No…Sola Scriptura is Not Found in the Bible: But That Was Never the Point

Bad Arguments Against Sola Scriptura Part 1 - Not Found in Scripture

This past week I listened to two lectures on the doctrine of sola scriptura (Latin for “scripture alone”): one by a Protestant scholar and the other by a Roman Catholic apologist. One of the things that stood out in the lecture given by the Protestant was his insistence that the doctrine of sola scriptura is something that can actually be found in scripture. The person who spoke from a Roman Catholic perspective, on the other hand, argued quite strongly that the doctrine of sola scriptura cannot be found in scripture. Now it might come as a surprise to some people but in this case I would say that I actually agree with the person who was speaking from a Roman Catholic perspective: I don’t think that the doctrine of sola scriptura can actually be found in scripture. But, unlike the Roman Catholic apologist, I don’t think that makes the doctrine of sola scriptura wrong.

What is Sola Scriptura?

According to many Roman Catholic apologists, it would be inconsistent for a Protestant to believe in sola scriptura if the doctrine of sola scriptura can’t actually be found in scripture. While this argument might sound fairly strong on first examination, the reality is that it is based, at least in part, on a misunderstanding of what the doctrine of sola scriptura actually is. Unlike what so many people think– both on the Roman Catholic and on the Protestant side – the doctrine of sola scriptura does not mean that scripture is our only authority when it comes to what we believe and what we do as Christians; the doctrine of sola scriptura means that the Bible is our ultimate authority, under God, for what we should believe and do as Christians. As Protestants, scripture is not our only authority – but it is the authority by which all other authorities need to be measured. This is how it is worded in the Westminster Confession of Faith:

Westminster Confession of Faith (Chapter 1.10)

The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we can rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.[1]

The Belgic Confession says something similar:

Belgic Confession (Article 7)

Therefore we must not consider human writings – no matter how holy their authors may have been – equal to the divine writings; nor may we put custom, nor the majority, nor age, nor the passage of time or persons, nor councils, decrees, or official decisions above the truth of God, for truth is above everything else.[2]

So sola scriptura does not mean that the Bible is our only authority when it comes to what we believe and do as Christians – but it is our highest authority, the authority by which every other authority is to be judged.

Why We Should Believe in Sola Scriptura

So the question that we need to ask now is this: why should we believe in the doctrine of sola scriptura?

There are basically two reasons why we should believe in sola scriptura – and we need both, otherwise the argument isn’t very strong.

1. The first reason why we should believe in sola scriptura is because we believe that scripture is inspired by God and that it is completely trustworthy when it comes to what we should believe and do as Christians. Of course we could get into a debate about whether or not scripture actually is inspired by God, whether or not scripture actually is trustworthy, or how do we really know which books should be in the Bible. But none of those points are really at issue here. During the Protestant Reformation, both sides were in agreement on this point. Of course, there eventually would be debate about the scope of the Old Testament (i.e. do the apocryphal/deuterocanonical books belong to the Old Testament) but even that isn’t really fundamental to this debate: during the Protestant Reformation both sides believed in the inspiration and trustworthiness of scripture.

But the inspiration and trustworthiness of scripture isn’t really enough to bring a person all of the way to the doctrine of sola scriptura – there is one more ingredient that is needed.

2. The second reason why we should believe in sola scriptura is because we don’t believe that any other source of authority is inspired by God and is completely trustworthy for what we should believe and do as Christians. As Protestants we don’t believe that the Pope is infallible, even when he speaks ex cathedra. (As a side note, Luther’s opponents in the sixteenth century clearly had a higher view of papal infallibility than the Catechism of the Catholic Church does today and certainly more than Roman Catholic apologists do today. I wonder if this is because, from our perspective today, it is all too clear that popes can and do make serious theological mistakes).   As Protestants, we respect the ecumenical and other councils of the church, but we don’t believe they are infallible. And as Protestants – at least the early Protestants like Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Bucer, Calvin, etc. and those who follow closely behind them – we read and respect the accumulated wisdom of the church fathers, but it is pretty easy to show that they were not infallible. No matter how close they might come to the truth, as Protestants we can never be sure that they are completely trustworthy because in too many instances they have shown themselves not to be trustworthy. That was the point that Martin Luther was trying to make at the Diet of Worms:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason – for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves – I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.[3]

Notice that Luther didn’t base his belief in sola scriptura on the fact that sola scriptura is found in the Bible. Luther’s belief in sola scriptura is based on his view of the inspiration of scripture and the fact that two of the highest authorities for the Roman Catholic Church – popes and councils – are not completely trustworthy because they have often made mistakes and contradicted each other. And because Luther believed these two things, that meant that every other authority needed to be judged on the basis of scripture because scripture is the only authority that can be considered to be completely trustworthy for what we believe and do as Christians.

But Whose Interpretation Should We Follow?

The person who was arguing from the Roman Catholic perspective also brought out one other point that needs to be considered: he said that the doctrine of sola scriptura assumed an infallible interpreter. The Roman Catholic Church, he said, has the teaching authority of the church, the magisterium, to give them an authoritative interpretation of scripture. Protestants, on the other hand, have simply transferred the authority to interpret scripture from the church to the individual – which is a recipe for chaos.

What should we say in response to this? There are three quick things we can say in response to this:

a) First, it is fairly easy to show on the basis of individual examples that the teaching authority of the church is not infallible. They can make mistakes and they have made mistakes. So when the teaching authority of the church makes mistakes, scripture trumps the teaching authority of the church.

b) Second, Protestants traditionally do believe that the church and tradition have the ability to guide believers in the right interpretation of scripture. We would be fools to think that we as individuals are capable of getting everything right while everyone else is wrong. That is one reason why we need to have pastors and teachers and scholars to help God’s people understand scripture. That is one reason why we need to read church history and get as much wisdom as we can from Christians who came before us. And that is one reason why we need to be accountable to a larger church body so that it’s not just me or my small group and the Bible. If we think that sola scriptura means me plus the Bible and that’s it, that is a complete misunderstanding of how the early reformers understood the doctrine of sola scriptura.  So we would be fools not to gain wisdom from the teaching authority of the church and tradition.

But with all of this in mind, we still need to recognize that the teaching authority of the church and tradition still need to be placed under the authority of scripture because they are not infallible.  If the teaching authority of the church and tradition contradict scripture, scripture trumps them both.

c) Third, some people might think that I’m too much a child of the enlightenment but I actually do believe that there is objective meaning in the text and that that objective meaning is publically available. With the right training and the right presuppositions, Christian leaders should be able to come to a fairly good consensus on what scripture teaches in most cases. That is one reason why I think biblical theology is so important: it’s because I firmly believe that a more careful reading of scripture and how scripture fits together will bring us closer to what God actually wants us to believe and do as Christians. While I don’t think that Christians will ultimately agree on every issue (there are a lot of factors that go into how we form our theology!), I do think that a more careful reading of scripture will bring us closer together on many points. But even if everyone is not as optimistic as I am, I still think that scripture is clear enough that we can say that some teachings are definitely wrong and that some teachings are definitely right on the basis of what scripture has to say.

Conclusion

Again, I don’t think that sola scriptura is found in scripture. But that was never the point. The point is that both sides during the Reformation believed in the inspiration and trustworthiness of scripture – the difference is that the Reformers didn’t believe that other sources of authority were infallible. This meant that scripture needed to be the authority by which every other authority needed to be judged because only scripture is completely infallible. And that is the doctrine of sola scriptura – not the only authority but the highest authority for what we believe and do as Christians.

[1] See https://opc.org/wcf.html.

[2] See https://www.crcna.org/welcome/beliefs/confessions/belgic-confession.

[3] Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (trans. Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart; New York: Image Books, 1992), 39.

 

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Why Roman Catholic and Eastern Christians Are Not Interested in Biblical Theology

Why Roman Catholic and Eastern Christians Are Not Interested in Biblical Theology

On October 31, 2017, many people around the world will be celebrating the five hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. It was on October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg that began a series of events that would ultimately result in what is now known as the Protestant Reformation.

