Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Misc. Thoughts

In a culture that revolves around the rhythms of nature, there would be constant reminders of our own finiteness, and there would be continual echoes of transcendence. In a world saturated with technology, however, it is sometimes difficult to see anything other than the glory of man. In a culture that revolves around technology, there are constant oportunities for that sense of transcendence to be neutralised.

This does not mean that technology is bad. On the contrary, technology is a blessing and part of what it means to fulfil the dominion mandate. Technology can certainly be used to point us heaven-ward. However, when most of our technology is designed to be functional rather than beautiful, we have to be aware that the overall effect can be to mute God’s glory. If we are not careful, our machines can draw us into their own world, where everything is mechanical and where we lose the sense of wonder at God’s ways and His world.
Controlled by Pleasure

As with technology, entertainment is a good thing that can be twisted into something bad. I don’t think anyone would dispute that our society has made an idol out of entertainment, but my interest is in the way entertainment-saturation can de-sensetise a culture to God’s glory.

The difference between being entertained and playing is that with the former the person is passive whereas with the latter the person is involved. And as we know from the example of the Romans, entire populations can be rendered passive if the entertainment is sufficiently stimulating. Masses of people can be lulled into passivity by the endless potential for amusement. One of the reasons for this is because an entertainment-centred society breeds an unconscious worldview which says that everything is benign.

In Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union people were controlled by those who could inflict pain; in our culture people would are controlled by those who inflict pleasure. The implicit subtext to 95% of advertisements (perhaps more) is that you should buy whichever products give the most enjoyment.

The advertising industry also plays on our sense of boredom, inviting us to feel bored unless we have the product. Real life becomes dull by comparison.

Goodness and beauty become boring in a culture that is preoccupied with excitement, because they are not stimulating enough. People want pleasures that come easily, and which do not require effort to attain.

The internet, like entertainment, can also breed boredom and disengagement with real life – creating an addiction to external stimulation that can be enjoyed without any inner resources. Good literature, good music and good poetry, which require the cultivation of inner resources in order to enjoy, become boring by comparison.

Young people these days often complain about being bored. In Patricia Meyer Spacks’ book Boredom: a literary history of a state of mind, she shows that the word ‘boredom’ really only started to be used in the 18th century. Prior to that the equivalent words were all ones which also conveyed idea of sin, such as sloth or aecidia. Medieval writers saw sloth as the most deadly of the seven deadly sins, the closest to hell because it indicated a spiritual and intellectual lethargy – an indifference to the beauty of the world and the glory of God. If you were bored it meant you were bored with God and goodness. William May, in his catalogue of sins referred to sloth as the shadow of death.

According to the medieval writers, it was very serious to have insufficient engagement with life’s obligations and possibilities. They also used the word “Aecidia” to refer to the same state of mind. Aecidia” literally means “absence of care.” Dorothy Sayers defines Aecidia this way: “It is the sin that believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing and remains alive because there is nothing for which it will die.”

One can have a deep sense of boredom and purposelessness of life beneath a bustle of activity. “To be guilty of aecidia it is not necessary to be physically sluggish at all. You can be as busy as a bee. You can fill your days with activity bustling from meeting to meeting, sitting on committees, running from one party to another in a perfect whirlwind of movement. But if, meanwhile, your feelings and sensibilities are withering, if your relationships with people near you are becoming more and more superficial, if you are losing touch even with yourself, it is aecidia which has claimed you for its own.” Robertson Davis, “On the Deadliest of Sins”

Pascal said “The soul course of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” People sense the danger of being alone with their own thoughts, lest they become deeply dissatisfied with themselves and with life, because they have no bigger picture to make sense of their inner world and experience.

Wonderful Monotony

“All the towergin materialism which dominates the modern mind rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption. It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork. People feel that if the unvierse was personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance. This is a falacy even in relation to known fact. For the variation in human affairs is generally brought into them, not by life, but by death; by the dying down or breaking off of their strength or desire. A man varies his movements because of some slight element of failure or fatigue. He gets into an omnibus because he is tired of walking; or he walks because he is tired of sitting still. But if his life and joy were so gigantic that he never tired of going to Islington, he might go to Islington as regularly as the Thames goes to Sheerness. The very speed and ecastacy of his life would have the stillness of death. The sun rises every morning. I do not rise every morning; but the variation is due not to my activity, but to my inaction. Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for isntnace, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be autonmatic necessity that makes all daises alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infnacy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore." [G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, chapter 4]

The World is Wonderful
It is revealing that the term ‘wonder’ has been largely reduced to an approximation for curiosity, while it’s adjective ‘wonderful’ has been reduced to meaning simply ‘great.’ But if we want to get back to the original meaning of these terms, we need to observe little children. All children are born with this sense of wonder embedded in them. You just have to look into a baby’s eyes to see that sense of wonder. As the baby grows older, that sense of wonder is transferred to every object in his or her environment. But this ‘wonder’ is not mere curiosity; everything the baby sees, and especially everything it manages to get its hands on, is wonderful in the sense of being filled with wonder. Things that we would normally think of as being mundane, whether it be wooden spoons to saucepan lids, a baby will find simply magical.

But just as the sense of wonder transforms the mundane into something magical, conversely, without it, even the magical becomes mundane. And that is exactly what happens when the child’s original sense of wonder is stamped out rather than nurtured. Just as the sense of wonder is nurtured by saturating the mind in anything that is truly noble, beautiful and awe-inspiring (beginning with Nursery rhymes and ending with Oratorios), so it is stamped out by letting our children feed the infinite appetite for distractions bequeathed to us by our technological devices. It is stamped out by letting our children go to schools where they learn to despise what is noble and good. It is stamped out by letting television cultivate an enjoyment for what is trivial and irrelevant. Children grow up to be like machines, inured to being deeply moved by anything wholly other. (For more on this subject, see THIS earlier post.)
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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Glory of God

In Isaiah 6:1-8 there seems to be a four-fold progression. First Isaiah is shown the glory of God (verses 1-4). This makes him aware of his own finiteness and sinfulness and he experiences a fear of the Lord (verse 5). But then he is given cleansing from sin (verse 7). Finally he is sent out to witness for God.

The Lord didn’t begin by sending Isaiah out, but by first showing him His glory. I am going to suggest that there is a principle here, and that one of the ways we can be effective witnesses for the Lord is by first having an experience of God’s glory.

Now that probably sounds rather daunting. I used to think that you had to be really ‘spiritual’ to experience God’s glory, and that most normal people would have to wait until they got to heaven to taste it.

