14 June 2006

God, evil, and the Cross

by Dan Phillips

The relationship of the holy, infinite-personal God of Scripture to evil is a theological conundrum, but it's far from merely theoretical. We confront it daily. Evil's thriving presence makes itself felt with every glance at the news media, with every surf of the internet, with every human encounter, and, most dishearteningly, in every succession of thoughts and desires in our own souls. We see its baleful fruit in physical evil such as cancer; we see it more devastatingly in moral evil such as the Cross.

Man has always tried to solve the problem of evil, and he's always failed. He's tried denying the existence of God; but with that denial, he loses his right to call anything "evil." He's tried denying the sovereignty of God; but with that denial, he loses his right to call the God he has created "God." (See further God and Evil: A Brief Theodicy.)

You might truthfully say that evil is a problem precisely because God is who He is. If He were not good, or if He were not sovereign, evil would be no surprise -- but, in that case, neither would God be God, by any Biblical explication of the term. But God is good, and He is sovereign, and evil is a reality.

One of the most suggestive and meaning-laden texts about the relationship of God to evil is Genesis 50:20. It unveils realities about this area that we'd not otherwise know, and is worth careful unpacking.

We all know the background. Joseph had revelatory reason to believe he'd have ascendancy over his brothers. Possibly boastfully, certainly unwisely, he shared his dreams with his family. That, with his tattletale ways and his daddy's-favorite zoot suit, combined to make him the object of his brothers' hatred. They meant to kill him, then changed their minds and merely sold him into slavery in Egypt, concocting a cock-and-bull story that broke their father's heart and (they hoped) rid their family of Joseph forever.

Evil acts? Beyond a doubt: evil in intent, feeling, design, and execution. Not a shred of charity or holy intent in what they did.

And we also know that, while progressively bad things happened to Joseph (enslaved, entrapped, imprisoned, forgotten), God nevertheless exalted him from the very depths to the very heights. Through Joseph God preserved the nation of Israel, thus saving the human line of the Messiah, thus making possible the salvation of the world.

And here is what Scripture says about that whole complex of events, plot-twists, conspiracies, surprises, and happenstances: "As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today." This relatively brief assertion fairly bursts with meaning. Let's come a little closer and examine the details.

The Hebrew text. The ESV "As for you" indicates what the NIV (natch) misses, that the Hebrew has an emphatic pronoun; thus "You, you intended." Joseph stresses his brothers' personal involvement, their ownership of this evil intent.

But what is interesting is the fact that the next clause is an asyndeton, which is to say there is no conjunction. Though the ESV supplies "but," there is no such word in Hebrew. The two facts are simply laid out side-by-side: "And you, you planned evil against me. God planned it for good...."

Also significant is the repetition of forms of the same verb, chashab, meaning to think, plan, devise. Both actors shared the same activity, but with different intent, and to a different end. The brothers planned, God planned.

One complex event. Note that Joseph does not split the recent events of his life into many events, and say that the brothers meant something for their parts, while God meant something for His. Rather, he encompasses and speaks of the many disparate events as one: "God meant it," the event, viewed as a single complex whole. The same event.

Two wills. In this same, single event, two intentions confluesced.

One was the brothers' intention, and make no mistake: their intention was evil. The goodness of God's intent does not make their intent moral, nor does the sovereignty of His intent make theirs insignificant nor robotic. Their intent is spoken of as their intent, and emphatically so, as noted above. Though good resulted, they did not intend good to result. They intended evil, and only evil.

But the other intent was God's intent, and His intent was wholly good. Notice that this intent takes in the same complex of events, the unambiguously evil actions of the brothers: "God intended it." In, above, through, and overriding the evil intention and action of the brothers was the good intention of God.

It would be saying too much to say that God Himself did those actions, but it would be saying too little to say merely that He used those actions -- as if they were so many Lego's He merely found lying on the floor, and tried to make something of them. He meant those actions, those evil actions, for good.

One act, two intentions. Which intention overruled? Which intention was ultimate?

The question is not too difficult to answer, if one is concerned with preserving the teaching of Scripture rather than a particular doctrinal scheme. Some will try to find a way to evade the Biblical doctrine of God's sovereignty even here, though. I can imagine one trying to find refuge by saying, "Ah, yes, there it is: man's free will, and God's sovereign will, both independent of each other!"

It may be a popular dodge, but it certainly is not the teaching of the text. If that were the case, then Joseph's situation could never have resolved. The evil intent of the brothers and the good intent of God would battle as equals, as yin and yang, bringing a chaotic and unsettled conclusion -- or none at all.

