One of the arguments open theists give for the view that God doesn't know the future exhaustively is that several biblical passages seem to indicate God changing his mind. This is indeed how the text is worded in several places. In Genesis 18, God is about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, but Abraham pleads with him to spare it even if there are ten righteous people there. As it turns out, there's just one, Abraham's nephew Lot. So God still destroys it, but he spares Lot.
The first time I studied Leviticus carefully (about 13-14 years ago), one of the things that stood out to me was the fact that ritual uncleanness transfers very easily, but cleanness does not. If someone is unclean for whatever reason, touching someone or something clean renders the clean person or thing unclean. It doesn't go the other way. Going from unclean to clean requires certain ritual ceremonies, and it often takes time, sometimes even a week or more. Going from clean to unclean simply requires exposure.
That's one of the reasons that it's particularly impressive that in the gospels Jesus touches people who have skin diseases or unhealthy menstrual conditions when he heals them, since those conditions were ritually unclean under the Torah ritual system. And it's clear that this wasn't out of some notion that the Torah ritual system was an ancient superstition that should be discarded. He insists in his teaching about Torah that it is the word of God and will be eternally true. But he also insists that it is eternally true not because it perpetually applies but because he fulfills it himself.
So what's going on when he heals people whose conditions would normally require a week or more of cleansing ceremonies? Sometimes he does tell them to go to the priests in the temple and do the ceremonies the Torah prescribes. Other passages don't mention him saying that. But certainly what's odd about it is that he touches them himself, when there are plenty of cases where he heals people without touching them. Are we to assume that he takes on the uncleanness himself voluntarily and then has to go through the rituals to be cleansed himself? The first would be a nice symbol of how he elsewhere describes what he would do at the cross, but I don't think that's the right way to think about these cases, because he's even telling them in some cases that he has simply made them clean (e.g. Matthew 8:3, although there he does say to make the sacrifices with the priest, but he says it's to be done for proof, not for actually making the guy clean).
I've long thought of this as just an exception. Normally cleanness doesn't spread to the unclean, but these passages are presenting Jesus as demonstrating something about himself as different. He can make unclean clean instantly, and that shows that he's superior to the Torah ritual system, which only looked forward to him.
But that turns out to be wrong, on closer inspection. For one thing, it can't be mere superiority. The Bible is clear across the entire canon that God can't entangle himself with sin or sinful beings, and that's why sacrifices are needed to begin with to deal with that sin. Isaiah 59:2 describes sin as separation from God. Jesus couldn't, merely by being God, do something that the scriptures clearly present God as not being able to do without sacrifice. So it has to be tied to sacrifices in some way, and it would be nice if we could find something explicit in the ritual ceremonies that looks more like what Jesus was doing in these passages.
It turns out that these cases in the gospels are not unprecedented. There is at least one mention in Leviticus of a case where holiness spreads to something common (although it isn't described as cleanness spreading to something unclean). That's in the description of the sin offering in Leviticus 6:27, where anyone who touches the flesh of the animal offered as a sin offering is made holy. I know of no other place where something is made holy merely by touching something in the entire Hebrew Bible, although maybe there are others that I just never connected with this issue.
What's going on in the gospel passages, then, given that there is a precedent for holiness spreading from a sin offering to something else? Perhaps the implication is that Jesus could reverse the normal flow of the symbolic status of ritual uncleanness to the clean because, as a future sin offering, he is in fact able to touch something and make it holy, whereas being divine without being the sin offering wouldn't do that. That seems to make these things fit together a lot better than the way I had been thinking about it.
I’ve determined that there’s a political faction out there that needs a name, because it’s a group of conspiracy theorists with a particular agenda that’s becoming somewhat influential, and it’s achieving its agenda fairly well. Its agenda is to discredit mainstream evangelicalism by confusing it with extremist figures who have nearly zero influence on much of any importance. I’m going to call this group the Dominionismists, because their whole agenda depends on this fictional line of thought called Dominionism.
