Monday, May 30th, 2005
Limited Atonement was the last point of Calvinism I accepted, and the first one I dumped. I have done some writing on the topic, and some day may produce a magnum opus on the subject. But I find it a difficult one. It is difficult in large part because the language is a little elusive. When you stare at it long enough, you find that what appear to be very simple expressions can be read in multiple ways. I am happy to subscribe to the Lutheran confessions rather than the Reformed confessions on this point. But I cannot say that there may be some Dordt subscribers with whom I have more affinity on this point that I have with some Concord subscribers. It has to do with which way they shade the readings. And how they understand the language of their confessions.
People often jump right into the discussion of trying to answer "For Whom did Christ Die?" without first asking what the question means. I can think of a number of questions it might translate to:
When redemption was planned, whom did God decide in an absolute fashion would benefit from that death?
When redemption was planned, what class of persons was redemption designed to apply to?
These questions tend to be run together. The first question is a Predestinarian question. If God has elected a class of people to salvation, then we could say that He had a special will to save these people. The second question is a more concrete question. When we look at the design of the Atonement, what purpose is expressed in that design?
Calvinists like to take these questions together. Surely God would not create a design that did not suit His ultimate purpose, would He? What kind of a designer would do that? Answer: a divine designer. We see this other places. Jesus says that on the Last Day, he will say to the goats, "Depart from me, ye cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels." For whom was the fire prepared? The devil and his angels. But surely God knew from eternity that lost people would be sent there. Yes. So can't we say that God prepared it for them, too? No. That is not how Scripture speaks. And we must learn to speak the language of Scripture.
So likewise, we speak of redemption being prepared for all. This does not mean that there is no Predestination, or that God is taken by surprise when someone is lost in the end. But it does mean that we take the design of the Atonement seriously in itself, before we ever ask what it will finally accomplish.
In looking at this question, I find that some of the Reformed do this better than others. Charles Hodge's Systematic Theology does say that there is no difference between the Lutheran and Reformed conceptions of the nature of the Atonement. It would require no more suffering from Jesus to save a greater number of people than to save a lesser number.
This goes back to the Reformed slogan "Sufficient for all, efficient for some." Which in itself may not be objectionable. And it does offer us a way of splitting the question "For whom did Christ die?" The trouble is, "sufficient for all" is itself a little ambiguous. It clearly says that there is no question of quantity. But what kind of specificity is there in the nature of the Atonement? For many, the key question remains unanswered. Could the Atonement hypothetically be applied to anybody?
Now I want to make clear that this is not a hair-splitting question. For many Christians, they were raised in Arminian churches, and at some point in time they came to faith. Perhaps even through something like the Four Spiritual Laws. I have known many Calvinists who admitted this to me. Yet when people are exposed to Calvinism, there are two different reactions.
Some will just assume that they are Christians, and then conclude from their Four Spiritual Laws conversion that they can assume that they will be preserved to the end. These people are quite happy with the whole deal, and see no problem. "I know I'm elect, because I believe."
For other people, something different happens. They see that their understanding of Christianity was flawed, so the whole thing goes under the microscope. A consistent Calvinist would never have presented them with the Four Spiritual Laws, so perhaps that was not a conversion. So how can I know I am saved now?
Some bewildered helper says "Well, do you believe?" "Believe what?" "That Jesus died for you?" "May I believe that? According to your reading the text doesn't tell me that." "But it says Christ died for sinners and you're a sinner." "Yes, but he didn't die for all sinners." "But he did die for those who would believe. Do you believe?" "Believe what?" An so on. The trouble at this point is that people in this position are not in the position of the new convert. They have some theological categories. They know that believing that Jesus died for sinners won't do it. That is mere intellectual assent. The demons believe, and shudder. But to believe that Christ died for me, I need to have grounds to believe this. And my believing itself cannot be the grounds. That's circular.