However, when we look and see what the Bible says about God’s glory – and this is also consistent with Hopkins’ poem – we find that it is accessible to us all because it exists all around us. Psalm 19 tells us that “the heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork…” Even in the passage that we just looked, although Isaiah is given a special vision of God’s throne room, the Seraphim who are worshiping the Lord talk about God’s glory on the earth. They cry out that “The whole earth is full of His glory!”

Paul takes up a similar theme in Romans 1, arguing that God’s invisible attributes – which no doubt includes His glory – “are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead…” (Rom. 1:20).

Paul goes on to condemn those who ‘changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man.’ (1:23) Idol worship is simply taking the glory that is properly due to God and transfering it to a created object. This is the mistake that paganism made. Pagans had an instictive sense that the sun not only radiated heat but also radiated glory, yet because they had no knowledge of the true God, they worshiped the sun rather than its Maker. Pagans had an instinctive sense that there was something glorious about the harvest cycle, yet because they had no knowledge of God, they worshiped the harvest as being the source of that glory.

As bad as that was, our culture has managed to go one step further. We have got rid of glory altogether. And with it has gone the fear of the Lord.

People in the Western world are not generally tempted to worship the sun because they do not see the sun as glorious. The sun is merely a ball of gas.

People in our culture are not tempted to worship the harvest, because there is no sense of wonder at its continual reoccurance.

We live in a world in which God’s glory has been flattened out. The result is that we are not tempted to such obvious forms of idolatry as our pagan anscestors. Yet we – and I’m using the pronoun ‘we’ generically to refer to our culture at large - have also become de-sensetised to the glory of God that fills the earth.

God’s glory is all around us, but we have to have eyes to see it. We should learn to feel about the golden sun and the silver moon as a schoolboy feels if he has a dollar in his pocket. Living in a world of so much glory is not only a pleasure but a kind of eccentric privilege (See Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, ch. 4).

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God’s Grandeur
Gerard Manley Hopkins

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; Bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
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Why I Am Against Halloween

I am against Halloween, but not for the reasons that most Christians who are against it give. Pagan origins don’t bother me, nor do I think Satan somehow gains extra power when children dress up as ghosts or witches.

The real reason I object to Halloween – and this is a point I have never heard any other parent make – is because the holiday (at least in its contemporary manifestation) gravitates towards the celebration of ugliness. In so far as this observation is correct (and a cursory glance at Halloween decorations suggests that it is), Halloween is antithetic to the values we should be trying to instill in our children, namely an enjoyment of goodness, truth and beauty.

As an antidote to the seasonal celebration of ugliness, I am going to be publishing a series of posts meditating on God’s beauty and glory.

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Questions about the New Perspective on Paul

People have recently been asking me a lot of questions about the New Perspective on Paul. In this post I will attempt to answer some of them (in my very ameteurish way).
Doesn't the NPP in general and N.T. Wright in particular work on the basis of a wrong paradigm, one which assumes that you can use theology to help solve exegetical problems?
While it is true that N.T. Wright uses theology to help with exegesis, I would question the idea that this is a wrong paradigm. In Richard Hays introduction to his book The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11, he writes as follows about the need to integrate exegesis and theology:
"For that reason, the attempt of Matlock to "detheologize" the pistis Christou debate is a sure prescription for misinterpretation. Paul is, after all, using this language in the context of 'theological' arguments, and there is no way to understand the sense of the terminology without attempting to understand the shape and coherence of the argument. That is what the study of Pauline theology seeks to do. Matlock, however, writes as though there were an objective science of lexical semantics that permits him to perform theologically "neutral" interpretations of linguistic units, in contrast to all the other foolish participants in the debate who have who have allowed theological considerations to warp their judgment. This is an astonishingly naive claim... Can anyone seriously believe that the lexicographers are not making theological judgments about the meaning of the sentences in which the word pistis appears? ... The main point I want to make, however, is that lexical semantics insofar as it seeks to make judgments about the meanings of words in Paul's letter, must attend to larger sense units that are inescapably theological. The attempt to do non-theological exegesis of the NT is self-defeating."
I think that would also be Wright's position, namely that there are many factors are involved in establishing the meaning of the text, including attentiveness to the "larger sense units that are inescapably theological".
But shouldn't theology always give way to the text (since the text is foundational), not the other way around?

This question presupposes the bifurcation between theology and exegesis that needs to be challenged. In ordinary conversation we wouldn't say that the larger sense of what a person means should give way to the actual words they are using since we recognise that the two spheres are mutually reinforcing. My contention would be that this is similar to the way that words and theology are mutually reciprocal. On a very general level, it seems that there are theological categories that feed into all communication (such as belief in a rational creator, which forms one of the epistemological underpinnings to intelligibility and therefore communication).
I have encountered resistence to this from evangelicals who hold a basically rationalistic hermeneutic. Derrick Olliff describes the methodology of this hermeneutic HERE. "The mechanics of the text are everything. The basic methodology is that of a scientist who must analyze the raw terms and syntax of the text and arrange the bits of biblical data into a systematic whole. Commonsense realism and Baconianism are the epistemological drivers. The poetry, story, and historical flow of the text often become secondary or tertiary. The vast majority of the Bible was explicitly written as narrative history and poetry, but it is usually read “mechanically,” systematically, and more or less atemporally – as if it were a textbook (or perhaps a jigsaw puzzle, with the various proof texts functioning as pieces to be arranged in the proper order). Moreover, this hermeneutic tends to be minimalistic in how it addresses things like typology and allusions to previous scripture. This is in opposition to the typological way in which the NT regularly quotes/alludes to the OT. This flows from and fits in well with the existentialism that characterizes pietism in general."
The text is foundational. Since Biblical theology is based on the text, I must first find the meaning of the text before I try to interpret what it means in a broader sense. This is simply another way of saying I must first gather all of my data before I try to interpret the results or come to any conclusions.
I would agree that you must first gather all your data before you try to interpret the results, but I would want to include the larger sense units of what a person means as being among the relevant historical data. Because we do this in normal communication all the time I would urge that it is also reasonable when interpreting historical documents. For example, when interpreting the words of the United States Constitution, wouldn't we want to be attentive to what we already knew from other contemporary sources about the constitution's meaning, context and historical background? Similarly, when approaching Paul, if we already have evidence of his theological preoccupations, then why can't this be one of the things we feed into exegesis, not least the difficult passages? But it also works the other way round, as N.T. Wright says in What St. Paul Really Said: "verse-by-verse exegesis [is] the real test of how a particular scheme works out in practice."
I cannot throw out data that does not support 'my' conclusion and I cannot ignore data that is unclear. This means that if a text contradicts my theology, then I need to revise my theology. If the text is unclear, then I need to acknowledge that it is unclear and not make any dogmatic assertions about what it is saying.

