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The Josiah Conspiracy? (Clarity of the Bible V)

WYSIWYG is a technical term (in computer programming) with a simple meaning: what you see is what you get. Many liberal theologians believe that the Old Testament is not exactly WYSIWYG. They believe that it is in fact (to coin a new term) WYSITJC – what you see is the Josiah conspiracy.

The Josiah conspiracy theory looms so large for so many people that it deserves some attention before we move on to the clarity of the New Testament.

First, should we think that the Josiah conspiracy theory is a big deal? On one hand, much of the message of the Old Testament remains intact even if the conspiracy was real. Either way, most of the points made in my posts so far still stand. Either way, the voices of the authors and audiences still reach us today. These voices are varied enough to make a real conversation, connected enough for them to understand each other, and thorough enough to leave us clues to understand them. On the other hand, the King Josiah conspiracy is, well, a conspiracy. It makes the Old Testament a murky, underhanded business.

Conspiracy is my term. Christians who believe in it tend to refer to it with prettier terms, like documentary hypothesis, but I think Josiah conspiracy theory is simpler and more honest.

The theory is that, in the 7th century B.C., the court of King Josiah of Judah, needing to strengthen its authority, gave the clerics a mission: to dig up religious writings and legends from several Jewish and Israelite traditions and stitch them together. The court wanted everyone to believe that worship should be centred in their capital city. The clerics obeyed, producing the core of the Old Testament as we know it.

One of the biggest holes in the Josiah conspiracy theory is something I talked about in Part II: genre. Today, this hole in the theory is bigger than ever. Historians have found ancient covenant documents and compared them to the Books of Moses. Passages like Exodus 20 and most of the Book of Deuteronomy are clear examples of such treaties, in a style that belongs to centuries before Josiah. This discovery about Deuteronomy is an especial embarrassment to the conspiracy theorists, who had claimed it was an original forgery in Josiah’s time! Besides treaty format, there is a technique called chiastic structure. One of the biggest examples is the Flood narrative in Genesis (6:1-9:19). It is now clear that it is an elegant whole with several sections that make a pattern. Yet the conspiracy theorists had ventured to write elaborate descriptions of how Josiah’s clerics had messily stitched it together from competing sources!1 In the light of genre studies, their methods have suffered a huge loss of credibility.

So how did the flawed Josiah conspiracy theory come about? What biases were involved?

Just to be clear: simply being biased is not a sin, and everyone, including me, is biased. Pointing out the biases behind an idea does not prove that it is wrong, or that the people who hold that idea are bad. However, since there are serious flaws in the Josiah conspiracy theory, it is interesting to think of what biases were behind it.

The Josiah conspiracy theory has been (and still is) promoted by theologians and scholars of the liberal kind. They are biased towards believing that the books of the Bible were written later rather than earlier.

However, they have to accept that the Books of Moses, in pretty much their current form, are at least as old as King Josiah. This is because the Exile (shortly after King Josiah) has left us a lot of literature about the Books of Moses, both inside the Bible and outside it (see the previous post).

The Exile period was rich in Jewish literature (a) for religious reasons and (b) because it made the Jews a more international people, creating a need for the Greek translation, Aramaic commentary, etc.

So we have a period rich in literature which makes the existence of the Books of Moses undeniable, and then we have liberal scholars who would like the Books of Moses to be as late as possible. And we have a liberal-scholarship theory saying that the Books of Moses were concocted by conspiracy straight before that literature-rich period.

If the literature-rich period had come 500 years earlier or later, maybe modern scholars would have put forward different conspiracy theories! We can only speculate.

But, rather than holding to a conspiracy theory of exhumed texts stitched together in the dark for a king, it is reasonable to follow clues inside the Old Testament that point to very early audiences of complete books.

1Holding, J. P. (2005). Debunking the documentary hypothesis [Review]. Journal of Creation 19(3), 37-40.

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OT Audiences: Beyond the Bible (Clarity of the Bible IV)

Are there any books by the audiences of the Old Testament? Yes. As we have seen earlier on in the series, the Bible is a whole library of books, and many of the authors were each other’s audiences. Also, voices of audiences outside Scripture have also come down to us as well: translators, commentators, and authors of other books.

These voices slightly overlap with the latest Old Testament authors, but with all the authors, they shared the unique, strong Jewish heritage and the ancient pre-Christian environment. So what they say about the meaning of the Old Testament is a huge help to us.

In Greek

Starting in the third century B.C., Jews translated their Scriptures (our Old Testament) into Greek. Their translation is known as the Septuagint.

‘Wait,’ someone might say, ‘I thought this was a list of voices outside the Old Testament.’ True, translations (if they are good) say the same thing as the original. But they say it in entirely different words, chosen (in this case) by entirely different people.

Here’s why this is great. Language naturally has fuzzy bits, but different languages have different fuzzy bits. If I say to you and your friend, ‘How are you?’ I might be asking about you alone or about both of you. The English you is fuzzy in this way. However, Chinese does not have this particular fuzz. Ni means you (one person) and nimen means you (two or more). Is Chinese the more specific language? Only in some ways. It has its own fuzzy bits that are not in English! So if you have the same message in two languages, each one of them clears up things that the other leaves fuzzy.

This is what happens with the Hebrew and Greek versions of the Old Testament. Because the Greek version comes from ancient Jews, who had special insight into the original Hebrew, it is the same message in a different language. Lots of fuzzy verses in the Hebrew Old Testament are clear in the Septuagint, because Greek has different fuzzy bits. Examples are pointed out in the footnotes of many English Bibles. (Often they refer to the Septuagint by the abbreviation LXX.)

In Aramaic

After the Exile (6th century B.C.), Jews more and more wanted translation and commentary in the Aramaic language on their Scriptures. The first were oral. This is probably what the Book of Nehemiah refers to in 8:8: ‘They gave an oral translation of God’s Law and explained it so that the people could understand it.’1 Written editions survive from the first few centuries after Christ, but the oral material is linked with the growth of synagogues long before Christ.2

This Aramaic material includes the Talmud, which comments on how to apply the Books of Moses. In the Talmud, ‘a whole people has deposited its feelings, its beliefs, its soul’,3 and these feelings, beliefs, and soul centre around Scripture.