As Hodge answers the question, perhaps the problem does not arise. Hodge goes so far as to say "If any of the elect (being adults) fail to accept of it, they perish. If any of the non-elect should believe, they would be saved" (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. II, pp. 555-556). The nature of the Atonement is not such that it automatically excludes anybody.
This is different from the impression left by John Owen. John Owen speaks of the nature of the Atonement such that certain sins were and were not covered by it. This means more than that God knew that ultimately not everyone would be saved. It means more than that faith is a gift and not everyone will by faith receive the benefits of Christ's death. It means that the Atonement was performed in such a way as to apply only to the sins of the elect.
His famous statement is that "The Father imposed His wrath due unto, and the Son underwent punishment for, either: 1. All the sins of all men 2. All the sins of some men, or 3. Some of the sins of all men" (Death of Death, p.61) this suggests a kind of precise connection between the sins and the payment where it is all settled in the making of the payment. Now there is Biblical language that would suggest this. In the Old Testament, on the Day of Atonement, the priest would lay hands on the goat If we press for too much precision, the analogy will break down at another point.
Then there is the problem that Owen's formulation is not logically exhaustive. Numbers 2 and 3 could both be true together. I think the formulation is problematic to a degree that I would not like to state it exactly this way, but one could say that the Father laid upon the Son all the sins of some men, and only some of the sins of the rest.
Owen brings up unbelief. Some say that people's sins were paid for, but they are lost through unbelief. "Is this unbelief a sin, or is it not? If it be, then Christ suffered the punishment due unto it, or He did not." Here is where we must be careful.
The design of redemption is such that we receive the benefits through faith. This was God's intention. It is the design of the Atonement that Christ die to pay for our sins. If Hodge is right, then Christ does not drip more drops of blood to pay for all sinners than to pay for only some. But what did God intend for that punishment to cover? In a general sense, all sinners. So we say that all should be told that Christ died for them. Yet if someone asks, "Did He intend to save those who would never believe through his death?", we can answer no. Our Lutheran dogmaticians called these God's antecedent will and His consequent will. He has an antecedent will to save all. The whole world. But consequent on other factors, He wills to save only some.
What point is there in telling people that Christ died for them if in the end they are lost? Doesn't this involve double jeopardy?
The point is that people need to know that the Atonement could be applied to them. Any route to assurance that does not involve this is foolhardy.
The most plausible one I have heard is the practical syllogism. It says that I will first assent to Christ being the only Savior of mankind. And then through growth in grace, I will come to be assured that I am one of those elect who were died for. But I always wonder how this works with the guilt, grace, gratitude motif. What is growth in grace, if it is not growth in gratitude towards God for saving us? Until we are assured, our works are all to be considered evil. For they are done from the wrong motive. So such works cannot be used in order to gain assurance. As a secondary method of assurance, I can see the practical syllogism having a place. But not in order to come to a knowledge that there is an Atonement available in the first place.
As to double jeopardy, if Hodge is right, there is none. Christ doesn't shed drops of blood that fall on the ground wasted. He suffered the same to pay for those who are finally saved as He would have to have saved everybody.
Anyway, I offer this as the beginning of a conversation. Any one of the points I listed could be expanded to several pages. I myself know of some of the counterarguements, but since I think I have counterarguments to those as well, I am putting this out there as-is. It will at least offer a shape to some future discussions.
1:51 pm Pacific Standard Time
[ posted by Rick Ritchie | 36 comments ]
Wednesday, May 18th, 2005
NBC's Revelations series ended tonight. As an hour of TV, it was a very good one. The suspense kept me interested to the end. As the End of The World, however, it was kind of a letdown. I had several ideas that I thought were more promising, including Sister Josepha's forestalling of the end scenario. This one ended just a bit too ambiguously for me. Unless this was done for the purpose of making a running series possible. In which case, that would change everything.
In a certain sense, there would be biblical precedent. My Old Testament professor, Meredith Kline, gave a reading of Genesis 3:8 which read not that God was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, but as the Spirit of the Day. The Day of Judgment. Earth almost saw the eschaton three chapters into Genesis. That Day of Judgment had been foretold in Genesis 2:17. The whole of human history has been fit into a time which the original words did not hint at.
