On the Priority of Ethics

I grew up with a very spiritualized Christianity that focuses on getting to heaven.  I later became a pentecostal, and this spiritualization of everything was intensified.  Now, I don’t mean “spiritual” in the common sense referring to our inner feelings (although that’s certainly a part of it), but rather an understanding that there are two worlds that we interact with, a physical, visible world and a spiritual, invisible world – and that this spiritual world is the greater of the two.  At times we even flirt with the gnostic notion that we are trying to escape this fallen, physical world in order to get to the true, pure, perfect, spiritual world.  But my point here is simply that common North American Christianity often points us away from the daily realities of life and toward a future, invisible reality that is spiritual in nature and doesn’t compare to the physical, hum-drum daily life we experience now.  The only connection between the two, it sometimes seems, is that we can find answers to the evils of our physical world in this spiritual world.

Reading the gospels, however, has changed that perspective for me quite a bit.  Yes, there’s lots of mention of spiritual realities, and I don’t want anyone to think for a minute that I don’t believe in them.  But there’s a much greater emphasis on ethics, on how we live our lives here and now, than I was ever led to believe.  In fact, I’m willing to say that ethics is what Jesus and his followers were all about.

As I said, I don’t want to give the impression that the eschatology (the future, heaven stuff) of the New Testament is unimportant.  On the contrary, I still think it’s very important; it’s the relationship between the ethics and the eschatology that I’ve changed my mind about.  On the surface, they seem to be opposites: one is concerned with here and now, the other is concerned with the future in heaven; one is concerned with the physical world, the other with spiritual realities we cannot see.  Traditionally, we connect the two in a causal relationship: if you’re not good enough in the physical world today, you don’t get to go to heaven tomorrow.  This is not entirely wrong, but I think perhaps we’ve over-spiritualized it – and we can see this through a logical exercise.

Consider the eschatological vision of Jesus: a world in which truth triumphs and evil is defeated; a world in which God is reunited with the people who were once separated from Him due to sin.  Now consider the ethical vision of Jesus: a world in which people speak out against injustice, and are vindicated by the truth; a world in which injustices are exposed and corrected; a world in which religiosity and false piety are replaced by real acts of grace and mercy.  Is there a comparison to be made here?

The big difference between the most eschatological and the most ethics-focused passages is that in the eschatological passages the hand of God is emphasized, whereas in the ethical passages the acts of humans are emphasized.  The goal and end results are the same.  Some scholars see the ethical and eschatological traditions of the New Testament to come from different religious groups because of the differences between them; perhaps.  But I see two ways of describing the same worlds – the world we have, and the world it ought to be – and two ways for our world to transition from how it is to how it should be.

The kicker is, by human effort alone we can’t seem to get there, to that vision of the world as it ought to be.  By human effort, we’ve failed.  Apocalyptists (like the writer of Revelation, people who often focus on eschatological concerns) see that human failure and rely on God to get the job done: the world can only truly change through divine intervention.  Sadly, I’m inclined to agree.

Then why did Jesus spend so much time preaching ethics, when we need God’s direct intervention in order to truly be able to change?  This is the gospel: Jesus showed us how to live, and painted a picture of what an ethical world would look like.  His movement had little success, and he was killed; ethical teaching in the hands of human beings fails.  But then Jesus resurrects, reveals his deity, and bestows God’s Holy Spirit in order to empower human beings to follow through on those teachings and truly act ethically.

Now, debate all you like about whether or not human beings, even those that are Spirit-empowered, are truly able to change (but it seemed to be what Jesus preached).  The point here is that the eschatological vision – of God stepping in to make everything right – is a glimpse of the future that is told in service to the ethical vision that Christ painted.  Ethics is both the journey and the destination as we strive to see our world become a place of good rather than evil; eschatology is a hopeful vision of that journey and destination in the face of our inability to do it on our own.  Eschatology serves ethics.

That doesn’t mean that eschatology is less, or that we shouldn’t get excited about God stepping in and making everything right.  It means that we ought to remember that God included us in his method, and that we ought not to lay back and focus on these visions of the future.  Because when we act ethically, the way Jesus taught us to, the future is now.

Tired Arguments

Travel experts often recommend that your in-flight book have something to do with your destination, to help prime your interest and teach you something about the locale.  My parents recently took their dream vacation to Europe, and my dad indulged in a novel called The Templar Legacy, by Steve Berry, because it takes place mostly in France, particularly in Avignon.  Since I had also been there, he suggested I read it, and was eager to know what I thought of the book.  I’m 346 pages into the book, and I know now why he wanted me to read it: I just finished a chapter which gives a “bible lesson”, and he wanted to see my reaction (and probably verify if any of it was true).  Since this “bible lesson” repeats almost every bad argument I’ve ever heard against the authenticity of the New Testament and our understanding of Christ, I thought it’d be worth picking apart here.

