Is Talman Also Among the Islamicists?

In my previous post I discussed Harley Talman’s argument that Christians ought to entertain the notion that Muhammad might have been a prophet (though not a very good one).  Other critics have pointed out biblical and scriptural flaws with his argument.  But since very few Christian bloggers have specific training in Islamic studies (the academic study of Islam), I thought it might be useful if I pointed out some criticisms of Talman’s argument from the perspective of Islamicists (experts in studying Islam).  In addition to a few outright errors, Talman provides historically ignorant interpretations of the available sources.  In particular, the crux of my disagreement is that Talman argues that the Qur’an is not in fact anti-Trinitarian, as accepted by almost all Islamicists (regardless of their religious views).  Instead, he claims that the Qur’an only criticizes unorthodox Christian views which orthodox Christians ought also to reject.  I think this assertion is untenable, and this flaw is fatal to his entire argument. (more…)

Afterlife in the Old Testament

It is often stated that the Old Testament does not present any view of heaven and hell or life after death.  This is often coupled with assertions that Hebrew authors did not distinguish between body and soul the way that we do.  Now, I do accept the critique that popular American images of heaven as pasty-faced night-robe wearing people on sedatives half-heartedly strumming harps while reclining improbably on clouds owes more to Victorian English book plates than any part of the Bible.  I also accept that most Christians today distinguish too sharply between soul and body (a quibble for another post).  On the other hand, I think what we find in the Old Testament cannot be reconciled with the common assertion that people three millennia or more ago did not conceive of personal continuity after death (apart from the obvious extra-biblical counter-example in the Gilgamesh epic).  Here I wish to focus only on a few verses from Genesis, and in particular on two revealing idioms about death.

A particular idiom is used in Genesis to describe the deaths of Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, and Jacob: each, when he died, was “gathered to his peoples” (Genesis 25:8; 25:17; 35:29; and 49:33).  Most English versions prefer “to his people,” but the noun is curiously yet distinctively plural “peoples.”  What does this mean?  It cannot be a euphemism substituted for “died,” because in three of the four occurrences “died” shortly precedes this idiom.  The verb “died” was clearly not taboo for the author.  On the other hand, the idiom does not seem to be a description of burial, given that the act of burying the deceased is indicated separately in three of the four cases.  Indeed, the burial of Jacob is narratively separated from his being “gathered to his peoples” by most of a chapter.  So it’s not simply a colorful phrase to describe some aspect of the body.  What it did mean is difficult to say precisely, except that by death each person joined other people he was associated with.  How else might death result in a gathering, unless there is some sense of non-physical reunion after death and independently of the body?

The independence from the disposition of the body is seen in another phrase which was not as common as the preceding.  When God foretold to Abraham his death, he said, “As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you will be buried at a good old age” (Genesis 15:15).  Jacob mentioned his own upcoming death similarly: “when I lie down with my fathers” (Genesis 47:30).  Since Jacob is asking to be buried with Abraham and Isaac, one might think his use of the phrase simply reflects the practice of dynastic burial.  But in fact, his grammar indicates that the act of “lying down with his fathers” occurs in Egypt, before the burial: “when I lie down with my fathers, you shall carry me out of Egypt and bury me in their burial place.”  Abraham was not buried with his ancestors, but in Canaan after having left his father’s house according to the Lord’s command (Genesis 12:1).  Indeed, the phrase was also used of Moses (Deuteronomy 31:16), whose burial place was unknown (Deuteronomy 34:6).  This phrase, like the preceding idiom, suggests a hazy concept of reunion with predecessors and other people, independently of the body, after death.  The fact that these are idiomatic phrases further emphasizes that the presupposed views were not idiosyncratic to the author, but were widely held.

Am I saying that the author of Genesis and the people described therein held to the same views of the afterlife that we do?  No, nor need I.  Even Christians today hold all sorts of theories in practice.  Am I saying that they fully understood the notion of spiritual reunion after death?  No, and I suspect we do not fully understand it either.  Views on what happens after we die have certainly changed over time.  My goal in this discussion is simply to suggest that the widespread assertion that the Old Testament authors had no notion of personal continuation after death is demonstrably false.  What notions they did have, and how those notions developed over time, is a more complex question.  But notions of heaven and hell, of personal continuation after death, did not suddenly spring into Judaism during the exilic period from Zoroastrian influence, as one of my textbooks last semester baldly (and ignorantly) asserted.

