Fight Churches & Easter Prizes

Churches are fighting, giving away guns, and handing out prizes. Two thoughts:

1) The medium is the message. That is to say, the way you deliver information is itself part of the information you are delivering. I’ll be straightforward: it’s hard to proclaim the Gospel of enemy-love when you are beating others up, it’s difficult to worship the Prince of Peace when you are salivating over lethal weapons, and it’s plain silly to attempt to call people out of materialism by giving them expensive luxury items.

2) Second thought: all that said, sometimes satire is the most biting critique.
Thank you, Stephen Colbert:

The Problem of Hina: Theodicy in John 9

Small exegetical decisions often result in radically different theologies.

Consider the implications of John 9:1-3 (NIV):

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.

For many, this passage implies that God gives people sicknesses (like blindness or cancer) in order to work towards a greater good.

In this popular understanding, evil (like sickness) is an unfortunate but necessary part of God’s will. God gave this man blindness so that Jesus would be able to perform this miracle later in his life. Perhaps you have heard this common refrain: “You might not understand right now why God allowed [X] to happen, but it is all a part of His plan.” Representing this view, Matt Chandler (an influential evangelical preacher) found personal comfort during his own fight with cancer knowing that it was part of the pre-determined will of God.[1]

Yet, is this an acceptable view of God and his relationship to evil?

The problem of evil is one of the many issues highlighted in passages like this one. How is God “good” if he causes/allows suffering? Why can’t an all-powerful and all-wise God find ways to accomplish his purposes that do not involve evil and suffering?

For some, like myself, the theology presented above costs too much. It safeguards the sovereignty of God (everything that happens is a result of his will), but at what price? It paints a picture of a God whose character is at best drenched in moral ambiguity. How can we legitimately call such a God “good”? Theodicies such as these also seem to distort the biblical logic of creation and redemption. The biblical narrative portrays a God who does not create nor desire evil (such as death, sickness, and suffering). It also portrays a God at work in history in order to abolish all evil as he establishes a new, eternal creation. Why then would God, in the present, be working against his own purposes?

Is there another way to read John 9:1-3?

Yes! In fact, I think this passage has been mistranslated and thus misinterpreted. It serves as a perfect example of how small exegetical details can end up exerting an enormous amount of influence over important theological conclusions [See also: "N.T. Wright on Matthew 10:28 - Satan or God?"].
How so?

A closer reading of John 9:2-3 reveals that the problem of evil is actually a problem of hina.

Hinaνα ) is a greek particle commonly seen as a form which functions to introduce purpose clauses. Most first-year Greek students have already memorized the primary semantic meaning of hina: “in order that” or “so that” [see this excellent post - Greek Vocabulary: Are We Cooking The Books?).

Let's look closely at the greek construction of John 9:2-3.

[9:2] καὶ ἠρώτησαν αὐτὸν οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ λέγοντες,
Ῥαββί, τίς ἥμαρτεν, οὗτος  οἱγονεῖς αὐτοῦ, ἵνα τυφλὸς γεννηθῇ;
[9:3] ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς, Οὔτε οὗτος ἥμαρτεν οὔτε οἱ γονεῖς αὐτοῦ,
ἀλλ’ ἵνα φανερωθῇτὰ ἔργα τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ.

There are actually two hina clauses, one in each verse. The first occurrence of the particle cannot logically be indicating purpose (that the man or his parents sinned in order that he would be born blind). Thus, most translators render it as a “result clause” – a perfectly acceptable reading. In fact, throughout the New Testament and other early Greek literature, hina is regularly used in ways that cannot be understood as introducing a purpose clause. This is why it’s so important to remember that the context and function of a form is more important than any pre-determined semantical meanings.

