Category Archives: Christology

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: 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/

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.”

Fighting Injustice, Condemning Violence: Jesus’ Gospel of Social Justice and Restoration

(the previous title for this post was
“What Does Easter Sunday Have To Do With Social Liberation?”)

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’”

– Luke 4:16-21, ESV

Though the idea of a “social gospel” has been (often rightly) condemned by conservative Christians, there are elements in such a view which are actually central to the biblical message. Note that in the passage above, Jesus’ first announcement of His mission is one of social liberation. Though one could arguably read between the lines to find it, there is no discussion of  traditional views of atonement (how it is that Jesus saves us) like Penal Substitution or even of the conquering of death in this announcement. The “year of the Lord’s favor” that Jesus speaks of is the Mosaic year of Jubilee, wherein the debts of those who had fallen into hard times would simply be wiped away and those who had sold themselves into slavery to pay for their debts would likewise all be freed. In other words, Jesus’ first explanation of His earthly ministry is connected to upending oppressive social systems.

Jesus liberating the oppressed also flows from the idea of recapitulation (a view of atonement propounded by the church father Irenaeus, wherein Jesus reverses what Adam did by initiating a new humanity in Himself). Oppression is a symptom of the sin which mankind is responsible for, and Jesus came to undo this oppression. Much to our surprise, He did so by becoming a helpless human baby born of a Jewish peasant in a land overrun by pagan conquerors; He then chose to die at their hand in order to free others. As noted at the end of the previous chapter, Paul taught in Philippians chapter 2 that the incarnation by itself was an act of supreme humility when undertaken by an omnipotent deity. God’s identification with humanity, apart from any explicit teaching, underlines His concern for the weak and lowly. That He chose to become incarnated into an oppressed class highlights it even more so. God identified Himself with the humble and oppressed, a concept pregnant with theological meaning.

This latent meaning is revealed, for instance, in Matthew 25, where Jesus claims that we will be judged based upon how we treated those who were less fortunate. Where there are those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned, or who are foreigners in a strange land, Jesus is present; so much so that to turn these away is to turn Jesus away. There is therefore grievous sin where there is wealth and power without concern for those without, and this sin is under the judgment of God. Before Jesus was even born, His mother spoke of the theological impact of her pregnancy in this way:
“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty” (Luke 1:51-53, ESV).

That the cross had a socially liberative meaning is shown in how John the Revelator looked at history through its lens. In Revelation 13:4, a beast which is a composite of the beasts in Daniel 7 (which all represented various empires) oppresses the people of God and is said to be empowered by Satan, who was/will be defeated by the blood which was shed by Jesus (Revelation 12:11).

The ultimate fate of the beast and of the oppressive politico-military power he uses and represents is described in Revelation 19:
“And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against him who was sitting on the horse [Jesus] and against his army. And the beast was captured… and thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. And the rest were slain by the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse, and all the birds were gorged with their flesh” (Revelation 19:19-21, ESV).

Though Revelation looks forward to Jesus dealing with the powers of evil most finally in destructive judgment, the amazing message of the New Testament is that on this side of judgment day, these powers have already been defeated, and that by the sacrificial—not violent—work of Christ. When Jesus rose from the dead after being murdered by the wicked power structures of his time and place, the inevitable conclusion was that man’s power structures, even with their ability to arrest and kill at will, had lost. Unrighteous authority has to use violence to bolster its power, but this violence, says the resurrection of Jesus, has failed. The power of death, the greatest power that any oppressor can use against its victims, has been taken away from Satan and from satanic authority structures. They have lost, regardless of whether or not they’re willing to acknowledge that fact.

Of course, the idea of God liberating the oppressed and conquering the oppressor is not one found only at the end of the Bible, but is indeed quite near the beginning. In Exodus 2:23, we read that the Hebrews, while slaves in Egypt, cried out in their oppression and God heard it. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman pointed out that the text does not say that the cry was addressed to God, but God was predisposed to hear it nonetheless:
“The slaves did not raise up a cry to God. But the cry had its own intentionality. The cry knew, all on its own, that it was precisely addressed to ‘God…’ The cry of the victim is central to the faith and practice of Israel… It is the oppressed human’s cry, in other words, that will unleash the chain of events that will ultimately result in your being punished… If you victimize someone, then that someone will cry out and [God] will have to act against you.”i

The Passover observance, which prefigures Christ, is a celebration of God’s deliverance of His people from slavery, though blood atonement to redeem their lives is also most certainly prominent. If we are to take this parallel at face value, Jesus as the fulfillment of Passover at least partially represents liberation of His people from social oppression. This imagery of the exodus of God’s people because of His redeeming acts is connected to Christ in the New Testament in various places, and Scot McKnight highlights one important example:
“When Jesus is transfigured, Luke tells us that Moses and Elijah speak of Jesus’ ‘departure,’ which translates the Greek word exodus (Luke 9:31). The ‘exodus’ death of Jesus leads his followers to freedom, and that freedom is what the kingdom is all about in Luke.”ii

It is also worth noting that concern for the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner are common throughout the Old Testament, so much so that it appears to be a primary preoccupation of God’s. Jeremiah 22:16 even goes so far as to connect supporting the cause of the poor and needy with knowing God. As Jurgen Moltmann wrote, “There must be no theology of liberation without the glorification of God and no glorification of God without the liberation of the oppressed.”iii

The prophet Daniel likewise looked forward to a day when the edifice of man’s system of oppressive power would come toppling down since it was built upon a shaky foundation—namely that which is in opposition to God’s rule. Daniel interpreted a vision which came to Babylon’s king wherein man’s kingdoms were represented as a great statue with many layers. This statue, which was described as “mighty” and “frightening” would suddenly meet a surprising fate:
“A stone was cut out by no human hand, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, all together were broken in pieces, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth” (Daniel 2:34-35, ESV).

The stone was Christ, and the mountain is the Kingdom of God which He preached:
“And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever” (Daniel 2:44, ESV).

Jesus does nothing to undermine this Old Testament concern for the poor and oppressed, let alone the idea that God’s kingdom would judge those who had used their power corruptly. In fact, He sometimes used language which suggested what Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian theologian who is generally viewed as the father of Liberation Theology, would call a strong “preferential option for the poor,” so that the wealthy often seem to be painted by Jesus as corrupt oppressors. Jesus’ identification with the poor is probably connected with the fact that they are some of the chief victims of a sinful world which He has come to set to rights:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied… But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry” (Luke 6:20-25, ESV).

Social justice is such a strong biblical emphasis that the fourth century church father Basil of Caesarea went so far as to argue that if one hasn’t given up one’s excess to those in need, this one’s salvation is questionable. To be a Christian means to be on the frontlines of combating social inequality:
“I know many who fast, pray, sigh, and demonstrate every manner of piety, so long as it costs them nothing, yet would not part with a penny to help those in distress. Of what profit to them is the remainder of their virtue? The Kingdom of Heaven does not receive such people, for ‘it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.’”iv

The vanguard of preaching the socially liberative dimensions of the good news are Liberation Theologians. Liberation Theology has much in common with a Christus Victor view of the atonement, except that instead of conquering death, the focus is on Jesus’ conquering of oppression by His identification with the poor and His judgment upon oppressive systems, and it is our job as Christ’s representatives to enact this liberation. Liberation Theologians Leonardo and Clodovis Boff explain the underlying idea for how the gospel message relates to the plight of the poor:
“Jesus Christ, second person of the Blessed Trinity, incarnated in our misery, revealed the divine plan that is to be realized through the course of history and to constitute the definitive future in eternity; the kingdom of God. The kingdom is not just in the future, for it is ‘in our midst’ (Luke 17:21); it is not a kingdom ‘of this world’ (John 18:36), but it nevertheless begins to come about in this world. The kingdom or reign of God means the full and total liberation of all creation, in the end, purified of all that oppresses it, transfigured by the full presence of God.”v

The Boffs rightly emphasize a “now and not yet” component of atonement that extends to social transformation. God has given us the seeds of social transformation, but the fullness of its growth comes about when God fully restores creation. Gutierrez gives this liberative definition of salvation, which emphasizes the “now” over the “not yet,” while holding them both in tension:
“Salvation—the communion of men with God and the communion of men among themselves—is something which embraces all human reality, transforms it, and leads it to its fullness in Christ: ‘Thus the center of God’s salvific design is Jesus Christ, who by his death and resurrection transforms the universe and makes it possible for man to reach fulfillment as a human being. This fulfillment embraces every aspect of humanity: body and spirit, individual and society, person and cosmos, time and eternity. Christ, the image of the Father and the perfect God-Man, takes on all the dimensions of existence…’ The absolute value of salvation—far from devaluing this world—gives it its authentic meaning and its own autonomy, because salvation is already latently there. To express the idea in terms of Biblical theology: the prophetic perspective (in which the Kingdom takes on the present life, transforming it) is vindicated before the sapiential outlook (which stresses the life beyond).” vi