Dominionismism begins, as far as I can tell, with a sociology Ph.D. dissertation at the University of California at Berkeley, by a woman named Sara Diamond. Diamond’s dissertation sought to expose a group of Christians she was calling Dominionists, who held the view “that Christians alone are Biblically mandated to occupy all secular institutions until Christ returns”. Dominionismists like to lump together such diverse figures as Abraham Kuyper, Francis Schaeffer, R.J. Rushdoony, James Dobson, Gary North, Greg Bahnsen, D. James Kennedy, Jerry Falwell, Tim LaHaye, Randall Terry, Pat Robertson, Charles Colson, and Nancy Pearcey as influential figures in the development of Dominionism.
Now while most of these people are nearly household names to me, many people reading this might not know who any or many of them are, so let me break it down a little. Abraham Kuyper was a prime minister in the Netherlands a little more than a century ago, and his vision of a Christian interaction with politics was that Christianity includes both (a) influencing non-believers with the good news of salvation and (b) attempting to do what good we can in the world, and that involves seeking to implement policies that Christians agree with. He thought it was perfectly proper for people of any mindset to seek to implement the policies they thought would be best, and therefore Christians should implement policies that are based on principles they hold as part of their Christian worldview. He didn’t think there was some biblical obligation for Christians to take over all the positions in every secular institution. He did think it was appropriate for Christians to seek a biblically-aware worldview that informs how they influence society for good, including occupying positions of influence.
Francis Schaeffer was of the same mindset, basically, and he was influential in bringing Protestants to care about the abortion issue, which before Schaeffer was mainly a Catholic issue. Schaeffer is more importantly credited with bringing evangelicals to care about theology, philosophy, and intellectual endeavor more generally, playing a large role in influencing evangelicals to go back into the academy that fundamentalists had left in the early 20th century as it was becoming more dominated by secularists and theological liberals. Schaeffer’s main influence in evangelicalism is in opposing anti-intellectualism and calling on evangelicals to think through their worldview and the worldviews of those around them, considering what sorts of views are out there and influencing them and how to think more carefully for themselves whether their views fit with scripture and whether they fit together consistently. He emphasized the gospel message’s importance in influencing every aspect of someone’s life, with an impact on how you live, how you pursue your career, and what sorts of intellectual pursuits you engage in if you have a career that has any relation to such pursuits. Nancey Pearcey is a Schaeffer-influenced contemporary author who has published works that continue largely in the pattern of her mentor.
Some of the figures in the list are politically-active evangelicals of various stripes. D. James Kennedy was a Presbyterian minister who had a TV ministry that was very much not like most televangelists. His Reformed theology set him apart for one thing, compared with Baptist Jerry Falwell and Pentecostal Pat Robertson. All three spent time arguing on behalf of particular causes associated with the religious right, but Kennedy’s theological background was much closer to Schaeffer’s. Schaeffer spent time trying to rein them all in, according to Schaeffer’s son-in-law Udo Middelmann (see his 9:52am comment here on 8-11-11), [note: comments are now paywalled, unfortunately] preferring to influence society with the gospel and to change people’s minds with argument, rather than simply putting Christians in government positions with a disproportionate representation without changing the opinions of those whose worldviews did not support the agenda of those Christians. So here we have a further distinction among the figures in the list between those who want Christians to seek to occupy positions in government or to influence policy directly (without necessarily thinking Christians somehow have a right to all such positions, as Dominionism purportedly holds, and those who think Christians shouldn’t even bother with that sort of thing but should instead seek to influence people’s hearts, and then they’ll vote their conscience.
Then there’s a very different mindset out there called Christian Reconstructionism. R.J. Rushdoony, Gary Bahnsen, and Gary North argue that the proper Christian view of law and politics is a Christian theonomy, which means applying God’s law as revealed in the Bible fairly directly in the laws of whatever society we’re part of. Rushdoony argues for imposing penalties from the Torah for our day, including putting people to death for having gay sex or for getting married under false pretenses of virginity. Rushdoony also argued independently for several theses that have caught on among non-theonomists, such as the idea that the founders of the United States saw this country as a Christian nation and did not intend for the First Amendment to prohibit states from endorsing a particular Christian denomination but that it simply prevented the federal government from taking a stance among the Christian denominations. He saw the American Revolution as motivated in significant part by an orthodox Christian resistance to a secularized British government, and many in the homeschool movement have been attracted to those ideas, without necessarily buying into the whole theonomist project. He also saw the institution of slavery as relatively benevolent, opposed forced integration and interracial marriage, and bought into Holocaust deniers’ claims that the number of Jews killed by Nazi Germany has been wildly exaggerated.
