Objective Truth, the Living Word, and Divine Wisdom

The blog has been silent for a while because I’ve been busy working on a much larger project related to 1 & 2 Corinthians. One of the preliminary “aha” items is Paul’s description of divine power (which Paul says looks like human weakness) and divine wisdom (which is foolishness). What has struck me most powerfully is Paul’s conception of wisdom (a term he uses in much the same manner that we would use “truth”) as personal rather than objective. I’ll circle back to this in a moment.

Brenda and I just finished listening to The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings, by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski. They spend quite a bit of time on Lewis’s Riddell Memorial Lectures in 1943. He was disturbed by the subjectivism that had crept into both theological and philosophical thought. “For Lewis it was a chance to defend against relativizing trends in education, philosophy, and literary criticism. The reality of the universal moral code inherent in all human beings.”

Lewis held objectivity in high regard. In The Abolition of Man (the book form of the Riddell Lectures), he goes to great length to establish a universal, objective foundation of all truth, and especially for a moral code. Lewis’ argument in The Abolition of Man is no longer compelling and the book seems a little silly now. What surprised me is, according to the Zaleskis, it was not particularly compelling in the 1940s either. It was received warmly by those who already agreed with Lewis but was skewered by his critics.

While listening to ch. 13 of The Fellowship, the argument Paul develops in 1 Corinthians kept coming to mind. According to Paul, objective truth is never very objective because our frame of reference is limited by our own limitations. Even Reformed and Lutheran churches, who both historically embraced objective truth, disagreed on what that objective truth is. (This illustration comes from my own family, some of whom are Presbyterian Church in America and some of whom are Missouri Synod Lutheran. While I don’t think there have ever been any actual arguments, it is clear that there is more than one set of “objective truth.”)

And this is quite precisely the problem Lewis ran into. I agree wholeheartedly with his contention that the “relativizing trends in education, philosophy, and literary criticism” are quite disturbing, but trying to solve those trends with an appeal to some sort of objectivity is bound to fail. This is using one form of human wisdom to combat a different form of human wisdom.

In sharp contrast to this attempt to find objective truth, Paul opts for what I would call “personal truth.” I hesitate to use the term because it can be misconstrued to mean, “My truth is mine while yours is yours, and my true and your truth may be different.” This misconstrual is precisely what C.S. Lewis was responding to in his Riddell lectures. In 1 Cor. 1:4f, Paul says that his preaching was not “with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power.” The foundation is not intellectual nor is it “objective truth” as that term is used in the context of reason. Rather the foundation is divine “power” which is inseparable from divine presence, or more specifically, to the divine persons.

Given my Presbyterian training, all of this reminds me of Karl Barth, who struggled with the same issues as C.S. Lewis. Barth rejected the possibility of competing truths, but didn’t seek objective truth in the manner Lewis did, largely because he recognized that any truth that a human perceives cannot be truly objective, given our sinful proclivity to perceive things with an aim to our own advantage. Lewis’s claim for objective truth, would lead to nothing other than a shouting match of competing truth claims.

Barth viewed the problem with 1 Corinthians in mind, but he also shaped his answer along the lines of Kierkegaardian Existentialism. (Ah, that proclivity to perceive things, not as they truly are, but to our own advantage.) Barth believed the earthly locus of divine truth was in the “preaching event,” which he described in sacramental terms. (Barth himself rejected this comparison, but in retrospect he is clearly using eucharistic language but translated into his existential framework.) Scripture is a “witness to the Word,” “the Word” itself being the Second Person of the Trinity. But the Living Word is enfleshed (although at this point Barth uses the word “encountered”) in the “preaching event,” where Christ crucified is made real to the people of God.

What Barth picks up from Paul, which is in stark contrast to the scholastic Protestantism of his day is that divine wisdom and power cannot be found in scripture itself, but only in the encounter with Jesus Christ, the Living Word, through the Holy Spirit. Barth was suspicious of mysticism and he no doubt would have rejected the idea that we could have the same sort of intense experience today that Paul had. (The Orthodox Church, by the way, does believe that this sort of “pneumatical experience” is an ongoing part of the life of the church.) In spite of his suspicions, he describes a process that is more closely aligned with historic Orthodoxy than with scholastic Protestantism. Being a careful biblical scholar and fluent in antique Christian writings, this should be no surprise.

As I talk to others (who are Protestants) about this, they are politely horrified. The idea of jettisoning objective truth is tantamount to turning my back on the whole Christian program. Evangelicals had a similar reaction to Barth’s “the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God” aphorism, so this reaction doesn’t surprise me. But is objectivity actually what we want? We are not scientists of faith after all, we are creatures seeking proper relationship with the living God. Working with 1 Corinthians, I have been struck powerfully by the danger of relying on human wisdom, which guts divine truth of its wisdom and power. I have also been struck that the divine path to which Paul calls us will be perceived as weakness and foolishness.