Is this what Joseph is saying? Clearly not. Clearly Joseph is saying that the whole mess has ended well, it has ended as "good." So whose will overruled evil for good? Whose will triumphed? From this text alone, we must say that it was Yahweh's will that triumphed. Then of course, when we bring in other Scripture, this answer is confirmed a hundredfold (Psalm 115:3; Proverbs 16:1, 4, 9; 19:21, etc.).

This is how we must understand evil committed by personal agents. The evil intent, the activity, is truly and genuinely that of the agents themselves. Yet behind that intent, and over it, and overruling it, is the good and holy plan and will of God. This has a very meaningful personal application, which I develop at length pastorally in a sermon titled God and Our Tragedies, delivered 9/11/05.

But it also has application to the discussion that arose over at Adrian's blog, about whether God killed Jesus. We set ourselves up for a false dichotomy if we demand an answer to the question as to whether God killed Jesus, or man killed Jesus. If we choose the latter to the exclusion of the former, we have to waffle and wiggle with texts like Isaiah 53:10. If we attempt the reverse, we will not be dealing honestly with verses such as Acts 2:23 and 5:30.

Of course men did all they could do to kill Jesus. All the betrayers and the persecutors and the lynch mob stand guilty and wholly responsible for their loathesome acts.

But in the final analysis,
"For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father." (John 10:17-18)
...and "the LORD was pleased To crush Him, putting Him to grief" (Isaiah 53:10). That verse is crucial in Isaiah, as we see better when we tie it back in with Isaiah 1:11 -- "What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats." We Gentile Christians don't feel the awesome impact of this statement. It is really a crushing, devastating accouncement: if God does not delight in the blood of bulls, lambs, or goats, they're utterly sunk! That's all they had, to deal with their sin... and now God was saying that He did not delight in those sacrifices. That left them nothing!

Ah, but then in Isaiah 53:10, we learn what Yahweh will delight in, for it uses the same Hebrew verb root (ch-ph-ts), in saying that Yahweh "was pleased" to crush His Servant. You could just as well translated that He "was delighted" to crush Him. The good pleasure of the Lord, in achieving the redemption of His people in a way both just and graceious, was accomplished when Yahweh Himself crushed His dear Son.

Man meant it for evil; but God meant it for good, for salvation, for redemption. And His will always prevails.

After all, He is God.

Dan Phillips's signature

37 comments:

Even So... said...

Thank you, Pyros, for continuing to delve into this isssue.

Good job, Dan.

James Spurgeon said...

Dude, you laid it out bare. You can post over me any day.

Mike Y said...

Dan,

Great job! It pleases me to no end when I see someone deal with such a subject from the text. I really do appreciate what you've done here.

-Mike

LeeC said...

Yes indeed, He is God, and His will be done. For His glory.
Amen.

donsands said...

Very sound teaching. I like where you mentioned we don't grasp the whole Levitical sacrificial system that God ordained. I truly believe if the Church would understand this better, then we would understand Christ's sacrifice for the sins of His people better.

Also, this teaching brings the peace that we long for as God's children. I have to believe Joseph had the peace of God ruling his heart through all this, because he understood the sovereign hand of the Lord was upon him.

Thanks again Dan for a teaching I never tire of.

Jeremy Weaver said...

Awesome post! If there is no satisfaction with Christ's sufferings on the Father's part then there is no salvation.

Put another way so as to be totally clear,
If the Father is not satisfied, in every meaning of the word, with Christ's work on our behalf then there is no basis for our salvation. In order for Him to be totally satisfied with Christ's suffering, He must have a hand in Christ's suffering. He must as the punisher of sin punish our sin in Christ, otherwise it is only the Romans who exacted punishment on Christ and their punishment cannot be satisfactory in any way.

The Searcher said...

I think this is one place where we get ourselves in trouble thinking of the trinity as seperate entities. I would tend to think of what's going on here as God sacrificing himself, and doing it joyfully, rather than as the Father committing an evil act toward the Son.

DJP said...

That's right, searcher. Go wrong here, and we head towards modalism or tritheism. The Biblical teaching is that GOD conceived, undertook, and accoomplished our salvation. The Father had to do something, the Son had to do something, the Spirit has to do something, all working both distinctly and as one.

GOD.

Libbie said...

*resumes fangirl high-fiving all round*

I'm so chuffed to be able to read stuff like this. It's easy for a discouraged housewife to feel rather besieged by trendy theology. This is one of those moments I've mentioned before, where lines in the sand and clear delineations are more than helpful.