It’s not hard to see the huge gap between standard Religious Right social conservatism and its claims of this being a Christian nation that needs to be restored to its roots and the kind of vision Rushdoony had, even apart from the racial elements I just mentioned. It strikes me as irresponsible to lump him together with Francis Schaeffer and those influenced by him, especially given Schaeffer’s many recorded instances of resisting exactly the kinds of views Rushdoony developed. Indeed, it strikes me as an error of the magnitude of some of Rushdoony’s own historical nonsense to consider there to be such a view called Dominionism [sic] that Rushdoony, Schaeffer, James Dobson, and all the other people in the list somehow share and that it seeks to get Christians and only Christians into all the influential positions in secular society. Those who are perpetuating this lie are conspiracy theorists, and it strikes me as irrational and contrary to the evidence as Birtherism and Trutherism.
Dominionismism is of the same sort, except for one thing. Terry Gross (most recently here but see also here) and Diane Rehm (e.g. here) of NPR regularly have these people on their shows and let them spew forth this historically inaccurate and slanderous nonsense with hardly a critical comment or request for genuine support, and then they treat it as a big secret conspiracy that no one is interested in investigating. A recent article in The New Yorker (see Ryan Lizza’s hit piece on Michele Bachmann) presents this conspiracy theory as investigative reporting. Dominionismism has mainstream support among influential purveyors of information. That’s the big difference between it and Birtherism and Trutherism, because prominent people have raised suggestions along Birtherist and Trutherist lines, and the mainstream media just laughs at them. Just look at how Donald Trump was treated by Fox News when he was spouting off questions suggestive of the Birther thesis. They gave him time on their shows, as they probably should do with someone of his influence claiming to run for the presidency, but it was obvious that no one who actually worked for the network thought what he was saying had anything to it.
There are figures in the Dominionismist movement who are more careful, for example Chip Berlet (and he says the work of Sara Diamond is too, but I can’t testify to that, and it’s obvious to me that many using her work are not very careful). Even so, some of what he says strikes me as still very problematic. For one thing, he sees Sarah Palin as a dominionist. I’ve seen no evidence that Palin thinks Christians and only Christians should occupy every position in secular society. I have seen evidence that she thinks it’s good for Christians to seek office and to transform society for the better, with what’s better determined in part (and for all I know only in part, for all I’ve seen) by what can be gleaned from the Bible. He thinks there’s this large class of people who think the creation mandate given to Adam and Eve to have dominion over the planet is really about Christians having dominion over everything rather than the far more common (and far more plausible) interpretation that we all have an obligation to be stewards over God’s creation, and it’s just those with the right views who are doing so responsibly (and Christians should think their views are more in line with what’s right, just as any other group would think their views are more in line with what’s right, or else they obviously wouldn’t happen to have those views but would have other views). Dominionismists would do well to look at Bertlet’s chart showing views along the continuum between Triumphalism and Christian Reconstructionism, and I would inform them that people like Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry are at most Triumphalists, as far as I can tell, and certainly not in the non-existent camp of Dominionists as Diamond defines the term.
I should also note a massive misuse of the term “Dominion Theology”. There is actually a view called Dominion Theology, but it has nothing to do with these issues. It’s associated with the Vineyard third-wave Pentecostalism and people like John Wimber and C. Peter Wagner, who see Christians’ duty as not taking the government and secular institutions back from secular society but as taking the world back from Satan’s control, which has been the reigning order since the fall. Christians have the right and authority, according to this view, to exercise dominion over demons and reclaim God’s authority over the fallen world by prayer and confident assertion of God’s reign. People who practice Wagner’s methods will walk around cities proclaiming that God has reclaimed this and will speak to demons declaring them no longer to have dominion over the city. This, as should be obvious to anyone thinking about it, is such a clearly distinct phenomenon from anything to do with the relation between Christians and the government that it’s amazing not only that they’ve been so often confused but that so many people have now attached the name of their theology to the non-existent Dominionism that it’s largely taken over Google’s searches for the term. It’s actually hard to find any references to actual Dominion Theology by searching for that expression, and the first one I turned up was someone confusing them as a wing of Dominionism (one of three wings, according to that site, and Rick Warren has somehow managed to unite the three, as if that could make any sense; Warren is well-known as a political progressive/liberal except for some socially-conservative views).