Likewise, in Acts 1:6, when the disciples asked Jesus after the Resurrection whether he was now going to restore the kingdom to Israel, another new chapter began instead of an expected ending. So I'm not even sure if the producers can be accused of taking liberties with the text here.
A few of the story threads were resolved well. I won't say which ones. This episode is worth watching for those who missed it, especially if they can scale back their expectations.
But there were some other events which had sounded like they might be cosmic in scope that looked more like a TBN version of cosmic. Or less. Was this a budgetary problem? Or a conscious choice?
For me the worst part of this was the "simper". Dr. Massey's silly, self-conscious smile as he explained his position after the whole thing. There has been much about his character that I have not liked the whole way through the show. Though he has some redeeming qualities. A newfound trust that he had half-way through the show had slipped back to something much less, and that after things had gone well for him. But again, what is bad about this is not that it wasn't believable. It was disappointing in a believable way.
And then there was Sister Josepha's line about how her search was still on. Jesus had preached and people had listend. Good. Now what did people learn from his preaching? "They believed that the good in man could create a loving world." Nooooo! Who writes this stuff? "The good in man"? This is not a Biblical expression. Granted, "the kingdom of heaven is within you." But "I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing." The Spirit takes residence in us when we hear with faith. But to speak of "the good in man" suggests that the good is there by nature, inborn, before any hearing of the Word. So Jesus came to fan the spark that was already there. Sister, you need to go back to catechism class. And you should try the Small Catechism just to make sure you get it right this time. Perhaps Bugenhagen can teach you. (Bugenhagen was the name of the exorcist in the series. It was also the name of Luther's pastor.)
I am also sorry to say that Team America probably presented a more accurate assesment of a peace conference than Revelations. Can good come from a peace conference? Yes. Sometimes. But they can also be deceptive. We must be thankful for the results of the best ones. But who, especially AFTER reading Scripture, imagines that these are the cosmic instruments through which the kingdom of heaven will arrive? On a more positive note, I wonder if the editor may have decided to slip in another viewpoint. The conference was portrayed as a positive thing that the forces of evil threatened to thwart. Yet right before it was shown, Sister Josepha saw a circle of cribs in a Satanic nursery. She called it "a host of unholy cherubs." The scene cut from a bird's eye view of the circle of cribs to the round table of the peace conference. Hmmm. And this was a host of unholy what, then?
I'm not surprised if this series is a bit weak on the nature of grace. If anything, I'm thankful that such a series treated the Bible as well as it did.
As a complete story, this was a bit of a disappointment. But I suspect that it was a set-up for a longer-running series. The focus on wrapping up the personal stories rather than wrapping up human history suggests that this was probably the intention. As such, it was well-executed.
9:51 pm Pacific Standard Time
[ posted by Rick Ritchie | 2 comments ]
Thursday, May 12th, 2005
I propose, subject to the patience of the reader, to devote two or three articles to prophecy. Like all healthy-minded prophets, sacred and profane, I can only prophesy when I am in a rage and think things look ugly for everybody. And like all healthy-minded prophets, I prophesy in the hope that my prophecy may not come true. For the prediction made by the true soothsayer is like the warning given by a good doctor. And the doctor has really triumphed when the patient he condemned to death has revived to life. The threat is justified at the very moment when it is falsified.
From The Utopia of Userers.
3:43 pm Pacific Standard Time
[ posted by Rick Ritchie | Comments ]
NBC's Revelations series has truly impressed me on one count. We are five weeks into the series, and are absolutely certain of nothing.
Jesus may have been born on the island of Patmos. Or he may not have.
The army of Magog has been raised. Or so says a man who may be the false prophet. Perhaps.
The Antichrist may be born the next episode. But his birth may be prevented.
