Saturday, June 25, 2011

Causality vs. Moral Culpability

The issue of causality vs. moral culpability has been weighing on my mind for months now. The more I mull it over, the more I am startled by our culture's unwillingness to make any effort to change its behaviors and perceptions for fear that it will somehow be an admission of guilt. It is as if, in ignorance, we have collectively walked into a bear cave and been mauled, but rather than agreeing that we should avoid bear caves in the future we keep walking foolishly into them because to stop would be a tacit admission that we were somehow guilty of our own mauling. It’s nonsense, plain and simple.

In conjunction with my reflections on The Obedient Wives Club, I promised to give a fuller discussion of this problem. This is it. My thoughts on this coalesced in response to a story that broke back in March, and I wrote the below then. If facts have changed in the particular case in question, there may be some factual inaccuracies or at least some strokes imprecisely brushed. The point, however, remains the same.


There is a difference between causality and moral culpability that is critical for the construction and preservation of a healthy society. Unfortunately, this distinction is not only not acknowledge but is feared, with the ultimate consequence being that in an effort to empower victims, we actually ensure a sort of universal victimization. Let me explain.

For every moral event, there is both a morally neutral set of causes which brings about the event and a moral actor who is the cause of the event itself. Moral culpability necessarily resides in the latter, but, with the exception of omniscient and omnipotent beings, the moral actor cannot have exhaustive power over the former category. While the emphasis of my point will be on negative moral actions, let me illustrate this principle first with a positive example. Let us imagine that your spouse needs you to go to the grocery store on a stormy day. When you arrive, you are forced to park at the back of the parking lot. There you see a woman without an umbrella carrying a baby. You go to her and offer to share your umbrella.

From a deterministic perspective, we can posit an infinite causal catena or, if you prefer, an immense chain of cause and effect which stretches back to the beginning of the universe (be it in God or in natural causation) leading to any particular interchange, including the one described above. For practical purposes, however, let us admit a number of more direct and evident causes. First, had it not been raining, there would have been no need either for you to have your umbrella or for you to offer it to the woman. Furthermore, had the woman not forgotten her umbrella, you never would have acted virtuously in offering yours to her. Finally, had your spouse not needed you to go to the store, you would never have encountered the woman.

All of the above, I hope, is entirely self-evident. I hope it is equally obvious that any moral culpability (and here, I intend both positive and negative moral value) belong to you alone as the moral actor. The fact that an obvious causal connection can be seen between your spouse needing groceries and your moral action does not lead you automatically to impute moral virtue to your spouse. Even more nonsensical would be to suggest that the woman with the baby is morally virtuous because had she not been there without an umbrella you never would have behaved virtuously. The recognition of causality has essentially no bearing on moral culpability.

With the principles thus laid out--hopefully in a way that is totally uncontroversial--I will shift to address negative moral action, first in a hypothetical case and then in the actual case that has spawned this musing. Let us take the same inoffensive logic that recognized causality but imputed moral virtue only to the moral agent at the grocery store and apply it to a touchier subject. Imagine now that you asked your spouse to go to the grocery store on a stormy night, New Years Eve to be precise. While driving to the store, your spouse’s is engaged in a fatal collision with a drunk driver. Looking once again at the obvious and direct causes, we can say that had you not needed groceries, it is likely that your spouse would be alive. Had it not been stormy, it is likely that your spouse would be alive. While there may be some impulse in us to blame God for making it rain or yourself for needing the errand run, ultimately we know that moral culpability for the death is on the moral actor alone: the drunk driver.

Let me go a step further, however, and point out that neutral moral causality is not entirely out of our hands. While it may be psychologically dangerous to dwell on this in the actual instance of tragedy, for the purposes of our hypothetical let us admit that we can make a reasonable assumption about the danger of driving on New Year’s Eve (when drunk drivers abound) in stormy weather. Had we been thinking with a level head about the dangers of driving when compared with the pressing need for groceries, we may very well have concluded that it would be better to wait rather than risk grievous injury. We make these kind of decisions all the time, trying to control or predict insofar as is possible for us the various morally neutral causes which may come to bear on our lives. If you don’t want to get mugged, don’t walk down a dark alley at night. It is common sense.

I imagine at this point, if you have bothered to read that interminable build up, that you may be wondering if anything of any real substance will be said, anything which runs against the grain. In truth, I agree that all of the above seems totally innocuous. There has been, however, outrage over a recent story about a young girl who was gang raped by nearly twenty men. More to the point, there has been outrage over some of the coverage of the story which quotes members of the girl’s community describing her dress and behavior as promiscuous. The culprit in question is the New York Times which reported:

Residents in the neighborhood where the abandoned trailer stands — known as the Quarters — said the victim had been visiting various friends there for months. They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said.

“Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?” said Ms. Harrison, one of a handful of neighbors who would speak on the record. “How can you have an 11-year-old child missing down in the Quarters?”

I am sure that we would all agree that the act perpetrated by these men is truly despicable and that they alone are responsible for it. It would, in fact, be wrong to try to defer any blame for what happened onto this girl or her parents. None of that is in question, and frankly none of that is truly addressed by the quotes which the New York Times reported. It would appear, at first blush, that the members of the community of Cleveland cannot totally ignore causality. It is something which we ought to be able to recognize, perhaps even intuitively and particularly those causes which are within the realm of our control. Certainly, anyone can be raped, and there is nothing to say that an Amish woman locked in an isolated country home with a state of the art security system (if you can even imagine such a thing) still couldn’t be raped. In theory. From the perspective of our experience though, we know that if you go jogging alone at night, you are at risk. We know that if you let a stranger mix your drinks, you’re at risk. And if you let your eleven year old daughter present herself to the public as an object of sexual desire, dressed immodestly and surrounding herself with older males, then you can imagine that she is at risk. Not at fault, mind you, but at risk.

And why shouldn’t we notice that with relation to this story? We tell women never to go jogging alone at night. We tell women not to let strangers mix their drinks. It is that same logic which ought to permit us to say, “Look! Our culture creates permissive parents and children who think that promiscuity will lead to happiness. Maybe that has something to do with a world where twenty men can gang rape a child.” There is nothing in that which says, “She got what she deserved,” nothing which tries to mitigate the legal or moral responsibility of the rapists. It only recognizes causality and suggests a preventative.

In a perfect world, we could behave in ways which are morally neutral without any thought of evil. I could send my wife to the store and would only need to worry about events which were truly accidents. People would stop at stop signs, never drink and drive, and never take advantage of opportunities for sin. Shocking as this may be for the more delicate among you, however, we do not live in such a world. In the treacherous endeavor of navigating through life, it is pragmatic (if not always encouraging) to remember that humanity is a base, degenerate group of semi-rational beasts. For every saint who offers an umbrella to a drenched mother there is a vicious, nasty, brutish scoundrel who cares only for himself. If you don’t want your wives and daughters raped, then don’t send them out on the street in clothing which invites sexual objectification. It is no guarantee, but it is a cause which is within our limited sphere of control. You are all welcome to defend parents rights to be as negligent as they please and a person’s right to be as reckless as he or she pleases, but I dare say that it would be more constructive for us as a society to take instances like these as nauseating object lessons in the necessity of living shrewdly but innocently in a world which demands both.

Monday, June 20, 2011

David Lipscomb on Baptism

In the following excerpt, David Lipscomb is using the a difference in translation between the Common Version and the Revised Version of the Bible to throw light on the question of rebaptism in the Churches of Christ. On the one hand, there were those who believed that unless someone believed that his or her baptism was "for the remission of sin" that a rebaptism was necessary to be in communion with the Churches of Christ. Lipscomb considered this view misguided. He compared it later in the text to believing that a man who misunderstood when he crossed from Tennessee into Kentucky must not really be in Kentucky at all. The argument is that the decision to seek forgiveness in Christ is more central to salvation than a correct understanding of the moment in which that forgiveness is received.