Well done all for the last few posts..

Seth McBee said...

I love Joseph's story and thank you for the exposition of the text. I also like it when God tells the Jews that when they go to worship Him on the mountain God will keep the other nations from coveting their land (Exodus 34:24). Amazing! God will keep them from sinning! or when God told King Abemelech in Genesis 20:6 that He KEPT him from sinning by not allowing him to take Abram's wife for his own.

God's will cannot be thwarted!

LeeC said...

It also brings to mind how the Lord brought the pagan nations to punish Israel, and then later punished those same nations for attacking Israel.

Garet Pahl said...

A hearty AMEN!qbky

Trinian said...

Whoa...

[/neo]

Gayla said...

"Very sound teaching. I like where you mentioned we don't grasp the whole Levitical sacrificial system that God ordained. I truly believe if the Church would understand this better, then we would understand Christ's sacrifice for the sins of His people better."

Yes. This stood out for me as well.

Excellent post. Thanks for the last several on this subject as well. You've expounded on teachings from my own pastor regarding this.

Peter Kirk said...

Dan, you are clearly someone who knows your Hebrew. So, perhaps you can explain what none of those who have been quoting Isaiah 53:10 to me in the discussion on Adrian Warnock's blog. Why is it that so many people are insisting that "crush" in this verse means "kill"? I accept that, according to this verse, "Yahweh Himself crushed His dear Son". But this cannot be understood literally, for we all know that Jesus did not die by crushing, but by crucifixion. So, surely, this verse is about Jesus bearing the crushing burden of the world's sins, and not directly about his death. Or am I missing something?

Phil Johnson said...

Peter, I've read enough of your entries to know that youre not a wooden literalist. Why in this specific instance would you insist the only word that could possibly speak of "death" in Isaiah 53:10 would be a word that literally means "kill"?

Let's be candid: it's not really a point of lingustics you're hung up on; it's the theological concept.

The issue under dispute here doesn't hinge on the literal meaning of the Hebrew word anyway. And you don't have to be a Hebrew expert to see the point. Even in English (and most other languages) "crush" is a perfectly useful synonym for "kill"—especially in a context like Isaiah 53.

The word used for "crush" in that verse is used some 19 times in the OT. It usually means "destroyed," "smitten" or "crushed." It's often translated "broken in pieces." Even the couple of times where the sense of the word is "contrite," it is speaking of someone utterly crushed with contrition. It's used in that sense to be emphatic. It's a form of hyperbole.

And in the context of Isaiah 53, it clearly has reference to the suffering inflicted on the Servant. It plainly states that there is a true sense in which God Himself inflicted this suffering.

The odd gymnastics some of the folks have done at Adrian's to avoid the plain connotation of that text is stunning, really. As Frank would say, Pheh on that kind of "scholarship."

I get that you don't like the idea of God punishing His Son. Historically, for those groups individuals who have strongly rejected that idea, it has always signalled a major theological wrong turn.

candyinsierras said...

Excellent article Dan...just curious...how many times did you revise it before you were satisfied?? :)

This issue reminds me of a sermon John Piper presented after the twin towers 9/11 catastrophe. And I quote:

How God governs all events in the universe without sinning, and without removing responsibility from man, and with compassionate outcomes is mysterious indeed! But that is what the Bible teaches. God "works all things after the counsel of his will" (Ephesians 1:11).

This "all things" includes the fall of sparrows (Matthew 10:29), the rolling of dice (Proverbs 16:33), the slaughter of his people (Psalm 44:11), the decisions of kings (Proverbs 21:1), the failing of sight (Exodus 4:11), the sickness of children (2 Samuel 12:15), the loss and gain of money (1 Samuel 2:7), the suffering of saints (1 Peter 4:19), the completion of travel plans (James 4:15), the persecution of Christians (Hebrews 12:4-7), the repentance of souls (2 Timothy 2:25), the gift of faith (Philippians 1:29), the pursuit of holiness (Philippians 3:12-13), the growth of believers (Hebrews 6:3), the giving of life and the taking in death (1 Samuel 2:6), and the crucifixion of his Son (Acts 4:27-28).

From the smallest thing to the greatest thing, good and evil, happy and sad, pagan and Christian, pain and pleasure - God governs them all for his wise and just and good purposes (Isaiah 46:10). Lest we miss the point, the Bible speaks most clearly to this in the most painful situations. Amos asks, in time of disaster, "If a calamity occurs in a city has not the LORD done it?" (Amos 3:6). After losing all ten of his children in the collapse of his son's house, Job says, "The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD" (Job 1:21). After being covered with boils he says, "Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?" (Job 2:10).

contratimes said...

