The Man of Steel and the Son of Man

In a very real sense our culture lacks a mythology. Perhaps this is one reason why films like The 300, TV programing like professional wrestling, and comic books are so popular. Mythological stories and archetypes serve to flesh out a culture’s deepest values. Going on 40 years now, there’s been an ideological struggle in the comic book world, a crisis in worldview. In 1938, two young Jewish boys, Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster, created Superman, a larger-than-life hero who would save us from all our fears. Superman reflected the ideals of both those who created him, and the larger culture into which he was born. Truth, justice, honesty, and integrity (and yes, the American way) were upheld as aspirational goals.

Heroes likes Superman, Batman, and Spider-man are classics. They’ve stood the test of time and come out better for it. These pillars of justice, contrary to the whims of Director Zack Synder, have vowed never to take human life. But not all comic book protagonists adhere to this code. For so-called anti-heroes  such as Deadpool, Spawn, the Darkness, and the Punisher killing simply commons with the territory. Admittedly, the line between a Batman and a Punisher isn’t absolute.

But all of this is preamble to my main point. I believe there is a powerful and persuasive theological explanation for the global and time-tested popularity of Superman: Superman is a profound Christ figure, not only in his original story, but also in the hands of his successive writers. Both Superman and Christ, in an important sense, are not of this earth. Both are sent by their father, and come from a place far away. Both are saviors. Both died, taking the very wrath of doomsday it/himself upon them (for those of you who don’t know the story of Superman’s death in the early 90’s, he died saving the city of Metropolis from a creature literally named Doomsday). Both were resurrected because death could not overcome them. Lastly, in their resurrection bodies, both were transformed. Jesus was resurrected in a glorified body, never to die again. With the resurrection of Superman (perhaps the term “resuscitation” is more fitting?) a serious question is raised on whether Superman is immortal. As long as Superman is exposed to Earth’s yellow Sun it may be impossible to kill him (He is, so to speak, a solar battery).

Notice also how ‘oddly’ Superman’s dual identity strangely mirrors Christ’s dual nature. Clark reflects the lowly, servant nature of Christ, while the Man of Steel resembles the glorified, divine nature of Jesus.

Superman Jesus Christ
 Origin: Not of this Earth Sent from Krypton, a planet that orbited a red sun called Rao, 50 light-years from our solar system Sent from heaven (Jn. 1: 9, 3:13), the eternal abode of God the Almighty Maker of Heaven and Earth
Sent by their fathers Sent to Earth by father Jor-El Sent to Earth by God (“El”) the Father (Jn. 5:37, 6:44, 8:16, 18, 12:49)
Saviors to their people The people of Metropolis The Church (Matt. 1:21, Jn. 10:11, Acts 20:28, Rom. 5)
Dual identity/Natures
  • Clark Kent– Mild-mannered reporter
  • Superman-Man of Steel, The Man of Tomorrow, The Last Son of Krypton
1 Person with 2 natures (cf. Phil. 2:5-9)

  • Fully divine: “In very nature God…”
  • Fully human: “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

 

Their deaths save from the embodiment of destruction Superman # 75, 1992

  • Superman: “Doomsday…is he…is he..
  • Lois: “You stopped him! You saved us all!”
Rom. 5:6-9,  “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.”
Resurrection “Reign of the Supermen!” storyline-1993 1 Corinthians 15

Is this sheer coincidence? I don’t think so. The original creators of Superman may not have been Christians, but Siegel and Shuster were raised in a biblically-saturated environment. They’ve claimed that Superman was loosely based on Moses and Samson. The rocket in which Superman’s father, Jor-El (El is Hebrew for God) sends him to Earth in is a parallel to the basket through which baby Moses was saved. And, of course, Samson is the prototype for Superman’s heroic strength. This would seem to work against my claim that Superman in a Christ figure. But, both Moses (as prophet and savior of the people of Israel) and Samson (as judge and defender of the nation) are Old Testament types pointing to their ultimate fulfillment in Christ. So is it any wonder why the Last Son of Krypton bears such a striking resemblance to the Son of Man?

What the Superman/Christ connection means for culture. Insofar as Superman embodies the ideals of generations gone by as well as today’s generation, his iconic status clues of in on a couple of things. First, since humanity is created with a purpose, and history is unfolding toward God’s goal, humans cannot escape their design. We cannot help but notice that the world is not as it should be. There are wrongs in this world that demand righting. Second, We need a hero. But, we need a hero that can do what we never could. One that is like us, yet not like us. Third, this hero must stand against all that is evil, and must embody justice to the fullest. Fourth, despite the argument to the contrary we still, deep down at our God-created core, know good from evil, and desire good to triumph over evil. Fifth, we cannot save ourselves. We are helpless to bring about the change that we so desperately need.

What the Superman/ Christ connection means for the gospel. First, the gospel presents us with the true myth. Part of the conversion of C. S. Lewis was his realization that the story of Jesus is the “true myth.” There was a time, during his “B.C.” days, when he thought the parallels between the Gospels and ancient pagan mythology proved that the story of Jesus couldn’t be true. But, in his conversion (which came about as a result of long conversations with Lord of the Rings author, J. R. R. Tolkien) he had a life-changing “aha” moment. As Lewis put it in a letter written to Arthur Greeves:

Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things’.

The similarities between the Gospels and pagan myths, rather than invalidating the story, actually proves it! God’s was guiding history, in a manner of speaking, to set the stage for Christ to walk on the stage. The belief in creation, sin, judgment, and redemption (in one form or another) are universal themes, and they strike a chord with nearly every human heart. All the highest hopes of men, and the greatest themes in all stories find their fulfillment in Christ.

Second, the story of Superman provides Christians with a cultural point of contact to share the gospel. If you live in America, then chances are on more than a number of occasions you’ve seen people wearing Superman “S” t-shirts. They’re all over the place (and Yes, I own one). The Man of Steel is probably the largest cultural icon other than Jesus in America. So, this provides us with the opportunity to turn an ordinary conversation about Big Blue into an evangelistic conversation without it seeming forced.

Anything, yes, even Superman, can be used as a springboard to Christian truth.

 

The Problem with Atheism

Here’s a tough bit of apologetic truth: Often times we give atheism too much credit. Too often we’ve allowed atheists to determine and dictate what is “rational.”

The problem of atheist rationality. Christians should not grant atheism a “get out of jail free” card. Atheism itself is not a rational position. The conversation is open and shut, in principle, if we allow (whether explicitly or implicitly) the atheist to determine rationality. Here’s a simple point, but one that’s worth noting: Atheists, when consistent, define rationality in accord with atheism. It’s all people interpret data (evidence, etc) in light of prior philosophical/religious commitments. So, what is “rational” for an atheist is determined by non-belief.

New atheists such as Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris may claim that rationality evolved. But at the end of the day their argumentation won’t fly. As others have argued, a justification for rationality that undermines trust in rationality is not rationality at all. According to the argument from reason, if Darwinian evolution is true, then most, if not all, of what we do and believe is directed toward survival, not truth. But if this is true— if we can be confident that that’s what driving our thinking— then what certainty do we have that we can trust our thinking? And if we have no rational for trusting our beliefs, then we don’t have any certainty that our thinking about anything is true, including our thinking about evolution.  On an evolutionary account, our cognitive equipment is merely geared toward survival and procreation.

