Category Archives: Apologetics

PODCAST: Finding Jesus in the Jewish Feasts

Discussion of the biblical feasts, (Passover, Unleavened Bread, Firstfruits, Pentecost, Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, and Tabernacles) their spiritual lessons, and how they point forward to Christ.

Audio:
http://www.cantus-firmus.com/Audio/20170420-FindingJesusintheJewishFeasts.mp3

Music:
“The Itis” by Polyrhythmics. Licensed under CC BY 3.0
http://www.needledrop.co/wp/artists/polyrhythmics/

 

PODCAST: Make Christianity Weak Again – Toward a Biblical Worldview of Political Involvement

I examine biblical data on the origin and purpose of government and contrast it with the traditional right and left wing outlooks as classically formulated by Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine and carried on to this day, arguing that there is some validity in both approaches, but that the biblical worldview differs in some significant respects. I ultimately seize on the idea that Christians should prefer to live in something more akin to a libertarian society.

The histories of the Christian left and right are also briefly discussed.

Audio:
http://www.cantus-firmus.com/Audio/20170307MakeChristianityWeakAgain.mp3

Essay:
http://www.cantus-firmus.com/eBooks/MakeChristianityWeakAgain.pdf

PODCAST: Daniel Was a Man – the Historicity of the Prophet Daniel

A brief look at the Old Testament book of Daniel, its late date by critical scholars, and arguments for the early date which it claims of itself.

Podcast link:
http://www.cantus-firmus.com/Audio/20161223-DanielWasaMan.mp3

Music:
“The Itis” by Polyrhythmics. Licensed under CC BY 3.0
http://www.needledrop.co/wp/artists/polyrhythmics/

PODCAST: For Three Redactions, Even for Four — Amos and the Documentary Hypothesis

As an addendum to the previous podcast discussing the Documentary Hypothesis and the Pentateuch,  I recorded this brief excursus on the book of Amos to see how the Documentary Hypothesis shapes how critical scholars read it and imagine how it might have evolved over time through various redactions. Included is some discussion on the circularity of such proposals.

Podcast link:
http://www.cantus-firmus.com/Audio/20161123-DocumentaryHypothesisandAmos.mp3

Music:
“The Itis” by Polyrhythmics. Licensed under CC BY 3.0
http://www.needledrop.co/wp/artists/polyrhythmics/

Erasmus on the “Problem of the Turk”

I recently came across a small treatise by the 16th century Christian humanist Desiderius Erasmus–the same Erasmus who gave us the Textus Receptus (the New Testament in its Greek printed edition) and The Praise of Folly. The treatise is entitled Against War and I found in it a parallel to the attitude of much of western Christiantiy today. Erasmus speaks of those Christians who desired to blot out the Turks to stop the advancement of Islam upon Christian territories and proposes a different solution to the “problem of the Turk” which he found to be more Christlike:

“Nor to me truly it seemeth not so allowable, that we should so oft make war upon the Turks. Doubtless it were not well with the Christian religion, if the only safeguard thereof should depend on such succours. Nor it is not likely, that they should be good Christians, that by these means are brought thereto at the first. For that thing that is got by war, is again in another time lost by war. Will ye bring the Turks to the faith of Christ? Let us not make a show of our gay riches, nor of our great number of soldiers, nor of our great strength. Let them see in us none of these solemn titles, but the assured tokens of Christian men: a pure, innocent life; a fervent desire to do well, yea, to our very enemies; the despising of money, the neglecting of glory, a poor simple life. Let them hear the heavenly doctrine agreeable to such a manner of life. These are the best armours to subdue the Turks to Christ. . .

“Trow ye it is a good Christian man’s deed to slay a Turk? For be the Turks never so wicked, yet they are men, for whose salvation Christ suffered death. And killing Turks we offer to the devil most pleasant sacrifice, and with that one deed we please our enemy, the devil, twice: first because a man is slain, and again, because a Christian man slew him.”