Advertisements

Ransom: Exchange of One Life for Another

“The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45). Oddly, this verse regularly gives Bible scholars and theologians heartburn. The central point is sublime: In the whole paragraph, Jesus is telling his disciples, who are starting to get a big head, that leadership is expressed, not in lording over others, but in serving them. In this sentence he personalizes this and says that why he came to earth: to serve.

But then he adds that phrase, “and to give his life as a ransom for many.” This has led some to propose that the Devil was holding humans hostage and God had to pay a ransom (his Son’s life) to get them back. While this extreme position has never been the predominant view of the church, no matter which communion, it begs the question, “What’s this ransom all about?”

Over the years I have figured out that God’s work in the world is ultimately inscrutable, and human language can never do justice to what is going on. Because of this, our theological language is more suggestive than precise. The language about how the atonement works is typical. “Ransom,” (along with “justification,” “predestined,” etc.) cannot be precise in the same manner our scientific or mathematical language is precise.

Ransom was on my mind because Brenda and I are reading together in the evenings, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings, by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski. We just read the portion about C.S. Lewis writing Out of the Silent Planet, an allegorical bit of science fiction that deals with this topic, and whose main character is Elwin Ransom.

With this fresh in my mind, this morning, I read the following from Archimandrite Zacharias in The Enlargement of the Heart, p. 52f:

In the Liturgy we are but poor instruments of Him who “offers and is offered.” So, when we say to God, “Thine own of Thine own we offer unto Thee, in all and for all,” we do not just offer him a small cup of wine and a tiny piece of bread, for in that wine and that bread we put all our love, all our faith, all our intercession for our beloved, for the people who suffer, for the whole world. … So He does the same: He receives those gifts and He puts all His life in them, the Holy Spirit, and he says to us: “The holy things unto the holy.” In the Liturgy there is an exchange of lives. Man offers his life to God, and God offers his life to man, and who can compare, or rather measure, this exchange of lives? For ours is temporal, corruptible, earthly, and His is incorruptible, heavenly, eternal. Therefore, in the Liturgy, there is an unequal exchange of lives.

To be clear, Zacharias is not talking about the word ransom, nor has he said anything about theories of the atonement. He is talking about how humans and God interact. But what he describes at this point in the lecture is quite a good description of ransom:

It is an exchange [read: ransom]. Man offers his life to God, and God offers his life to man.

To return to Mark 10, this exchange, this ransom, is the ultimate example of the humble service that is the essence of Jesus’ leadership.

As an aside, I picked up the audio recording of this conference (Fr. Zacharias speaking to the gathering of the priests of the St. Raphael Clergy Brotherhood in 2001) fifteen or so years ago and have been listening to those repeatedly for over a decade. It was turned into the above-mentioned book. I purchased it a few years ago and am finally getting around to reading it. For my learning style, the book is far superior to the recorded lectures because I can stop and reread a particularly dense paragraph here and there. I am enjoying it immensely.

 

God Who Is Grace

The Sermon on the Mount is often described in terms of a new law, a Christian law that supersedes the Mosaic Law. Indeed Matthew structures his Gospel to parallel the events of Moses receiving the Law from God on Mt. Sinai. There is also a sense that Jesus interiorizes and radicalizes the Law, making God’s demands on us absolute. But if this is all we see, we will miss the point in much the same way that Luther’s half measures in relation to divine grace (described in the previous essay) miss the point. Child rearing offers an apt example of what I am getting at.

Children first and foremost need to know that they are loved and accepted as they are, no matter what. (This is analogous to our new understanding of God as pure Grace in contrast to God simply offering grace where it is needed. It is described with some depth in the first essay in this series.) Once this basic reality of love and acceptance is established, children need to be encourage (and often pushed a bit) to do things beyond what they think is possible. Kids, in fact, don’t know what is possible; their natural sights are set far too low.

Tell a child to build an outdoor shelter that will be adequate to spend the night in. On her first try the kid does an abominable job. Mom knows it’s an abominable job. But she tells her daughter that the two of them are going to spend the night. Mom doesn’t tell the kid that it’s going to be a miserable night; instead, she suffers the night with her. In the morning the miserable child gives up and declares that she is incapable of building a shelter. But Mom, in a tender motherly wisdom that is likely experienced as punishment by the child, tells her to try again. Mom never builds the shelter, but gives pointers along the way. After much “punishment” meted out by mother, the child finally figures out how to build an excellent and comfortable shelter in which she and her mother spend a glorious night.

The Sermon on the Mount might be considered the shelter we are to build. The “demands” of the Sermon on the Mount are absolute and simply cannot be fulfilled. But after trial and error, and with the urging of the church and the nudging of the Spirit, we begin to get the hang of certain bits and pieces. Eventually our life is transformed in some small way and we spend a glorious season with God basking in the new person we have become.

Of course, while God accepts us, God also believes we are capable of things that we quite literally can’t imagine. While the Sermon on the Mount is an unattainable goal in its absolute sense, it and other similar teachings by Jesus lay out path which we will travel. We can (and will) spend a lifetime tinkering, asking for help, getting nudged and empowered by the Spirit, and always, bit by bit, making a better shelter and being utterly transformed by God in the process.