What I’m not saying. Now for clarification, lest I be misunderstood. This isn’t to say that all atheists are irrational. A great many atheists are brilliant and far more educated than Christians. Though this is exactly what we should expect if we read our Bibles (Cf. 1 Cor. 1-2, James 2). God chose the things that are reckoned low and of disrepute in order to ultimately demonstrate that “finding” him isn’t about our gifts, strengths, or achievements. Again, 1 Cor. 1 says that God structured his plan to save sinners in a such a way that “the world through its wisdom would not know Him.” So, if this is true (and it is), we shouldn’t expect thinking based on strictly atheistic assumptions to be the kind of thinking that recognizes the evidence for God in this world (at least not explicitly, cf. Rom. 1).

The apologetic point I’m making is not whether atheists are sane and healthy-minded people. The point I’m making is that so many of them are, and are so in spite of their worldview. Informing of this very worldview-disconnect is what I mean by not granting them more than atheism deserves. When modern naturalistic atheists acts as if their reason is trustworthy, then are thinking like a Christian, not an atheist.

Why? We all live our lives on the functional assumption that logic is real and objective. But what accounts for it? A Christian would say that at its root, the existence of the infinite-personal God of the Bible is the One that provides the preconditions to make the existence of objective logic standards intelligible. And unless someone can provide a workable philosophical account of the ontological existence of objective logical standards, they are the ones those philosophies disappear in a puff of smoke.

Worldview cohesion.  We all have an ultimate commitment, or “centering belief,” that guides and directs the flow of our beliefs, desires, and hopes. Only when we find worldview harmony with our centering beliefs can we righted be called rational.

So, what about Christians? By the standard I’ve proposed, are we rational? Christians believe God is the creator of the universe and the ultimate reason why we can trust our sense perception of the outside world. God created both the world around me and my faculties of perception in such a fashion to be generally reliable. Our general trust in human rationality is grounded in our commitment to Christianity (just as our suspicions of human rationality are also rooted in our Christian doctrine of the noetic effects of sin).

Any view that denies this, while it may seem perfectly “rational” to the atheist, is completely foreign from my way of thinking and will be considered irrational to me. Am I being unnecessarily narrow? I don’t think so, after all, most atheists clearly believe that Christian belief is irrational when they characterize it as a fairy tale for adults.

The Problem with Unicorns

In my last blog post I raised some problems with religious agnosticism. As a follow-up a friend asked how I would respond to the following:

How would you respond if the agnostic says, “Your objections don’t follow from my lack of belief. Just because I don’t think the evidence warrants belief in, say, unicorns, doesn’t mean I have an ‘anti-unicorn’ bias”?

My response is rather brief, but is still worth sharing for the purpose of clarification: Unicorns aren’t God, and God isn’t a unicorn.

Unicorns aren’t God. First, yes, of course. The agnostic certainly could say that. But that’s not the same as saying that it’s an adequate response to my objections. We need to remind this person that the metaphysical status of unicorns is not the same as the status of God as understood by Scripture. The religious claims called into question are the following:

  • The biblical God has revealed himself to all people
  • All people suppress their knowledge of God in unrighteousness
  • The God of the Bible creates, upholds, and sustains all things
  • The God of the Bible is only rational foundation of being, and his revelation (both in nature and in his written word the Bible) is the only rational foundation for knowledge.

These are very specific claims. Whether or not unicorns exist does not affect the very preconditions of intelligibility. To live one’s life as it these claims aren’t true is, biblically speaking, to deny these truth claims. To deny these truth claims is anti-Christian.

God isn’t a unicorn. Evidence for God is quite different from evidence for unicorns.  The Christian God cannot be treated as simply another fact. Van Til writes:

We cannot prove the existence of beams underneath a floor if by proof we mean that they must be ascertainable in the way that we can see the chairs and tables of the room. But the very idea of a floor as the support of tables and chairs requires the idea of beams that are underneath. But there would be no floor if no beams were underneath. Thus there is absolutely certain proof for the existence of God and the truth of Christian theism. Even non-Christians presuppose its truth while they verbally reject it. They need to presuppose the truth of Christian theism in order to account for their own accomplishments. (see his The Defense of the Faith)

The appropriate method of proof must depend on the nature of the thing being proved. God (“a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth” as the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it ) cannot be discovered like so many cookies in a pantry….or unicorns in an enchanted forest.

The Problem with Agnosticism

You’ve likely experienced this. You speak to someone and it becomes apparent that you’re a Christian and they are not. Instantly you’re viewed as strange and maybe even backwoods in light of their enlightened secularism. Now, they probably won’t put themselves out there and say, “I don’t believe in God,” or “God doesn’t exist.” They live as atheists, but they prefer to identify as agnostics.

What is agnosticism? An agnostic is one who claims they don’t know about God’s existence, or the truth of any religious claims, whether true or false. Agnosticism can come with a religious veneer (“spiritual but not religious”), but is usually tied pretty close to a secularist and naturalistic worldview. For this type of person it is self-evident that religious claims, and usually specifically Christian claims, are absurd and Christians hold to magical or childish views of the universe. Christians can often feel frustrated speaking to folks like this because it is always they who are on the defense. The agnostic isn’t claiming anything, so it is believed. In fact their views are just natural. It’s simply what any rational person should hold.

The truth is agnosticism is in fact a view of the universe. It does reflect a worldview, and that worldview, whatever its stripe, is anti-Christian and should be shown to be so. But there are some important tactics we should remember when engaging these kind of agnostics. First, we ask clarifying questions, questions that agnostic may not have thought of themselves.

Ask, “What kind of agnostic are you?” There are essentially two kinds of agnostics, hard and soft. Hard agnostics believe that we cannot know religious truths. It is not within the ability of man to pierce through the veil of metaphysics. This is clarified when contrasting them with soft agnostics. A soft agnostic does not claim we cannot truth religious truths, only that they themselves have not come to know religious or metaphysical truths. Hard agnosticism is an epistemological claim about what is true for everyone. Soft agnosticism is merely a statement of where the person is at that moment.

Make the agnostic aware of this distinction. This distinction gets you out of the hot seat, stuck defensively answering all questions, turning the tables on any potential secularist superiority complex.  Depending on their answer, we can move the conversation in an apologetic direction.

Hard agnostics. Hard agnostics are actually committed to truths about the nature of reality. They are married to views, whether self-consciously or not, of what is possible and impossible. For them, the religious cannot be known to be true, so whatever reality is like, we cannot know if God exists, whether he is Trinitarian, whether man is morally opposed to him, etc. etc.  But this is in fact a denial that God is as the Bible portrays him. The Bible depicts God as a speaking God, a God who isn’t hidden. The Biblical God is one who is revealed in every fact of creation. To deny this by a universal appeal to mystery or ignorance does not change the fact that it is an anti-Christian bias.

b4ddd7aca9b2f25902ebb5ca2bfc209fTo draw out the hard agnostic, ask questions. What about our knowledge makes them believe that we simply cannot know religious or metaphysical truths? In answering your questions, you will help draw out their actual beliefs. Don’t necessarily call them on their consistency (starting with an appeal to ignorance at first, only to divulge their beliefs upon questioning), at least not yet. If you’ve got them talking this is good enough.