The other major part of the Aramaic material is the Targums: translations/paraphrases of not only the Books of Moses but almost the whole Old Testament. Both as translations and sort-of commentaries, the Targums are ‘an important witness to the text of the Old Testament, comparable in value with the Septuagint’4 (italics mine). Like in a courtroom, the more witnesses to what was said, the better.

Hebrew grammarian Heinrich Prinz drew on the Old Testament and Targums together to study the teaching of the Trinity. Contrary to the common Muslim claim (since the 7th century A.D.) that the prophets had always been anti-Trinitarian like them, Prinz showed that many pre-Christian Jews (including the writers of Scripture) recognised the Word/Angel/Son of God and Spirit of God, laying the groundwork for the clear teaching of the Trinity.5

Other Books

In the centuries leading up to Christ, Jewish literature produced several books outside the Old Testament set. (There are traditions of publishing them along with the Bible under headings like Apocrypha.) We will look at two examples: Ecclesiasticus, a set of proverbs similar to the Biblical Book of Proverbs, and Tobit, a fanciful tale of the fortunes of Tobit the righteous Jew. Both books show respect for the Old Testament set.

Some in atheist/sceptical circles claim to see little or no real morals in the Old Testament, only selfish Israelite patriotism and priestly elitism. (This criticism perhaps says more about our own age, which is cynical about both patriotism and priesthood.) The wisdom in Ecclesiasticus and the righteousness in Tobit certainly affirm patriotism and accept priesthood, while also putting them together with some of the values that people do like nowadays, like compassion. The Old Testament itself does this, but Ecclesiasticus and Tobit help by further confirming that early audiences took it that way. They do this as independent voices, not just copying the statements of Scripture.

So…

Septuagint, Talmud, Targums, Apocrypha: It’s not just a list of words for a spelling bee; it’s a diverse set of witnesses that show us how the books of the Old Testament came across to early audiences.

References

1F. F. Bruce. (1950). The Books and the Parchments (3rd ed., p. 53). London: Pickering and Inglis.

2Payne. D. F. (1996). Targums. In I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible Dictionary (3rd ed.). Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.

3Darmesteter, A. (1897). The Talmud. Jewish Publication Society of America.

4Payne. D. F. (1996). Targums. In I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible Dictionary (3rd ed.). Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.

5Prinz, H. (1863). The great mystery: How can three be one? London: William Macintosh.

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Reflections on Relativism

When discussing topics of moral significance, it’s not uncommon to hear the phrase “that’s right for you, but not for me”. Implicit in these kinds of statements is the idea that moral values and duties are subjective; that it’s up to me to decide what’s right and wrong for me, and it’s up to you to decide the same for yourself.  At face value, this view—call it “moral relativism”—may appear to be a tolerant position. However, upon reflection, it’s obvious that it faces a number of hurdles that it simply cannot overcome. One such hurdle is that it grates against the fact that, deep down, we all know that some things really are wrong.

Here’s an example. I recently finished reading Laurence Rees’ book “The Holocaust”. The book sets out to answer two questions: how and why the Nazi holocaust came to pass. Throughout the book Rees shares harrowing accounts of the horrors that Jews, gypsies, Soviets, and numerous other people groups experienced at the hands of the Nazi regime. These accounts are, frankly, very grim, disturbing, and unpleasant to read. Rees acknowledges this, writing: “Although the contents of the book… are disturbing, I believe it is still important to understand how and why this happened. For this history tells us, perhaps more than any other, just what our species can do” [i].

When Rees refers to “what our species can do”, he’s obviously implying that mankind is capable of horrendous evil. Now it doesn’t take a genius to deduce that the holocaust qualifies as horrendous evil—palpable, real, and true evil. However, if moral relativism is true, rather than saying “the holocaust was wrong”, wouldn’t it make more sense to say “genocide is right for you, but not for me”, or “murdering disabled and elderly people was right for the Nazis, but it makes me a bit uncomfortable”? Obviously to take such a view is absurd, indicating that relativism is an inadequate account of morality.

Rather than showing that moral values and duties are relative to the whims of individuals or societies, the fact that we perceive some things (such as the Holocaust) as truly evil indicates that good and evil are objective. By objective good and evil, I mean that some things are good or evil regardless of whether people perceive them to be that way. An oft-cited example goes something like this: even if the Nazis had won World War II and managed to exterminate all who opposed them, brainwashing the rest of us so that no one thought the Holocaust was evil, it would still be evil. That is what it means to be objectively evil.

Furthermore, though relativism may be given lip-service, I believe that our innate sense of objective moral values is betrayed in many of the films we enjoy. As Jonathan Merritt points out, film, art, literature, and music can act as a barometer for what the prevailing views are in a society[ii]. And what do we see in many of the popular movies of our time? The actions of innumerable villains portrayed as objectively—not just subjectively—wrong. When Voldemort kills Harry Potter’s parents, when the Joker sends Batman’s love interest up in a ball of flames, and when Anakin Skywalker murders young Jedi in cold blood, we judge their actions as objectively wrong.

In summary, it seems that moral relativism is bankrupt, and we should instead affirm the existence of objective good and bad, right and wrong. Although some people consciously or subconsciously subscribe to relativism, an examination of their judgements of horrors like the holocaust suggests that they actually do believe in objective moral values. James Rachels encapsulates the argument against relativism when he writes, “it does make sense… to condemn some practices, such as slavery and anti-Semitism, wherever they occur… relativism implies these judgements make no sense… [and therefore] it cannot be right”[iii].


 

Citations:

[i] Rees, L. (2017). The Holocaust, p. 429. Penguin Random House, UK.

[ii] Merritt, J. (2016). The death of moral relativism. Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/03/the-death-of-moral-relativism/475221/

[iii] Rachels, J. (2003). The elements of moral philosophy (4th Ed.), p. 23. McGraw-Hill: New York, NY.

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OT Audiences: Ring of Truth (Clarity of the Bible III)

Never have a fake phone conversation. When you are in the middle of sounding impressive and charismatic, when your phone will really ring and you’ll be caught out. This is a lesson I have learned from sitcoms.