I would agree with that, and I think I would be correct in saying that N.T. Wright also agrees. For example, in his article New Perspectives on Paul, he says, "As an exegete determined to listen to scripture rather than abstract my favourite bits from it..." And again, "I prefer scripture itself to even the finest traditions of interpretation." And again, "I remain committed to understanding Paul in his own right and his own terms against all traditions about him, including my own." Now this does not mean that Wright will always get it right, but unless he is being dishonest, I don't see how we can know that he is throwing out data that does not support his conclusions.

Being sympathetic of N.T. Wright's version of the NPP, how would you interpret Galatians 2:14-15?

This is the verse where Paul says to Peter “If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews?” I would begin by asking in what way Peter had begun to “live like a Gentile”?
To answer this question we need to back up and see what happened in Acts. In Acts 10, Peter had a strange vision where the Lord lowered down a net filled with unclean animals and told Peter to eat. It is significant that unclean animals were used to represent unclean people, since one of the reasons God gave for the clean/unclean distinction was in order that His people might be separate from the rest of the nations (Lev. 20:22-26). In other words, the food laws had acted as covenantal boundary markers. This vision was God’s way of telling Peter that things had now changed: Gentiles believers are now welcome into the covenant community as Gentiles (always before they had been welcome provided that they convert to Judaism and become ritually clean according to Mosaic law). Always before it had been unlawful for a Jew to keep company, much less eat, with a Gentile. As Peter said to Cornelius, “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.” (Acts. 10:28) The consequence of this is that Peter begins eating with Gentiles, to the great astonishment of the Jews (“’You went in to uncircumcised men and ate with them!’” Acts 11:3). But not only does Peter stop observing the clean/unclean distinctions, being, like Paul, “convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself” (Rom. 14:14), but Peter also insisted that Gentile converts not be made to submit to the ceremonial laws of Moses. He appealed to the fact that the Holy Spirit came upon Gentiles living as Gentiles and not as Jews, as the final proof of this new work (Acts 15:8-9).
Given this background, we can begin to understand why Paul called Peter a hypocrite when he began to separate himself from Gentile believers and side with those who were demanding that Gentile converts start living like Jews. I would argue that that was the issue at stake at Antioch, in Acts 15 and with the Galatians, not a debate over whether you could earn your own salvation. Just consider the context of Acts 15. Certain Jewish brethren were claiming that “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
Circumcision, of course, was not the only issue, but it stood as the most prominent and most distinctive mark of Judaism. Notice that the apostles did not argue in the council that salvation is by grace rather than by works in the way that would have if their target had been a form of semi or full-blown Pelagianism. Rather, the entire debate revolves around whether or not Gentiles as such can be admitted to full membership in the covenant. Peter’s speech declares that salvation has come to the Gentiles apart from Torah observance. When Peter says salvation has come in the same manner to Jews and Gentiles (15:11), his point is not merely that salvation comes by faith in Jesus, but that it comes apart from Jewishness. That is the key: the entire debate centers around the limits and terms of covenant membership, not accumulating merit in order to attain salvation by works. James then clinches the argument in Acts 15 by appealing not to a passage that declares salvation is by grace through faith, but by appealing to a text that prophesied the inclusion of the Gentiles in the worship of the renewed, eschatological people of God (Amos 9:11-12). The Gentiles, too, have been formed into a “people for his name” (15:14). The decree of the council, then, is not a condemnation of Pelagianism (“Do not attempt to earn your salvation by submitting to circumcision as though it were a meritorious work”) but a call to Gentile believers to adhere to a few basic Mosaic regulations during this time of transition. The Gentiles were called to bear with their weaker Jewish brethren for a short period and make concessions to their customs for the sake of unity (cf. Rom. 14-15). Jew-Gentile solidarity is the goal. Furthermore, the letter from the apostles did not release Gentiles from the burden of attempting to earn their own salvation, as though that had been at issue. It simply removed the burden of having to carry out all the directives of the Mosaic law as a part of Christian living, something which not even the Jews had succeeded in keeping (trying to get only kosher foods and observe the Sabbath and feast days and cleanness laws was quite difficult in an otherwise pagan culture, far removed from Jerusalem and the temple.) The four aspects of Mosaic legislation the Gentiles are advised to uphold are presented as a relatively lighter burden (15:28-29). But those four laws are not part of a reduced Pelagian program, for no Pelagian system was ever in view at any point in the discussion. It’s not as though the disciples are saying the Gentiles can now buy salvation at a bargain price of law-keeping in just four areas, whereas the Jews were claiming the whole law had to be kept to earn salvation; that kind of debate simply wasn’t on the radar screen.
All of these facts from Acts set the context to our study of Galatians. This is not a case of inappropriately ‘reading theology into the text’ since the text itself clearly shows that problems with the Judaisers were at stake in the Galatian controversy. Because we do not have an epistle or sermon from the Judaizers, we have to summarise what they believed from Paul’s side of the conversation and from the record of Acts. But nothing anywhere indicates they were telling people to earn salvation apart from grace. Rather, every indication is that they insisted on submission to the yoke of Moses for full rights and privileges in the covenant community. When the Judaizers told people they had to get circumcised and come under the law (Torah) in order to be justified, again it isn’t a matter of trying to earn your salvation. In the Old Testament, keeping the Torah never meant living perfectly by every command. Consider Zechariah who, despite being a sinner, was said by Luke to have walked blamelessly in all the Lord’s commandments. As Olliff points out in his article 'Looking for Legalism', “This is not a claim that he didn’t sin. Such a statement was possible because the text is not referring to law keeping in the abstract. It is referring to faithfulness within the context of the covenant. And the covenant itself had the sacrificial system whereby sin could be dealt with by faithful people. So when Zechariah (or someone else) sinned, he remained obedient to the commandments by sincerely availing himself of the sacrificial system.”
Thus, to keep the law meant faithfulness to the covenant. That faithfulness was expressed by entering into the basic structure that defined this people over and against the Gentiles, availing oneself of the atonement system, living by the Mosaic ceremonial codes, being separate from the Gentiles, and so on. All these points can be found in the Old Testament and were fine for a time until Christ was revealed and everything changed. The Judaisers’ theology would have been entirely appropriate in the old age, but after Christ had fulfilled those things, it brought death instead of life.
This background helps to give a nuance to Paul’s discussion of justification. When Paul tells the Galatians that they are not “justified by the law”, this has typically been understood in the post-reformation tradition as referring to attempts to earn salvation through works-righteousness. The idea is that when Paul contrasts justification by law with justification by grace, he is condemning the kind of merit-soteriology that would later find its fullest expression in Palagianism or the Catholicism of the high middle ages. The rest of Galatians tends to then be read post hoc through the lens of this issue. We forget that Paul’s formulation of justification by faith was a direct response to the incident of the divided table. The reason the table was being divided between the circumcised and the uncircumcised was not because the later group were trying to earn salvation through merit, but because they were still allowing circumcision to function as a boundary marker for the covenant people. This created a boundary between Jews and Gentiles, with the former group marked out by adherence to the Mosaic law. It is THIS and not attempts at self-help justification that the apostle refers when he speaks of justification not coming through the works of the law. Paul’s anti-thesis is between salvation in Christ the Messiah, with its implications on the universality of the gospel, over and against the disgracing of that grace by those who would maintain these boundary markers as the distinguishing features of the covenant community. (See the article, “What Saint Paul Should Have Said: Is Galatians a Polemic Against Legalism?”)
The Judiazers were thinking of circumcision and the ceremonial laws that went with it as a means for cleanliness as had previously been the case. These things had been ordained by God to be boundary markers and the means to spiritual cleanliness until it was no longer needed because of Jesus. Likewise, the sacrifices were ordained by God to be the means of forgiveness and covering of sin until it was no longer needed because of Jesus. Jesus fulfils the truths vouchsafed to the children of Israel, which they were expected to hold until He came (see my article on God's Covenant with Israel and my Bible Overview). But to continue to hold onto them in the old way instead of rejoicing in the realisation of what had always been their aim, would have been like refusing to eat a cake because you saw the process of making the cake as an end in itself. The purpose for which Israel maintained the laws of separation, cleansing and sacrifice had been dimly understood by the Patriarchs and prophets and Godly men and woman of old (John 8:56). The Judiazers didn’t understand that now the purpose for those laws had been fulfilled, to continue to maintain those laws was to refuse the purpose of them – i.e., to refuse Jesus, to refuse to eat the cake. Circumcision represented all the works of the law, just as a passport represents all one’s national privileges and responsibilities, or baptism represents the whole life of faith that follows it. That’s why, in Galatians, sometimes Paul speaks of circumcision and sometime he speaks generically of ‘works of the law’, meaning basically the same thing.
His point is that circumcision and the law is not what saves a person any more. In the Old Testament, people had been ‘justified by the works of the law’ in so far as justification, in this context, refers to how you tell who God’s people are. (It doesn’t mean that they had to keep the law perfectly, for the reasons given above.) Justification was a law court term, indicating God’s verdict in favour of someone. Recall Daniel 7, where the Almighty makes a judgement in favour of the Saints of the most high. That’s what justification was all about. Justification is God’s declaration that, despite universal sin, a person has right standing before the Judge. But here’s the rub: if God’s people are the ones who are justified, how do you tell who God’s people are? Or put the other way round, if justification defines who God’s people are, what is the basis of that justification? The Judaizers said it was no different to how it always had been. Paul said things had now changed: faith in Jesus is the only thing that counts. Ultimately this interpretation must be tested by a careful verse by verse reading of the entire text. For further reading I would suggest THIS ‘mini-commentary’ on the epistle which I found very helpful and which convinced me that the NPP approach on Galatians is at least worth taking very seriously.
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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

