and other early Jesus-followers (Jesus-following being, historically speaking, a later development of Israelite religion and theology) were very definite in asserting that the god they were worshiping was the same God that Abraham and David worshiped. In that case, as far as I can see, Israelites who did not become Jesus-followers (much less trinitarians) did not say Christians were following a different god—rather, they said Christians were heretics, i.e., taught falsely about God.

To complicate the picture, though, we have to admit that “they are idolatrous” and “they are heretical” are not the only two options for describing those who believe and worship differently. The range of possibilities would include these two and others:
  1. They are idolatrous (worshipers of a false god; their religion and theology are illegitimate and perhaps morally culpable).
  2. They are heretical ( trying to worship God, but so gravely mistaken on essential points that we must deem their theology and religion illegitimate and perhaps morally culpable; we cannot be in formal religious fellowship with them).
  3. They are mistaken (we have differences, and they are wrong, but not so badly wrong, or not on such key points, as to render their faith and worship illegitimate; we can be in some kinds of religious fellowship with them, though maybe not full communion).
  4. We really do disagree, but I will not claim that we are right and they are wrong.
  5. What they believe would be wrong for us but is OK for them.
  6. We all really believe the same thing.
To take some test cases:
  • Most Christians in the big Orthodox-Catholic-Protestant-Evangelical-Pentecostal tent, in speaking about each other, would say something in the range of 3–6 and would regard those who say 2 about fellow Christians within this range  as fundamentalists (in the pejorative sense of the word). Any who said 1 about fellow Christians would simply be beyond the pale.
  • Most Christians in this same range, in speaking about Jews, would say something in the range of 2–5 and would regard Christians who say 1 about Jews as Marcionites or the worst kind of supersessionists. (Strangely, in the context of the current flap over whether Muslims worship the same god as Christians, I am nevertheless hearing Christians express their anti-Islamic polemic in ways that by unavoidable implication would require them to say 1 also about Jews.)
  • A marginally relevant bonus observation: Wheaton Christianity and Roman Catholicism say 3 about each other. From the Wheaton side: you are Christian, but you can’t teach with us (the Wheatonish equivalent of full communion); from the Catholic side: you are Christian, but you can’t take communion with us. (I regret both sides of this ongoing mutual excommunication.)
  • Some liberal-revisionist Christians are willing to say 5 about Islam and other religions. Wheaton Christianity can say 5 about Judaism and about very little else, certainly not about Islam.
  • Another possibly gratuitous bonus observation: a Christian who is able to say 6 about Islam, or Judaism, or even other varieties of orthodox Christianity either doesn’t know much or doesn’t much care. 

By the way, not sure where to throw this in, so will put it here: what are we to make of Paul’s identifying the God whom he proclaimed with the “unknown god” of the polytheistic Athenian monuments in Act 17? Of course it is a rhetorical stratagem. But I don’t think we want to say that in using it Paul transgressed the truth of the gospel, do we? So sometimes there is an option 7: they simply do not know the truth, and we should stretch as far as we can to find something to affirm in their current beliefs in hope of winning them over to the truth. If Paul thought this was a possible Christian stance toward paganism, maybe it is another possible Christian stance toward Islam.

Also by the way: I locate myself among those who believe that it is more respectful and loving to say that another is wrong than to obliterate the other’s beliefs by claiming we all believe the same thing when we do not, and that it is simply fatuous to say that two mutually contradictory beliefs are both right. I am blessed to have very friendly Muslim neighbors, and I hope that if they happen to read this they will understand that I am very glad that they are my friends.

Which brings us back to this: What must traditionally orthodox Christianity, including Wheaton Christianity, say about Islam?

Between Islam (the later development) and both Judaism and Christianity (the predecessor faiths), Islam has an interest in legitimizing itself by claiming to worship the same God, while traditionally orthodox Judaism and Christianity, which cannot legitimize Islam, have to decide whether to say: (1) no, you have a different God, or (2) yes, but your understanding of God is heretical. (Liberal or revisionist Jews and Christians might say something in the range of 3–5 about Islam.)

Now, here is the really interesting thing: as a historical matter, Christian theologians contemporaneous with the rise of Islam (notably St. John of Damascus) said 2: Islamic theology is heretical! (On this, see the chapter on Islam in David Wilhite’s new Baker Academic book, The Gospel according to Heretics.)

I conclude that Christians today who want to make denial that Muslims worship the same God not just a preferred theological judgment (which might be a solidly grounded judgment) but an essential tenet of orthodox Christian theology have some explaining to do: they need to explain why they are not just departing from but condemning the teaching and practice of unquestionably orthodox Fathers like John of Damascus. (We might also think of the Pope and Miroslav Volf and others.) I don’t think they have explained. I suspect that some of them may actually be unaware of the relevant history.