But 2017 also marks another important anniversary.  It was thirty years ago when Jon D. Levenson published his well-known article, “Why Jews Are Not Interested in Biblical Theology.”[1] Since the publication of that article, a whole stream of articles by other Jewish scholars have appeared that deal with how Jewish writers might effectively engage in a distinctively Jewish form of biblical theology.  As we approach the five hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, one particular article stands out, an article by Benjamin D. Sommer entitled, “Dialogical Biblical Theology: A Jewish Approach to Reading Scripture Theologically.”[2] Sommer begins his article the following way:

“Strictly speaking, there can be no such thing as Jewish biblical theology. While many definitions of the term ‘biblical theology’ exist, they all accord some privileged place to the Bible. All forms of Jewish theology, however, must base themselves on Judaism’s rich post-biblical tradition at least as much as on scripture, and hence a Jewish theology cannot be chiefly biblical….Conversely, any theology that focuses especially on scripture is by definition Protestant and not Jewish, for the notion of sola scriptura has no place in Judaism – even as an unrealizable ideal.”[3]

In an endnote he goes on to say:

“It is no coincidence that the desire to create such a theology arose neither in Judaism nor in Catholic or Orthodox settings but in Protestant settings in the eighteenth century, and that it remained an exclusively Protestant undertaking for so long. The view that the theology of the Bible is of particular significance (though not necessarily having ultimate authority) results in large part from the notion of sola scriptura.[4]

In this post I would like to develop Sommer’s observation that biblical theology, at its root, is essentially a Protestant undertaking that is based, to a large extent, on the Reformation idea of sola scriptura. Piggybacking on Levenson’s article, I will argue that Roman Catholic and Eastern Christians[5] should not really be interested in biblical theology and that when they are they are functioning in a way that is inconsistent both with the history of biblical theology as a discipline and their own tradition, which functions in a very similar way to Judaism as described by Sommer. As a grid for understanding biblical theology as an academic discipline we will focus on Johann Philipp Gabler’s inaugural address (1787) at the University of Altdorf entitled “On the Proper Distinction Between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology and the Specific Objectives of Each,”[6] which is universally understood to mark the beginning of the study of biblical theology as an academic discipline.

Definition of Sola Scriptura

But before we can proceed to an examination of Gabler’s inaugural address, it is important to define what we mean by the term sola scriptura. Sola scriptura, according to my understanding of the term, does not mean that scripture is the only authority for defining the faith and practice of the church but that it is the supreme authority, under God, for defining the faith and practice of the church. As Carl Trueman puts it, “As the norming norm, the Bible is that by which all other theological statements must be judged as to their truthfulness of content and adequacy of formulation.”[7] Article 7 of the Belgic Confession puts it this way:

“Therefore we must not consider human writings – no matter how holy their authors may have been – equal to the divine writings; nor may we put custom, nor the majority, nor age, nor the passage of time or persons, nor councils, decrees, or official decisions above the truth of God, for truth is above everything else.[8]

This understanding of sola scriptura, followed by both the Lutheran and Reformed branches of the Protestant Reformation, allows tradition (i.e. the formulation of theology by Christians in the past) to play a role in both forming and formulating theology for the church today, but places tradition under the authority of scripture. In this sense, Sommer is correct when he says, “One might argue that even in Protestantism, tradition has always played a role alongside scripture, but at least the ideal of an exclusively or primarily biblical doctrine nevertheless deeply affected Protestantism.”[9]

The Distinction Between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology

With this definition in mind, we can now proceed to a discussion of Gabler’s “On the Proper Distinction Between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology and the Specific Objectives of Each.” Gabler begins his address by articulating what can only be understood as a strong affirmation of sola scriptura:

“All who are devoted to the sacred faith of Christianity, most worthy listeners, profess with one united voice that the sacred books, especially of the New Testament, are the one clear source from which all true knowledge of the Christian religion is drawn. And they profess too that these books are the only secure sanctuary to which we can flee in the face of the ambiguity and vicissitude of human knowledge, if we aspire to a solid understanding of divine matters and if we wish to obtain a firm and certain hope of salvation.[10]

Gabler’s description of scripture as “the one clear source from which all true knowledge of the Christian religion is drawn” is a clear affirmation of sola scriptura.

But not only does this section reveal a strong belief in sola scriptura, it also makes it clear that Gabler’s  goal in pursuing biblical theology was not simply historical (i.e. to describe the theology contained in or assumed by the various writings of scripture): Gabler’s ultimate goal was a dogmatic/didactic one (i.e. to define what Christians should believe today). In other words, biblical theology was meant to produce “true knowledge of the Christian religion” and to give “a solid understanding of divine matters.” The problem with contemporary dogmatic theology, as Gabler saw it, was that various factors were at play (i.e. poor interpretive methods, reading one’s ideas into the text, etc.) that obscured this “one clear source” and “only secure sanctuary.”[11] This state of affairs necessitated the development or, rather, discovery of what Gabler referred to as biblical theology that could form the basis for dogmatic theology.

But in order to understand what Gabler meant by biblical theology, it is first necessary to understand what he meant by the term dogmatic theology. Dogmatic theology, according to Gabler, refers to the elaborate theological formulations that were developed throughout church history and were still being developed in his day by Christian theologians.[12] These theological formulations were influenced, among other things, by the ability of the author, the time period in which the author lived, the place where the author lived, the sect the author belonged to, and various other contingent factors.[13] Gabler, because of his strong belief in sola scriptura, wanted to bypass these theologians and the contingent factors that affected their theology and develop a theology that was based on the theology of the Bible itself, using methods that would lead to a more reliable reading of scripture than were available to dogmatic theologians before.

With this in mind we can define what Gabler meant by term biblical theology. Based on everything Gabler said about biblical theology in his address (keeping in mind that Gabler himself did not give his own definition of the term), biblical theology can be defined as the beliefs, manner of life, and practices advocated by the authors of scripture that, through careful analysis, can be said to be normative for Christians today.  Another way of putting it is this: biblical theology, as a discipline, is meant to discover the Bible’s final word on what Christians should believe, how they should behave, and how they should practice their faith.  In this regard it is important to emphasize that for Gabler, the term biblical theology was not limited to theology but also included the morality and the practices that were advocated by the biblical authors.  In this sense, the term biblical theology can be somewhat misleading since its focus is not strictly limited to theology.

Gabler outlined two basic steps for steps for discovering which beliefs, practices, and morals found in the Bible were normative for Christians today.  The first step was to gather the various theological data that were either expressed or assumed[14] in scripture and analyze them, in the original languages, according to the time period in which they were written, the testament in which they were written, the author who wrote them, the peculiar usages of each author, the genre of the passage, the literary context of the passage, and the like.[15] Once analyzed, the theology of each individual author could be distilled to express what they advocated for in terms of belief, morality, and practice.  In other words, Gabler advocated using the best exegetical methods available in his time to analyze and extract the theological data that is contained in the text.   Commenting on the rigour that would be required in this first step, Gabler noted: “If we abandon this straight road, even though it is troublesome and of little delight, it can only result in our wandering into some deviation or uncertainty.”[16]

The second step, according to Gabler, was to compare the theology of each author and isolate the ideas that are universally valid from those that were limited to the time period in which they were written – but without distorting the original intention of each individual author.[17]  By comparing the various biblical authors with each other, the truths, manner of living and practices that are universal can be isolated from those that were confined to a particular time period. Gabler gives the rites of Moses and the practice of veiling women in Paul as examples of practices that are not universal in character.[18]

Once these normative truths, morals, and practices have been isolated and properly arranged, they can then be used as the basis for a biblically informed dogmatic theology.[19] Again, Gabler appeals to sola scriptura near the end of his address when he says, “And finally, unless we want to follow uncertain arguments, we must so build only upon these firmly established foundations of biblical theology, again taken in the stricter sense as above, a dogmatic theology adapted to our own times.”[20]

Biblical Theology, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Christianity

Based on Gabler’s exposition of the nature and purpose of biblical theology, it is easy to see why Sommer would say that there can be no such thing as a Jewish biblical theology. As Sommer explains it, Jewish theology needs to take into account not only what the Bible says but the theology found in the post-biblical tradition. The same is essentially true for Roman Catholic and Eastern Christian theology. Roman Catholic theology does not simply taken into account the theology of the various biblical authors when forming its theology and practice: the teaching authority of the church, guided by the Holy Spirit, also plays an essential role. Eastern Christian theology does the same thing, though, with added emphasis on the importance of reading scripture through the lens of the church fathers. Biblical theology, as formulated by Gabler with its basis in sola scriptura, is fundamentally at odds with how the Roman Catholic and Eastern churches form and formulate their theology since tradition also plays an important and, in some cases, decisive role.  As Sommer noted, biblical theology is a distinctively Protestant undertaking.