In his book On Being a Christian, Hans Küng describes our various efforts at social justice in light of the above process.

Jesus, as we shall see later, did not prescribe for everybody either renunciation of possessions or common ownership. One will sacrifice everything to the poor, another will give away half his possessions, a third will help with a loan. One gives all he has for god’s [sic] cause, others are active in servicing and caring for the needy, someone else practices apparently foolish prodigality. Nothing here is legally regulated. Hence there is no need for exceptions, excuses, privileges or dispensations from the law. [p. 248]

One could argue that all of us should do all these things. And indeed, all of these things are part of the absolute demands of Jesus Christ. But when we understand the dynamic—God pushing us beyond what we think possible, yet always joying in our lives and growth, even when our efforts fall short—it makes sense that both the church and us as individuals fail so miserably in our efforts. God knows what we are capable of, and because of that he has set out description of life that is limitless in possibilities.

If one one insists on the “traditional” perspective, we are guaranteed to fail. In contrast, what is actually happening is that we are provided literally unlimited possibilities for growth—more than we can ever accomplish in this life. And as we grow bit by bit, God enjoys us as his children toddling and goofing our way to transformation and holiness. This is the Gospel of God-as-pure-Grace.

If God Is For Us

The place we must begin as Christians is that God is on our side. As Paul says, “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” (Rom. 8:32) This is what Jesus lived out in his earthly life. He embodied the reality that God is for people. He certainly opposed religious leaders who tried to misconstrue religion to make it burdensome. But his opposition was never against people in principle but always against those who stood in the way of the people coming to God.

The history of religions is rather different. Broadly speaking, religion (that which was thought up by us, not that which was revealed by God) grows out of the sense that we have displeased the gods. Religious practices were put in place to overcome that displeasure. Erich Neumann, in The Origins and History of Consciousness (a summary of Carl Jung) argues that this trope is beyond ancient, it is part of our primordial mindset.

Because the belief that the gods are against us, or at the very least, displeased, runs so deep in our consciousness, it is not surprising that it is a theme that weaves its way throughout the Old Testament. Since it is clearly present in the Old Testament, there is a tendency to say that this is how the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob truly is. It is a sentiment that is expressed in the extreme in Jonathan Edwards’ infamous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It is a sentiment that the Apostle Paul wrestles with in his epistles. The theme has also shaped our interpretation of hell, wrath, and judgment.

But if God isn’t like this, why has God allowed the idea that he is angry with us to persist and even creep into scripture? The answer comes when we consider what was important to Jesus. His interaction with the woman at the well was typical. She was concerned with right theology. Being a Samaritan, questions about the correct place to worship—the Jewish Mt. Zion or the Samaritan Mt. Gerizim—were foremost. But Jesus essentially brushed correct theology off by saying, “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him” (Jn 4:23). Instead he was far more interested in her life struggles than her theology. When he probed her mind, it had nothing to do with theology. “Go call your husband and come here” (v 16). Her life, it turns out, was a wreck, and Jesus was far more interested in getting her human relationships sorted out than sorting her theology.

“Who is my neighbor?” turns out to be a question that must be answered, not by the Rabbis in the synagogue (or the priests and theologians in the seminary) but by you and I as we walk or drive to work. As we read the Old Testament with this sensibility revealed by Jesus, we realize that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was as Jesus said and not like the old gods who were easily piqued and demanded that everything be just right. The living God demonstrated that he wanted those ancient wanderers to come along side God and wander with him. God is profoundly relational, and that’s what took center stage, not the need to get all our ideas about God exactly right.

I’ve never had foster kids, but as a pastor I’ve seen a number of them placed in the homes of congregation members. When the foster parent says, “I won’t beat you; you’re safe here,” it’s largely an empty statement, because it’s not the child’s experience. That is a message that can only be expressed through presence and action, not words. After several times when the kid messes up and is not beat, after several months of living in an environment that is actually safe, then the kid himself or herself will begin to say, “You won’t beat me; I’m safe here.” It does little good to tell the child, don’t cringe in fear. The good foster parent ignores that while working hard to create an authentically safe place. It is a truth that is revealed, not by words, but only in action and relationship.

We have come to believe in a wordy revelation. We hold the Bible in our hand and think that this is the divine revelation. But in a profound sense, it is not. The revelation is God who didn’t bother correcting all of the ancients’ misconceptions with mere words, but rather busied himself by creating a safe home (to carry on our analogy) so that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob could figure out on their own that, “You won’t beat me; I’m safe here.” The revelation isn’t what Matthew, and John, and Peter, and Paul wrote about Jesus, in a far more fundamental sense, Jesus himself was and is the revelation. To return to the woman at the well, Jesus didn’t start out by saying he was the Messiah, he let her figure it out on her own. And then when she finally put into words the outrageous idea that the Messiah might actually be present, he affirmed her insight. “Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you'” (Jn 4:26).