By no means is Gutierrez original in his take on the present consequences of the Kingdom of God being inaugurated by Christ. The second century church apologist Justin Martyr pointed to Isaiah’s promise of a future kingdom where swords would be beat into plowshares and war would disappear as being, in at least one sense, fulfilled by Christians before the eschaton:
“And that it did so come to pass, we can convince you. For from Jerusalem there went out into the world, men, twelve in number, and these illiterate, of no ability in speaking: but by the power of God they proclaimed to every race of men that they were sent by Christ to teach to all the word of God; and we who formerly used to murder one another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also, that we may not lie nor deceive our examiners, willingly die confessing Christ.”vii

Jesus has redeemed our social relationships by breaking down the racial, social, and gender barriers between us (see Colossians 3:11 and Galatians 3:28) and by demonstrating that we have full equality both in that we are all deserving of death and that despite this Christ considers us to be his brothers. Since this is the case, we ought to seek for peace and the liberation of the lowly brother or sister from the shackles of institutionalized violence. If Jesus came to restore the created order, then our relationships with each other ought to be a part of what was/is/will-be redeemed by Him. N.T. Wright, noting the places where Jesus “saving” someone is applied to physical healing or rescue (for instance, Matthew 9:22), points out that, “this juxtaposition makes some Christians nervous (surely, they think, salvation ought to be a spiritual matter!), but it doesn’t seem to have troubled the early church at all.”viii They clearly had a broader idea of salvation that didn’t limit it to merely “spiritual” matters. Our evangelical church today is unfortunately far too Gnostic. In contrast, Martin Luther King, Jr. charged the church with the responsibility to make a difference in the oppression in the world around them:
“There was a time when the Church was very powerful. It was during that period when the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the Church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’ But they went on with the conviction that they were a ‘colony of heaven’ and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be ‘astronomically intimidated.’ They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest. Things are different now. The contemporary Church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the archsupporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the Church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the Church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.”ix

King pointed out that suffering Christians are powerful Christians because they follow in the path of Christ. Suffering should not be neurotically sought out, but where it cannot be avoided, the one who suffers with Christ has not been conquered because the suffering Christ has not been conquered. As Moltmann wrote, “In their hearts all true men worship one God – the naked, wounded, bloody, but unconquered and unconquerable Christ.”x It is the oppressor who has been conquered since that which is joined to Christ cannot be vanquished, while that which is not is fit only to be thrown into the fire. As the prophet Malachi, speaking for God, put it:
“I will be a swift witness against… those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.” (Malachi 3:5, ESV).

The tendency for Christianity’s scriptures to challenge our system of violencexi coalesced into a uniquely modern view of the atonement referred to as the scapegoat view, proposed by Re Girard, wherein society’s tendency to place blame on a scapegoat to whom they do violence is confronted when it results in murdering God. As pastor and author Brian Zahnd wrote:
“The cross is shock therapy for a world addicted to solving its problems through violence. The cross shocks us into the devastating realization that our system of violence murdered God! The things hidden from the foundation of the world have now been revealed. The cross shames our ancient foundation of violence. The cross strips naked the principalities and powers. The cross tears down the façade of glory that we use to hide the bodies of slain victims.”xii

While there is much truth in this, the biblical witness to the fact that God used the cross as a sacrificial atonement and as a means to conquer death, sin, and the devil must be brought in to balance such a view. Man’s sinful systems did murder God, but the sovereign God used our sin to achieve our salvation. Christ has already, in a sense, conquered the oppressor (whether human oppressors, death, or the devil), though this victory will not be fully realized until His second coming. As Paul told the Corinthian church:
“For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor 15:21-26, ESV).

Though Liberation Theology has some indispensable insights into the atonement and Jesus’ mission on earth, it also has a tendency for some dangerous imbalances. For instance, when the oppressed are identified with the poor and seen as incorruptible, and those with wealth and power are thought of as necessarily evil, the gospel fails to be relevant to all people as sinners in need of salvation. The gospel challenges us all in unique ways, but it still challenges all of us. The poor are not immune from sin, nor are the rich always necessarily greater sinners.xiii This false dichotomy probably emerges out of Marxism, which is unfortunately one of Liberation Theology’s major underlying extrabiblical influences.

Another danger of Liberation Theology is that it can have a relativizing effect on morality—the view of the oppressed can begin to be seen as the only moral viewpoint and they are therefore free to determine the proper moral course of action in enacting their earthly liberation. This, of course, in turn creates an oppressed class which is poised to become an oppressing class that is unwilling to listen to God’s challenge to their own sin. In other words, Liberation Theology, when taken by itself, has the capability of instilling the oppressor mentality into the oppressed.

When James Cone, father of Black Liberation Theology, comments that, “American theology is racist; it identifies theology as dispassionate analysis of ‘the tradition,’ unrelated to the sufferings of the oppressed,”xiv and notes that the cross of Christ was nothing less than a lynching tree,xv he is surely speaking truth to our tendency for hypocrisy, particularly when we have power or privilege to protect. But when he says, “we have reached our limit of tolerance, and if it means death with dignity or life with humiliation, we will choose the former. And if that is the choice, we will take some honkies with us,” one is immediately alerted to the fact that there is something in the Christian tradition which he disparages that is worth holding onto. In fact, it is our failure to apprehend the Christian tradition which leads to our siding with satanic power structures. If the idea that God created only one human species which now finds itself in desperate need of salvation is orthodoxy, then surely racism and classism are heresy. On the other hand, if Christ is our example for achieving our own liberation, then we must take note of the non-violent, non-retaliatory means by which He effected it.

In 1965 at the Cambridge Union Society of Cambridge University, James Baldwin argued the affirmative against William F. Buckley on the topic “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?” Baldwin demonstrated his case by highlighting how slavery helped to build the economic prosperity of the United States but that black Americans had still not benefited as white Americans had from their own labor. In contrast to the violent separatist rhetoric which was coming from some black Americans at the time (and understandably so from a human perspective), Baldwin did not argue for the intrinsic moral inferiority of the white oppressor, but highlighted their shared humanity:
“One of the things the white world does not know, but I think I know, is that black people are just like everybody else. We are also mercenaries, dictators, murders, liars. We are human, too.”xvi

With surprising empathy, he also mustered the insight to feel pity for the oppressor of his black brothers and sisters:
“What has happened to the white Southerner is in some ways much worse than what has happened to the Negroes there… Something awful must have happened to a human being [in this case, Sheriff Jim Clark of Selma, Alabama] to be able to put a cattle prod against a woman’s breasts. What happens to the woman is ghastly. What happens to the man who does it is in some ways much, much worse.”xvii

Though he could have argued from the good that we have in common to demonstrate that all humans are fellows, he chose, interestingly, to highlight the wicked tendencies which are in all of us. Had the roles been reversed, it could have easily been a black sheriff abusing a white woman. Depravity knows nothing of skin color– it affects us all equally.

Though it is out of the scope to address issues of Christian non-violence and how it doesn’t require acquiescence to evil (Walter Wink’s Nonviolence: A Third Way and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail are excellent, concise, popular level introductions to this philosophy), it is worth noting that Jesus destroyed the powers of evil not by “taking some honkies [in this case Roman soldiers and those Jews who held up their power] with Him.” He destroyed it by loving His enemies while still being radical in His truth-telling. This does not mean being obedient to sinful and dehumanizing laws or stuffing your dignity in your pocket, but it does mean that you never forget that you share a common humanity, spots and all, with an oppressor. As Baldwin noted elsewhere, “if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”xviii

And if our fallen nature makes us comrades, how much more our being joined to Christ as the fountainhead of our new humanity? As Paul argued in Ephesians 2:13-15, the wall of hostility between races has been broken down by the blood of Christ. We are not all different types of man, but one new man in Christ Jesus. Likewise Colossians 3:11 claims that Christ has made meaningless the categories which we invent to assist in our despising one another:
“Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (ESV). When Liberation Theologians are concerned with tearing down these walls to make us one man, they are living out the fruit of the gospel. Insofar as they play the game of Marxist dialectical struggle, imposing a dichotomy that must be erased through violent struggle, their solutions are not Christian solutions.