God's Covenant With Israel

One of the things about teaching at a school where most of the other staff are dispensationalists is that it is very easy to be drawn into debate. Yesterday during lunch the topic of God's covenant with Israel came up and I was challenged to provide scriptural warrant for my belief that God is no longer in a covenant relationship with Israel. That afternoon I spent all my prep time (in which I ought to have been grading papers!) writing a response, using the nature of the Old Testament covenants, the ministry of John the Baptist and Romans 9-11 to show that Jesus' people are the true heirs of the Abrahamic covenant. Following is what I wrote:
God's Covenant With Abraham

In order to understand the role of the Jews today, we have to consider the nature of the Old Testament covenants. I am going to be arguing that each covenant builds on and fulfils the one which came before. Let’s start with the covenant with Abraham. God’s Covenant promises were

To make of Abraham’s descendents a MIGHTY NATION (Gen 12:2; 18:18; 22:17)

To give them a LAND (Gen. 26:4; 28:13-14; 35:11-12)

To make Abraham’s descendents a BLESSING to all nations. (Gen 12:3; 18:18; 22:17-18; 26:4; 28:14)

This covenant was an unconditional covenant (Gen. 15) and it had circumcision as its sign.

God's Covenant With Moses
The next covenant was the covenant with Moses. It involved the giving of the law to show Abraham’s descendents –

How to become a mighty nation (Deut. 7:12-14)

How to live in the land (Deut. 6: 6-9)

How to be a blessing (Deut. 4:6-8 & 28:9-10)

The words in bold are designed to show continuity with the Abrahamic covenant. Unlike the Abrahamic covenant, the Mosaic covenant was conditional, as seen by the blessings & curses throughout Deuteronomy. The covenant sign was the Law, and this was represented by a number of subordinate signs such as circumcision, the ark, the tabernacle, etc.
God's Covenant With David

The next covenant was the covenant with David. The facets of this covenant are as follows:

Kingship - Davidic dynasty (2 Sam. 7:12-13, 16)

Fulfils promise to Abraham that kings would descend from him (Gen. 17:6) and Moses’ promise that God would provide a king (Deut. 17).

By being mechanism for defeating enemies of God (2 Sam. 7:23-26) kingship

Establishes Abraham’s descendents as a MIGHTY NATION.

Defends and expands the LAND of Abraham’s descendents.

Proves that the God of Abraham is superior to gods of other nations, that “All men shall… declare the work of God.” (Ps. 64:7-9) Defeat of Goliath “that all the earth may know there is a God in Israel.” (1 Sam. 17:46) This is a BLESSING to other nations.

Temple (2 Sam. 7:12-17)

Fulfils Mosaic promise of temple where heaven and earth meet (Exod. 15:17); place where God dwells among men.

Represents God’s heavenly enthronement over other gods (Ps. 135:5). Implicates victory of Israel’s God over all peoples of the earth (Ps. 86:8-10) - ‘Blessing’ promise again.

Again, the continuity with the previous covenants should be plain, and I have again used bold face to assist with this. The covenant signs are the throne and temple.
Covenant Seemed to Fail
Now it seemed as if God’s promises failed for the following reasons:

God’s people stopped being a blessing – “When they came to the nations, wherever they went, they profaned My hole name – when they said of them, ‘these are the people of the Lord, and yet they have gone out of His land.’ (Ez. 36:20)

God’s people were exiled from land and God’s presence left temple – “I will cut off Israel from the land which I have given them; and this house which I have consecrated for My name I will cast out of My sight. (1 Kings 9:7).