While the question of rebaptism for "conversion" between denominations is not nearly as heated today as it was in Lipscomb's day, the kind of misconceptions about baptism that fueled the rebaptist position are still alive and well in many churches. To that end, Lipscomb's comments are no less crucial than ever for understanding the role of baptism in the plan of salvation. Lipscomb rightly places the emphasis on Christ rather than on baptism, a lesson that is always timely.

David Lipscomb, "The Revised Testament and Rebaptism," (1913):

Baptism is said to be “for the remission of sins” in the Common Version. “John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. ” (Mark 1:4). Luke 3:3 gives the same. Peter told the people: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. ”

In the Revised Version, the expression, “Be baptized [or anything else man can do] for the remission of sins, ” is not found. In that version the participles, prepositions, and other secondary words have been more carefully translated, and the American Revised Version is regarded by those competent to judge, the best version or translation [p. 922] in the language. The Revised Version translates “for the remission of sins, ” in each of these cases, “unto the remission of sins. ” The difference in the meaning is, “for the remission of sins” suggests the idea that the baptism is to pay for remitting the sins as a man pays for a horse. It is giving value received; that we are entitled to if for the service rendered. The human heart is prone to run to this extreme. The proneness to run to this extreme has caused God to especially guard against permitting it in any of his dealings with man. Even Moses, the meekest of men, was uplifted with personal pride, took to himself the honor of giving blessings which belonged only to God and forfeited an entrance in the land of Canaan. (Ex. 17:1) In Deut. 9:4, God through Moses, gives the Jews the terrible warning that he does not give them the land of Canaan on account of their merits, but on account of the wickedness of those he drove out. It is such a sin to assume to merit the blessings God bestows that no encouragement to the position in doubtful translation should be given.

To be baptized into Christ, into the name of Christ, teaches plainly and truly that in entering into Christ we come to and enjoy the remission of sins: because of and by virtue of our entrance and union with Christ, we become children of God. This is the expressive declaration that we are saved by the blood of Christ, and not because we have been baptized for the remission of sins—a selfish end. To be baptized into Christ is an expressive declaration that baptism is the step, the last step a man takes in entering Christ. So when he is baptized, he is entitled to all the privileges of a child of God—to all the blessings that oneness with Christ, our Lord, brings. The only sense in which baptism is “for the remission of sins” is, it is the act appointed by God to test our faith, and the act that puts one into Christ, in whom we enjoy all the blessings and favors of the redeeming and purifying Son of God.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Wives Who Have Sex with their Husbands Spark Controversy

The Obedient Wives Club, a conservative Islamic group in Malaysia, has made a radical connection between happy marriages and sexual willingness that has militant feminists, frigid atheists, and sexual extortionists in a tizzy.

I realize that the above sentence is quite obviously latent with bias and more than subtly reveals my stance, if not on the issue itself, at least on the response it has received globally. But how else can you react when such sage wisdom as "happiness starts in the bedroom" that has been whispered from mother to daughter on wedding days throughout centuries is represented like this to the world:

It turns out, the secret to a happy union is to let your husband have sex with you whenever he wants. If your marriage is sad or fraught with strife, simply f*** your way out. How novel. And if you refuse, you are literally causing war to happen...Men are the stronger sex, unless a woman makes them act in a bad way. The only way to assure that a man will not, say, get mad and invade Poland one day, is to make sure you're giving him whatever he wants. Like a two year old.

I would like to read what the group actually believes in their own words, but unfortunately I do not read Malay. As it stands, the rest of the English-speaking world and I are forced to try to reconstruct what is actually being said from sources that are less than comprehensive (not to mention less than sympathetic). Consequently, I am reluctant to pretend to speak on behalf of the position advocated by the Obedient Wives Club. It is, however, frustrating to see something which seems so obvious and, for that matter, consonant with the Christian religion maligned so superficially. (Interestingly, several of the article I am reading which trash this idea gladly admit that it is prevalent in American and Christian society as well.)

What is interesting in this, as in many displays of feminist outrage, is the outright hypocrisy of it. The Obedient Wives Club is a club for women, started and run by women. No one is trying to compel women to join or to abide by these principles. These women are exercising the freedom that so many feminists claim that they are trying to achieve for women. Of course, what is really meant is not freedom to accept the view of yourself and your gender that you have concluded accords with reality. What is really won is the freedom to be coerced into an image of "liberated" gender or to be ridiculed and marginalized for holding antiquated and dangerous beliefs. The Washington Post article linked above notes that politicians are dismissing the group as "medieval." Another source calls it slavery. The Malay Mail has an article subtitled: "Obedient Wives' mission 'narrow-minded', 'degrading.'" Still another article from the same source says the views of the group are tantamount to advocating rape and is shamed that it is women promoting this view:

If a wife doesn’t want sex and it is forced upon her, isn’t that rape by law? If a wife doesn’t want to engage in certain “whore-like” sex situations, isn’t that forced sex?

I put it that the club which has the gall to typecast a good wife as one who is a good sex worker to her husband is promoting predatory sex.

Sadly, it is women who are behind this rapacious move to prey on innocent wives.

How can a wife who chooses to be sexually available to her husband be raped during the act of consensual sex? It seems entirely beyond all these outrage commentators that a woman's sexual disposition toward her own husband is entirely her choice. In fact, that very position seems to be the kind of thing you would expect these controversialists to advocate. It galls them, however, that a woman might willingly elect to submit herself to her husband, even and especially sexually.

Never mind, of course, that the fundamental premise behind the group's message is sound. A husband who finds himself sexually gratified at home is less likely to seek sexual gratification elsewhere. This does not, as so many have accused, necessarily shift culpability for infidelity and divorce onto the wife. This misconception comes from an inability, when it suits people's agendas, to separate culpability from causality (a subject which I will treat at greater length soon). If a husband is a lecher, that is no one's fault but his own. In marriage, however, the "modern woman" (and for that matter, the modern man) would do well to realize that if you test anyone's fidelity you are inviting a disappointing result. The best kind of husband will always resist temptation, but at the same time the best kind of wife will always try to minimize the temptations her husband encounters. My wife trusts me, but she still wouldn't send me into a strip club to ask for directions.

From a Christian perspective, it is important to remember that the virtue of submission and sexual availability are biblical concepts. Paul encourages sexual openness, if you will, without regard to gender because he realized in the first century what people are scandalized by in the twenty-first century: sexual activity encourages sexual fidelity. The idea of domestic submission is even more pervasive, appearing in multiple letters by multiple authors. We can debate the meaning of submission (and it deserves attention), but it is critical to remember two facts which I suspect are beyond dispute. First, the locus of control is always in the hands of the submitting party. The wife is always encouraged to submit; the husband is never told to compel submission. Submission in the biblical picture is the supreme act of freedom, the willful act of self-sacrifice that typifies the highest form of love. It is this fact which throws light on the not-so-subtle hypocrisy of outraged feminists who want to "liberate" women into a no less rigid gender structure than the one they are "rescued" from. Second, whatever we may conclude about the actual ethical implications of "submission" in a marriage, service is a profound Christian virtue. It is depicted throughout the New Testament in acts which range from the giving of a meager sum of money to the death of Christ on the cross. We sing "make me a servant" and read about Jesus washing the disciples feet, but when it comes to our rights we are unwilling to put those principles into action.

I do not know anything about the Obedient Wives Club except what I can read in the rather slanted reporting of the media, but I can say as a Christian that I do not feel any sense of outrage that women have freely elected to follow the conviction that their faith commends domestic submission. I am certainly not at all bothered by the suggestion that a wife who will sexually gratify her husband is less likely to have a husband that strays. Marriages would be better with a lot less rights and a lot more service. Women who can stand up for their convictions in the face of worldwide rebuke deserve the praise of feminists not their scorn.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Feast of Pentecost

There are few moments so critical in Scripture as Pentecost, when the period of waiting following Christ's ascension was resolved in the glorious outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It is, in the hearts of many Christians, a kind of birthday for the church, and that is a fair way to look at it because the promise of renewal which was made possible through the Son saw actualization in the Spirit. In other words, what was conceived in Christ came to life in the Spirit.