What we sometimes see in Liberation Theology is an unbalanced emphasis on Christ the Victor, or Christ the Conqueror. It is ironically the same view of Christ which has undergirded the dangerous theocracies of the past. Placing it in the hands of the oppressed does not somehow baptize it as Christian. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, urges us to achieve moral ends by only using moral means. Insofar as Liberation Theologians commend to us the tools of the oppressor (and by no means do all Liberation Theologians do this), there has been no liberation in the Christian sense. However, its insights are both timeless and timely. If Christ’s incarnation represents an identification with the lowly, His resurrection and exaltation are good news for the same, and those who are in power have an obligation to identify with them as well, lest they crucify Christ afresh with their apathy.

 

i. Walter Brueggeman, Old Testament Theology: An Introduction, Kindle Edition.

ii. Scot McKnight, A Community Called Atonement, Kindle Edition.

iii. Jurgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, Kindle Edition.

iv. St Basil the Great, On Social Justice (Popular Patristics Series Book 38), Kindle Edition.

v. Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology, p. 52.

vi. Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, Orbis Books, 1973, p. 151-2 . Note that this definition and explanation of salvation carries some of the essential qualities of Christian salvation (often those qualities which conservative theologians underemphasize), but it doesn’t emphasize the importance of sin, repentance, or Jesus’ death for sins. Because Liberation Theology’s primary concern is present social liberation, the means by which we are reconciled to God takes a back seat.

vii. Justin Martyr, First Apology, Ch. 39. Cited from www.ccel.org.

viii. N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope, Kindle Edition.

ix. Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

x. Jurgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, Kindle Edition.

xi. See, for instance, my own discussion of the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk at http://www.cantus-firmus.com/?p=496.

xii. http://brianzahnd.com/2015/03/jesus-addressed-congress/

xiii. When God judged Israel and Judah, He did not spare the poor, as they were often just as actively engaged in wickedness and injustice as their wealthy counterparts (Jeremiah 16:6, 11-12).

xiv. James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, Kindle Edition.

xv. Note his recent book title, The Cross and the Lynching Tree.

xvi. From a transcript in The New York Times’ March 7, 1965 article “The American Dream and the American Negro.”

xvii. ibid.

xviii. James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, Kindle Edition.

The New Testament’s Relationship to the Old Testament (with discussion of typology, the relationship between law and grace, and theonomy)

One of the perennial difficulties in Christian theology is the relationship of the Old Testament to the New. Perhaps the strongest proponent for discontinuity between the Testaments, Marcion the second century Gnostic, famously rejected the Old Testament revelation as canon and removed Old Testament references from the New Testament writings to create a fiercely anti-Hebrew canon. This would have been difficult work indeed, since G.K. Beale, referencing a personal study by Roger Nicole, noted, “295 separate quotations of the OT in the NT (including quotations with and without formulas). These make up about 4.5 percent of the entire NT, about 352 verses. Thus 1 out of 22.5 verses in the NT incorporates a quotation.”1 It is no surprise then that C.H. Dodd claimed that the Old Testament formed the essential substructure of the New.2 If the New Testament authors were so eager to quote the Old Testament, this raises the question of how they viewed it and used it in their writings. Did they seek to argue that the revelation of Jesus Christ was in major continuity or discontinuity with the Old Testament? Were their citations of the Old Testament to support New Testament ideas exegetically warranted, or were their concepts being read into writings which were fundamentally against the message they were seeking to disseminate? In this essay, I hope to show that the key to understanding how these two bodies of writing relate can be discerned by how the New Testament writers used the Old Testament.

To begin with, there are numerous Old Testament passages referenced in the New Testament as direct prophecies of Christ. For instance, Acts 8:32-33 quotes Isaiah 53:7-8 and claims that Isaiah’s suffering servant prophecy was really of Jesus. More interesting for our purposes are those passages which seem to claim that Christ is recapitulating Old Testament figures. Paul, for instance, claims that Jesus fully reversed the curse that Adam brought upon humanity (Romans 5:12-21, 1 Corinthians 15:22, 45). Jesus is also, at numerous times and by numerous authors, compared to David and related to Old Testament texts about David with the indication that he has fulfilled the Davidic covenant (Mark 11:10, Luke 1:32, John 7:42, Acts 2:30-36, Acts 13:45, Acts 15:16, Romans 1:1-4, Revelation 3:7). These examples show that the apostolic writings didn’t always simply exegete what the Old Testament said, but that they saw the Hebrew scriptures as prefiguring Christ even when Christ wouldn’t necessarily have been seen as having been in view by the pre-Christ reader.

Perhaps one of the most obvious examples of this hermeneutic is Matthew 2:15. Matthew claims that Hosea 11:1, wherein God reminds Israel that He called them out of Egypt, was fulfilled when Christ was called out of Egypt. Regarding the plain sense of Hosea will by no means lead a reader to see any future fulfillment of Hosea’s passage—it was after all a reference to a past event. However, Jesus, the unique Son of God and the perfect representative of Israel, could be compared by Matthew to Israel to emphasize the typological fulfillment of Israel in its head, the King Messiah. Notes Jonathan Lunde:

“Consequently, ‘what is said of one figure can then be applied to another who fits within the identity of the group or who serves as its representative.’ This assumption allows NT writers to craft arguments that pivot on relationships between Jesus and the nation or its corporate representatives. It also reverberates under the surface of the titles that are applied to Jesus, such as the Son of God, the Servant, and the Son of Man. Snodgrass notes: [These] were all representative titles that were applied to Israel first. Jesus took on these titles because he had taken Israel’s task. He was representative of Israel and in solidarity with her. God’s purposes for Israel were now taken up in his ministry. If this were true, what had been used to describe Israel could legitimately be used of him.”3

Matthew was not unique in seeing Messiah as the perfect Israelite and as Israel’s representative. Isaiah’s Servant Songs (Isaiah 42, 49, 50, 52:13-53:12) seem to go back and forth between describing Israel and describing their unique Messianic representative who brings peace and healing to the nations where they have failed to do so. These songs culminate in Isaiah 53, where the Servant Messiah is said to be crushed for the iniquities of Israel despite their having gone astray. Clearly God has two “servants” in mind, or else one could not redeem the other:

“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6, NIV).

This New Testament view of recapitulation finds fulfillment not only of persons and nations, but even if holy objects. The temple of God in the Old Covenant was the place in which deity resided, where He dwelt among His people, and where propitiatory sacrifices were offered to atone for the sins of the people of God. And yet John tells us that Jesus, speaking of His own body, said to the Jewish leaders, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19, ESV).

What we see in these typological fulfillments is both continuity and discontinuity. There is continuity in that the entirety of the Old Testament looked forward to its fulfillment in Christ, and yet the fact that there is fulfillment suggests something new and different which was in some senses unlike what had come before. Though Christ’s sacrifice made the temple and the priests obsolete, for instance, He also affirmed their underlying meaning. The acceptance of such a continuity only requires the acceptance of one presupposition: that, as G.K. Beale wrote, “history is unified by a wise and sovereign plan so that the earlier parts are designed to correspond and point to the later parts.”4 Therefore, there is no more significant discontinuity in the temple sacrifices pointing forward to Christ then there was in God’s giving animal skins to Adam to point forward to the temple sacrifices.

Focusing on recapitulation provides us with a broad overview of the Old and New Testament continuity/discontinuity, but how does it look when dealing with specific biblical issues? At this point, we will turn to two such difficulties in particular.

One particularly thorny problem for resolving continuity/discontinuity between the Testaments is the relationship between law and grace. Since the Old Testament is founded on the revelation of God’s Torah to the wandering Israelites, and since the apostle Paul seems to denigrate the law as being counter to grace, a surface reading of scripture might cause one to presume a large degree of discontinuity on this issue.

Paul tells the Galatian church, of which many members had been keeping strict observance of the Torah, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13, ESV) and “for freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1, ESV). But is Paul saying that Christians should reject the idea of moral duties and ignore the Old Testament witness of God’s holiness as an example for us? May it never be! Paul himself quite explicitly explains the issue he was addressing: “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4, ESV). The problem was not that these Christians revered the Torah—it was that they thought strict observance of it could save them.

Moreover, Paul did not think of the Old Testament saints as having been saved by law in contrast to the church which is saved by grace. Paul speaks of two Old Testament figures in particular and concludes, “‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness…’ just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin'” (Romans 4:3-8, ESV). Indeed, Paul claims the Old Testament was written “for our instruction” (Romans 15:4, ESV) and that we ought to “uphold the law” (Romans 3:31, ESV).

