A person doesn’t have to get too far through Michael Shermer’s new book Heavens on Earth to realize that the thing is essentially the same essay, same chapter, over and again just with different versions of the afterlife. In each the problem is the same – no evidence for an afterlife – and, predictably, the conclusion is the same: live for now and this life, because that’s all there is. Considering this approach, Shermer’s strategy seems obvious; debunk the most ludicrous attempts at demonstrating the afterlife from the standpoint of evidence and overwhelm any with even a hint of credibility.
In addition to this, the book also, either knowingly or unknowingly ignores compelling evidence in order to make the case for striving for a certain self-salvation here on earth. Shermer’s work virtually ignores the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ and ignores several accounts of what are known as “Evidentiary Near Death Experiences” (ENDEs). As stated, he then buries all of this by surrounding it with studies into the “the primacy of conscience” with Deepak Chopra, failed attempts at immortality like cryogenics, and highly speculative “sciences” such as “transhumanism”.
So let’s begin with ENDEs – “Evidentiary Near Death Experiences”. ENDEs are a situation where a person is clinically dead, has a vision of a place or event apart from the locality of his death, and then can recount, in detail, that event. For instance, Christian apologist Gary Habermas (upon whom I will be relying throughout here) recounts:
“One well-documented case involved a little girl who had very nearly drowned, and who did not register a pulse for 19 minutes. Her emergency room physician, pediatrician Melvin Morse, states that he “stood over Katie’s lifeless body in the intensive care unit.” An emergency CAT scan indicated that Katie had massive brain swelling, no gag reflex, and was “profoundly comatose.” Morse notes that, “When I first saw her, her pupils were fixed and dilated, meaning that irreversible brain damage had most likely occurred.” Her breathing was done by an artificial lung machine. She was given very little chance of surviving.
But then, just three days later, Katie unexpectedly made a full recovery. In fact, when she revived, she reproduced an amazing wealth of information regarding the emergency room, specific details of her resuscitation, along with physical descriptions of the two physicians who worked on her. All this occurred while she was completely comatose and most likely without any brain function whatsoever. As Morse recounts, “a child with Katie’s symptoms should have the absence of any brain function and therefore should comprehend nothing.”
It took her almost an hour to recall all the recent details. However, part of the story made no sense in usual medical terms. Katie related that during her comatose state, she was visited by an angel named Elizabeth, who allowed her to look in on her family at home. Katie correctly reported very specific details concerning what her siblings were doing, even identifying a popular rock song that her sister listened to, watched her father, and then observed as her mom cooked a meal that she correctly identified: roast chicken and rice. She described the clothing and positions of her family members. Later, she shocked her parents by telling them these details that had occurred only a few days before.”
(These details and quotations are taken from two volumes by Melvin Morse (with Paul Perry), Closer to the Light: Learning from Children’s Near-Death Experiences (N.Y.: Random House, 1990), pp. 3-14; Transformed by the Light: The Powerful Effect of Near-Death Experiences on People’s Lives (N.Y.: Random House, 1992), pp. 22-23.)
Habermas cites “dozens” of other such cases as this one. However, Shermer cites only one. While one ENDE case can be dismissed as exaggeration or even conspiracy, it becomes rationally untenable to deny many such cases. Indeed, Shermer’s own test for a miracle is whether or not the miracle can be rationally ascertained as a miracle or whether a more naturalistic explanation carries the rational weight.
So, for instance, if one person came back from an ENDE and that’s all we had for evidence, we could easily dismiss the event as exaggeration or deception being the most likely scenario. However, if “dozens” of such cases came forth, the dismissal becomes more untenable. At some point, if ENDEs can be scientifically established as a pattern, that evidence cannot be ignored which Shermer seems to do in this book.
More important than this, Shermer brazenly brushes off the Christian claims of an afterlife as a passing comment in his work here. While lumping the Christian tradition of an afterlife along with notions such as transhumanism, Shermer either wantonly or ignorantly dismisses the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ. (Again, I am indebted to Gary Habermas for the following)
As stated with ENDEs, if the resurrection of Jesus Christ was attested to by only a single source, it could be easily dismissed as exaggeration, misrepresentation, or an outright lie. However note the text of 1 Corinthians 15:1 and following:
“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”
Michael Jackson, perhaps the most famous rock star ever, died in 2009. If a person were to assert today that he had risen from the dead, put simply, he would be summarily dismissed as insane and not to be taken seriously. Michael Jackson died almost ten years ago. When St. Paul penned this passage in 1 Corinthians, Jesus Christ died almost fifteen years prior to the writing. Even here, this writing would have been dismissed and fallen out of favor as quickly as the Elvis conspiracy theories.
However, as it turns out, this passage does not originate with the Apostle Paul. It is considered by virtually all biblical scholars as “creedal material” taken from a much earlier source; a source estimated to have originated around 34 to 36 AD – a mere one to two years following the death of Jesus Christ. This very early resurrection account not only details these appearances to Jesus’ most close companions, but to masses of people (500 in all), and to unbelievers and skeptics – James, the half-brother of Jesus and to Paul – a killer of Christians.
Put simply, all credible scholars – both Christian and skeptic alike – agree that Jesus Christ was an historical figure. They agree that He was crucified by the Roman government near the third decade of the common era. They agree that His closest followers had experiences with Him. They also agree that two of his most ardent skeptics – James (Jesus’ half-brother) and Paul (a murderer of Christians) converted to Christianity based on encountering what they perceived to be the bodily resurrected Jesus of Nazareth.
This alone, disregarding ENDEs, seems to be a rational, historic case for an afterlife of some sort, but does Shermer detail any of this in his book? Not in the slightest. Unfortunately, Shermer seems to have a distain for historians and theologians alike and fails to produce their best evidence against his claim that an afterlife simply has no credible evidence.
And so it goes.
Sadly his book here presents the weakest evidence against his case and offers the strongest evidence in favor that an afterlife is an illusion brought on by those who fear death. Put simply, if you’re hoping to get a fair assessment of the case, this work will do you little good. It is not a fair assessment at least of ENDEs and it is certainly not a fair assessment of the Christian tradition. This makes the book suspect as to if it is a fair assessment of a notion of the afterlife at all.
To be fair, Shermer’s concern, seemingly through the work is very concerned that if one posits an afterlife that this life is of little concern. Rationally, that door swings both ways. If there is no afterlife, particularly one that involves rewards and punishments, then can’t it be argued that a person should simply live for himself in complete disregard to others? Shermer seems to relegate those who affirm an afterlife to those who disregard this life. In simpler terms, according to Shermer, if you affirm an afterlife, you don’t care about this life. It doesn’t matter.
That is a gross over statement at best. Right thinking Christians regard this life as the beginning of the afterlife. But does Shermer mention this? Never.
At any rate, unfortunately, Michael Shermer is content to play the game that divides us and can never make an attempt at an honest discussion. The base line of this book is that he is unfair and does not consider without prejudice, all voices. He has an agenda; to convert you to rationalistic, objectivist, atheism.