Margaret Sim has argued persuasively that we should abandon our attachment to associating hina clauses with purpose statements.[2] By her count, only 40% of hina clauses in Luke and 62% in John indicate purpose. This evidence leads her to suggest that we begin to rethink the usage of this particle – not as a container of semantic content, but as a particle that functions to represent what the speaker thinks or expects. Thus, hina can (and does) regularly function to indicate purpose, but it also (not infrequently) indicates commands or wishes.[3]

The second hina clause, in John 9:3, is an independent clause. This creates a problem for reading it as expressing purpose. Most English translations skip over this grammatical conundrum by providing the phrase “it happened.” But this is not necessary or advisable, and as Sim says, “if the primary function of hina is seen as indicating the purpose of the main verb, then it is essential that a main verb in fact be present so that the reader can access such a function. If the main verb or clause is absent, then there is no syntactic context in which purpose can be expressed in a grammatical sentence.” We must let the actual function of the particle and the context of the clause (not a fixed semantical meaning) determine our readings. Thus, Sim renders the verse:

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but the works of God must/should be revealed in him.” 

The theological implications of this translation are staggering:

“The hypothesis of the imperatival hina . . . releases the text from the fatalism which had obsessed it, and dissolves the picture which had become familiar through all our English versions, a man destined from birth to suffer for the sole purpose of glorifying God when he was healed.”[4]

What if John 9:3 is not a statement about God’s mysterious sovereignty, but about his clear desire to overcome any and all evil that has invaded his world. Such an interpretation would have the advantage of the lager context of the Gospels – where the clear assumption is that sickness and disease are the works of the devil, not God.

David Bentley Hart summarizes the Gospel’s portrayal of Jesus’s relationship to evil nicely:
“It is from Christ that we are to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil, and death. It would seem that he provides us with little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless, and miraculous enmity: sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are part of the eternal work or purposes of God.”[5]

What sort of fragmented view of the Trinity results if we try to reconcile that 1) Jesus establishes the Kingdom (in part) by healing sicknesses (cf. Luke 10:9), yet 2) the Father is the one who has caused these ailments in the first place. Is the Father working against the Son? Perhaps this is why it has taken so long for the Kingdom to be consummated, the Trinity is not yet on the same page! On the other hand, what if Jesus’ opposition to evil is an expression of God’s true will – his desire to bring his reign to earth as it is in heaven? We could then understand the nature of the Triune God as unequivocally good and wholly opposed to all evil. This would require many of us to rethink our concept of “sovereignty” – perhaps sovereignty does not mean that God controls and dictates every action and event of history. Perhaps his sovereignty is more like that of an all-wise, master chess player, who is working towards a goal in which he cannot be stopped, no matter the opponent or challenge.


[1] See this AP article by Eric Gorski on Chandler’s attitude toward his cancer: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/2010-02-01-pastor31_ST_N.htm.
[2] The full paper can be read here: http://www.artsci.wustl.edu/~cwconrad/docs/RT%20and%20independent%20ina%20clauses.pdf.
[3] See Zerwick, Biblical Greek, 141-142; see also Blass, Debrunner, & Funk, A Greek Grammar, 195-196 (“F – The Imperative, 3).
[4] Nigel Turner, Grammatical Insights, 145.
[5] David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?, 87.

Easter: A Revolutionary Cry

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[Excerpt from David Bentley Hart's The Doors of the Sea, 80-81):

The cross is not an act of divine impotence but of divine power. The cross is not a vehicle whereby God reconciles either himself or us to death. Rather, he subverts death, and makes a way through it to a new life. . . . Easter utterly confounds the “rulers of this age” (1 Cor. 2:8), and in fact reverses the verdict they have pronounced upon Christ, thereby revealing that the cosmic, sacred, political, and civic powers of all who condemn Christ have become tyranny, falsehood, and injustice.

Easter is an act of ‘rebellion’ . . . . It liberates us from servitude to and terror before the ‘elements.’ It emancipates us from fate. It overcomes the ‘world.’

Easter should make rebels of us all.

Hauerwas & Jenson: “Why Did Jesus Have to Die?”

“Why did Jesus have to die? Christians have developed explanations for why Jesus had to die called atonement theories. For example, some suggest that Jesus had to die as a satisfaction for our sin, to serve as a moral exemplar for us, or to defeat the devil and the powers that have revolted against their creator. There is scriptural warrant for each of these accounts of Jesus’ death, but these theories risk isolating Jesus’ crucifixion from his life.