This does not mean, however, that biblical theology can have no place in these churches. Where the church, tradition, or the fathers have not spoken definitively on an issue,  biblical theology might help to clarify or fill out what they believe on these topics.

However, the role that the authority of the church, tradition, and the fathers plays means that certain beliefs and practices are not open to challenge. For example, what if it could be shown that Isaiah or Paul teaches penal substitutionary atonement? This would be extremely difficult for eastern Christians to accept since penal substitutionary atonement is so foreign to their tradition. What if it could be shown from scripture that Mary did not remain a virgin for her entire life but had sexual relations with Joseph and had other children? Again, this issue would be off limits for writers in Roman Catholic and Eastern Churches because of their view of tradition.

This is part of the danger of what we are celebrating on the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation’s return to scripture meant, at least in principle, that everything that the church taught and believed is open to question on the basis of a closer reading scripture. In practice, however, tradition kept most things from being questioned. But the principle of sola scriptura created a climate where even some of the more fundamental teachings of the church could be questioned on the basis of a closer reading of scripture.

While there certainly is a real danger when it comes to the application of the doctrine of sola scriptura, sola scriptura is one of the most exciting developments to come out of the Protestant Reformation.  The Reformation’s insistence on sola scriptura, when used responsibly (in a way not dissimilar from Gabler’s), means that we can recover biblical truth that may have been hidden, obscured, or even lost for one reason or another as the traditions of the church developed and ruled their reading of scripture. Sola scriptura gives us as Christians freedom to explore what the Bible says and to accept it as true even if the tradition says something to the contrary.

We would be foolish to think that sola scriptura is not dangerous when used irresponsibly. But I believe that the fundamental truths of Christianity are, in fact, found in scripture and are safe precisely because they are found there. Since sola scriptura does not mean that scripture has the only say but the final say in matters of faith and practice, the accumulated wisdom of Christian theologians of the past (i.e. tradition) can help us fill out and explain what scripture says. Sola scriptura makes the type of biblical theology described by Gabler possible and, given the recovery of biblical doctrine during the Reformation, makes it well worth the risk.

Mark Steven Francois

[1] Jon D. Levenson, “Why Jews Are Not Interested in Biblical Theology,” in Judaic Perspectives on Ancient Israel (eds. Jacob Neusner, et al; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 281-307.

[2] Benjamin D. Sommer, “Dialogical Biblical Theology: A Jewish Approach to Reading Scripture Theologically,” in Biblical Theology: Introducing the Conversation (eds. Leo G. Perdue et al; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009), 1-53, 265-85.

[3] Ibid., 1-2.

[4] Ibid., 265, n. 2.

[5] I.e. Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and the Church of the East.

[6] For the text of the address see John Sandys-Wunsch and Laurence Eldredge, “J. P. Gabler and the Distinction Between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology: Translation, Commentary, and Discussion of his Originality,” in Scottish Journal of Theology 33 (1980), 133-58.

[7] Carl R. Trueman, The Creedal Imperative (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2012), 80.

[8] Available on the website of the Christian Reformed Church at https://www.crcna.org/sites/default/files/BelgicConfession.pdf.

[9] Sommer, “Dialogical Biblical Theology,” 265 n.2.

[10] Sandys-Wunsch and Eldredge, “J. P. Gabler and the Distinction Between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology,” 134.

[11] Ibid., 134-7.

[12] Ibid. 137-8.

[13] Ibid., 138.

[14] Ibid., 141. “Nonetheless, there is a sufficient number of ideas, and usually of such a kind that those that have been omitted can then be inferred without difficulty, if they constitute a single principle of opinion expressly declared, or if they are connected to the ideas that are stated in some necessary fashion.”

[15] Ibid., 140-41.

[16] Ibid., 139.

[17] Ibid., 141-2.

[18] Ibid., 142. Note that Gabler does not explain why Paul’s instructions about veiling women does not apply today though he explains that rites of Moses have been invalidated because they have been fulfilled in Christ.

[19] Ibid., 144.

[20] Ibid., 144.

 

 

Dissecting What People Mean When They Talk About Taking the Bible Literally

Maybe We Should Stop Using the Word Literal

I imagine that most of us have heard people say at one point another that the Bible either should or should not be taken literally.  For many people on the more evangelical side of Christianity, it is almost a mantra to say that the Bible needs to be understood literally and that when people don’t take the Bible literally they are not being faithful to scripture. For people on the more “progressive” side of Christianity, it’s almost a mantra to say something like, “We take the Bible seriously but we take it too seriously to always take it literally.” And if we haven’t heard people talk about literal interpretation in either of these two contexts, we have probably heard people talk about it when election season comes around in the United States.  It is common for reporters to ask politicians whether or not they take the Bible literally and it is common for political candidates to give their opinion about whether or not the Bible should be taken literally.

Based on the various ways that people use the word literal in the context of biblical interpretation, I’m convinced that most people, including people who have been trained in biblical and theological studies, don’t really understand what they mean when they use the word literal.  Now, of course, if you were to ask them to give some concrete examples for what they mean by the word literal, they would probably be able to make what they are thinking on this issue clear enough. But I’m convinced that the average would have a very hard time actually articulating what they mean by this.  The result, quite naturally, is a lot of hazy thinking about how we should interpret the Bible and about how we communicate what we believe about how we think the Bible should be interpreted.

In this post, I want to dissect what people actually mean  when they say that they either do or don’t interpret the Bible literally and I want to suggest that most of the ways that people use the word literal in this context are both imprecise and misleading.  I also want to suggest that we limit the word literal to one particular use of that word, which will become clear as the discussion progresses

Various Ways That People Use the Word Literal in Biblical Interpretation

There are essentially five different ways that people use the word literal in the context of biblical interpretation.

1. The first way that people use the word literal  has to do with whether or not they believe that a particular passage of scripture is authoritative for how Christians should act on a moral level today.

For example, when someone says that they don’t take the New Testament’s teaching on divorce literally, what they really mean is that they don’t think that the New Testament’s teaching on divorce is authoritative for Christians today.  But clearly this is a rather unusual way of using the word literal.  The opposite of literal is not “I don’t think this is authoritative for people today”; the opposite of literal is figurative.  Regardless of what we believe about divorce today, we should be able to say that Jesus or the author who recorded the words of Jesus literally meant that divorce is only permissible when one of the two partners commits sexual immorality and that remarriage under any other circumstances would be considered adultery.  We should be able to say that this is the literal meaning of the text without saying that we actually agree with it or think that it is authoritative for Christians today.  But to say that we don’t interpret this text literally simply because we don’t agree with its teaching is a very strange way of using the word literal.

I suspect that some of this has to do with the fear of saying that the Bible is wrong on certain issues because of the Bible’s status as scripture.  I find it hard to imagine that someone would say that they don’t take the moral teaching of Huckleberry Finn literally; they would simply say that they don’t agree with it because they don’t view it as scripture and don’t want to sound like they are attacking scripture. But using the word literal in this way is an invitation for confusion and is somewhat misleading.