Much more could be said in critique here, but suffice it to say Shermer’s latest is not going in the right direction. It discounts the best evidence against his case and supplants it with the worst. While it is educational on the merits that it teaches one how the opposition thinks, morally and philosophically, it is devoid of value.
The Logos is not the experience of feeling something meaningful (including an intimation of immortality)
The Logos is not the incarnation (enfleshment) of a “social revolutionary element” in the world.
The Logos is not the capacity to mediate between chaos and tyrannical order.
The Logos is not a thing to be learned and mastered.
The Logos is not a process to be managed and controlled.
The Logos is definitely not a system to be effectively – and even admirably – “gamed” like some Cathy Newman.
The Logos is not about the Sovereignty of the Individual – the Divine Principle of the Individual.
The Logos is An Individual who is the Way, the Truth and the Life – and the Logos is a human being, the very Son of God and Messiah, Jesus Christ.
And yes, because of Him, each individual has a sacred dignity and profound responsibility.
Dr. Peterson doesn’t know what – no Who – he is messing with. You never get to say “Gotcha” in a competence competition with the Good Lord.
Speaking generally, God’s blessings come to the nations through Christians — not by our understanding how the cosmos or even human nature “works”. They do not come about from our understanding the “machine” we call the universe and all that is therein (though we all do this, more or less: boats, for example, always float, do they not?)…
Rather, blessings and flourishing come through unquestioning obedience and loyalty to God and His commandments: “secularism,” the Enlightenment, modernism, postmodernism — and yes, Jordan Peterson’s pragmatic philosophy – ultimately depend on the Christian faith which is the faith that acknowledges God as He is.
But seeing external harmony and blessings, the “progressive Christian” or “Christian atheist” says “well, to some degree, it works”.
Well, I understand where you are coming from – and Christians writing books with a bunch of gears on the cover haven’t helped here – but, in truth, “it” never works.
We are alive and blessed in Christ as He sees fit, rewarding in this life and the next as He pleases, as we keep His commandments. .
As Dr. Peterson says, always tell the truth. “Life without truth is hell”.
Indeed, and hence we cry: “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again!”
Yes, I will see him with my own eyes. I am overwhelmed at the thought!
Paul, on matters of life and death: “…if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?
I don’t know which preacher — George Whitefield, John Wesley, or Charles Spurgeon — really said it, but I’ll admit I’m a sucker for the quotation: “set yourself on fire and people will come to watch you burn.” (go ahead, call me a pietist!).
The image of a preacher set on fire by the Holy Ghost, faithfully and vigorously proclaiming the word of God, is the opposite of an image of “institutionalization.”
Even so, as much as Christians know that vital faith is a desirable quality, we always have need for the “slow burn” a fireplace makes possible. Great harvests of souls due to the Spirit’s outpouring are highly desirable, but we also need structure and stability for the people of God.
And even though the churches the Reformation tend not to think this way (invisible church all the way!), the truth is that Christ says His church is a material body — we are a very “grounded” reality. Going right along with this, on this side of heaven the church will always be known as an earthly institution – even as its origins and true life derive from heaven above.
I know this kind of thinking might sound foreign for many Christians, but think about how people talk about something very organic – marriage – as an institution. As a ground of stability given for our good. I think the way that some of the Eastern Orthodox talk about the nature of the church can also be helpful: “not an organization with mystery but a mystery with organization.”
Therefore – we are not to shun the visible nature of the church (more) — nor any of the individuals associated with it! (even as yes, we realize that there are both wheat and tares among us) We should desire the health of the institution – for each individual member of the body of Christ!
The church militant (below) and the church triumphant (above)
All this said, as we all know, the wrong kind of “concern” for the institution and its members can creep in. In other words, the dreaded “institutionalization” often occurs – with good institutions losing touch with their true identity; their true reason for being.
This has happened with the congregations coming out of the 16th century Reformation in spades. In these latter days, the world has, at large, overwhelmed the church.
Right concerns for matters of social justice have pushed out the more pressing matters of perpetual Gospel proclamation and repentance — as well as loyalty to the family of believers first and foremost.
For many, churches which once admired or at least took seriously stirring Law and Gospel sermons — “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” anyone? — have been reduced to places to find community where “good people” who believe in a general God can “do good.”
Concerns to nurture and pass on a spirit of passion and vitality have led many to trust the “the Feeling” that can be reliably produced, week by week, in a Big Box Megachurch – while serious proclamation and study of God’s word takes a back seat.
The assertions of “but Science says…” and “but consider the assured results of higher criticism….” perpetually reintroduce us to the Serpent in the Garden: “Did God really say?”
A concern to communicate the love and mercy of God have resulted in churches without any real discipline, where grace is cheap and lessons of the past are all but forgotten.
Serious and passionate books of theology that helped to drive the Reformation – like Martin Luther’s Bondage of the Will – are not deeply studied and/or are totally ignored.
And even very serious believers, seeking to push back against the world, have ended up trying to fight with the world’s weapons.
With church bodies around them dropping on the left and the right – many who do seem to be having some success do their utmost to simply “keep things going.” Hence, their institutions have become a hollow shell of what they once were – and of what they should be. Focused on externals, their mini- and mega-bureaucracies, and ever more worldly concerns (often in the guise of outreach and relevance) their heart, their core, and their true spiritual vitality are being carved out.
“Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock…”
Have the letters of Paul – or those written by the Apostle John, to the churches in the book of Revelation — stopped being as relevant as they originally were? But we rarely meditate on this, if we see it… sense it… at all. And do I hear my Facebook and Twitter feed calling me?…
As the hymn says, due to life’s “riches, cares, and pleasures,” we have not taken up (tolle lege!), but rather put down the Scriptures. For the idea that these are the actual Word of God – words more important than anything we could utter today – has been lost. Take, for example, this recent quotation from a pastor reflecting on Reformation:
This year we commemorate half a millennium since this Augustinian friar and Bible professor nailed (or so the story goes) his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The event certainly changed the landscape of Christendom. Its unintended aftershocks, some argue, are still felt in Western culture. Still, the passage of time alone makes it perfectly reasonable to ask: Does Luther have anything to say to us?
Contrary to the assumptions of this pastor, it is by no means perfectly reasonable for us to ask this question. It is only reasonable if you think the “social imaginary” of the postmodern world, a la Charles Taylor — where people fixated on this or that idea of “progress” tell themselves they are on “the right side of history” — is justified at all in its view. But, per Romans 1, that is not a view which can ever be justified: many of the things our wider world says are right it, deep down, knows are wrong. The “social imaginary” (call it a “worldview” if it, being as irrational as it is, can even earn that designation) is just this or that “social illusionary”.
“A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, ‘You are mad; you are not like us.’” — St. Anthony the Great
So, again, is it ever reasonable for a pastor to ask the question this pastor asks? Perhaps. It could be if he is simply voicing the common prejudices of the age – ultimately intending to reveal the truth and bring the message of salvation to his hearers… In other words, one is willing to address one’s audience using the kinds of questions that they might be asking, but ideally, they would not be asking.
But even then, here, it seems, there is room to fudge.