Dear Dan,

Forgive me if I am not quick to join in on the praise chorus. It is not that I think you are wrong, or that you've done anything heterodox or even shallow. It's just that I am not sure I agree. This is no doubt due to my own failings; I may be a Christian in theory, but surely I live as an agnostic in practice.

First, I have a problem with your very first sentence. Please, forgive me. I am not here to be a cynic. But what you've said is just so abstractedly cold:

The relationship of the holy, infinite-personal God of Scripture to evil is a theological conundrum, but it's far from merely theoretical.

You have introduced a sort of strange dichotomy here: You have a personal God, and you have the God of Scripture. But the God of Scripture is not really God; I mean, the God of Scripture is not personal: The God of Scripture is the God of Scripture. I mean, I don't have a personal relationship with a risen Lord that is confined to sentences in a book, just like the disciples did not know Christ in a book. God, in all His transcendent (and immanent?) glory, is God, and as such is personal. And God is more than what we see in Scripture: We see but through a glass darkly the God that really IS. Moreover, our experience of God through Scripture is not of God in-and-of Himself; it is just our experience of God (which too many confuse with God in toto). God is more than words; and He is far more personal than what we read in a book.

This is not in any way to detract from the Holy Text. Nor is it to detract from the personality we find therein. It is merely to point out that if God is infinitely personal, as you say, then He cannot be contained in a finite book. Or are you suggesting that the Bible is infinite?

But my overall difficulty is with the idea of sovereignty posited here. It feels rather limited. If God is sovereign, why does He have to ordain everything? Would not a truly sovereign, truly omniscient being NOT have to ordain everything? Would He not know how to achieve His ends without having to dictate every act, every step of foot; every blink of eye? Or am I asking God to make a stone too heavy for Him to lift?

There is a long-standing dilemma in Christendom that seems entirely unnecessary. On the one hand, to justify evil people aver that God must have ordained it. On the other, to justify (and absolve) God, some argue that people (and the devil) freely chose evil under God's permissive eye. You seem to be suggesting that it is a little of both, but are you really?

I am under the impression that God is perhaps a bit (only a bit) like the deists suggest. His creative fiat so enfuses creation that His will MUST be the final outcome no matter what HUMANS choose. In other words, God can, as the deists suggest, leave the cosmos and yet, because it is His and is erected of His very Words, it will -- no matter what befalls it as the result of the countless personal decisions made by freely choosing beings -- it will come back to Him, for His Words do not return void.

And this fits in with what I sense in Paul: "God is at work in YOU so that YOU will ACT and CHOOSE according to His good purpose. ... Whatsoever YOU do, do as if unto the Lord." There is almost a latent Buddhism in so much Christian theology -- an annihilation of self -- that goes not only undetected, it is preached from the pulpit. But God wants us to choose; He wants us to co-create, and He wants us to cease co-destroying. Just like when He brought His creatures before Adam and was pleased with what Adam named them ("And that is what they were"), God is at work in us to do the same sort of thing: He wants to see what we will create with Him.

I know that I am straining (literally) to get at something not only elusive but perhaps only tangentially related to your post. But I don't believe that a truly sovereign all-powerful being is dictating evil deeds to conform to His will. My suggesting that evil deeds MUST conform to God's will may appear to be a mere semantic difference, but, as we know, semantics and ontology are closely linked: This stuff is important.

I don't think man has always failed to solve the problem of evil, as you suggest, at least as a philosophical conundrum. Yes, the classically defined theodicies are notoriously empty. But that is because they start, or so I think, with wrong ideas about what God must be like in order for Him to be God.

Alas, what I guess I am saying is not that I disagree with your post or that I even have a problem with it. The problem lies with me. I am not fit to carry your bookbag in these matters. But that fact brings me no relief. I am suggesting that what it "means" by the phrase "God meant it for good" is that the very first act of creation was meant for good. Thus, all subsequent acts must conform to that initial intent. It need not require that God intervene in every event to ensure that each thing conforms to His plan. In other words, His plan is not a quantity; it's a quality (how's that for a riddle?).

OK. My apologies. I started off rather brusquely. Forgive me. I am thinking aloud, if you will, and baring my weakness. This is a comment, really, about vulnerability, and about doubt, my doubt. Heaven knows I want to understand.