[Note: cross-posted at First Things; that version of this post parodied a stylistic oddity of a well-known philosopher with a popular blog, who puts "[sic]" after the names of views he doesn't like, in a way that is out of step with normal practice for that expression, but the joke was lost on a good portion of readers, and I have removed it in this version for clarity.]
There’s a fascinating element in the discussion of the Sabbath year in Deuteronomy 15. The general law requires releasing people from their debts every seven years. That means if you lend to someone a few months before the release of debts, and the person is too poor to pay it back in time, you have to release them of the debt. You might expect this to give rise to unprecedented amounts of stinginess in the time before the year of debt-release. The law anticipates this, though, and it commands Israel not to use such fears as excuses not to give. It’s sin to refuse to give in such a situation, and they were commanded to give and not grudgingly. It says God will reward those who get stiffed in such a situation.
In the debate between complementarianism and egalitarianism about gender distinctions in marriage, egalitarians often say that calling on a woman to submit to her husband is unfair when the man isn’t called on to do the same. This does ignore that the same Ephesians 5 that tells women to submit to their husbands commands husbands to love their wives as self-sacrificially as the love that brought Christ to die for the church, which I think should count as at least as significant a level of sacrifice as what the wife is asked to do. But one thing complementarians often say strikes me as missing the point. They say that in any ideal marriage this shouldn’t be an issue. If the husband is loving his wife as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her, then it won’t be difficult at all for the wife to submit to the husband.
One hint that something is amiss here comes from considering the flip-side, which would be: If the wife submits to the husband, then it won’t be difficult to love her as Christ loved the church. Really? I suspect it would still be immensely difficult for a sinful husband or wife to follow these commands even with a sinless spouse.
But I think the main reason I don’t like that complementarian response is that you shouldn’t have to go to the ideal situation to see that these commands are all right. If complementarianism is correct, then wives should submit to their husbands even if their husbands are complete jerks, and husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the church even if their wives are as unlovely as someone’s inner self could be.
Indeed, I would say this is so even with an egalitarian interpretation of this passage. This is simply Christian teaching. Philippians 2 makes this utterly clear. Christ’s model of giving himself for us is just plain the model for Christians and how we should treat others, regardless of how those others treat us. And this is simply continuous with the Hebrew scriptures, including the Mosaic law, since the very same principle underlies the command in Deuteronomy 15 that lenders should give to the poor even when there’s little chance of getting the money back before the debt-release year (and many other places in the Torah, Proverbs, prophets, etc. along these lines).
So, while I don’t think the complementarian reply above is correct (i.e. saying that in an ideal situation it isn’t all that bad to follow complementarianism), at the same time I think objections to complementarianism that involve any claim that it asks too much are, at the very least, contrary to the very spirit of Christ and his call on the church. There are those who will resist such an ethic. They will say that Nietzsche was right in his diagnosis of Christianity as a slave-morality. I’m willing to grant that to a point, as long as they recognize that they resist Christianity in doing so. What I will have little patience for is those who think they can maintain a Christian ethic while thinking any unfairness here is immoral.
It reminds me of a discussion I overheard between two atheist philosophers, both of whom had some Christian influence when they were younger. One was giving a certain argument against a certain conception of hell, saying that it would be unfair, and the other said that it won’t make much sense to use an argument that assumes God is fair against the followers of Jesus, since Jesus described God in terms of an employer giving the same amount of pay to the laborers who only worked an hour as he gave to those who had been working all day. These were day-laborers who subsist on a day’s wage to live for the day. The Torah even requires people to pay day-laborers every day for that very reason. Jesus says God is like the farmer who pays the day-laborers a full day’s wage even if they don’t earn it. There’s nothing fair about that arrangement, and yet Jesus says it represents what God’s character is like. It’s not remotely fair to ask Israelites to give to their poor fellow Israelites who will almost certainly end up with no debt due to the closeness of the year of debt-release. But it’s very clear that biblical morality requires doing exactly that sort of thing and much more.