1. The Control of the Catholic Church

Thorvaldsen nodded.  “History is clear that the New Testament, as we know it, was formulated during the first four centuries after Christ as a way to universalize the emerging Christian message.  After all, that’s what catholic means – ‘universal.’

“The main reason the Catholic version survived, while others faltered, was its ability to impose its belief universally.  They grafted onto the Scriptures so much authority that eventually no one could question their validity without being deemed a heretic.” – p. 324

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard complaints about how the New Testament is untrustworthy because the Catholic Church had total control over it, I’d have a couple bucks.  (If you think about it, that means I’ve heard that quite a bit).  This is based on anachronism: we have a tendency to take our modern understanding of the Catholic Church, or worse yet the corrupt parts of the medieval Catholic Church, and project it back onto the early church.  The truth of it is, the “Catholic Church” (and the image we have of it) didn’t exist when the New Testament canon was chosen, much less when the books were written.  When Thorvaldsen (in the quote above) says that the NT was formulated in the first four centuries after Christ, it gives the impression that the books were written over three or four hundred years; in fact, all of the books of the NT were written in the first or early second centuries, but they were not formalized in a closed canon until the fourth century.

It’s the closed canon that bothers many people.  Why were some writings included, while others weren’t?  Authors like Steve Berry and Dan Brown make much of the existence of other gospels such as the Gospel of Thomas, using them as a major plot point.  Supposed religious scholars like Tom Harpur draw on them to dramatically challenge our understanding of Christ.  And everyone loves to point at the Catholic Church for excluding books that they didn’t agree with.  What’s funny is that at the time of the canon there was only one church; seven hundred years later or so, it split into the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church; and five hundred years after that, the Catholic Church was split again by the Protestant Reformation.  Each of those subgroups of Christianity uses slightly different bibles, but the Catholics and the Orthodox accept more books than the Protestants do – yet nobody jumps on us Protestants for not including Jubilees or Bel and the Dragon in our Old Testaments.  To point to the Catholics as the problem is ridiculous.

Now, you may be saying that I’m guilty of my own criticism, that these writers are referring to the Catholic Church in its other sense, i.e. the universal Church, or the one church these three subgroups came from, and I’m the one that’s talking about the modern or medieval notion of a particular organization.  But Steve Berry doesn’t make that distinction, and he uses the capital letters that mark it as a proper noun – and most people who spout these arguments are referring to the institution we know today.

Having surveyed several deuterocanonical works (i.e. the books that didn’t make it into the canon), it’s not hard to see why these other books were not admitted.  First of all, most of them were written much later than the canonical books.  Secondly, they were pseudepigraphal – they claimed to be written by apostles or other heroes of the faith in order to gain authority.  And thirdly, they’re completely inconsistent with the other NT books, giving a drastically different picture of Christ that fits nicely into the drastically different theologies that they promote – theologies that had been rejected by most of the early church, and if you read the rest of the NT, also rejected by the apostles.  But who am I to claim consistency for a book that, as is often claimed, is so inconsistent?

2. The Inconsistency of the Gospels

The Bible was a favourite of Malone’s.  He’d read it and much historical analysis and knew all about its inconsistencies.  Each Gospel was a murky mixture of fact, rumour, legend, and myth… – p. 324

“Come now,” Thorvaldsen said.  “There are too many examples of contradictions for us to simply dismiss them as intentional.”

“Would you not think that God would have at least been reasonably consistent with His Word?”
“Gospel variations have been the subject of thousands of books,” Malone made clear.
“True,” Thorvaldsen said.  “And the inconsistencies have been there from the beginning – largely ignored in ancient times, since rarely did the four Gospels appear together.  Instead, they were disseminated individually throughout Christendom…” – p. 325-6

For several pages, Berry lists numerous inconsistencies of the four gospels.  Aside from his embellishment of the differences, his analysis is based on the faulty presupposition that they were ever intended to give a “historical account” as we think of it.  The modern notion of “historical accounts” is precisely that – modern.  Nor are gospels history.  “Gospel” is its own literary genre, which presents historical events in whatever sequence and in whatever light is necessary to achieve its goal – not at all unlike any other ancient history (or even many/most modern ones – dun dun DUN!), except that the evangelical purpose of gospels is made explicit.  They never claim to be objective – quite the opposite.  They are very openly written to convince and encourage people of a particular message regarding Jesus of Nazareth, e.g. that he is the Christ, the Saviour.  Berry actually sums it up nicely:

“…Remember, the idea behind the Gospels was to demonstrate that Jesus was the Messiah predicted in the Old Testament – not to be an irrefutable biography.” – p. 327

What Berry (and/or his characters) doesn’t seem to get is that this makes the nit-picking over inconsistencies between the four accounts useless.  It’s one thing to say that four accounts disagree among themselves (usually on perspectives, or historically unimportant details, never on the actual existence of an event), but that doesn’t necessarily mean that any one of them, or even all four, are wrong or historically inaccurate.  Just because you present a truth in a different light doesn’t mean that it’s not true in any light; at most it means that we don’t know exactly what happened, which is something that could be said about any moment in history.

Take, for example, the day of the crucifixion (Berry does, on p. 339).  Was it really important if Jesus was crucified on a Friday or a Saturday?  For us, not at all – unless we want to be really sure of which day to celebrate Good Friday on.  But it was important to John (who gives a different day of the week than the other writers) because John wanted to identify Jesus with the Passover Lamb, so his gospel has Jesus being crucified at the same time as the Passover Lambs were being ritually slaughtered.  John was making a very strong and important comparison, and used the narrative to do so – but his lack of agreement with the other gospel writers over which day of the week it was in no way means that Jesus didn’t die at all, nor does it detract from the trustworthiness of his writing.  Ultimately, any list of so-called inconsistencies amounts to nit-picking details that ancient writers had no interest in, except as tools to be used to tell the tale they really wanted to tell.

3. Lost In Translation

This is a combination of the above two arguments.  Observe:

“They [the Catholic Church] grafted onto the scriptures so much authority that eventually no one could question their validity without being deemed a heretic.” – p. 324

Each Gospel was a murky mixture of fact, rumour, legend, and myth that had been subjected to countless translations, edits, and redactions. – p. 324

“And the Gospel of Thomas, which is to them perhaps the closest we have to what Jesus may actually have said, since it has not been subjected to countless translations.” – p. 340

The idea here is that the New Testament as we now have it has been radically changed from its original content, both accidentally and deliberately.  Deliberately, because that ever-present Catholic Church had an agenda of power; and accidentally, because it was translated so many times.

Interestingly, Berry notes that the NT was originally written in Greek, which is true.  And the translations we have today are translated directly from the Greek.  So where are all of these intervening translations?  And how did the Church change them to benefit themselves?

There are thousands of ancient copies of the New Testament, and scholars have rated them based on their age and many other factors to decide which copies are closest to the original (which we do not have).  The criteria for these ratings make sense: e.g. a difficult reading is better than an easy one, because it would be easy to see why a scribe copying out a book would “correct” what he considered to be a misspelling or awkward sentence, rather than the opposite – human beings like to make things simple and smooth, not difficult.  While no two of these ancient texts are exactly the same, they are grouped into families that are mostly the same, and it’s possible to construct theories of when and where certain readings were copied and passed on to later generations of manuscripts.

The best manuscripts date back to the first and second centuries, before there was any major, organized ecclesial body we would call The Church.  We have manuscripts from every century between then and now, and they don’t differ considerably – and where they do differ, it’s on minor issues of grammar, or misspellings, or accidentally repeated or omitted lines.  These differences rarely – if ever – make any difference theologically.

And as for the notion mentioned above, that the four Gospels were not usually circulated together, that’s just plain false.  While the New Testament didn’t take its completed form until the fourth century, many documents were often grouped together, such as the letters of Paul, or the Gospels.  These groups of generally accepted texts – i.e. texts that were accepted by Christians everywhere, a status the so-called Gnostic Gospels never achieved – were canonized in part because everyone agreed on them.

4. The Straw Man

The last thing I’ll point out here (though I’m sure I could go all night on this) is that writers like Steve Berry make a good case out of bad arguments by portraying the debate as a simple choice between faith and reason.  Observe:

“I assume,” Stephanie said, “you don’t adhere to the principle of biblical inerrancy?”

“There’s nothing whatsoever literal within the Bible.  It’s a tale riddled with inconsistencies, and the only way they can be explained is through the use of faith.  That may have worked a thousand years ago, or even five hundred years ago, but that explanation is no longer acceptable.  The human mind today questions.” – p. 339

Throughout Thorvaldsen’s lecture to Stephanie about the inconsistency of the Gospels, Stephanie makes naive comments about faith which Thorvaldsen easily defeats with simple logic.  And here, he counters Stephanie’s remark about inerrancy with the charge that the Bible is not literal, and basically tells her that she’s naive, and that Christians throughout the ages were naive too.  To sum it up, Christians are silly superstitious people who walk blindly, depending on faith, which is somehow the opposite of reason, and believe ridiculous things because we want to.  Stephanie is set up to look like this, so it’s no wonder Thorvaldsen can point it out so easily; this is what debaters call a “Straw-Man argument”, because it sets up a false image of the opposing view (a straw man), and then easily defeats it.  So let’s reveal this straw man for what it is.