Pentecost has also been a time when traditionally the church has emphasized and defended the doctrine of the Trinity and the coequal place of the Spirit in it. The icon of the Holy Trinity comes to the forefront of Orthodox worship and Roman Catholics are encouraged to say the novena to the Holy Spirit. The prayers are quite beautiful and they stress the real place of the Spirit as part of the divine Godhead:

" Come, O blessed Spirit of Holy Fear, penetrate my inmost heart, that I may set Thee, my Lord and God, before my face forever; help me to shun all things that can offend Thee, and make me worthy to appear before the pure eyes of Thy Divine Majesty in heaven, where Thou livest and reignest in the unity of the ever Blessed Trinity, God world without end. Amen

Gregory Naziansus, in the fourth century, articulated and defended the divinity of the Holy Spirit with such acuity and vigor that he earned himself the epithet "the Theologian." It is unsurprising that his oration on the occasion of Pentecost in 381 is a vehicle for expressing this doctrine. In Constantinople, where the sermon was preached, what would be the second ecumenical council was in session. Gregory and his thought on the Spirit would be instrumental in its final decision which is properly lauded as the definitive victory for the doctrine of the Trinity in Christianity. The following selection from this oration is intended to be more inspirational than doctrinal, but it is important to remember that these truths about the Spirit that are taken for granted or neglected in modern Christianity were under constant assault in Gregory's day. What he preached was the profound mystery of the Godhead against all foreign and dangerous doctrine which would strip the Christian religion of perhaps its most foundational and normative doctrine.

Gregory the Theologian, "On Pentecost,"

Honour the Day of the Spirit; restrain your tongue if you can a little. It is the time to speak of other tongues—reverence them or fear them, when you see that they are of fire...He wrought first in the heavenly and angelic powers, and such as are first after God and around God. For from no other source flows their perfection and their brightness, and the difficulty or impossibility of moving them to sin, but from the Holy Ghost. And next, in the Patriarchs and Prophets, of whom the former saw Visions of God, or knew Him, and the latter also foreknew the future, having their master part moulded by the Spirit, and being associated with events that were yet future as if present, for such is the power of the Spirit. And next in the Disciples of Christ (for I omit to mention Christ Himself, in Whom He dwelt, not as energizing, but as accompanying His Equal), and that in three ways, as they were able to receive Him, and on three occasions; before Christ was glorified by the Passion, and after He was glorified by the Resurrection; and after His Ascension, or Restoration, or whatever we ought to call it, to Heaven. Now the first of these manifests Him—the healing of the sick and casting out of evil spirits, which could not be apart from the Spirit; and so does that breathing upon them after the Resurrection, which was clearly a divine inspiration; and so too the present distribution of the fiery tongues, which we are now commemorating. But the first manifested Him indistinctly, the second more expressly, this present one more perfectly, since He is no longer present only in energy, but as we may say, substantially, associating with us, and dwelling in us. For it was fitting that as the Son had lived with us in bodily form—so the Spirit too should appear in bodily form; and that after Christ had returned to His own place, He should have come down to us—Coming because He is the Lord; Sent, because He is not a rival God. For such words no less manifest the Unanimity than they mark the separate Individuality...

But as the old Confusion of tongues was laudable, when men who were of one language in wickedness and impiety, even as some now venture to be, were building the Tower; for by the confusion of their language the unity of their intention was broken up, and their undertaking destroyed; so much more worthy of praise is the present miraculous one. For being poured from One Spirit upon many men, it brings them again into harmony.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Have Prophecies Ceased: Answering Tough Questions

An analysis of the primary text regarding cessationism and of the two main stances on its meaning--scriptural cessationism and eschatological cessationism--yielded a picture of spiritual gifts which were given to Christians in the interim until the final consummation of creation. Spiritual gifts roughly correspond, oddly enough, to the gift of the Spirit who was promised by Christ to come in his stead until the time of his triumphant return. Unless you are part of a small and largely disregarded minority that believes Christ has already "returned," this means that the spiritual gifts which Paul subordinates to love in 1 Cor. 13 are very much alive and well in the present, or at least they ought to be. This leaves the thoughtful Christian with a number of important questions that warrant answering. The treatment here will necessarily be cursory but should serve at least as an introduction to what this author thinks is the best way to tackle the legitimate problems.

The first issue that arises is one of semantics and may seem trivial at first. It is important, however, because it is these small matters of translation that allow people to more easily perpetuate misunderstandings of the text. Years ago when I first raised this question to my spiritual and intellectual betters, I found their explanation that "the perfect" was the New Testament to be entirely satisfactory. It would not be until much later when I had studied Greek, hermeneutics, and theology that I could more fully evaluate their proposal. The sad truth of the matter was that if the text had been translated more appropriately, I may never have fallen into error at all. The question then is this: should το τελειον be translated "the perfect" or "the end?"

In the interest of fairness, I will make what I consider to be a reasonable demand of biblical translators. When translating the world, all that matters is that they translate the three parallel instances in 1 Corinthians the same way. If they want to change the other two references to το τελειον to "the perfect," I suppose I can live with that (though I doubt that they could). Otherwise, its smacks of intellectual dishonesty to deliberately elect for a translation which runs against the standard usage in a given book, and that even before the obvious nature of the immediate context is considered. The more I reflect on it, the more audacious it is to me that any translator should opt for a divergent translation of το τελειον in 1 Cor. 13 when the typical translation not only maintains consistency but also accords better with the sense of the text.

In truth, however, I think that there is no truly appropriate translation of the term. I am of the opinion that Paul intends το τελειον as a double entendre. The first and obvious sense is "the end," since Paul has been stressing temporal issues (i.e. the transience of spiritual gifts and the permanence of love). Yet, as the other passages clearly indicate, the expected end is one in which Christ comes. In this sense, "the perfect" is a very appropriate translation as it is the arrival of the perfect one which signifies the end. I would love to see a biblical translation which opts for "the end" in the text and comments on this richer meaning in a footnote.

It was previously discussed that the view that the New Testament represented "the perfect" which would come arose as a defense of biblical authority against Pentecostalism. This raises two important questions that may be answered in turn. If authoritative prophecy continues, what is the grounds for biblical authority which all Christian bodies claim? If spiritual gifts persist, should we not all join Pentecostal movements? The questions and their answers are interrelated, but for organizational purposes they will be answered individually.

For Christians who have a view of biblical authority dependent on an idea of miraculous spiritual inspiration which has since ceased, the belief that miraculous spiritual gifts does present a serious, even unanswerable challenge. If the Bible is normative because the Spirit inspired it and the Spirit continues to inspire prophecies, then Scripture is put on the same level as whatever prophecy may be uttered by any would be prophet with a pulpit. Too readily when faced with this problem, Christians attack the latter premise and deny that inspired prophecies can continue. In truth, as we have seen, it is the former premise which is novel in the history of Christendom. The earliest Christians could not have understood Scripture to be authoritative merely by virtue of its origin in the Spirit because they quite clearly believed that they were still being inspired by the Spirit.

In contrast to the modern method of determining scriptural authority, the church from its earliest times until the "completion" of the canon used apostolicity not inspiration as the criterion for authority. In doing this, they were following Paul's own example, who himself declared in the same letter to the Corinthians "Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?" It is important to recognize that he did not insist "Am I not inspired? Have I not been filled with the Holy Spirit?" How could he, since he admits that the audience to whom he writes are all inspired and full of the Holy Spirit. With this in mind, the early church used apostolicity as the sole rule for canon. This took the form of three general questions: was the text written by an apostle (or "apostolic man"), is the text accepted in the major Christian churches founded by the apostles, and does the text agree with the oral tradition that was transmitted to the church by the apostles (the pre-canonical creeds)?