According to Paul, the Old Testament people of God were not saved by keeping the law, but in fact, “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20, ESV). Salvation by grace is not new, but is testified to in the Old Testament writings: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it” (Romans 3:21, ESV).

Finally, Paul makes it quite clear that the Old Testament saints were not justified by their good works, but the blood of Christ covered them:

“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins” (Romans 3:23-26, ESV).

There is therefore not fundamental discontinuity between the Testaments on this point. However, this directs us to our second difficulty. If the Torah still has value for Christians, what of its civil laws? Are Christians obligated to establish a neo-Mosaic state (theonomy) with the same legal requirements that God expected from the Israelites?

To begin with, Jesus Himself claimed that there was a distinction between church and state when He was tested by the Pharisees on whether religious Jews should pay taxes to a pagan state. His famous answer: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21, ESV).

This distinction was also supported by Paul, who told Christians, “never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God” (Romans 12:19, ESV), but said of the pagan state, “let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1, ESV). It is of note that Paul was speaking of a pagan state which would shortly be in the business of oppressing Christians. Paul was not claiming that the government always acts in accordance with God’s moral values, but that God is sovereign enough to ensure that His will be done even by pagan dictators. This is the same point made by Old Testament prophets such as Habakkuk and Jeremiah who spoke of pagan Babylon’s coming subjugation of Judah.

But what makes this church/state distinction characteristic of the New Covenant when it wasn’t characteristic of the Israelite state? One might make an analogy to Jeremiah’s contrast (in Jeremiah 31:31-34) of the Old Covenant laws written on stone (emphasizing that covenant’s physicality and spatiality) to the New Covenant laws written on the hearts of God’s elect (emphasizing this covenant’s spiritual nature). Jesus, when asked by Pilate why His followers wouldn’t fight to release Him since He is a king, responded, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36, ESV). This is not to say that there is no future kingdom of God which is political in nature, only that it is not now that kind of kingdom (see 1 Corinthians 15:24).

However, even with these important distinctions which argue for discontinuity between the Testaments, one might argue that these is in fact more continuity on the issue of civil laws than not. For one thing, even the civil laws of the Torah are supported by eternal moral values, and both are written for our edification. The penalties might change (as God Himself made exceptions for the death penalty in the cases of David, Moses, Paul, etc., suggesting the mutability of the civil laws’ legal requirements), but the values supporting these laws remains. More than that, however, the Old Testament itself suggests that the elect are held to a higher standard than the non-elect. For example, in Amos we find God judging the pagan nations based on broad moral categories that are accessible to all men while He judges Judah specifically for its covenant unfaithfulness. Dennis Kinlaw concludes of Amos’ words of judgment, “we might say that Yahweh judges the other nations by natural law.”5 If God requires something different from the elect than the non-elect, and since the elect in the New Covenant are an ecclesial and not a political grouping it would not be appropriate to establish a theonomic state. In other words, while God’s moral law (which is expressed in Israel’s civil laws) is eternal and therefore retains continuity with the New Testament, Jesus’ coming changes the way these laws are to be expressed by God’s covenant people.

Recall how C.H. Dodd characterized the Old Testament—as the substructure of the New. The earliest Christians had no New Testament, so the Old Testament was their Bible. That this valuation of the Old Testament remains for Christians today is established by the fact that the apostolic writings utilized the Old Testament as the fertile ground of New Testament revelation. The key to the Old Testament’s use is to read it as the apostles did—christocentrically. Which is to say as the revelation of God and the ground for all of God’s promises which are fulfilled in Christ.

1Beale, G.K. Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, Kindle Edition.

2Note the subtitle of C.H. Dodd’s According to the Scriptures: The Substructure of New Testament Theology.

3Berding and Lunde editors, Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, Kindle Edition.

4Beale, G.K. Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, Kindle Edition.

5John N. Oswalt and Dennis F. Kinlaw, Lectures in Old Testament Theology, Kindle Edition.

Interview with Dr. Bill Ury – Social Trinitarianism

New podcast is up.

Click here to listen.

This podcast features an interview with Dr. Bill Ury. Dr. Ury received his doctorate from Drew Univeristy and is an adjunct professor at Wesley Biblical Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. The topic of discussion was Social Trinitarianism– the view that God ought to be thought of primarily in His relational threeness as opposed to a more static oneness. One insight of this view is that personhood as modeled upon the Trinity is necessarily relational– that if we are made in the image of God, then, like God, we cannot be persons without being in relationship to other persons. He also pointed out how this perspective shapes our view of God, the church, sovereignty, and ethics, particularly in contrast with other perspectives on the Trinity.

 

The Early Church’s Attempts to Understand the Relationship Between the Human and Divine Natures of Christ

     We have a tendency in modern times to think of what one believes as not particularly important. However, this tendency doesn’t always serve us well. Beliefs are like dominoes– one belief logically impacts another. Our belief about one topic is in some way connected to our belief about another topic, and our beliefs cannot help but impact our actions, attitudes, and well-being. So it is for how we view Christ’s divine and human natures.

     The early church was capable of seeing how a false belief about Christ’s nature could impact other beliefs, such as the atonement. For Christ to be joined to humanity, which was necessary for us to be saved, He had to be truly human. For Him to be be capable of fully saving us and connecting us to God, He had to always be truly God. This was also important for maintaining consistency with the biblical witness, which painted a picture of Christ as genuinely human and genuinely divine (John 20:20-29). There were numerous attempts to reconcile these biblical claims, finally culminating in the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.) which defended the orthodox view of Christ’s two natures. Before then, however, there were many missteps.

Adoptionism Graphic     Though the textual critic Bart Ehrman might argue that adoptionism/exhaltation was perhaps the church’s earliest attempt to make sense of who Jesus was, the biblical witness seems to argue otherwise. In any case, this view can be found as early as the second century in the views of Theodotus of Byzantium and Paul of Samosata. Adoptionists thought of Jesus as a holy man who was adopted as the Son of God at baptism due to His good works. Paul of Samosata’s concern in particular was of protecting strict monotheism, so he spoke of Jesus as, “a man adopted by God as his special human son. Jesus entered into a unique position in relation to God without actually becoming God. Paul of Samosata placed Jesus somewhere above other humans due to his elevation to sonship by the Father and somewhere below God due to his humanity and God’s absolute oneness” (Olson). After this adoption, He was thought of as divine in a sense, though not before, meaning He could not be the eternal God– the One who could say, “before Abraham was, I AM” (John 8:58). While this was an attempt to reconcile the biblical data, it leaned so far toward one truth that it ultimately failed to affirm the other truth. In this view, Jesus was 100% man at His birth.

DOCETISM

     Another attempt to explain why scripture talked of Jesus as being divine but also of having a human body erred in the opposite way from adoptionism. Docetism comes from the Greek dokein, meaning “to seem.” In other words, Jesus was written about as if He was human because He pretended to be so. One variant of this view was more Gnostic influenced– if Christ was a pure being, it would have been improper for Him to have a body: “According to some docetists, Christ was so completely divine that he could not be human… For these docetists, Jesus’ body was a phantasm” (Ehrman, p. 15).

     Another variant had Christ abducting the body of a man named Jesus and then leaving the man to die on the cross: “For them, Jesus was a real flesh-and-blood human. But Christ was a separate person, a divine being who, as God, could not experience pain and death” (Ehrman, p. 15). A view somewhat similar to this latter one was called Apollinarianism, wherein the divine Logos took a human body. In this view, there is no human mind, but only a divine mind inhabiting a human body. These views ultimately failed as well. There can be no atonement if God did not fully join Himself to humanity. Further, Jesus makes it abundantly clear that He had a true human body: “Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:39, ESV). He also had a human mind (see Luke 2:52, Mark 13:32).

Nestorianism

     After these early and more extreme attempts to reconcile Jesus’ humanity and divinity, there were two more complicated solutions proposed. The first was Nestorianism. Nestorius’ view was that within Christ there were in fact two distinct persons– one human and one divine. This view allowed for side-stepping the difficult truth that God was born of a woman. By strongly separating the natures, Nestorians could claim that it was not God who has born, but simply Christ. As Nestorius wrote in his second letter to Cyril:
“Everywhere in Holy Scripture, whenever mention is made of the saving dispensation of the Lord, what is conveyed to us is the birth and suffering not of the deity but of the humanity of Christ, so that by a more exact manner of speech the holy Virgin is called Mother of Christ, not Mother of God. Listen to these words of the Gospels: ‘The book of the birth of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham’ [Matt. 1:1]. It is obvious that the son of David was not the divine Logos” (Noll).