Sitcoms also illustrate how fake phone conversations are often one-dimensional. The entire ‘conversation’ reflects what the pretender wants to be true. There is no encounter with the complex and independent will of another human being.

By contrast, the Old Testament authors portray their audiences as complex and independent people. Not only did the authors write to them in a way that hints at their interaction (see last post), the authors also wrote about them in convincing detail.

Two features of Old Testament audiences stand out.

First, they changed. Granted, the Bible is famous for showing the consistency of human nature – people sin all the way through. Yet there is also variation. Israel was a very new nation under Moses, Joshua and the judges, easily influenced by the idolatry of more established cultures and often failing to pass on its distinctive heritage of the Law. Later, under the monarchy, worship – both of Yahweh and of foreign gods – was more organised and came under the influence of political marriages and alliances. Later still, when the Exile confirmed Yahweh’s prophets, Jews more than ever took for granted that they would only worship the God of their fathers and looked back longingly on the best of the monarchy. Prophets now had to emphasise that, in spite of the Exile, God was still relevant and in charge and cared. That overview is very simplified. The point is, the audiences were varied, like real people are. The different generations’ changing responses to the Law, Prophets and so on makes historical sense.

Second, though the authors celebrate their supporters and push back against the haters, they do so with reason and restraint. We do not see cookie-cutter haters. The authors help us to make sense of their faults in light of natural motivations and pressures. For example, there is Moses’ generation’s habit of being slaves, clumsy in their use of freedom. Again, the judges period showed a nation still immature, while some of the kings, like Solomon, naturally showed national pride and political diplomacy – and took them in some bad directions. Conversely, even heroes are often weak, like Abraham lying about his wife and King David committing adultery. Pretty much any character who the authors go into detail about has both sympathetic and ugly qualities.

This balance is remarkable coming from an Ancient Near Eastern culture. It was normal to write down exclusively positive versions of your own history. The Annals of Sennacherib are a good example; they record a string of Assyrian victories, though cross-checking with Babylonian records indicates some defeats.

Keep in mind that, to varying extents, the Old Testament authors claim to deliver a perfect message from God. Yet they frequently admit that the message failed to transform people. That’s one sign of honesty – admitting things that must be embarrassing. Prophets report being called offensively negative (perhaps jinxers), over-strict, and even unpatriotic. Historians such as the authors of Samuel and Kings record the achievement of priests teaching the Law of Moses in very modest terms. Tacitly, they admit a huge amount of ignorance, illiteracy, and lack of interest – within Israel!

This is either honesty or cunning fiction. People today are quick to suggest it is fiction; we are familiar with very sophisticated historical fiction. This is because we live two hundred years after pioneering historical fiction author Sir Walter Scott. But sophistication like Scott’s doesn’t just happen. It doesn’t magically appear from the pen of every writer spinning a story. It is a very specific craft which was alien to the Ancient Near East. So when a skeptic takes the subtle touches of realism throughout the Old Testament and tries to explain them away as fiction, it is quite a strain.

It makes much more sense to take the Old Testament’s portraits of its audiences as at least mostly true, even if you don’t think the Bible is God’s Word. And those portraits of the audiences, with all their responses and nuances, shed a huge amount of light on the authors’ message.

In the next post, I’ll look at sources which give us some of the audiences’ voices directly.

Auckland Apologetics Course by Mark Powell at Carey College

Carey College is running this a 15 week long course hosted by Mark Powell

Carey CollegeApologetics: Gain confidence in what you believe and why you believe it

Christianity is seen by many today as weird and incomprehensible – but is that true? The human condition, human experience, basic intuitions, history, science and reason all point to the truth of Christianity. Join Mark Powell as he helps equip students with a holistic contemporary apologetic which shows why we have good reason to believe what we say we believe.

COURSE CONTENT

• Reality and knowledge: What is real and how do we know it?
• Post-Christian World: Modernism and Post-modernism
• Creation, cause & design and evolution
• Immaterial realities and how we know them
• Moral/ethical knowledge and obligation
• The reliability and trustworthiness of scripture
• The case for the resurrection
• The problem of evil
• Controversial historical claims & contemporary issues

Be equipped to have better conversations, ask better questions and to share answers with gentleness and respect.

Mark PowellMARK POWELL – Lecturer

Mark is a Professional Company Director and “CEO in Resident” at Massey Business School and was the CEO of the Warehouse Group. A Carey graduate, Mark completed a Bachelor of Applied Theology and Diploma in Pastoral Leadership and is now a visiting Lecturer and member of the Carey Board. He has recently completed a Masters in Christian Apologetics from Biola University, California and has a passion for wanting to help Christians have a confident faith, where they know not just what they believe, but why they believe it.

WHEN: Tuesday nights from 18th July to 25 October

TIME: 6:30-9:30pm

COST: $740 (for credit – as part of further study)

OR: $300 (for audit – you don’t need to do the assignments, but you earn no credits)  – Administration fees additional

REGISTER or MORE INFO: Email registrar@carey.ac.nz  or visit cary.ac.nz/enrol

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If doing bad requires punishment, does doing good merit eternal life?

Do we as humans tend to think that others ought to get what they deserve, i.e justice, karma, punishment and praise? Do we think that we should always be given things according to what we deserve? Why does this theme of ‘reward for works’ seem to crop up so often throughout our thinking? It appears in many religions, in our families, in our societies and various worldviews. Is there some underlying perception of justice that is common to all humanity? I know in my own life the idea of fairness and what is right tends to influence how I emotionally react to my circumstances. Is this the same for you?

Contrary to this idea is this area of mercy, grace, and compassion which is so richly imbued into the Christian worldview[1, 2, 3]. However, Christianity is also deeply imbued with these ideas of justice, what is owed, what we deserve and appropriately issued punishment[4, 5, 6], themes which have permeated most of the societies and governments in existence. But how is it possible to reconcile these two so fundamental and intensely emotional features of humanity?