The tendency among many modern interpreters is going to be to want to reduce those three criteria only to authorship. While I do not share that impulse, it certainly more closely approximates the early church's understanding of authority (both during the process of canon and in the Christian world depicted by the New Testament) and is more easily defensible in the face of criticism from both non-Christians and charismatic Christian groups. In response to the secular critics, the authenticity of the canonical texts can be defended with no more or less uncertainty than the presumptuous theories which abound about their forgery. It certainly should be admitted by all that there are no texts of apostolic authorship yet discovered which are not in the canon. No non-canonical text even comes close to being able to make such a claim. In response to latter day prophets in the various charismatic movements, an appeal to apostolicity allows Scriptures authority to go on unquestioned without making a definitive statement about any particular prophet one way or another. Whatever the prophecy is, it is subordinate to Scripture and lacks any ultimate, a priori authority because it does not and cannot meet the single criteria for original normative teaching: apostolicity.

(None of this is in any way intended to reject the reality of biblical inspiration, only its ground as the sole or even primary criteria for Scripture's authority. What inspiration is and how it relates to the normative nature of Scripture is far enough beyond the scope of this topic that I feel justified in not treating it here.)

This relocation of the locus of scriptural authority, or rather a correction of a dislocation of that locus, does not in any way automatically validate a Pentecostal understanding of spiritual gifts. The fact that the early church accepted the continuation of spiritual gifts but rejected early charismatics (like Montanus) should give pause to anyone who would immediately leap to Pentecostalism. I am of the very firm belief that both Pentecostals and reactionaries who feel the need to deny all ongoing spiritual gifts grossly misunderstand the nature of the gifts being debated.

The relationship between prophecy and Scripture was discussed at length in the refutation of scriptural cessationism, and so a total restatement of that position would be unnecessary here. It is important to remember the nature of biblical prophecy, however, and to recall that the prophets of Israel were not fortunetellers. Shockingly little time is spent in the Prophets making absolute predictions of the distant future. The work of the Prophets was more as inspired interpreters than as soothsayers. They reminded Israel of their forgotten heritage and their obligations to God, interpreting the authoritative text of the Torah and the instructive history of the Israelites for a contemporary audience. I recently visited a megachurch who had a troupe of prophets who divided the congregations into sections and prophesied over them. On the opposite side of the stadium (which is the most appropriate term for the venue), a prophetess announced to one section that their student loans were all soon to be forgiven. In addition to feeling deeply slighted that the usher hadn't sat me in that section, it was appalling to me that people could even imagine a continuity between that sort of Miss Cleo nonsense and the work of Hosea or Amos.

Similarly, the way tongues is presently being practiced is quite contrary to what is seen in Scripture. Most importantly, speaking in tongues throughout the New Testament is exclusively the phenomenon through which someone spoke a human language that he or she did not previously know for the benefit of those in the audience who understood that language. Paul, moreover, insists that any time tongues-speaking occurs in a service that an interpreter be present to explain what is being said to the remainder of the church. Every instance of tongues-speaking I have been present for has been a speaking in "angelic tongues" (a behavior which Paul references rhetorically and somewhat pejoratively in 1 Cor. 13 but that no one is ever reported in Scripture to have actually done) in which the speaker enters a trance-like state, screams some gibberish, and then goes on as if nothing had happened. While amusing, the behavior in no way imitates what is described in Scripture and in truth serves no discernible purpose whatsoever.

The misunderstanding and misappropriation of the spiritual gifts described in Scripture by charismatic churches (throughout history, not merely Pentecostalism) is lamentable. These movements do nevertheless challenge us with another important question: if spiritual gifts do continue and they are not being experienced in charismatic churches, then where are they? There are two options that I can devise for explaining this and both seem to me to be at least helpful in understanding the present state of affairs. For my part, I believe that the answer is likely a synthesis of the two.

The first is an appeal to utility. The purpose of most of the spiritual gifts are no longer pragmatic in modern Western society. In a world with advanced medical care and abundant interpreters for every language commonly spoken, miraculous healings and tongues-speaking are not only out of place but unnecessary. We have an abundance of ministers, teachers, and, in my opinion, prophets if anyone would listen to them. It seems that healers and tongues-speakers flourish elsewhere, particularly in Africa and southeast Asia. Some would like to attribute this to cultural primitiveness (which stinks of ethnic hubris) or the prevalence of charismatic movements there (which displays a profound ignorance of the state even of the Churches of Christ in Africa). I prefer to think that God continues to pour out His Spirit on behalf of the poorest and neediest of His children.

The second explanation is an appeal to spiritual atrophy. It should come as a surprise to no one that the Spirit is not poured out into denominations that want to confine it to the inspiration of Scripture. We do not invite the Spirit to move in our movements and therefore we find ourselves spiritually stagnant. This may sound like a very limited critique of Churches of Christ and other similar movements, but in fact the same accusation is made by other groups about churches which are historically much more in tune to the work of God in the Spirit. Consider these quotes from Seraphim of Sarov, a Russian Orthodox monk and mystic of the not too distant past:

In our time because of the almost universal coldness toward the holy faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, and because of our inattentiveness with regard to the acts of His Divine Providence concerning us, as well as to the communion of man with God -- because of all this -- we have reached a state in which we may be said to have withdrawn almost entirely from the true Christian life.

Now some people say: '...Is it possible that men could see God thus clearly?' Yet there is nothing obscure here. The lack of understanding is attributable to the fact that we have strayed from the simple vision of the early Christians and, under the pretext of enlightenment, have entered such a darkness of ignorance that we consider inconceivable what the ancients grasped so clearly; even in their common talk, the idea of God appearing to men had nothing strange in it.

The simple fact is that if we make a war cry of dampening the Spirit we should not be at all shocked when our experience confirms our beliefs. The Spirit will not force an apathetic, sickly church to be gifted. We have become "too good" for the Spirit: too smart, too civilized, too orderly. However the Spirit moves, we should be unsurprised that we do not experience it.

There are undoubtedly more questions to answer as well as more questions raised by the above answers. This is not, however, the place for an exhaustive study of spiritual gifts, if such a thing were even possible. My position is that the Spirit will not be withheld from Christians and neither will the gifts attendant to its presence. What this translates into practically is an openness to the exercise of gifts, even miraculous gifts, which are consistent with their biblical descriptions. I have never seen anyone healed or raised from the dead, never seen anyone speak in tongues, and been convinced that these acts were miracles. I must, however, as a Christian allow myself to be open to the possibility that I serve a God powerful enough to achieve all this and more and Who has promised His church that His Spirit will abide with them in power until Christ returns finally and triumphantly.

Sources consulted in writing this series:

Collins, Raymond F. 1 Corinthians. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1999.

Conzelmann, Hans. 1 Corinthians : A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975.

Fee, Gordon. First Epistle to the Corinthians. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987.

Grudem, Wayne A. Gift of Prophecy in 1 Corinthians. Washington: University Press of America, 1982.

Oster, Rick. 1 Corinthians. Joplin: College Press, 1995.

Witherington, Ben. Conflict and Community in Corinth : A Socio-rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.

Ancient Christian Commentary, New Testament, Vol. 7: 1-2 Corinthians.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Have Prophecies Ceased: The "Eschatological" Answer

The view that the New Testament represents “the perfect” which will come and cause all prophecies to cease has been shown to be inadequate both because of its inconsistency with the argument Paul is making in 1 Corinthians 13 and because of its inconsistency with the nature of Scripture and prophecy. The only option which remains for consideration then, from the list of four major stances on the meaning of “the perfect,” is that the term is a reference to the eschatological future.

It is noteworthy, as a launching point, that the term most often rendered “the perfect” (το τελειον) may be rendered with equal accuracy “the end.” In fact, a simple look at the regular use of the term in 1 Corinthians will recommend this translation. Consider the following passages in which I have put the corresponding word in bold:

1 Cor. 1:4-9

4I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, 5that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge— 6even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you— 7so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 8 who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

1 Cor 15:20-25

20But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 23But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

Both are extraordinarily telling for a number of reasons. In chapter one, Paul makes certain to define what he means by “the end” (the same term used in chapter thirteen): “the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” and “the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” There can be no doubt that when Paul talks about the “telos” here he is referencing the eschatological coming of Christ. More interesting still is the connection between this final end and the spiritual gifts which are granted by God for Christians as they wait to that end. The parallel to the teaching in chapter thirteen is perfect (not to mention so glaringly obvious that it ought to put people to shame who believe that the New Testament is being referenced in the latter): spiritual gifts exist to sustain Christians as they wait for the end, the coming of Jesus Christ. Paul even references, in addition to God granting spiritual gifts for this purpose, knowledge which, in chapter thirteen, he adds to prophecies and tongues as realities which will pass away when the end comes.