2. The second way that people use the word literal has to do with whether or not they believe that a particular passage of scripture actually reflects God’s thinking on a certain issue.

For example, there are many people who would say that they don’t take the command in Deuteronomy 7 for the Israelites to slaughter the Canaanites literally.  But what exactly does it  mean to take this passage non-literally?  Do they mean that the author of Deuteronomy 7 never meant to say that God wanted the Israelites to destroy the Canaanites and show them no mercy?  Do they mean that the author meant this language to be understood in a non-literal or figurative way (e.g. the Canaanites represent sin and God wants us to completely root out sin from our lives)?

What they really mean is that they don’t believe that God could have actually said this.  But this is clearly a non-standard and non-intuitive way of using the word literal.  The opposite of literal is not “we don’t think this actually reflects God’s thinking on this issue”; the opposite of literal is figurative. In this case, the question we should be asking is this: “Is God really being portrayed in Deuteronomy 7 as commanding the Israelites to destroy the Canaanites?” The issue of whether or not he actually did command the Israelites to destroy the Canaanites is a separate issue and has nothing to do with whether or not this passage should be taken literally. We should be able to separate how we evaluate the text on a theological level from how we evaluate it on a historical or literary level.  We should be able to say that we believe that an author mean x, y, or z without necessarily saying that we agree with it.  But to say that you don’t take a passage literally because you don’t agree with what it says is a real stretch of what the word literal normally means.

3. The third way that people use the word literal has to do with whether or not they believe that a particular event recorded in the Bible actually happened in history.

Take, for example, the story of Moses parting the waters of Red Sea (yes, I’m aware that in Hebrew it actually says the Sea of Reeds). There are many non-conservatives who say that the events recorded in this story simply did not happen. But instead of saying that the events recorded in the story simply did not happen, very often they will say that they don’t think that the story should be taken literally.

Now we have to be careful here because there are some stories in the Bible that were never meant to be understood to reflect events that actually happened in history. Think about the Parable of the Good Samaritan. As far as I know, I don’t think anyone would argue that the author of the Gospel of Luke believed that the events recorded in the Parable of the Good Samaritan actually happened. And that’s not because they don’t believe that the events recorded in the story are realistic – it’s because the Parable of the Good Samaritan is a parable and, based on the genre, we shouldn’t expect the details of the story to represent events that actually happened in history. But that doesn’t mean that the moral or theological truths told in the story aren’t true.

But even here the use of the word literal is somewhat problematic.  Let’s take a fairly controversial example: the creation story in Genesis 1.  There are many people who say that they don’t take the creation story in Genesis 1 literally.  In other words, they don’t believe that the earth was actually created in six days with a day of rest on the seventh day.  But what if the author of the text actually believed that the earth was created in six days?  In this case, a literal reading would say that the author believed that the earth was created in six days.  But even if the author didn’t believe that the earth was created in six days, a literal reading could still say that the author is presenting the creation of the earth as though it happened in six days.  In both cases, the word literal would be a literary evaluation rather than a historical or factual evaluation.  Using the word literal to refer to how the details of the text correspond to actual history is both imprecise and confusing.

4. The fourth way that people use the word literal has to do with whether or not the language used in a particular passage of scripture should be understood in a figurative or a non-figurative way according to what the author of the text intended.

This is the most straightforward way of understanding the word literal. The opposite of the word literal in this case is figurative, metaphorical, or symbolic. There should be no disagreement about the fact that there are certain portions of the Bible that should not be taken literally when the word literal is used in this sense. When Jesus refers to false prophets as wolves in sheep’s clothing, he doesn’t literally mean that the prophets are wolves or that they are literally dressed up in sheep’s clothing. He is using this language to illustrate something about the natural of false prophets and how destructive they can be to unsuspecting people.

So when people say, for example, that they don’t take the Bible’s teaching about divorce literally, it can be a little bit confusing because the Bible doesn’t really use figurative language when it talks about divorce.  What they mean is that they don’t think that the Bible’s teaching on divorce s applicable for today.  But, again, we need to keep in mind that the opposite of literal is not “I don’t think it is applicable for today”; the opposite of literal is figurative.

5. The final way that people use the word literal is that the literal level of interpretation has to do with what the human author of the biblical text was attempting to communicate in his own historical context as opposed to any additional meaning that might have been intended by the Holy Spirit.

This is the meaning that most reflects the way that the word literal has been understood in the history of interpretation. The literal meaning of the text is the plain-sense meaning of the text, the meaning that was intended by the human author of the biblical text, as opposed to some kind of deeper meaning that was intended by the Holy Spirit. For example, a literal reading of the Song of Solomon takes into account the fact that there are certain parts of the text that need to be understood in a non-literal (i.e. figurative way) but recognizes that the Song of Solomon is essentially an example of ancient Israelite love poetry. A non-literal reading would the plain-sense meaning of the text as a code for something deeper like the love that Christ has for the church or the love that God has for Israel, even though that doesn’t seem to be what the human author was intending.

In this case, using the word literal makes sense if we understand how the word literal has been used in the history of interpretation. However, since the normal meaning of the word literal has to do with non-figurative language, using the word literal in this sense could be confusing. Someone might think that a person doing a literal reading of the Song of Solomon is ignoring the tremendous amount of figurative language that is used in the book, even though this type of literal reading would take into account an author’s use of figurative language.  Using the word literal in this sense is clearly a recipe for misunderstanding.

Concluding Thoughts

Based on the vastly different ways that people used the word literal in biblical interpretation, my suggestion would be that we simply avoid using the word literal as much as we possibly can. Instead of using the word literal, we should simply explain what we mean without having to resort to a word that could be easily misunderstood.

So, for conservatives, instead of saying that you believe that the Bible should be understood literally, you should say (a) we believe that everything that the Bible affirms to be true ultimately comes from God; (b) we believe that events portrayed in the Bible as actually happening history did, in fact, actually happen in history; and (c)  when the Bible gives its final word in a particular subject, it is authoritative for both the beliefs and lifestyle of believers.

For people on the more progressive side of things, instead of saying that you don’t take much of the Bible literally, simply say (a) that there are certain events recorded as history in the Bible that you don’t believe actually happened in history; (b) that there are certain theological statements in the Bible that you don’t think are actually true; and (c) that there are certain moral teachings in the Bible that you don’t think actually come from God.

If we have to use the word literal, we should limit ourselves to the way that people normally understand the word literal today. In other words, we should stick with the fourth definition given above – namely that the word literal refers to something that should be understood in a straightforward, non-figurative, way in terms of how the material is being presented in the text. Statements about the truthfulness of the text, the historicity of the text, or its applicability for today should be expressed in language that does not use the word literal, otherwise we are just asking for our language to be misunderstood.  We need to make sure that we are more precise and more self-aware when it comes to the language that we use in biblical interpretation.

Mark Steven Francois

 

 

 

Five Strategies for Explaining Away Passages in the Bible We Don’t Like

Five Strategies for Explaining Away Passages in the Bible We Don't Like

One of the things that I find very interesting is that when people find something in the Bible that they’re not very comfortable with, they usually won’t just come out and say, “I simply disagree with what the Bible has to say here.” Now for most people I think this has to do with their belief in the inspiration and authority of scripture. For others it has to do with cultural residue that, for some reason, still makes people want the Bible to be right on certain issues, especially when it comes to moral issues.

So when people encounter something in the Bible that they don’t like, they usually won’t say that the Bible is wrong; they will often try to come up with some very elaborate arguments to try to show that the Bible isn’t actually saying what people think it is saying.   Sometimes this is done for apologetic reasons (i.e. to defend the Bible from its critics), which, by the way, is no excuse.  At other times it’s because they have an agenda for something that they are trying to push for the church today.  But very often it is simply because we have a hard time accepting that the Bible might actually disagree with some of the beliefs or values that we have today.