One of the ways the show has gotten around laying all its cards on the table is by taking an unusual approach to prophecy. Without calling into question the doctrine of Inspiration, Sister Josepha has suggested that prophecies can be on the verge of coming true, and be avoided, for the present. This doesn't make the prophecy false. It just means that certain events can be postponed by people, even if they must eventually come to pass that the Scriptures be fulfilled.
Is this idea Biblical?
Actually, some of this is deeply grounded. One of the principles is directly stated in Jeremiah 18:7-8. "If at any time I announce that a nation or a kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned." Sister Josepha may be reading this principle even into the Book of Revelation. Perhaps a certain nation has grown to resemble a nation symbolized in the Book of Revelation. But it repents. Now what? God will relent. The prophecy will be fulfilled later, when the same nation, or another, more fully realized the picture of unrepented evil.
I appreciate the fact that this series may be exploring some of these deeper themes of Scripture. When we do a flat reading of Revelation, we are not to be commended as conservatives who believe the Bible over against liberals who do not. There was a similar kind of conservative reader in the Old Testament. Such a reader was known as a Pharisee. These men were in many ways better than those around them on many points. They took the Word of God seriously. But they were not always good at giving appropriate weight to the right parts of Scripture (Matthew 23:23). Their Messiah was a military victor. They missed the suffering servant predicted because of their distorted expectations.
On the surface, this new series may appear to be dealing lightly with Scripture. We have some extrabiblical material intruding here and there, such as books on the birth of the Antichrist that could not (we would suppose) be derived from Scripture. Yet in a deeper sense, certain deeper themes of prophecy (i.e. repentance to avoid calamity) are handled well. It remains to be seen how well Revelations does as a reading of Scritpure, as suspense has been its first objective. In any case, it has managed to be a suspenseful series.
11:10 am Pacific Standard Time
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Tuesday, May 10th, 2005
John Halton at Confessing Evangelical posted on a new edition of the Book of Concord. I decided I would rave about another "Concord" book.
This week, I received in the mail a used edition of George J. Fritschel's The Formula of Concord: Its Origin and Contents. I discovered this book in the Gordon-Conwell library while I was working on my master's thesis on Chemnitz and the Lord's Supper. Fritschel's book goes through the Formula article by article, and explains where different portions of the text originated. For instance, we find that Article VIII on the Person of Christ was developed from a draft originally written by Andreae. So in Article VIII, 1-12, we find Andreae's writing. But it has additions by Chemnitz in 4, Chytraeus in 11, and in 12 by both Chemnitz and Chytraeus. This makes the document much more interesting, as we can now imagine what the discussions would have been like. "Great work, Andreae. But we need to bolster it with this."
When I first got the book, I wondered how I would master this material. Then the obvious struck me. Mark my Book of Concord. So in Article VIII my margins tell me who wrote what. I kicked myself after graduation for not doing this with the entire Formula. Well, in the Internet Age, locating a copy of Fritschel for myself became possible.
11:25 am Pacific Standard Time
[ posted by Rick Ritchie | 7 comments ]
Monday, May 9th, 2005
Your Linguistic Profile:
75% General American English
10% Upper Midwestern
Hat tip to Daniel.
7:55 pm Pacific Standard Time
[ posted by Rick Ritchie | Comments ]
Friday, May 6th, 2005
I would like to pursue my line of thinking on Romans 13 a little more deeply. One thing that is sorely needed is a proper vocabulary with which to speak of these things.
My first conviction is that we need to be very careful about using the text in ways that were not intended by its authors. When we bring our own questions to the text, such as "What is the Bible's view of the state?" we run the danger of finding answers that are not there. Or not exactly there. The trouble is, while the Bible may say many things that should inform our own attitudes towards the state, it does not address the state as such. In the Romans 13 passage, the language is of "rulers" and "authorities". The state may have such functionaries. But it also has much more.
Today I discovered a piece which addresses how we should contextualize Romans 13. It addresses the fact that the Romans 13 passage seems to be in the background of the South African constitution. This should raise red flags for people. If my Hitler example has been called into question for being extreme, South Africa is a real example in our own time where this text has been used by those in power to legitimize their rule.