-Desiderius Eramus, Against War

PODCAST: A Priest and a Deuteronomist Walk Into a Bar – the Documentary Hypothesis

documentary hypothesis

We examine the Documentary Hypothesis of the Pentateuch–the idea that the first five books of the Bible did not originate with Moses but were originally at least four distinct written sources edited together by a later redactor. We also highlight the problems with this view. My co-host was Jackson Ferrell who can be found (among other places) at https://chocolatebook.wordpress.com/ and https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCApG0JBkT6PzJEWLMZ0IZOw

Podcast link:
http://www.cantus-firmus.com/Audio/20161017-DocumentaryHypothesis.mp3

Music:
“The Itis” by Polyrhythmics. Licensed under CC BY 3.0
http://www.needledrop.co/wp/artists/polyrhythmics/

PODCAST: The Transcendence Argument – The Self-Disclosure of the God of Israel

Piggybacking on the ideas of Yehezkel Kaufmann and John Oswalt, this argument builds on the uniqueness of the ancient Israelite claims about the divine to show that such a perspective could only have come about through divine revelation. My co-host was Jackson Ferrell who can be found (among other places) at https://chocolatebook.wordpress.com/ and https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCApG0JBkT6PzJEWLMZ0IZOw

Podcast link:
http://www.cantus-firmus.com/Audio/20160919-TranscendenceArgument.mp3

Resources mentioned:
Yehezkel Kaufmann’s The Religion of Israel:
https://www.amazon.com/Religion-Israel-Beginnings-Babylonian-Exile/dp/0805203648/

John Oswalt’s The Bible Among the Myths:
https://www.amazon.com/Bible-among-Myths-Revelation-Literature/dp/0310285097/

John D. Currid’s Against the Gods:
https://www.amazon.com/Against-Gods-Polemical-Theology-Testament/dp/1433531836/

Tom Gilson’s counter-argument to the Jesus legend theory:
https://www.thinkingchristian.net/posts/2014/05/the-story-of-jesus-is-unimaginably-great-therefore-its-true/

How Jesus’ New Covenant Priesthood Fulfills the Promises of God to Israel

At this point in history Christian evangelism to the Jewish people is something of a minefield. Because Christian-identifying gentiles have so often oppressed Jews, any attempt to proselytize has, to many Jews, become synonymous with anti-semitism—a kind of spiritual pogrom. In addition, it is not uncommon for traditional Jews to accuse Jewish Christians of self-hatred and of abandoning their people to join an oppressor. For many of these traditional Jews, becoming a Jewish Christian is more shameful than becoming a Jewish atheist.

As grievous as the church’s antisemitism has sometimes been, and as understandable as it is for Jews to be wary of the Christian faith, whether or not self-identifying Christians have been antisemites is not logically connected with whether or not the Christian faith is itself antisemitic, let alone with whether or not it is un-Jewish to accept it as one’s own. To underline this point, it would be advantageous for us to go back before the antisemitism in the church to the days of Jesus’ Jewish apostles. When we do, we fill find in a New Testament document entitled “The Epistle to the Hebrews” an argument centered in Tanakh (the so-called Old Testament) that the acceptance of Jesus as Messiah is the logical outworking of the acceptance of God’s Tanakh. Though other Jewish (and gentile) Christians made various arguments to this effect, the author of this epistle’s argument focuses on the fact that Jesus’ covenant has a better priesthood, covenant, sacrifice, and ministry than that in the covenant made through Moses. More than that, he establishes that the Tanakh itself points to the fact that these Mosaic ordinances were only temporary until the coming of Jesus the Messiah.

A Better Priesthood

In chapter 7 of this epistle our author highlights a priesthood which predates Levi’s—that of Melchizedek, king of Salem.1 Melchizedek was a priest of God whom Abraham gave tithe to;2 and since Levi was still, so to speak, in the loins of his great-grandfather Abraham, this means that in some sense the entire Levitical line paid tithe to Melchizedek through Abraham. Of this man we know next to nothing. His birth, death, and ancestry are never even alluded to. And yet David, when writing of Messiah, said that the Lord had sworn of him, “you are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”3 This new prophesied priesthood, which is not by Levitical line but by oath of God, is the key to the author’s argument in this section. After all, if the Levitical priesthood was perfect and eternal, why would God mention another to come after it?