Like the foster child, it does little good for God to tell us how to think and act. There is a primordial sensibility seemingly structured into our genetic makeup, if the neuroscientists are to be believed, that the gods are against us and probably enjoy messing with us. (Consider the story of Job.) The only way past that sensibility is to live through it and ultimately beyond it.

And so we end, full circle, where we began. “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” (Rom. 8:32) This is what Jesus lived out in his earthly life. He embodied the reality that God is for people.

The Gospel of Joshua

It’s been a long time since I read Joshua. Given it’s horrific violence, it doesn’t show up in many devotional reading lists, so it may be a while since you’ve read it too. The story line centers on the genocide of the local residents so God’s people can have the land. (Not a story that matches our modern sensibilities.) And yet Joshua, the leader of this merry band of pirates, has long been considered a type of Christ.

For this to make sense we must remember that the ancient church didn’t venerate the book because it was history. This is not to say that they didn’t believe the book to be true. The fact that we tend to equate truth and history says a lot more about our distorted and reductionist modern sensibilities than it says about the ancient church. They no doubt would have found our tendency to reduce “truth” to these tiny little boxes (scientific method, historical method, textual criticism, empirical evidence, etc.) bewildering. So it is indeed the case that for most of history the church has considered Joshua to be primarily a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ. (They even share a name, Joshua being a Semitic form and Jesus being a Greek form of the same name.) Just as Joshua cleansed the Land of evil, so Christ cleanses us of evil. Just as Joshua led the people from wandering into the promised rest, so Christ does the same thing.

Joshua not only foreshadows Christ, the book shows us something of what the church should be. We need to have a “take no prisoners” attitude toward our corrupted nature and thinking, our mixed loyalties, and our fondness for our culture. Every time Joshua and the army compromised on the “take no prisoners” policy, things started going bad. This, according to the tradition, is the picture of our Christian life. Any sort of compromise will eventually lead to some sort of failure or downfall.

Aside from these two traditional themes, there is something else to be learned from Joshua: God seems quite comfortable being the God of really nasty and not nice people. And I’ll go one step farther. God is far more comfortable with really nasty and not nice people than we are. My perspective might be shaped by the congregations I served, which were mostly aging, midwestern, and quite proper socially, but I think it is true of American Christianity in general that we tend to conflate manners, niceness, and social acceptance with Christian maturity. We tend to confuse business acumen with wisdom. In the language of Joshua, we’re less interested in taking the Promised Land of our soul and more interested in letting Christ move in next door … as long as he’s a nice and polite neighbor.

One of the dangers of our sensibility is that it tends to blind us to our own nasty-and-not-niceness. As long as everyone stays polite and fits in with the religious culture, we tend not to be self-critical. This is one of the few “blessings” of radical Islam. They can see our failures to which we are blind. They look at the Western churches that reside fairly comfortably in Western consumer culture, and what they see is the corruption. They are horrified and are pretty sure that a real god would have no interest in being the god of infidels like us.

But it is precisely at this point that the divine grace of God’s eternal covenant reveals itself. It turns out that we have more in common with Joshua and his merry band of pirates than we’re comfortable admitting. Amazingly, in spite of the denial of our own predicament, God remains faithful to his covenant people “to the thousandth generation” (see previous post). This overwhelming reality of divine grace then gives us the space to safely admit that we have failed spectacularly. And this is the first step to true repentance and the process of rooting out all that is evil in the Promised Land of our souls.

I think I’ll call it “The Gospel of Joshua.”

 

To the Thousandth Generation

To prove that I actually was paying attention at worship on Sunday (see previous post) I heard something that had never quite registered in the Ten Commandments when the Old Testament lesson (Ex. 20:1-17) was read. “You shall not bow down to [other gods or idols] or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments” (vv 5f).

That phrase “to the third and the fourth generation” has been part of my consciousness for as long as I remember. Of course I’ve heard preachers talk about it, but I’ve also heard psychologists and crime experts use the phrase when talking about a whole host of societal troubles being generational. But on Sunday it was the following phrase that jumped out at me: “But showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

I wish I was still in an academic community, or at the very least still had access to a good theological library because I have a hunch. When that sentence is viewed as a whole, the first half has the feel of folk wisdom. I wonder if that’s not how the people viewed their world apart from any divine revelation. The sort of troubles that were self-inflicted not only affected you, but also your children and grand-children to the third and even fourth generation. I’m wondering if that’s not just how people viewed (and still view) the world. I want to be very clear that I’m not offering an interpretation; I’m speculating. I’m speculating that the explanation of this first commandment begins with a bit of popular wisdom: things you cause have consequences “to the third and the fourth generation.”

Let’s assume I’m correct for a moment and the explanation for this commandment begins with how people think about the world. God then starts with that assumption and expands (or explodes) it beyond all recognition. Let me rephrase it as follows: “You tend to think in the negative. You think that if you break the covenant it will have consequences not only for yourself but for your offspring for several generations. But your perception of me (that is, God) is backward. The covenant is everlasting, and if you worship me instead of other gods, I will show you unwavering covenant love for a thousand generations (ie, for as long as you can imagine).