They stopped being a mighty nation – “Israel will be a proverb and a byword among all peoples.’ (1 Kings 9:7)

New Covenant
In spite of the appearance of failure, God promised that He would be faithful to His covenant with Abraham. He promised to make a new covenant that would fulfil all the earlier ones. Throughout the prophets, the Lord promised to

Make a New Covenant with laws written on his people’s hearts (Jer. 31:31-33; Ezek. 36:16-38)

Bring His people back to the land (Is. 11:1-10; Ezek. 36:24)

Renew temple and kingdom through a Messiah from David’s line (Zech. 6:13, 8:3; Dan. 7: 26-27; Mic. 5:2; Isa. 9:7; 11:1 & 10, 55:3-4; 16:5; Ezek. 34:23-24; Jer. 33:19-25; Gen. 49:8-10)

Restore people of God to mighty nation (Is. 52: 9-10 & 15).

Enable God’s people to be blessing/image to rest of nations (Ps. 102:13-22; Isa. 2:2-3; 45:22-24; 52:10; & 66:19; Ezek. 36:36; Zech. 8:21-23; Zeph. 3:14-20; Micah 4:2; Mal. 1:11)

Defeat enemies of God’s people (Is. 41:11-12; Zech. 13:2; Zech. 14:18-19)

Judge the nations through the Messiah (Isa. 2:4, Isa. 16:5)

Establish justice and peace throughout the whole of the earth (Isa. 9: 2-7, 11:1-5, 42:3-4; Zech. 9:9-10; Mic. 4:2-3)

Messiah will fulfil redemption history and all earlier covenants by renewing the earth and reversing curse of Adam (Isa. 11:6-9; 35:1-2 & 7; 43:19-20, 65:17-25; Ezek. 34:25-31, 34-35, 47:8-12; Hos. 2:18)

Jesus fulfils all the above aspects of the New Covenant. Many of the above points are only partially fulfilled now through Christ, and will be completely fulfilled in the New Earth when God’s enemies are completely defeated and justice reigns throughout the entire earth. Nevertheless, it will be helpful to reflect on how Jesus specifically fulfils
Jesus Fulfils Covenant with Abraham

Through His death & resurrection, Jesus reverses the curse and brings life to the whole world (Jn. 1:29; 3:17; 4:42; 6:33; 6:51; 12:47; 2 Cor. 5:19, 1 Jn. 2:2), thus fulfilling the BLESSING theme.

All who put faith in Jesus become Abraham’s spiritual descendents (Rom. 2:28-29, 4; 9-12; Phil. 3:3; Gal. 3:15-29; Heb. 11; Rev. 2:9, 3:9)

Through people of the new covenant, God is making Abraham’s descendents into a MIGHTY NATION (Rev. 19:6)

The Lord is giving them a LAND and a kingdom (Rom. 4:13; Rev. 11:15)

The Lord is making them a BLESSING to all nations (Mt. 5:16)

Christ fulfils covenant sign of circumcision as Holy Spirit circumcises our hearts (Rom. 2:28-29)

Jesus Fulfils Covenant with Moses

Christ fulfils the law of Moses (Mt. 5:17-19; Gal. 3:19-25) because:

Through Christ God’s laws are written on His people’s hearts (Jer. 31:31-33; Ezek. 36:16-38)

Christ’s perfect substitutionary sacrifice fulfils blood sacrifices (Hebrews)

Christ fulfils clean/unclean laws by bringing spiritual cleanliness (Rom. 14:14; Heb. 9:8-10; Mark 7:18-19)

Christ fulfils circumcision by bringing circumcision of heart (symbolised by baptism) (Rom. 2:28-29; Gal. 5:6)

Christ gives the Spirit to achieve for His people what the law could not (Gal. 5:18), to enable them to become a mighty nation, to live in the land, and to be a blessing. (The feast of Pentecost, fifty days after Passover, was always the feast of the giving of the Law. Fifty days after coming through the Red Sea, they arrive at Mount Sinai, where Moses, goes up and comes down with the tablets of stone. After Jesus ascended to heaven, He sent the Holy Spirit to be the way of life for God’s redeemed people, and the Spirit descends at Pentecost. This is the fulfilment of the Torah, the Law. From Tom Wright’s sermon 'New Law, New Temple, New World', June 8 2003)
Jesus Fulfils Covenant with David

Christ sits on Davidic throne and rules forever (Lk. 1:32-33).

King Jesus defeats enemies of God (Col. 1: 19-20; Phil. 2:9-11) which

establishes Abraham’s descendents as a mighty nation (Rev. 20:4)

defends and expands their land (Rev. 11:15)

proves that He is superior to gods of the other nations (Eph. 1:10; Col. 1:16)

Jesus renews temple (Eph. 2:19-22; 1 Pet. 2:4-10)

Baptism and the Covenant

One of the consequences of Jesus fulfilling all the earlier covenants, is that Jesus’ people become God’s new covenant people. I would argue that that is the context behind John the Baptists words to the people, “Do not say you have Abraham as your father” He also said that the axe is laid to the root of the trees and that God could raise up children to Abraham from the very stones. John is saying is that this people can no longer look to their genealogy as their ticket for redemption. God is doing a new work in which the criteria for covenant membership, as well as the external sign of that covenant, has changed.

During lunch the objection was raised that to say the criteria for covenant membership has changed indicates that God has changed, that He is no longer honouring the covenantal promises He made to Abraham and Abraham’s seed. Such is not the case, for John makes it clear that the very issue is not whether God will honour His promise to Abraham (there is no question about that – in Gen. 17:13 God called His covenant with Abraham an ‘everlasting’ covenant), but whether these people can truly be considered Abraham’s seed. Perhaps it would be more accurate not to say that the criterion for membership has changed, for the criterion is still that a person must be a descendant of Abraham. God is still being faithful to the covenantal promises He made with Abraham’s seed. What has changed is the requirement necessary to qualify as a descendant of Abraham.

What are the new requirements for being a descendant of Abraham and, hence, for being in covenant with God? That seems to be the pressing question the people have for John, for “the people asked him, saying, ‘What shall we do then?’” (Luke 3:10). John’s answer is exceedingly simple: “He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise” (Luke 3:11). To the tax collectors John said, “Collect no more than what is appointed for you” (3:13). To the soldiers he said, “Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages” (3:14).

In other words, God is looking for a change of heart which will be manifested in “fruits worthy of repentance…” (Mat. 3:8). The sign of this repentance is baptism.