Although the great Rabbi Maimonides wrote that Jesus could not be Messiah since he caused the Torah to be altered,4 David’s prophecy of a new priesthood tells us differently. As our author tells us, “when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.”5 In other words, if David looked forward to a different priesthood, this means the old one was passing away. And since this priesthood was at the center of God’s Torah, and the Torah was at the center of the covenant, the priesthood of Messiah (whom both the Torah and the rabbis taught would be of the line of Judah, not Levi) would initiate a new covenant.

Although Melchizedek is only apparently immortal (since we never learn of his birth, death, or ancestry), the Messiah’s priesthood truly is eternal. This is one reason why His priesthood is superior to that of the Levites: “The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him.”6 An eternal priest is able to make intercession for his people to the end of the age.

More than this, “he has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself” (7:27). This underlines the fatal weakness of the old priesthood: its priests had to make offerings continuously. In contrast, Jesus’ sacrifice of Himself was final and fully efficacious, and His remaining priestly work consists of making intercession for those who draw near to him (7:25).

A Better Covenant

Now, if a change in the priesthood requires a change in the law, what has happened to the covenant which commands the keeping of the law?7 For this the author quotes at length (in chapter 8) from the prophet Jeremiah, who told the Jewish people, on behalf of God, that:

the days are coming… when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah… I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hears, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people… For I will be merciful to their iniquities and I will remember their sin no more.”8

It is important to note that this new covenant is not made with gentiles as if God would abandon the Jewish people. It is instead a covenant made with the Jewish people but extended beyond the boundaries of ethnic Israel to the nations who are blessed through them This is why the Jewish apostle to the gentiles, Paul (also known as Saul or Shaul), wrote of a gospel which went “to the Jew first and also to the [gentile].”9 Furthermore, he warned gentile converts to Jesus as Messiah that if they thought of themselves as superior to the Jewish people, who are God’s “tree” by nature, God would remove the gentiles (branches which were not natural but grafted in) from His people.10 This teaching undermines the rabbinic narrative that Christianity, properly practiced, is part and parcel with the gentile abuse of the Jewish people just as it undermines the claim of any antisemite to be a Christian in good standing.

In any case, an obvious question presents itself here: if a new covenant is spoken of, where does that leave the old one? According to the author of this epistle, “in speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.”11

This does not suggest that the Tanakh is useless. As the Jewish believer in Jesus, Adolph Saphir, wrote:

And yet no portion of Scripture can ever become antiquated, losing its instructiveness, significance, and value. No period of the history of God’s people, no type, no institution, no event of any dispensation, can be forgotten; nothing that God has said, given, or done, will be lost. For the eternal Spirit, who saw the end from the beginning, hath so ordered it that the whole Scripture ministers unto all generations of His people, that as the fathers cannot be made perfect without the children, so the children who are privileged to see the better things provided for them by God are gathered unto the fathers, and blessed with the ancient household of faith…”12

It is not that what God had revealed through Moses was useless, but that it anticipated what He would reveal through Christ. In the case of the covenant, it looked forward to a new covenant, spoken of by the prophet Jeremiah, where sins would be cleansed fully by a different kind of high priest and the law of God would be written on our hearts instead of on tablets of stone.13

A Better Sacrifice

If the priesthood has changed, and the covenant with it, what kind of sacrifice remains for sins? Although it is common for the rabbis to claim that prayers will have to substitute for our offerings until the temple is rebuilt, the author of this epistle gives an answer which is much more tightly integrated into the fibers of the Tanakh. Indeed, our author reminds us that, “the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”14 If the basis for both our forgiveness and for the Mosaic covenant is sacrificial blood, and the Mosaic covenant can no longer offer blood sacrifices, there must be a new covenant if there is to be forgiveness of sins.