Soft agnostics. Again, ask a question: When you admit ignorance about religious truth claims, are you open to seeking the truth? Would you say there’s a chance Christianity is in fact true, even if you don’t have certainty just yet? Again, draw them out. Hostility or aggression is a surefire way to kill dialogue. Ask them: When it comes to religious claims, you say you don’t know. Would you like to know?

On the other half, a person might self-identify as a soft agnostic, only to be revealed as a hard agnostic upon questioning. Again, ask questions. Once you shift the burden of proof back on to the agnostic by asking about the hard/soft agnostic question, you have placed them in the position they so often what you to be: The hot seat.

Always keep in mind that you aren’t the only one who needs to account for what you believe.

The Art of Christian Listening

ListenBoth in my personal life and related to apologetics, I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of hearing and listening to people. A mark of God-pleasing thinking is our willingness to cultivate Christian listening. This means non-aggressively hearing them and even welcoming their potential insights. Here I’d like to suggest some practical steps toward better listening. But first, unpack the Christian in Christian listening.

Why Christian Listening?

I call this the art of Christian listening for two reasons.

First, it is an art. Listening is a skill to be developed because it doesn’t come naturally. In fact, since we’re sinful creatures with the natural tendency toward intellectual and moral laziness, we’ll most likely struggle with this for the rest of our lives.  That’s simply to say that listening well is part of our sanctification.

But there’s good news. The struggle can get easier. As we make the effort to apply ourselves in listening, we develop an internal sense of what we’re doing— even when we’re not conscious of it. This internalization of a skill is something with which artists are quite familiar. I’ve been cartooning since I was a child, and I couldn’t tell you what in the world I’m doing when I draw…I just draw. Shapes, lines, shadow, etc. These things are no second nature to me because I’ve developed a discipline by drawing for many, many years.

Secondly, this kind of listening is Christian because it is uniquely undergirded and supported by theological resources unique to the Christian worldview.

Here are some practical tips for becoming a better listener, supported by scripture. Nearly everyone will probably agree with these general guidelines, but only the Christian worldview provides us with a consistent theological foundation for these attitudes and actions. But before we jump into the positive, let’s address a major road block for Christian/ Non-Christian communication.

A Big Listening “Don’t”

A typical knee-jerk of many Christians is to dismiss all non-Christian thought as foolishness. This tendency usually stems from the biblical teaching (especially clear in 1 Cor. 1) that there’s a radical (from the Latin radix, meaning root) opposition between the deepest heart commitments of Christians and those of non-Christians. In principle, an absolute antithesis exists between the Christian worldview and all others. So, I can sympathize with the impulse behind the “knee-jerk reactions.” Christians take biblical passages such as 1 Cor. 1:18-2:5 seriously.

And this is true… but it’s not the whole story.

Reactionary positions do not reflect a robust understanding of God’s “common grace.” I plan on posting something about this very soon but for now we note that doctrine of common grace teaches us that though all people are sinners, God nevertheless prevents sin from making us as bad (or stupid) as we could be. Tim Keller nicely summarizes it by saying, “Because unbelievers are created in the image of God, they are far better than their wrong views should make them. But, Christians, because they are sinners, are far worse than their right views should make them.

Non-Christians do utter truths, and frequently God grants them greater insights into his world than his children. It simply isn’t biblical to reject genuine insights from unbelievers. Nor is it good reasoning (it’s called the genetic fallacy, i.e. dismissing a view because of its origin). Arguments must be accepted or rejected based on their own merits, not their source. Referring to the insights, gifts, and skills that God graciously bestows upon unbelievers, John Calvin said:

If the Lord willed that we be helped in physics, dialectic, mathematics, and the other like disciplines, by the work and ministry of the ungodly, let us use this assistance. For if we neglect God’s gift freely offered in these arts, we ought to suffer just punishment for our sloths.

Christian charity, sound scholarship, and winsome apologetics demand we closely and patiently evaluate non-Christian thought, both for the purposes of exposing its departure from Christ-centered principles as well as to gather from the Spirit’s gift of common grace.

So please, don’t just disagree with someone, look for their strong points, things you can agree with and build on. If you hear that Person X is wrong about something, look it up, listen to them, and even read some of their writing.

Listening “Dos”

Show respect. The purpose of evangelism, and apologetics, and dialogue with others is not to have a shouting match. We all grant that much (I hope!). But too often apologists can come off as smug, not granting the unbeliever a fair hearing. But that very unbeliever is created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27), imbued with dignity and honor. Also, 1 Peter 3:15 commands us to be ready to not only to defend the faith, but also to be ready to do so with “gentleness and respect.” God commands that we respect even those that may potentially harm us (cf. vs. 14, 17). We do this to in order to “[keep] a clear conscience” that testifies to God’s wisdom (v. 16).

Sympathetically listen to other points of view. We’ve heard the criticism: Christian truth-claims breed dogmatism and arrogance. Is this true? Well, for some it certainly can be. Here’s another truth claim: arrogance does not grow in the soil of the genuine gospel of Christ. Arrogance grows in the absence of the gospel! According to the biblical vision of divine grace teaches us we’re not delivered because we’re wiser, more spiritual, or more ethical than others. We are Christians solely by grace, and not by our superior ethical life or intellect, we should expect others to frequently see things and know things we do not.

Follow the other person’s argument. Since we’re created in the image of God, we are rational beings. We have an uneasy relationship with the idea of believing things willy-nilly, devoid of some kind of reason. We need some rationale, some reason for committing ourselves to a worldview, cause, or ideology. In a real-life apologetic discussion do pay close attention to the other person’s rationale for their beliefs. Think through their major claims, minor claims, throw-away arguments (arguments that only “preach to the choir”), evidence, etc. Often others have not thought through these issues self-consciously. It’s our job to help them do so.

Assess claims. Now that you’ve heard and listened carefully to their points, assess them. Are they true? Are they false? Are they completely false, or is there some good to be built upon? What are the underlying assumptions of what they’re saying?

Ask questions. Doing this will both clear up anything that’s still fuzzy in your mind about what they said, as well as create an opportunity for the person you’re speaking to refine their beliefs in light of your questions and objections. All throughout the gospels, Jesus asks insightful questions both to make points and to clarify the positions held by others. We’d do well to follow His example.

When necessary, admit ignorance. It’s happened to all who try to seriously provide answers to skeptics. And it’s one of the hardest things an apologist can do (akin to a professional scholar saying, “I was wrong.”). These three words are difficult, but often times necessary, to say. Here they are: I don’t know.

These three simple words can signal either defeat or something else. I propose that ending a conversation at this point isn’t the death of apologetics, but can in fact be the birth of long term dialogue with a non-Christian friend. Here are a common of reasons that I think this is the case.

First, admitting ignorance reinforces a spirit of dialogue, rather than confrontation. After all, we aren’t gurus. We aren’t the source of truth, we only point the way. And often times, we need others to help us get there as well. Second, our knowledge of God, Scripture, etc., should be a natural development in the process of our sanctification. As we grow in our love and devotion toward God, so our knowledge of him and his ways will also grow. This growth in grace will not end in this lifetime, so neither is the process of learning. Lastly, admitting ignorance may serve to honor the fact that Christianity is lived by faith (a living trust in a personal God). Our trust in God isn’t an achievement unlocked only after solving all “riddles” and questions. The moment we reduce “true” faith to intellectual sophistication, we’ve sold the farm to the Gnostics (and that’s bad news).