     This view failed to join humanity in divinity in one person, and was rejected at the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D., though it still lives on in the Church of the East (not to be confused with the Eastern Orthodox Church). It was followed by a Christological view that was essentially an extreme reaction to it: Eutychianism.

EUTYCHIANISM

     Eutychianism, far from separating the natures of Christ, joined them together. For Eutyches, the human nature of Jesus was subsumed by the divine, creating what was essentially a new nature. Christ was therefore not human enough to be joined to us nor divine enough to be truly consubstantial (of the same nature) with the Father. The Council of Chalcedon sought to deal with the Eutychian issue and to re-affirm Ephesus’ condemnation of Nestorianism, arguing for a truly orthodox view of Christ’s two natures.

ORTHODOXY

     The one thing that all of the aforementioned views have in common is that they go to one extreme or another in an attempt to hold on to one piece of truth about who Christ was. In contrast, the Council of Chalcedon’s orthodox definition managed to keep Christ’s natures in their proper balance. Chalcedon confessed, “one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood… to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person (prosopon) and one Subsistence (hypostasis), not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten God, the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ…” (Chalcedonian Creed, 451 A.D.) In other words, Christ was one person who possessed two natures– one fully human and the other fully divine. There was no confusion of natures, nor separating Christ into two different person. This also allowed for Jesus to be a true savior of mankind, “for we would not be able to overcome the author of sin and of death unless he whom sin could not stain nor death hold took on our nature and made it his own” (Noll).

 Sources Cited

Ehrman, B. D. (2003). Lost Christianities: the battle for Scripture and the faiths we never knew. P. 15. New York: Oxford University Press.

Noll, M. A. (1997). Turning points: decisive moments in the history of Christianity. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books. Kindle Edition.

Olson, R. E. (1999). The story of Christian theology: twenty centuries of tradition & reform. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version : the ESV Study Bible.. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Bibles, 2008.

Begging the Question – A Review of Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God

Consisting roughly of 50% good scholarship and 50% question begging, Ehrman’s book is a great popular level look at how liberal scholars deal with the history of the early church. I would recommend this book to orthodox Christians who are stable in their faith and willing to do their homework in responding to these arguments. One gets a sense of how liberal, non-Christian scholars handle Scripture, and also how their presuppositions determine their conclusions. It’s also useful for engaging with Muslim apologists, many of whom accept Ehrman’s conclusions on these topics uncritically. This book is helpful to that end since Ehrman disagrees with the Muslim view of the crucifixion (most Muslims believe that Jesus wasn’t actually crucified) and poo-poos popular Muslim reconstructions of the New Testament period. Finally, Ehrman gives us a great example of the fallacious reasoning characteristic of the emotional anti-Christian when he engages in speculation that the cause of Christian anti-semitism is the Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus, whom they charged the Jewish race with killing.

Circular Reasoning

Most illuminating is Ehrman’s admission that he had in previous years used circular reasoning when looking at passages where Paul clearly referred to Jesus as divine and pre-existent. When interpreting these passages as a younger agnostic, he saw them through his presupposition that the early church’s beliefs about Jesus evolved from seeing him as a prophet exalted by God to God incarnate. Since, according to Ehrman, the earliest gospel (Mark) expresses the former view and the last (John) the latter, and Paul’s letters were written before either, it simply couldn’t be the case that Paul thought of Jesus as a divine person incarnate:
“…in some passages Paul seems to affirm a view of Christ that, until recently, I thought could not possibly exist as early as Paul’s letters, which are our first Christian writings to survive. How could Paul embrace ‘higher’ views of Christ than those found in later writings such as Matthew, Mark, and Luke? Didn’t Christology develop from a ‘low’ Christology to a ‘high’ Christology over time? And if so, shouldn’t the views of the Synoptic Gospels be “higher” than the views of Paul?” (Ehrman, How Jesus Became God).

A key example of this reasoning is in Ehrman’s discussion of Romans 9:5, a passage which seems to explicitly call Jesus God but which more liberal translators have reworked to avoid this conclusion. Ehrman admits:
“My view for many years was that the second translation [the liberal one] was the right one and that the passage does not call Jesus God. My main reason for thinking so, though, was that I did not think that Paul ever called Jesus God anywhere else, so he probably wouldn’t do so here. But that, of course, is circular reasoning, and I think the first translation makes the best sense of the Greek, as other scholars have vigorously argued” (Ehrman, How Jesus Became God).

Here Ehrman admits that he was reading his beliefs into the text instead of translating it accurately. Even so, it wasn’t until Ehrman found another way to understand Jesus being thought of by Paul as divine–that of not being absolutely divine but a divine-like angelic creation–that he was willing to consider the plain reading. As long as Paul doesn’t have a full-fledged orthodox Christology, Ehrman is willing to make some concessions on his extreme evolutionary view of Christological development. Ehrman’s admission of his own self-delusion is commendable, but it also demonstrates how bias can affect how one reads Scripture, and that it affects liberals just as much as it does conservatives. Unfortunately, Ehrman appears to still be under the sway of his faulty presuppositions. Also of note is Ehrman’s claim that one cannot do history if that one is willing to accept supernatural occurrences as possible. I would recommend Eddy and Boyd’s The Jesus Legend for a counterpoint to Ehrman’s naturalistic philosophy of history.

Ehrman and Islam

Apart from Ehrman’s strong belief that Jesus was crucified, he says other things that strongly counter the way many Muslim apologists argue in regard to early Christianity. Where many of these Muslim apologists (and, frankly, ignorant anti-Christians of all stripes) argue that the Council of Nicea was forced by Constantine to conclude that Jesus was God and that still it was a close vote, Ehrman argues quite the opposite:
“To Constantine, the issues seemed petty. What does it really matter whether there was a time before which Christ existed? Is that really the most important thing? Not for Constantine. As he says in his letter: ‘I considered the origin and occasion for these things . . . as extremely trivial and quite unworthy of so much controversy’ (Life 2.68)” (Ehrman, How Jesus Became God).

“Sometimes you will hear that at Nicea it was ‘a close vote.’ It was not close. Only twenty of the 318 bishops disagreed with the creed when it was finally formulated. Constantine, who was actively involved with some of the proceedings, forced seventeen of those twenty to acquiesce. So only three did not eventually sign off on the creed: Arius himself and two bishops from his home country of Libya. These three were banished from Egypt. A couple of other bishops signed the creed but refused to agree to the anathemas at the end, which were directed specifically against Arius’s teachings. These bishops too were exiled” (Ehrman, How Jesus Became God).

Thus, while Constantine was happy to view the council’s decision as binding, he did not particularly care what they decided.

The Divine Jesus and Anti-Semitism

Another strange feature of this book is Ehrman’s assertion that belief in Jesus as God is the cause of Christian anti-semitism, since it was believed that “the Jews” killed not just a prophet, but God Himself. However, countless Christians who profess belief in Jesus’ divinity do not think Jews should be oppressed or blamed as a race for the death of Jesus, including the Jews who made up all of the earliest Christian church. Jews were oppressed by pagan empires long before Christianity arose, and have been oppressed by non-Christian states long after, including in the atheistic Soviet Union. While the charge of deicide may have been used as an excuse to oppress Jews from time to time, the root issue in Christian oppression is not one of whether Jesus is seen as God, but of the Christian faith’s relationship to the state and to violence. This misguided and perhaps even malicious conflation of the Church and the State’s violent prerogatives comes out of an ignorance of Jesus’ teaching on these matters.

Responding to popular Muslim arguments against the divinity of Jesus in the New Testament

There’s an interesting article that was brought to my attention by a Muslim friend. He asked that I respond to its claims. The article exists at http://www.islam-guide.com/ch3-10-1.htm and though it claims to be an edited version of an article by Muslim apologist Shabir Ally, I can’t find the original version. In any case, it is representative of arguments typical of popular Muslim apologetics and has been fairly widely disseminated across the internet, so I thought it would be worthwhile to go through its arguments (note: there is one major argument in the article that I won’t deal with here because I’ve done so elsewhere: http://www.amazon.com/Responding-Muslim-Arguments-Against-Christianity-ebook/dp/B00SM0M1IY/). The title of the article is “The Bible Denies the Divinity of Jesus.”

The article begins by making a point that I agree with strongly:
“It is clear enough to everyone that the Quran denies the divinity of Jesus, so we do not need to spend much time explaining that” (Islam Guide).