First, faith and reason are not opposites, nor have they ever been.  Reason requires faith, because it’s based on the assumption that there is order in the world, that 1 plus 1 will always equal 2.  Without faith that this will always stay the same, we’d doubt all of our reasoning.  The scientific method was created by Christians who based their reasoning on their belief in a created, ordered universe that was consistent and therefore logical.

Second, as I’ve mentioned above, these “inconsistencies” that can supposedly only be explained through faith can actually be much better explained by a basic understanding of ancient literature.

Not only is this straw-man argument plainly false, it’s incredibly insulting to all people of faith in all eras.  I’m amazed that a writer of mediocre spy novels (the main character’s name is Cotton Malone, who is a military pilot turned lawyer/covert operative with an eidetic memory and a thorough knowledge of medieval history and, in spite of his unbelief, the Bible – I mean, come on!) would have the cojones to belittle and undermine the writers of the most influential and important, not to mention best-selling, book in human history.

If you want to read an okay novel, with lots of mysteries and action, pick it up.  Just don’t believe anything it says about the Bible, and don’t fall for these old, tired arguments that mystics and atheists have been using for decades to undermine the New Testament.  If you have better arguments than Steve Berry and want to talk it out, by all means; but it’s my profound hope that I don’t get any more nickels from this garbage.

The Lordship of Christ Over Death

This post is in response to a reader request.  I wrote it several days ago, but have had computer problems.  My apologies for the late response, and please keep suggestions and questions coming!

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What does it mean to say that Christ has dominion or lordship over things such as sin and death?  Traditionally, titles such as “Lord of the Grave” belong to some dark god whose dominion is limited to sin and death – usually someone we would equate with Satan, not Christ.  But Christ is Lord of All, and all dominions and authorities have been – or are being – placed under his feet.

I’ve always struggled with this notion, because it implies that Christ has not always been Lord of All, but now is, yet perhaps not completely.  It’s complicated!  It must go back to Creation and Fall.  “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God” (John 1:1) puts Christ at the moment of Creation (or before), equated with God.  At this point, there were no other powers, authorities, or dominions, nothing for God to rule over.  So he created the world and everything in it, including those powers and authorities that would later rebel against him.

A quick aside to explain what the powers and authorities are.  Paul speaks of them often, using words like powers, authorities, dominions, principalities, thrones, elements, etc.  We’ve always understood them to be invisible spiritual forces, but scholars are split over what kind of forces they are.  Some see them as demons, exercising their evil influence over people in positions of power, thereby influencing human institutions; others see them as the spiritual essence of those institutions, which themselves are fallen creations of God – just like everything else in this world, corrupted by human sin.  In either case, the institutions that run our everyday life (church, government, culture, and increasingly, corporations) are corrupted and no longer confine themselves to their intended good function: governments no longer protect the people, but exploit them; culture does not always enrich the lives of people, but enslaves and divides them (e.g. racism, sexism, etc.); work ceases to reward our labour, instead rewarding absentee owners while often enslaving workers; churches become centres for false doctrine, materialism, and self-centred ‘spirituality’; etc.  The combination of all of these corrupted institutions is what Walter Wink calls “the Domination System,” which invariably leads to human death and depravity on a huge scale – and no wonder, because we can’t get away from them.  Together, these institutions organize and control our lives, having influence over us even as we influence them.  They are the combination of all of the ideas and attitudes of everyone over whom they have power, and in this way they are self-perpetuating: when I have an idea or attitude, I share it with those around me; when it becomes widespread, it becomes a part of my culture; my culture then mirrors my own idea or attitude back onto me, further ingraining it in me (and, now, everyone else).  This happens with sinful ideas and attitudes as well as good ones, so it’s easy to see how these authorities become corrupted: they are too closely tied with human beings, which are corrupted by sin.