We must reject truth divorced from charity.  And we should embrace faith —trust in God’s word— working through love—taking the time to understand what others are saying (Gal. 5:6).

 

Reading Smarter

The following are some excellent tips for increased reading productivity from the article “How to Read a Book a Week” by Peter Bregman, published at the Harvard Business Review:

———————

Here’s Professor Jimenez’s advice on reading nonfiction, with a few additions of my own:

  1. Start with the author. Who wrote the book? Read his or her bio. If you can find a brief interview or article online about the author, read that quickly. It will give you a sense of the person’s bias and perspective.
  2. Read the title, the subtitle, the front flap, and the table of contents. What’s the big-picture argument of the book? How is that argument laid out? By now, you could probably describe the main idea of the book to someone who hasn’t read it.
  3. Read the introduction and the conclusion. The author makes their case in the opening and closing argument of the book. Read these two sections word for word but quickly. You already have a general sense of where the author is going, and these sections will tell you how they plan to get there (introduction) and what they hope you got out of it (conclusion).
  4. Read/skim each chapter. Read the title and anywhere from the first few paragraphs to the first few pages of the chapter to figure out how the author is using this chapter and where it fits into the argument of the book. Then skim through the headings and subheadings (if there are any) to get a feel for the flow. Read the first sentence of each paragraph and the last. If you get the meaning, move on. Otherwise, you may want to read the whole paragraph. Once you’ve gotten an understanding of the chapter, you may be able to skim over whole pages, as the argument may be clear to you and also may repeat itself.
  5. End with the table of contents again. Once you’ve finished the book, return to the table of contents and summarize it in your head. Take a few moments to relive the flow of the book, the arguments you considered, the stories you remember, the journey you went on with the author.

The Finger of God

Well, here I am again, feeling guilty because it’s been so long since I’ve regularly posted. I’ve been working on a book project for a while and so that’s taken up much of my blog-writing time. So here’s another Q&A. I’m thinking I may do this (posting theological Q&A’s) semi-regularly to keep material forthcoming.

The following response is in reply to a question of what potentially sounds like a biblical contradiction.

********************************************************************************

The question you raised is a good one. Did God write the second set of 10 Commandments after Moses threw down and broke the first pair? We know that the first pair of tablets were written by God’s finger (Ex. 31:18), and in Ex. 34:1 God said he would write the second set of tablets. Yet later in the chapter we read: “The Lord said to Moses: Write these words; in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel. He was there with the Lord for forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he [Moses] wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments” (Ex. 34:27-28).

So the question can sincerely be asked whether Moses or God wrote the second set of tablets. Here is an opportunity to think through the text and apply some theological and interpretative principles to this tough question. Exactly what does the finger of God mean? Of course, usually our first instinct is to take the passage literally, but upon second thought we realize that the Bible teaches that God is a spirit and does not have a body like a man (Jn. 4). He does not literally have fingers, arms, legs, etc. This is precisely why the incarnation is such a big deal. In the incarnation the second person of the Trinity assumes a human body (along with arms, legs, eyes, etc.), something the divine nature does not possess.

Elsewhere in the Bible where the term “finger of God” is used (including the passages under discussion) we see that God creates with his finger (Ps 8:3 See also Isa 48:13; Isa 64:8), he writes the law (Ex 31:18, Ex 24:12; Ex 32:16; Ex 34:1), he pronounces judgment (Dan 5:5; 24-28), he sends plagues (Ex 8:19), and in Jesus he exorcised evil spirits (Lk 11:20). So I believe taking all of this biblical data into consideration it is safe to say that “the finger of God” is a figure of speech which gives expression to God’s lordship in his creative power and authority over his creation.

This lordship is often expressed through the use of means. So, for example, though we would most certainly affirm that the parting of the Red Sea was a miracle, we should also recognize that, by God’s design, it was accomplished by natural means (Exodus 14:21, where God dried up a portion of the Red Sea by sending “a strong east wind.”). All that to say it is reasonable to say looking at the one passage that says God wrote the second set of Commandments himself, and the second passage that says Moses wrote it and to conclude that God wrote them through the means or agency or Moses. The “finger of God” (his authority, power, and dominion) was exercised through his divinely appointed agent and spokesman, the prophet Moses. In this sense the answer is extremely close to the biblical doctrine of inspiration.

The tablets were 100% the written words of God, and also 100% the written words of Moses.

I certainly pray you have this helpful.

Depravity and Moral Decisions

It’s been forever since I’ve posted something so I thought I’d share an email response I recently thought.

The question was about the compatibility between the Reformed doctrine of total depravity and man’s ability to make moral decisions. As the question came to me, it was stated as follows:

[Granted the doctrine of total depravity, in which man is utterly incapable of positively responding to God] , why is he able to make moral decisions in almost every or any other area in life without God’s intervention?

Why without any part of the divine initiative and monergistic regeneration, man can and for the most part make as many moral decisions needed to live a decent life in the best sense of the word? Is it that only in the case where Jesus Christ and his way of life are concerned that is man helpless, powerless, and clueless to the point that only a direct interference by the Holy Spirit can awakened him to the truth…?

And so, here’s my response….

Thank you for your question. I believe it’s helpful in that is drives us to making some important theological distinctions that clarify that is meant by the Reformed doctrine of total depravity or total inability.

The Reformed position does not deny that fallen and unregenerate people do in fact make everyday moral decisions. But first a word of clarification. I’m not quite sure what you mean by “moral decisions.” In one sense, we always make moral decisions.” Bad moral decisions are still decisions, and thus, even choosing to rebel against God and embracing sin is a moral decision. So, in this first sense, the Reformed position doesn’t deny that obvious point.

But you probably mean “moral decisions” in the sense of “morally good decision.” If this is the way in which you mean “moral decisions” I think it’s important to affirm that the unbeliever’s problem is personal and spiritual. To address this from the second point to the first, it is spiritual in the sense that it is most fundamentally about spiritual things. What this means is further clarified by the first point, the unbeliever’s hostility to God is personal. It is an enmity against God specifically. As Romans 1 teaches, unbelievers “suppress” what they know of God (v. 18). Likewise, in 1:18 Paul writes, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” Therefore the problem in choosing for the unbelievers is not in general, but instead it is specifically a rejection of the God who created and rules over them. Calvin himself acknowledged that unbelievers made positive contributions to society, love their familiars, communities etc. This is called “civil righteousness.” Reformed theologians have usually defined this under the term common grace, which is the Holy Spirit’s restraining power in the hearts of unbelievers so they are not as bad as they would be if they were consistent with their sinful rebellion against God.

So the great Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof (see his Summary of Christian Doctrine) provides us with two definitions of common grace. First, he defines it as “those general operations of the Holy Spirit whereby He, without renewing the heart, exercises such a moral influence on man that sin is restrained, order is maintained in social life, and civil righteousness is promoted.” Furthermore, he adds, that common grace includes “those general blessings which God imparts to all men without any distinction as He sees fit.”