Indeed, we read in the Qur’an, in Surah 4:171:
“O People of the Scripture, do not commit excess in your religion or say about Allah except the truth. The Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, was but a messenger of Allah and His word which He directed to Mary and a soul [created at a command] from Him. So believe in Allah and His messengers. And do not say, “Three”; desist – it is better for you. Indeed, Allah is but one God. Exalted is He above having a son. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. And sufficient is Allah as Disposer of affairs” (Sahih International Translation).

That the Qur’an dnies the divinity of Jesus is not a point of contention. However, the summary statement of what the article purports to do is:
“The Bible clearly teaches that Jesus is not God.  In the Bible God is always someone else other than Jesus.
“Some will say that something Jesus said or something he did while on the earth proves that he is God.  We will show that the disciples never came to the conclusion that Jesus is God.  And those are people who lived and walked with Jesus and thus knew first hand what he said and did.  Furthermore, we are told in the Acts of the Apostles in the Bible that the disciples were being guided by the Holy Spirit.  If Jesus is God, surely they should know it.
But they did not. They kept worshipping the one true God who was worshipped by Abraham, Moses, and Jesus (see Acts 3:13)” (Islam Guide).


What Is the Christian Position?

Before we assess the arguments in this paper, let us first state explicitly what the Christian position is. While there could be finer points of definition, we’ll use a basic understanding of Jesus as the second person of the Trinity who is fully God and took on humanity. The doctrine of the Trinity is that there are three discrete Persons who share equally the divine nature. They are not the same person, but three distinct persons.

It is possible that there is an order of authority in the Trinity from eternity, wherein the Son obeys the Father and the Holy Spirit obeys the Father and the Son, however this point is debatable (however, those who argue for this position will often argue that it does not create an inequality in essence any more than complementarian marriage does). There is, however, agreement that when the the Son, once He takes on humanity, obeys the Father and is sent by Him. Similarly, the Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son to save us, guide us, and dwell within us. However, all three are equally divine in nature and without beginning.

Further, Jesus is fully God and fully man, meaning the natures do not mix together to create some new nature. The human nature does not compromise the divine nature, but both remain fully. It is, however, the case that Jesus often chose to limit the use of His divine prerogatives– meaning that he hungered, thirsted, was tired, and even had to learn things. If He was not subject to these experiences, He could not have had a meaningful human experience and His human body would be merely a shell and a facade. Instead, He chose to identify with us in our humanity and the weakness that accompanies it.

This means that arguments against the divinity of Christ must do more than show that He isn’t the same person as the Father, or that in His humanity He obeyed the Father. It also can’t be based simply on pointing out that Jesus was a human. Christians already agree with Muslims that these points are true. For a Muslim to assert them as arguments against the Trinity or the divinity of Christ is to completely miss the point and attack a straw man.
Jesus’ Divinity in the Book of Acts

The central argument of the article’s arguments from the New Testament Book of Acts is as follows:
“Peter stood up with the eleven disciples and addressed the crowd saying: ‘Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.’ (Acts 2:22).
“It was God, therefore, who did the miracles through Jesus to convince people that Jesus was backed by God.  Peter did not see the miracles as proof that Jesus is God.
“In fact, the way Peter refers to God and to Jesus makes it clear that Jesus is not God.  For he always turns the title God away from Jesus.  Take the following references for example:
‘God has raised this Jesus…’ (Acts 2:32)
‘God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.’ (Acts 2:36)
“In both passages, the title God is turned away from Jesus.  So why he did this, if Jesus was God?” (Islam Guide)

This is a fair point to bring up. There are various possibilities as to why Peter would use the title of God for the Father but not Jesus. It could be that Peter wasn’t fully aware of the full extent of Jesus’ identity at this early stage. Another option is that the word “God” had a strong link in the Jewish mind to Him whom we would call the Father. The Jews didn’t have a concept of the Trinity, so would hear the word “God” and think of only one Person. The New Testament did not want to say that Jesus was the same PERSON as the Father, but that He shared the divine nature that the Father had. As a result, the word God is rarely applied to Jesus, though the divine nature is both assumed and stated to be His.

It does not undo Jesus’ divinity to point out, as our Muslim author does, that the Father raised Jesus up (Acts 2:32), since the New Testament also tells us that Jesus raised Himself up (John 10:17-18) and that the Holy Spirit raised Him up (Romans 8:11). In other words, the resurrection of Jesus was a Trinitarian action wherein all three members of the Godhead participated.

While Acts does not deny the divinity of Jesus, it does both imply and state that Jesus is divine in multiple places. In Acts 7:59-60, before the martyr Stephen is killed, he prays to the “Lord Jesus” that He would receive his spirit and forgive Stephen’s murderers of their sin. It is God alone who can receive prayer, and God alone that is capable of forgiving sins. Another turn of phrase for prayer is used in Acts 22:16, wherein Ananias tells Paul to “call on [Jesus] name” for salvation (see also Acts 9:14, 10:43). From the use of the word “Lord” for Jesus in Acts 1:21, it is apparent that the same “Lord” is prayed to in Acts 1:24 where the disciples say to Him that He knows the hearts of all men– a quality better known as omniscience. From these passages it becomes clear the early church prayed to Jesus (prayer being an activity viewed as only appropriate to God) and thought of Him as knowing all things and being able to save them. These are qualities of God and not of a prophet. In contrast, the greatest prophet of Islam, Mohammed, when he interceded for a sinner, was only able to lighten his sentence to the point that in hell he had to wear shoes made of fire that were so hot his brains boiled (Sahih Muslim Book 1, Numbers 409 and 415). In stark distinction to Mohammed, Jesus was a complete savior, which is a quality of God alone.

Finally, Paul also gives direct testimony to the divinity of Jesus, even using the word “God” to describe Him, in the book of Acts:
“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28, ESV).


Jesus the All-Knowing, All-Powerful

The article then cites places in the New Testament where Jesus has human limitations on his knowledge and power (Mark 6:5, Mark 13:32, etc.). It anticipates the Christian response and provides its own rejoinder:
“Someone may say that Jesus was God but he took the form of a servant and therefore became limited.  Well, that would mean that God changed.  But God does not change.  God said so according to Malachi 3:6.
“Jesus never was God, and never will be.  In the Bible, God declares: ‘Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me.’ (Isaiah 43:10)” (Islam Guide).

There are at least two problems with this response. First of all, it understands Jesus’ taking on human experience as a change to His divine nature, which is simply not the case. His divine nature remained divine and His human nature experienced normal human limitations. What the Muslim would have to argue here is that it is simply impossible for God to take on humanity. If he does not feel comfortable placing that limitation on God, then he must admit that if God took on humanity and had a genuine experience of it, this would include the experience of human limitations. It is not the divine nature that experienced these limitations (how can a nature experience anything?) but the divine second person of the Trinity who experience them in the capacity of His human nature.

The second problem is that to support his argument, the author then cites Isaiah 43:10, which Jesus referenced of Himself in John 8:58:
“Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I AM [in Greek, ‘ego eimi’].” (NASB).

This wording matches the Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint or LXX) in Isaiah 43:10-11. (Jesus and the apostles were very familiar with the Septuagint and it is quoted numerous times throughout the New Testament):
“…understand that I am he [ego eimi– I AM]: before me there was no other God, and after me there shall be none” (Sir Lancelot C.L. Brenton, English Translation of the Greek Septuagint).

Jesus cites this passage in His claim to be divine and the Jews demonstrated that they understood him by picking up stones to stone him in the following verse.

In fact, the text does testify that Jesus was omniscient in His divine nature.

In John 16:30, we see the disciples reaching this conclusion for themselves:
“Now we know that you know all things and do not need anyone to question you; this is why we believe that you came from God” (ESV).

Peter reaches the same conclusion in John 21:17:
“and he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything’” (ESV).

Other places testify that Jesus has supernatural knowledge of people’s inner thoughts and intentions, such as Mat 12:25, Mat 22:18, Luke 6:8, John 2:25, and Rev 2:23.

As for omnipotence, Jesus does claim to have complete power over all things in Matthew 28:18 (“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me’” [ESV].) and John also claims this power for Him (“All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” [ESV]).
Paul Believed that Jesus Is God

When discussing Paul’s view of God, the author of this article makes exactly the kind of argument that I pointed out above simply doesn’t count– differentiating God the Father from Jesus:
“Many people use Paul’s writings as proof that Jesus is God.  But this is not fair to Paul, because Paul clearly believed that Jesus is not God.  In his first letter to Timothy, Paul wrote: ‘I charge you, in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels, to keep these instructions…’ (1 Timothy 5:21).
“It is clear from this that the title God applies not to Christ Jesus, but to someone else” (Islam Guide).