His death cannot be isolated from his life, because his death is the result of his life. He died because he had challenged the elites of Israel who used the law to protect themselves from the demands of God; he died because he challenged the pretentious power of Rom; and he died at the hands of the democratic will of the mob. He died because he at once challenged and offered an alternative to all forms of human polity based on the violence made inevitable by the denial of God. Robert Jenson, therefore, rightly observes that the Gospels:

“tell a powerful and biblically integrated story of the Crucifixion; this story is just so the story of God’s act to bring us back to himself at his own cost, and of our being brought back. There is no other story behind or beyond it that is the real story of what God does to reconcile us, no story of mythic battles or of a deal between God and his Son or of our being moved to live reconciled lives. The Gospel’s passion narrative is the authentic and entire account of God’s reconciling action and our reconciliation, as evens in his life and ours. Therefore, what is first and principally required as the Crucifixion’s right interpretation is for us to tell this story to one another and to God as a story about him and ourselves.” (Jenson, 1997, 189.)

- Hauerwas, Commentary on Matthew, 238 [italics are mine].

OL_Crucifixion

A Very Patristic Maundy Thursday (Cyril of Alexandria)

I grew up in a church setting in which “communion” was not observed regularly. The few times that it was practiced, we utilized a “fast-food” strategy – efficiently passing out individually packaged cups and crackers. For us, communion was one of many possible ways that we remembered the individual forgiveness which we received because of Jesus’ death.

I’ve since learned that communion is not simply one of many ways to worship Jesus but is instead a central way that believers encounter the transforming presence of Christ. One of my teachers regarding the Eucharist was the church father Cyril of Alexandra. Here are a few excerpts from Cyril’s commentary on Luke 22:17-22:

“Christ dwells in us, first, by the Holy Spirit, and we are His abode, according to that which was said of old by one of the holy prophets. ‘For I will dwell in them and lead them, and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to Me a people.’. . . . 
But He is also within us in another way by means of our partaking in the oblation of bloodless offerings, which we celebrate in the churches, having received from Him the saving pattern of the rite, as the blessed Evangelist plainly shows us in the passage which has just been read. . . . 
Was it right that one who was created for life and immortality should be made mortal, and condemned to death without power of escape? Must the envy of the devil be more unassailable and enduring than the will of God? Not so: for it has been brought to nought; and the clemency of the Creator has transcended the evil effects of his malignity. He has given aid to those upon earth. . . .
In what manner therefore can man upon earth, clothed as he is with mortality, return to incorruption? I answer, that this dying flesh must be made partaker of the life-giving power which comes from God. But the life-giving power of God the Father is the Only-begotten Word, and Him He sent to us as a Savior and Deliverer. . . .
By being born in the flesh of a woman, and tying to Himself that body which He received from her he has implanted Himself in us by an inseparable union so that He might raise us above the power both of death and corruption. . . .
For He was made in our likeness, and clothed Himself in our flesh, that by raising it from the dead He might prepare a way henceforth, by which the flesh which had been humbled to death might return anew to incorruption. For we are united to Him just as also we were united to Adam, when he brought upon himself the penalty of death. And Paul testifies thereunto, thus writing on one occasion, “For because by man is death, by man is also the resurrection of the dead:” and again upon another, “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all live.” The Word therefore, by having united to Himself that flesh which was subject to death, as being God and Life drove away from it corruption, and made it also to be the source of life: for such must the body of Life be.”

Notice that for Cyril, the Eucharist is not primarily indicative of death but of life. Not first a means of forgiveness but of immortality. Cyril interprets the passage in the theological context of the Incarnation and the Adam-Christ Typology. Humanity has inherited the death-infested flesh of Adam. It is this same humanity that the Son has united himself with in the Incarnation, driving out all corruption and becoming a source of life. Thus, the body of Christ is, in a sense, the location of salvation for fallen humanity. We come to the table in order to break our bond with Adam and to share in Christ’s life-giving flesh. The Eucharist is thus a sort of resurrection meal, one that is offered to us every time we approach the table.

Today, have yourself a very patristic Maundy Thursday.

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