And so the closer the issue drives an unbeliever to consider God, the more his rebellion will show itself. The further the issue appears to “bring God in the picture” the less that hostility will be made evident.

I hope this helps!

The Absurdity of Unbelief: Sale!

unnamedA few months ago Reformed pastor and theologian Jeffrey Johnson released his latest work, The Absurdity of Unbelief:  A Worldview Apologetic of the Christian Faith. Jeff was kind enough to send me an early edition for an honest review. What I found was a wonderful introduction to worldview apologetics in general and presuppositional thinking more specifically. As I wrote in my published endorsement for the book:

A major strength of Jeffrey Johnson’s Absurdity of Unbelief is its step-by-step systematic approach. He explains what faith is (and is not), what factors drive us to adopt our beliefs, how to test them, fatal difficulties on all systems of thought not built on the foundation of Christ, grounds for holding to Christian theism, and a passionate call to faith in Jesus. Along the way he examines Christian and non-Christian thinkers and movements both ancient and contemporary, demonstrating that the principles underlying a biblical apologetic equally apply to all forms of unbelief. I plan on coming back to this book again and again.

For those interested in its content, I’ve also included the table of contents below.

For a limited time you can purchase the digital edition of The Absurdity of Unbelief for a mere $0.99! Don’t miss out on this work.

Spread the word!
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On Inerrancy and the Biblical Use of Secondary Sources

In writing their inspired messages, several biblical authors saw fit to mention or cite books that would lend support to their historical claims. In the book of Ezra, over one-third of its contents are actually quotes from official legal documents. The question is raised, “if uninspired material is quoted in a supposedly infallible book, how does this effect the biblical understanding of inerrancy?”

On the surface it would seem that quoting flawed, or at least fallible, sources would cast a shadow of doubt on the truth of the Bible. Let’s explore what these citations or references do not imply. First, in quoting these sources the biblical writers and/or editors did not imply that books like The Prophecy of Ahijah the Shilonite, and The Annotations on the Books of the Kings were separate vehicles of inspired revelation. When Jude makes reference to the Book of Enoch and The Bodily Assumption of Moses he is not telling us that we should find these books and include them into the canon of Scripture. Acknowledging that uninspired books that contain truth do in fact exist does not imply that we lack a complete canon and should therefore seek out these ‘revelations.’

Second, when we see a note directing our attention to a Book of Records of Nathan the Prophet it does not necessarily mean the inspired Writers agreed with everything in that uninspired source. The Book of Enoch contains several things that a biblically informed Christian would reject. But, as noted earlier, this does not stop an author from accepting a particular truth in a document. Paul, in Acts 17, made reference to the Greek philosopher Epimenides when he acknowledged that in God we “live and move, and have our being”, and that “we are His offspring”. Yet as we examine the actual work he cited, Epimenides was not referring to YHWH, the God of Israel, but of Zeus, the supreme deity of the Greek pantheon. Does this mean that Paul condoned pagan idol worship? No, of course not. Paul was simply confirming to the men of Athens that in our supreme Creator we owe all of our existence, though they substituted this Creator with Zeus.

Lastly, and typing together our first two points, when quoting outside sources the Prophets and Apostles claimed neither that those books where an authoritative rule of faith, nor were they infallible. Historical documents were cited simply to corroborate the truthfulness of what an inspired writer claimed. All these references were perfect, infallible uses of imperfect, fallible documents.

Yet, with these few notes having been made, we must now look to what actually was implied by the biblical Writers when they quoted from uninspired documents. First, if we are to define inerrancy by saying that the Bible is correct in all that it affirms, we must confess that these quotations taken from other sources are indeed correct, and reliable in conveying the reality which they dealt with. The entire concept of biblical inerrancy, when properly understood, is the natural, logical conclusion to the doctrine of biblical inspiration. The reasoning goes as follows:

  • God is truth, and cannot tell any falsehood. (John 3:33, 17:3, 1 Jn. 5:20)
  • All Scripture is inspired by God[1], and is the very source in which we find God speaking to us. (2 Tim. 3:16-17)
  • Therefore, all Scripture is without error in everything it affirms, and correct in all it documents. (Ps.19:7, Isa. 65:16)

It is with this presupposition that we come to the texts in question.

Another point we must realize is that the writers of these particular texts knew that the resources they cited would hold quite a bit of weight with their readers. For example, when Ezra quotes at length from the letters of King Darius and King Artaxerxes he knew that the authority lent to his writing by official royal decrees would confirm his writings. Therefore, anyone contesting the authenticity of his writing could confirm them within the annals of royal decrees.

And lastly, it is worthy of mention that we must always keep in mind that the concept of biblical inerrancy does not imply that the canon was written in a vacuum. When authors such as Ezra or the writers of such books as 1 & 2 Kings and Chronicles were addressing the pressing issues of their day, they were not exempt from gathering source data much like we today do.

The chief difference between their research and our own is that God superintended their writings of biblical authors in such a way, through inspiration, that their citations and references were completely free from error and misguidance.

[1] The literal rendering of the Greek text is “God-breathed”, theopneustos. For more see my What is Biblical Inerrancy? A Six-Part Series

A Real Life Dialogue on Abortion

Several Days ago I hopped on to social media and posted the following to Bill Nye, “The Science Guy”:

FB commentThis prompted a discussion with a gentleman I will refer to as “Nye Defender.” What resulted is what I believe is a helpful example of pro-life apologetics in action. My statements will appear in bold, when ND will appear in italics.

Nye Defender: Your point?

JT: I will not assume,, that you necessarily know of the recent video Mr. Nye posted claiming that those who claim that human life begins at conception “literally” have no idea what they are scientifically claiming. Placed in that context, the point above is clear. That human life begins at conception is an indisputable scientific and embryological fact. I have many such statements from a number of embryology textbooks to supplement this one if you are interested.

ND: Yes. I am quite aware of the video. He never said that am embryo was not the start of a human being. However, differentiating between the different stages of development is important. An embryo is a potential human being, but it is not yet one. These statements from these doctors do not refute anything Nye said in the video.

JT: An embryo is not a thing, it is a stage of development in the life of a thing, just as a toddler or teenager is not a thing but a stage of development. What is the thing? It is a human being. An embryo never “becomes” a human being. It is a human being at every level of development. It looks and acts just as any and every human being does at that stage. Also, please note that the quote I provided does address Nye’s claim in that fertilization begins a “human life,” not a potential human life.

ND: I never said it was a thing. An embryo is not a human being. It could not survive outside of the womb. This is why this is such a debate. There is much debate within the medical community and society as to what constitutes a human being. I support the idea that a human being does not exist until the stage of development where it could survive outside of the womb, generally the 3rd trimester. Until then, it is in various stages of development but is not fully a human being yet.

JT: Thank you for engaging in healthy discussion. It’s much more genuine, and less full of strawmen, than the words of Mr. Nye himself. You don’t strike me as an advocate of the “all pro-lifers are idiots” approach.

You touched upon a really important point when you write, “much debate within the medical community and society as to what constitutes a human being.” And your words highlight an important truth: the anthropological question of “What is a human?” is not a scientific question. It is in fact a philosophical/theological questions that presupposes a number of interrelated worldview questions. But that’s not to avoid the harder biological and scientific facts, but it is to acknowledge that other issues are at play.