For example, the same pastor quoted above gave a talk at an Episcopal Church titled “Justified for Good:What Luther Can Teach Us Today”. Much of the talk I deeply appreciate — the content has true value, highlighting God’s graciousness, and is thought-provoking in its manner of conviction. And yet, around 31:00-33:30 (listening to the whole talk is a good idea) he says:
“I, you, all of us, each and every person, is and remains God’s work… And that means that each and every one of us comes before our own works. Before I have done anything, before I have made anything of myself, before I have done anything with myself, I am already God’s workmanship… Before any accomplishment, or any sins are even taken into account – any accomplishments or any sins – anything that I want to live up to or anything that I want to live down, the sinner, the sinner who stands before God, is already a beloved creature of God. The sinner is, you might say… is already irrevocably recognized by God Himself, and it is God who declares the sinner good, and in good standing… He gives us an identity. He declares that what I am is above all a person that He loves. A child that He loves before I undertake anything, before I make a mess of myself, I already am who I am by God’s justification.”
One might well think: what happens to the very real effect of original sin? Even if there are times that I can or should say that these things are true of those baptized into Christ — and I submit there are — shouldI say this of the whole world — or, risk giving the impression that this is what I am doing? After all, God’s wrath abides on the world because of sin and unbelief, save the faith connection we have in Christ. The world’s sins have been paid for and all is redeemed in Him. But salvation? That’s why II Corinthians 5:20 follows 5:19 and he urges his hearers to “be reconciled to God!” And note that Paul is even talking to those in the church here!
“…that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require from your hand. But if you on your part warn a wicked man to turn from his way…” — The Prophet Ezekiel
When I asked this pastor about this, he simply said to me: “No quibble here. It’s an argument from silence.”
But of course my point was not to make an argument – trying to show, I guess, that this pastor did not believe in original sin or something like this. Rather, I am simply pointing out that without clarity about sin, its effects, and its consequences, this kind of message is liable to be completely misunderstood, or even hijacked by those who are ever more eager to see a more “progressive” stance from Christians. Hence my reply:
“My point is that we dare not remain silent — nor give the world a misleading comfort — when there is such a great wrath! There’s a reason we talk about law prior to Gospel and repentance prior to forgiveness, even if this is often abused by many an evangelist (i.e. “There is no need to treat that person kindly prior to them coming to faith”). Maybe I miss your point.”
Another person weighed in, saying simply “UOJ,” suggesting that the doctrine of universal objective justification, explained here, justifies the kind of message this pastor proclaimed.
Oh. So all is well then. Everybody just carry on.
Pastor Marquart, on fire: “Man is not an objective super-observer in the universe, but a condemned sinner with a vested interest in escape.”
As I put it not long ago, we should offer the world no quarter when it comes to our public confidence about what it is we are doing. Our default attitude should be more akin to the following:
“The Bible is the Word of God. Whoever you are, Jesus Christ is your Creator, your God, your King. This is what Christians have always believed and taught. It is only for the sake of conversation and common ground with the world – all of whom we are to love with Christ’s love – that we might start by talking about how the Bible “contains God’s Word”, “contains the Gospel”, how Jesus is “our God,” or how we consider the Bible to be authoritative.”
Do I always act that way? Do I always believe that way? No, of course not. Shame on me. That is a sign for me to repent.
Or, in an effort to appeal to the business mentality of my early 21 century American brethren, an opportunity to repent.
Act now! This may indeed be a limited one time offer!
Come to the feast, brothers! Let’s dig in together, reflect together, pray together…
I’ll see you there.
P.S.: More in the next post about why we have these problems, and featuring a hard look at the author’s own church body, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. The post will be called The Bondage of Confessional Lutheran Scholarship.
It hit me like a wall – the seemingly simple question, asked by the radio talk show host. “Do we need the law to protect the environment?” Even after the two-minute break ended, I still felt perplexed. I knew what undergirded his question, a worldview that accepted the pervasive reach of an all-encompassing government, empowered by layers of laws, enacted by people who truly believed that the road to utopia was paved in regulations, overseen by professionals whose entire career consisted of selling themselves as saviors while actual solutions always remained just out of reach.
It’s one thing to say with Ronald Reagan, “Government doesn’t solve problems, it subsidizes them.” While that sounds good in a speech, it rings hollow when you realize that it was spoken by a politician while he ran for the highest government position in the United States. More importantly, as people who believe in the revelation of Scripture, I understand that government, along with the Law that both undergirds it and empowers it, is a divine institution. It exists because God wills it to be so, because order and structure are woven into the very fabric of creation.
The proper question isn’t, “do we need the law to protect ‘X’.” The proper question is, how pervasive should government be? When has it exceeded the scope of its mandate? Who determines that? I cannot trust humans who have a vested interest in broadening the scope and power of government, anymore than I can trust humans who desire to be unhindered in their efforts to sin against their neighbor without consequence. Where do I look to find that something which gives a floor, a ground, a boundary that properly defines what government is and does?
I look to the Creator. I know, by faith, that “16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17 (ESV)). Searching the Scriptures, I come to Romans 13:1-7, which tells me that government has a role of maintaining order and providing security, so that people can engage their neighbors in love, fulfilling their vocations and serving one another. Within that broad framework, there is more than enough room for government to operate, whether efficiently or inefficiently, wisely or foolishly, in ways that either serve the common good, or enslave the common community.
Romans 13:1–7 (ESV)
Submission to the Authorities
13 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
Viewed through the lenses of this passage, the proper scope of government should allow room for people to serve one another in love, without the coercive, punitive hand that wields the sword of God’s wrath. Love, freely engaged, should enable good things to take place between people and within communities. Selfishness, freely indulged, works in the opposite direction of love. The Law sets the boundary beyond which self-interest operates in ways that can be harmful to both self and to others. Put another way, the Law is the Sword of God, and, under the sun, Government is the arm that wields it as His appointed agent.
I could now answer the question, avoiding the clumsily clever attempt to entrap me on one side of the divide or the other. Laws are necessary, but only enough to accomplish the limited goals of maintaining security and providing people with the safe spaces to operate in fulfillment of their created capabilities. Beyond that, laws are stumbling blocks that hinder us and hand cuff us, useful at times, but uncomfortable and awkward even when they are necessary. We do need the Law, but it cannot bring us the peace that passes all understanding.
I get the impression that many Christians would not hesitate to say “Yes!” — and insist that someone like Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton is not acting much like a Christian here:
Here is my perspective on the issue: we need to think about how an outsider can “beat” Jesus in a debate, and how this might apply to beating “citizens of Rome” in debate as well…
You might need to be patient as you work through this..
Jesus wants you to “beat” Him in a debate.
Really — its true!
That said, you don’t beat Jesus in debate by trying to remove the sting of uncomfortable Bible passages – one of which is clearly Matthew 15: 21-28 (where a Canaanite woman “beats” him in debate!)
And you don’t beat a citizen of Rome by denying – or failing to deeply appreciate – the wisdom of the dictum “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”.
Modern Christians might want to think that Jesus calls the Canaanite woman “a little dog” with a wink and a nod, but the text gives no indication that this is what he was doing. In fact, the text does not even give a clear indication that Jesus intended to test the woman’s faith.