The necessity for a new covenantal sign followed from the fact that circumcision became polluted because of the uncircumcision of the people’s hearts. The form of circumcision had always meant to be inseparably connected with the content it symbolized, namely that God had ‘cut out’ a people from the other nations to be different, to be holy unto Him. As Moses had said, “circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer.” (Deut. 10:16, see also Jeremiah 4:4) If, however, a form becomes separated from the content, then the form becomes defiled in the Lord’s sight. This happened in Isaiah’s day when the people were offering sacrifices and burnt offerings while being in rebellion to God. The Lord said He had come to hate the people’s sacrifices since they were offered by a people in rebellion to His laws (Isaiah 1). Similarly, circumcision became defiled because the outward form ceased to be connected to the content it was meant to represent. The people clung to circumcision as a sign of being in the very covenant they were continually breaking.

As God now begins to raise up a new community of people, in which baptism replaces circumcision as the sign of covenant, God makes it clear that this new covenant is about a change of heart. Thus, at the centre of John’s baptism is “fruits worthy of repentance…” (Mat. 3:8) Peter later made the connection between baptism and repentance when he wrote that baptism is “the answer of a good conscience towards God…” (1 Peter. 3:21)

Again, it is important to see that baptism is not so much replacing the covenant of circumcision that God made with Abraham, but fulfilling it, even as I showed that each covenant fulfilled the earlier covenants. All the earlier covenants pointed towards baptism. Thus, in Colossians 2:11-12, Paul expounds the connection between baptism and the covenant of circumcision, and in 1 Corinthians 10:1-2 he shows the connection between baptism and the covenant with Moses, while 1 Peter 3:20-22 connects baptism with the covenant with Noah. Only in the stream of this continuity can the covenantal context of baptism be properly understood.

I have developed this covenantal context to baptism because I was challenged to show on Biblical and not just historical grounds that John the Baptist had that in mind. Now that I have established that, feed in the historical evidence. If a Jew wanted to enter the temple, he had to first immerse himself in the “living water” to become ceremonially clean. This process of ceremonial cleansing by immersion also played an important role in the process of converting to Judaism. There have always been Jews who were interested in evangelising the Gentiles. When a Gentile would be proselytised to the Jewish faith, there were various purification rituals he would have to undergo before his conversion was complete. One of these purification rituals was baptism. Baptism symbolized ceremonial cleansing and was part of the process by which someone who was outside the covenant would be initiated into the covenant community of Israel.

Now imagine the shock when a Jew named John began baptising his fellow Jews. The reaction must have been something like this: “You’ve got it wrong, John! It’s not us who are supposed to be baptised, it’s them. We’re already in the covenant; we don’t need to be cleansed.” John the Baptist had a message to give and his message was offensive. His message was that God’s people were the ones in need of cleansing – they needed to repent. Thus, when the multitudes came to John to be baptized, this is what he said:

“Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore, bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke. 3:7-9)

It is hard to imagine that John could have given any clearer message to the Jews that they were now outside the covenant. The covenantal boundary lines were being restructured, ultimately around Jesus and NOT Israel after the flesh. The corollary of this is that modern day Israel is not in a covenant relationship with the Lord (except for the covenants with Adam and Noah, which I haven’t talked about but which apply distributively to all mankind).
A New Twist to Romans 9
Now turn to Romans in light of all this. Paul wrote this epistle to a Jewish community living in Rome in order to address questions that would have been in the forefront of their thinking. From the very beginning of Romans, or at least by chapter two, it is obvious what question Paul is addressing. Expressed generally the question is this: how does this new work of God fit into everything that went before? More specifically, what relationship does the work of Christ have to the Abrahamic covenant? Since the Jewish believers had a background of being steeped in the Old Testament covenants, they needed to be carefully shown that there is continuity, not discontinuity, between the old and the new. This is why all of Romans is taken up with Paul showing that through Christ God is being faithful to the covenant with Abraham, not abandoning it.

All the great themes of the first half of Romans – the significance of circumcision, the role of the law, justification by faith, etc. – spring forth out of this basic question. All the issues Paul brings up are designed to show that the new covenant expands rather than abrogates the promises given to Abraham. Paul shows that as God’s mercy is opened up to the Gentiles, God is able to fulfil, through Christ, everything that the law, circumcision and the covenant with the Jewish people had foreshadowed. In Romans 8 Paul reaches the climax – the point of it all. Here we read his wonderful exposition on the renewed earth when “the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.” (8:21) The reason this is the climax of everything is because the eventual renewing of the earth was the whole purpose behind the covenant with the Jewish and Israelite people. The covenant had been in order that, through Abraham’s descendents, all the nations of the earth might be blessed and the curse of Adam might be reversed. Therefore, if Paul is really correct in maintaining that Christ is the fulfilment of the Abrahamic covenant, then it must necessarily follow that, through Him, the earth will be renewed. Hence the importance of Romans 8, particularly verses 18-28.

It is interesting that immediately after Paul reaches this climax he begins talking about predestination.

For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified. (8:29-30)

This passage follows the famous verse about God working all things together for good to those who love Him which, in turn, is the conclusion of the climactic passage about the renewal of the earth which as we have already seen, is the fulfilment of everything earlier in the epistle about God’s faithfulness to His covenant with Abraham. Whatever Paul may mean by predestination here, it must be understood in this larger context. I would suggest that when the reformed understanding of predestination – the election of some individuals to an eternity in heaven vs. the election of other individuals to an eternity of torment – gets imposed onto these two verses, it makes the passage radically disjointed. It just does not fit with the argument Paul is constructing. If, on the other hand, we attend to the covenantal context, then the meaning is clear: Paul is talking about the predestination of Gentile believers into the covenant. Remember that he has already shown how circumcision, the law and the physical pedigree of Abraham all pointed towards the new covenant of Christ – as if to say that God’s foreknowledge of Christ was functioning all along. Right when the covenant of circumcision had been instituted, God had foreordained that there would be another circumcision of the heart (Rom. 3:28-29); right when God gave the law, He had foreordained that the righteous requirement of the law might later be fulfilled through Christ and the Spirit (Rom. 8:34); right when Abraham exercised faith and it was accredited to him as righteousness (Rom. 4:3 & 22), the spiritual descendents of Abraham had been foreordained/predestined (4:23-25). This is important to Paul because it establishes that God is being faithful to His promises with Abraham. Since God foreknew and pre-arranged that the promises given to Abraham would be fulfilled through his spiritual descendents, He is not suddenly “changing plans.” In this way, the doctrine of predestination is central to what Paul set out to prove in Romans, namely, that there is continuity between the old covenant and the new covenant.