And this is one of the things that I believe raises difficulties for your position. You stated, “I support the idea that a human being does not exist until the stage of development where it could survive outside of the womb, generally the 3rd trimester.” First, thank you for putting your cards on the table and making a concrete claim. It’s a breath of fresh air, especially compared to many abortion advocates who deny than human life begins at conception but refuse to say when it *does* start. Here is where I think the problem lies: defining human life in terms of viability 1) confuses biology with technology, and 2) proves too much.

I say that because viability, the ability for the fetus to survive outside of the mother’s body, is completely relative to technological advances in medicine. So the age of viability by that standard today would be different than the age of viability 30 years ago, and that would be different than 100 years before that, and therefore the answer to the question What is a human? Would keep changing. To make this point clear, it’s now strongly being argued that “Premature Babies May Survive at 22 Weeks if Treated” (see article attached).

[Incidently, this would also have the implication that you should considering opposing not only third trimester abortions, but also those in the second trimester (which lasts from week 13 to week 27).]

Another difficulty I would suggest you consider is that the viability of definition of human life proves too much. Why is that? Because newborn infants also cannot survive outside of the womb apart from outside sustenance. Would we be willing to deny their personhood based on that as well? If unborn babies inside the womb have no moral or legal standing based its ability to “survive” on their own outside of the womb, then neither should newborns babies outside of the womb.

My assumption is that you are *not* an advocate for infanticide.

ND: I don’t oppose anything when it is medically prudent for either the mother or the potential child. I support the right to choose. I do not believe the government, nor anyone else, has the right to tell a woman what to do with her body. It should be up to her, the potential father (in some cases), and the doctor(s). I do not have the right to make a woman carry to term and give birth. The government does not have that right either. I do not advocate for people to undergo these procedures, but to have the right to make the decision that is best for them once presented with all necessary information.

JT: Just wanting to make sure I’m understanding you: Are you saying that you do not oppose infanticide?

ND: I did not say that. I did not even address that point because it is not relevant to the conversation. You are talking about killing a child who has been born already. That is a different argument from the discussion on abortion.

JT: Please help me understand the relevant moral distinction.

ND: We are not talking about the morals, because that is an entirely different debate. You asked about infanticide. It cannot be infanticide until the child is born. So, obviously I do not support the killing for a baby who has already been born. Once born, we should do everything we can to ensure its survival and health.

Again, I do not advocate for abortion. I support a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body. I support her right to make an informed decision for her own physical and mental health and that of her potential child. That is all I advocate for. It is not my place, your place, or anyone else’s, to make those decisions for someone else.

JT: Mr. _____ I’m not sure I understand what you mean to say when you say that the moral question of abortion is “an entirely different debate.” Civil laws are always a legislation of a moral perspective. Theft is illegal because it is deemed morally wrong, as is perjury, arson, and a host of illegal activities. And this is why, at the heart of the abortion debate is a moral issue. The true question is not one of “what a woman can or cannot do with her body.” That’s important, but handling that question is entirely dependent on another question, the primary question: What is the unborn? If the unborn is a human being, there is no moral justification for taking its life. If the unborn is not a human being, then no moral justification is necessary for abortion– just as there is no moral debate over the status of having one’s tooth pulled.

Much of what you have written already assumes your own position without defending it, thus begging the question. A woman is only free to do with her own body what she pleases if it is not used to bring harm to others. We must agree on this point. This is why it is illegal to strap a bomb on to our own bodies and walk into a crowded movie theater. Why? Because we would be using our bodies to harm others. I have provided you with biological evidence that what is growing in a mother’s womb is not her own body.

Abortion takes place within a woman’s body, not to a woman’s body, per se. The abortion happens to the body of the unborn as it is either burned with a saline solution, or ripped apart piece by piece out of the mother’s body. Unless we accept the absurd conclusion that each mother possesses 2 unique sets of DNA and generic make-up, we must acknowledge that the unborn is a unique, living, and distinct human person from the mother. If this is true, than the logic of the pro-life argument is valid. Again, a woman should have the (ethical) right to determine what is right for her own body in conjunction with her own doctor if and only if her body is not used to harm another person. If it is used in that way, she does not have the moral “right” to use it in that way.

Again, when you say “I support a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body,” the burden of proof falls on you to disprove the biological distinction between the mother and the unborn. Simply saying that it’s her body does not establish the claim.

Please reconsider the following argument. If the premises are true, the conclusion necessarily must be true. 1) Murder is morally wrong, 2) abortion is murder), 3) Therefore abortion is morally wrong.

The first premise is just about universally agreed upon by religious and non-religious people (here we must make the moral distinction between murder and killing). The second premise is true if the abortion is the intentional destruction of a living and biologically distinct human being (which is supported by the evidence provided in the link attached). If that is the case, premise 3 must follow, “Therefore abortion is morally wrong.”

ND: None of your initial points connected to the morality. If you want to discuss that, then that should be the focus. Everything until now has been about the definitions and the development process. I do not consider abortion to be murder, especially in the first trimester when the embryo or fetus would never be able to survive on its own anyways. You are using the concept of post hoc, ergo propter hoc to make a connection between things that are not definitively connected. Abortion is not defined as murder, therefore you cannot say it is morally wrong. I am no longer participating in this discussion because you will never see my view and I will never agree with your view either. Suffice it to say, as I have said repeatedly now, neither you nor the government gets to force a woman to carry an unwanted child (especially in the case of a rape or incest) to term and then to give birth to that child.

JT: The moral and medical are bound together. As I’ve tried to communicate (whether successfully or unsuccessfully), if premise 2 is established (that abortion is the destruction of a biologically distinct human person), and premise 1 is accepted (a nearly universal moral axiom that I didn’t bother to defend), the conclusion follows.

You have emphasized that you do not believe that abortion is murder “when the embryo or fetus would never be able to survive on its own.” This is the “viability” argument that I addressed earlier in our discussion. Would you please consider responding to what I said there? Likewise, I fail to see how I committed the “post hoc” fallacy. You failed to even explain how this was committed (perhaps believing that it is self-evident?) Whether it is self-evident I will leave to others to decide.

Rape and incest are horrible, abominable crimes (though, in statistically proven data they make up approx. 1% of abortion cases), and violators should be prosecuted harshly. Nevertheless those horrible actions wherein the mother is violated should not be used to justify further violence to another innocent party. What is needed is love for the victim, love that is concretely shown in support, encouragement, and finances. Pro-lifers must “put their money where their mouth is.” But there is no widespread lack of this considering there are far more crisis pregnancy centers and advocacy groups than there are abortion clinics.

In the name of intellectual honesty, I hope you will acknowledge to yourself that you have not defended, supported, or argued in favor of your position. You have merely asserted it and assumed it. I do pray that perhaps you will at least reread what I’ve written and consider the arguments, even if you are not inclined to agree.

Thank you for engaging in a civil discussion.

ND: I will reread what you have written. However, under no circumstance do I believe that a woman should be forced to carry a child . That would be cruel to the woman, especially in the case of rape or incest. It is irrelevant that those cases only make up a small portion of abortions. The fact is that they cases do exist.