A nice place we could start is this short video dealing with where these two features collide in Christianity. Have a watch and then share your thoughts on such matters in the comments. Do you think that the answer given in the video was adequate? Maybe you feel we should be able to earn a place in heaven through good works? What would be good enough? Let us know!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DJtTS0TT0zw

[1] – http://www.biblestudytools.com/topical-verses/grace-bible-verses/ 
[2] – https://dailyverses.net/mercy 
[3] – http://www.biblestudytools.com/topical-verses/bible-verses-for-compassion/
[4] – http://www.biblestudytools.com/topical-verses/bible-verses-about-justice/ 
[5] – https://dailyverses.net/righteousness 
[6] – https://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/Commandments-Of-Christ

 

Dogmatic Hues: What People Believe

Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Bibel in Bildern (1860)

Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Bibel in Bildern (1860)

Postmodernism was, in part, the reaction against the notion of a meta-narrative; the ideal that there is one over-aching narrative that guilds and shapes society. In Western society that meta-narrative was Christianity. This usurpation of the One Story paved the way for other narratives to be told. With the monopoly of Christianity broken, these other narratives, which had always been told, were given greater airtime. Christianity no longer had the inside track, but in the forty-or-so years since the advent of postmodernism most Christians have not tried readily understood these other narratives.

Plato suggested that the people in his idealized society be told a story, a myth, that some people were created with gold strands, some with silver, and some with bronze. The gold imbued were created to be kings, the silver imbued to be soldiers, and those with bronze were at the bottom of the pile. The stories a society tells its members define the identity if those members, what is normal and what is not normal. Below is a very brief look at some of these narratives.

Atheism

Mikhail Bakunin wrote that ‘as long as we have a master in heaven, we will be slaves on earth.’ He also wrote that ‘if God really existed, it would be necessary to abolish him.’ Atheism is the reaction against any form of belief in deity. Atheism, then, can be summarized as the active disbelief in deity. ‘Atheism’ the word is Greek for without a god. But it is more than just mere disbelief; it is the challenge against the social systems and morals inherent in a society with a monotheistic (or theistic) underpinning. If there is one god, there is one story (more or less). If there is no god, it is not, then, a case of there being no story, on the contrary the vacuum is filled with a multitude of contenders; there is no limit to how many stories that can be told. There is also no control, any terms of reference, as to what kind of story can be told. A story can be told that makes an unborn baby not (yet) human. A story can be told that one group of people are less than another. Stories of the equality of the sexes become stories of the sameness of the sexes. Light becomes dark and soon the clock strikes the thirteenth hour. Francis Bacon wrote that ‘they that deny a God destroy man’s nobility; for certainly man is of kin to the beasts by his body; and if he be not kin to God by his spirit, he is a base and ignoble creature….[atheism] depriveth human nature of the means to exalt itself above human frailty.’ It is a paradox to tell someone in school that they are merely an animal only to imprison them when they act as one as an adult.

Agnostism

Agnostism is the negation of the word gnostic. Gnostic or gnostism pertains to knowledge by revelation. Agnostism, then, means to be without knowledge or revelation. It is primarily an epistemological position, that is, it is to do with how knowledge is gained. William L. Rowe defined agnostism as ‘the view that human reason is incapable of providing sufficient rational grounds to justify either that God exists or the belief that God does not exist.’ That is, humanity does not have the means to know one way or another either God exists (Barth would argue that this is correct, and that it is only through the revelation of Jesus Christ that humanity can know anything of God.). Richard Dawkins, when pushed, considers himself an agnostic. Is it a safer place to be rationally than atheism because its only claim is that of incompetence. Atheism, on the other hand, makes a far bigger claim: it claims that nowhere in the universe exists an entity that could be considered a god. Where agnostism claims ignorance in the question of the gardeners’ existence, atheism claims to have searched every part of the garden simultaneously and have proved, beyond doubt, that no gardener exists. When one sees a garden the rational response is to at least posit the possibility of a gardener before one attempts to discover the existence, or lack thereof, of said gardener. Agnostism is simple and safe; it requires nothing more than the acceptance of epistemological failure. Agnostism is a safe place to be theologically; though in its claim of ignorance it demonstrates it.

Deism

Deism, from the Latin word for god, deus, is the belief that the universe was created by a supreme being who subsequent to creation did not intervene in the operation or events of the universe. This god is sometimes referred to as an absentee landlord – because he is never there. This created but neglected universe is referred to as a clock-work universe – because God wound it up and let it wind down on its own. Deism was in vogue during the Enlightenment and was the theological view of most of the Founding Fathers (see Alf J. Mapp’s The Faiths of Our Fathers) . Deism is not the same as Christianity because it allows for neither a relational god nor miracles. The concept of an intelligent designer could be seen as an argument for deism rather than theism or Christianity because it states that the universe was created, by whatever means, by a supreme being. Intelligent Design (ID) is a theological position on the creation of the universe and nothing more – it argues for nothing else. Those using ID in apologetics need to realize that all at calls for is a creator god and nothing more – it can only go as far as deism.

Theism

Theism (from the Greek word for god, theos) is a philosophical position and is not the same as either deism or Christianity. Theism is the belief that there is a creator god, and that this god can and does interact in the world (as opposed to a deistic god who does not); that is, it allows for miracles. It does not make claims about the identity or the nature of this god. It takes many forms: deism, monotheism, polytheism, henotheism. Judaism, Islam, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity are all theistic systems. The difference between Christianity and Theism is that while Theism posits miracles it does not necessarily posit a relational god. Antony Flew, the famous ex-atheist, became a theist, in that he believed an intelligence responsible for the complexity of information on DNA. Flew was not a Christian, he believed none of the claims of Christianity other than the claim of a creator-god.

Kingship is a theme of the Bible that fits with a big audience

OT Audiences: Big is Good (Clarity of the Bible II)

We can understand the Bible with the help of a community: the authors, initial audiences, and later audiences. In my last post, I emphasised the authors. In fact, the authors and initial audiences overlap. By looking at the authors Paul and Luke last week, we have already started to look at initial audiences. These missionary teammates were in each other’s audiences. Other examples are proverb-writer Solomon reading his father David’s Psalms and several prophet-authors working at the same time, like Daniel and Ezekiel.

In this post, while still following clues from the Bible itself (just the Old Testament for now), we will widen our lens and find that the initial audiences were big.