Peace to you, forever.

Bill Gnade

PS. If you want to see how a bumbling quasi-evangelical-hetero-Episcopalian-Catholic addesses the problem of evil, I invite you to read my The Problem of Knowing Good and Evil.

DJP said...

Peter, if I were to say that a building collapsed, crushing four hundred people, and the bodies were later recovered by emergency personnel -- would you try to argue that the building did not necessarily kill them, because we use "crush" to mean "hurt feelings"?

I'm not arguing anachronistically from the English word. My point is that context rules the significance of the word. So here, the Pi'el form of the room d-k-' is used elsewhere in various senses, including putting to death (Psalm 89:10; Job 6:9).

So what happens to the Servant here in Isaiah 53? It really isn't ambiguous. He's rejected, abused; Yahweh Himself brings together all the people's iniquity upon His person (v. 6), He is cut off from the land of the living (v. 8), He goes to the grave (v. 9).

And why did this happen? The prophet makes it clear that "he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth" (v. 9), so it is not for any sin on His part.

But wait -- the prophet is not done. He adds "Yet it pleased Yahweh to crush Him."

So the prophet's point is that this unjust suffering, and this unjust death, had the sovereign pleasure and will of Yahweh at its deepest roots. All that was done to Jesus carried out the pleasure of Yahweh.

And so the "crushing" is clearly made specific by the context. He was crushed in death, even death on the Cross.

DJP said...

Candy, thanks -- and quite a few times! (c;

Great quotation from Piper, good contribution.

DJP said...

An additional thought, Peter: I don't know what you think you'd gain by taking the notion of killing from "crush" in Isaiah 53:10. Is it that you recoil from the thought of the Father killing the Son?

But the thought of the Father humiliating, or hurting, or laying the Son low -- that would be OK to you?

I can't guess the logical progression that is uneasy over the Father making the Son the guilt offering in which His perfect justice and mercy meet -- but is all right with the notion of His degrading and shaming the Son.

Kyle said...

Dan,

Good post. I'm glad to see there is yet hope for you coming around to a point where you can connect with Edwards.

A few weeks ago I commented on James's post on Edwards that God knowingly, intentionally, and actively order states of affairs in such a way that evil is ensured so long as he permits things to play out, that is, unless he intervenes -- he's its cause, if you like. Human agents knowingly, intentionally, freely, and actively do all sorts of evil for which they are morally blameworthy. But at least part of the reason God isn't -- isn't, that is, blameworthy for ordering states of affairs to ensure those evils -- is that, as you say, he has really good reasons for doing so. O felix culpa, indeed.

James said...

To recap, objection to the clause "God killed His Son" is based upon:
(1) Failure to comprehend what the Bible teaches about first causes and second causes.
(2) Failure to acknowledge that the two natures of Christ permit and demand us to speak of the one Person that which is appropriate to either one of the natures.
(3) Failure to take into account that in opera ad extra, each Person of the Trinity is always at work, and that the cross was actually both extra and intra.
(4) Failure to understand that God's character constrains Him, not by something outside Himself, but something within Himself, so that in order to save the elect, killing Jesus became an absolute, consequent necessity.

As for Kirk's Hebrew question, daka only appears in poetry, and when in the piel (as here), it is only used figuratively. In the pual stem it can mean "broken into pieces," and in both pual and niphal it can convey contrition or humiliation. Here, there is no such possibility. As for why the sense of killing is required here, when a hiphil form of mut would suffice for that, it is precisely because of figurative emphasis in daka. The verb emphasizes that nothing is held back; Yahweh laid upon Him the full force of what was required for a guilt offering. This doesn't say less than what a hiphil of mut (mavet, whatever, I'm terrible at transliteration) would have said in the same place, but oh so much more. I might have almost expected a qal of shachat, but that seems primarily to be used with an animal as an object.

But I have a feeling that the difficulty wasn't with how daka is to be rendered here but somewhere with (1)-(4).

DJP said...

kyle -- I'm glad to see there is yet hope for you coming around to a point where you can connect with Edwards.

As I said, I do keep trying -- like a dutiful child trying to like squash because he knows it's supposed to be good for him.

Pray for me.

(c;

James Spurgeon said...

contratimes, your comments are very long, but for some reason I enjoy reading them. No, it's not because I agree with them. LOL I think it's because they are "real" if you know what I mean. I read in them a humility that goes along with your contrary assertions and a desire to know the truth.

Here's where I think you differ from those of us who write here at TeamPyro. What I detect is that your view of God is not entirely informed by Scripture. Am I wrong?