Rather, read straightforwardly, the whole thing just seems positively brutal to most of us. We might even be tempted to consider a “progressive Christian” interpretation, where the woman enlightens Jesus, waking him up to his prejudices!
Respect for the God-given dignity of every human being, no matter their race, ethnicity or other circumstances of their birth, is the essence of American patriotism. To believe otherwise is to oppose the very idea of America.
One commentator, fixating on the very real struggle of ethnic hostility (“Canaanite” = enemy of Israel!), even says this passage forces us to deal with the issue of “theodicy,” which is commonly defined as “the vindication of divine goodness and providence in view of the existence of evil.” In this case, presumably Jesus’ or his disciples’ intolerance of diversity – of the Canaanite kind in particular – is in view.
Clearly, anyway you slice it, the “outsider” motif is deeply present in this Bible passage. What might this short account have to teach us as Christians today? What might it be able to teach real outsiders, when it comes to Christianity or otherwise?
There are two primary things that come to mind here: first, Jesus shows us that it is proper to have a hierarchy of concerns when it comes to our neighbors’ needs. Second, knowing a bit about the historical circumstances of this parable can assist us to better understanding what the passage is saying.
First, it is critical to notice that it is love and loyalty and not hate, that drives Jesus. He is loyal to His people, naturally and spiritually, and has a mission that He has been sent to accomplish.
But doesn’t Jesus love all people?
Yes. That said, while all human beings are God’s “offspring,” as we read in Acts 17, God had nevertheless bound Himself to Israel, Jacob’s line, in a very special way. Here, they in fact have His priority attention, much in the same way that natural children have their parents’ attention. In like fashion, the Apostle Paul is not shy about his own natural affections for his “race,” (see Romans 9:1-5) and doesn’t for nothing say “anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (I Tim. 5:8). After all, even pagan authors like Cicero and Epictetus recognized that “Nature produces a special love of offspring,” and “Natural affection is a thing right according to Nature,” respectively (C.S. Lewis).
And while the parable of the Good Samaritan should rightly challenge us all, there is nevertheless to be a hierarchy among our concerns.[i] Again, Paul has a word which 21st century Christians, often very eager to reach out to “outsiders”, miss: “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Galatians 6:10, italics mine). This, of course, includes not only physical provision, where there is concern for one’s basic needs, but spiritual provision as well.
And, of course, ideally one’s natural family is included among the family of believers – and is hence eager to receive spiritual provision. At the same time, they may not be, in which case a believer’s circumstances may certainly dictate some measure of emotional withdrawal and investment (as regards them, not necessarily as regards them in your prayers before God!), even if the duty to provide for physical needs never really goes away. Your relatives’ – particularly your childrens’ – provision and protection come first.
Therefore, an important part of the Gospel message is that God unites Himself, knits Himself, together with us in nature, first as regards the Jews, and then as regards the Gentiles… He becomes one of us, re-uniting Adam’s fallen race to Himself by assuming our human nature in the Jew Jesus Christ! The message here is that there is a sense that our family, our heritage, our own father and brother protects and saves us.[ii]
The earthly reality of family is, like marriage, an echo and icon of the heavenly reality!
Jesus is ”a member of the Israelite nation from the family of David…. All nations and races, also the noblest ones, are also guilty of his death and daily become guilty of it anew, when they insult the Spirit of grace (Hebr. 10:29).” — The 1930s Bethel Confession
With this in mind then, let’s take a look at the historical background surrounding this story.
At this time in Israel’s history, there were certainly many who had become a part of “God’s household.” This meant that persons would adopt Israel’s way of life including one very peculiar part of its culture: its ceremonial practices, including but not limited to things like Sabbath observance, Festival Days, animal sacrifices, food laws, and of course, circumcision. This was a high price to pay, but many were willing to pay it, becoming Jewish proselytes and becoming integrated members of God’s chosen people.[iii]
Jesus Himself surely knew that there were god-fearing Gentiles who had been incorporated into His own family line. One recalls women like Rahab and Ruth in His own earthly family’s genealogy. It seems logical that even if a person had not become a formal “proselyte,” any person friendly to the Jewish culture – and even religion! (the Jews called these persons “god-fearers”) – would not be someone to formally shun or worse!
As one scholar puts it, writing about Jewish proselytism even in Jesus’ own day:
Jewish ‘chosenness’” is defined “not as exclusive but as exemplary; not as separatist but as representative; not as closed but as open; not as rejecting but as all-embracing and compassionate” (Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, Not by Birth Alone: Conversion to Judaism, 8)[iv]
Even with Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisee’s own missionary impulses (see Matthew 23:15), there is no reason to assume all the Jews who desired converts were so misled.[v] So what, really, can we get from Jesus’ actions towards the Canaanite woman? First of all, while there are times that we are told in the Bible that Jesus chose to be aware of what the motives of others were, we are given no indication that that is happening here. Second, as one need not imagine that Jesus is playing chess with the woman, looking to test her faith in this way, one also need not imagine that Jesus feels any hostility towards her – or even callous indifference. Rather, He is simply focused on His mission and (very!) matter-of-factly states the case.
The meaning of the whole is simply the necessary restriction of His personal activity to the chosen nation. It is not meant to wound nor to insult, though, no doubt, it is cast in a form which might have been offensive, and would have repelled a less determined or less sorrowful heart.
In any case, the woman truly does seem to surprise Jesus! She agrees with everything He says about it not being good to throw the children’s bread to the dogs – even as she still manages to insert herself into the Narrative. No doubt, His delight in her faith – I don’t think for a minute He was eager to be rid of her — foreshadows the more intensive evangelistic push to actively bring Gentiles into the formal congregation of God’s people, or “church.”
And of course, a big part of this was the rescission of the ceremonial practices discussed above. This is no small deal, as can be seen in Colossians 2:17 and Acts 10-15. Paul also wrote the following important words in Ephesians:
11Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— 12remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
14For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
19Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
This is good stuff! At the same time, perhaps we are now tempted to say: “Thank God our situation is no longer anything like that of Jesus’! At least we don’t have to worry about incorporating ‘the other’ into formal structures of culture that they will, at times, find constricting and oppressive.”
But this is not the case, even if an individualistic virus which has infected us — perhaps particularly virulent among Americans – would say that it is. The church is still a family, and not a business, and hence still has a “culture,” or, if you prefer “house rules.” It still has its practices which some, from the outside, find alienating. That said, the goal is that familiarity with the day-to-day lives of Christians will not breed contempt, but rather curiosity regarding the treasures of the church – its God-given word and sacraments. Here, beautiful passages like I Peter 3:15-16 illustrate the goal well.
And of course, the ultimate hope is that the church’s crucified Lord will draw all persons to Himself, and into the household of God. That eventually, those on the “outside” will be integrated into the life of the church, its Scripture and sacraments, its simple way of life, its culture of worship and prayer.
Christians are now a “Third Race,” set apart from both [unbelieving] Jews and Greeks… – Aristides
This takes time. Years. Decades. Centuries. Millennia. We have forgotten. We have no long game.
