Biblical Authority: Yes! Sola Scriptura? Maybe.

The Bible is amazing.  The God who created all the universe and each tiny flower in a mountain meadow decided to communicate with people in their own language, and to inspire people to write it down for future generations to read!  Even the Bible talks about about invaluable and awe-inspiring the Scripture is.  God gave the law through Moses, and after he re-hashed it all to the Israelites in the plain of Moab (Deuteronomy means “second [statement of the] law”), Moses said, “They are not just idle words for you—they are your life” (Deut 32:47).  God spoke through Isaiah, “These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word” (Isaiah 66:2).  When Jesus quoted a difficult passage of the psalms, he parenthetically remarked, “And the Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35).  The Bible is fully authoritative, life-giving, and amazingly clear (indeed, often far too clear for our comfortable self-deceptions).  I do not think we can speak highly enough of God’s gracious gift of Scripture.  But it is possible to speak inaccurately of it.

“Sola Scriptura” is one of the five Reformation “solas” (the plural ought to be solae, or rather soli, since one of them is masculine).  It is called the “formal principle” of the Reformation, meaning what distinguishes Protestant theology’s method from the theology of Roman Catholics.  But “sola Scriptura” has come to mean many different things to different people.  It seems to me that some of these meanings are true, but some of them are false.  We must evaluate these meanings in turn. (more…)

“Same God” for Muslims and Christians? False Starts

Recent events at Wheaton College have once again raised the question whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God.  This is a question which I have faced with some regularity, given that I have a small amount of theological training and that I study the mixed society (including Muslims and Christians) of the medieval Middle East.  With due regard to Biblical authority and the many learned people who have weighed in on the question, I find the issue to be rather more ambiguous than anyone likes to admit, and dependent upon certain non-obvious answers to tricky questions regarding the nature of worship and the relationship between sense and referent when speaking about spiritual beings, including God.  In other words, contrary to what everyone would like to be the case, the answer is not obvious either way.

Reasoning in Context

I recently heard a philosophy professor present a talk entitled, “Why I am not a Christian.”  The title, of course, is taken from Bertrand Russel’s 1927 talk on the same subject, though the professor I heard was not nearly as hostile to Christians as Russell.  Nevertheless, in common philosophical fashion he went beyond the apparently autobiographical scope of the title to claim that no one else anywhere is warranted to believe either in the existence of God or in the extraordinary claims made in the Gospels about Jesus.  As he reviewed philosophical arguments for the existence of God and scriptural appeals to faith in Christ, he repeatedly said, “I have not found compelling justification,” and he took that to imply that neither had anyone else.  There were various other elements of the talk that struck me (and upon which I may at some point comment here), but the assertion of categorical lack of rationality for certain conclusions is something I am wrestling with. (more…)

Prayer, Christology, and the Need for Better Exegesis

This is something of a rant.  I have some pet peeves, among which is when people misinterpret the Bible to fit their pet concepts and models.  Even if the larger point they are making is good, good ends do not justify bad means.  I’m reading a book on prayer right now which I think illustrates this perfectly.  I’m not quite halfway through it, and I generally have a high bar for what constitutes good writing on the subject of prayer (and a low tolerance for Christian cliches and platitudes).  On the whole, I think the book is very good, and it has already helped me with certain issues in my prayer life.  But some of what the book says about Jesus is just flat wrong, even if it’s with good intentions.  And much of how the author draws from the Bible is deeply wrong-headed, even if I think the author has understood some important things about prayer.  (Because of this mixed review, I will not name the author or the book in this post.)  So I’m not condemning the book or the author, but I thought I would vent my frustration by using a few examples from the book to show how bad exegesis is a problem, even for a good end. (more…)

A Tale of Two Priesthoods

It is often claimed that one insuperable difference between Protestants and Catholics is that Protestants, since Luther, believe in the priesthood of all believers, while Catholics believe Christians need a priest to bring them to God.  Today this is usually a Protestant accusation against Catholics, although in the sixteenth century Luther’s notion of the priesthood of all believers, including illiterate and semi-literate peasants, did come in for a certain amount of ridicule from some of the more educated members of the clergy.  Some of the wilder branches of Protestantism have gone further than Luther, even rejecting, on the claimed basis of the “priesthood of all believers,” any ordained clergy whatsoever (this includes the Plymouth Brethren and the Quakers), while many “Bible-believing” Protestants draw a sharp distinction between Roman Catholic priests and their own pastors or elders.  As with so many things, however, the disagreement between the denominations over the scope of the priesthood is based more on an argument over words than over the substance of what the Bible says.  There are substantive disagreements in Roman Catholic and various Protestant understandings of priesthood(s), but the “argument” over the priesthood or not of all believers can safely be put down to a deficiency of northern European languages like English, which have one word where Greek has two, and a desire on both sides of the argument to affirm the superiority of their group over those who disagree with them.