I think the idea here is that God didn’t want to destroy the world, but to save it – which meant that he must subdue the powers and principalities, rather than flood or stab them out of existence.  Because with war and natural disasters, it’s not the powers and principalities that are destroyed, but the people that they rule over.  The only way to destroy those forces is to remove all of the people from which they gain power; Jesus decided to do it the other way around, saving all of the people but subduing the powers.  He needed a finer, yet more powerful, weapon for that, truth, because ultimately the corruption of the powers is based on falsehoods.  Racism and sexism are based on lies about the worth of certain types of people; materialism is based on lies about the worth of things, and contributes to our corrupted system of commerce and consumerism and corporations; the power of government over people is based on its moral authority, for the government only holds the power of the sword in order to limit the effects of sin, not perpetuate them; etc.  By showing the world the truth, Jesus disarmed the powers and authorities, putting them back into their rightful place – in submission to him, doing what they should be doing: enriching our lives, rather than destroying them.

We often try to break theology into smaller ideas, seeing it as a collection of ideas, or a series of God’s actions.  The trouble with this is that in doing so we often fail to see the big picture, which is really very simple, and the links between all of these events or ideas.  All of this is about renewing Creation.  God created the world, and it rebelled against him; ever since, he’s been working at reversing the fall to make Creation what it once was.  This is the part that I have trouble with, too: I like to think of each doctrine independently, and I also like to think of events chronologically, but scripture generally doesn’t do either of those things.  The part I have trouble with is the good ol’ “already-but-not-yet” principle.

Jesus used the truth to put the powers and principalities in their place, i.e. subject to God; but the truth that he used is the fact that they already are, and have always been, under God’s authority.  He told Pilate “you have no authority over me except that which has been granted from above,” and in so doing undermined the abusive use of authority by the Roman government in Palestine.  He pointed to the ideal, intended state of affairs, and said “this is how things really are.”  And with that revelation, it became so – at least in a limited sense.  In a way, there are two realities: the world we see around us is corrupted, in rebellion against God, and enslaved to sin and death; yet Jesus has the gall to stand before his persecutors and say, in the face of all of this sin and death, that God is sovereign over it all.  He held on to that until the end of his earthly life, and was executed for it.  When he resurrected, and his true status as the divine God-man was completely revealed, he explained it to his disciples by saying “all authority in heaven and earth has been given to me…” – which is like saying “I’m God” – “…therefore make disciples of all nations, baptising them…and teaching them to obey me.”  The corruption of this world based on lies; Jesus bore witness to the truth, which is that God is still sovereign, and broke the power of those lies in a single time and place.  But in doing so he showed us how to do the same, and then told us to go out and do it, bearing witness to the reality that God – which is Jesus Christ – is still sovereign over this world full of sin and death.

We are faced with two realities.  The corrupted world we live in, in which we are all slaves to sin and death and held in that bondage by the powers and principalities and authorities and their earthly representatives; and the reality that Christ is Lord of All.  The first one, we can’t help but see; the second one, we must take by faith.  The writers of the New Testament struggled with this one too: quoting a psalm that talks about how God made all things subject to humanity, one writer says “we do not see everything subject to him.  But we see Jesus” (see Hebrews 2:6-9).  Jesus is the proof of the invisible reality, the source of our faith in God’s sovereignty, our window into the better world that God had planned for us.  And when we bear witness to Jesus, we’re also bearing witness to this other reality – and just as it did for Jesus, when we speak the truth, when we bear witness to this other reality, it becomes visible in the midst of the visible, corrupted world.  To say it another way, when people speak the truth and live in the way God planned for us, sin and death lose their power over us and those around us – even if only a little bit.  Our local church is a place where the lies of the Domination System are met with the truth of the Gospel, and the truth wins.  Sin and death still exist, but we are no longer slaves to them; they derive their power over us from our belief in them and participation with them, and we have instead chosen to believe in and participate with God.  Chaos and corruption still swirl around us, but we recognize them as the aberration rather than the rule, and we need not be overwhelmed by them; and our presence and witness ease the control of the powers over others around us as well.

That’s not to say that we don’t feel the consequences of sin, and even its ultimate consequence, which is death.  Yet Jesus has died and rose again, and has promised to do the same for us all (even the unrighteous will resurrect).  So not only do we not need to participate with the powers in this world, but there is nothing that they can do to us that Jesus cannot undo!  This would have been very important to the early disciples, who faced execution because of their witness: even execution cannot stop the truth, and the truth is that Christ reigns as Lord of All.

In practical terms, this means that we can hold onto hope as long as we hold onto the truth.  The resurrected life is not an escape from this world, but rather the fulfillment of it: even in death, we can still point to the other reality, in which we have eternal life.  This is why we can say that we have eternal life even though we all expect to die someday; because we are pointing to that other reality, which is slowly overtaking this fallen, corrupted one that so often hurts us.  Jesus won, and every time we show that fact to the world in a real way, the reality of it overtakes the lie that corrupts us and we are set free from it.  One lie at a time.