The second passage is equally strong in its corroboration of an eschatological rendering of the term in chapter 13. Once again word in question is explicitly elaborated on by Paul. “The end” (or “the perfect”) is the time when Christ destroys every temporal authority and power (including death) and beings his eternal reign. What the reader is left with is two partial descriptions of a single event (which Paul uses the same term to describe). On the one hand, when the end comes prophecies will cease. At the same time, when the end comes so too will Christ come to conquer every foe, to resurrect the dead, and to reign eternally. They are parallel events.

With the addition of 13:10, these are the only unqualified uses of the term in 1 Corinthians. (In the rest of Paul’s letters, the only additional use of the term in this unqualified way as merely “the end” is in 2 Corinthians 1:13-14 which once again has an eschatological overtone.) It seems odd, if not willfully ignorant, to translate a term which Paul uses consistently in various ways depending on our polemical needs.

Even without those other references, however, the context of 1 Cor. 13 would still strongly indicate that an eschatological future is in mind with the term “the end”/“the perfect.” In fact, it is difficult to interpret it any other way. Paul, still speaking of the end when prophecies cease, speaks of a time when we will see God “face to face.” Surely no one would suggest that the fulfillment of this promise came to pass in the completion of the New Testament. More telling still is the self-referential comments at the close of verse twelve: “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Paul is undeniably speaking here of a time in the future that he will experience. To suggest that this is anything other than an eschatological moment is to suggest that Paul’s own knowledge was imperfect but that it was magically perfected in the cessation of prophecy at some point during or after his life. (Even transmillennialists--who aim to collapse all eschatology into the events of AD 70--are still left with the pressing question: was Paul languishing in ignorance in heaven in the years between the time of his death and the destruction of the Jerusalem temple?) The only interpretation consistent with Paul’s personal hope here and his position on final resurrection, which he is about to defend so rigorously in chapter fifteen, is that Paul is imagining the promised eschatological completion of all things in which he, like all Christians, will know God with an intimacy that is impossible in the present. Then will knowledge and tongues and prophecy and hope and faith all become obsolete, not because they have been superseded by a better means of mediating knowledge but because they have completed their purpose, to bring us before the Father with only Christ as our mediator.

This view stands up to exegetical scrutiny in a way that puts the others to shame. Additionally, however, it also coincides with the usage of 1 Cor. 13 in the early church. Consider the small selection of examples which follow in which the earliest church fathers all understand prophecies, tongues, and knowledge not to have ceased but rather look forward to an eschatological future in which they will see God face to face.

Gregory the Theologian, Oration 28.20:

If it had been permitted to Paul to utter what the Third Heaven contained, and his own advance, or ascension, or assumption thither, perhaps we should know something more about God’s Nature, if this was the mystery of the rapture. But since it was ineffable, we too will honour it by silence. Thus much we will hear Paul say about it, that we know in part and we prophesy in part. This and the like to this are the confessions of one who is not rude in knowledge, who threatens to give proof of Christ speaking in him, the great doctor and champion of the truth. Wherefore he estimates all knowledge on earth only as through a glass as taking its stand upon little images of the truth. Now, unless I appear to anyone too careful, and over anxious about the examination of this matter, perhaps it was of this and nothing else that the Word Himself intimated that there were things which could not now be borne, but which should be borne and cleared up hereafter, and which John the Forerunner of the Word and great Voice of the Truth declared even the whole world could not contain.

Basil, Concerning Faith:

Even though more knowledge is always being acquired by everyone, it will ever fall short in all things of its rightful completeness until the time when that which is perfect being comes, that which is in part will be done away.

Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, XVI.12:

Thus also the Holy Ghost, being one, and of one nature, and indivisible, divides to each His grace, according as He will: and as the dry tree, after partaking of water, puts forth shoots, so also the soul in sin, when it has been through repentance made worthy of the Holy Ghost, brings forth clusters of righteousness. And though He is One in nature, yet many are the virtues which by the will of God and in the Name of Christ He works. For He employs the tongue of one man for wisdom; the soul of another He enlightens by Prophecy; to another He gives power to drive away devils; to another He gives to interpret the divine Scriptures. He strengthens one man’s self-command; He teaches another the way to give alms; another He teaches to fast and discipline himself; another He teaches to despise the things of the body; another He trains for martyrdom: diverse in different men, yet not diverse from Himself, as it is written, But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal. For to one is given through the Spirit the word of wisdom; and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith, in the same Spirit; and to another gifts of healing, in the same Spirit; and to another workings of miracles; and to another prophecy; and to another discernings of spirits; and to another divers kinds of tongues; and to another the interpretation of tongues: but all these worketh that one and the same Spirit, dividing to every man severally as He will.

ibid, XVII.37-37:

If thou believe, thou shalt not only receive remission of sins, but also do things which pass man’s power. And mayest thou be worthy of the gift of prophecy also! For thou shalt receive grace according to the measure of thy capacity and not of my words; for I may possibly speak of but small things, yet thou mayest receive greater; since faith is a large affair2238. All thy life long will thy guardian the Comforter abide with thee; He will care for thee, as for his own soldier; for thy goings out, and thy comings in, and thy plotting foes. And He will give thee gifts of grace of every kind, if thou grieve Him not by sin; for it is written, And grieve not the Holy Spirit of God, whereby ye were sealed unto the day of redemption. What then, beloved, is it to preserve grace? Be ye ready to receive grace, and when ye have received it, cast it not away.

And may the very God of All, who spake by the Holy Ghost through the prophets, who sent Him forth upon the Apostles on the day of Pentecost in this place, Himself send Him forth at this time also upon you; and by Him keep us also, imparting His benefit in common to us all, that we may ever render up the fruits of the Holy Ghost, love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance, in Christ Jesus our Lord:—By whom and with whom, together with the Holy Ghost, be glory to the Father, both now, and ever, and for ever and ever. Amen.

Ambrose, On His Brother Satyrus, 2.32:

For now we know in part and understand I part. But then we shall be able to comprehend what is perfect, when not the shadow but the reality of the majesty and eternity of God shall begin to shine and to reveal itself unveiled before our eyes.

Irenaeus, Against Heresies, IV.9 (see also Against Heresies, II. 28 and V.2):

For one and the same Lord, who is greater than the temple, greater than Solomon, and greater than Jonah, confers gifts upon men, that is, His own presence, and the resurrection from the dead…And as their love towards God increases, He bestows more and greater [gifts]; as also the Lord said to His disciples: “Ye shall see greater things than these.” And Paul declares: “Not that I have already attained, or that I am justified, or already have been made perfect. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part; but when that which is perfect has come, the things which are in part shall be done away.” As, therefore, when that which is perfect is come, we shall not see another Father, but Him whom we now desire to see…neither shall we look for another Christ and Son of God, but Him who [was born] of the Virgin Mary, who also suffered, in whom too we trust, and whom we love…neither do we receive another Holy Spirit, besides Him who is with us, and who cries, “Abba, Father;” and we shall make increase in the very same things [as now], and shall make progress, so that no longer through a glass, or by means of enigmas, but face to face, we shall enjoy the gifts of God.

Others could of course be added. Tertullian with his spirited embrace of the Montanus, the “incarnate Holy Spirit,” springs to mind immediately as one champion of the ongoing role of spiritual gifts in the church. The above should suffice, however, to establish the point that early Christians believed strongly in the ongoing role of spiritual gifts in the church. This leaves us with an understanding of 1 Cor. 13 that stands up not only exegetically and logically but historically.