[cross-posted at First Things]
Jerome Walsh's commentary on I Kings is probably the best thing out there on narrative issues in I Kings. I've heard good reports on it from several commentary reviews, and two people who have used it in their sermon preparation for our current sermon series in Kings have found it very helpful. It's fairly rare that he says anything that evangelicals would find problematic with regard to the nature of scripture, but I did identify one thing when reading his commentary on I Kings 11, and I don't think he can consistently maintain it given other things he says.
A lot of people think it's irrational to vote if your vote isn't going to have an effect on the outcome. I live in an extremely blue district of a slightly red county in a very blue state. In local and statewide elections, my vote has so little an effect that it's not worth voting if the only point of voting is for my one vote to have an effect on the outcome. New York is overwhelmingly going to continue to support Senators Schumer and Clinton, and they tend to vote Democratic in governor elections except when there's a very moderate Republican like George Pataki on the ballot. County-wide races are closer, and so is the U.S. House district, which was almost a toss-up in 2006. Things were even more one-sided when I lived in Rhode Island.
But it simply isn't true that voting is only worth doing if you're going to be the deciding vote. There are other reasons people give for voting, some better than others. One that often occurs to me when it seems hopeless for my candidate is that if everyone voting for the other side thought it wasn't worth voting because the outcome is assured then my candidate might have a chance. Other reasons include that it helps you psychologically to feel like you're contributing and that it's simply your obligation to do what you can to influence things for the better even if what you can isn't by itself going to make the difference in who wins the election.
Any of those responses would be sufficient by itself, except perhaps the psychological benefit one (at least if that involves self-deception, and if it doesn't then it's not a distinct reason but depends on one of the others). I think there's an even better reason to vote, and I think it might actually be what motivates me most, but I hadn't actually thought about it in these terms until today. It takes a page from Calvinist responses to the objection that if the future is already determined then there's no point in praying.
Calvinists come in several varieties, but the most common sort of Calvinist (which isn't the same as being the most noticed kind on the internet) is compatibilist about human freedom and divine predetermination. If God has a plan that includes everything I'm going to do, everything every other person is going to do, and an outcome for every prayer I ever pray, then is it worth praying? My prayer isn't going to change anything, after all. Of course, my prayer would also be in this plan, and if I didn't pray then a different outcome may well have been in the works. Compatibilists about divine predetermination and human action are going to insist that God works through our choices and doesn't just force things outside our control. Our prayers are part of how God's plan works itself out as history unfolds.
One thing Calvinists sometimes say is that praying is not so much for the outcome but for us. God wants us to pray because of what God will do in us because we pray. I don't want to deny that, but it's certainly not the emphasis in scripture on reasons to pray. The emphasis seems to be on two things. One is that prayer does affect things. It doesn't change them, because the future can't be changed anymore than the past or present can. If the future is a certain way then it can't be changed. Even open theists don't think the future can be changed. Why should someone who thinks there's a definite future think it can be changed? But for the reasons in the previous paragraph, the future can be influenced. It can be caused by things in the present, and I can be part of that process of bringing it about. A compatibilist should have no trouble saying that sort of thing.
But there's another reason in scripture for why we should pray, even though God has worked out the end from the beginning, and this one (unlike the previous one) does have some relevance for voting. God wants us to communicate our dependence on him and to express our desires to him. He wants us to see him as the Father who cares for us and meets our needs and our wishes, provided that our wishes are righteous and as long as there isn't some other reason beyond our ken for why God wouldn't grant a particular wish (as there may well be). As Jesus points out, what father when presented with a request from a child for bread or fish will give a snake? God wants to bestow good things on his children and delights when we come to him with requests, for the same reasons a giving parent delights in such things. Given that, it's a privilege to call him Father, which is why it's a big deal that Jesus starts out the Lord's prayer with "our Father". Those who don't avail themselves of that title in addressing him are missing out on something great. Those who don't address him at all are missing out on even more.