Requiescat avia mea in pace cum Christo Salvatore suo.

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.


“You’re Doing Nothing, God”

Sometimes, you’re reading the Bible and skimming along in a familiar story, and then STOP.  SOMETHING has caught your attention, which you’ve never noticed before.  This was one of those moments.

The story of the exodus is familiar enough to me and to most: Moses is sent by God (after some initial reluctance) to Egypt to lead the Israelites out of Egypt to Canaan.  The elders really like the idea – being slaves of the Egyptians kinda sucks, even after they repealed the infanticide law – but the Pharaoh takes a dim view of the enterprise.  In response, the Pharaoh makes it so that being slaves of the Egyptians really sucks, and the Israelites take a short-sighted view of the case and complain about Moses stirring up trouble.  But God stirs up a whole lot more trouble for the Pharaoh, a lot of people die, and eventually the Israelites leave Egypt not only with the Pharaoh’s permission but with his, uh, you might say, encouragement.  But then he changes his mind and drowns in the Red Sea chasing after the Israelites to re-enslave them.  Moses, throughout, was the unflappable spokesman for God.  Or was he? (more…)

Fighting Truth Decay

This is, at long last, an answer to a question posted by a commentator (I’m sorry to say over a month ago): “[H]ow do you see Christ as having made provisions for guaranteeing the preservation of Truth through the ages (if you see Him as having done so at all)?”  Subsequent discussion revealed that he did not mean merely since Christ’s ascension to heaven.  So this post attempts to address the question in general, but first (as a humanities scholar is apt to do), I need to clarify the issue.

Clarifying the Problem

What does it mean to “guarantee the preservation of Truth”?  In what ways is Truth not preserved?  Truth is not an organic mass which begins to decompose in the summer heat, changing color and attracting flies.  Nor is truth a substance that can be diluted or transmuted.  Truth is a property of certain beliefs, and the “preservation of Truth” is the preservation of true beliefs in the minds of people.  A true belief may fail to be preserved in the minds of people either by failing to pass it on to new people, so that the true belief may be said to end (in a sense) with the death of the last person who believes it, or by being rejected in favor of alternate (and false) beliefs.  Since no sound argument can refute a true belief, if we were fully rational beings, no true belief would ever be rejected for a false belief.  And if we were immortal and perfectly rational beings, truth would be in no danger.  But in fact, we are both mortal, so beliefs need to be passed on, and sinful, so that we often prefer convenient falsehoods to inconvenient truths.  And thus true beliefs need to be preserved.  The transfer of true beliefs to other people is a variety of revelation, the means by which those other people come to believe this truth.  The question of how sinful people are checked from simply chucking out whatever truth they don’t like is a question of redemption.  In both processes, God’s message of salvation is at stake, and therefore this is an important question. (more…)

“All Things are Yours”

After the divergence of Christian denominations, important spiritual writers were located in different branches.  I think of Brother Lawrence among the Roman Catholics, John Bunyan among the English non-conformists, Fyodor Dostoevsky among the Russian Orthodox, more recently C. S. Lewis among the Anglicans, and Billy Graham among American Evangelicals.  But when people of another denomination read and cite with approval such a writer, members of that writer’s own denomination sometimes object to what feels like poaching.  Surely, the sentiment may be expressed, that writer is “ours”; what write have “you” to appropriate him?  Indeed, some Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox feel that way even about writers from before the schism.  I have heard Eastern Orthodox Christians object to any “Western Christian” (Roman Catholic or Protestant) claiming Athanasius or the Cappadocians, and I have heard Roman Catholics object to members of other churches citing Aquinas or Gregory the Great.  Is there any legitimacy to this objection?

The short answer is “no.”

