Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Power of the Gospel, Part II

The meaning of gospel becomes even clearer when we consider that it was not just in ancient Israel that the heralding of glad tidings was associated with the coming of a king. Throughout the Roman world of the 1st century, euangelion (‘gospel’) was regularly used to refer to the birth, announcement, accession or victory of a great emperor. There is an inscription in Priene on the Asia Minor coast from 9 BC which refers to the birthday of Augustus. The inscription talks about this day as “the beginning for the world of the glad tidings that have come to men through him…” In this context, as in Isaiah, glad tidings were again associated with the creation of a new world, an era of peace and justice made possible by the new emperor. Thus, the inscription refers to Augustus as “a saviour for us and those who come after us, to make war to cease, to create order everywhere…”

Against this backdrop, it was no small thing for Paul to speak of “the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Paul’s ministry was that of a royal herald announcing a new king. One can imagine how even the phrase “the gospel of Jesus Christ” must have functioned as a challenge to the emperor, especially when conjoined with the idea that Jesus had ushered in a new era of peace. From the Roman perspective, Christianity must have seemed like the great parody of the Roman state, while the Christian would have seen Rome as the great parody for which Christ’s kingdom was the reality. Both Christianity and Caesar believed they alone held the answer for bringing peace and justice to the world, both offered a sense of community, both had brought unity out of previously warring pluralities and both were intent on achieving worldwide dominion. Furthermore, both Christianity and the Roman state were religious orientations in the sense that they both presented a totalizing system to structure the whole of public life. Even in the provinces where the Julio-Claudian emperors were not actually heralded as divine, we may still speak of the Roman state as being ‘religious’ in the sense that it sought to structure all public life, thought and allegiance.

It is in this important respect that the religion of Rome differed from the countless mystery cults that existed throughout the empire. These cults offered various forms of private devotion to numerous gods and demigods, but they did not intrude into the sphere of public life and policy. It is precisely because of this that these cults could co-exist alongside the public, political religion of Rome and even be encouraged by certain emperors. It is crucial to understand that when Christianity came along, it did not present one more religious cult among an ever expanding array; rather, it offered a direct challenge to the imperial religion of the state. Christianity was another way of structuring one’s life publicly, with Jesus claiming total authority just as Caesar did. Jesus claimed total authority over everything (Mt. 28:18) and used this as the basis for commanding his disciples to convert, not just individuals, but entire nations (Mt. 28:19).

The early Christians even had the audacity to claim that Christ’s kingdom had authority over Caesar himself! Think what an earthquake it must have caused when Paul wrote to the Christians at Rome saying, “Yes, Caesar has authority, but only because it has been given to him by the higher authority of God,” to paraphrase Romans 13:1-2. Paul’s teaching that Caesar’s authority was derivative rather than ultimate would have been perceived as nothing less than fighting talk, a direct challenge to imperial pretensions.

In this, Paul followed the typical Jewish pattern. In the Old Testament, Jewish monotheism had always been used as a polemical doctrine over and against the false gods of paganism. Think of the way Moses set himself directly against the false gods of Egypt when he pronounced the ten plagues and how later, in his various addresses in Deuteronomy, Moses spoke against the gods of the Canaanites, Edomites, Moabites, etc. Think of the way Isaiah prophesied against the Babylonian gods and how Elijah had set himself against Baal. We could go on and on, the point being that belief in the God of Israel functioned as a combative doctrine against all other false gods and idols. If this was true under the old covenant, how much more is it true in the new covenant now that Jesus’ kingship has been inaugurated?

In light of this backdrop, it is not surprising to find Roman emperors later making such a point of trying to force Christians to say, “Caesar is Lord.” They rightly recognized that Christianity was a challenge to the emperor’s pretentious claims and the ideology on which the state was based. Christianity challenged the state, not by advocating anarchy and civil disobedience, but by showing that our citizenship rests first and foremost with a higher empire. This higher empire is ruled by a King who demands that even Caesar bow the knee.