Now, because we are following clues from the Bible, some skeptics will cry foul. Just as a skeptical shopper questions the claim on the Weet-Bix box that ‘Kiwi kids are Weet-Bix kids’, a skeptical reader questions the claims a book makes about its own audiences. However, a reasonable reader finds clues in a book about its audience. This is how scholars of literature treat books in general. Just as the box of Weet-Bix in my pantry is a clue to my diet, my digestive system, and my demographic, a book’s style and type is a clue to the sort of people it was written for, the relationship they had with the author, and the place his message had in their lives.

What clues in the Old Testament indicate large audiences? Much of Moses’ books are covenant or agreement documents, formally outlining the relationship between Yahweh and Israel, complete with instructions for land use, holidays, an order of priesthood, concepts of purity and perfection and much more. In other words, they were written to a whole nation on purpose to define that whole nation.

The Old Testament books after Moses are also designed for immediate and wide sharing, from temple songbooks (many Psalms) to criticisms of the nation (much of the prophets) to practical proverbs about everyday life. Even the lyrical Song of Songs is dedicated to (or perhaps by) a king.

So we have large audiences right in front of the authors using books together for a range of purposes.

Contrast this with the opposite: a lone, isolated reader who doesn’t need to do anything about the book. When I was about thirteen I read Lord of the Rings. Afterwards I felt a little guilty, because my mother would report my achievement in glowing terms, yet I knew I had bitten off more than I could chew at the time. I found it very confusing and scarcely followed the plot. Why was Aragorn the rightful king? Why did the Rohirrim ride horses into battle and not those giant tree-men? I could not have answered either of these to save my life. Fortunately, I did not need to answer these questions to save my life, or for any other urgent purpose. Again, I was a lone, isolated reader.

Yet the readers of the books of the Old Testament did use those books to support (or oppose) kings, organise battles, and do all sorts of other things. They could not afford to pose with the books and look smart one by one, like thirteen-year-old me with Lord of the Rings. They received the books as a group. The books called for an active response. And there are signs that the call got through. The books are full of clarifications in sophisticated detail. There are careful closures of loopholes in the Law of Moses, choir instructions in the Psalms, and shock tactics from angry prophets. The authors would only bother clarifying particular points like this if a lot of their message was already understood as they intended.

Each of those examples of clarification is a technique, and a set of techniques makes up a genre. A genre serves a big purpose. So, in the Old Testament, there are both clarifying techniques (like legal loophole closure, choir tips, and shock tactics) and purposeful genres (like covenant, worshipful singing, or king support) – both fine details and big ideas, all forced out onto the page by the drive to communicate. When we open those pages and read today, we have a chance to be a new audience, hearing the message again.

We should be grateful for the drive to communicate, and for the initial audiences who helped to stir it in the human authors’ hearts.

Next week, we’ll look at how balanced a portrait we get in the Old Testament about its audiences, why honesty is a much better explanation than skillful fiction, and how this, too, helps us to understand the text.

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Authors (Clarity of the Bible I)

‘Go on, say it to her,’ my would-be tutor encouraged me, pointing to a pretty Chinese girl sitting nearby. ‘Don’t be shy. It’s just a greeting. You wanted to learn some new words, right?’ His impish grin did not inspire my confidence.

It’s one of the oldest tricks in the language teaching book: Tell the student a complete lie. The deception lasts until the girl who is ‘greeted’ frosts over, giggles, or bursts out in laughter. Deceptions like this range from fairly harmless to cruel. But, in general, they are fragile. The serious language student will practice their new words with many native speakers. The more trivial errors are more likely to persist, but the outrageous ones tend not to survive the environment of a community in conversation.

There is a similar remedy to mistakes and deceptions about the Bible. The more outrageous ones are fragile in the environment of the Bible community.

Who is in this community? The human authors of the Bible, their initial audiences, the readers in the generations since then, and even us today.

Today, let’s consider the first group: the human authors of the Bible. There were dozens of them over thousands of years.

First example: Luke and Paul. When Luke gives us Jesus’ model prayer, it is usually understood as a series of verbal requests to a personal God to bring about his good rule in the world, to supply our needs, and to forgive us. But could it instead be self-affirming, desire-free, vague meditation? Well, if for some reason we are unsure what Luke meant, we can check with Paul. Paul was in a missionary team with Luke. In the New Testament books that Paul wrote, he shares many of his own prayers, confirming that it involves requests to a personal God.

The Old Testament writers are also a part of the community. King David sheds light on Christ’s prayer, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’, because this prayer is a direct quote from his Psalm 22. King David writes these words as a good man agonising over God’s refusal to step in, yet still trusting God with his every breath (read the whole psalm). This matches how Matthew and Mark present Christ. The same principle is at work when a recent movie makes a reference to a classic movie, and you watch the classic movie to check that you understood the reference right.

Christ quoting David like this is a fitting example of the link between the books of the Bible. To the writers of the newer books, the older books were a precious heritage – authorities even. Yet many are quick to assume that newer writers disagreed with their authorities. For example, Leo Tolstoy was sure that Christ was in fact preaching a stateless, churchless (and synagogue-less) society, though Christ failed to actually say so. Tolstoy insists that this idea, though so alien to the Old Testament, is there when you read between the lines of the New.

Certainly, writers added developments to the heritage of the older books. There is a reason why the second part of the Bible is called the New Testament. But the developments are the very things likely to be spelled out, not hidden between the lines. The new claim that the Messiah had arrived was endlessly debated between Christian and non-Christian Jews. The issue characterises the entire New Testament. Stephen’s trial and defense speech in Acts 7 presents us with one of the specific clashes. Even in its differences, a community helps us to understand.

Paul says, ‘The Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God’ (Romans 3:2). The Jews were the human authors of the Bible (Luke was arguably an exception, but he certainly knew the Jewish heritage). God did not give his verbal revelation independently to isolated corners of the earth, but to a distinct nation with a rich sense of history. In the environment of their conversation, their real intentions and messages come to light.