We tend to think, “What are all the ways that this can go wrong?” It’s human nature. But I suspect that God is rejecting that sort of thinking and telling us to replace it with a different question: “What are all the ways this can go right beyond our imagination?” We can imagine a lot of bad things. In contrast to our imagination, God is offering us unwavering covenant love beyond what we can even imagine.

So, if there’s any actual Old Testament scholars out there who have the tools to research this stuff, I ask you if I’m on to something. Is the whole “third and fourth generation” thing actually a bit of folk wisdom, or am I completely off base? Whether it is or not, this first commandment is a remarkable statement of divine mercy. Thanks be to God.

 

Have You Ever Seen a Picture of Jesus Cleansing the Temple?

The sermon I heard on Sunday, based on the Gospel lesson about Jesus cleansing the Temple (Jn 2:13-22), caught me completely off guard. We were reminded that we see copies of the Ten Commandments for sale everywhere, even the grocery store (the Old Testament lesson) and images of the cross are ubiquitous (the epistle), but, according to Fr. Jay, you’ve probably never seen a picture of Jesus with a whip in his hand cleansing the temple. At this point I don’t know where the sermon went because I found the statement completely at odds with my experience.

Actually, this image was one of the more common in my childhood. It wasn’t in our home—being fairly hard-core iconoclasts, we didn’t have pictures of Jesus in our home—but it was common throughout the education wing of the church building. Our denomination was quite horrified by all that stuff we thought was idolatrous and for the most part, the only images that were acceptable—pictures for the kids in the education wing—tended toward the dramatic and led to a good story: Adam, Eve, and the snake, Moses with his staff over his head, the Ark with the Animals streaming in, Jesus with the sheep (actually, that one was in the sanctuary, so go figure), and of course, Jesus at the temple, driving out the animals, money changers, etc.

While I don’t know about denominational policies and practices as a whole (I was just a kid, after all), I know that even in college this image (by this time, not a picture on the wall, but a mental image—we were iconoclasts after all) of Jesus, with whip in hand, driving the money changers from the temple was a big deal. For the rest of the sermon (which after this was sort of like Charlie Brown’s school teacher going “Wah, wah, wah” in the Christmas special) I pondered why this image was so central to the tradition of my childhood.

The answer was actually rather obvious. The Bible Church was a weird confluence of the Reformed and Holiness traditions. I call it weird because on theological grounds we rejected holiness doctrine in favor of a Reformed view of salvation (salvation by grace alone through faith and not of works) but at the same time, on practical, everday grounds, being holy was a very big deal. (“We don’t drink, and we don’t chew, and we don’t go with girls that do,” to quote the popular doggeral.) Drinking and smoking (illegal drugs like heroin and legal drugs like opiods weren’t much of a thing yet, so those weren’t on the list) weren’t allowed because the body was the Temple of the Holy Spirit. That image of Jesus, whip overhead, cleansing the Temple, was the icon par excellence of our Christian life.

This whole question of whether I’d ever seen an image of Jesus with a whip above his head cleansing the temple was so arresting to me because I’ve been pondering the book of Joshua. (Speaking of weird, that’s a weird turn for this essay to take, but stay with me. Oh, and I suspect there’s an essay on Joshua coming up eventually.) I recently read Joshua and this trip through the book I was taken by how violent the story is, what with all the genocide, etc. But the church of my youth didn’t treat Joshua primarily as a history. I know that’s odd. The denomination completely missed the point of the early chapters of Genesis, treating them as history, but tended to focus on Joshua and Judges as stories that were types of Christ. We didn’t revel in the violence, we saw in the violence the profound difficulty in living a holy life. If you don’t stamp evil out completely in your life as in the Promised Land, that evil will come back to haunt you.

Similarly, the image of Jesus snapping the whip and driving the money changers from the temple was the image of the danger of allowing the secular world to impinge on the sacred. It was the summation of the tragedy described in Joshua and Judges. It was the single picture of the whole Old Testament story of promises to God undercut by our failure to root out the evil in our lives.

I wonder if anyone else remembers that Sunday School picture in the same way I do.

It’s not so much a picture of violence as it is of purity. As Mt. 11:12 says, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” (Caveat: I’m no longer sure this is the correct interpretation of this verse, but this was certainly how we viewed these words of Jesus at Bible College. It was a description of the difficulty of living the pure life that John the Baptist embodied.) As a result, after I became a Presbyterian and started doing those things that so horrified the Bible Church of my childhood, finding this text at the midpoint of Lent seemed not only natural, but inevitable. It’s at this point, when all of our good intentions have been revealed for what they are, that we are faced with this icon of purity, of Jesus in our hearts driving out the impurities that we have come to accept with thoughtless ease.