And now let me get really controversial. Applying this to the recent globalist-nationalist debate, the same is true not only for churches, but for nations as well. Different nations – made up largely of different ethnic groups – have their own distinct cultures that animate their nations. There is a reason, after all, that Japan is Japan, Norway is Norway, Iran is Iran, and England is England (see Acts 17:26) — and that we like the idea of these nations preserving and keeping their heritage.
And yet, on one level, this sounds wrong to us as Christians. Does not Paul say that God’s “purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two.” Is this not why the early Christian apologist Aristides said that Christians were now a “Third Race,” set apart from both Jews and Greeks?[vi] (apologia 2).
Yes – this is the kind of thing we long for – even as we know the book of Revelation still seems to celebrate our distinct tribal and ethnic identities.
Therefore, at the same time, it is not wrong for Christians in these nations to be concerned to protect their own cultural heritage. There is nothing wrong with them being focused on helping their own families and closest neighbors first. There is nothing wrong with wanting to help refugees in need within the borders of those refugees’ own nations instead of inviting them into their own homes. And when it comes to normal immigration policy, there is nothing wrong with them “playing the long game,” even towards persons who are purportedly eager to adopt the best of classical American (or pick any other nation that feels strongly about its culture!) values.
Because all of this takes time. As with the Canaanite woman, there can certainly be exceptions to the rule. Many people have successfully lived away from their compatriots in foreign lands. There are some people who really are willing to join a new nation and are even willing to fight — when necessary — against their native land (as some American-Germans did in the first two world wars). But exceptions do not make the rules.
"Can brave and courageous people with dignity and value live in a 'sh-thole'? Well. I happen to live in a city that the national media have gleefully described as a sh-thole for decades now." https://t.co/fn7b3FFPqo Thanks @frogmorton for some great stuff.
And not only is there nothing wrong regarding all of these thoughts above. In fact, there is something right about all of them! Where does Jesus stand in the Globalist-Nationalist Debate? The answer is simple. Jesus has both “globalist” and “nationalist” things to say, but many seem unable or unwilling to see this today. Jesus Himself, of course, is not “worse than a pagan,” unwilling to give primary attention and aid to His own family, relatives, tribe, nation (for more nuance, see the arguments in my post about Christians and nationalism).
In a day when persons concerned about issues of culture and borders are increasingly derided as the worst of racists or at the very least getting dangerously close to this (by the way, if one had feared Germany in the 1930s would that have been xenophobia? What if you were a native American in the 1800s?), more and more might come to the conclusion that it is time to say – without any hate in one’s heart – “I’m sorry. I know you don’t want to go back to your home country, but this isn’t working.” And while we are at it, it might not be a bad idea to urge the “best and brightest” from abroad to consider that to. Because they also have an obligation to their own families and people, and how are we not being a bit selfish for tempting them to think otherwise? Do we honestly think those countries would appreciate us taking all of their best and not sending some of ours in return?
“Struggle is not the basic principle of the original creation, and a fighting attitude is therefore not a commandment by God established by the original creation.” – 1930s Bethel Confession.
I know. I know! It all sounds wrong to us.
But I truly wonder whether to speak otherwise is to say “Peace, peace” where there is none (take a look at this and ponder). At the very least, when it comes to what a nation can sustain while retaining its character, how many is too many?
The fact is that we will be infected with sin until Christ returns. And yes, we will be many nations until the One Kingdom of heaven. The church has helped us to get a glimpse of the One Kingdom to come now, but instead of being thankful for these humble first fruits, have elite intellectuals in the West attempted to hijack Christianity in the service of their own, Christ-less, utopian dreams?
That is going to fail – and make a lot more of us outsiders and refugees.
Lord, in these last days when you said faith would be rare, give us all faith like that Canaanite woman.
You, after all, are our only hope.
[i] In Acts 10:34, Peter says: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality,but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Truly, among those who believe, it makes sense to insist that God loves His children equally, and yet that this love is not always manifested nor experienced equally. For instance, as I previously wrote “I remember hearing a father say to his son: ‘I love all of you – but I have to admit my feelings for your brother are stronger’. Why, according to him, was this the case? Because of all of his offspring, he felt that his son’s brother needed his love even more.” I also think about things like this when I read Romans 9:4a, 9:7b, 11:18b, 11: 24, and 11:28-29.
[ii] What about the marriage imagery? The point here is that God does, in fact, mean for all persons to be His body, fully united with Him (think here of the disturbing illustration in Ezekiel, where He adopts and then, when she is ready for love, marries the one He adopts…).
[iii] In a post recently done here on my blog, I wrote the following:
In a footnote, [John Nolland, in his 2005 commentary The Gospel of Matthew,] shares related thoughts:
“G. Jackson, ‘Have Mercy,’ maintains that Matthew’s account is informed by traditions of Gentile women becoming converts to Judaism as proselytes. Though there are some similarities, the case is not strong, and even if such traditions are being echoed, the image of dogs eating the crumbs suggests, contra Jackson, that, despite her very Jewish faith, the Canaanite woman becomes a beneficiary of Jesus’ ministry not as a freshly made Jewess, but as a Gentile (pp. 635-636).
Keep in mind, that at this point, to say this is to say that she was still, to some degree, on the outside. People who would have been ideal believers at this time in Israel’s history were persons like Jesus’ parents, who valued and followed the ceremonial practices of the Jews (circumcision, food laws, sacrifices, Sabbath), even as they also, like the “true Israelite” Nathaniel, recognized Jesus as the Messiah. While Jesus gave very clear hints that the Pharisees had wildly misunderstood the point of the Jewish ceremonial practices (particularly the Sabbath and the food laws), it is not until Acts 15 and Paul’s epistles where we see a more definitive understanding of these practices, that is, as their being shadows that were to fade and disappear (at least insofar as they were in some sense required of believers to perform) once the Messianic Age had been inaugurated.
[iv] Therefore, it is not surprising when we see John Nolland write the following:
“The woman accepts that she has no claim to be put on a par with the Jewish people in benefiting from God’s present intervention for the sake of his people, but even the dog get scraps, and that is all she asks for. This is likely to seem very demeaning to present sensibilities, but not to Matthew and not to the Jewish tradition more broadly. In the biblical materials they saw Gentiles, when beneficiaries of God’s activity, as fringe beneficiaries (footnote: “E.g., Is. 2:2-4; 14:1-2; 45:14; 60:10-14; Je. 16:19; Mi 4:1-4; Zc 2:11; 8:0-23; 14:16-19. There is a wider vision in Is. 19:18-25; 49:6; 56:3-8, etc) Mt. 28:19 breaks through, not the sense of Jewish privilege, but the marginality of Gentile involvement. The existence of such Gentiles as this woman prepares the way, but despite the popularity of the view that this is a story about how Jesus changes his mind, the present episode can in no way be represented as a breakthrough. Jesus does not change his mind at all (vv. 24, 26 are in no way retracted, even by implication); what becomes clear to him is what is appropriate in the case of this particular woman.”