In this post, I want to deal with five common strategies that people often use to try to explain away passages in the Bible they don’t like.  Now obviously I’m not recommending these strategies because I don’t think they usually lead to a credible readings of the biblical text.  But the more we are aware of these strategies, the easier it will be to spot them and the less likely we will be to use them.

So here are the strategies:

 Strategy #1 – Cast as much doubt as you possibly can on the meaning of key words in the text that you’re dealing with – even if the context or a little bit of research will make the meaning of the word clear.

Now it’s definitely true that there some cases in the Bible where we’re not entirely sure what a particular word or a particular phrase means. Usually it’s because the word or phrase only appears once or twice in the Bible and because it isn’t found in literature outside of the Bible.

And it’s definitely true that there have been some words that have been translated incorrectly in our English Bibles. That’s one of the reasons why it’s important for both biblical scholars and pastors to know the biblical languages and be familiar enough with linguistic theory to properly use them.

That being said, one of the main strategies that people use to undermine the traditional teaching of scripture is to cast serious doubt on the meaning of key words that are found in the passages they are dealing with. This is the case with תּוֹעֵבָה in Leviticus 18:22, ἀρσενοκοίτης in 1 Corinthians 6:9, and αὐθεντέω in 1 Timothy 2:12.  The idea is that if you can cast enough doubt on what those words have been traditionally understood to mean, even if the alternatives that you come up with aren’t very convincing, then you can proceed to say that these passages don’t really teach what they seem to teach on the surface.

Now, of course, this doesn’t mean that there can’t be a legitimate debate about what these words mean. But when you’ve seen this strategy used enough times – and it always happens to be by people who have a vested interest in the passage not meaning what it has traditionally been understood to mean – it’s pretty easy to see this strategy for what it really is. If we can’t lay aside our desire to have the text say what we want it to say, it’s going to be very difficult for us to give a credible reading of that text.

Strategy#2: Do some “background” research, construct a narrative based on that “background” research, and use that narrative to completely contradict what the text actually says.

The reason why I use the word “background” in quotation marks is because very often the background material that people bring to the text is either not real (i.e. based on false information or the  faulty interpretation of that information) or not very relevant to the text.

Let me just give two quick examples. First, it is sometimes said that Paul’s teaching in 1 Timothy 2:12 should be read in light of the worship of Artemis in the city of Ephesus, where Timothy was ministering when this letter was written. The problem with this is that even though this background material is real, it doesn’t seem to be very relevant for understanding 1 Timothy 2:12. Regardless of how we think 1 Timothy 2:12 should be applied today, the way that Paul words his instructions in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 and the instructions he gives about overseers in the following chapter make it seem as though this was his normal teaching regardless of what city he was referring to. An even more important consideration is this: Paul never mentions or even alludes to Artemis worship anywhere in this letter. When Paul mentions false teaching in Ephesus, his main concern seems to be with some form of proto-Gnosticism (1 Tim. 6:20-21), extreme asceticism (1 Tim. 4:1-8), and/or some kind of false teaching that had to do with Jewish law (1 Tim. 1:3-11). Regardless of what kind of false teaching lies in the background of 1 Timothy, which might not even be relevant for applying  1 Timothy 2:12, Paul’s instructions in 1 Timothy 2:12 doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the worship of Artemis.

Another example – and this one is really controversial today – has to do with what Paul has to say about same-sex sexual practice in Romans 1:26-27. This is often explained today in terms of the Greco-Roman practice of pederasty, temple prostitution, or the sexual exploitation of slaves. But what’s interesting about Romans 1:26-27 is that Paul’s concern doesn’t seem to be the age difference between the partners in the relationship; his concern doesn’t seem to be that this activity might be carried out in the context of idol worship, which doesn’t even seem to be on Paul’s radar despite the mention of idolatry in the previous verses; and his concern doesn’t seem to be with sexual exploitation, even though I’m sure he would say this is wrong as well. His problem seems to be that he doesn’t think that men should be having sexual relationships with other men, which makes sense given Paul’s Jewish background. What Paul has to say about lesbian sexual relationships in 1:26 would seem to confirm this but this can be left for another time.

The point is this: when we use “background” material to help us interpret the text, that background material needs to be both real and relevant. There needs to be very strong reasons in the text itself to show that this background material really is relevant. We also need to make sure that we don’t use “background” material to overrule what the text seems to be saying when taken on its own terms. We can disagree with what Paul had to say (obviously not if you believe in the inspiration and authority of scripture) – but we shouldn’t make him say something he never meant to say.

Strategy #3 – Blame the Greeks.

This is something that happens quite a bit. Simply blame the Greeks. The idea here is that there are certain elements of traditional Christian theology that can’t be found in the Bible but are actually based on the influence of Greek philosophy, which seeped into Christian theology in the formative centuries of early Christianity.

Let me just give one example. People who believe in conditional immortality will often argue that the idea of an eternal hell is based on the Greek concept of the immortality of the soul rather than on categories that can actually be found in the Bible. If we want to understand what the Bible has to say on this issue, according to them, we need to get rid of any influence from Greek philosophy and read the Bible on its own terms.

While this sounds very good in principle, in many cases it simply doesn’t work. Now, of course, we do need to accept the possibility that some of the things we believe as Christians or the way we formulate things theologically are due more to the categories of Greek philosophy than the Bible, but saying so doesn’t always make it the case. Going back to the example of conditional immortality, if the Bible actually does teach something similar to the immortality of the soul, which I think is a priori likely given both Egyptian and Mesopotamian beliefs about the afterlife (I also think it is found in the Bible too!), then it doesn’t matter if some of the early theologians of the church were influenced by the ideas or language of Greek philosophy that fell along the same lines. When early theologians went too far in this regard, like Origen’s beliefs about the eternality of the soul and the descent of souls, it was very often filtered out by the tradition, which itself was ruled and guided by the categories of scriptures.

So if we’re going to blame the Greeks for something we see in scripture, we need to make sure that it isn’t simply the case that the Greeks sometimes agreed with scripture.

Strategy #4 – Find another passage that, in reality, could easily be harmonized with the teaching you are trying to undermine but use it to overthrow the clear teaching of passages you don’t like.

 One of the best examples of this is when people use 1 John 4:8, which says that God is love, to cancel out any passage that, for them, seems incompatible with saying that God is love.

Another example is when people use Galatians 3:28, which says, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” (NIV) to overthrow everything else that Paul has to say about gender. Sticking with this last example, it is interesting to note that the same Paul who said that there is neither slave nor free in Galatians 3:28 also told Christian slaves to obey their masters and never told Christian masters to set their slaves free: clearly he didn’t think that being “one in Christ” erased these distinctions.  We can deal with the issue of Paul’s attitude toward slavery in another post.

I even heard one theologian say on a program on the BBC that Matthew 7:21 teaches that people will be judged exclusively by the good they do in this world and that what they believe about Jesus will have zero relevance on the Day of Judgment. Now that clearly doesn’t match up with the overall teaching of scripture and, I would argue, doesn’t match up with the theology of Matthew either.

I could give many more examples. The problem in each of these cases is that the interpreter is drawing conclusions from these verses that the authors themselves would not have drawn and, in some cases, that go against what the author explicitly teaches elsewhere. We can’t simply pick and choose the passages that we like, draw whatever conclusions we want from them, and then use them to overthrow what the Bible teaches in other passages of scripture.

Strategy #5 – Find as many reasons as you possibly can for why the text doesn’t mean what people usually think it means – even if those reasons aren’t compatible with each other.

I’ve seen this one quite a bit. Simply list as many arguments as you possibly can, even if these arguments are mutually incompatible, and try to overwhelm people with the amount of arguments you can find. Chances are most people won’t even realize that these arguments are mutually incompatible anyway – but who cares because the whole point is to win the argument, right?