Some of the key points are that Romans 13 uses terms that were very specific to their time and place. These are not terms that should be universalized, even if the English Bible terms used to translate them are universal terms(e.g. "ruler" and "authority" in English could mean king, president, tribal chief, or Grand Poobah equally). Now some have seen such arguments used to explain away any norms from the Epistles. I think that there is a middle course between universalizing and explaining away. There are many passages where we could find parallels in our own time, without saying they are of universal application in all situations. The quesiton will be, then, what kinds of people in our day fit the description of "rulers" or "authorities" as Paul uses the terms.
The piece I have linked to does use some sociological categories my readers may or may not wish to adopt. I think that these categories are useful in questioning some conventional readings, as they point out how we ourselves are making some leaps when we attempt to read modern state terminology into the same passages.
1:40 pm Pacific Standard Time
[ posted by Rick Ritchie | 3 comments ]
Thursday, May 5th, 2005
The "End of Days" is nearer than when we first began watching.
Few commitments have been made. But in the recap of what had gone on in the series up to the beginning of the last episode, it appeared that the original impression that Christ was being "born" is correct. Then again, there was an astronomical phenomenon that reminded me of something that happened in the third Omen movie, "The Final Conflict", where Christ came back as an adult.
There were a couple more scenes where Hawk's name figured in. One was where a policeman approached a car where he was being held against his will. The officer asked his name and he did not give it. Had he done so, he might have been saved. His silence doomed the officer. Another was where his captors were going to re-Christen (or de-Christen?) him Samael. Keep your eyes peeled for more of this name theme. It will no doubt figure into Hawk regaining his freedom, or staying true to death.
Sister Josepha was questioned about her belief in the mother who she thinks bore the new Jesus. She said that all her life she had wanted to meet a saint. She had expected perfection. But what she found was different. The theme here was interesting. The nature of true goodness. The mother did not have her act together. But she was trusting. There was also a theme here about not being able to account for one's reasons for believing with precision. The belief was not presented as an arbitrary one. But it was not reasoned to. It was an intuition based on an experience.
Sister Josepha also mentioned a possibility of averting Armageddon through hope. This was a theme that played out in the Demi Moore movie "The Seventh Sign." That movie may be a forerunner of this series, in that it read the Bible with a greater emphasis on theme than the fulfillment of a scenario you would find in a book by a theologian.
I'm a little disappointed in some of the directions this now appears to be taking. But the drama remains good. And it could still turn out any number of ways. Here are some possibilities:
Sister Josepha's Hope Scenario: Armageddon is averted through some sacrificial act or acts. (Perhaps these were foreshadowed in the scenes from next week, where she says she would do anything.)
The X-Files Scenario: Ambiguous ending. The events all come to an end leaving no real trace. Sister Josepha believes all of the experiences were real End Times events, while Dr. Richard Massey still doubts that they cannot be explained through natural causes.
Consipiracy Scenario These were never End Times events in the first place, but an elaborate scheme cooked up for some hidden purpose.
The "I Love Lucy" Ending These were never End Times events in the first place, but an elaborate scheme cooked up by Sister Josepha to get into a show down at "Ricky's" (Richard Massey's) club.
2:24 pm Pacific Standard Time
[ posted by Rick Ritchie | Comments ]
Tuesday, May 3rd, 2005
Martin Luther was one of the most courageous men the church has known. He challenged the pretences of the day, and restored the authority of Scripture within the church. The church that bears his name owes him an inestimable debt. Many will be feel a persuasive force in an argument that says that a position should be accepted because Luther held it. I would argue that that is un-Lutheran. Luther's approach is what should be followed. I would argue for a full-bodied understanding of what this entails. There were other folk of his era who thought that Luther stood for reform as such, and they thought they had better ideas of how to reform more deeply. Luther showed that what was central to his position was the Gospel and the authority of Scripture.