Where are the Whirled Peas?

This afternoon, over lunch, I was asked by a friend who is neither Christian nor Jewish how I might respond to the contention that Jesus could not be the Messiah because he did not usher in an era of world peace.  (For an online Jewish website presenting this objection, see here.)  Honestly, it’s not a topic which exercises me greatly, but I thought I’d present my answer here for future correction.

Basically, I have two answers.  The first looks at what Jesus taught about the Messiah, and the second at what the Hebrew scriptures themselves say about the Messiah.

(Prolegomena: the words “Christ” and “Messiah” are distinct in English, but refer back to the same thing.  Hebrew haMoshiah was Aramaicized as meshiha, which was occasionally (e.g. John 1:41 and 4:25) transcribed into Greek as messias, thence to Latin messia, thence to English messiah.  On the other hand, already in the Septuagint Greek translation of Leviticus (date debated, but before 100 BCE likely), the Greek adjective khristos was used to translate the Hebrew haMoshiah, and it was similarly used in the two passages of the Gospel of John cited above.  It was used as a substantive adjective, i.e. an adjective-turned-noun, in the Septuagint translation of Psalm 2:2, and thus became the common way of referring to the Messiah in Greek.  Greek khristos was transcribed into Latin usually as christus, and thence to English as Christ.  I will not distinguish between the nuances in English between Messiah and Christ, because they have a shared pedigree.)

The Messiah According to Jesus

1. Jesus claimed to be the Messiah.  He asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” and when Peter said, “The Christ,” which Jesus approved (Matt 16:13-20), and when asked under oath by the High Priest if he was the Christ, Jesus answered in the affirmative (Mark 14:61).  When a Samaritan woman expresses hope that the coming Messiah will sort out religious questions for them, Jesus claims to be the answer (John 4:25-26).  Thus it is not surprising that the earliest Christian texts use the title for Jesus unreservedly.

2. Jesus disclaimed inaugurating an age of peace.  For example, Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to bring peace; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt 10:34).  The sword that he speaks of is not the sword of conquest, but division within a family in the first instance (Matt 10:35), and the promise that his followers would be killed for following him (Matt 10:38-39, remembering that a cross at that time was a mode of execution, not a bothersome difficulty).

3. Jesus spoke of God’s Reign (more often translated “Kingdom of God,” but a phenomenon rather than a place) as something both present and to come.  Thus he taught his disciples to pray, “may your kingdom come” (Matt 6:10), even while he was announcing, “God’s reign has come” (Matt 4:17; the verb sometimes translated “at hand” is more literally “has come close”).  He even said, “God’s kingdom is within you” (Luke 17:21).

4. The immediate Kingdom of God  will include Christians suffering a lot of violence (e.g. Matt 10:23; John 16:2), but also a kind of peace given by Christ (Mark 5:34; more generally, John 14:27 and 16:33).  Jesus does not say much of anything about the notion of future world peace, although he likens it in a parable to “entering into the joy of [one’s] master” (Matt 25:21,23), and elsewhere he likens it to a feast (Matt 8:11).  He also uses the traditional language of Daniel 7:13-14 to describe a future coming of the Messiah (Matt 24:30-31).  At that time, the “Son of Man” (i.e. the Messiah) will condemn all injustice and wickedness (the chief obstacles to peace) and bring the righteous to “the kingdom prepared for you” (Matt 25:34).

Thus, it appears from the teaching of Jesus that there is a distinction between the first coming of the Messiah, to “bring the kingdom near” despite ongoing violence and suffering, and a second coming of the same, to bring an end to all evil and inaugurate the fullness of the kingdom.  This is called “inaugurated eschatology,” “partially realized eschatology,” or “the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet.'”

But critics may say that the Messianic prophecies of the Hebrew scriptures do not support such a bifurcated Messianic mission.  So that is the second piece of my response to the question.

The Messiah According to Isaiah

(Yes, I know there were other prophets than Isaiah, and the arguments I make for Isaiah could be generalized to other prophets.  But in the interest of writing a blog post rather than a book on the subject, I’ll limit my discussion to Isaiah.)

