Theology

Theological Malpractice

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While Bible study, reading books and listening to videos of other great apologists is a good place to learn about apologetics, sometimes hitting the streets is a better way to learn about it through encounters with real people and their ideas. One of the great advantages of being out on the street is that you get to hear the more outlandish arguments and ideas held to by people. My recent trip out for First Fridays allowed me the encounter with a strange combination of theological assertions proposed by an individual. It was a blessing to be able to use the Greek text in my cell phone as well as the Hebrew text to confront him with the Scriptures in their original language and expose some of the fallacies he was expounding.

He made the assertion that since the phrase “tree of life” was used in Genesis and Revelation, Genesis was purely apocalyptic and not a literal historical account of the creation. This rather strange and foolish argument is predicated on certain false understandings related to the Scripture. Because the phrase is used in two different books under two different circumstances does not necessarily mean that the phrase means exactly the same thing both times. This is an important rule of thumb because the passages immediate context has a great deal of bearing on what a phrase means. The second foolish assertion that the gentleman had was that the genre of apocalyptic writing precludes anything within that writing from being actual fact and that all references within the writing must be symbolic. It is not necessarily true that everything in a piece of apocalyptic literature is not actual. Third, just because someone has done a little theological research or has a knowledge of the original languages that consists only of being able to read a few articles on a few words and try to make whole cases out of them makes an argument correct. It is always good to use commentaries and lexicons but oversimplification was at the heart of the fallacy of this gentleman’s reasoning.

Let’s discuss some counters to this gentleman’s rather outlandish way of looking at Genesis. The first eleven chapters of Genesis are Hebrew narrative this is indicated by the formal grammar of the passage. An analysis of the genre based on grammar is terribly important. There is a feature often translated “and” based on a Hebrew prefix which is indicative of Hebrew historical narrative and this specific feature appears throughout Genesis chapters one through eleven. The testimony of the Pentateuch itself we see Moses talking in chapters one through eleven. Since the testimony of the rest of the Pentateuch considers the creation story literal it cannot be regarded as apocalyptic because immediately surrounding this specific section of the Scriptures testimony is given that it is not to be treated as apocalyptic.

The gentleman’s counter accusation is while I understood Hebrew and Greek; I was guilty of putting a North American church gloss on my understanding of the Scriptures. As a Jewish person who came to faith through the Hebrew Scriptures, this charge was utterly ridiculous and was not even a good example of an ad hominem argument. Finally, in a fit of temper, he started stating that if God rested on the 7th day my God was a weak God. However, Jesus believed that God rested on the 7th day and took the creation story literally. Furthermore, the fact that God rested does not indicate that his ceasing from creating new things was related to any sort of physical tiredness at all but rather a voluntary choice. The voluntary choice of ceasing to create does not indicate any sort of weakness on God’s part at all but a choice the sovereign God made.

In short, this gentleman is an example of so much of what I see on the streets and in our society. I call it soundbite theology or individuals piece together parts of Scripture to create their own theology without regard to the proper method of interpretation and sound scholarship. Part of this ridiculousness is due to postmodern thinking that language and grammar are not grounded in objective truth. Our age also demonstrates a certain disdain for logic and scholarship which certainly will result in people being led to ridiculous positions and absurd theology. The Internet can teach us much, but we cannot piece together various Internet videos alone without a framework and decide that we are an expert in that field. The background is important, so is disciplined study and it behooves us to take the time to study the Scriptures and make ourselves accountable to sound individuals who may point out our missteps.

The Theology of power

This week we have been terribly busy trying to raise up our support team to keep this ministry going. In the midst, it has been interesting to see how the Lord orchestrates different events during my week, such as an event this week and one last week which were knit together in such a way as to demonstrate the need for discussing the politics and theology of power. Last week, as I was preparing to work out, I heard a snippet from Fox News pointing out how it appears those in Washington are less respectful of the rule of law. Then, while preparing my Monday night broadcast this week, I dealt with a cult called the Black Hebrew Israelites (which practices a form of racism by believing that the black people will come to power and force the subjugation of white people, including Jewish people, many of whom are lighter skinned). These two instances lead to the question: for what purpose does God give authority to individuals and groups? Having a well-articulated understanding of the Judeo-Christian* worldview is important in getting to the right answer.