If the gospel had merely been the good news that there is a way to go to heaven when you die, or if Christianity had been promoted as a way to have a personal relationship with God, it would have been lost amidst an array of numerous other mystery cults and private devotional hobbies. The religion of Christ was so subversive precisely because it proclaimed that Jesus reigns on the earth now. Jesus’ Kingdom claimed to be the final say, not merely on private devotional matters, but on public, social and political affairs.

Frances Legge, in Forerunners and Rivals of Christianity, writes that, "The Officials of the Roman Empire in time of persecution sought to force the Christians to sacrifice, not to any of the heathen gods, but to the Genius of the Emperor and the Fortune of the city of Rome; and at all times the Christians' refusal was looked upon not as a religious but as a political offence.

This brings us round to where we started, namely Isaiah’s glad tidings. Though these glad tidings involved many things from the return of God’s people from exile to the restoration of the natural order, but they hung together on a common thread: our God reigns. Although Israel had always believed that God was the ruler of the whole earth and not merely their own nation (Ps. 96:10), these prophecies spoke of a time when all nations would be required to acknowledge this fact because God “shall govern the nations on earth” (Ps. 67:4). They spoke of a time when all aspects of life, even the bells on horses, would be consecrated as holy unto the Lord (Zech. 14:20).

We have already seen that Jesus inaugurated this long awaited era. We now live in the period between inauguration and consummation when Christ’s kingship has to be progressively implemented. This means that piece by piece, bit by bit, institution by institution, nation by nation, person by person, all things need to now be reconciled to Christ. This is the vocation of the church, who are called to be ministers of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-19) in the task of bringing all things back into subjection to the Lord (2 Cor. 10:5). Like the Psalmist, we are to “say among the nations, ‘The Lord reigns’” (Ps. 96:10). Naturally, this includes all the institutions, organizations and cultures that make up those nations. We are to bring the Lordship of Christ to bear on all the arts, the sciences, the economies, the politics, the music, the philosophy, the educational systems, and so on. In these and every other area, we are to proclaim that Jesus reigns by showing the implications of that reign in practice. Our message is, essentially, “Hey folks, you’re out of here. Your time is up because Jesus is in charge now.” Because Jesus is now the boss of every store, every restaurant, every university and every institution, we should be able to go into shops and say, “You’re not allowed to sell that video because Jesus owns this shop.” We should be able to go to theatres and say, “You’re not allowed to stage this play because Jesus owns this theatre.”

Jesus said that “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” (Mt. 28:18) This means that there is no where on the earth or heaven that does not come under Jesus’ demand for complete allegiance. The glad tidings of Jesus’ kingship calls for a complete restructuring of society as we seek to bring all areas into subjection to Christ. If, on the other hand, we do not challenge every area of life and society with the doctrine of Christ, then we are giving the implicit message that there are some areas where Christ has not been exalted Lord. We are implying that there are some areas of the world or culture that Christ did not die to redeem.

We have already seen that, while the gospel was glad tidings for God’s people, it was bad tidings for Caesar. It was bad news for Caesar because the gospel proclaimed that there was another way of bringing peace and justice to the world that was superior to Caesar’s way. Similarly, in our world, the power of the gospel depends on it functioning as a subversive challenge to the false gods of our time. The New Testament writers could make this challenge boldly because they had confidence that Jesus had already won the victory. Christ’s resurrection was the guarantee of the success and worldwide dominion of His kingdom. What is left is simply the implementation of that victory.

The popular understanding of the gospel is greatly truncated through being made an approximation for a personal, individualistic experience that has little or no baring on public life. If that was the kind of gospel Paul preached, the makers of idols in Ephesus would never have found him to be a threat to their livelihood. Similarly, if we preach the gospel in all its original power, the makers of idols today will find us a threat to their livelihood.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Power of the Gospel, Part I

When contemporary evangelicals speak about ‘the gospel’, they can mean anything from a formula on how one gets saved to a network of beliefs thought to be essential to the faith. Perhaps the most common use of the phrase in evangelical circles is as an approximation for the doctrine of justification by faith. Given the centrality of the term in the New Testament, it is clearly important that we get its meaning right. Paul frequently referred to himself as a minister of the gospel while scripture refers to the work of the early apostles as spreading or testifying to the gospel. What did they mean?