Whether they are aware of the history or not, this appears to be what Wheaton’s leaders are setting forth as the Wheaton position:
  • Wheaton says 1 about Islam. —I think this could use some nuancing but at least in a sense is right.
  • Wheaton says 1 about Islam in a way that seems to require Wheaton to say 1 about Judaism as well. —This is a blunder.
  • Wheaton says that Wheaton’s statement of faith requires saying 1 and not 2 about Islam. —This is simply not true as a matter of straightforward exegesis of the Wheaton statement. I think Wheaton’s statement of faith may well require saying either 1 or 2, or both, about Islam, but it certainly does not rule out saying 2.
  • Finally, Wheaton seems to be teetering on the brink of saying that if you say 2 about Islam instead of, or along with 1, Wheaton will say definitely 3 and probably 2 (the expressions I have seen are blurry on this point) about you; so Larycia Hawkins has to go because she said Muslims worship the same God. —This would be not only mistaken but mean and ugly. In fact, this last bullet point appears to me so nonsensical theologically speaking as to require some other explanation. Since it is not the conclusion of a plausible theological argument, is it a symptom of messy relational dysfunction or of money-related politics or of something else I haven’t imagined? Or maybe they really aren’t thinking about saying this, which would make me glad.

I think the leaders at Wheaton must be aware of the serious disconnect between their actions and their reasons. How else to account for the fact that the Wheaton College web page on this issue, in its putative answer to the question “Is it true that Muslims and Christians worship the same God?” (Question 7 on the page) does not even address, much less answer, that question, then diverts to an emphatic statement on a different (uncontested) question. It’s just pounding a shoe on the table.

Similar questions could arise, by the way, with Mormonism. Mormons want to say they follow the same God, and the same Jesus, as Christians. It seems to me that traditionally orthodox Christianity can reply either: (1) no, you don’t: you follow fabrications of your own, applying to them names that you appropriate from our scripture and tradition; or (2) OK, but your understanding of God and of Christ is heretical.

If, with Islam and Mormonism alike, both tacks—1 and 2—are in some sense legitimate, i.e., if (as I believe) it makes sense to say “in a sense 1, but in another sense 2,” then why would you choose to say one rather than the other? It seems to me that you choose 1 emphatically, to the definite exclusion of 2, if you want to say to the Muslim (or the LDS believer): “I reject you, I don’t want to cooperate with you in anything, I don’t want to converse with you, and I will not express solidarity with you if you are mistreated, and I may possibly blame you for the egregious misdeeds of others who call themselves Muslims”; you choose 2 if you want to say: “I think you’re wrong, but I do not want to reject your dignity and your goodwill, I will not blame you for what some others who call themselves Muslims have done, and I will find a way to express solidarity with you if you are mistreated, because I think there are some things we can do for good together in this world, and also because I hope that I may be able to persuade you to modify your views in the direction of the truth that is in Christ as understood in historic Christian orthodoxy.”

In other words, the choice between “same God” and “different god” is not a matter of abstract truth, and certainly not a matter of creedal fidelity, because you could say either, or both, depending on how you define sameness; rather, it is a matter of rhetorical intent. Do you want to reject and denounce, or do you want to engage and persuade?

I favor engagement and persuasion. I think it’s the more Christian way (although there is ample precedent in Christian scripture and history for both ways). And it seems to me that those (at Wheaton or SBTS or elsewhere) who react so grimly against fellow Christians who either naively or with deliberate generosity acknowledge Muslims as worshipers of the same God are manifesting (yet again!) too much anxiety about the fragility of Christian orthodoxy (as though one might, by uttering a generous word to a fellow human being, cause the whole edifice of Christian truth to crumble into oblivion) and too little generosity toward the good-faith efforts of some (orthodox!) Christian believers to show forth not only truth but grace. They seem, incredibly, to have failed to grasp the difference between a properly Christian expression of solidarity with a fellow human being on the basis of some generously sought bit of common ground and a blanket endorsement and adoption of the other’s entire belief system.

For myself, while I reject the same-God claims as a matter of precise theological description, I also accept them as a strategy for humane collaboration and for apologetic and evangelistic (Acts 17!) engagement; and I do not think there is any contradiction in this simultaneous rejection (in one sense, for one purpose) and acceptance (in another sense, for another purpose). One has to have an ear, and a mind, for critical distinctions. And a loving heart. My alma mater is, or ought to be, of the same mind—and heart. I’m pretty sure I learned some of this there.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

A leaf from the journal of a theological publisher

I guess in any line of work one invited to lead will now and then gather the team and ask: what do we imagine we are doing? If you take someone who might really rather be reading the ancients reading the Bible and put him in that position in your publishing company, you might get something like thismore of a daydream, perhaps, than a useful business talk . . .


Psalm 1

Blessed is that person
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but whose delight is in the law of the LORD,
and who meditates  on God’s law day and night.

That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
Everything that person does prospers.