I do not understand how someone who was not a willing participant in the act of conception should be forced to spend the next 9 months of her life with the constant reminder of that event and putting her body through the pregnancy. How is that right? I just do not understand that stance. I suppose I never will because I cannot put myself in the place of a woman and understand what she is going through at that point. I will also never understand how anyone can believe that the government should have a right to tell a woman that she should have to carry a child that is not wanted. I just don’t get it. Whether you believe abortion is right or wrong, the fact is that no one should be making that decision for another person.

JT: And yet, laws in fact do, all the time and always, “tell people what to do.” But you haven’t responded to this. As I said, a woman’s rape is a horrible, demonic act of violation. But that act does not change the medical fact that her “desire” for the child (or lack thereof) does not make the unborn less human. If a mother of a newborn that resulted from rape decides to kill the baby because it reminds her of her violation, would that be permissible? No, it wouldn’t, and I’m confident most people would say because the baby is a human being. And I would agree- We shouldn’t kill humans. And so, as I noted earlier, the one essential question is this: Is the unborn a human?

All the other questions are important in various ways, but they can only be addressed and answered rightly if we get to the heart of that one central question.

The False Analogy Between Interracial Marriage and Same-Sex “Marriage”

In the eyes of many same-sex “marriage” advocates, those who oppose this legal innovation are cultural throwbacks, akin to people who opposed interracial marriage. And so, once that analogy is made, it would only make sense that those who support interracial marriage would also support same-sex “marriage.” But does this analogy hold water?

According to Ryan T. Anderson, author of Truth Overruled, there are several reasons why we should reject this analogy as false:

Great thinkers throughout human history—and from every political community until about the year 2000— thought it reasonable and right to view marriage as the union of husband and wife. Indeed, this view of marriage has been nearly a human universal. It has been shared by the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions; by ancient Greek and Roman thinkers not influenced by these religions; and by Enlightenment philosophers. It is affirmed by canon law as well as common and civil law.

Bans on interracial marriage, by contrast, were part of an insidious system of racial subordination and exploitation that denied the equality and dignity of all human beings and forcibly segregated citizens based on race. When these interracial marriage bans first arose in the American colonies, they were inconsistent not only with the common law of England but with the customs of every previous culture throughout human history.

As for the Bible, while it doesn’t present marriage as having anything to do with race, it insists that marriage has everything to do with sexual complementarity. From the beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation, the Bible is replete with spousal imagery and the language of husband and wife. One activist Supreme Court ruling cannot overthrow the truth about marriage expressed in faith, reason, and universal human experience.

We must now bear witness to the truth of marriage with more resolve and skill than ever before. We must now find ways to rebuild a marriage culture. The first step will be protecting our right to live in accordance with the truth. The key question, again, is whether the liberal elites who now have the upper hand will treat their dissenting fellow citizens as they treat racists or as they treat pro-lifers. While elites disagree with the pro-life position, most understand it. They can see why a pro-life citizen defends unborn life—so for the most part they agree government shouldn’t coerce citizens into performing or subsidizing abortions. The same needs to be true for marriage. And we need to make it true by making the arguments in defense of marriage.

Ryan T. Anderson, Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom, 6-7

When Grammar Changes Prayer

Shortly after my daughter turned two years old I began teaching her the Lord’s Prayer. But the version I taught her was slightly different than the one to which most of us are accustomed. Instead of praying, “And deliver us from evil,” I taught her to pray, “And deliver us from the evil one.” It’s a change of words, but one that has fairly significant theological implications.

But who am I to change the words of Scripture? Surely, tinkering with the words of Christ himself calls for linguistic and translational justification. Do I have one? I do, and it’s something I found long ago back at the beginning of my biblical studies. And it’s all about adjectives. Here it is:

Adjectives have a theological importance that is hard to rival. They can modify a noun (attributive), assert something about a noun (predicate), or stand in the place of a noun (substantival). Sometimes it is difficult to tell exactly which role a particular adjective is in.

Take the adjective (“evil”) in Matthew 6:13, for example. The King James Version (as well as more than one modern translation) translates this as “but deliver us from evil.” But the adjective has an article modifying it (tou [“the evil”]), indicating that it is to be taken substantivally: “the evil one.” [“A substantive is a noun, pronoun, or any word functioning like a noun”- source]

And there is no little theological difference between the two. The Father does not always keep his children out of danger, disasters, or the ugliness of the world. In short, he does not always deliver us from evil. But he does deliver us from the evil one. The text is not teaching that God will make our life a rose garden, but that he will protect us from the evil one, the devil himself (cf. John 10:28-30; 17:15).

—Daniel B. Wallace, quoted in William Mounce’s Basics of Biblical Greek Grammar, 64.

I want to instill in my daughter a realization that the prayer isn’t about God delivering us from the dangers and infelicities of this life. It is a cry from the battlefield, requesting that the King rescue us from the enemy of our souls.

Jesus’ Blood May Not be Precious for the Reasons You Think

On 9/16/15 I tweeted the following:

This came out of a discussion I had with a friend in which we reflected on a popular misunderstanding of Christ’s blood. As the tweet hit my Facebook account it engendered a bit of discussion, which was both expected and welcome. There are several reasons I think it’s wise to avoid affirming anything like magical properties in the blood of Jesus. There biblical reasons, linguistic reasons, and theological reasons.

Biblical reasons. I think we would agree that the death of Christ, and how it “works” in atoning for our sin, is patterned after the OT sacrificial system commanded by God. The quickest way to talk about this is to jump to Lev. 16, the Day of Atonement. There, starting in v. 11 we read, “Aaron shall present the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. He shall kill the bull as a sin offering for himself.” And again, from verses 15-19 we reading the longer explanation:

Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat. Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses. No one may be in the tent of meeting from the time he enters to make atonement in the Holy Place until he comes out and has made atonement for himself and for his house and for all the assembly of Israel. Then he shall go out to the altar that is before the LORD and make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and some of the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar all around. And he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it and consecrate it from the uncleannesses of the people of Israel.

I believe the point here, the point the priests would have understood, is this: The shedding of blood, apart from the actual death of the animal would not atone for sin. Applying the blood, sprinkling the blood, etc. was all to symbolically demonstrate that death had taken place. This is because of the sacrificial principle of substitution. The animal was killed in place of the worshipper who offered it, in their place. The worshipper deserves death, but through the sacrificial system God graciously provided a way in which fellowship with him could be maintained and the worshipper themselves not be destroyed.  If the blood was offered by wounding (but not killing) the animal, there would be no atonement. So the blood is by no means meaningless. The blood is proof of death.

Applying this to of Christ we find the same principle at play. If Jesus was merely wounded and shed tons of blood but didn’t die, then he would not be fulfilling the role of an OT sacrifice, and therefore atonement would not be complete.

Linguistic reasons. But I think there are linguistic reasons to support the first point I just made. I would say that speaking of the atonement in terms of the “blood” is what is called a metonymy. It’s a technical literary term for a concept we’re all familiar with, and the Bible itself employs. A metonymy is a figure of speech that

consists of the use of the name of one object or concept for that of another to which it is related, or of which it is a part, as “scepter” for “sovereignty,” or “the bottle” for “strong drink,” or “count heads (or noses)” for “count people.”