My next few posts will be about another part of the community: the initial audiences.

hero

Holding out for a hero

A common apologetic among Christians – here it is, in traditional syllogism:

Premise 1: Person A is a Christian

Premise 2: Person A is a well-respected celebrity or cultural icon

Conclusion: Christianity is a reliable worldview

You won’t find this argument in any apologetic textbook but, nonetheless, there are countless examples. Bear Grylls on Alpha course posters. The recent hype around Chance The Rapper’s latest album, Coloring Book. Whenever Kendrick Lamar says God. Even New Zealand gets in on the action – rugby legends, DJs, and politicians fill a list of New Zealand-celebrity-Christians.

Christian news providers jump at the opportunity to publish when celebrities make even a passing comment about their ‘relationship with God’ or their personal spirituality. These comments almost never contain anything religiously distinctive, leading the hearers further from truth and closer to tragedy. Why do Christians do this? Why do the people of God feel this need for justification from on high?

Cult of personality 

In many cultures, celebrities are respected and adored for their success and skills. That is why we flock to buy things with their faces on. People are simply more likely to subscribe to a good or service that fame is endorsing. I don’t know about you but I can’t see any difference between 1) buying Proactiv cause the Biebs said so and 2) Christianity being believable because he went to Hillsong two years ago. The Christian industrial complex is putting famous faces on their product, to increase souls. What type of message does this convey? That through the ways of the world, Christianity can achieve its goal. 

The only problem – this is antithetical to the ways of God. 

Wouldn’t it be nice…

Don’t get me wrong – we should rejoice when those with cultural influence are saved by Christ. But this should be no different to any other song of thankfulness.

I catch myself thinking for a second – how amazing would it be if Richard Dawkins became a Christian? What a testament to the power of the gospel it would be! He would become a poster-boy for the cause. Christians would remind each other around campfires of the great day that the modern walls of Jericho fell – the day the stone surrounding Dawkins’ heart came tumbling down. Jesus reigns. 

The other side of the same coin – Dawkins continues his delusion, countless more reject the faith, and Christianity is further squeezed out of the public sphere. But Jesus still reigns. His gospel accomplishments on the sinner’s behalf still resound, still light the dark, still bring flesh to bones,

Jesus has no need of sidekicks or sponsors or hype-guys or makeup artists or audio-visual technicians or athletes or politicians. It is in coincidence that Christianity started its long decline when Constantine made it cool. The glory of this world will never bring about the glory that matters. Need I remind us all that Jesus was betrayed, tortured, and executed on a Roman cross – the most unglamorous and ugly combination of evils known to man.

A better way

The New Testament authors prick the ears with a different tune   –  the good news of God saving sinners always was, is, and will be foolishness to those who are wise, strong and influential in this world. Christianity’s missions is left in the hands of the stupid, weak and unimportant. Why would we then place our hope and trust in the trending? “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”

The gospel isn’t foolishness if the Greeks think it’s cool.

paul-road-to-damascus

Dragon Speak (Or, What is Theology?)

You have nice manners for a liar and a thief  (Smaug in the Hobbit)

A few weeks ago I went to a lecture at Otago University. The lecture commemorated five hundred years since Martin Luther kicked off the Reformation. Written on the desk that I sat at where the words, ‘there is no god.’ Yet here I was listening to a lecture about Luther and his god, and believing in that same god. Clearly there was a vast gulf between the theology of the scribe and my own.  

The serpent said to Eve, ‘did God really say, “you must not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ And so begins one of the most famous (or infamous) dialogues in all of human history. Whether you identify as a Christian or not does not take away from the power of this story. It is a universal story: a utopian existence lost through folly. Everybody – Christian, Buddhist, and Jedi alike – has lost someone’s trust through failure or deceit. Humans fail. And their failure hurts them. And it hurts those around them. ‘O Adam, what have you done? For though it was you who sinned, the fall was not yours alone, but ours also who are your descendents’ (2 Esdras 7.11). Some call it sin, others, evil. C. K. Chesterton commented that sin ‘is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proven,’ and is also a ‘fact as practical as potatoes’ (Orthodoxy).   

The third chapter of Genesis is a strange story. The main actors in the previous two chapters – God and Adam – are in the back-ground: God is passive and Adam pretty much invisible. Instead, two new actors – Eve (then unnamed) and the (until then unmentioned) serpent – are introduced as principal characters. Theirs is a fleeting scene: between them they only say a handful of words and some of those are quoting God. Yet the echos of this event thunder down through the ages, obscuring the First Story: we can now barely imagine life in Eden, walking and communing with our creator, without thinking of Eve and Adam’s folly. Ours is a view of a high mountain peak from deep in a shadowed valley.

When we thought and talked about God we did so from the shadows. Long ago we lost our footing and fell off the precipice. David wrote of the ‘valley of the shadow of death’ (Psalm 23.4). We could only look up, and when we did so we saw the silhouette of a dragon circling far above, casting its shadow over us and obscuring our view of the sky. Between us and God was a dragon, ‘that serpent of old’ (Rev 12.9, 20.2).

So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their endings (Bilbo Baggins in the Hobbit)

This changed after the first Easter. Through his life, death, and resurrection Jesus overcame the separation, the expanse between humanity and God. After Easter humans could both know God and know about God in a way that they could not before. Theology as we know it was born. We can know God because he has revealed himself to us through Jesus (Hebrews 1.3a). The historical reality of Jesus, then, makes theology possible. But what  if you don’t believe in Jesus?

Theologians refer to the noetic effect of sin on the human intellect (from the Greek noe?tikos, relating to mental activity or the intellect). The human intellect is affected by sin. This effect is overcome by the work of Jesus in the life of the believer, but not the non-believer. Abraham Kuyper wrote that ‘regeneration [salvation] breaks humanity into two’ – the regenerated mind and the non-regenerated mind (Moroney, 1999:434). While Emil Brunner added that, ‘the more we are dealing with the inner nature of man, with his attitude to God, and the way in which he is determined by God, it is evident that this sinful illusion becomes increasingly dominant’ (439). That is, Christians can both know God and about God because God, through Jesus, has regenerated their minds, while non-believers cannot because their minds remain un-regenerated.

He who fights too long against dragons becomes a dragon himself, and if you gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze into you (Friedrich Nietzsche).