Let me just give one example. In one blog post I reviewed awhile back, they said that in 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul was only giving a temporary injunction against women teaching and having authority over men in the church. But in that same post they also said that the word that is normally translated as “have authority” or something along those lines really means “to domineer” with violent overtones. So which one is it? Is Paul only giving a temporary injunction against women domineering men in a violent way? Will that somehow be acceptable in the future? Both arguments can’t be right and it is very misleading to present these arguments as though they can actually work together.

Well, our main goal when it comes to interpreting a text shouldn’t be to win an argument. The main point should be to be honest with the text and to be honest with the evidence. We should be honest enough to point out when the arguments we are using are incompatible with each other so that we won’t give the false impression that there are ten cumulative arguments in favour of our position rather than maybe one or two. Pick the argument you think is right and then stick with it. But don’t present arguments that are incompatible with each other and make it seem like they help your case.

Conclusion

In the end, regardless of what theological position we come from and regardless of where we might want to come out on certain issues, we need to be honest with what the text says. If we have to do some kind of crazy interpretive gymnastics to get out of what the text seems to be saying, we might need to consider the possibility that the text is actually saying exactly what we think it is saying.  And if at the end of the day we don’t agree with what the text says, we should have the courage to say that we don’t agree with it, rather than trying to make the text say something that it doesn’t.

But if we do believe in the inspiration and authority of scripture, we need to have the kind of attitude that is reflected in Isaiah 66:2b.  In Isaiah 66:2b, God says:

Isaiah 66:2b – This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word. (NIV)

This is the kind of attitude we need to have when it comes to scripture, especially if we find something in it that we might naturally want to disagree with. We shouldn’t be trying to find loopholes or use whatever strategy we can find to try to get out of what the Bible is saying.  When we’ve done all of our hard work in interpreting the text and we’re convinced that we understand the Bible’s final teaching on a subject, we need to make sure that we listen to what it says.  And that begins with being honest with the text.

Mark Steven Francois

 

 

Chapter 2 of My Classical Syriac Grammar

Classical Syriac Grammar

I have just posted chapter 2 of my free online grammar of Classical Syriac in the Estrangela Script (https://markfrancois.wordpress.com/syriac-grammar/).  This chapter covers vowels in East Syriac, BeGaDKePhaT Letters, Consonant Clusters, Diphthongs, and when to pronounce Waw and Yodh as consonants.  The most difficult part of learning classical Syriac is mastering how to pronounce and write words in Syriac.  Make sure that you learn the material in this chapter well – it will pay dividends in the future.

The plan is to complete chapter 3 of the grammar in the Estrangela script and then go back and do chapters 1, 2, and 3 in the Serto script and then the East Syriac script.

Practice sheets for chapter 2 will be posted as they become available.  Once again, feel free to download and print as many copies as you would like.  However, please do not alter any of the material, post it to another website, or publish it in any other form.  Thanks!

 

 

Yes…The Word Gehenna Really Does Refer to Hell in the New Testament

Yes...The Word Gehenna Really Does Refer to Hell

For some time now I’ve been wanting to write a post on the meaning of the word Gehenna (Gr. γέεννα) in the New Testament. Gehenna is the Greek word that normally stands behind the word “hell” in modern translations of the New Testament. The reason why I wanted to write on this topic is because there are several writers who suggest that the word Gehenna doesn’t actually refer to a place of punishment for the wicked after death (i.e. hell) but refers to some type of judgment that would be experienced during this lifetime.

Now most of the time writers who say that the word Gehenna doesn’t actually refer to a place of punishment for the wicked after death say that the word Gehenna should be understood in light of Jesus’ teaching about the destruction of the temple and the destruction of Jerusalem in passages like Matthew 24. The argument goes something like this: The word Gehenna ultimately derives from the Hebrew term גֵּיא הִנֹּם (gê’ hinnōm), which refers to a literal valley that lies just outside of the wall of Jerusalem – the Valley of Hinnom or, as the Old Testament refers to it, the Valley of Ben Hinnom. So when Jesus was referring to Gehenna in the Gospels, he was literally referring to this valley, not a place of punishment for the wicked after death. Jesus warned the people that if they didn’t give up their revolutionary and rebellious ways and accept God’s way for ushering in his kingdom, their bodies would be literally thrown into the Valley of Hinnom when the Romans attacked Jerusalem and conquered the city.

Recently, however, I came across a blog post that was shared by a friend on Facebook that, on first glance, seemed to be making the exact same argument (https://michaelpaul.com/2017/10/02/jesus-and-hell). So I decided that this might be a good opportunity to finally get around to writing on this topic and show why this particular understanding of the term of Gehenna is completely mistaken and doesn’t actually work when you try to apply it to the New Testament’s use of Gehenna. However, when I finally read the full post, the argument that the author was  making was quite a bit different from what I was expecting. The post did come to the conclusion that the term Gehenna doesn’t actually refer to a place of punishment for the wicked after death but he argued for a metaphorical meaning for the term Gehenna that was quite different from the view that relates it to the destruction of Jerusalem.

There were six main points that that the author wanted to make about Gehenna based on the background material he found in the Old Testament (note that these are direct quotes):

  1. The fires of Gehenna were made by humans, not by God.
  2. God abhorred the fires of Gehenna.
  3. They were the epitome of senseless human violence, particularly violence against the most vulnerable.
  4. Gehenna symbolizes God’s judgment, but this divine judgment is not an “angry God directly inflicting violence upon sinners for eternity” judgment.
  5. It’s a “reap what you sow” judgment – if we sow violence, injustice, and oppression, we will reap that violence, injustice, and oppression upon ourselves, in very human, natural, ways, within human history and not beyond it.
  6. It’s a judgment specifically upon the powerful, those with social or economic or political or religious clout, for the ways in which they oppress and commit violence against the weak, those on the bottom rungs of our social and economic and political and religious hierarches.

In this post, I want to show why this author’s understanding of Gehenna is completely mistaken and that there are some very serious problems with how he came to his conclusions. So this post is really about two things: it is about the meaning of the word Gehenna in the New Testament and it is about the dangers of misusing background material to interpret passages of Scripture.

There are at least four main problems with the conclusions that the author comes to and with the way that he came to these conclusions:

1. First, while the imagery of fire associated Gehenna can certainly be traced back to the fire that was used in child sacrifice in the Valley of Hinnom, this does not seem to be the immediate background for the association of Gehenna with fire in the New Testament.

The author points to Jeremiah 7:31 as the immediate background for the imagery of fire associated with Gehenna in the New Testament:

Jeremiah 7:31 – They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire – something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind. (NIV)

The author concludes that “the fires of Gehenna were made by humans, not by God” and that “God abhorred the fires of Gehenna”. The problem, though, is that the fire of child sacrifice in passages like Jeremiah 7:31 are not the immediate background for the association of Gehenna with fire in the New Testament.

In the Old Testament, the Valley of Ben Hinnom became associated with God’s judgment on Jerusalem and the unleashing of the covenantal curses that are found in Deuteronomy 28 (see Jer. 7:32 and 19:6-9). This association was then extended to include God’s eschatological judgment on the wicked (i.e. the judgment that would take place at the final judgment). As Bruce Chilton points out, the Targum of Isaiah associates Gehenna with the place of final judgment on the wicked in several places (26:15, 19; 30:33; 33:14, 17; 53:9; 65:5).[1] The most important reference, however, is Isaiah 66:22-24, which describes a scene of judgment that will take place in the eschaton (i.e. after the final judgment) during the same time period as the new heavens and the new earth (cf. Isa. 65:17):

Isaiah 66:22-24 – “As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,” declares the LORD, “so will your name and descendants endure. From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,” says the LORD. “And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.” (NIV)

While the term Gehenna does not appear in the Hebrew of Isaiah 66:22-24, it does appear in the Targum of Isaiah:

וְיִפְקוּן וְיִחזוֹן בְפִגרֵי גֻברַיָא חַייָבַיָא דִמרַדוּ בְמֵימְרִי אְרֵי נִשמָתְהוֹן לָא יְמוּתֻן וְאִשָתְהוֹן לָא תִטפֵי וִיהוֹן מִידְדָנִין רַשִיעַיָא בְגֵיהִנָם עַד דְיֵימְרוּן עְלֵיהוֹן צַדִיקַיָא מִיסָת חְזֵינָא׃

Isaiah 66:24 – And they will go out and see the corpses of the guilty men who rebelled against my word because their soul will not die and their fire will not be extinguished and the wicked will be judged in Gehenna until the righteous say concerning them, “It is enough!” (Translation mine)

This example is particularly important because the language of the worm not dying and the fire not being quenched in the Hebrew version of Isaiah 66:24 is picked up by Jesus in Mark 9:47-48 in connection with Gehenna:

Mark 9:47-48 – And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell (Gehenna), where “their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.”