One of the earliest threats to the Reformation came from fellow travellers that Luther called the schwaermerei. At their most extreme, they thought that the Scriptures were of secondary importance to what the Holy Spirit was saying to us in our day. Luther countered them with a deep-hitting argument that has changed the way I read all Scripture. And the more I have read, the more I find this way of reading borne out, not only in the results that it produces, but in the attitudes of Jesus toward Scripture.
But first, Luther. In the Smalkald Articles, Article VIII, Luther says "For God wished to appear even to Moses through the burning bush and spoken Word; and no prophet neither Elijah nor Elisha, received the Spirit without the Ten Commandments [or spoken Word]. Neither was John the Baptist conceived without the preceding word of Gabriel, nor did he leap in his mother's womb without the voice of Mary." This passage has become somewhat of a "Luther's Razor" for me. "One should not increase, beyond what is necessary, the number of [special revelations] required to explain anything."
There are other similar principles. One might be found in the Lutheran concept of sedes doctrinae. Richard Muller offers as a definition "a particular text of Scripture that is used as the primary foundation of a doctrine." Our theologians were particularly insistent on this. Martin Luther would not allow passages from the Pauline Epistles to be used as clear passages to interpret the more difficult Words fo Institution. Why not? Because the Words of Institution were the sedes doctrinae of the Lord's Supper. They are found at the Institution of the Lord's Supper. Other words in the Bible are, to be sure, divinely inspired, and therefore inerrent. But the other words are more occasional. These words are the ones given at the beginning. When God institutes something, he does so clearly. And he does so so clearly that even his other words cannot be used in a way that leads away from the clear teaching when he institutes something.
This goes back to Jesus. In Matthew, Jesus is questioned on divorce. Moses is cited. Now surely Moses's Law was written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit? So are not his words defining? No. Jesus takes his questioners back to the institution of marriage in Genesis. "From the beginning it was not so" (Matthew 19:8). Moses has to be understood in context.
Now, some people will read this passage and think that without Jesus, we could never have know this. But Jesus is teaching us how to read. Jesus did not need a special revelation to say what he said. He needed to be a right reader of Scripture. Other passages allude to this. "You know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God" he says (Mark 12:24), or "Have ye not read?" (Matthew 12:3,5; 19:4; 21:16,42; 22:31). We need to be right readers. And this means being alert for the sedes doctrinae. It is incumbent upon us to follow Jesus' lead here. Luther did in the Sacramentarian controversy. Now we must when questions of the state arise.
When we read Romans 13:1, it says that "the powers that be are ordained of God." Is this to be our starting point of an understanding of the state? Earthly governments had been around for thousands of years at this point. If Paul says they are ordained of God, what does this mean? My first inclination (now) is to look for the sedes doctrinae of this teaching. Is this like marriage, or one of the sacraments, where we will find clear language at the founding of the first state?
Some have claimed that we do. In his Patriarchia, or the Divine Right of Kings, Sir Robert Filmer claimed that the state was an extension of parental rule. So he founded it in Adam's rule over his progeny. John Locke tore this theory to shreds. Genesis did not teach such a rule. When we looked to Genesis, we found as many exceptions to the rule (as laid out by Filmer) as examples of the rule itself. Patriarchy was rule by elders, and Genesis often showed the youngest supplanting the oldest (e.g. Jacob and Esau). The blessing and birthright institutions which seemed to function were not themselves given as laws in Genesis. We don't see an example of inheritance at the death of Adam. Filmer's attempt to discover the state in early Genesis was a good attempt. In a sense, everyone should be tempted to try the same thing. Perhaps it will work with some further hermeneutics. But Filmer's attempt failed.
Either we should be able to find God explicitly instituting powers, or we should see if there are other readings of this passage available to us. My operating assumption is that St. Paul does not need special revelation in order to say what he says in Romans 13:1. That is not how God instructs us on such matters. You don't have government functioning for thousands of years, and then an explicit statement of institution. For how were governments legitimized before the statement, then?