The present is not the first time that Christians have fought over names.  Already in Corinth in the middle of the first century, Christians were claiming to belong to different denominations, whether Peter’s, Paul’s, Apollos’s, or Christ’s (1 Cor 1:11-12).  (It is unclear whether this last group were claiming to be mere Christians, including the others, or holier-than-thou, excluding all the others.)  Among Paul’s many responses to this sorry state of affairs is the following gem:

So then let no one boast in men. For all things belong to you, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas [Peter] or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God.” (1 Cor 3:21-23, NASB)

All those, then, who belong to Christ may rightly claim and profit from all those who have gone before.  I am a late-comer to Christ, I know, but even so my heritage includes Moses and all the prophets, all the apostles, the early Christian writers, the medieval Christian writers of East and West (and of whatever language, whether Latin, Greek, Syriac, Armenian, Arabic, or any other), the early modern reformers (such as Erasmus and Luther) and mystics (such as Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross), and modern thinkers and activists (such as Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, Jr.).  We have this great shared heritage, because it is Christ’s “inheritance in the saints” (Ephesians 1:18) and we are “joint heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17).  Let us all, then, profit from the riches of that heritage and be prompted by it to fulfill the New Command of our Lord: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.  By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35, NASB)

“Choose Life”

At a climactic moment of his preaching career, Moses stood before the descendants of Israel and said to them, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Now choose life, so that you and your children may live!”  The point was that, by loving and obeying God, things would go well for them, whereas if they disobeyed God, things would go very badly.

This is not an individualized guarantee, of course, however much prosperity gospel preachers hype it as such, but is a general statement that doing bad things leads to bad outcomes.  The clearest counter-example to an individualized interpretation of this statement is Jesus, who loved and obeyed God perfectly, and suffered horribly.  The fact that he knew the punchline three days later does not mitigate the amount of suffering Jesus experienced.  People who wonder what all the fuss was about in the Garden of Gethsemane, if Jesus knew the outcome on Easter morning, have never experienced such intense physical pain.  It is possible to feel pain so intense that you crave only for it to end by whatever means are to hand, no matter what good may theoretically come from it.  Jesus experienced intense pain, and knew ahead of time what he was in for.  No wonder he preferred, all things being equal, to dodge the bullet.

And yet, in that garden, though he asked his Father for a reprieve, for any other way, yet he chose to obey.  And in that sense, he chose his own death.  Not that he desired to die, or that he forced the Romans to kill him, but he had the means at his disposal to avoid his death and yet he did not.  (He made this point in Matthew 26:53-54, rebuking Peter’s resort to the sword.)  He had the honesty to wrestle with God about his desire to avoid experiencing torture, and he had the courage and humility to accept the Father’s plan.

Jesus chose death, so that we can choose life.  As he said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

Why does this matter?  Is Jesus just a nice augment to an otherwise affluent life, enjoying all the benefits of Western economic and educational success?

I received an email today from someone whom I don’t get to see very often because we live so far apart.  She said to call; she would have called, but she didn’t have my number.  We played phone tag all afternoon, and when I finally got to talk to her, she shared the bad news: a mutual friend, who I knew well a number of years ago, took her own life yesterday.  I knew of some of this mutual friend’s troubles, but we had not corresponded for almost two years.  I had been intending to email her again “soon” with some good news I received recently, but hadn’t gotten around to it.  I don’t know what she had been going through.

Christianity has traditionally taken a sterner rather than a more comforting line concerning the case of people who cause their own death.  In this case, when last we corresponded, my friend did not share my Lord.  We had read large portions of John’s Gospel together and discussed them, and she had been interested in reading widely about spiritual matters.  After we moved to different American cities, we corresponded by email occasionally and even spoke on the phone a few times.  I had hoped I might some day see her share in the joy of the Savior.

In cases like these, I feel grief for the loss of a friend, especially one so gifted in a number of different ways.  I have enough humanity to wonder the what-ifs: what if I had emailed her a month ago, when I first received the good news I wished to share?  What if I had been a more consistent pen pal?  Could I have done anything?  Might it have mattered?  And I pray for God’s mercy on my friend, and for his comfort for her family.

But I have no use for wishful thinking.  Jesus was not a sentimentalist: he willingly died on an instrument of Roman torture.  He said he came to give life: that is not a pleasant enhancement to life, nor an additional dose of prosperity to an otherwise okay existence.  We will all die some day, unless Christ returns first, and this physical life is temporary.  The life that Jesus came to give is the only life available, the only life that lasts.  These are matters weightier than merely physical life and death; eternity is at stake.

So let us not fool around with trivialities.  Our message to the world needs to be the same message Moses gave to the people of Israel: “Choose life!”