Two points need to be made and upheld. First, authority over others must be exercised with love and respect. In the Gospels, Jesus is terribly clear on this: “Jesus said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-39, NKJV).’” We see this same basic principle in God’s choosing of Israel: “Now the LORD had said to Abram: ‘Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, And I will curse him who curses you; And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed (Genesis 12:1–3, NKJV).’” Clearly, He is stating that “in you [Israel],” all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Therefore, the purpose for which God chose Israel was to be a channel of blessings to others -  never was Israel chosen for itself. Plainly, God giving Israel a special status was for the benefit of others. Likewise, when any authority over others is given, it is meant for the benefit of the subjects.

Second, the exercise of authority for the sake of raw power is unholy. The exercise of authority within a Judeo-Christian worldview must be in line with God’s two great Commandments which are loving God and loving our neighbor, or in the spirit of Torah (which is love, according to Christ in His Gospels, as previously stated). Indeed, we must be clear to define love: love is seeking the ultimate good for the one loved. It is not seeking their temporary happiness. Unfortunately, our culture has begun to worship happiness as opposed to good. Moreover, the command to love one’s neighbor is subordinate to the command to love God, which must be the case, as only in loving according to God’s commands is the ultimate good of an individual realized. While humans made in God’s image have the capacity to love, that capacity is tainted by their own natures. Though some who are unsaved have moral knowledge by general revelation and the image of God within them, they are apt to err and make mistakes about the ultimate good if not properly guided. Therefore, the saying is true, that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Power is to be exercised for the ultimate good of others, as defined by God, and not for raw power.

Let us apply these principles to the two situations. First, Washington (that is, the United States government) was never created to tyrannically reign over US citizens in the name of making them do good or, more accurately, what appears to be right according to a faulty worldview and agenda. Let me unpack this idea a little: the US government was never designed to be a nanny dictating to US citizens political correctness (which, by the way, is not genuine love). The founding fathers designed the rule of law to rein in the government since they understood that because of man’s fallen nature, power corrupts. Washington’s submission to the rule of law would be loving to US citizens. Ignoring the rule of law and proper conduct is an abuse of authority, and thus unloving to US citizens.

Now to the cult, the Black Hebrew Israelites. Their philosophy is based on past victimization and racism. Having suffered evil never gives anybody the right to tyrannically rule over another. Since the purpose of authority is to exercise love, groups that claim an oppressed status have no more right to authority than groups that do not claim an oppressed status. The BHI cult reflects a politic of victimization, which is contrary to a proper theology of power. God gives the right to rule as He chooses, for the good of all. Serving in love is the way to gain power in its proper sense and respect. Jesus said it when He stated, “And He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all (Mark 9:35, NKJV).’”


 

*For those who would object to the word ‘Judeo-Christian,’ it must be pointed out that Jesus and His disciples were practicing Jews, and that ethical monotheism came to the world through the Jewish people.

Unhitching the Horse From the Cart Does Not Get You Where You Want to Go

Does the Old Testament really hinder the Gospel? Discussion has swirled about a recent sermon delivered by Andy Stanley and its relationship to the value of the New Testament. Admittedly, I have not had the chance to listen to the sermon, but what concerns me is that a mindset may be growing which influenced some of the remarks in the sermon. In the minds of many, the Old Testament, or Hebrew Scriptures, are problematic in view of modern thinking. I would like to briefly examine two things: are the Hebrew Scriptures a hindrance to proclaiming the Gospel, and does it matter if the Hebrew Scriptures may be unsuited to modern thinking?