Our first question has to be, What does ordained of God mean? The Greek word for "ordained" comes from the verb tassw. In the broader sense, it means "to place or station." And its other senses seem to be derived from this. It can mean "to appoint or establish someone in an office" or "to order, fix, determine, appoint." The latter is often used in predestinarian passages.
At first glance, it may seem that the right reading is that the powers that be were appointed to their offices by God. So God designed their offices and then filled them with capable people. But does this work with the rest of Scripture? He did not design the offices of our government the way he designed the Levitical offices, specifying details of rulership and communicating those through special revelation. Perhaps what God instituted was particular functions. I think of Genesis 9:6 "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image." This would legitimize certain forms of vengeance. But it does not legitimize a modern state with all the trappings. On the other hand, if we take the more Predestinarian reading, God determined who would bear the sword. And God knew what he was doing when he did so. But this should be read in the light of the often ironic Providence of God. The ruler himself might mean things for evil, but God means them for good.
The trouble is that Romans then also seems to offer a more pragmatic understanding of the offices. They are for our good. This is something we can see.
But what about when there is an evil ruler. How does Romans read, then? Let's see.
"Therefore, he who resists [Hitler] resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For [Hitler] is not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of [Hitler]? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for [Hitler] is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for [Hitler] does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer."
This may be a bit shocking. It should be, in any case. A lot of readings that may be acceptable even with incompetent rulers must fall by the wayside here.
The first possibility is that St. Paul never meant this passage as a universal passage that would apply to a Hitler. St. Paul is offering a pragmatic argument as to why rulers should be obeyed. God instituted these offices for our good, so we should be greatful. They make a world that is better for us and our neighbor. In many instances, we can see this, and the pragmatic argument is worth of acceptance.
But what about Hitler?
The second possibility is that this passage is speaking of the deep Providence mentioned above. God did appoint Hitler, and set a boundary on his evil. What looks like an almost unmitigated disaster to us down here will be shown in eternity to be an act of mercy on the part of God. Though we probably do nothing but make Christianity appear riduculous to propose possible reconciliations this side of eternity. It is a statement of faith and not human ingenuity to say that God will bring good even out of this.
Yet though this reading takes into account the powers that be being appointed by God, it hardly makes any earthly sense of the rest of the passage. Is not Hitler a terror to good conduct? The parallel passage that comes to mind is the one about not fearing the one who can throw us into prison, but fearing the one who can throw us into hell (Luke 12:4-5). Perhaps if we could live up to this injunction even the passage would apply to Hitler? No. These Biblical commands not to do one thing but do another are more comparative statements. We are not forbidden to fear the one who can throw us into prison. But the fear that we do have should not compare to the fear we have towards God. Secondly, the part about Hitler commending us does not fit the reading. First, he would not do this. Second, who would be persuaded to act in order to secure such praise? Bad idea.
If we read tassw as appointing people to positions, then it is probably best to see this as specific functions within the state. And as not applying in all cases. If we read it as predestinarian, Romans 13 also does not seem to apply in all cases. God's providence may be at work even in the worst cases. But the Romans 13 argument will not.
It works better to see certain vocations within the state as having a legitimacy from God. There are probably then times when a Romans 13 sermon would do good. If you have a congregation of new converts to Christianity who decide that they can disregard all state laws because Jesus is their Lord, Paul supplies an argument. This does no good for your neighbor. It is not a proper use of Christian liberty.
But the passage should not be used to make Christians scrupulous about obedience to the state. The state has its functions. But the functions precede the state. I don't see Romans 13 as a blanket approval of whatever a state may ask. It speaks of rulers. And the ethics spelled out seem to be part-and-parcel of an actual relationship between citizen and ruler, something that is not found in many civil situations today. And the ethics only seem to fit situations where the reading of the passage does not become laughable.