This should make it clear that the immediate background for the fire associated with Gehenna in the New Testament is not the fire of child sacrifice in passages like Jeremiah 7:31 but the fire of God’s judgment in Isaiah 66:24.

This means that the observation that “the fires of Gehenna were made by humans, not by God” and that “God abhorred the fires of Gehenna” cannot be sustained because they are reflections on the wrong background material. The context of Jeremiah 7 cannot be used to say that the fires of Gehenna that Jesus spoke about were not made by God and that God abhorred the fires of this Gehenna: it is talking about a different kind of fire.

2. Second, even if passages like Jeremiah 7:31 were the immediate background for the New Testament’s use of the word Gehenna, it is illegitimate to import the entire context of Jeremiah 7:31 into Jesus’ use of the term unless there are strong indicators in the text to point in that direction.

Is it really true that Jesus is talking about consequences “for those who use their power to oppress the weak, who live in wealth in indifference to the poor, who have the means to care for the sick and clothe the naked and feed the hungry but refuse to do so, who rest secure in their status and privilege while committing grace injustices against the vulnerable and the marginalized”?

The problem, though, is that when you actually read what Jesus has to say about Gehenna within the context of the Gospels themselves, it doesn’t sound a thing like the way the author described Gehenna in his post. All we have to do is take a look at one example to make it clear that his definition simply does not fit.  So let’s take a quick look at Matthew 5:27-30:

Matthew 5:27-30 – “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell (Gehenna). And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell (Gehenna). (NIV)

When you take a look at how the word Gehenna is used in this passage, it is clear that it has nothing to do with powerful people oppressing the weak; it has to do with the consequences of committing adultery in one’s heart. And, as we’ll see in our next point, it’s clear that Jesus isn’t simply speaking about the natural consequences for committing adultery in your heart; he’s speaking about the consequences that a person will have to experience on the Day of Judgment.

But this example should be sufficient to show that the definition given by the author for the meaning of the word Gehenna simply does not work. Whenever we’re dealing with potential background material for a particular passage of scripture (or any piece of literature for that matter), privilege needs to be given to the context of the passage of scripture we are trying to interpret. Background material should not be used to overthrow the plain-sense meaning of the passage we are interpreting.

3. Third, the New Testament’s use of the term Gehenna makes it clear that it does not refer to punishment that happens in this lifetime but refers to a place of punishment for the wicked in the eschaton (i.e. after the final judgment).

The reason why the author of this post said that the punishment in Gehenna was punishment that would be experienced in this lifetime rather than in the eschaton is because the punishment mentioned in Jeremiah 7 is punishment that would happen in human history (i.e. the Babylonian army would come and destroy Jerusalem).

However, there are at least four strong reasons for believing that when the New Testament uses the term Gehenna that it refers to a place of punishment for the wicked in the eschaton rather than punishment in this lifetime:

First, Matthew 18:8-9 equates the punishment that the wicked experience in Gehenna with eternal fire (τὸ πῦρ τὸ αἰώνιον):

Matthew 18:8-9 – If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell (Gehenna). (NIV)

Now, of course, there definitely is some debate about what the word “eternal” means in the phrase “eternal fire” but it should be clear that whatever the precise meaning of the word “eternal” in this phrase, it is referring to eschatological judgment, not judgment in this lifetime.

Second, Matthew 18:8-9 makes it clear that the punishment that the wicked experience in Gehenna takes place at the same time that the righteous enter into eternal life. In verse 8 and verse 9 Jesus contrasts the fate of the wicked being thrown into eternal fire or Gehenna with the righteous entering life. Life, in this case, clearly refers to resurrection life in the kingdom of God (see Dan. 12:2), not something that takes place during this lifetime. Since entering life takes place during the eschaton, it is difficult to argue that being thrown into eternal fire or the fire of Gehenna takes place during this lifetime: it is clearly a punishment that takes place in the eschaton.

Third, Matthew 10:28 clearly places the punishment that the wicked experience in Gehenna in the eschaton rather than during this lifetime:

Matthew 10:28 – “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Gehenna).” (NIV)

In this passage, Gehenna is clearly a place that a person should fear even after they die. Human beings might be able to kill the body but they cannot kill the soul. God, on the other hand, is able to extend punishment beyond the death of the body, which clearly places the punishment in Gehenna beyond this lifetime.  We can discuss the reasons why “the One who can destroy both soul and body” is God rather than Satan in another post.

Fourth, Jewish literature outside of the New Testament, including the Targums, Rabbinic literature, and books like 1 Enoch make it clear that Gehenna was understood by many Jews to be a place of eschatological judgment for the wicked. In other words, the term Gehenna is used quite frequently in Jewish literature outside of the New Testament to refer to what we would call hell.  See the discussion, for example, in Chaim Milikowsky, “Which Gehenna? Retribution and Eschatology in the Syoptic Gospels and in Early Jewish Texts,” New Testament Studies 34 (1988): 238-249 or the discussion of Gehenna in the Jewish Encyclopedia available online here: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/6558-gehenna. The use of the term Gehenna in the New Testament clearly comes from this same tradition.

Once again, the author of this post is using background material to overrule the plain-sense meaning of the text. The New Testament makes it clear that punishment in Gehenna takes place during the eschaton and this is confirmed by the similar usage in other Jewish texts.

4. Finally, the author of this post is simply mistaken when he says that the punishment in Jeremiah 7 and the punishment in Gehenna in the New Testament are simply the natural consequences of human sin rather than something that God actively inflicts on the wicked.

While it is true that the punishment mentioned in Jeremiah 7 ultimately came about through the Babylonians conquering Jerusalem, there can be no doubt that the Old Testament views God as the one who was behind this punishment, so much so that some text ignore the secondary agent and attribute the violence directly to God himself (e.g. Lam. 2:1-8). In fact, the punishment mentioned in Jeremiah 7:33 echoes the curse found in Deuteronomy 28:26 – and Deuteronomy 28 attributes the execution of this curse to God himself. The punishment mentioned in Jeremiah 7 is not simply the natural consequence that comes about for people who act violently: it is punishment that comes from God because the people violated the terms of the covenant in Deuteronomy.

It is even more difficult to see the punishment in Gehenna in the New Testament as simply the natural consequence for human violence and oppression. Gehenna is a place of eschatological judgment. The person who gives the orders for the eschatological judgment to be carried out is Jesus himself (e.g. Matt. 13:36-43). The language of angels throwing people into a fiery furnace in Matthew 13:42 is parallel to the wicked being thrown into the eternal fire in Matthew 18:8 and into Gehenna in Matthew 18:9. Clearly God is active in the punishment in Gehenna: these are not simply earthly punishments that come about as a natural consequence for sin.

Conclusion

The main lesson that we can learn from this post is this: the immediate context of the passage we are looking at trumps any background material we bring to the text that does violence to the plain-sense meaning of the text. If the background material we bring to text clashes with the plain-sense meaning of the text, chances are we are wrong about the relevance of the background material.

This was clearly the case in this blog post. Gehenna does refer to a place of punishment for the wicked in the eschaton (i.e. hell) and the context of Jeremiah 7 is clearly the wrong lens through which to view the New Testament’s use of Gehenna.