Here's where I am. I was raised in a tradition that had all of the answers, no time for the questions, and no patience with questioners. When I had finally had enough of that, I wanted to know something. Where I turned was the Scripture. I wanted to know what it said compared to what my tradition said. I wanted it to inform my experiences and shed light on them. Here's where it gets down to brass tacks:

Isaiah 8:20 (KJV)
To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.

Deut. 29:29 (KJV)
The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.

There is revelation of God outside the Bible, to be sure. The Bible itself gives testimony of that. But in special revelation God has handpicked what it is he wants us to know about himself and his ways for the praise of his glory. And he also let's us know that that special revelation is sufficient for us. The secret things belong to him. They are not for us to know. But the things revealed belong to us and to our children. God not only desires for us to know them, but expects us to. And not just to know them, but to submit to them as truth and praise his holy name because of them, and order our lives in a certain way because of them.

That's where I think our point of divergence is. I think your view of God is informed by Scripture somewhat, but not totally. It is also informed by what you perceive subjectively through natural revelation and other sources, and that these extra-scriptural things carry as much weight with you as does Scripture. Am I totally wrong here? I'm trying to figure you out, not caricature you, so correct me if I'm wrong.

God bless.

Seth McBee said...

contratimes...notice that most of your post involved no Scripture, I think that is a hard path to plow off the start. I know this sounds like a copout but remember Deut 29:29...The secret things belong to the Lord. And also, Isaiah 55:9 that says His ways are higher than His ways. God reveals to us in His holy Word what He wills and what is important for salvation and edification. At some point we have to trust that the "i's that arent' dotted" and "the t's that are not crossed" are for a purpose and we must put faith in an infinite God with our finite minds. Read Scripture for what it says, it is not some book with hidden meanings or hidden themes that aren't to be found. So, when you say that in Genesis 50:20 when it says Joseph said God meant it for good, no where in the context would Joseph talking about creation make sense. You are overthinking God and the Bible in some places and underthinking God in other places. I love your post though as it really just lays out what you are thinking and for that I thank you. Continue to contend earnestly for the faith!

- Seth

contratimes said...

My dear friends in Christ,

In response to brother Spurgeon's observations re: my last comment, I will try to be terse in this reply. But I will only try.

Let me share my story. I graduated with a double major in Philosophy and Biblical Studies/Theology from a well-known evangelical college. I minored in history. Subsequently I began the application process to several seminaries (Harvard, Princeton, Yale) but never finished; I visited Oxford (I thought I'd be an evangelical Episcopal priest, now a nearly extinct species. Yikes!) to look at a program there; I was finally accepted at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, but deferred enrollment. After 20 years, I remain deferred.

You see, something happened along the way. One of my professors, a very well-known evangelical, converted to Catholicism. And then I heard a question while contemplating the news of that conversion during my prayers: Did Jesus Christ Himself tell you that you must not be a Roman Catholic? I have been trying to answer that question since 1984.

And how I've answered the question, in part, and how I am "informed" by Scripture (Mr. Spurgeon's question), begins this way: I do not believe Jesus Christ rose from the dead because I read it in the Bible.

Now, I hope this is an utterly plain proclamation here. Moreover, I hope the same is true for everyone reading this. We do not believe in Jesus' resurrection because we have read about it in a book, irrespective of how perfect the book might be. Do we?

Let us stipulate without wavering that the Bible is not only inerrant and infallible in matters of faith, but it is also the sole arbiter, the sole guide, of our glorious Faith. The problem with this assertion, however, if there is a problem, is to be found in the word "sole."

You see, if the Bible is the sole guide to faith, then it would seem that the only place for news about Jesus' all-important resurrection is within the Bible itself; that the sole arbiter of this momentous event is Scripture. But to make this assertion is to create a singular problem. For if the Bible is the sole arbiter, and the sole guide, to crucial matters of faith, then we are stuck with a story something like this: Sts. John, Peter and Matthew, when they first saw the empty tomb and the Risen Lord, chose not to believe the testimony of their senses until they first ran back to their desks, wrote down their testimony and then, reading their own words said, "Ah! Now I can believe that He is risen, indeed." What I am saying is that Jesus rose from the dead irrespective of and even independent of the Scriptures, and the disciples did not defer to a sole written arbiter to assure them, infallibly and inerrantly, of what they were witnesses to. And generations of Christians after them followed the exact same example without recourse to Scripture: The Church testifies to His Kingdom, the Church bears witness to His gospel, the Church declares what is authentic and what is not. Why? Because the Church is witness. And that witness includes me. I, too, have known the Risen Lord. I, too, have heard His voice, even in the "deep heart's core."