The same dynamic plays out in a smaller way with voting. I'm privilege to live in a country that seeks my opinion on who should occupy certain offices. Even if my vote doesn't have an effect in putting someone in office, it's a privilege to be able to contribute my thoughts in the process of the communal decision that an election involves. I don't believe voting is a moral right. But I think I'd be wasting an opportunity to express my opinion if I didn't vote, and wasting a privilege is at least unfortunate (and I would even argue that it's immoral). This seems to me to be a much better reason to vote than any of the more common ones that I hear, even if most of them are good enough reasons.
This is the fourth post in an ongoing series of reflections on the gospel of Mark, which I haven't been very good at keeping up with. I think at this point I might just abandon it, because the long list of posts I had ready to go disappeared with my hard drive when it failed, and I'm not excited about figuring out again what I wanted to do. Also, I was doing this as I was working through the first half of Mark in a Bible study group that I'm not able to attend this semester because it meets while I'm teaching. I wanted to gather together some of the thoughts I did save in a draft of a post a number of months ago, though. Perhaps at some point I'll decide to do some more of these now and then, but this will be the last I expect to do for now.
What I wanted to do in the post I had saved as a draft was to consider two subtle clues even in the beginning of the book of Mark that run counter to a prevailing view among scholars. A number of respected scholars have claimed that Mark represents an early portrait of Jesus from a time before what the scholars call a higher christology had developed. The idea is that Jesus wasn't perceived to be anything other than the Messiah at first, and eventually he came to be identified as God. This usually puts John's gospel as the height of the high christology, at least within the New Testament itself. They might still consider the creeds a step or two beyond that.
I don't want to challenge the idea that theological understanding developed over time. Nor am I interested in arguing that every nuance to the Johannine portrait of Jesus is in the synoptic gospels, never mind in Mark, the most simple of the synoptics by many measures, including with regard to theological statements. What I want to point out is that the gospel of Mark has two important references even in the first two chapters (in Mark 1:3 and 2:10) to things that entail, but do not make explicit, a fairly high christology.
What is the role of scripture in worship? If scripture is to be our sole infallible guide to Christian practice as well as theology, what does that mean for worship? Since I'm writing this to enter it into the first Carnival of the Reformation, it's probably worth linking to a good summary of the Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Wikipedia's entry should serve that purpose well. What I'm interested in establishing in this post is what bearing that doctrine has on worship, both private and communal. Some readers may consider some of my conclusions suprising, but I think they come right out of scripture. There are so many elements of contemporary worship that seem to me to use a non-scriptural basis and even undermine what scripture says about worship. Some of these are subjects of common complaints, but I think the ones I'm zeroing in on are not the most common complaints about the worship of our day. I do think they're some of the more serious ones. If we take scripture seriously, as the Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura requires, I think we'll need to change much of how we think about worship, including the role of scripture in worship, though how it will need to change will depend on our background and our current practices.
Mark 1:40-45 tells of Jesus' healing of a man with a skin condition (scholars are all agreed now that the symptoms of what was traditionally translated as leprosy in the Torah is not what we now call leprosy but a general term for skin conditions). The man comes to him, begs on his knees, and tells Jesus that if he's willing, he can make him clean. There's a textual debate over what happens next. Most translations say that Jesus is filled with compassion and heals him. Most scholars favor the alternate textual reading that Jesus was angry and healed him, and I think they're right. I also think this reveals something about Jesus's character that's worth reflecting on for a little bit, something that reminds me of another powerful display of emotion on Jesus' part in the gospel of John.
Jesus' first words in the gospel of Mark are "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel." (Mark 1:15, ESV) Paul summarizes the ministry of John the Baptizer: "John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus." (Acts 19:4, ESV) The nouns for repentance and faith/belief appear together again in Acts 20:21. I'm wondering if there's a connection between the two concepts and that they're not just two indepedent commands, as I think this sort of statement is often taken, but one command put two ways.
Paul's statement about John in Acts 19 seems to be saying that John's message was to repent, i.e. to believe in the one who was to come after him, Jesus. In the next chapter, Paul tells the Ephesian elders in his farewell address to them that the message he preached was of "repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ" (the same Greek word is used for faith here and belief in the other two passages). One further passage makes the connection. The author of Hebrews says his recipients don't need to keep laying the basic foundation but need to move on to deeper things. That basic foundation is " of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God". The same one foundation is those two things. So maybe they're not really two things at all. We might read the statement in Mark a little differently in light of all this.
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.