In chapter 9 our author summarizes the procedure of sacrifice for Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). On this day alone could someone enter into the full presence of God in the temple’s most holy place, and even then only the high priest. This mediator, “entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance.”15 Upon this fact our author hangs his most essential point. This sacrifice obviously could not perfect either the priest or the people since (1) it had to be offered over and over and (2) it could not open the way into the most holy place, and the presence of God, for all. The Day of Atonement was centered around an imperfect priest making imperfect sacrifices for a people who were not perfected by them. This doesn’t make those sacrifices useless, however. They served their purpose at the time they were given. But if this is so, “how much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!”16 Through the final and perfect sacrifice of Jesus the Messiah, we may have complete forgiveness of sins and the Spirit of God motivating our motives, actions, and intentions.

Ministry

For our author, the old covenant sacrificial system pointed to something greater to come. If the new covenant, priesthood, and sacrifices are better, then the ministry which our high priest performs on behalf of his people is as well. Since the New Covenant was established upon better promises, then also “the ministry Jesus has received [is] superior” as well.17 Why? In summary, because:

Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. Otherwise Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.”18

Final Thoughts

What is the application for those living today? Because of what Jesus did, “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all”19 and “we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body.”20 Furthermore, we may be grateful that God fulfilled what was only a shadow in his beautiful Torah, forgiving us of our sin by the ministry of our New Covenant High Priest and by making a way to cleanse our conscience from sins once for all.

1. Or, more literally, King of Righteousness, King of Peace.

2. See Genesis 14.

3. Psalm 110:4, ESV. All additional biblical citations are from the ESV.

4. See his work The Laws Concerning the Messiah.

5. Hebrews 7:12.

6. Hebrews 7:23-25.

7. As we read in Exodus 24:7, “Then [Moses] took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.‘”

8. Hebrews 8:8-12, quoting from Jeremiah chapter 31.

9. Romans 1:16.

10. Romans 11:16-21.

11. Hebrew 8:13.

12. Saphir, The Epistle to the Hebrews: An Exposition, Kindle edition.

13. Compare the giving of the Old Covenant law in Exodus 19-20 to the inauguration of the New Covenant by the writing of God’s law on the heart in Acts 2, both taking place on Shavuot or the Feast of Weeks.

14. Hebrews 9:22.

15. Hebrews 9:7.

16. Hebrews 9:14.

17. Hebrews 8:6.

18. Hebrews 9:24-26.

19. Hebrews 10:10.

20. Hebrews 10:19-20. See also Matthew 27:51, which tells us that at the time of Jesus’ death, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.”

The Gospel According to Batman V Superman

Fresh from the theater after having seen Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, I have been reflecting upon one particularly fascinating theme within it. In a far more thoughtful and sophisticated manner than the vast majority of overtly “Christian” movies, this film promotes a theology–even a gospel.

Warning: some spoilers ahead.

From the outset, I want to point out that this isn’t a theologian finding theology where it wasn’t intended. Indeed, Lex Luthor (of all people) reiterates explicitly and repeatedly that what transpires in this film points to something greater–the problem of evil and man’s relationship to God.

Luthor provides the viewpoint of the unrepentant cynic. Superman is odious because he resembles God and God cannot be trusted. If God couldn’t prevent the suffering of a young, abused Lex, better for God to die (or at least his proxy). Luthor therefore attempts to orchestrate deicide against Superman, first by the hands of man (Batman) and then by the hands of the devil (Doomsday).

The answer to Lex’s supposedly unsolvable problem of evil comes out of left field. How does a seemingly omnipotent and omnibenevolent God respond to evil, particularly when it results in free human beings who want to kill him despite His desire to save them? He identifies with their humanity and gives his life in order to defeat him who has the power of death (in this case, Doomsday). In doing so, he inspires conversion in men (represented here by Batman) who for the first time see God as loving–and pure love means being willing to suffer for the good of the beloved even though the lover doesn’t have to.