The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners  in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish

A Publisher’s Daydream on Psalm 1

Here we work on books, and the book of books is the Bible, and St. Athanasius says that the book of Psalms sums up every other book of the Bible. The first psalm tells us how and why to read the other Psalms, and by extension the whole Bible, and by further extrapolation any other book that draws upon the Bible. So we do well to read this psalm as we sit down to think about our work.
Blessedness, like immortality, belongs to God alone. It is proper to eternity, not history, and does not come naturally to us, caught up as we are in mortal change and chance. And yet our psalm begins asrei ha-ish, “blessed the human being.” This Psalm will tell how mere humans may share the blessedness proper to God alone, how we may share the life divine.
The way to blessedness is the law of the Lord, the torah-instruction of the one whom Moses saw from the bush and on the mountain. Those who would be blessed must delight in this instruction, recite and ponder it by day and night. This instruction appears as such in the five books of Moses, but also in the prophets and the writings, and again also in the gospels and epistles. The torah shows us how to live. So the NRSV pluralizes, “Blessed are those who. . . .” All the moral exhortation of the whole torah applies to the plural us.
In our work-life together at this press, then, let us not become idolaters through loving God with less than our whole heart, mind, and strength. Let us love our neighbors as ourselves. Let us not take from them what is theirs, or even desire to take it. Let us not commit murder through angry thoughts. Let us remember that a cord of three strands is not easily snapped, and so let us find ways to weave ourselves into such a cord rather than work as isolated threads, readily tangled and easily broken. Let us not sit in the seat of the scornful, affronting God by sarcastically rending the flesh of God’s children. Let us be neither suck-ups nor backbiters, but let our yes be yes, our no be no, and all our speech direct, constructive, true.
Let us not sponsor literary prostitution.
It’s all there in the law of the Lord, and we know it well.
But to say we know is not enough. Delighting in the law of the Lord in actual practice lies no more within our grasp than does the blessedness itself to which that law should lead. “Blessed are those?” Is that plural right? Is there, has there ever been, even one human being who so delighted in the torah as to live it day and night?
You can see where we are headed, no? St. Augustine’s comments on this Psalm begin: “De Domino nostro Iesu Christo . . .  accipiendum est” (it must be received as referring to our Lord Jesus Christ). Augustine contrasts Jesus Christ, the lordly man, who did not turn away into the path of the ungodly, against that other man, the earthy one, Adam, who turned away. Christ is the blessed one.
St. Basil believed the blessed one could also be one of us in union with Christ. But noting the aorist-tense verbs in the Greek of Psalm 1:1, he said we can only speak these words of those now dead; until that point, how could you know they would not turn aside?
But can we gain some profit from this text while we yet live? How does our Lord’s achievement help us? How can we be united with it, and even with him?
Our psalmist has a fresh suggestion for us: to gain blessedness by delighting in the torah of the Lord, make like a tree and leave. That is, be planted by the river, draw nourishment from it, and put forth fruit and leaves.
What river? It can only be one, though it has many names. It flows through all of scripture because God is present to all times and places.
This is the river that flowed from the pristine garden of human innocence, dividing into four branches called Pishon and Gihon, Tigris and Euphrates—all now lost—the first two disappeared in mists of mythic memory, the latter pair still with us but defiled beyond despair with the blood of human and demonic violence.
But this is also the mystical river springing up invisibly, intangibly in the Holy City, which has no physical river! —of which the Psalmist nevertheless writes, “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,” and “The river of God is full of water.”
Regarding this river the prophet calls out, “Ho, every one who thirsts, come to the waters.”
Of this river Jesus spoke, when on the last and greatest day of the feast of lights he stood in the temple and cried, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. The one who believes in me, as the scripture has said, out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.” St. John tells us he was speaking of the Spirit.
This is the river that John says flowed along with the blood from our Lord’s pierced side.
This is the river that Ezekiel sees flowing from beneath the threshold of the new temple, first just ankle-deep, then knee-deep, then waist-high, then deep enough to swim in, then uncrossable, with trees growing along its banks, whose leaves will not wither, whose fruit will not fail; and the fruit is for food, and the leaves are for healing. When it flows into the great polluted sea, it turns it fresh and pure.
This is the river, then, from which arises the second and final great deluge, the ultimate paradoxical fulfillment of the promise of the rainbow, the flood of which the prophets said, “The earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
Every time we say, “Thy kingdom come,” we pray for the advent of this healing flood to overwhelm and sweeten the accumulated tears of the ages.
Augustine says this river is God’s own Wisdom, which put on human nature for our sake. Again, he says, the river is the Holy Spirit, sent to empower Christ’s mission to the world. We may infer: it is the divine life, the divine mystery flowing out, washing and watering and nourishing.
The torah is not God but comes from God and leads to God. The Bible, sacred book that it is, is not the very Wisdom of God; Christ is that. Nor is the Bible the Spirit. But it conveys the torah of God in a powerful if oft perplexing way, so that we ponder for a lifetime, turning it and turning it again, and when through the Spirit the Word speaks to us clearly we delight.
What of the books we publish here? Most of them grapple, directly or indirectly, with what the Bible says, and yet it’s all still ink on leaves, always at a remove—sometimes a great remove—from the divine realities to which the Bible points. We wouldn’t dare pretend that all, or even any, of the many-leafed books that we produce capture and bear the pure wisdom of God.
And yet . . . if we thought that we were only passing time and getting paid, or even ifmore boldour highest hope was to keep our feet from the path of the ungodly and our rear ends out of the seat of the scornful, if we could not aspire to be planted near the river, if we despaired of yielding one or two leaves for the healing of the nations, how long would we stay in these jobs? And when the great flood has washed away all our endeavors, will we not, you and I, consider it a precious grace, will we not call ourselves blessed, if we look back and see that, until that flood came, we occupied, and what we did this year, our daily grind—acquire, edit, design, proof, market, sell—contributed  thirty, or sixty, or a hundred drops to the knowledge of the Lord on the earth?
We are not the river. Sometimes we lose awareness of our nexus with the river. But that’s how it is with a tree. The tree does not stand in the river. The tree would drown, or wash away. The tree is planted in the ground; its roots dig deep into the dirt. We and our authors all are deeply grounded in the dirt of human history and culture—archaeologists each one. We deal in artifacts and ruined memories, bits of evidence, fragments of arguments, conclusions named perhaps.
But the unseen river flows nearby, and irrigates the soil, and who can know what moist drops even now are being absorbed into the tips of roots, or carried up the cortex of the trunk, or extruded into fruit and leaves? And who knows where that fruit, and where those leaves, may fall?
A tree watered by that river must surely be a tree not of knowledge only but also, to some degree, of life.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Eucharist (after the Earthquake)