Andy Stanley may have had noble intentions by pointing out that the central message of Scripture is Messiah Jesus. His desire to see Jesus proclaimed is a right and good desire, and those of us who value the Hebrew Scriptures would concur with this noble aim. However, in the mind of Stanley, the Hebrew Scriptures are a hindrance to the proclamation of the Gospel - or at least, that is the impression that may be given. This sort of argumentation would fall into a category of fallacy called ‘a false dilemma.’ First, let us look at just one passage of Scripture. John 1:29 states, “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” What does this phrase, “Lamb of God,” even mean if we remove it from the context of the Jewish Scriptures? Clearly, this title refers to both the Passover and the binding of Isaac, or the Akediah. Without the background of the Hebrew Scriptures (which John’s audience clearly would have had), this reference would have made no sense, and would have told them little to nothing. John clearly did not believe the Hebrew Scriptures were a detriment to the Gospel, but rather that they were the correct way of presenting the Gospel.

If Jesus is the center for the believer, and the One he or she is to proclaim, perhaps we should look at Jesus’ own attitude towards the Hebrew Scriptures and their relationship to the Gospel. The very context of the famous John 3: 16, which someone like Andy Stanley would use to proclaim the Gospel, contains clear reference to the Hebrew Scriptures. We read in John 3:14-15, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” In the mind of Jesus there was no John 3:16 without the Hebrew Scriptures contained in Numbers 21. Jesus makes clear use of the Old Testament to share the Gospel, even in this verse which is used in evangelism more than any other. Clearly, Jesus does not agree with Andy Stanley’s analysis of the problematic nature of the Old Testament. Jesus does not believe that the Hebrew Scriptures hinder the proclamation of the Gospel at all!

But what about the problem that the Hebrew Scriptures are inconsistent with modern thinking? Given the nature of modern thinking, which tends towards materialistic or postmodern explanations of the world, the Gospel itself and the New Testament are both inconsistent with modern thinking. To argue that the Old Testament should be untethered from the church to accommodate modern thinking is tantamount to arguing that the Gospel should be changed in its essential truths to make it more palatable to the mainstream worldview of our culture. Many of the doctrines which are central to our faith, such as blood atonement, are archaic to modern society. I doubt the folks from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (P.E.T.A.) find the sacrificial system of the Hebrew Scriptures acceptable - yet they are key to the doctrine of blood atonement in understanding the sacrifice of Jesus for our sins.

The fact that the modern mindset does not understand the thinking of the Scripture’s original audience does not mean that the Scriptures need to be changed, but rather that they need to be explained.  It is always a bad idea to mistake pragmatism for wisdom. When we deal with the essentials of the faith, I am not saying that other doctrines are not important, but on those things which are clear and repeatedly displayed under the Perspicuity of Scripture¹, we must stand firm.

One of the driving forces and part of my passion that the mission of Zionsbanner is to uphold the idea that the Scriptures, which include the Hebrew Scriptures as a vital part, are one story testifying to the person and work of Jesus Christ. Ministries like Zionsbanner, which I am so excited to be creating, serve the vital purpose of connecting the big story - which is integral to the Hebrew Scriptures - with the presenting of Jesus as the Messiah of Israel and Savior of the world.

 

 

1 The Perspicuity of the Scriptures refers to the doctrine that the Scriptures in their central message are clear and that, while there are sections of Scripture which may be hard to understand, the central things of the word of God can be understood clearly and are made plain.

Thanos and The Problem of Evil (comments on the movie Infinity Wars)

I had the recent opportunity of going to see the movie Infinity War, the newest release by Marvel Studios. I must admit that, as a young Jewish kid on the bookish side, and not that athletic, I collected Marvel comics. Stan Lee and his career has not been unknown to me. Seeing some of the comic book heroes that I read as young boy coming to the film screen, and having my children come to know them, has been quite the experience. The purpose of this blog is not to comment on the entire movie, but rather to deal with a curious question that is brought out in the film.