If God is willing to suffer with us, maybe our suffering isn’t as meaningless as we think it is. This seems to be the catharsis of Bruce Wayne. When Wayne sees Superman as powerful and alien, Superman (like God) seems quite dangerous. But when Wayne realizes that Superman has taken on humanity and even feels a love for his human mother as great as Wayne did, this changes him. Suddenly Wayne is overwhelmed with compassion–with empathy even–and helps Superman to rescue his mother from the clutches of Luthor. One can hear echoes of Jesus’ words to John on the cross to take care of Mary: “Behold, your mother!” (John 19:27).

This theology addresses what bothered so many fanboys about this movie–Batman’s willingness to kill. In this reading, it makes sense for Batman to kill for most of the movie–life is ultimately meaningless to him, so he creates his own purpose. It is Superman’s love and sacrifice that changes Batman, not a cold, deontological ethic grounded in passionless conviction. Despite what the enlightenment deists affirmed, it is not philosophy which makes us good but love. After seeing Superman’s self-identification and self-sacrifice to save humanity from death, Batman is determined to be a better man. This is the reason why he decides not to brand Luthor in prison, a brand which we are told sets inmates apart for death by the hands of fellow prisoners.

Though it has to be teased out, there is a rich theology in this film which is frankly unparalleled by what the Christian film industry is producing. It presents a gospel which is somehow more moving and more compelling despite not having to be spelled out.

Christian Involvement in Politics Is Not a Zero-Sum Game

When Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman Empire in 380 (after being granted the status of an approved religion by Emperor Constantine in 313 A.D), believers found themselves responding in one of two ways. Some basked in their new found power and luxury, holding it over the now disenfranchised class of pagans. We’ll call them the Constantinians. Others, the monastics, sought to check out of this new institutionally supported Christianity which they saw as sensual and double-minded. These extremes ignored a third option–to simply participate in society as one group among many and allow evangelization to happen through freely established relationships instead of coercion which mitigates against sincerity on the part of the coerced. This model was at least implicitly affirmed by the New Testament writers who demanded no revolution but only asked for toleration and freedom to worship and evangelize.

This false dilemma was recapitulated at the time of the Protestant Reformation, during which time the Roman Catholics and Magisterial Protestants sought to crush religious dissent via the power of the state while the Anabaptists went into hiding and designated Christian participation within the larger society, and particularly in politics, as sinful.

Fast forward to the summer of 2015 in the United States. The U.S. Supreme Court has decided that same sex marriage is a civil right. Prior to (and precipitating) this ruling, the majority of confessing evangelicals and Roman Catholics had demanded that their government maintain in the law a Christian value judgment on marriage which they were not willing to replace with a more pluralistic non-religious entitlement such as civil unions. After the ruling, with one new view of marriage backed by the force of the state, Christians are increasingly anxious that this new entitlement will lead to government discrimination against Christians.

For these Constantinian Christians, politics is a zero-sum game. If a non-Christian group gains something, this means Christians have lost something. The debate over gay marriage was set up intentionally to be this kind of arrangement, but the risk of becoming a displaced special class was considered worth it if it meant that their side might prevail.

That the debate over gay marriage was nothing more than a power play can be demonstrated by comparing how conservative Christians compare this ruling with other, more egregious ones. For instance, the Dred Scott Decision which came down from the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857, declaring that slaves did not have the same rights as free persons and thus undermining the Christian belief in human equality before God, is not generally considered to be a loss for Christianity because Christians as a group lost no political power. But as power has now been wrested from the hands of Constantinian Christianity, American Christians are saying, as one evangelical writer did, “I am horribly grieved that a lifestyle that is so contrary to Christian morality is being celebrated in a country that once honored Christian values.”

It is, of course, not Christian values which America has honored, but Christian hegemony, even if it comes at the risk of sacrificing Christian values. As such, American Christians generally believe that there are two options open to them in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision–fight for the return of their political power or remove themselves from society.

May I humbly suggest that we still have a third option?