This result opens the door for a number of difficult questions about the nature of spiritual gifts, the basis for Scriptural authority, and the legitimacy of Pentecostal interpretations of the charismatic early church. That these questions might be more easily dismissed with a different interpretation of 1 Cor. 13 is irrelevant. The meaning of the Scripture is readily available to anyone open to see it and it is corroborated by the early church. What questions arise must be answered while admitting this truth not in an attempt to revise it for our own comforts sake.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Have Prophecies Ceased: The "Perfect" Canon

Previously, the flow of Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 13 was examined with the aim of better understanding the context of the promise that the miraculous spiritual gifts on which the Corinthians prided themselves would one day cease. The stress of the passage is on the superiority of love and its permanence in relation to things transient. Because of this, the Corinthians ought to have love as their highest aim, not spiritual gifts.

This interpretation makes way for a better study of when precisely Paul expects prophecy and tongues-speaking to end. When this is hinges almost entirely on the interpretation of “the perfect” (το τελειον) in verse ten. There are at least four options which have gained some currency in contemporary debate:

  1. "The perfect" is the full revelation of doctrine which is represented by the completion of the New Testament, either through the finishing of the individual writings or through the final process of canon.

  2. "The perfect" is love, so that when the church truly learns to love it will no longer have need for spiritual gifts.

  3. "The perfect" is maturity, variously understood. Spiritual gifts are "childish ways" which are abandoned when the church outgrows the need for them.

  4. "The perfect" is the second coming of Christ at which time spiritual gifts will become obsolete.

Of these, only the first and fourth really demand extensive attention. While the second option provides a nice symmetry by tying the cessation back into love (though Paul himself never indicates that love will be the cause of prophecies ceasing), it gives no practicable hermeneutic for understanding the history of spiritual gifts. Has the church as a whole learned to love and that is why there is no longer tongues-speaking? When was that moment? Or have churches in the Pentecostal movement not yet learned to love? Had Paul, who exercised spiritual gifts like healing, not yet learned to love? The third option presents similar problems. What is maturity and when, if it has yet, did the church achieve it? What are we to make of the fact that some churches still ostensibly exercise spiritual gifts while others do not?

The most notable stance among those typically termed cessationists (though I should hope, as I said in my previous post, that all Christians are cessationists in an ultimate sense) is that the New Testament has brought an end to the exercise of spiritual gifts. It should come as a surprise to no one that B. B. Warfield classically articulated this position in 1918 coinciding with the rise of Pentecostalism. Rick Oster has noted that this particular cessationist position has been kept alive “more by polemical necessity than exegetical soundness” (321). It is often presented as the last bastion of biblical authority against the unbridled charismata of the holy-rolling, snake-handling hoard of senseless babblers. I will address that misconception later, but evidences for this view (which from now on I will, with some irony, refer to as “scriptural cessationism”) merit attention.

To their cause, the scriptural cessationist can muster Ephesians 4:11-16 and Hebrew 2:1-4. These verses demonstrate that God granted the gifts of the Spirit primarily as evidences and assurances of sound teaching. The reasoning then is that when an unquestionable doctrinal authority came, the necessity for spiritual gifts disappeared and with it the gifts themselves. The Ephesians passage is particularly noteworthy because it not only gives doctrinal security as the reason for spiritual gifts but also uses the same language of love and maturity that also appears in 1 Cor. 13. These are the texts in question:

11And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

1Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. 2For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, 3 how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, 4 while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.

The problem arises, however, that if we accept the reasoning by which these ideas support the view of scriptural cessationism then we are forced to admit that God’s in His providence has been a profound failure. Here is what I mean. If it is granted that the purpose of spiritual gifts was to prevent doctrinal error, and if it is granted that the Bible is the perfect tool for preventing doctrinal error such that it supersedes and brings an end to spiritual gifts, then why does doctrinal error abound? Paul and the author of Hebrews seem to be very clearly stating that the miraculous gifts of God worked as a sign to indicate divine approval and to guide the church in doctrinal purity. Most Christians will argue that the church was purer and more perfectly unified in the first century than the twenty first century. Why is this the case if the Bible, which guides us now, is so superior to spiritual gifts, which guided the church then? There have been more divisions in the past two hundred years than in perhaps the entire history of the church previous, and these divisions occur with the most startling frequency among those churches which hold to a “Bible only” creed. The Bible, it must be admitted, is a terrible source for assuring doctrinal purity. For every possible teaching there is a biblical hermeneutic to justify it. The Corinthians, for all their various and multiple ethical shortcomings, seemed to have a fairly firm grasp on the basic teachings of Christianity--with one notable exception.

More importantly, I think this view grossly misunderstands the relationship which existed between spiritual gifts and Scripture through the long history of God’s people. It incorrectly assumes that one is superior to the other or even that the two are antagonistic. It must be remembered, however, that miraculous gifts and holy, authoritative texts coexisted harmoniously for centuries among God’s people, even as Paul was writing. The Jews, for example, had an authoritative text early in their history in the form of the Law (if we assume, for a moment, an early date for substantial parts of the Torah). During the golden age of Israel’s prophets, miraculous signs and divine prophecies did not contradict or transcend the written code. They illumined it for a people who had allowed their own priorities to cloud God’s intentions. (Interestingly, in the case of the core of the Old Testament, the authoritative text preceded the golden age of prophecy.) The same basic dynamic is at work with the prophets and healers of the New Testament, including Jesus who explained the truth of the Scriptures and verified his exposition with miraculous signs.

The Semitic model for handling Scripture seems to be not that it replaced prophecy but that it was prophecy placed in the interpretive hands of the prophets. It cannot be forgotten that Moses is the first and greatest prophet of Israel, and it was his life and writings that became the canon for the Israelite people. His teaching was forever authoritatively interpreted and applied by the prophets of God. The same is the case with Jesus, who was the first and greatest teacher of the New Covenant (and more, of course) who entrusted his life and teaching not to scholars but to prophets and healers who would preach it with power (which, incidentally, likely means something more that speaking loudly and pounding a Bible against a pulpit). Paul, it should be imagined given his tirade against human wisdom in 1 Cor. 2, also was not expecting to entrust his teachings to academics and masters of Baconian induction. His writings which became our Scriptures are the property of a universal priesthood of believers quickened to life by the Spirit of God. Scripture in the Biblical model does not supersede prophecy but invites it as the true model for interpretation. Now, that invites us to examine what precisely spiritual gifts, and particularly prophecy, are, but that is a subject which will be taken up in good time.

So, to recap, the Bible does not adequately fill the stated role of spiritual gifts which was to ensure doctrinal certainty. Moreover, the relationship between Scripture and spiritual gifts proposed by scriptural cessationism is itself unscriptural and misunderstands the role of prophecy in the history of God’s people. It would seem that Oster may be right in his evaluation of scriptural cessationism. But wait, there’s more.

Wayne A. Grudem rightly notes that scriptural cessationism fundamentally undermines the force of the argument Paul is trying to make in 1 Cor. 13. Paul’s purpose is to show that love endures even beyond the cessation of spiritual gifts. This is hardly an impressive feat if, as scriptural cessationists believe, the end of miraculous spiritual gifts came less than a generation after Paul’s death with the writing of the last of the canonical documents. Certainly Paul is a better rhetorician than that. If I may be deliberately hyperbolic (because I am not nearly as subtle as Paul was), he might just have readily as argued, “Love never ends; it is even going to be around after dinner tonight.” Or, since some things never change, “Love never ends; it lasts longer than most politicians’ marriages.” If Paul’s point is to highlight the great permanence of love against the transience of everything else (including faith and hope) he would certainly not have picked as his counterpoint a moment in time that he could have very well lived to see had he not died a martyr.

The real damning criticism of scriptural cessationism, the final nail in the coffin, is simply that the Bible is not self-aware. It’s nature as an unconscious anthology forbids it. No matter how hard we squint, no matter how contortionist our hermeneutics are, no matter if we pray, hope, wish, and write a letter to Santa, the fact of the matter remains that the biblical authors are not aware of the future canon. Paul is writing a letter to Corinth; he did not submit it to Eerdmans to be published as part of an authoritative collection. Gordon Fee has put it thus: “It [i.e. biblical cessationism] is an impossible view, of course, since Paul himself could not have articulated it. What neither Paul himself nor the Corinthians could have understood can possibly be the meaning of the text.” (645) It needs to be assumed in reading any New Testament epistle that the audience for whom it was intended could understand the meaning that was intended. Paul and the Corinthians had no concept of a process that would be completed three centuries later, ergo Paul was not referencing that process.