Consider the following words from some secular thinkers. Protagoras, an epistemological agnostic,  wrote that, ‘concerning the gods….many things prevent knowledge including the obscurity of the subject and the brevity of human life’ (On the Gods). Thomas Paine, the American revolutionary, charged that ‘the study of theology…is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it provides no authorities…it admits of no conclusion’ (The Age of Reason). Ludwig Feuerbach, the atheist philosopher, suggested that Christianity was a ‘web of contradictions and delusions’ (The Essence of Christianity). While the logical-positivist A. J. Ayer wrote that ‘all utterances about the nature of God are nonsensical’ (Critique of Ethics and Theology).

Meanwhile author and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who clearly hasn’t read much good theology, accuses theology of never being of the ‘smallest use to anybody’ and only talking about ‘pestilence as the wages of sin.’ In his opinion theology is an empty ideology: ‘The achievements of theologians don’t do anything, don’t affect anything, don’t achieve anything, don’t even mean anything. What makes you think that ‘theology’ is a subject at all?’ (Scientific Versus Theological Knowledge). (Perhaps Dawkins should check the history of both his profession and institution.)

But does this mean that the non-believer can have no theological insight? No. It is probably better to understand it in general terms rather than an precise statement true in every situation. There has been some very flawed theology from redeemed minds (by ‘redeemed’ I do not mean ‘perfect’) just as there has been some good theological insight from unredeemed minds.

The Dutch Reformed Church’s (DRC) support of apartheid in South Africa is an example of believers getting theology very wrong. Founded in 1652, it was the theological teaching of the DRC that some races were superior to others that helped pave the way for racial segregation in South Africa. It needs to be noted that while the DRC was expelled from the World Alliance of Reformed Churches in the 1980s (an action that showed that other churches believed the theology, on this point, to be wrong), it was re-admitted in 1986 for welcoming black members and preaching that all members of all racial groups should meet and pray together.

St. Augustine wrote that ‘the Platonists realized that God is the creator from whom all other beings derive’ (City of God, VIII, 6). This is a theological insight. The Platonists were not  Christians, though Augustine seemed to have suggested as much, yet they came to a conclusion compatible with a simple reading of Genesis. Paul wrote in Romans 1.19, which Augustine quoted regarding the Platonists, that, ‘what can be known about God is plain…because God has made it plain…’ Perhaps the Platonists were such ardent searches for the truth that God made plain that which they sought? Either way these non-Christians came to the same conclusion as Christians regarding Creation: that one god did it – though they didn’t know which one.    

It might be deemed by some as offensive to hold that non-believers have un-regenerated minds, and it may be so, but some of those un-regenerated minds have no problem accusing believers of stupidity – surely a more offensive claim.

Different conclusions are reached about God because different people are coming from diametrically opposed positions – a point that needs to be remembered. One position says that there is a god, and that that god has revealed himself through Jesus two thousand years ago. Another position sees the notion of a god as foolish from the beginning, and comes to very different conclusions: Richard Dawkins even suggests that Jesus would have been an atheist had he lived today. One mind sees the son of God, the other sees merely another muggle.    

References:

Moroney, S. K. (1999). How Sin Affects Scholarship: A New Model. Christian Scholar’s Review , XXVIII(3), 432-451.     

Foetus in the womb

The Ethics of Abortion: A Pro-life Perspective (Pt 3)

Welcome back for Part 3 of this series, in which I’m presenting a pro-life case against abortion. To recap, in Part 1 we examined the controversy surrounding abortion, and I argued that the rightness or wrongness of abortion rests predominantly on the nature of the unborn. This was expressed with the question “what is the unborn?”. In Part 2, I offered the following argument for the pro-life position:

  1. It is wrong to intentionally take the life of an innocent human being.
  2. Abortion intentionally takes the life of an innocent human being.
  3. Therefore, abortion is wrong.

I then defended the second point with scientific evidence, demonstrating that the unborn is undeniably a human being. In this post, I’ll examine a further distinction that’s sometimes offered to justify abortion; namely, the distinction between a human being and a person. As we continue, I’ll offer reasons to think that this distinction cannot be sustained, and offer a better explanation of human value.


Do you believe that all human beings have a right to life? If so, then you should adopt a pro-life view on abortion. As we’ve seen, the unborn is a distinct, living, and whole human being, which means that if all human beings have a right to life, then the unborn has a right to life. To say that someone has a right to life is simply to say that they have a right not to be killed without sufficient justification. Since elective abortion kills the unborn without sufficient justification, it follows that it violates his or her rights.

Of course, this entails that abortion is wrong—an undesirable inference for many. As such, pro-choice advocates have forged a path that avoids this conclusion. By abandoning the idea that all human beings have a right to life and embracing instead the idea that only some do, we can put the unborn in the category of “human beings without a right to life”, and thus deny that abortion violates those rights.


Do all human beings have a right to life?

When presented with this question, it’s reasonable to suppose that most people would intuitively answer “yes”. However, many ethicists who argue in favour of abortion contend that this isn’t the case. Rather, they propose a distinction between a human being and a human person. The former does not possess a right to life, while the latter does. As such, it is morally permissible to kill a human being but not a human person.

If we consider this line of reasoning in relation to pro-life argument offered above, we can see that it constitutes a denial of the first point (it’s wrong to intentionally take the life of an innocent human being). Rather, proponents of this view hold that it’s morally permissible to kill human beings—as long as they’re not persons. Applied to abortion, this reasoning tells us that it is not wrong to kill the unborn human being if they are not yet persons.

This raises an obvious question: what makes human persons different from human beings? How can we tell the difference? In response, pro-choice advocates have suggested a number of criteria that ostensibly grant human beings personhood and thus a right to life. You’ve probably heard of a few of them: consciousness, brain waves, human appearance, size, viability, desires, etc. It’s argued that human beings who have brain waves, or who look like mature human beings, or who have the capacity for desires etc., are persons; all others are not. In this way, personhood is granted to human beings who perform some function or have some capacity. We can refer to this position as the “functional view” of personhood.