So that’s what I got out of church this week. … I still sort of wonder what Fr. Jay was talking about after the part about the picture of Jesus and the whip in the temple. 🙂

Moses Pt. 3: He Actually Is Quite Special

Moses and Joshua together prefigure Christ; because they prefigure Christ, they also prefigure the Christian life. There is genius in distinguishing the two story arcs in the Pentateuch and Joshua Because each pictures something quite different that is happening in our life. We experience it at the same time and therefore tend to merge the two into a single experience. But they are not; one is Moses and the other is Joshua.

In the first essay of this series I said, “Moses was not an example of holiness in this life. He was quite the opposite. When viewed from his death backwards (Josh. 1:1-2), the defining moment of his life was one of anger and pride. But this is not say that Moses was not a believer, that he didn’t follow God, nor is it to imply that he didn’t go to heaven. The Book of Joshua emphasizes that he did clearly and redundantly. “After the death of Moses the servant of the LORD, the LORD spoke to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, saying, “My servant Moses is dead. Now proceed to cross the Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the Israelites” (Josh 1:1f). He’s not just “Moses,” he’s “Moses the servant of the LORD.”

This is why I needed to insert an essay on eternal security between the first essay and this one. When I insist that Moses is a model of pride and anger rather than holiness, and when I make a big deal that Deuteronomy tells us clearly that Moses was not allowed to enter the rest of the Promised Land because of his sin, I am not saying that Moses isn’t going to heaven. That sort of logic is rooted in a misunderstanding of sin and the meaning of salvation. Rather, I am saying that Moses prefigures one aspect of our Christian life. Joshua (a name that means “The LORD is the Savior”), on the other hand, prefigures another aspect of our Christian life. We ought not to confuse the two. (Thus, the genius of creating two distinct story arcs with these two saints.)

Salvation is accomplished (“It is finished,” Jn. 19:30). Jesus Christ and Christ alone has overthrown death and the devil and opened the gates of Sheol. Our salvation is assured by God’s eternal promise. That is Joshua. At the same time, we struggle with our sin. We are not perfect and all attempts to be perfect fail miserably. The church—the redeemed people who gather to worship and serve God—is for the most part a hotbed of evil. This is God’s Servant Moses. As Enid Strict, SNL’s Church Lady, would say, “Well isn’t that special!”

There is, as I have said, a tendency to conflate these two distinct facets of our salvation. When we do, odd doctrines can result. On the one hand, we might think that we don’t need to worry about Moses at all and just focus on Joshua. Christ is our righteousness, there is nothing left for me to do. This tendency has troubled the church for so long and so consistently, it has a name: antinomianism, which means “opposed to rules.” But as Paul asks, “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” (Rom 6:1f). On the other hand, there are those who believe that keeping all the rules is required in order to be saved. (This also has a name: legalism.) But these two polar opposites miss the point completely because they conflate Moses and Joshua.

How do we serve the Lord (ie, Moses)? We do it by serving others. We also do it by struggling against sin our life. This struggle typically results in us becoming more holy over time. Let me be clear that it doesn’t result in becoming holy in the absolute sense, but rather in becoming more holy. As we struggle against sin the light of Christ which shines within us is incorporated into our very being and we become more like Christ, that is, we become more holy. But this is all “Moses, the Servant of the Lord” stuff. It happens in the wilderness, on the left side of the Jordan. This is not the stuff that’s going to get us saved. It’s rather the stuff that makes us “the servant of the Lord.”

Returning to the genius of the Old Testament story, the fact is, we are not going to do this very well. When our lives are viewed from the “Moses the Servant of the Lord” perspective, we will end up being defined by our sins and our passions. And that will give those around the opportunity to view us with a cynical eye and repeat with the Church Lady, “Well isn’t that special!”

But God, unlike the Church Lady, actually did think it was special. So even though Moses, when viewed from the end of his life, was defined by his anger and unbelief, God emphatically calls him his servant. There is a danger that we think a successful Christian life is defined by success rather than service, and when that happens we will become discouraged. But success is not the point. Success is not even an option. Moses knew from the day he wandered away from Meribah that he would not be entering the Promised Land. Our life of servanthood, our life of effort to throw off sin and put on holiness, is our life of the wilderness. None of it will get us across the Jordan. It might get us to the top of Mt. Nebo where we can gaze at the Promised Land (Deut. 34)—the Fathers call this the vision of the Heavenly Light—but like Moses, all that effort and the accompanying results will ultimately die in the wilderness.

For all the futility of being a servant (it is represented by wandering around the desert in circles for forty years, after all), when viewed with humility, that would be enough. If we choose to embrace such a role and seek to struggle in putting off sin and putting on righteousness, we can be sure that we will on occasion drink from living water gushing forth from the rock, we will eat the heavenly food of manna, we will even see the glorious heavenly light from afar on Mt. Nebo. Yes, that would be enough. This, in fact, is essentially the vision of life offered by the Greek Stoics as well as a view of secular holiness presented by someone such as Jordan Peterson . For some it is a satisfying vision, but there can be far more.