The word ‘gospel’ comes from the Greek word euangelion which literally means ‘good news’ or ‘glad tidings.’ It is not enough to simply say that this good news refers, in a rather general way, to the news about Jesus and His message. While this is true so far as it goes, in the 1st century the gospel had a more specific nuance. In order to fully appreciate “the power of the gospel”, we must understand this original nuance.

As with all New Testament studies, the place to begin is always the Old Testament. This is especially true if we want to understand the meaning of gospel. In Isaiah’s prophecies we read quite a lot about the gospel, which is translated as ‘glad tidings’ or ‘good tidings’, and it is usually always connected to the Messianic kingdom coming to the earth. Consider Isaiah 40:9-11:

O Zion, You who bring good tidings [euangelion in Gk.]
Get up into the high mountain;
O Jerusalem, you who bring good tidings,
Lift up your voice with strength,
Lift it up, be not afraid;
Say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’
Behold, the Lord God shall come with a strong hand,
And His arm shall rule for Him;
Behold, His reward is with Him, and His work before Him.
He will feed His flock like a shepherd;
He will gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom,
And gently lead those who are with young. (Is. 40:9-11)

This is clearly a prophecy about the Messianic kingdom that would be established on the earth. The glad tidings would be when Israel’s God finally came to rule the earth with a strong hand. The corollary of this would be that God’s people would return from their physical and spiritual exile as Israel’s God gathers His elect like a shepherd gathers His flock. These themes occur throughout Isaiah, where the heralding of glad tidings is always connected with the reign of Israel’s God and the return from exile. Consider Isaiah 52:7:

How beautiful upon the mountains
Are the feet of him who brings good news,
Who proclaims peace,
Who brings glad tidings of good things,
Who proclaims salvation,
Who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’

The gospel theme in the New Testament draws on this background. When the angels spoke to the shepherds announcing Jesus’ birth, they said, “behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people.” (Lk. 2:10) These ‘good tidings’ would have been understood in light of their Isaianic background and the kingdom context. Earlier, when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, he described to her exactly what these glad tidings were. Notice first what they were not: they were not that Jesus was coming to offer a system of personal salvation, or that Jesus was coming to make it possible for every person to have a relationship with Him, or that He was coming to start a new religion. On the contrary, Gabriel says that Jesus is coming to sit on the throne of David, to reign over the house of Jacob and that His kingdom will have no end (Lk. 1:32-33). That is the gospel and that was the glad tidings that the angels announced to the shepherds.

If there be any further doubt on the true meaning of the gospel, we need look no further than Jesus own words in Luke 4:16-21 where he applied Isaiah’s ‘glad tidings’ to his own ministry.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Biblical Ban on Interest

Psalm 15:5 praises the man “who does not put out his money at usury [interest]…” Moreover, the passage places the charging of interest in the same category as taking a bribe against the innocent. This is just one of many passages in the Old Testament condemning the charging of interest. From the point of view of our own era, where so much of the economy is based on the interest rate, these prohibitions may seem absurd. It may come as a surprise for many to learn that the Biblical ban on interest was upheld for most of church history.

What would be the practical economic affect if the Old Testament ban on interest was applied in our culture? Paul Mills addresses this very question in his essay, “The ban on interest: dead letter or radical solution?” That was one of the most fascinating essays I read last year and I would highly recommend it.

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Sunday, February 05, 2006

The Theology of Language

In the previous two posts we reflected on some of the ways humans are beginning to resemble the beasts. It strikes me that another aspect of this shift can be seen in the disintegration of human language. Before seeing how this is so, however, we need to spend some time considering the theology of language.