Luke 22:14-23 – The Lord’s Supper

A communion homily for the Nepali-speaking community at my church in Grand Rapids, May 3, 2015. The community includes people who have become Christians and others who have not. Since the sermon was to be translated into Nepali on the fly by our pastor for this community (thank you, Pastor Ram!), the assignment was to keep it simple and short; this posed a salutary challenge. It was a privilege and joy to share in the service with them. Pastor Ram, whose father's house was one of the many thousands destroyed, led a joyful service of praise to God.

My friends, I am very glad to be here with you in this worship service this morning. I give thanks to God for our time together. For me, gathering in the name of Jesus for worship each Sunday morning is not only the beginning of the week but also the center of the week. I do many other things each week, as you do also. I work, I sleep, I eat, I spend time alone, I spend time with friends and with family. But the beginning, and the center, and the end of everything that happens during the week is here, on Sunday morning, because it is here that I join with other followers of Jesus to remember the goodness of God, and to remember that in the end our only hope is in God. I am very glad to be remembering these things today together with you.

When we worship on Sunday mornings, we always read from the Bible. We read from it because we believe that it tells us what God wants us to know. It contains many remarkable stories, and poems, and laws, and letters. It can seem confusing. But when God enables us to understand it properly, we realize that it is really one large story. It is the story of God's love. God created this world in order to place people in it—people whom he loves. That includes me and you. It includes every human being who has ever lived. But the Bible tells us that human beings have often forgotten that God loves them. As a result we have not lived according to the good patterns that God gives us. God in his love created the human race to be good, and happy, and to live with each other in peace. But we turned away from God, and fell into evil and unhappiness and darkness.

What could God—who did not stop loving us—do to bring us back to goodness and happiness? This book tells us. Jesus came and lived among us. He taught, and he healed. In the books of the Bible called the Gospels we find the stories about what Jesus said and did. We believe that when we hear the teachings of Jesus, we hear the voice of God. We believe that when we see Jesus healing people, we see God reaching out in mercy to the human race. We believe that when we read of Jesus suffering and dying, we are seeing God himself—the God who created the whole world in love—entering into our suffering. God does not leave us alone in our suffering and sorrow; God comes and is with us and shares completely in all that we suffer. This is what we learn from seeing Jesus die on the cross. And then when we read of the resurrection of Jesus, we learn that in the end God will succeed in overcoming all of the suffering and evil of our world.

This book—the Bible—invites us to say yes to Jesus. This book invites us to say to Jesus: You came to call us back to God, to be the presence of God among us, to be our friend; and I accept your offer of friendship. I want to sit at your table and take part in the meal that you have prepared. I want to be with you, and I know that when I commit myself to being with you, I am accepting God’s love.

The story that we read today tells about the meal that Jesus shared with his followers before his death. Jesus and all the people of Israel celebrated a special meal every year. This meal was called Passover. They celebrated Passover as a way of remembering that many centuries earlier God had rescued their ancestors out of slavery. The people of Israel had become slaves in Egypt. But God sent Moses to bring them out. Before they went out of Egypt, Moses and the people of Israel ate a special meal—the Passover meal. To prepare that meal, each family in Israel killed a lamb. They put some of the blood of the lamb outside the door of their house. This blood was a sign that they had an agreement with God and belonged to God. They cooked the lamb and ate it as their Passover meal. And then God brought them out, and made them free, and told them how to live well, and gave them a land to live in. That event is called the Exodus. “Exodus” means “going out.” They went out of Egypt. That is the story that Jesus and his followers are remembering when they eat the Passover meal.

Jesus wants his followers to understand that something very important is about to happen. He is about to die. But his death is not like any other. It will accomplish a new Exodus. It will deliver God's people from slavery—from slavery to sin and death. So when the disciples sit down to eat, Jesus tells them: This bread is my body, which is given to set you free. This wine is my blood. He talks about blood because he knows that he will soon die. “Blood” means death. Jesus tells them that just as the death of the lamb eaten in the Passover meal had meant that the people of Israel had an agreement with God and belonged to God, so also the death of Jesus would provide a way for all who follow him to have an agreement with God and belong to God.