Side by side with the story of God’s servant Moses, is the story of our Savior, Joshua. Beyond the wandering in the desert, there is the hope of the Promised Land. Beyond the struggle against our passions and the corruption of life, there is the promised rest experienced in the Kingdom of God. “My servant Moses is dead. Now proceed to cross the Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the Israelites” (Josh 1:1f).

What more can be said about this? This is our inheritance.

In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory. (Eph. 1:11-14)

If we try to “harmonize” these stories we will end up with a bastardized religion with either legalistic or antinomian tendencies. We will be frustrated because of our lack of success. We will confuse our “Servant of the Lord Moses” efforts with the “Joshua, our Savior” gift that God has promised. But the genius of Deuteronomy and Joshua is that they keep the stories separate. The genius is the honesty of making Moses a symbol of our anger and unbelief, and by extension, all the rest of our passions. Because of that I can say with complete confidence, while seemingly trapped in my failures, passions, and corruption, that God accepts me as his servant. I am God’s servant Jim. And in spite of the cynicism of the Church Lady, that actually is quite special.

 

Moses, Pt. 2: Eternal Security

On Reddit I follow a couple of Orthodox subreddits and a question that comes up repeatedly is that of eternal security. How can I know that I am saved? Do the Orthodox believe in eternal security? Or some other variation on this theme. In the Protestant group in which I grew up (and it seems this is pretty typical of Protestantism) eternal security was summed up by the phrase, “Once saved, always saved.” Very early I realized that there was a loophole in the logic that nullified the doctrine at a practical level, and the keepers of the faith regularly used the loophole. If a person went off the rails and became particularly wicked after “getting saved” and being a good church member for a while, someone would inevitably raise the eternal security question. The answer that I heard on many occasions was, “Oh, that person was never saved in the first place.”

So while Protestants, and the Reformed flavor of Protestants in particular, celebrate eternal security, the doctrine remains a nice theory with little real significance in everyday life. The doctrine is logical trap because when salvation is mis-defined as an event—a specific time when one crosses over into divine favor—questions will inevitably remain about this event we call salvation. When actual life is lived in the wold after Adam and Eve, the doctrine salvation as an event creates a morass of questions and ambiguities.

I am particularly fond of the pre-Reformation approach to the question. The Orthodox understanding is typical of this classic view. It begins with the affirmation that no one can escape the presence of God. Even in Sheol, God is there and “accessible” (See the parable of Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 as well as Ps. 139). The enduring reality for all creation will be the light and love of God. For those who love God, this will be experienced as light and life, for those who love themselves far more than God, that same light of God’s presence is experienced as fire and judgment. Within this context, heaven and hell and “being saved” means something rather different and far more profound than the rather simplistic binary of “saved” or “not saved” by which it is typically described in the modern world.

What determines my eternal fate is not a particular set of actions nor is it the repetition of a simple little prayer (ie, the Sinner’s Prayer). My eternal fate is to be with God, no matter what. Whether I experience this eternal destiny as heaven or hell does not rest in any particular action, nor whether I happen to be living “in grace” or “out of grace” at the moment of my death, but rather in my attitude shaped by life-long thinking and acting. Thus all the hand-ringing over whether I am saved or not is to rather miss the point. The question is, “Do you love God? And I answer, “Of course I do!” And then my spiritual guide and confessor begins to probe my life and I begin to discover that there are quite a number of things I love more than God. (The Orthodox combine all of these earthly loves into a big group and call them the passions.) The trouble with the heart is that it is very deceitful and it even deceives us, disguising the passions as good things. But as these passions—these things I love more than God—are revealed to me, I can seek to put them aside and come to truly love God. Within this framework, salvation is the path of discovering my passions, confessing them, and turning again and again toward God.

Within the classical way of thinking that was normal long before the Reformation, salvation wasn’t a noun as much as it was a verb. It was not a question of whether you were saved or not saved, for those aren’t the two options, but rather if you were working out your salvation (Phil 2:12). Salvation isn’t a moment where you cross a line from one side to another, it is more akin to a process. It is not an instant transformation as much as it is a slow change.

Within this classical framework, eternal security is rooted in three things. First, is the sure knowledge that God loves us, looks for and longs for us like the father of the Prodigal Son, just waiting for the opportunity to run to us and embrace us. Second, is the sure knowledge that Jesus Christ has opened the way to salvation. There are no hindrances to my salvation other than my own pride and stubbornness. Third, in order to be utterly secure in my salvation, all I have to do is continue loving God and learning to love God anew every time I discover an area where I love something else more than God. There are no magic words nor mathematical formulae. Eternal security is not a mental affirmation, but a path to travel, knowing full well that along the way I’ll fall back and have to start anew.

There is a famous icon (see the top of the page) that many Protestants find horrifying because of the tendency to think of salvation as binary. As people climb the ladder to the light of Christ (on the left, note that heaven is on the right), demons are trying to pry them off, making them fall to the ground. My Protestant eyes look at that and see people losing their salvation. But that is not what is pictured. Look closely. The people are not falling into hell, they’re falling back to earth. Such a fall is not the end of the story, it’s a description of how life is actually lived. They’ll just get back on the ladder and start climbing again. The only way to “lose one’s salvation” is to utterly reject it. The danger is not accidental or secret sin, but rather despair (or “despond,” as John Bunyan described it. It would require that one begin to hate rather than love God. This scenario is never considered in this icon. It is rather a picture of the Christian life where we climb the ladder of spiritual maturity, fall off, and start climbing again.