At first blush, the functional view may seem reasonable. However, many scholars contend that it leads to overwhelming difficulties. As it’s well beyond the scope of this post, I’m not going to address each of the proffered criteria of the functional view individually. Rather, I’ll point out a major problem with this view, and leave references in the endnotes for those who wish to pursue the topic further[i].

One of the greatest difficulties with the functional view is that the criteria offered to distinguish persons from mere humans either exclude obvious examples of persons, or include obvious examples of non-persons. Let me explain. If we know that an individual is a person, and a personhood-criterion excludes that individual, then the criterion must be mistaken. Similarly, if we know that an entity is not a person, and a personhood-criterion includes that entity, then the criterion must, once again, be mistaken. For example, if we know that a comatose human being is a person, yet our criterion tells us he/she is not, then we must abandon the criterion. On the other hand, if our criterion tells us that a cow is a person, and we know that it is not, we have ample grounds to reject that criterion.


The SLED Test

In his book The Moral Question of Abortion, Stephen Schwarz[ii] offers a succinct method of summarising and demonstrating this problem. His method is known as the SLED Test. In the SLED test, each of the various criteria proposed by proponents of the functional view are grouped into one of four categories: size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency. Take the first letter of each of these headings, and you have the acronym SLED. By reflecting on these categories, we can see that none of these attributes (or the lack thereof) provide good reason to kill human beings at the foetal stage, but not at a further developed stage.

  • Size

Some pro-choice advocates have suggested that the unborn is too small to be a person and therefore to possess a right to life. However, an 8-year-old child is smaller than a 30-year-old adult, yet it would be absurd to suppose that therefore the child has less of a right to life than the adult. I’m taller than my wife, my dad, my mum, and my sisters, but that doesn’t make me more of a person than they are. Defining personhood in terms of size would commit us to believing that I am, and therefore size is not an adequate criterion.

  • Level of Development

Others argue that the unborn is not developed enough to be the subject of rights—perhaps the unborn isn’t a person because they haven’t reached a certain level of physical development. However, toddlers, teenagers, and adults are all more developed than infants—but that doesn’t mean they have a greater right to life. Furthermore, if physical development determines personhood, then what level of development is sufficient? If a particular stage or bodily state can be identified, why accept that stage/state rather than another? What’s unique about it that makes it the defining moment when a human being becomes a person with rights?

Another stage of development at which human beings are thought to gain value is the stage at which they become conscious/self-aware. It’s said that persons are human beings who are conscious, and, since the unborn is not conscious, the unborn is not a human person. However, if this is true, then infants and comatose adults aren’t persons either, as they aren’t self-aware. Furthermore, sleep is an unconscious state, yet it would be absurd to think we can kill human beings while they sleep because they lose their rights when they lose consciousness. Finally, many animals are more conscious than new-born babies. Are we to forbid killing the former but allow killing the latter?

  • Environment

Another distinction said to disqualify unborn human beings from personhood is environment or location. According to this view, the unborn is located within another person’s body, and therefore is not a human person. However, we know that your value as a human being doesn’t change when you cross the street, fly to China, or roll over in bed. Why, then, should we think that the unborn suddenly becomes a human person when she travels through her mother’s birth canal? A new-born infant is, after all, identical to herself before birth, except she’s in a different location. Moreover, on this view a 39-week unborn child would not be a person, but a prematurely delivered 25-week infant would be. This, however, seems arbitrary and counter-intuitive, indicating that environment is irrelevant when determining value.

  • Degree of Dependency

Finally, others have suggested that human beings become persons when they become viable; that is, when they don’t depend on others or on certain equipment or medication for their survival. Thus, the unborn is only a person once it can survive outside the womb. Once again, however, this criterion excludes an array of human beings whom we know are valuable persons. On this view, the patient whose life depends on insulin or kidney medication would no longer be a person, elderly folk who require the assistance of carers would no longer have rights, and conjoined twins who share bodily systems could be killed without justification.

To compound the problem, viability is technologically dependent. With current technology, foetuses are viable at an earlier stage of development than they were before the modern era. Are we to think that foetuses developing in modern times are persons at 22 weeks of pregnancy while foetuses at that same stage prior to modernity were not? Surely not. As such, viability is not a good reason to attribute value to the unborn.


A Better Explanation[iii]

Clearly the functional view of personhood raises numerous questions and poses apparently insurmountable difficulties. It seems inadequate due to its inability to account for our moral intuitions regarding human value. By “moral intuitions” I mean moral truths that we perceive without having to extensively reflect or deliberate about it; for example, that it’s wrong to kill people in comas, or people who depend on medication for their continued existence. Rather, it makes more sense to say that humans are valuable persons with a right to life in virtue of the type of creature they are. Human beings have intrinsic value simply because they are human. On this view, comatose persons are valuable because they are living human beings. Infants, though not self-aware, nonetheless have a right to life because of the kind of creature they are. The unborn, though smaller, less developed, in a different environment, and more dependent than other human beings, is a valuable person in virtue of its humanity. 

If the case I’ve offered in Parts 1 – 3 of this series is sound, then abortion is wrong. As we’ve seen, the moral permissibility of abortion depends on what the unborn entity is. If the unborn is a human being, and it’s wrong to kill innocent human beings, then abortion is wrong. Science demonstrates that the unborn is a human being, and therefore if all human beings have a right to life, then the unborn has a right to life. Finally, the inability of the functional view of personhood to account for our intuitions suggests the following: if we want to embrace human equality, then we should ground it in the only thing that all humans share equally, namely, their human nature. We should embrace all human beings, defending most vigorously the rights of the weakest and most vulnerable among us—the unborn.


 

Citations/Endnotes:

[i] Helpful resources include Chapter 6 of Francis Beckwith’s book Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice, session 4 of Making Abortion Unthinkable, an audio set by Stand to Reason, Chapters 2 – 4 of Scott Klusendorf’s book The Case for Life, and Christopher Kaczor’s book The Ethics of Abortion: Women’s Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice.

[ii] Schwarz, S. D. (1990). The moral question of abortion, pp. 15-19. Chicago: Loyola University Press.

[iii] For more on this view of human value, see Chapter 6 of Francis Beckwith’s book Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice, or click here for an informative lecture by Scott Klusendorf.