So what I am getting at is that the Church precedes the Scripture and not the other way around. Of course, I know you have heard this sort of debate before. But it is worth debating over and over again. When St. Paul tells the believers at Thessalonika to "Test everything," he is not telling them, as several evangelical pastors I've known have taught, to "test everything" against Scripture, because there was no Scripture† for the early church to use to conduct such tests. The Church tested everything against the repository of truth which was and is the Church itself.

And while I am not a big "natural revelation" guy, I am quite convinced that natural revelation is rather thorough: St. Paul tells us that the visible world reveals not only the invisible characteristics of God, it reveals sin and fallenness, and that sinners deserve death.

What I am ultimately saying is that Christians have more than just Scripture to guide them. Yes, they do have nature, but they also have the whole corpus of truth shaped within the Body of Christ: literature, prayers, lessons, carols, sacraments, encyclicals, rebukes, apologies, catechisms, and so on. After all, if Scripture is the sole guide for the Church in all matters of faith, where does Scripture tell us that the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John belong in Scripture? Surely the matter of what is canonical and what is not is a critical matter of faith; how then is the Bible silent about it if it is indeed the sole arbiter of faith? Or should we not find solace in the rather glorious announcement found in the repository which is OUR Church: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John belong in the Canon not only because they were witnesses, but because we KNOW them to be right, good, and pure (of course, the scary thing here for Protestants is that this sort of thing shifts authority from God-inspired written words to a dynamic, breathing, ancient and God-inspired Church).

This in no way is a suggestion that Scripture is errant. This is just a suggestion that the Church is not peripheral to biblical authority. It is central to it; biblical authority is contingent upon the direct authority as witness inherent in the Church. When Jesus says that His sheep will know His voice, He is declaring that the Church has the authority to recognize whether He is present or not.

I hope this explains the problem I have experienced in my life as a follower of our glorious Lord and Savior.

Bill Gnade

†It is important to note that there was probably not one single first generation believer that saw, read or held all of the New Testament Canon. It is also important to note that even if Paul meant that believers were to test everything against the OT Canon, it was not like Torah scrolls were just lying around on people's nightstands (with gilt edges and leather covers). In fact, many if not most synagogues did not have a complete Hebrew Canon. Besides, Paul's exhortation was to Thessalonian Gentiles: it's not like they were carrying miniature Torahs around for nightly "Sword Drills," nor is it likely that they had much access to the ark in the nearby temple. Perhaps a few rich Gentiles had a few Torah scrolls, but that is being optimistic. The best thing we can say here is that when Paul meant "Test everything," he meant a lot more than just using Scripture to "test." Grace.

James Spurgeon said...

bill gnade, thanks again for your candor. I think a lot of your questions and thoughts and doubts about Sola Scriptura are worth responding to. I don't know, however, that that debate would be fruitful in the comments thread of this post. It would be a bit off-topic. I like to be pragmatic with my time and I had a sneaking suspicion that the core of our disagreement, the bottom line, was Sola Scriptura. That's okay. Maybe someday. I've tackled that issue before and had long, protracted debates with Roman Catholic apologists so I know the arguments. The discussions were fruitful to me in helping to shake my thinking and find out which arguments were sound and which were not. I have to tell you, though, that the writings of B. B. Warfield on the subject still have me convinced that my position is the correct one.

Have you ever encountered Keith A. Mathison's The Shape of Sola Scriptura? I highly recommend it. Keith does an excellent job of tackling the position of Rome, the position of the Greek Orthodox church, the caricature that many modern evangelicals have made of Sola Scriptura and comparing all three to the actual reformation doctrine. I think it would be an interesting read for you even if you remain ultimately unconvinced. In the mean time, may the God of all grace pour out his grace upon you. Thanks for blessing us with your thoughts and the opportunities they afford.

James Spurgeon said...

Did I say "shake my thinking"?

LOL

Freudian slip?

I meant to say shape my thinking.

donsands said...

bill,

I was reading 2nd Peter to my mom, and it was so good to hear this man talk about his risen Lord.

Peter was about to be martyred, and he writes this wonderful letter to other believers.
This is such a fine book to read. I love the section where Peter speaks of his seeing the Lord in all His majesty.
Simon Peter is such a fine example for us. I love this man. I look forward to meeting him.