In many cultures, when people eat a meal together it means that they agree with each other and want to live their lives together. So also when we as Christians gather for worship and take communion, we are saying that we agree with each other and want to live our lives together. But we are saying more than that. Jesus said: I am like the Passover lamb, and this bread is my body. So when we eat this bread together, we are not just saying we want to live life together with the other people in this room. We are saying that we want to live life together with Jesus. We are saying that we need Jesus in order to live. As we eat the bread, we are taking Jesus into ourselves. So also when we drink the grape juice together, we are not only drinking juice with other people here in this room. Jesus said this cup is the agreement with God that is in his blood. So when we drink this juice, we are drinking in the life and death of Jesus in order to be part of the agreement with God that Jesus makes possible.

Because of things that have happened this week, I want to say one more thing about this text from the Bible. The first thing that Jesus says in this text is: I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the Kingdom of God.
Here Jesus talks about two things: suffering, and the Kingdom of God.

Jesus says that he is going to suffer. He is going to suffer because God's people suffer. This was true in his time, and it is still true today. Jesus suffers with and for God's people. He does so in order to make it possible for them to enter the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is a time and a place where everything is as God wants it do be. God loves the people he has made and wants them to have peace and joy. As Christians we believe that, thanks to Jesus, our future is eternal life in God's peace and joy.

Jesus tells his followers that the Kingdom of God will come, and that when it does, he will sit down to eat and drink with his people. It has already begun to come. The fact that we are gathered here together in this room is a sign that it is already coming and is partly here. But it is not completely here. There is still suffering. There are still earthquakes. When earthquakes come, houses collapse, and people suffer.

Christians also suffer, like everyone else. But Christians know that Jesus has entered into our suffering, so that when we suffer, Jesus is here beside us. And we know that after Jesus died he was raised from the dead. He has already conquered suffering and death. So as we share communion together this morning, even if our hearts are sad because of the suffering caused by the earthquake, we are also filled with hope, because we know that we are God's people, and that the Kingdom of God is certainly coming.

Yes, Lord Jesus. Come!


Saturday, January 3, 2015

Three Fools, Two Kings, One Star

This is a slight revision of a sermon given at Thornapple Covenant Church, Grand Rapids, MI, on December 27, 2009. With thanks and apologies to Mark Allan Powell and Dale Allison, neither of whom should be blamed for what ensues.

Numbers 24:10-19
Matthew 2:1-12

Everyone loves the story about the star and the three wise men. “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” and all that. All the Christmas pageants with bathrobes and fake beards—those are happy memories, right? And gold, frankincense, and myrrh for baby Jesus turn into Christmas presents for everyone. So what’s to complain about?

Well, how can we get at this . . .

Do you remember 2 Timothy 3:16? “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that God’s people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Or remember what Paul says about certain biblical episodes in 1 Corinthians 10:11? “All these things happened to them by way of example, and they were written down to warn and instruct us.”

Both of these statements are talking about the Old Testament, because that’s what Paul and the other New Testament writers had for scripture. But for us, the New Testament is also scripture, so we do well to apply these same thoughts to the New Testament. And we could find other texts, Old Testament and New Testament, that tell us what the Word of God is and can do. Not a single one of them says, “Thou shalt use these Holy Scriptures to concoct weird science.”

I have heard and read a fair amount of speculation about the star of Bethlehem. It was a supernova, or it was a comet, or somebody has discovered ancient Egyptian or Chinese astronomical records that prove exactly when the star appeared. You could pile up the books and articles in grocery-store magazines and even in serious journals that take that sort of line, and none of it ever did the least bit of “teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.” None of it ever did anything to “equip God’s people for every good work.” I suggest to you that the Holy Spirit did not inspire the account of Noah’s flood in order to prompt 21st-century Christians like you and me, with no advanced training in geology, to make ourselves look silly by pretending to know more geology than the geologists; and the Holy Spirit did not inspire the account of the star of Bethlehem in order to prompt 21st-century Christians to make themselves look silly by offering up pseudoastronomical “facts.” The Word of God is not fragile or vulnerable and does not need that kind of “help” from us. More importantly, this kind of speculation seems to show we aren’t paying careful attention to what Scripture is actually trying to do. Scripture sets out to form us in humility, not to lead us into false pride. So if we approach the star with the wrong attitude, the star can lead us astray. Where should the star really lead us?

We’ll get back to that.

But for now: the magi. We often hear them referred to as the "three kings" or the "three wise men." Here again, there are problems.

First of all, if we’re going to read the text carefully, as we should, where does it say there are three of them? It doesn’t say that. It lists three kinds of gifts, but the one-to-one correspondence between gifts and givers is only an assumption. Later tradition even gave names to the three—Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar—and a cathedral in Germany even claims to have their bones. Some later writers saw them as representatives of the three major divisions of humanity: Asians, Africans, and Europeans. All well and good, but it’s not in Matthew—it’s the product of later imagination. But let’s suppose there were three of them. Three what? Three kings? Three wise men?