 Infinity War raises the problem of pain and suffering, or as theologians, apologists, and philosophers would name it - “the problem of evil.” The main antagonist carries as his name the Greek word for death: Thanos. He seeks to implement a certain solution to pain and suffering in the universe - to kill half the population throughout the universe so that more resources may be available to the survivors. This, in his mind, will provide a better level of living, and diminish pain and suffering. He states very clearly that it is a simple issue of mathematics. Thanos originally proposed this idea for his home planet, but was rejected. Let’s briefly examine the nature of Thanos’ solution, the distinction between God’s character and that of Thanos in consideration of his solution, and the inherent wrong in the solution proposed by this antagonist.

This particular villain’s solution is based on Darwinistic and naturalistic premises - not in the sense of “survival of the fittest,” but in the assumption of a closed material universe being all that is available. Thanos assumes that there are a limited number of resource. Thus, decreasing the surplus population (one way of phrasing it) is the only viable solution for a higher standard of living. He does not consider a benevolent creator who can intervene or provide other solutions. In fact, the movie gives the back-story of the Infinity Stones (which Thanos needs in order to implement his solution) in terms of a naturalistic, Big Bang model of how the universe began. If it were true that the universe was finite, with limited resources and no means by which the present, or even a growing population could enjoy a life without pain and suffering, it does follow that the villain’s assumption almost makes sense. However, Hollywood has not reckoned on the fact that we have a Creator God who intervenes in His universe and, either through showing us better ways to handle resources or through direct intervention, can change the situation. In other words, if one buys into the false assumptions of a materialistic, Darwinistic universe, one could very well get to the solution at which Thanos arrives.

Is his solution at all representative of the fact that God allows pain and suffering in the universe for a higher end? Someone might argue that, if I say that God allows pain and suffering for the greater good, it is the exact same things that Thanos does. Such a comparison is a faulty comparison and must be debunked. First, Thanos is not permitting destruction and death - he is directly creating it. Additionally, he is visiting it upon individuals who do not demonstrate an immediate warrant for judgment. In other words, he is visiting death upon innocent individuals, not simply permitting death to occur. God is never the author of evil. When He does indeed permit evil to happen, the deed is carried out by agents other than Himself. Second, when God permits evil, He is permitting that which is contrary to His desire and will. He is not Himself instigating the evil for a higher good - He is simply permitting evil, which would already occur in a fallen universe, to work towards a positive end.

More importantly, there is something deeply neglected in any analogy between the behavior of Thanos and the behavior of God, which is two-fold. Let me introduce the first part with the following idea: do not break that which you cannot make. Thanos is taking lives that he did not create. Therefore it is not a matter of him sovereignly controlling that which is rightly his, but of him taking the life from beings whom he has no right to at all. The second part to the reason that no analogy can be drawn between the behavior of Thanos and that of God is that,  as rightly pointed out and wrongly disputed in the film, Thanos loves nobody. He does not personally suffer in any way to bring about the solution for the pain and suffering that he sees. God, on the other hand, came and died to deal with the pain and suffering of our world. He is deeply touched by our pain and infirmities, to the point that He took personal action to deal with them,a costly action which required great sacrifice. Thus we have a contrast between Thanos and God: Thanos takes a life and sacrifices nothing; God allows pain and suffering in the universe and sacrificed everything.

Thanos’ solution is wrong on many levels. It assumes a closed universe, which is not the case, and if it were, his solution would offer no hope ultimately in avoiding the problem of pain. It ignores the fact that pain is the result of rebellion on the part of creatures who been given the beautiful gift of freedom and have misused it, which hypothetically would include Thanos himself. Thanos is part of the reason that there is pain and suffering in the universe, even as he is enacting his solution to remove it. This is a clear contradiction. Finally, it offers no redemption, only extermination. What we find in a Biblical worldview is a God who deeply feels our pain, suffers along with us, and made us. The naturalistic worldview which Hollywood offers provides no lasting solutions because in a universe that is closed, in which no rescue is possible, no solution is possible.

 

Does God’s self-sufficiency eliminate the possibility of Jesus’ deity?

An argument often used against the deity of Jesus is that God does not have any lack within Himself. Therefore, it follows that if Jesus had needs which He addressed to God, He could not be God. This line of reasoning is found in both Muslim and rabbinical Jewish arguments against Jesus.