It would seem that the motivation for the scriptural cessationist view is more polemical than exegetical after all. It found popularity with the rise of Pentecostalism and is slowly falling out of favor as the fear of Penecostalism subsides. Commentaries, even those by very conservative scholars, are increasingly abandoning this view. This leaves only the last of the four major views left standing. Why precisely it may be correct and how it can be defended without necessitating Pentecostalism will require further explanation.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Have Prophecies Ceased: Exposition of 1 Cor. 13

I recently promised someone a face-to-face on the subject of cessationism but was unfortunately unable to follow through on that promise. It is my hope that a series of posts in this venue will suffice as an alternative.

Cessationism, the belief that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit have ceased since the times described in the New Testament, is biblically justified almost exclusively with reference to 1 Corinthians 13:

1If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

8Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

13So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

I quote the full chapter rather than just verses 8-10 because the context is so very critical. The verses on the cessation of spiritual gifts are too frequently treated in isolation, which allows for a radically broad interpretation of what “the perfect” is. Christians, and even non-Christians, are largely familiar both with Paul’s definition of love (i.e. “Love is patient…”) and the triumvirate of Christian virtues (i.e. “So now faith, hope, and love abide…”). In the wake of Pentecostalism, Protestants--particularly those groups with a penchant for controversy--are equally familiar with the promise that speaking in tongues will cease. What seems to be entirely forgotten is that the prediction of cessation is sandwiched neatly in between Paul’s two most memorable statements about love. The verse about tongues-speaking and prophecy are not out of place. It is intimately related to Paul’s argument here, and the true meaning of these verses about cessation are wrapped up in precisely what that argument is.

Paul is writing in 1 Corinthians to a church that is perhaps more troubled than any other represented at length in the New Testament. In Corinth, they prefer human names to the name of Christ (Chapter 1), they prefer wisdom to divine folly (Chapter 2), they prefer libertinism to holiness (Chapter 5), they prefer “justice” to forgiveness (Chapter 6), and in this chapter Paul is dealing with their preference for spiritual gifts over the fruits of the Sprit (if I may subtly propose an intertextual relationship between 1 Cor. 13 and Gal. 5). The purpose in this chapter is neither merely to define love in a list of primary Christian virtues nor to stamp an expiration date on spiritual gifts. Paul’s aim is to show the superiority of love to spiritual gifts.

Paul achieves this aim in three broad strokes that roughly correspond to the paragraph divisions that we see in our modern English translations. First, Paul insists that love is what constitutes the value of the Christian life. Spiritual gifts, knowledge, charity, and even faith (which, incidentally, ought to qualify any valid understanding of sola fide) without love as their primary content and motive are all worthless.

Next, Paul gives an exposition of how love appears when it is manifest. The qualities which are listed are not so subtle jabs at the way the Corinthians have been treating one another. In fact, let’s break it down to see just how Paul’s description of love links back in to Paul’s earlier teachings in the same book:

In all this it becomes quite clear that the point Paul is trying to get at is that love is characterized by behaviors and dispositions quite contrary to what the Corinthians are presently practicing. Notably, he once again elevates love even above both faith and hope by saying that love both believes (the verb is “πιστευει”) and hopes all things.

Finally, Paul concludes that--though all things are contingent on love, even faith and hope--love is contingent on nothing, not even time. “Love never ends,” and with this phrase Paul introduces the part of his argument that includes the reference to cessation. The spiritual gifts which the Corinthians are delighting in and allowing to disrupt their services, these things are ultimately transient. There was a time when they began; there will be a time when they end. Love, however, is without end. Ben Witherington has noted that even here love supersedes faith and hope, which both become obsolete eventually. In the final analysis, faith becomes sight and hope is fulfilled. Love only ever increases into eternity.

In the final rendering then, Paul is concerned first and foremost with the perfect nature of love in contrast not only to spiritual gifts, but to the knowledge that the Corinthians professed to have and to the childish behaviors that they have been exhibiting. When Paul speaks of the cessation of miraculous gifts, it is not as a passing statement of fact meant simply to inform the church at Corinth that their prophecies had a "best by" date on them. It was to illustrate that even these great gifts which they had would one day pass away, but love never would. Love, therefore, is the proper object of pursuit, the proper quality for boasting and pride (except that love does not boast and is not proud). There is nothing to glory in except love which is an all-sufficient and eternal glory.

Though I believe this analysis will be fruitful in time, the above does not really immediately solve the problem of precisely when spiritual gifts like prophecy and tongues-speaking will cease. The only thing that seems self-evident to me is that every Christian ought to be in some sense a cessationist. There will be a time when prophecies cease. The only thing left to decide is exactly when that time is.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Gay Marriage: It's the American Way

I have previously voiced my belief that it is patently unamerican that homosexuals are not allowed to marry in this country. I frankly cannot understand why the American government (at the behest of the American people) is involved in sexual ethics at all. It is legal in this country for two men to hold hands, to kiss, to have sexual intercourse, to cohabitate, to adopt children (with a little hoop jumping), to grant each other power of attorney, and to name one another in their wills. If twelve male dwarves wanted to have an orgy in a vat of chocolate pudding, they could do it legally and make the pet parrot watch. We may be disgusted by it (and I may never each chocolate pudding again after concocting that image), but there seems to be a pretty general consensus that our government should not be involved in the sexual behavior of consenting adults. It boggles my mind, in view of all this, that so many Americans would take such a firm stand on whether or not homosexuals can enter into the (unfortunately) public contract of marriage.

And since we are talking about the "rights" of homosexuals anyway, now seems as good a time as any to share a selection from Ron Paul's Liberty Defined on this very issue:

Most Americans do not question the requirement to obtain a license to get married. As in just about everything else, this requirement generates unnecessary problems and heated disagreements. If the government was not involved there would be no discussion or controversy over the definition of marriage. Why should the government give permission to two individuals for them to call themselves married? In a free society, something that we do not truly enjoy, all voluntary and consensual agreements would be recognized. If disputes arose, the courts could be involved as in any other civil dispute…

I’d like to settle the debate by turning it into a First Amendment issue: the right of free speech. Everyone can have his or her own definition of what marriage means, and if an agreement or contract is reached by the participants, it will qualify as a civil contract if desired…

I personally identify with the dictionary definition of marriage: “The social institution under which a man and woman establish their decision to live together as husband and wife by legal commitments or religious ceremony.” If others who choose a different definition do not impose their standards on anyone else, they have a First Amendment right to their own definition and access to the courts to arbitrate any civil disputes.

While I do not recall Paul mentioning it, I think it warrants remembering that marriage licences have been used throughout the past century of American history by the government in order to enforce what it believes are acceptable standards for marriages. In times not so long past, the government protected us from the possible catastrophe of marriages between whites and blacks or, worse still, Japanese! The practice is not as distant as we might like to believe. At some point, it might be nice if the people realized that they did not need the government to protect them from the gay menace. If you don't want to marry, befriend, or even break bread with a homosexual, then you are more than welcome not to. In the meantime, if you do not want the government poking around in your private contracts (or your privates in general) then it is the height of hypocrisy to demand that it interfere with the affairs of everyone else.

Friday, June 3, 2011

"...others will weep."

It's official and apparently has been for some time. The Presbyterian Church USA has officially ratified a measure that opens the door for homosexual ordination in the church, joining a small minority of official Christian bodies to do so. While in the grand scheme of the church universal three million Christians is a drop in the bucket, there is still something disturbing in the way mainline Protestant denominations seem to be succumbing slowly but surely to the rising tide of "progress."

Linda Fleming, an elder and deacon at Knox Presbyterian Church in Ladera Heights, which hosted the Pacific Presbytery meeting, said she was among those who had changed her mind on the issue in recent years.

"I finally decided at the age of 63 that it is inevitable," she said. "I think it's like letting black people come to white churches, or letting women become ministers. It's inevitable."