Of course, Christians believe that God the Father and Jesus are not the same person. As a result, the above argument doesn’t even touch on the Christian position. One might argue though that if Paul doesn’t like to use the word “God” to describe Jesus (since the word usually suggests God the Father in the mind of Jesus readers), he ought to have communicated in some other way that Jesus was God. In fact, he does. Most explicitly in Titus, Paul does break his usual usage and chooses to apply the word God to Jesus:
“waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ,” (Titus 2:13, ESV). In the following chapter (verses 4-6) Paul refers to both “God our Savior” and “Jesus Christ our Savior” who together pour out the Holy Spirit onto believers.

As this Muslim author is wont to do, he again brings in false dichotomies by ignoring category distinctions in the doctrine of the Trinity:
“When he was in Athens, Paul spoke of God as ‘The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands.’ (Acts 17:24).  Then he identified Jesus as ’the man he (i.e. God) has appointed.’” (Acts 17:31)” (Islam Guide).

Jesus of course obeys the Father completely in His incarnation. However, Paul does not distinguish Jesus from the one who made everything and is Lord of it:
“[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:15-17, ESV)

Our Muslim author also fails to take into account the consequences of his arguments:
“For Paul, the Father alone is God.  Paul said that there is ‘one God and Father of all…’ (Ephesians 4:6).  Paul said again: ‘…for us there is but one God, the Father . . . and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ…’ (1 Corinthians 8:6)” (Islam Guide).

If 1 Corinthians 8:6 proves that only “the Father alone is God” to the exclusion of the Son, then does it also prove that Jesus alone is Lord, to the exclusion of the Father? The author seems to fail to take this into consideration and offers a very flawed argument indeed.

There is also at least one example in the article of the author seemingly forgetting the point he’s trying to prove:
“Paul’s letter to the Philippians (Philippians 2:6-11) is often quoted as a proof that Jesus is God.  But the very passage shows that Jesus is not God. This passage has to agree with Isaiah 45:22-24 where God said that every knee should bow to God, and every tongue should confess that righteousness and strength are in God alone” (Islam Guide).

The author is quite correct that Paul quotes Isaiah 45:22-24 where God says every knee will bow to Him, and indeed Paul applies this passage about God to Jesus. This seems to be an open-and-shut case– Paul believes that Jesus is God (and yet this section of the article is titled “Paul Believed That Jesus Is Not God”). But what is the Muslim author’s rejoinder to this clear proof that Paul thought of Jesus as God? Simply that this passage couldn’t have possibly been applied to Jesus because it’s about God and Jesus isn’t God. Talk about begging the question!

Finally, the author again fails to understand the doctrine of Jesus being both fully God and fully man:
“Paul said that God alone is immortal. Immortal means he does not die.  Check any dictionary.  Now, anyone who believes that Jesus died cannot believe that Jesus is God.  Such a belief would contradict what Paul said here” (Islam Guide).

This is another example of the author completely missing the point– Jesus was fully God and fully man, God in flesh. It is of course true that the divine cannot go out of existence. However, Jesus was also fully human. Because Jesus was a man, He could die. Because He was perfect and divine, “it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (Acts 2:24, ESV).


Jesus’ Divinity in the Gospel of John

Our Muslim author opens this section with discussion of the doctrine of Jesus as “the Word” in John:
“This Gospel in its final form says one more thing about Jesus that was unknown from the previous three Gospels — that Jesus was the Word of God.  John means that Jesus was God’s agent through whom God created everything else.  This is often misunderstood to mean that Jesus was God Himself.  But John was saying, as Paul had already said, that Jesus was God’s first creature… Anyone who says that the Word of God is a person distinct from God must also admit that the Word was created, for the Word speaks in the Bible saying: ‘The LORD brought me forth as the first of his works…’ (Proverbs 8:22).” (Islam Guide)

The problems with this assessment are immense. To begin with, Proverbs 8:22 does not say that the Word was the first of God’s works, but is speaking of a personified form of wisdom. It is true that some scholars think that John might be reflecting on this passage (and passages from other, non-canonical works such as Sirach in the 24th chapter) to develop His idea of the Word, though a significant amount of scholars tend to suspect that John is reflecting more on the Greek (particularly as explicated by Philo) understanding of the “Logos,” though I think that there is a significant argument to be made that John is reflecting on the Targumic tradition of the “Memra” (see John Ronning’s The Jewish Targums and John’s Logos Theology). The word translated in this verse as “brought me forth” also provides difficulties for the translator, as it can also mean something like “to possess” or “to acquire.” The church father Athanasius understood it to mean “constituted me as the head of creation.” So even if one did take this to be prophetic of Jesus or reflective of how the apostles saw Jesus, it wouldn’t necessarily demonstrate that He was a separate creation of God. In any case, even if John is developing the idea of wisdom in earlier Jewish writings, this doesn’t mean he’s applying the concept wholesale. He could simply be reflecting on part of the wisdom tradition without using all of it.

Putting that miscitation aside, our author also strongly implies that Christians think that John believes Jesus is the Word because John simply uses the phrase “the Word.” This is not so. We believe that John thinks Jesus– the Word– is God because John tells us that, “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with the God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). John here is careful to distinguish the Father (whom he refers to as THE God) from the Word, whom He claims shares all of the divine qualities with the Father while still being a distinct person. However, it is the case that if John is reflecting on the Targumic tradition of the Word (where “Word of God” stands in for “God” when God interacts with creation) then his use of “Word” would also imply Jesus’ divinity.

In any case, John so manifestly believes in the divinity of Jesus (as noted, he literally calls Jesus divine and claims that He created the universe– “All things were made through Him” in v. 3) that trying to prove otherwise is the ultimate exercise in futility. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are more subtle when dealing with this topic, so one might forgive our Muslim author for not seeing the divine Jesus in their writings. John is so explicit that any unbiased reader couldn’t miss it.

The author supports his claim that John believes Jesus was God’s first creature by citing Revelation 3:14 which refers to Jesus (in the King James Version at least) as “the beginning of the creation of God.” However, this translation is misleading. The Greek word here translated beginning is “arche” and can mean the first of something or the origin of something. This understanding of arche corresponds well to Revelation 21:6, where we read that God is the beginning (arche) and the end. Arche can also refer to a power over something, as it does in Luke 20:20 and Romans 8:38. This understanding of the word works well with verse 21, which shows Jesus as a conqueror sitting on his throne. These interpretations are at least as plausible as the one the Muslim author postulates, if not more so. Because Revelation seems so strongly to assert Jesus’ divinity (1:8 and 1:17-18, 5:13, etc.) it makes the Muslim interpretation here significantly less likely.

Our Muslim author closes his section on John by again completely missing the point:
“In fact Jesus himself told the crowds, that they have never seen the Father, nor have they heard the Father’s voice (John 5:37).  Notice that if Jesus was the Father, his statement here would be false“ (Islam Guide).

Obviously, Christians don’t believe that Jesus is the Father so this only serves to further demonstrate how completely irrelevant so much of Muslim Dawah (apologetics) is when it comes to interacting with Christian beliefs. This kind of argument only serves to convert someone who calls himself a Christian but doesn’t actually know the central Christian truth propositions.

Making God’s Name Known – A Response to Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Claims About the Name of God

In the September 15, 1994 issue of Watchtower magazine (the teaching magazine of the Jehovah’s Witness organization) we read:
“Of all international religions which is the only that uses God’s name, Jehovah? Is it not Jehovah’s Witnesses? Do you think God would allow them to bear his name and not also give them his holy spirit?”

 The implication is that Jehovah’s Witnesses are the only true Christians because they use God’s name. Elsewhere the offical Jehovah’s Witness teaching body has written:
“How important is God’s name? Consider the model prayer that Jesus Christ gave. It begins this way: ‘Our Father in the heavens, let your name be sanctified.’ (Matthew 6:9) Later, Jesus prayed to God: ‘Father, glorify your name.’ In response, God spoke from heaven, saying: “I both glorified it and will glorify it again.” (John 12:28) Clearly, God’s name is of the utmost importance. Why, then, have some translators left this name out of their translations of the Bible and replaced it with titles?” (What Does the Bible Really Teach?, APPENDIX: The Divine Name—Its Use and Its Meaning)

 What they’re referring to is the tendency of most translations, following the tradition of ancient (as well as contemporary) Jews to not want to use the name of God, but to translate any occurrence of God’s name in Scripture as “LORD” or some other identifying word (many contemporary Jews use “Hashem,” or “the Name”). In most Bibles “LORD” in all capitals represents four Hebrew letters– in our alphabet, “YHWH.” This name is usually pronounced Yahweh, and means something like “he causes to be,” emphasizing God’s ultimate creatorship. This name is used throughout the Old Testament, but does not appear in any New Testament manuscripts. Even when the New Testament quotes the Old Testament, the word used for YHWH is translated as the Greek “kurios,” meaning “Lord.” This follows the vast majority of Old Testament manuscripts in Greek (called the Septuagint), as well as other Jewish works of the time in Greek.