Further examples of this can be found in Isa. 22:22, 29:1 Matt. 16:19, and Luke 16:29. So speaking of the precious “blood” of Christ is the way the biblical writers refers to the sacrifice-onto-death of Jesus.  Of course, it’s a perfectly legitimate way of speaking, and I wouldn’t dare “censor” the Bible’s way of speaking.

Another really good example of this principle is found in Ezekiel 18:20, “The soul that sins shall die.” Obviously, the verse isn’t saying that if a soul (as opposed or distinct from a body) sins, only the soul will die. Here Ezekiel is using a metonymy, “soul” (a part of what makes up a person) is used to refer to the whole person. So the meaning is “The person who sins will die.”

Like I said, it’s a fairly common concept, and this should give you an idea of how I would read passages such as  Lev. 17:11 Ps. 72:14 John 6:53-54 Rev. 12:11.

Theological reasons. The last reason I said what I did basically takes the last two points and draws some theological conclusions. The problem is that if we say that Christ’s blood, the actual physical hemoglobin, had healing or spiritual power we are functional docetists,

Docetism is a subdivision of the ancient heresy of Gnosticism. Gnostics believed that the material world was bad, and the immaterial (“spiritual”) world was superior. In contrast, the Bible tells us when God created the physical world he repeatedly called it “good.” The docetists applied this principle to the incarnation and therefore denied that Jesus Christ (who is good) took on a real, material, fully human body (which, in their minds, would be bad). The Greek term dokéo means “to seem,” as in Jesus only seemed to possess a material body. And so while there aren’t many explicit docetists in the church today, many are functional docetists because of what they believe about Christ’s humanity.

Jesus’ body was fully human, and humans (even perfectly sinless humans) do not possess magic or supernatural blood. His blood was the blood of a normal human being. And so just as real, normal humans do not have special properties to their hemoglobin, neither did Jesus. In terms of its physical nature, his blood was no different than the blood of any other ancient Mediterranean Jewish male. That’s not to take away from the glory of the incarnation. Rather I say that to robustly affirm the incarnation. Jesus became a real human, not a superhuman.

I should probably also clarify something I said that would be misunderstood. I wrote, “There’s nothing ontologically special about Jesus’ blood.” The key word for me in writing that was “ontologically.” In technical terms people are confusing ethics with ontology (being or nature). The worth of Christ’s sacrifice was because he was morally perfect (“without spot or wrinkle”), not because of any physical characteristics of his humanity (such as his blood). If there were, he wouldn’t be truly human, and therefore an unfit substitute for fallen and sinful humans. I believe this is a category confusion, and one that endangers a robust biblical Christology.

The Bible is very clear that our fallenness is a moral/ethical problem (rebellion to our Creator), and not an ontological/metaphysical problem (some about our created nature/being). Therefore the solution to the problem is moral as well, not ontological (it’s Christ’s obedience that is valued, not his hemoglobin).

The “blood” of Jesus– as in the value, power, and efficacy of his death– is of infinite value.

The Crucified King: Kingdom-Through-Cross

In his wonderful book The Crucified King, Jeremy Treat sees the theme of kingdom-through-the-cross reoccurring  throughout the Bible. For example he sees the theme show up in the book of Isaiah. He highlights of themes of suffering and victory throughout the prophetic book (while acknowledging the appropriate distinctions in emphasis in chapters 1-39, 40-55, and 56-66). The depiction of royal figure of the first half of Isaiah is expanding and nuanced by the suffering figure of the latter half of the book. This figure establishes God’s kingdom reign by means of his atoning death.  When we bring together these twin themes in Isaiah we should see them as mutually reinforcing, not at odds. The kingdom of God is presented both in new creation (emphasizing the cosmic), and as new exodus (emphasizing liberation from enslavement).  Isa 52:13–53:12, according to Treat, serves as a vivid demonstration of how this is accomplished.

The paradoxical nature of the servant-king’s suffering and exaltation is at the heart of his glorious accomplishment. He who was “lifted up”…and exalted. (Isaiah 52:13) is the very one who “has born… our griefs” (53:4) and “bore… the sin of many” (53:12). In English, one simply misses the wordplay, but the irony could not be any greater. The one who is “lifted up” in exaltation is the one who has “lifted up” our sins onto himself in order that we may be reconciled to God and share in his victory. Although exaltation and humiliation seem to be extreme opposites, the servant is exalted through humiliation and victorious through suffering. Re-placing the song of the Suffering Servant in its canonical context provides a kingdom framework for the sin-bearing, sorrow-carrying, punishment-averting, guilt-offering, place-taking, atoning death of the servant-king. The significance could not be more crucial: the servant-king brings about a kingdom of servants through his atoning and victorious suffering (86).

But Mark’s Gospel, Treat argues, is also developed along these lines. As chapter 3 begins, Treat contrasts his understanding of the kingdom and cross relation in Mark with the following six positions: Kingdom despite the cross (Jesus’ life and resurrection, not death, bring the kingdom), cross despite kingdom (Jesus’ death is what really matters), kingdom and then cross (Jesus’ kingdom mission cut short by death), cross and then kingdom (Jesus’ death as precursor to the kingdom), kingdom qualifies Cross (theology of glory corrects theology of suffering), and cross qualifies kingdom (theology of suffering corrects theology of glory, 87-88). To this Treats responds, “I propose that the proper relationship is defined as ‘kingdom by ‘way’ of the cross”” (88).  He then outlines Mark’s Gospel as follows (89-110),

  • The kingdom in the shadow of the cross (1:1-8:26)
  • The kingdom redefined by the cross (8:27-10:52)
  • The kingdom established by the cross (11:1-16:8)

Treat contends that the cross is “the means of the Messiah’s mission to establish the kingdom” (75), and that “the messianic mission culminates at Golgotha, where the crucified king establishes his kingdom by way of the cross” (110). In his crucifixion, the messianic king is exalted, and through his suffering is victorious  (86).

Lastly, at least for our purposes, he also the theme popping up in the book of Revelation:

These passages from Revelation enlighten the relationship between the kingdom of Christ and the blood of his cross in three ways. First, Christ atoning work on the cross results in the people of God being made a kingdom (Rev. 1:5B-6). Second, the Lion-like victory was achieved through a Lamb-like means (5:5–6). By the blood of Christ, people of all nations have been ransomed from sin and made to be kings and priests (5:9–10) in the pattern and fulfillment of the Exodus (Exod. 19:6). Third, the establishment of Gods kingdom entails the defeat of Satan by Christ and his followers (Rev.12:10–11). In what is primarily a legal battle, Christ, by shedding his blood, paid the penalty for sin and therefore defeated Satan by disarming him of his accusatory force. Though the final defeat is yet to come, Christians continue to conquer Satan, exposing his deception but witnessing to Christs obedient life and a true efficacy of his death (126-127) 

Treat’s point here is that Kingdom and cross presuppose one another and work in tandem. The proper view, the author persuasively argues, is exaltation in humiliation within a broader progression of exaltation through humiliation (156). As in Marks Gospel, the cross is where the messianic king rules. It is the scepter by which he exercises his dominion and defeats the enemy of the people of God. 

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