We don’t often appreciate just how central language is to taking dominion as God’s image-bearers. To be human is to name the world, to speak about it, and to communicate about our world and experience in a way that animals cannot, though of course some animals do have a limited kind of communication. The first job Adam was given as he began to fulfil the dominion mandate was that of naming the different animals. Throughout the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, we see the importance of naming in relation to place, to persons and to time.

Part of what it means for man to have dominion is that man can actually affect his world through his authority to name. Whether an explorer is naming rivers on a map, or a poet is describing a place or experience in our world, or a scientist is giving classifications for future generations, or an historian is dividing human history into periods, how we define our would is bound up with how we experience it. That is why we find that today language is a key tool for our enemy as he too tries to take dominion of the earth. Though we laugh at the absurdities of the political correctness movement, it is an attempt use language as a tool for manipulation and control. It should come as no surprise that all totalitarian movements, from the French and Chinese revolutions to Marxism in Russia, seem to have an element of linguistic engineering at the heart of their agendas. Consider, for example, the way the French revolutionaries changed the way people were allowed to talk about history, instituting a new calendar where the year of the revolution became year one. The contemporary accounts of other revolutions furnish similar examples, and this must be seen in a broader context than merely being an assault on free speech. It is because language has power, so if you want to control the people you have to control the way they speak.

So important is language in God’s economy that the appropriate metaphor for Christ’s incarnation is that the Word becoming flesh. All this should cause us think carefully about the language we use, remembering its spiritual power for good or ill. Since language is at the heart of what it means to be a human being made in the image of God, we should expect that as human beings deny their image-bearing vocation and become less and less human, that their use of language will deconstruct. Jefferson Davis said that attacks on great cultures always begin with the disintegration of language. I want to argue that this is exactly what is happening now, but not in the way we would expect. Sure, there are people who use bad grammar all around (myself being no exception), or who construct sloppy sentences. But this is nothing new, and the real challenge to the human use of language is much more subtle.

Think of the way image is replacing language content as the constructor of people’s opinions. (I have developed this point in more detail HERE.) Think of the way the image a politician conveys is becoming increasingly more important than what the politician actually says. Think of advertising, how in the past newspaper advertisements relied on the content of the language to persuade people to buy a product, whereas now advertisers rely almost entirely on impressions and emotional images.

Language, by its very nature, necessitates linear thinking, which orients the brain towards rationality and sequence. That is why cultures where the primary communication medium is print, have always had a bias for linear, systematic reasoning (a point I have gone to some detail to prove in HERE) Emotional images have always been important for human communication when they are subservient to language content. But what we now have is that language content is becoming increasingly subservient to emotional images. (Neil Postman develops this point in his excellent book Amusing Ourselves to Death.) I find when I talk with people out in the world, even intellectual people, that their worldview is usually formed by a whole network of intuitions and images that become their only means for understanding reality. It was animals who were designed to live by a network of instinct, not humans, and when human beings abandon sequential cognition for instinctive images, they turn themselves into virtual beasts.

Related to this is the way people in Western culture are becoming increasingly unable to view things as a whole. Knowledge, conversation and language tends to be disconnected and fragmentary, rather than cohesive and integrated. There are many areas where we see this outworked: the obsession with specialization, the erosion of interdisciplinary study, the loss of social memory, the fragmented way of teaching history, postmodernism's assault on story and metanarrative.

A few words about the later may be helpful. It has been one of the hallmarks of postmodernism to consciously break up all metanarratives – to see them as inherently bad. As Jean-Fran├žois Lyotard said in the year 1984, "Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives…" According to the postmodernist, metanarratives are bad because they are thought to be controlling. Like systematic philosophical systems, metanarratives are believed to be “totalising” systems that force human existence into a mould that stifles freedom. Furthermore, metanarratives, like totalising philosophical and political systems, allegedly deny the naturally existing ambiguity, disorder and opaqueness of human experience. Postmodernism sees experience as fundamentally random, disorganized and ambiguous, while strongly resisting all influences that might threaten to bring order, continuity and explanation to bear on the particulars of our world.