 Jehovah’s Witnesses speculate that the earliest New Testament manuscripts contained the name of God, despite not having any Greek (which is the language the New Testament was written in) manuscripts that contain the name. As a result, their translation, the New World Translation (NWT), uses Jehovah (an anglicized version of YHWH) throughout the Old and New Testaments. Jehovah’s Witnesses, as we saw above, often argue for the importance of using God’s name. One reason for this is that:
“In replacing God’s name with titles, Bible translators make a serious mistake. They make God seem remote and impersonal…” (What Does the Bible Really Teach?, APPENDIX: The Divine Name—Its Use and Its Meaning)

 Another reason Jehovah’s Witnesses cite for the importance of using God’s name is that it defines which god you are speaking of. The word “god” can apply to countless ideas of God/gods, so using God’s name helps to delimit which god you mean.

 These are actually understandable concerns, and I for one would have no problem with using God’s name to allow for specificity and to encourage familiarity with God. However, there are some major problems with the Jehovah’s Witnesses emphasis on the importance of using God’s name. They are:

 1. YHWH is God’s name, not Jehovah. Unlike Jehovah, YHWH has an important meaning in Hebrew, but most Christians don’t know Hebrew, so this significance is lost. This problem is compounded by the lack of consensus on how YHWH should be pronounced, since there are no vowels in ancient Hebrew. Thus, if using God’s name is so important, how come He didn’t make sure we knew how to say it? Furthermore, people use the word “God” often as if it were a personal pronoun. So, does this not fulfill the criteria of encouraging intimacy with God? After all, Jehovah’s Witnesses admit that they don’t really know the true pronunciation, but still think it’s important to use a proper name for God. As a result, wouldn’t any name that is used for God, including “God,” satisfy this concern?

 2. The reason God’s name, YHWH, was meaningful to the Hebrew-speaking believer is because in the Semitic culture, your name reflected your character. If you don’t know what someone’s name means, this significance is lost. Even if Jehovah’s Witnesses got God’s name right, this isn’t nearly as important as what the name signifies– God’s character. If they don’t understand who God is, it means absolutely nothing that they use His name.

 To elaborate on the second point, Jehovah’s Witnesses sometimes quote John 17:26, where Jesus says, “I have made known to them your name.” They take this passage literally to mean that Jesus made sure that His disciples knew what God’s name was. However, this is not consistent with how Jesus’ followers would have understood His statement. Names represented someone’s character, and this is the consistent thought pattern throughout the Bible.

 In Exodus 34:14, we read about “YHWH, whose name is Jealous.” If the Jehovah’s Witness interpretational method is applied consistently, one must conclude that God’s name is actually Jealous, and that this is what we should call Him. Of course, that isn’t the point. His name reflects His character, and He can be called Jealous because He refuses to share worship with any other.

 In Genesis 16:13 we read that Hagar, “called the name of YHWH who spoke to her ‘You-Are-the-God-Who-Sees.’” Others throughout the Old Testament are given names to reflect their character or circumstances surrounding their birth (see for example Genesis 17:5; Genesis 17:17, 18:12; Hosea 1:6, etc.). Finally, when Jesus is conceived, we read that an angel tells Joseph, “you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” Jesus, of course, is the anglicized version of Yeshua, a Hebrew name which means “YHWH Saves.” Thus, Jesus’ saving work is connected with YHWH’s– that’s the significance of His name.

 Furthermore, the New World Translation does not always translates “kurios” (Lord) into “Jehovah” in the New Testament. Specifically, there are some places where a New Testament writer uses an Old Testament passage about YHWH to speak about Jesus, and the NWT uses the word “Lord” instead of “Jehovah” as a means of obscuring what the text is actually trying to say.

 For instance, in Hebrews 1:10 in the NWT we read of Jesus, “at the beginning, O Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the works of your hands.” This is a quotation from Psalm 102:25-27. Note that the NWT uses the word Lord instead of Jehovah, since the passage is talking about Jesus. The author of Hebrews is not quoting the Psalm in Hebrew (the word “YHWH” doesn’t appear in this verse in the Hebrew text, though it does appear in the verses preceding it), but the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), which reads, “In the beginning thou, O Lord, didst lay the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of thine hands” (Ps 101:25, LXX– note that this Psalm is 101 in the Greek Septuagint but 102 in the Hebrew Masoretic). While the Greek Septuagint doesn’t use the word YHWH, but kurios (Lord), the context of the Psalm is clearly about God, and the NWT puts the passage in quotations, demonstrating that they are aware that is a quotation from the Old Testament. Furthermore, every time “Lord” appears in their translation of Psalm 102, they translate it as Jehovah. Even still, they translate “kurios” into Lord instead of Jehovah in Hebrews 1:10, because they don’t want to acknowledge that the author of Hebrews thought of Jesus as YHWH.

 Similarly, Psalm 34:8 in the NWT reads, “Taste and see that Jehovah is good.” However, when Peter quotes this Psalm to refer to Jesus, the NWT translates it as “you have tasted that the Lord is kind,” (1 Peter 2:3) leaving out the name Jehovah. That this is a quotation of Psalm 34 is demonstrated by Peter’s quotation of this Psalm at length one chapter later in 1 Peter 3:10-12.

There are also instances where a New Testament writer alludes to an Old Testament passage about YHWH, applies it to Jesus, but the NWT uses the word Lord instead of Jehovah.

 One example is the NWT of Philippians 2:10-11, where Paul says:
“so that in the name of Jesus every knee should bend—of those in heaven and those on earth and those under the ground— and every tongue should openly acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.”

 This is a reference to Isaiah 45:23, which the NWT translates as, “To me every knee will bend, every tongue will swear loyalty.” This passage is clearly about YHWH, and yet Paul applied it to Jesus. If the NWT translators knew about this, it would only be honest to translate kurios as Jehovah instead of Lord, or at the very least to point to Isaiah 45:23 in their verse references. However, they do not. Interestingly, in their translation of Isaiah 45:23, they do list Romans 14:11 as a reference, wherein Paul says, “For it is written: ‘As surely as I live,’ says Jehovah, ‘to me every knee will bend, and every tongue will make open acknowledgment to God’” (NWT). Notice that Paul interjects “says the Lord” into this passage, and the NWT translates it as Jehovah. Yet, when he interjects “Lord” into Philippians 2:11, clearly speaking of Christ, they simply translate it as Lord.

 We’ve established that in the Hebrew culture, a name reflects character and is more than an arbitrary identifier. Furthermore, multiple names are used for God throughout the Old Testament (see the above citations of Genesis 16:13 and Exodus 34:14 for just a couple examples). Apart from YHWH, there is another important name for God in the Old Testament that we should discuss: “I AM.”

 In Exodus 3:13-14 we read:
“Then Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ And he said, ‘Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you’’” (ESV).

 This name is used in other places in the Old Testament. For instance in Isaiah 43:10-11:
“…understand that I am he [in Greek, “ego eimi”– I AM]: before me there was no other God, and after me there shall be none” (Sir Lancelot C.L. Brenton, English Translation of the Greek Septuagint).

 It is with these passages in mind that we must turn to John 8:56-59. Jesus says to the crowd:
“‘Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.’ So the Jews said to him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.’ So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple” (ESV).

 “I AM” in this passage is the same Greek phrase, “ego eimi,” that God uses of Himself in the Old Testament. Jesus is claiming identity with God, the God who simply is without beginning or end. This is the only reasonable explanation for why the Jews would take up stones to stone him. However, the New World Translation obscures the meaning of the text with its translation:
“Jesus said to them: ‘Most truly I say to you, before Abraham came into existence, I have been’” (John 8:58, NWT).

 In conclusion, it is not enough to simply use a proper name for God. One must accurately reflect God’s character and not seek to hide what He reveals about Himself. While there is nothing wrong with calling God Jehovah or Yahweh, what is actually important is knowing Him. Communicating truths about Himself is the reason He uses names in the first place. The Jehovah’s Witness organization seeks to deny central truths about who God is, so their use of a proper noun to refer to Him is of no benefit to them. It is pure superstition to assert otherwise.