To sum, Paul’s statement in 8:29-30 has to do with the predestination of a covenant community and not the salvation of specific individuals. Of course, the salvation of specific individuals is implicated in the notion of a community since you cannot have a redeemed community without having redeemed individuals to comprise it. However, when Paul chooses to talk (as he does elsewhere) about specific individuals coming into the household of faith, he does not use the language of predestination. The language of predestination and election only occurs in the context of corporate groups.

We need to keep this in mind when we get into the hotly debated chapter 9th chapter of Romans. Paul begins describing his feelings towards his kinsmen according to the flesh:

I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen. (9:1-5)

Paul overflows with such compassion towards those who have rejected the Messiah that he would wish himself accursed from Christ if it could help his brethren. This is clearly an emotional subject for Paul. When, in the remainder of chapter 9, he reflects on Israel’s rejection, this may be partly because he is trying to come to terms with things himself as well as to help his Jewish readers better understand. These verses also set the stage for the issues that will follow in this chapter as Paul’s thinking centres around the relation of two groups - Israel, on the one hand, and the Gentiles on the other. Let’s continue.

But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel… (9:6)

This verse encapsulates the entire message of Romans. I already suggested that Paul was trying to answer those who might think there was discontinuity between the old and the new. It might have seemed like the New Covenant abrogated the Abrahamic covenant. But Paul has been showing that God is still being faithful to the descendents of Abraham, it is only that these descendents are now defined as spiritual descendents rather than physical descendents. Hence the statement “they are not all Israel who are of Israel…”

Nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham: but “In Isaac your seed shall be called.” That is, those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted as the seed. For this is the word of promise: ‘At this time I will come and Sarah shall have a son.’ And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac (for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls), it was said to her, ‘The older shall serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.’ (9:7-13)

Whatever the troubling statement “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated” may have meant in its original context, Paul’s intention in quoting it here should be clear. He has already spoken about Abraham being heir of the promise, then he moves to Isaac being a child of the promise and quotes the verse “In Isaac your seed shall be called”, then he moves to Jacob being heir of the promise and quotes “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated”, finally he moves, later on in the chapter, to those who have faith in Christ as being heirs of the promise. He is trying to show the continuity in the progression Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Christ, Gentiles. The continuity is not because they were all the seed of Abraham in the flesh, but because they were all heirs of the promise. This promise is based in God’s sovereign election rather than works or natural reckoning (recall John the Baptist’s comment that God was able to raise up children of Abraham from the very stones). Though natural reckoning would have had Esau being heir of the covenant promise because he was the eldest, God says, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.” Paul is slowly constructing yet another argument for the legitimacy of the promise being opened up to the Gentiles through Christ, and here again the argument hinges on there being continuity with God’s previous actions. The covenantal promises are given to whomever God chooses, now as much as back then. If God can choose Abraham Isaac and Jacob to be heirs of the promises, then He can also choose the Gentiles to come into the covenant community. By peeking ahead to verses 24-33, it is clear that this is where Paul’s argument is meant to lead.

What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not! For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.” So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.

Why did Paul anticipate the question “Is there unrighteousness with God?” In light of the preceding verse we automatically think he is addressing anyone who might think it unfair that God should elect Jacob and not Esau. But Paul’s Jewish audience would not have had a problem with that. On the contrary, because they were steeped in the idea of limited election, their problem would have been the other way round. Their uneasiness would not have been because God had chosen their ancestor Jacob over Esau; rather, it was Paul’s teaching that election now no longer depends on physical descent from Abraham (9:6-8) or upon works (9:12) that could prompt the charge of God’s unrighteousness. Has God forsaken the terms of His covenant with Abraham by now having mercy on the Gentiles? To answer this question Paul meets his opponents on their own ground and prepares them for his answer even before raising the question. For none of Paul’s opponents would have denied God’s right to violate human tradition and convention in the matter of Jacob and Esau. According to tradition – that is, according to the conventions governing ancient Semitic society – the birthright, the blessing, and the headship of the tribal family should have passed from Isaac to Esau rather than from Isaac to Jacob. But if none of Paul’s opponents would have denied God’s right to violate that tradition, then neither, Paul in effect argues, should they deny God’s right to violate the tradition that would restrict God’s mercy to the physical descendants of Abraham, or at least to the circumcised and to those who keep the Jewish law.

Now let’s look at Paul’s statement that God has mercy and compassion on whomever He pleases. Once again, this needs to be seen in the context of Paul’s argument for the legitimacy of God’s mercy coming to the Gentiles. Against those who would restrict God’s mercy to the physical seed of Abraham, Paul says, effectively, “God can shower His mercy on whomever He pleases. If He wants to bless the Gentiles now, who are you to argue against God?”

For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.” Therefore, He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens. You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?” But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?” Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonour? What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory, even us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?

There is no question who the vessels of mercy are since Paul clearly defines them as being the Gentiles whom God is now calling - “even us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles…” The ‘vessels of wrath prepared for destruction’ present us with a more difficult problem. Who were the vessels of wrath that Paul was referring to? Though he may have been thinking generally about all who exchange the truth of God for a lie (Rom 1:25), he seems to specifically have Israel in mind. The reason this seems probable is because of the references to God hardening people’s hearts, which is exactly what occurred to Israel. In Acts 28:23-28 Paul pronounced a judicial blindness on Israel because of their rejection of his message; in 2 Corinthians 3:14-15 he refers to the hardening/blinding of Israel that occurred as a judgement for their rejection of the Messiah; in 11:8-9 of this same letter Paul will be expounding the spiritual dynamics of this blinding process.

The reference to Pharaoh helps us to understand what occurs when God hardens the heart of a person or a group. Paul is, of course, referring back to what is written in the Exodus account. In Exodus, the verb used to denote the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart literally means “to strengthen” and is the same word that appears throughout the Old Testament in the phrase “Be of good courage” (See 2 Sam. 10:12, 1 Chron. 19:13; Ezra 10:4, Ps. 27:14, 31:24; Is. 41:6). Based on this, a possible meaning emerges for when God hardened (lit. ‘strengthened’) Pharaoh’s heart. When a righteous person’s heart is strengthened they become more confident in the truth they believe, but when a wicked person’s heart is strengthened, they become more confident in their wicked condition. One can easily imagine that Pharaoh’s was a coward at heart who never would have been able to stand against the miraculous wonders performed on the land of Egypt. However, because the Lord needed to: (A) judge the false gods of Egypt; (B) judge Pharaoh for exalting himself over the Hebrews for years; (C) demonstrate to Pharaoh and all of Egypt the destructive nature of sin; (D) demonstrate His sovereign power at work, God gave Pharaoh the resolve to realize his own evil potential. God gave Pharaoh the strength not to be cowed too easily; God gave him the courage to sin, if you will.