This is such a fine espitle to read, study, and meditate upon. It is one of my favorite books of the Bible, when I am feeling weak in my faith.
Just thought I'd share that.

All praise to God the Father, God the Son, & God the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Jon said...

Great exegesis...

I particularly liked the "emphatic pronoun"... Which appears all over the OT even when it's not meant to be emphatic...

Oops...

Plus using "asyndeton" doesn't mean your Hebrew is good

Thomas H.B. Slawson said...

The "problem of evil," as it is called is indeed a "problem," but it is our problem. God "handles sin sinlessly." He is not the author of sin, yet he is sovereign over the Tempter and the one being tempted. Satan can make no move except that which fits God's good and perfect plan.

No doubt, Satan rejoiced in the crucifixion. No doubt, he put it into the heart of Judas to betray the Lord or incited the unbelieving Jews to hate him. Without sin the crucifixion could have never happened! Satan meant it for evil. God meant it for eternal good!

The Sovereign will of God is that which should cause us to stand in awe of God and marvel at just how much we do not know about him. It should cause us to further realize that God is infinite and we are finite. Should it suprise us that many of his ways will be beyond our comprehension?

And the infiniteness of God should cause us wonder. It is an amazing thought that no matter how much we learn about God there are still an infinite amount of "things" (for lack of better term) that can be known about him! And what a blessed thought of eternity this brings. In Heaven, and ultimately the New Heavens and the New Earth, we will indeed be perfect but we will still have finite, learning minds. Through eternity we will never cease to "find out" the greatness of the glory of God anew every moment. He will grow ever more precious and wonderful in our sight for all eternity, and we will respond with unceasing praise. Let the mysteries of God's sovereignty carry our hearts and minds to such thoughts!

ambiance-five said...

Since the Bible doesn't flat out say that God killed Jesus then neither would I.

Sounds too much like some of the trash that used to come out of someones elses mouth I used to know.

That person was agnostic. It was always said in a taunting manner. Reminds me of it all.

God killed Jesius, God killed Jesus!

donsands said...

Abraham was going to kill his son. In obedience to the LORD.

This is a very dim picture of what our Heavenly Father did with His only Begotten, and Beloved Son, Jesus Christ.

It's the greatest and most magnificient act of love that could ever be imagined.

Abraham loved Issac with all his heart, and yet he was going to kill him.

Jesus loved the Father, and the Father the Son, with a perfect holy love. And the Father gave His Son for ungodly blasphemers and self-centered unthankful people like us.

What great love has saved us, His elect. Astounding! Amazing Love how can it be!

DJP said...

ambiance-five -- Since the Bible doesn't flat out say that God killed Jesus then neither would I.

But you would say, with the Bible, that God predestined His wrongful death by sinful hands, that the Lord was pleased to crush Him, that Jesus bore God's wrath, that He was slain in the counsels of God before the foundation of the world, that God carries all things out in accord with the counsel of His will, and that it could not be otherwise?

Okay, well... whatever.

ambiance-five said...

Well since I dont understand how to do trackbacks I figured I better post this here..I know you all love me!

It is a bit frightening when men who claim to be ministers begin to
take liberty to add to scripture.

While we in Christ are at liberty, we also realize that true liberty
comes from not only God's mercy but also His judgement. True liberty
comes from scripture in tact and not scattered all over the floor.

There is something in the middle of this blog cyberhole right now
that is very much adding to scripture.

These men call themselves ministers of the "gospel". These men
are also claiming, "God killed Jesus."

Nowhere do any of the apostles take such "liberty".
Christ Himself did not take such "liberty".

In an attempt to explain "God's plan", they are also seeming to explain
away God's judgement.

God's mercy is truly behind Christ's cross when one repents
and believes as it was also for those who crucified Him through
ignorance.

1Co 2:8

(ISV) None of the rulers of this world understood it,
for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory.

Without the judgement of men's doings in the matter, how does one
even come to the issue of mercy?

I would advise anyone coming across such statements as
" God killed Jesus ", to leave the auditorium if repentance
is not seem immediately.

It will either bring about repentance or fuel for the fire.

You don't want to get caught in the fire.

Typed with the love of God and ignorant men,
Sue Ellen

DJP said...

Was that a macro, or something?

Let's try again:

You would say, with the Bible, that God predestined His wrongful death by sinful hands, that the Lord was pleased to crush Him, that Jesus bore God's wrath, that He was slain in the counsels of God before the foundation of the world, that God carries all things out in accord with the counsel of His will, and that it could not be otherwise?