Hager, in his Word biblical commentary on Matthew 14-28 and writing about Matthew 15:26 and 27, also offers important insights:
“The Jews universally assumed that eschatological fulfillment belonged to Israel in an exclusive sense. Many also expected that the overflow of the abundant eschatological blessing of God would be made available to ‘righteous’ Gentiles (i.e., by keeping the Noachic laws [Gen 9:1-17].” (442, Word).
Hagner notes the basic principle that physical Jewishness is not the key here but “ultimately receptive faith,” a view which Paul makes very clear in his writings, particularly Romans 4 and Galatians 3: “the privilege of the Jews is no longer unique…” (443, Word).
Again, before Jesus begin to effect changes, changes which were finalized at the first council in Jerusalem, people were expected to become Jews by rather fully adopting their culture and their ceremonies, and this is not Pharisaical (Jesus, of course, did accuse the Pharisees of abandoning God’s word for the “traditions of men”) but biblical (see, e.g. Exodus 12:19 and Exodus 12:48).
[v] Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler intriguingly writes the following:
“The notion that Judaism is not a propagating faith is far from the truth. It has been the practiced truth for the last four centuries, but it was not true for the four millennia before. Abraham was a convert and our tradition lauds his missionary zeal. Isaiah enjoined us to be a ‘light unto the nations’ and insisted that God’s house be a ‘house of prayer for all peoples’. Ruth of Moab, a heathen by birth, became the ancestress of King David. Zechariah foresaw the tie when men and women of every tongue would grasp a Jew by the corner of his garment and say, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you’.
During the Maccabean period, Jewish proselytizing activity reached its zenith; schools for missionaries were established, and by the beginning of the Christian era they had succeeded in converting 10 percent of the population of the Roman empire – roughly four million people.
It is true that there were countervailing pressures even in Biblical times. Thus, Ezra…. (Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, Not by Birth Alone: Conversion to Judaism, 1).
See also Michael Bird’s very nuanced and careful conclusion of the evidence in his book Crossing over land and sea: Jewish missionary activity in the second temple period (pp. 149-156). Relevant to this post: “I do not doubt that virtually every Jewish group thought that being initiated into the commonwealth of Israel and living under the Torah was good and desirable for Gentiles, whether it was politically expedient was another matter” (151).
[vi] Biblically, earthly nations are inseparable from the concept of “ethnos,” from which we get “ethnicity”. In like fashion “genos”, from where we get “genes,” can be translated as offspring, family, race, nation, kind, or even sex. We see that these terms involve notions of blood and parentage, even if “ethnos” is more closely connected than “genos” with our notions of culture.
Christians are first and foremost citizens of heaven, not earth. In, but not of the world, their “dual ethnicity” means that they belong first to the kingdom of heaven, and are members of “God’s chosen ethnos” (I Peter 2:9). Though all are one “in Adam,” God has, post-fall, also ordained a diversity of nations (see Acts 17:26), from whom He will obtain worship (Rev. 7:9). Ultimately, the Church is a new Nation that re-unites, by faith in Christ, persons not just from this or that race, tribe, or nation, but from the entire human family – making one Nation, or more accurately, Kingdom.
Theotokos (“Birth-Giver of God”) or “Christokos” only? *Really* the “mother of God”? Does it matter?
First, happy tenth day of Christmas! Second, the answer to the title of this post is “No!” — with explanation following…
In 1539 a formal theological disputation was held in Wittenberg, Germany called “The Disputation Concerning the Passage: ‘The Word was Made Flesh’” (found in AE 38.239-76).
This disputation is very interesting (it is difficult to)!
In it, Martin Luther contends that the Scholastic theologians from Paris of his time (the “Parisians”) had in effect made theology bow to philosophy (thesis #6).[i] In a fascinating move, Luther responds by stating that “what is true in one field of learning is not always true in other fields of learning” – even while insisting that the statement “every truth is in agreement with every other truth” is to be upheld (theses #1).
Relating to the title of the disputation, Luther connects these thoughts with John 1:14: In theology it is true that the Word was made flesh; in philosophy the statement is simply impossible and absurd.” In a colorful way of putting it, Luther insists that “the declaration ‘God is man’ is not less but even more contradictory than if you would say ‘Man is an ass’” (thesis #3). Going along with this, it is very interesting to note that as Luther discusses issues of philosophy and language he actually anticipates many of the Ludwig Wittgenstein’s observations about language in the 20th century.
“Theology and philosophy… each [have] a different starting point and goal which it pursues… Philosophy has nothing to do with our grammar.” – Martin Luther (A:intro and A:4)
Some brainier Lutherans suggest that what Luther is saying in this brainy disputation ought to have rather large implications for how theology interacts with other scholarly disciplines. For example, I recently heard one theologian say that:
“Luther’s disputational theses on John 1:14 [are key]….Before we play the epistemological card [when it comes to matters of the creation and science], we ought to have a thorough reading of how Luther approaches revelation and reason. I think we greatly overplay the ‘whore reason’ remark and make it extend to all matters, from governance and finance, to biochemistry and geology.”
This individual was concerned that Lutherans not fall into a mentality (perhaps based on a kind of fundamentalism) all too eager to question the claims of various secular academics and modern scientific disciplines… The introduction to this disputation in Luther’s works seems to lend support to this view: “Luther conceded that philosophy had its independent meaning and was qualified to set forth the truth in the realm of nature. In the realm of grace, however, theology was to hold sway.”
“Paul, on the contrary, teaches that all thought (no doubt this includes philosophy) is to be taken captive to the obedience of Christ [II Cor. 10:5]… we must adhere strictly to the word and truth of the Bible.” – Martin Luther (thesis 8, C:XXXII)
Should that, however, be the message that we take away from this disputation? I think putting things like that is basically unhelpful[ii] and misses the real importance of this writing. My pastor, with the help of the German theologian Hannes Illge, has also been studying the disputation a little bit. Here is how he summarized things for me:
1) The Sorbonne was the flagship of the via antiqua, classic Aristotelianism, in which as far as language was concerned, promoted the idea that what was said expressed accurately what existed in the world of forms, i.e. that which was ultimately real and true. Consequently, what was said and true in one field of study must be true and be able to be said in another field of study, including theology;
2) Conversely the via moderna (nominalism) promoted the idea that what is expressed must not refer to the world of forms, but to a unique instance of a form in creation, in time and space, that is, to some unique thing, in a one-to-one correspondence, that is, a specific instance of a thing. This was for clarity’s sake in the construction of syllogisms;
3) The problem, however, was that theologically, the “middle term” in a syllogism often could not be a reference to a specific thing in time and space, but a general concept, thus throwing the validity of syllogistic logic to express what was true theologically out the window.
My pastor goes on, commenting on how Illge’s heady academic book speaks to these disputations:
So if I understand what Illge is asserting about this disputation correctly, Luther is exposing logically the inadequacies of both the via antiqua (Aquinas) and the via moderna (Biel) for expressing via language what is true theologically. Thus the assertion that a “new language” is needed when it comes to speaking of Christ and theology…
John, If the finite cannot contain the infinite in the Lord’s Supper, what is the Incarnation really?