This may seem to be slightly stretching things, a clever exercise of reading between the lines, but it does fit the Pauline context as well as the Exodus context. Remember that Paul is using Pharaoh as a type for what is now happening to Israel. Now Israel did not become wicked because their hearts were hardened; rather, their hearts were hardened as a judgement because of their wickedness, because they rejected the Messiah and said, “His blood be upon us and our children.” As Paul says in Romans 11:20, “Because of unbelief they were broken off…”

What about Romans 11 where Paul seems to indicate that all Israel will be saved? In verse 26, he quotes from Isaiah 59:20 (‘the deliverer will come from Zion’) in confirmation of his statement that ‘all Israel will be saved’. N.T. Wright points out HERE that in

the crucial passage (Romans 11:25-28) Paul is clearly offering a deliberately polemical redefinition of ‘Israel’, parallel to that in Galatians (6:16), in which the people thus referred to are the whole company, Jew and Gentile alike, who are now (as in chapter 4 and 9:6ff.) inheriting the promises made to Abraham.

The composite scriptural quotation which follows in ll:26b-27 (including the reference to ‘Zion’) then points in a direction very different from that normally supposed. The quotations used here come from Isaiah 2:3, 27:9, 59:20f. and Jeremiah 31:34. All have to do with God’s action the other side of judgment. First Paul combines Isaiah 59:20 f. with Isaiah 2:3 to create the new prediction that the redeemer (not the Torah) will come out from (not ‘on behalf of) Zion. These are both passages which speak of the final great renewal of the covenant, the overcoming of the exile, and the blessing which will then flow to the nations as a result of the vindication of Israel. We are here very close to the thoughts in Romans 9:30 and 10:13, and this increases the probability that what Paul is here referring to is not the Parousia but the gentile mission; v.26b is explaining v.26a, with reference to covenantal promises of gentile inclusion in the blessings of the people of God.

Next Paul refers to Jeremiah 31, which invokes the whole concept of the ‘new covenant’. This new covenant, which God makes with his people the other side of exile and death, is the real reaffirmation of the Abrahamic promises, and is therefore the final vindication of the righteousness of God. Moreover, the new covenant is emphatically not a covenant in which ‘national righteousness’ (which, as Paul has already demonstrated, was not envisaged even in the initial promises to Abraham) is suddenly reaffirmed. Instead it is the covenant in which sin is finally dealt with. This was always the purpose of the covenant: now at last, as in Jeremiah 31:34, it is realized.

Finally Paul draws upon Isaiah 27:9, which in its context is not about the vindication of ethnic Israel as she stands but about forgiveness of sins the other side of cataclysmic judgment on the temple. Moreover, the ___ ___ _ ___ __ _ in ll:27b enables Paul to include the idea of a recurring action: ‘whenever’ God takes away their sins (i.e. whenever Jews come to believe in Christ and so enter the family of God), in that moment the promises God made long ago to the patriarchs are being reaffirmed. As a result, the Roman Gentile Christians must not stand in the way of this fulfillment, for in it there is at stake nothing other than the covenant faithfulness and justice of the one God. This is then celebrated in the paean of praise which concludes the chapter (11:33-6).

There is no justification, therefore, for taking Romans 11, as a whole or in its parts, as a prediction of a large-scale, last-minute salvation of Jews. In particular, the reference to ‘Zion’ has nothing to do with a renewed physical Jerusalem; rather, it picks up the Zion-tradition according to which Zion was to be the source of blessing for the world and claims that this has now come true in Jesus. The Gentile mission of the Jew-plus-Gentile Christian church is, for Paul, the fulfillment of what Israel’s God always purposed to do with the place where he had made his Name and Presence to dwell.

I would argue that the epistle to the Galatians has to also be viewed through this rubric (see HERE), and this is something that the New Perspective on Paul has been so helpful to emphasise.

For more on Romans, see THIS article that a friend in England wrote.

Now back to grading papers!

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

More Immigration Problems

Joe and Miriam have been able to join Matthew and me in America, but unfortunately Esther is still waiting for her visa. Esther and I haven’t seen each other since June and the separation is getting increasingly difficult.

When Esther had her appointment at the embassy she was told that the wait would be a minimum of 8 weeks. That 8 week period expired two weeks ago. I contacted my senator (who had successfully pressured the embassy to release Joe and Miriam’s visas independently of Esther’s) who then inquired about the status of Esther’s application. Her application is currently being subject to border security procedures. It is routine that details of all visa applicants are compared to those of individuals who are not eligible to receive United States visas. If an officer is unable to exclude an applicant as a possible match to an ineligible person, the officer must submit the applicant's details to the State Department for interagency review and clearance. That is what has happened with Esther’s application.

For some absurd reason Esther has not been excluded from the list of people ineligible to be given a visa and the case has been passed on to the State Department for investigation before clearance can be given. It is a mystery that this should occur since Esther’s application is the same as Joe and Miriam's (apart from personal details).

I would appreciate it if all our friends would vigorously pray that Esther would be given clearance to come.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Britain's Thought Police

There was a time when thought police only existed in places like George Orwell novels. In 21st century England, however, thought police have become a reality, as I have attempted to show in an article recently published by the Kuyper Foundation's Winter issue of 'Christianity and Society.' It is available for download HERE. Or just go directly to the journal by clicking HERE and scroll down to my 7 page essay titled "The Degeneration of Liberalism. If you do not like PDF files, I have copied the essay into HTML HERE. My essay explores how the rise of militant liberalism and left-wing thought police is both a contradiction and a corollary to the tradition of classical liberalism.

Although my argument applies to conditions throughout the Western World, most of the examples I cite are drawn from Britain. Thus, the essay should be of interest to the numerous Americans who keep asking me about the spiritual and political climate in Britain.

Thank you Stephen Perks for publishing my rambling thoughts!

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Monday, October 01, 2007

Chesterton on Poisonous Humility

"…what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt -- the Divine Reason. Huxley preached a humility content to learn from Nature. But the new sceptic is so humble that he doubts if he can even learn. Thus we should be wrong if we had said hastily that there is no humility typical of our time. The truth is that there is a real humility typical of our time; but it so happens that it is practically a more poisonous humility than the wildest prostrations of the ascetic. The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether. At any street corner we may meet a man who utters the frantic and blasphemous statement that he may be wrong. Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. We are in danger of seeing philosophers who doubt the law of gravity as being a mere fancy of their own. Scoffers of old time were too proud to be convinced; but these are too humble to be convinced. The meek do inherit the earth; but the modern sceptics are too meek even to claim their inheritance.” G.K. Chesterton

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