With this more proper context in mind, I will return to Moses and his passions in the next essay.

 

Moses, the Dark Side

For all of his good qualities—Lawgiver, mediator between God and the nation, organizer of the Exodus—Moses was not an example of holiness in this life. He was quite the opposite. When viewed from his death backwards (Josh. 1:1-2), the defining moment of his life was one of anger and pride. That incident began with a big problem.

Now there was no water for the congregation; so they gathered together against Moses and against Aaron. (Num. 20:2)

Moses and Aaron went to the tent of meeting asking for a solution to the water problem and God told them,

Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and command the rock before their eyes to yield its water. Thus you shall bring water out of the rock for them; thus you shall provide drink for the congregation and their livestock. (v. 8)

What Moses did was a bit different.

So Moses took the staff from before the LORD, as he had commanded him. Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff; water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their livestock drank. (vv. 9-11)

Moses’ anger and lack of self-control shines through in these sentences. He demeans the people by calling them “you rebels.” Rather than speaking to the rock (as he was told to do), he scolds the people with a biting rhetorical question. And then, with no word to the rock, he whacks it twice with his staff. It is the image of a child striking out in helpless anger because he feels there are no options left. While immature, out of control, and childish, Moses’ response is understandable; the nation was out of water and everyone was mad at him. In spite of our sympathy with Moses, there is a big “but” involved.

But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” (v. 12)

These petty outward actions reflect a deeper problem. God’s intent was to show his holiness. Moses, because of his uncontrolled passion and resulting outburst, diminished the moment to an embarrassing demonstration of his own failings. God was pushed into the background while Moses stole the limelight. The text then closes with these tragic words:

These are the waters of Meribah, where the people of Israel quarreled with the LORD, and by which he showed his holiness. (v. 13)

God’s holiness was still demonstrated but it was demonstrated through the lens of the people’s mistrust and Moses’ pettiness. Throughout scripture we see that God prefers to clothe his glory in some created form, and especially in human form. Once again God clothes his glory in his servant Moses, but Moses’ antics are such that what we remember is less God’s glory and more Moses’ uncontrolled passions. The place isn’t named for what should have been memorable, “God Provides,” or “God Shows His Holiness.” Instead it’s named after what was actually most memorable; it’s called “Quarrel” (or “Meribah” in Hebrew).

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Mt. 6:24). This was the rub for Moses. He was a slave to his passions. When he tried to serve the Lord his passions took control and he ended up despising God’s holiness in the process of serving his own anger. Because no one can serve two masters, and because in this incident Moses demonstrated for all to see that his master was still his own passion, God told Moses that he would be incapable of crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land and entering God’s rest.

By the end of Deuteronomy the people are near the edge of the Promised Land, but in a sort of limbo. They aren’t moving forward nor are they traveling to any particular place. And then we turn from Deuteronomy to Joshua and discover that everything changes.

After the death of Moses, the servant of the LORD, the LORD spoke to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, saying, “My servant Moses is dead. Now proceed to cross the Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the Israelites. (Josh. 1:1-2)

Now that Moses is gone, the nation is finally free to “enter the place of rest” as Joshua calls it (v. 13). What are we to make of this? First (and this is the bit of the story that I have been emphasizing here), Moses represents our passions. 1 John says, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever” (2:15-17). As the years went by Christian teachers began to describe what 1 John is talking about, along with related issues, with a single term: the passions.

One of the gifts God gave us as part of his image is an unquenchable desire to fellowship with and ultimately to commune with God. One of the consequences of sin is that our original innate connection with God was broken and God became a stranger. But the unquenchable desire remained, and it attached itself to created things. In 1 John it is described as “the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride of life.” The Fathers and Mothers of the church recognized that anger, intellectualism, and other excesses of life were the same thing with different faces. When this unquenchable desire is pointed directly at God it draws us inexorably toward him. But, as is typical with sin, when this unquenchable desire is pointed at things other than God, it prevents us from drawing close to God.

This is Moses in the story arc that stretches from Meribah to his death in Deut. 34. He, and the passions he represents, had to die before the nation could enter the Promised Land. Similarly, before we are able to enter into God’s rest, it is necessary for our passions to be reigned in and redirected toward God and God alone. Paul calls this dying to the flesh. This battle with the passions is therefore at the center of our Christian life and our struggle to enter into fellowship and union with God.

Hopefully you’ve been paying attention to the scripture text and are now thoroughly annoyed with me because of the reductionist manner in which I have read the text. This is a more complex story than what I have described, but I suspect we can’t appreciate the complexity without looking at the different threads individually. I will explore another thread of the story in the next essay.