In order to explain this more, let’s take a look at a part of the disputation (C:IX):
Another [Argument] of the Dean
Falsehood and truth are opposites. But what is true in philosophy is false in theology. Therefore, they are opposites.
Response [from Luther, put together from the notes of three scribes]:
Contraries ought to concern the same matter or be in the same genus….
We say: God is man, which is a simple proposition, not twofold as the Sorbonne has made it. We condemn the latter. Every man is a creature, this is a simple proposition; this is true in philosophy, but in theology it is false, which is proved in the minor premise, that is, Christ is man.
The Sorbonne compels us to make all words ambiguous.This is to be resisted. It is not to be allowed that in this proposition, that is, God is man, one may unite theology and philosophy, because a distinction is made between man and man. The man who uses words univocally speaks consistently, but not the equivocator, and by the fact that they equivocate they destroy their own argument. (italics mine)
“The Parisian theologians…want to measure all things theological with philosophical reason.” – Luther (C, intro)
In expressing his concerns about equivocation, Luther is concerned first and foremost about the abuse of Scripture leading to the loss of the doctrine of justification (see, e.g., in the “Scholastic doctrine of congruent merit,” which made salvation subject to the law — the meritorious character of works). And justification, of course, is not unrelated to a proper understanding of Christology[iii], and hence the loss of the scriptural language’s meaning through the constricting use of philosophy[iv] (not unrelated, by the way, to the way postmodern philosophy, for example, tries to change Christianity today) – not necessarily intended by those who advocate thusly! – must be countered.
The more things change, the more they stay the same… (more on this book here) “Everyone can sense what is wrong; it take skill to remove the trouble.” – Luther, quoting Ovid (A: introduction)
Elsewhere, in the disputation, Luther makes his concerns even more clear: “When the word ‘man’ is used in philosophy it signifies substance; in theology it also signifies the substance existing in Christ, but thus, that it is the substance which is at the same time God” (C:X). Dr. Eric Phillips comments: “When he says, e.g., ‘In philosophy it is false to say that he is God and man’ (250), he is not suggesting that Jesus has two natures in one sense, but is only human in another sense. He is saying only that Philosophy is a valid way of knowing, but cannot know mysteries of the faith.”
Perhaps we could put Luther’s concerns in the following way as well: even though every man is a creature, we should insist this is false in theology because the primary identity of the God-Man Jesus Christ, who comes to possess a true human nature (transforming all who have a human nature!), is not that of a creature.[v]
Another syllogism “not to be allowed in the church of God”!: “All flesh is a creature. The Word is not a creature. Therefore, the Word is not flesh.”
Attentive readers of my own blog will note that a very similar situation – where philosophy cannot contain theology! – occurs in a recent blog post. Even though believers, in true union with Christ, really are God’s children, the following syllogism, applied to the biblical data, would be null and void:
Every son of God is divine.
Human beings are sons of God
Human beings are divine.
This, of course, is false, as even Scripture – in making us aware of man’s import to the creation – goes so far as to call all human beings not only god’s offspring, but, very hyperbolically, gods as well!
Hence, in sum, “faith is not bound by, or subject to, the rules or words of philosophy….” (C, intro)!” Philosophy is so very limited. Sad!
In his own summary of the disputation, Dr. Eric Phillips says, in part,
“3. There is a lot of overlap, as some things knowable by reason are also communicated by revelation, but the highest and most important things cannot be known by reason at all, and thus belong solely to Theology (AE 38: 248).
4. As Philosophical definitions cannot take these things into account, they will sometimes seem to contradict Theology, but this is not a real contradiction as long as we apply Philosophy only to its own proper sphere. Philosophy and Theology do not agree on everything, as the Paris doctors held, but they can nevertheless both be true (250).
“All men are mortal,” says Reason, that Whore, ignoring our Lord… Don’t be so harsh! In general — because of sin! — it is true.
5. The area of overlap corresponds broadly to the Law, and the area where Theology alone prevails to the Gospel (258). Thus when Philosophy oversteps its bounds, it always ends up attacking the Gospel, as e.g. in the Scholastic doctrine of congruent merit (248).
I think this is well summarized because it is clear that the limits that Luther insists on for philosophy are, well… limited (and I admit I see what I take to be his definitions of it as overly stringent as well[vi]).
“The Word is a new and different expression in theology and designates the divine person.” – Martin Luther
On the one hand, philosophy is like the law: “the art of logic is a seeker after truth in every field of learning, but in theology it may be a maidservant and bondwoman” (C:XX)[vii] – here, for example, justification is said to be above and beyond the legal wisdom of the law.[viii] On the other hand, perhaps in correlation with the law’s fulfillment as seen and known in Jesus Christ, (interestingly, did not Socrates insist that philosophy, in spite of its interest in the reasons for things, was more about living rightly than anything else?), “philosophy and theology are different but not contrary to each other” (B:XXV).[ix] Analogously, justification is greater than the law simply because its fulfillment – first by Christ and only then by us (imperfectly here, and perfectly in heaven) – is contained in the Gospel.[x]
My own thoughts (see footnote vi also) are that if philosophy – which, considered most broadly, deals not only with causes but purposes[xi] – insists that God has not shown us His eternal nature in the creation, it is not really true philosophy.[xii] Of course, I am equivocating there myself, because in that sentence I don’t think I need to insist that the God – even though He is best understood in the God-Man Jesus Christ – cannot begin to be understood… does not begin to “make sense” to most every human being.
But I just let you know that, so maybe someone like Luther would let me go on that one. : )
The foolishness of the Gospel: “Christ as true God and man suffered for us, and the whole person is said to have died for us… these are not philosophical matters. We say ‘I believe in God,’ not ‘I understand God.’” – Martin Luther (B:15)
[i] According to the introduction in Luther’s Works (AE 38), the Fifth Lateran Council (1512-1517), “ordered theological teachers at universities to uphold the one truth of the Christian religion in philosophical statements also.” On the face of it, it seems like philosophy was being made to submit to theology here, but Luther says that Christian statements were being forced into philosophical statements, with distortion being the necessary effect.
[ii] My view is that at its best today, given the inward nature of our reflection (with Kant having formalized this), the “realm of nature” is understood by modern secular philosophers on the basis of the things they experience, understand, and can cope with in common. I also think philosophers must primarily understand their discipline as being concerned with human ethics, i.e. how should we live. Even those who despise persons they consider overly moralistic still want their neighbors to live in certain ways and not others. How much does this drive all philosophical reflection?