Still, she couldn't help but express surprise. "For the Presbyterian Church, which is a mainline church, a graying church, it's something."

So reports the LA Times. I sincerely hope that was not the attitude of most of those voting. It is one thing to take a stand on what you believe is correct and another matter entirely to reverse course merely out of fatalistic resignation. I would much rather people take a strong stand on the issue, be convicted of it, rather than support a radical revision of Christian sexual ethics on the basis of ambivalence. Thoughts like these are actually less offensive to me:

"This is an important moment in the Christian communion," said Michael Adee, a Presbyterian elder who heads an organization that fought for gay ordination. "I rejoice that Presbyterians are focusing on what matters most: faith and character, not a person's marital status or sexual orientation."

Of course the separation of a person's sexual behavior from his or her character is entirely artificial. People's genitals are subject to moral agency no less than any other part of their anatomy. If what I do with my hands, where I go with my feet, and what I say with my mouth all speak to and constitute my character then so does into whom I stick my penis, if you can pardon the crudeness (and even if you can't). Christianity Today makes a similar point:

Christianity is a tradition; it is a faith with a particular ethos, set of beliefs and practices handed on from generation to generation. The Christian tradition may be understood as the history of what God's people have believed and how they have lived based upon the Word of God. This tradition is not only a collection of accepted doctrines but also a set of lifestyle expectations for a follower of Christ. One of the primary things handed down in the Christian church over the centuries is a consistent set of lifestyle ethics including specific directives about sexual behavior. The church of every generation from the time of the apostles has condemned sexual sin as unbecoming a disciple of Christ. At no point have any orthodox Christian teachers ever suggested that one's sexual practices may deviate from biblical standards.

Concerning homosexuality there has been absolute unanimity in church history; sexual intimacy between persons of the same gender has never been recognized as legitimate behavior for a Christian. One finds no examples of orthodox teachers who suggested that homosexual activity could be acceptable in God's sight under any circumstances. Revisionist biblical interpretations that purport to support homosexual practice are typically rooted in novel hermeneutical principles applied to Scripture, which produce bizarre interpretations of the Bible held nowhere, never, by no one.

I will now begin taking bets who which denomination will be the next to fall in line.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Breaking News: Liberals Run the Media

In a new revelation that should shock absolutely no one, Ben Shapiro is claiming that liberals run the media. Sure, it's been a stock accusation by conservatives for years now, but Shapiro says he has proof: the liberals themselves admitting it with glee. In a newly released book, Primetime Propaganda: The True Hollywood Story of How the Left Took Over Your TV, Shapiro breaks down the content of dozens of interviews with the minds behind Friends, House, Happy Days, Rosanne, M*A*S*H, and more. They gladly admit not only that they actively pushed a progressive social and political agenda in their TV shows but that they delight in the fact that conservatives are ostracized and discriminated against in Hollywood. Here are some snippets of what Shapiro claims to have gotten out of his interviews:

In one video, "Friends" co-creator Marta Kauffman says that when she cast Candace Gingrich-Jones, half-sister of Republican former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, as the minister of a lesbian wedding, "There was a bit of [a middle finger] in it to the right wing."

Kauffman also acknowledges she "put together a staff of mostly liberal people," which is another major point of Shapiro's book: that conservatives aren't welcome in Hollywood.

Maybe that's because they're "idiots" and have "medieval minds." At least that's what "Soap" and "Golden Girls" creator Susan Harris thinks of TV's conservative critics.

However, the ranks of dumb right-wingers has dwindled, according to Harris, whose video has her saying: "At least, you know, we put Obama in office, and so people, I think, are getting — have gotten — a little bit smarter." additional video has Di Bona, who also created "America's Funniest Home Videos," becoming remarkably blunt about his approval of a lack of political diversity in Hollywood. When Shapiro asks what he thinks of conservative critics who say everyone in Hollywood is liberal, Di Bona responds: "I think it's probably accurate, and I'm happy about it."

Even more interesting than the obvious revelations that shows like Friends or M*A*S*H have an agenda are accusations that shows with a wide viewing audience among conservatives are also secretly trying to push a liberal agenda. The most obvious example of this:

Shapiro released two videos Tuesday, one featuring "COPS" creator John Langley saying he's partial to segments where white people are the criminals...

I know a lot of people who are very restrictive about what their children watch on TV. I have always understood it, but I admit that it always made me sort of uneasy. At the same time, I wonder to what degree the liberality of my own parents TV watching habits has affected my worldview. I suppose at the very least it merits consideration to what degree we want to allow ourselves and our children to be subtly indoctrinated by people who have an admitted agenda in their programming. After all, according to Shapiro, not even Sesame Street is above reproach. It's a good thing I was raised on Mr. Rogers.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Osama bin Laden is dead.

Osama bin Laden is dead. That is clearly old news at this point, but to be quite frank I didn't care much about the fact that he was killed. Tens of thousands of people have died in our crusade to kill this one man. Their deaths collectively seem to merit more attention to me. (For example, more people should really be asking the question: is any man worth it?) We did, however, stay up the night it was announced to see what exactly the president had to say. When Geraldo broke the news to us that the announcement was about bin Laden's death, we went to sleep.

What interests me more than his death is the response that came in the wake of his death. Geraldo was positively giddy, delighted in a way that would have put any school girl to shame. In addition to seeming unprofessional, it struck me as inappropriate that anyone should be so very delighted about the death of another human being no matter how "evil" he may have been. Unfortunately, Geraldo was not alone. The whole country seemed to be elated at the idea that this one man had finally been killed, as if our whole national consciousness had no greater aim in the decade since the September, 11 attacks. It was unnerving. After weeks of believing that I was largely alone in my distaste of this shameless reveling in death, a poll has shown that a majority of American Christians (albeit a slim majority) believe that the response to bin Laden's death was inconsistent with biblical teachings:

Americans are more conflicted over whether Christian values are consistent with the raucous celebrations that broke out after bin Laden was killed. About 60 percent of respondents—ranging from seven in 10 minority Christians to just over half of white mainline Protestants—believe the Bible’s message, “Do not rejoice when your enemies fall,” applies to the death of bin Laden.

I was relieved to find that so many others were uneasy, so many other recognized the blatantly inconsistency between the way Jesus tells us to treat our enemies and the way the American people reacted to bin Laden's death. That relief was, however, immediately met with a new round of disappointment when the same poll revealed that some eighty percent of Evangelicals believe that bin Laden is at this moment burning eternally in hell. Why are we bothering to take a stand on his eternal resting place at all? Are we in the judgement seat? I wonder if perhaps what this poll really reveals is that 80% of evangelicals are too concerned about the eternal disposition of the souls of others and not concerned enough about their own.

In other, even more disturbing, findings:

-- A slim majority (53 percent) of Americans say the U.S. should follow the Golden Rule and not use any methods on our enemies that we would not want used on our own soldiers—down from 2008, when 62 percent agreed.

Support for the Golden Rule principle was strongest among minority Christians, Catholics and religiously unaffiliated Americans (all with majorities above 52 percent), but less so among evangelicals (47 percent) and mainline Protestants (42 percent).

-- Younger Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 (69 percent) are more likely to believe the Bible passage about not celebrating “when your enemies fall” applies to bin Laden than do those age 65 and older (47 percent).

-- Religiously unaffiliated Americans (57 percent) are significantly more likely than Christians to say the use of torture against suspected terrorists can never be justified. Catholics, at 53 percent, are the Christian group most likely to say torture can never be justified.

-- Majorities of white evangelicals (54 percent) and minority Christians (51 percent) believe God had a hand in locating bin Laden, compared to only a third of white mainline Protestants and 42 percent of Catholics.

-- A slim majority (51 percent) of Americans believe God has granted America a special role in human history, led by two-thirds of evangelicals and nearly as many (63 percent) minority Christians, compared to 51 percent of Catholics and white mainline Protestants.

Prothero said he was most surprised by the Golden Rule responses, which indicate that half the country is willing to disregard Christianity’s most commonly expressed teaching—at least, when it comes to wartime.