On the side of Jewish argumentation, the following objection has been put forth in relation to Jesus’ prayer to the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane: “If Jesus was really willing to meet such a fate, what cause was there for complaint and affliction? And why did he pray in the manner related in [Matthew 26:39]? On the other hand, if it is assumed that the crucifixion was against his will, how then can he be regarded as God…?”1

This argument also appears in Islamic polemics against Christianity. Some years back in a famous debate with William Lane Craig, a Muslim apologist used this sort of tactic. Although phrased in a separate way, a Muslim apologist would likewise point out that if Jesus indeed prayed to the Father for help, and God is totally sufficient within Himself (having everything that He needs and being self-sufficient), then clearly Jesus could not be God.

The first problem with this argument is that it does not address the effects of the incarnation. If God took on the form of a man, to have the attributes of a man He, logically, would then allow Himself the limitations of a man while He maintained that form. It is an essential attribute of human beings that they are finite and limited; therefore, Jesus could not truly be “God in the flesh, as a man” while maintaining full use of His unlimited nature. This is what Paul is getting at in Philippians 2:6-7a when he says, “...who being in the very nature of God did not consider that something to be grasped but took on the form of a servant.”

Second, the argument fails to consider that God’s self-sufficiency and aseity (existing in, of, and from itself) do not mean that He cannot limit himself - it means that in His being He is not limited nor dependent on any other thing. God voluntarily limits Himself to dwell between the cherubim in the tabernacle, but this in no way affects His aseity. God’s self-sufficiency and non-concurrence (non-reliance on anything else to maintain His nature and existence) are part of His nature - that nature is not changed if He voluntarily chooses to limit Himself.

Such arguments used in Jewish and Islamic polemics  against Jesus’ deity, and against the messianic faith, which are based on God’s self-sufficiency or nonconcurrence, fail -  both in view of God limiting Himself in the Tanakh (Old Testament), and in view of the incarnation. For arguments related to the incarnation, one can go to our website at www.Zionsbanner.org.


1Isidore Singer, ed., The Jewish Encyclopedia: A Descriptive Record of the History, Religion, Literature, and Customs of the Jewish People from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, 12 Volumes (New York; London: Funk & Wagnalls, 1901–1906), 265–266.

Putting First Things First

“And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.” John 12:32

Zion’s Banner exists to make much of Messiah through God’s big story, but how this works in individual situations may indeed vary. A recent encounter at a First Friday Event showed just how important the ability to be versatile in presenting is. During our “Isaiah 53” outreach near the end of the evening, a Muslim man approached me to ask my opinion of the situation related to Palestine. Clearly, I have a strong belief in a future for the Jewish people given that Israel is certainly integral to God’s big story. However, if I were to focus on that part of my mission statement and ignore the first part, the vital conversation which followed never would have happened. I explained to him that, yes, I indeed do have a personal position on Palestine, but I believe that when Jesus the Messiah returns he will settle all these issues. I was then able to turn the discussion to the issues of atonement and Jesus’ virgin birth. Beyond changing the conversation, we made a connection - the gentleman took my personal information and promised to get back to me to further our discussion.

 Making much of being Messianic without making much of Jesus is neither honoring Jesus nor being very Messianic. Our primary commitments, whether as Jewish or Gentile believers, must be to our Lord and King Jesus. I think there is a danger sometimes in letting secondary loyalties cloud our primary loyalty to Him. No, I would never separate the gospel from the kingdom. However, sometimes it is the gospel and the greatness of the person of Jesus which must precede other details related to the teaching of the kingdom of God as a future physical kingdom upon this earth. Often in the Messianic movement, there is a terrible temptation to place our Jewish identities above our Lord and Savior Jesus/Yeshua. We become so anxious to prove our Jewishness that we can place our messianic faith on a much lower priority that is not God-honoring. Our primary commitment must always be making much of Yeshua/Jesus; in doing so we further His kingdom and honor His name. After all, what could be more Jewish than honoring the true King and Messiah of Israel?