[iii] From A:9: “In philosophy it is false to say that he is God and man. For this reason we separate these spheres in creation to the furthest extent, as the philosopher says. If someone has been continent and aspires to live honestly before men, he is not against Christ. Nevertheless, a tree must be good before it can bring forth good fruits. So a person is pleasing to God on account of Christ’s merit and obedience before he does godly, good, and honest works. Therefore, the barbarians [me: the Parisians] are to be resisted who make everything equivocal if a matter of faith seems to be in question.But we ought to adhere to and speak of the word. I understand “man” here in a twofold way, in one way as a corporeal substance subsisting by itself, in another way as a divine person upholding the humanity. Is this, I ask, harmonizing theology and philosophy when you distinguish like this, when in fact you even distinguish univocal terms?” (italics mine)
[iv] Again, Dr. Eric Phillips: “Luther says the Paris doctors ‘devised the distinction between equivocal and univocal so that philosophy might be in harmony with theology’ (246). However, he seems to use the distinction himself in several of his responses. E.g. “The mathematician says that… three cannot be one, as in the article of the Trinity…. Nonetheless, it is true that the Trinity and unity in God are something entirely different” (255). Thus he is not attacking the Thomist idea that language when applied to God must be understood equivocally (as some of the Medieval Nominalists had, most notably Duns Scotus). His real complaint seems to be with the corollary that agreement (e.g. between Philosophy and Theology) can be established by the use of equivocation…. The need for equivocation when speaking of God actually functions as proof of his “double truth” thesis.” (italics mine, underlining his)
[v] In sum, ultimately the words “man” and “person” are not about us, but about our God:
“When I speak of God as man, I cannot deny that he is a thinking animal; here the Scholastic theologians have admitted that Christ was a rational animal and man. However, they distinguish senses of the word ‘man’ and say that it is equivocal, so that, when it refers to anyone of the human race apart from the incarnation, it designates a person subsisting by himself. This is a philosophical meaning. It has another meaning when it is said about Christ.Here one does not interpolate that fictitious philosophical concept of a person. For here a new word is coined, designating the divine person sustaining our human one, as a white person signifies a man who maintains whiteness (3:IIIa, italics mine).” I find it interesting to note that evidently the philosophers of Luther’s day were willing to emphasize how man subsisted by himself by his own power, while God’s power outside himself was conceded (B:VI) by virtue of the things which he created (i.e. the creation, which in many philosophical systems was seen as synonymous with God).
[vi] I wonder here about whether Luther’s view of logic, syllogisms, reason and philosophy – which I get the impression from this work are basically the same thing to him (philosophy, for example “understands by the use of reason” [C: introduction]) – is too limited. E.g. “the art of logic is a seeker after truth in every field of learning, but in theology it may be a maidservant and bondwoman” (C:XX, italics mine ; see also A:20).
Luther, of course, contrasts this with theological truth, which, he notes (in part, I take it), we are to believe and not to [expect to] understand (and which we do not see, for it is invisible) (see C:VII, A:7 and A:15, and last footnote as well). Luther does say that “the subject of philosophy and theology is identical, that is, the human soul,” even as “they are different in character” (C:XXV). I think that Dr. Phillips is right to say, as he did to me, that “Philosophy isn’t the foundation for theology. Philosophy and theology are the same thing, except that theology (properly Christian theology) uses givens from Scripture, while Philosophy uses givens only from observation and logic.” Luther would probably agree, even as today’s “modern science” — with its appropriation of philosophy (see here for more) — has amputated some of the “givens” (like the soul!) Luther would have taken for granted.
If I had a chance to speak with Luther here, I would explore the idea of faith being about knowledge (particularly historical knowledge), assent and trust, and how it relates to his thinking. In any case, my main point is that it is not only faith that overshadows logic and syllogisms in importance, but other things that do this as well.
This can be bad, for example in the case where impressive rhetoric stirs our passions, verifies us in our confirmation biases, and causes us to act in in an unthinking manner. On the other hand, there are good things about this as well.
For instance, strictly speaking, even if it is true that smoke does not “mean,” linguistically, “fire,” is there not a kind of natural connection here – even if any particular person does not make this interpretation? And it seems to me that many a “common man”, for example, might point out that the connection between “male”, “female” and “offspring” seems to be a bit more than linguistic as well! After all, one does not require formal syllogisms – but only personal experience perhaps bolstered by historical knowledge – to determine that all children have a mother and a father.
And speaking of history – and to really throw any exclusively secular readers here into a tailspin — in spite of, for example, St. Thomas Aquinas’s views of what constitutes knowledge, are historical facts like the existence of George Washington less certain than scientific truths such as the “fact of evolution” (sarcasm intended)? And here, of course, the secular critic will be eager to point out that some historical persons and events are more well-attested to empirically than others. I’ll happily agree – especially about evolution : ) – and ask them whether or not the unrecorded family history they know can really true knowledge or not and why….
[vii] Also: “It is not as mistress but as maidservant and bondwoman and most beautiful helper that it teaches a person to define and to classify. But even for theology [logic has this function]. There [i.e., in theology], if logic falls short, this maidservant also lies dead” (A:20).
[viii] “I admit that the legal wisdom of God is not contrary to that wisdom of the gospel, but is not included in it. Theology, the incarnation, and justification are above and beyond reason and philosophy. Philosophers concede to God omnipotence outside himself in the things which he created.” (B: VI) One notes in this disputation Luther’s conflating of the external observations of philosophers with the external judgements God’s law makes. For example: “There are upright persons in theology and there are upright persons in philosophy. This [philosophical] uprightness is meant for a mother and a father. Thus, in the law of Moses there are upright persons. But we have a more excellent theology which speaks differently about uprightness” (A:26). Here, lest one get the wrong idea, we should immediately add the following: “philosophy and theology are different but not contrary to each other” (B:XXV) – see footnote immediately following as well!
[ix] Also, “philosophy is not against us but for Christ” (A:8). “[W]e admit that philosophy may be for us; but it does not follow from this that both are identical; heaven and the stars are devoted to the church, but they are not at once identical with it” (C:VIII).
[x] As Pastor Jordan Cooper puts it: “The gospel is a superior revelation of God to the law. This does not imply that the two words are to be polarized against one another. Instead, the gospel is greater than the law, because within the gospel is included the fulfillment of the law.” (see here for some more context)
[xi] When, in B:XXVII, a person argues that: “Whoever inquires about the purpose and the causes of things inquires about the word of God. Philosophy inquires about purposes and causes. Therefore, it inquires about the word of God,” Luther only says “It is a subtle argument.” Given that he only says of philosophy that it “inquires into the reasons for things” (A:27) – and everywhere in this disputation seems to equates it with syllogisms and logic – I found this disputant’s introduction of the idea of purpose – which of course connects with issues of teleology and ethics – to be refreshing. Here, one wonders about the gradual reduction of philosophy to efficient causes.
[xii] To argument A:7, “Philosophy attributes to God incomprehensible matters. Therefore, it also attributes to him the power to become man. I prove this from Romans 1 [:20]: ‘His power is eternal,’” Luther begins his response in a way I find perplexing: “If it attributes infinite qualities to God, then it is not philosophy. For Paul in Romans 1 [:19] says that ‘God has shown it to them.’” (see also the argument and response in A:24 where Luther says, e.g., that “[t]he meaning of the law is, under various circumstances, known to the philosophers. But the promises of God belong to theology, and the gospel is not known to every creature because it is a mystery hidden from the world.”) Here, we evidently must speak of [tacit] knowledge of the truth which is suppressed – even unconsciously – and what a person considers himself to know.