Mark Steven Francois

[1] Bruce D. Chilton, A Galilean Rabbi and His Bible: Jesus’ Use of the Interpreted Scriptures of His Time (Eugene, Oregon, Wipf & Stock, 1984) , 102.

 

 

 

Did Jesus Experience God’s Wrath When He Died on the Cross?

Human Wrath vs. Divine Wrath

In a recent panel discussion, a fairly well-known Canadian pastor made an interesting comment about the way that we as Christians should understand the death of Jesus. He said that when Jesus died on the cross, it wasn’t the wrath of God that he was experiencing.  He said that when Jesus died on the cross he was only experiencing human wrath: the wrath of God had nothing to do with it.

As I’m sure that many people are aware, there is an increasing number of people who have grown uncomfortable with speaking about the death of Jesus in terms of Jesus experiencing the wrath of God. I’m sure that a big part of this has to do with different theological understandings of what Jesus accomplished when he died on the cross. And I’m sure that, for many, an even bigger part of this has to do with a different understanding of who God is and what he is like (i.e. Does God actually get angry at sin? Does sin need to be punished for God to be able to forgive sin? etc.).

But in this post I simply want to focus on one main issue, namely, that human wrath vs. divine wrath is a false dichotomy: saying that Jesus experienced human wrath does not mean that Jesus wasn’t experiencing divine wrath at the same time.[1]

1. What is Wrath?

But before we get into why human wrath vs. divine wrath is a false dichotomy, it is important for us to define what the term wrath actually means. The word wrath (Heb. חֲרוֹן אַף, חָרָה לְ, or חֵמָה) simply means burning or intense anger.  And when the Bible speaks about God pouring out (שָׁפַךְ) his wrath it refers to God giving expression to his anger in some sort of concrete way.

But when the Bible speaks about God pouring out his wrath, we need to be careful: the focus isn’t so much on the emotions that God is experiencing but on the intensity of the punishment that the person or group is experiencing because of their sin. In other words, when the Old Testament speaks about God pouring out his wrath, it is simply another way of saying that God is punishing people in a severe way because of their sin.[2]

2.  Divine Wrath vs. Human Wrath

So the question we need to ask is whether or not the experience of human wrath and the experience of divine wrath are mutually exclusive. In other words, if a person or group is experiencing human wrath, does this automatically exclude the possibility that they are experiencing God’s wrath at the same time? I think the answer to this one is fairly clear: experiencing human wrath does not exclude the possibility that the person or group is also experiencing the wrath of God.

Let’s take a look at a few examples from the book of Lamentations to show why this is the case:

Lamentations 2:2 – Without pity the Lord has swallowed up all the dwellings of Jacob; in his wrath he has torn down the strongholds of the Daughter of Judah. He has brought her kingdom and its princes down to the ground in dishonor. (NIV)

Lamentations 2:3 – In fierce anger he has cut off every horn of Israel. He has withdrawn his right hand at the approach of the enemy. He has burned in Jacob like a flaming fire that consumes everything around it. (NIV)

Lamentations 2:4 – Like an enemy he has strung his bow; his right hand is ready. Like a foe he has slain all who were pleasing to the eye; he has poured out his wrath like fire on the tent of the Daughter of Zion. (NIV)

Lamentations 3:1 – I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of his wrath. (NIV)

Lamentations 4:11 – The LORD has given full vent to his wrath; he has poured out his fierce anger. He kindled a fire in Zion that consumed her foundations. (NIV)

There are two important things to notice in these passages:

(a) First of all, notice that each of these passages speak about the wrath of God being poured out on Judah/Jerusalem. In other words, each of these passages speak about God giving concrete expression to his anger because of their sin, keeping in mind that the focus here is not so much on God’s emotional state but on the intensity of the punishment he is giving out.

(b) Second, when God pours out his wrath in these passages, he is not pouring out his anger in a direct way. He isn’t pouring down sulphur from heaven and he isn’t sending some kind of plague to wipe out the people. When God pours out his anger he is doing through the Babylonian army: according to the book of Lamentations, God sent the Babylonian army to punish Judah/Jerusalem because of their sin and, when they came, he did not do anything to stop them.  Using the language of the Canadian pastor I mentioned earlier on in the post, from a human point of view we could say that Judah/Jerusalem was destroyed because of human wrath. But, using the language and theology of the book of Lamentations, Judah/Jerusalem was also destroyed because of divine wrath. There is no false dichotomy between human wrath and divine wrath: in these passages God poured out his wrath precisely through human wrath.

The Death of Jesus and the Wrath of God

The question we need to ask now is whether or not it is theologically appropriate to say that Jesus experienced the wrath of God when he died on the cross. I use the term theologically appropriate here because, as far as I am aware, there are no passages in the New Testament that explicitly refer to Jesus experiencing God’s wrath when he died on the cross, though there are a number of reasons for believing that it is strongly implied. When I ask whether or not it is theologically appropriate to speak about Jesus experiencing the wrath of God when he died on the cross, I am asking: “Based on everything that we know from the Bible that touches on this issue, is it appropriate to speak of Jesus experiencing the wrath of God when he died on the cross, even though that language is not explicitly used?” I believe that the answer to this question is “yes”.

Remember, what does it mean to experience the wrath of God? When a person experiences the wrath of God it means that they are experiencing severe punishment because of their sin. Sometimes that punishment is given out by God in a direct way; at other times that punishment is given out through what seems to be independent human action (i.e. human wrath). Sometimes the focus is on God sending those human agents to perform that judgment; at other times the focus is simply on God not rescuing his people from their hands: either way, these independent human actions are seen as God pouring out his wrath on his people.

So the question that needs to be asked is this: Does the Bible ever see the death of Jesus as punishment for sin? Again, I would say that the answer to this question is “yes” – but not for his own sin, but for the sins of others.  There are many places we could go to show this, but one of the best places to go is Isaiah 53:

Isaiah 53:4 – Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. (NIV)

In other words, they thought that God was punishing this person for his own sin.  But the passage doesn’t end there:

Isaiah 53:5-6 – But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (NIV)

This part of the passage clarifies what was meant in verse 4: Christ wasn’t experiencing punishment for his own sin; he was experiencing punishment for the sin of other people.

This is precisely what it means to experience the wrath of God: to experience severe punishment from God because of sin. By ordaining the death of Jesus (Acts 4:28) as punishment for sin (Isa. 53:6) and by not rescuing Jesus when he was dying on the cross (Matthew 26:46), God was effectively pouring out his wrath on Jesus so that we could be forgiven for our sins. The wrath/punishment that we deserve to receive fell on Jesus so that we could be forgiven for our sins (Rom. 3:25-26).[3].  If we believe that Jesus died in our place and experienced the punishment that we deserve to receive, it is appropriate to say that Jesus experienced the wrath of God, even if that precise terminology is not used in the New Testament.

Conclusion

Saying that Jesus experienced human wrath does not settle the issue of whether or not Jesus also experienced the wrath of God when he died on the cross. When the Bible speaks about God pouring out his wrath, it is not limited to fire coming down from heaven or to plagues coming down on people: very often it refers to what, on the surface, looks like independent human action but, in reality, is actually ordained by God. This is exactly what happened in the death of Jesus: Jesus experienced human wrath, something that, on the surface, looked like independent human action. But the reality is that this was ultimately ordained by God: Jesus was experiencing the wrath of God through human wrath so that we could be forgiven.

[1] Throughout this post I will be using the language of human wrath simply because this was the language used by the pastor mentioned at the beginning of the post. The reason why he used this language was clearly to contrast it with divine wrath. That being said, I don’t think that the term human wrath is the best way to describe the human actions we will be talking about in this post.

[2] A good example of this in the New Testament is John 3:36: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.” (NIV) In this case the focus is not so much on the intensity of God’s anger remaining on people but on the intensity of the punishment that awaits people who don’t believed in Jesus.

[3] I realize that substitutionary atonement, especially penal substitutionary atonement, is an extremely contentious issue. I’m sure that I will address this in other posts in the future.