In many nations now, we are seeing these principles reflected in a deliberate attempt to discourage any sense of national identity and culture – to suppress anything that makes us different from them. In art, we see this trend reflected in the collages that are becoming such a defining feature of the postmodern gallery. In these collages, the random juxtaposition of unrelated images is emphasized. There is no over-arching continuity, no larger themes that help the artwork make sense, because it doesn’t need to make sense; there doesn’t need to be any sense of continuity. Let things just be ambiguous, the postmodernist says, or you are forcing your own categories onto something and that is being oppressive.
We've wandered a bit from the title of this post - the theology of language - but not from the overall theme of this and the last two posts, which is the erosion of the antithesis between man and beast. Postmodernism warns us not to be too rational, too systematic, too cognitive - in other words, it warns us against being too human.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

More on Man or Beast

At the end of my last post I mentioned about the doctrine of the image of God as being the central feature distinguishing man from the beasts.

In Gen. 1:26-30 and Job 7:17, the Lord clearly distinguishes man from the animals, and it is rooted in the fact that man is God’s image-bearer, while the plants and animals are not. It is for this reason that the plants and animals need mankind to have dominion over them.

Because the fall did not change the fact of our humanity, it did not change the fact that man is the image-bearer of God. In the covenant with Noah and throughout the Old and New Testaments, the doctrine of the image of God is still affirmed, despite sin. But although the responsibility to take dominion as God’s image-bearers remains, human beings are now partially defaced images.
After the account of the fall we read about the enmity that was placed between the serpent and the seed of man. A consequence of this enmity is that Satan hates anything that is truly human. He hates what is truly human is becausDe humanity is the image-bearer of God. Therefore, the devil will try to twist everything that makes us uniquely human, everything that contributes to what it means to be a true man or woman. His goal is to mock God’s images by making people resemble the beasts. The fact that there are human beings at all is a threat to the devil, for he knows we were made to take dominion as God’s images. The best the devil can do, therefore, is to cause us to forget that we are human, to causes us to start thinking of ourselves and treating ourselves like beasts.

Of course, the lunatic asylums are filled with numerous individuals who think they are beasts. But that’s not the sort of things I’m thinking about. I want us to think of the more subtle ways the enemy manipulates intelligent people to behave or think like animals.

Perhaps the most obvious thing that comes to mind is the way many people have begun to think of themselves as beasts. It is has become accepted in many intelligent circles that the only difference between man and the animals is one of complexity. When the theory of evolution first began to be accepted, many critics were worried that it would remove our human dignity, that people would begin to think of themselves like animals, even that people would begin to behave like their animal forefathers. These fears have, to a large extent, been realized.

Central to the doctrine of the image of God is the fact that the creation of man was distinct from the creation of the animals. It happened on different days and by different means. All this is, of course, undercut by evolutionary theory. Further, evolution renders the image of God unnecessary, for it shows that there were thousands of years where the earth and animals existed perfectly well apart from the dominion of man.

It is bad enough that we have begun thinking of ourselves no more than beasts.But at least a beast does have some significance and value. Yet even this limited value is now being challenged. Someone once asked George Wall, a professor of Harvard University, who Shakespeare was in his view. Wall replied that Shakespeare was a random collection of molecules that existed four hundred years ago. Other philosophers have concluded that man did not arise out of the ape, but out of language, that “persons are no more than the points at which the meaning-giving structures of our language intersect and become concretised.” Don’t ask me to explain what that means. The point is that many people are no longer thinking of themselves as being people. Of course, the average ‘man on the street’ does not think in these terms, and for most this shift remains largely unconscious. Yet unconscious or not, the people of today have imbibed a whole network of dehumanising assumptions about ourselves. The result is that we are becoming incapable of acting truly human. The dehumanising influences of our era, seen everywhere from brutality towards the unborn to the loss of a sense of wonder, are merely symptoms of this shift.

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