Isaiah certainly foretold world peace.  Most obviously, “And they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  / Nation will not lift up sword against nation, / And never again will they learn war.” (Isaiah 2:4)  When will this come about?  Isaiah tells us: “In the last days” (Isaiah 2:2), when the Lord “will judge between the nations and will render decisions for many peoples” (Isaiah 2:4).

But what does Isaiah say of the Messiah?  This is where things get a little more tricky.  Isaiah refers to Cyrus of Persia as the Lord’s “anointed” (45:1), but leaving that aside for now, more to the point are various prophecies which do not necessary use the term “Messiah” but were understood by an ancient Jewish audience to refer to the prophesied Davidic ruler.  The only one to use the term “anointed” is Isaiah 61:1-2:

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
Because the Lord has anointed me
To bring good news to the afflicted;
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to captives
And freedom to prisoners;
To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord
And the day of vengeance of our God.

(This passage was quoted by Jesus in Luke 4:18-19, and pronounced fulfilled.)  This passage does not say anything about world peace, as it turns out, but presumes that people have been afflicted, brokenhearted, taken captive, and made prisoner.

Other prophecies from Isaiah are debated as to whether they pertain to the Messiah or not.  Most notable are the “Servant Songs” (Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; and 52:13-53:12), which speak of the Lord’s Servant.  The most common Jewish interpretation is probably that these songs refer to the Jewish people collectively, while Christians have traditionally interpreted them with respect to the Messiah.  What do they tell us?

In Isaiah 42:1-4, the Lord speaks of choosing his servant and putting his Spirit upon him, in similar language to Isaiah 61:1 though without the word to anoint, and that this servant will bring justice to the world.  In Isaiah 49:1-6, the servant speaks, claiming to be hidden in God’s hand and quiver (49:2).  While he is addressed by God, “You are my servant, Israel” in 49:3, he is also given the mission “To bring Jacob back to Him, so that Israel might be gathered to Him” (49:5).  This implies some identification between the servant and Israel, but also a distinction: the servant is to bring Israel back to God.  And not only Israel: the Lord says to his servant,

It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant
To raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel;
I will also make You a light of the nations
So that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth. (49:6)

So the Lord’s servant is chosen by the Lord, anointed by the Spirit, and given a mission of restoration of God’s people and salvation to all the peoples.  If the servant is simply the people of Israel, as some suggest, I do not see how the people of Israel can restore themselves.  One might propose that the righteous people of Israel would bring back those who have strayed, but even “the preserved ones of Israel” need restoration.  And this passage’s double reference to God choosing the servant from the womb (49:1,5) sounds more like the Lord’s call of Jeremiah (Jer 1:5), referring to an individual.  The reference to the servant’s law in 42:4 may then imply that the Lord’s servant is a king, and these passages are likely among the Messianic prophecies of Isaiah.  And they do foretell a Messianic restoration of all things.

In Isaiah 50:4-9, the servant speaks again, indicating his obedience to the Lord, and yet his suffering of beating, beard-plucking, and being spat upon (50:6).  Although he protests that the Lord will help him and he will outlast his opponents (50:9), there is nothing in this passage about world peace or even victory, just confidence in a courtroom.  Instead, it mentions his suffering and endurance.

The final Servant Song is even more direct, and it is small wonder that it is so frequently quoted in the New Testament.  This is the passage in which the servant is described as “a man of sorrows” and “surely our griefs he himself bore, and our sorrows he carried.”  It describes how the servant is killed unjustly (53:7-8) among criminals (53:9,12), though in fact buried by a rich man (53:9), and yet his suffering was to take away the sins of the people (53:5-6).  Nevertheless, “If he gives himself as a sacrifice for guilt, he will see offspring, he will prolong his days, and the Lord’s pleasure will prosper through him” (53:10).  How someone who gives himself as a sacrifice can live longer is a puzzle in this passage, simply unanswered here.

But the prophecies of Isaiah speak on the one hand of world peace, and on the other of the suffering servant of the Lord.  Both are speaking of the Messiah.  This Messiah is Jesus, who as the Lord’s suffering servant has indeed dealt with our sins, “and by his wounds, we are healed.”  The fact that the Messiah’s sufferings would not immediately usher in a period of world peace was understood and clearly articulated by Jesus, and implicit in Isaiah’s various prophecies regarding the suffering servant.

The question how can the Messiah suffer rather than ushering in an age of prosperity is not new.  Jesus faced the question himself (John 12:34).  But the fact of the matter is that the current brokenness of the world, which is very broken indeed, and the incomprehension of the crowds are no surprise to him and no ultimate obstacle to his redemptive plan.