I think this needs to be spelled out because it has implications for how we see ourselves as citizens today. I identify with the classical liberal position. (Don't read that as my being one of the liberals that Ann Coulter attacks with such style.) The position of the American Revolution. A position that was often argued in Biblical terms, where the pamphleteers had to answer charges that they were ignoring Romans 13, and the pamphleteers countered that their opponents were ignoring what the rest of Scripture said of government.
If our deeper operating principles are love of neighbor, we will want to promote a form of government which does correspond to the more universal ethics of Scripture. Not stealing. Not killing. If we take our government as we see it as a divine given, we have no reason to do this. But I think we can see that our government's bearing of the sword can be legitimate to a degree, without taking its current form as a given.
12:37 pm Pacific Standard Time
[ posted by Rick Ritchie | 8 comments ]
Sunday, May 1st, 2005
This entry is in response to a question asked about my commentary on the NBC series Revelations.
One reader seemed to think I was going soft, and asked if this series was really any better than the Left Behind series.
My short answer has to be "I don't know." I never read any of the books in the Left Behind series. I had no interest in reading them. I figured they were just fictionalized portrayals of a Dispensational Premillennial rapture scenario. And from some reviews I read, I didn't expect the fiction to be good even as fiction.
If I have something that I objected to about the Left Behind books, it was that people would expect them to give very concrete and realistic answers to the question of what the near future would be like. And people who believed the answers would be filled with fear. When I was younger, I spent one summer at a summer camp where Larry Norman's song "I Wish We'd All Been Ready" was sung by the campfire. It created a sense of desolation. The scenario presented was one of sheer hopelessness. And there was no gospel in the song. No description of what "being ready" meant. The adults who led the song were looked up to as leaders. They didn't appear to be afraid. How did they escape that fear? By making a commitment, we were told. Kids, many who already believed in Jesus, would make new commitments out of fear that they would be left behind. This is one aspect of evangelicalism I was quite happy to have "left behind" when I became Lutheran.
I had the intention of treating Revelations the same way. But someone else turned on the TV, and I walked into the room during a few minutes of very compelling drama. (The part where Dr. Massey interviews Isaiah Haden in prison, for those who have been watching.) Despite expecting this show to be just like "that Left Behind crap," I found myself watching.
And so far, this series does not have the drawbacks of other treatments of the subject. If someone turns this on to find out an end times scenario, they have not learned anything about one in the first three weeks. There have been some good Bible texts quoted. But there is not, as of yet, any definite relationship between any event in the story and any event prophesied in Scripture. We aren't sure who the different characters are. We may suspect. But the show lures us along, allowing us to make mistaken identifications. I have not seen this tried on this subject. I have seen portrayals of people making misidentifications. But the reader or viewer is always "in the know." Which seems to violate the nature of Biblical prophecy. In Scripture, even the best people are usually in the dark as things happen. And the received scenarios often turn out wrong. (Think of the Jewish expectation of Messiah as victorious restorer of the kingdom to Israel.) I think this aspect should be mandatory in any dramatization. And it appears that Revelations has raised the bar.
Now, given that the series has not reached its conclusion, we may find the series disappoints us when the actual scenario is finally revealed. Perhaps this is just another Left Behind story. But I doubt it at this point. I could be wrong, but I think the possibilities of a "Scooby Doo" ending are about as good. (Isaiah Haden is really "old man Withers" from the amusement park, and it all would have worked if it hadn't been for that pesky nun.)
This show could turn out to be a theological disaster. But it won't be a dramatic disaster. And it has raised the bar by keeping the real nature of events as dark not just for the characters, but for the viewers. This is a good thing. I think too many people get a false sense of security from the other presentations and imagine that they will be okay so long as they avoid a computer chip implant. This series might get some people back to thinking, "What if I when events unfold, I don't know what's going on?" A bad hopelessness or an unfounded complacency might be replaced with a more Biblical vigilance. Three weeks into the series, I at least see this as a possibility. If this turns out wrong, this series will likely be bad for a whole host of new reasons, and not the same old ones.
11:00 pm Pacific Standard Time
[ posted by Rick Ritchie | 2 comments ]