What about “kings”? On one level I guess it’s somehow impressive and encouraging if three mighty kings from the ancient orient show up to worship baby Jesus, but on another level, it doesn’t do much for me. I am not mighty and powerful! I do not rule over peoples and lands. If you do—great! Follow the three kings and bow down before Jesus! But I cannot identify with these three kings, so it’s hard for them to teach or instruct me. Maybe that’s just my problem. But here’s what’s not just my problem: Matthew doesn’t say they are kings! So why all the songs and paintings about three kings? A New Testament scholar named Mark Allan Powell became interested in that question and read all the early interpretations of this story, and he found something quite interesting. Prior to the fourth century, nobody read this story and saw three kings. It wasn’t until the fourth century, when the Roman emperor Constantine became a Christian, that Christian preachers started talking about the magi as kings. Before that, kings and rulers had persecuted Christians or at best been indifferent to Christ. But now, with Constantine, suddenly the king of the whole Mediterranean world is a Christ-worshiper and wants to take a hand in helping Christians settle their differences and unite, because if the whole empire can unite under one religion that will make it easier for him to govern. When a pagan king, a worshiper of pagan gods with no roots in Jewish scripture or religion and no Christian background, suddenly said, “I saw a sign in the heavens! I’m a Christian now, and I’ll help you sort out what Christians should believe and how they should relate to each other,” there were Christian teachers ready and willing to open their New Testament and say, “Whoa, look here! Right at the beginning of the gospel we find the example of three pagan kings who saw a sign in the heavens and came to worship Jesus! The only hitch is that Matthew doesn’t say anything about three kings.”

Matthew does mention two kings, though! One is Herod the King. This Herod is a client king, propped up by the Romans as king of the Jews. For convenience, he poses as a Jew, but he’s not really a Jew, and his subjects know it: he’s Idumean, a descendant not of Jacob, much less Judah and David, but of Esau. So in terms of the classical Israelite theology of kingship, he is not a legitimate king, and he knows it. So he’s insecure. He’s also brutal and immoral. When he hears of the birth of a “king of the Jews” in the lineage of David, he thinks only one thing: Must kill!

Now let’s try a little word-association game. I’ll say a word, and you say the first thing that pops into your head. OK? Sounds easy? But there are two complications. The first is that you aren’t you. You have to pretend you’re Matthew’s first readers. That is, you are Greek-speaking Jewish and Gentile Jesus-followers living in Syrian Antioch in about AD 85. That’s our best guess as to where this gospel was written and first read. The second complication: the word I am going to say is not in English; it’s in  Greek. The word is basileus. I’ll help you out a little: this word basileus is the normal Greek word for “king,” and it’s what Matthew calls Herod. But it’s also the normal Greek word for the the Roman emperor.

Now we’re ready to play. I say: basileus. Without pausing to think, without batting an eye, you say back: Domitianos. Domitian, the current emperor, the persecutor who has or soon will exile the presbyter John the island of Patmos. And you think: Titus, Domitian’s older brother, who commanded the armies that entered Jerusalem and leveled it to the ground. And you think: Nero, the vicious madman under whose regime so many Christians were lit up like torches at Rome, whose agents crucified Peter and beheaded Paul. That’s what will pop into the heads of Matthew’s readers when he says basileus. He is saying: you call that a king? Domitian? That’s not a king. That’s like the insecure pseudo-king Herod, quaking in his boots at Jerusalem, and soon to be swept off the stage of history.

Thus it ever was and ever shall be with wicked rulers, whether called king or emperor or premier or president or chancellor or some other title; whether called Pharaoh or Herod or Nero or Titus or Domitian. Those who would grind God’s children under their heel may prevail for a season and inflict great harm, but they will in the end find themselves fatally outmatched by the overruling providence of the one who wills his people’s vindication and liberation and salvation. I believe the Spirit of God wishes the people of God in situations of oppression and persecution in our own day to draw similar comfort and assurance from scripture. Their exile is grim, but their liberator is born, and nothing can stop him. And I believe the Spirit of God wishes us who are not oppressed and persecuted to take care that we do not find ourselves sitting on the throne of Herod.

Three kings? No. Matthew gives us a story of two kings, or rather of the anti-king and of the true king. The one true king, emperor, lord, leader of Judeans, Galileans, and gentiles, is the son of David, and he is nothing like the earthly tyrants. He is above all kingdoms, above all powers. He deserves our worship, our precious gifts, our all.

So much for “kings.” What about “wise men”? Some English translations use this wording. But Matthew does not. The same scholar who traced the history of the “three kings” idea also traced the history of the “wise men.” The magi become “wise men” in the writings of Renaissance and Enlightenment scholars who wanted to argue that secular learning is valuable. They wanted to study sciences like astronomy without interference from bishops and theologians. So they presented the magi as ancient near eastern scientists, scholars who read the book of nature and find that it points to Christ. “Oh, look!" they say, “Right here at the beginning of the gospel we find secular higher education accepted and endorsed!”

Some of these Enlightenment scholars were committed to following Christ; others, not so much. Either way it might be easy for those of us who believe that all truth is God’s truth to endorse their aims. To the wise, the scholars, the scientists, philosophers, and intellectuals in our midst or beyond our walls, we certainly want to say: Come with the magi to Christ, kneel down, offer your precious gifts to him.

But is that what Matthew meant? Is it what his first readers and hearers understood him to be saying?

Time for another word-association game! Again it’s a Greek word: magos. In English we use the Latin forms: singular magus, plural magi. When Matthew’s Jewish and Gentile Jesus-followers in late-first-century Syrian Antioch hear this word, what pops into their head? This is more difficult than the basileus. It’s ambiguous. In the Greco-Roman world of their day, many, perhaps most, people did believe that the stars either controlled events on earth or at least could predict them. It was normal for the biography of a great person to begin with signs in the stars or other supernatural omens. People who believed in such things might treat experts like magi with respect. On the other hand, some Greco-Roman writers were just as dismissive of astrology and other forms of exotic superstition as a modern scientist might be. So while it’s hard to say what gentiles among Matthew’s readers would have thought when he said magi, at any rate they would not have thought the magi represented the state of the art in secular learning.

But it it’s a little easier to tell what magi would have suggested to Jews because we have both Jewish scriptures and commentary from that age. The Greek Old Testament uses the word magos for the people that Nebuchadnezzar called in to interpret his dream. They were unable to interpret it, and Daniel had to supply the true interpretation, which God revealed to him. We know that Jewish commentary on the story of Moses used this word in connection with Pharaoh’s magicians, who tried to discredit Moses and Aaron by duplicating their miracles. Their partial successes only make them look foolish. We know that when Acts 13 refers to  Elymas as a magos, that’s not a good thing. In the ancient Jewish and Christian tradition in general, the magical arts, including astrology, are in the same boat with the pagan gods. Definitely it is forbidden to pursue them. And most of the time they are seen as ridiculous. In short, it’s not at all clear that to Matthew’s readers a magus is a “wise man.” Maybe he’s a fool.

Here, then, we come closer to something useful for our instruction if we do not regard ourselves and being powerful and learned and wise. After all, a few chapters later, Matthew himself tells us that Jesus prayed to the father: “I thank you that you have not revealed these things to the wise.” That would be a strange thing for Matthew to report if he knew that the very first people to whom God revealed the identity of the Christ were three wise men! No, Matthew is on the same page as the apostle Paul, who had earlier written to the Corinthians that there were not many wise, not many powerful among them, because God has chosen the foolish and weak things of the world to confound the wisdom of the wise.

We can throw in at this point that even if the magi are fools, there are bona fide wise men in this story: scholars steeped in the scriptures of Israel. They have studied every line and remember every detail. When Herod asks them where the Messiah is to be born, they do not hesitate: he is to be born in Bethlehem. Herod does not despise the scholars, and neither do the magi. They both learn from them. But do you see the strange thing about these wise men, these scribes? They know where the Christ is to be born, but they don’t care! The magi are intent on finding the Christ child so that they can worship him, and Herod is intent on finding the Christ child so that he can kill him, but the scribes don’t want to find him at all. They simply answer the question and go back to their books. In Matthew’s view, they are the wise, who have studied much and know many wonderful things, but who have not received the revelation of the one thing most worth knowing. This paradox stands as a challenge and a warning to all who pursue biblical and theological study. Book learning is necessary—but not sufficient.

So where are we? We have completely mucked up our sermon text! The three kings are not kings, and Herod, who is a king, is an enemy. The three wise men are not wise, and the priests and scribes, who are wise, are not interested. We seem to be blundering about in darkness! We need a star to shed some light!

Once more we look back to the magi. If Matthew’s first audience would not have seen them as kings or wise, what would they have thought of them? They would have picked up parallels with another story they knew. Just as surely as a gong sounds when you hit it with a mallet, this other story will ring in their ears when Matthew evokes it with his king and magoi and star, and it will tell them what Matthew’s story means. This other story featured another righteous man named Joseph, a dreamer of dreams and interpreter of dreams. It had a powerful king, and descendants of this king who became persecutors and oppressors of the people of God. It had a baby who was born to save God’s people and lead them out of bondage. It told how this baby escaped the wicked king’s plot to kill all Hebrew babies. This is of course the story of Moses.

Matthew’s readers would also recall that when Moses had led the people of Israel out of Egypt, they encountered another wicked king: Balak, king of Moab. Like Herod, Balak feared for his own position of power. There was something different and frightening about this migrating horde, so he sent to the east for a pagan soothsayer, one who could read the omens and the portents. Matthew’s readers might call a person like this a magos. That’s exactly what a Greek-speaking Jewish commentator of their day named Philo called him. This magos, named Bil’am, is a formidable hired gun. He needs no horses or spears. He has the power of utterance, he is in league with gods and demons, and if he utters his curse, the weak and vulnerable people of Israel will wither and die and be no more a threat. That’s what Balak hopes!

But Matthew’s readers know that wicked King Balak’s summons to Bil’am was intercepted by a higher power, and that the God of Israel sternly instructed this soothsayer to say nothing against his people. He sent a mighty angelic warrior to block his path, but the so-called seer couldn’t even see the angel, although his donkey could. Philo says he was stupider than a donkey! When the hired wizard reaches the scene, King Balak stands him up three times and commands him curse the Israelites, and three times the God of Israel pours words of blessing through him instead. The mighty sorcerer is reduced to a holy fool! Yet a fourth time King Balak commands Bil’am to curse, and this fourth time Bil’am doesn’t even try. He knows what the Lord God wants. He yields and falls flat, and the word of God enters him; his mouth opens, and words spill out:

[Voice of James Earl Jones on crack:]
Ne’um Bila’am bino Beor . . . 

[Better switch to English, but keep the high drama going:]
Utterance of  Bil’am the son of Beor,
Utterance of the man of the open eye
Utterance of the hearer of divine sayings
who knows the knowledge of the Most High,
who sees a vision from Shaddai.
I lie flat on the ground, but my eyes are uncovered!
I see it! —but not now.
I behold it! —but not soon.
I see—a star! And it is coming forth from Jacob.
I see a scepter! And it is coming from Israel.
And one from Jacob rules.

When Matthew’s first audience hears of magi from the east who follow a star to the Christ child, they understand. This is the star that Bil’am saw. For Bil’am it was “not now”—but Matthew’s readers know it has come. For Bil’am it was “not soon”—but Matthew’s readers know it is already! They will understand that these magi did not find out the truth by their own powers of observation any more than Bil’am did. They will not think: look! astrology works! No. They will think, with Jesus: Thank you, Father, that you have not revealed yourself to the wise! God broke into their world and showed them something they were not expecting. God graciously used their language—the broken signage of astrological superstition—to point them to a truth beyond all magic. This star that they followed was not a flaming ball of gases lightyears away; it was a flaming messenger of the Most High aimed precisely at them. No astronomical star can travel first northwest out of Mesopotamia, then southwest to Jerusalem, then disappear, then reappear heading south to Bethlehem, then stop and stand directly over a little house. The ancients knew that as well as we do! What the magi see as a “star” behaves for all the world like an angel, a supernatural messenger from the most high. (The gospels scholar Dale Allison has pointed this out and traced the early history of  this interpretation.) They do not chart its course with disinterested scientific precision; they are captivated by it and led to a destination they never would have set for themselves. Whatever power and wisdom and learning and skill they may have in their own pagan sphere of learning dissipates as bleak darkness in the light of the shining of this star. It is all grace, all gift. They are gentiles chosen by God and made witnesses of the coming of the Jewish messiah who will be a light to the nations. The star in the sky, it turns out, is only a weak pointer to the true star that is a human child, the child who will wield the only scepter that will never rust and crumble. When the magi kneel before the Christ child, we do not see proud human power (kings!) and wisdom (wise men!) kneeling before a helpless baby so much as we see the exhausted and tattered but called, redeemed, and blessed remnants of all human weakness and foolishness bowing down to adore the one who is, as Paul tells us, the wisdom of God and the power of God. When they offer their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, they are giving all they have as a symbolic giving of themselves.

The star still shines. Do not look for this star in astronomy textbooks or ancient historical chronicles. Look for it in the sky of your own darkest night. This is the first lesson of the magi: they were attentive, they were hoping for something beyond themselves. When a transcendent light glimmered in the distance, they dropped everything and pursued it. Lesson 1: Be ready to follow!

Lesson 2 from the magi: The light from the star was not enough. They had to seek help from those learned in the scriptures. They were able to learn something essential from the scribes even though the scribes themselves remained spiritually untaught. God can use diverse means to guide, but the scriptures remain indispensable. Lesson 2: Be ready to seek and accept instruction!

Lesson 3 from the magi: When the star stops above one particular house in a little Judean town, the magi rejoice. Matthew says not just echaresan, “they rejoiced,” but echaresan charan, “they rejoiced a rejoicing”—an emphatic construction; but he adds another word: echaresan charan megalen, “they rejoiced a great rejoicing”; but that still doesn’t cover it, so he adds yet one more word: echaresan charan megalen sphodra, “they rejoiced a great rejoicing very much indeed!” They did not think that the journey itself was everything. They knew that the destination was everything. They were not offended or disappointed when the star stopped over one particular and no doubt unimpressive house in one little Judean village. Lesson 3: Be prepared for the star that leads you to stop in a particular place, and free your heart to rejoice greatly when it does.

Lesson 4 from the magi: When they went in and saw the child, they bowed down to worship. It does no good to find the Christ the power and wisdom of God unless you are ready to bow down and give yourself in worship. The giving of the gifts is an external expression and sign of this inward offering of the self to God in thanksgiving and praise. Lesson 4: the whole point of the journey is to give yourself unreservedly to the one to whom you owe everything. The magi didn’t say, “How fascinating!” or “Aw, how cute!” They fell down and worshiped, and their worship meant both the end and the fulfillment of everything they had tried to accomplish through their own arts and skills.

May God shine his light on us, leading us to our savior, and give us grace to follow and learn, rejoice, and worship.