Sunday, July 31, 2022

Wesleyan philosophy 5b -- Gender and Sexual Ethics, Part 1

And now, where angels fear to tread. Next installment of one Wesleyan perspective on the topics of philosophy.


Truth and Relationships
We should distinguish carefully between what is true and the impact of truth on real people. This distinction is often lost in an era where postmodernism has given a green light to subjectivity. Truth becomes mostly or only personal. I do not mean this critique in a simplistic or stereotypical way. Our perspective on truth is inevitably subjective. But without the goal of objectivity, everything falls apart.

As we will see a few posts from now, I am a critical realist. There are facts. There is objective truth that God knows. God knows all the data and all the proper interrelationships between all the data. I do not. My view of both the data and their interrelationships is both fantastically finite and skewed. So I believe that objective truth exists, even though I do not have full access to it. Even my understanding of the Bible is inevitably partial and skewed by the cloudiness of the "glasses" I wear.

I therefore affirm strongly the distinction between what is true about ethics and the matter of how we should engage other people in relation to those truths. Let me give a scenario. Let us say that I am diagnosed with an advanced and aggressive stage 4 cancer. Let's say there is no question. Apart from a miracle, I am going to die in days, perhaps hours.

When I speak of the distinction between truth and relationships, truth is something like the prediction that I am going to die in the next few days apart from God's intervention. It is objective truth. Nevertheless, all sorts of subjective factors circle that truth. The doctor could be a jerk about telling me. My family could laugh about it. A stranger could show me kindness.

So with gender and sexual ethics, we can speak of truths revealed either by Scripture or nature. But those truths are distinct from questions of how we should relate to one another in relation to those truths. God has tasked us to love our neighbor and enemy. We thus cannot hide behind truth to satisfy our fleshly urges to hate others. Someone can manifest sin while proclaiming a truth. Perhaps someone enjoys oppressing someone whom they believe is in the wrong. They are also in the wrong in a different way.

Beating up someone who is gay is arguably a worse sin than engaging in a homosexual act. The latter might actually be done with affection for the other. The other clearly is done in hate. The Bible clearly indicates that there are greater and lesser wrongdoings, with love as the standard. Someone who viciously murders someone has committed a greater sin than someone who steals a fellow student's homework. The measure of sin is intentionality, with love as the standard. Paul expels from the Corinthian church the man sleeping with his father's wife. He does not expel those who think they are better than others in the congregation.

The expression "all sin is sin" is thus unbiblical. It probably derives from the sense that whatever sin we have committed before we come to Christ falls away equally at the cross. Perhaps the popular sentiment "all sin is sin" comes from a similar theology of eternal security after coming to Christ. However, the New Testament does not teach anything of the sort, as Wesleyan theology affirms. Take 1 John 5:16-17 for starters: "There is a sin that leads to death... there is sin that does not lead to death." Sin can differ in intensity, depending on the measure of how unloving it is. 

Chances are, the world around us knows well enough our positions on the truth of sexual ethics. But some people draw satisfaction from telling other people off. This is sin, lacking in love. A lack of willingness to understand the struggles of others is also sin. It is easy to make light of people who struggle with something you do not. We can disagree with others and yet show the love of Christ to them.

I have witnessed a dynamic where the fact that God is holy is put in conflict with the fact that God is love. God loves the sinner, but his holiness demands he blow them away.

God is no slave. He is no slave to his supposed nature. Everything God does, he does with purpose and intentionality. He is surprised by nothing.

When Uzzah was struck down for touching the ark of the covenant in 2 Samuel 6:7, it looks automatic. But God knew Uzzah would touch the ark before the foundation of the world. There was a reason, a purpose in God doing it. We cannot see fully into God's mind, but we know that the act did not contradict God's love for Uzzah.

I take two lessons from this story. The first is that death in itself is not evil. Is Uzzah being punished, or is Israel being taught a lesson? David's reaction may suggest that it appeared to be an unfair act on God's part (6:8). But it cannot be in contradiction to God's love. This fact may suggest that death in itself is not evil.

It seems to me that the best explanation for why a loving God would bring about the death of someone for touching the ark is to demonstrate the seriousness of serving God in the context of what was an extremely harsh world. It was an object lesson. The God of Israel is serious stuff, more serious that the surrounding gods. His stuff must be recognized as holy. Uzzah's death is an object lesson.

God did not strike down every unholy high priest who touched the ark. Eli's sons did die in battle but those evil-hearted priests touched the ark many times before God finally let them die. There was a reason at this point of Israel's history to remind them who God was.

Similarly, not everyone who lies about what they have given to God is struck dead like Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. There are likely many televangelists who have misappropriated the Lord's money who were not struck down. There was a reason at that point of the early church to make a point.

Let us not fall into the trap of saying, "Homosexual activity defies God's holiness and thus has nothing to do with loving others." Everything about God coheres perfectly with God's love for the world.

The New Testament is also the telos or goal of the Old Testament. The barest of hints of life beyond death in the Old Testament become fully revealed in the New Testament. The human kingship of the line of David in the Old Testament is revealed to be the eternal kingship of Christ in the New. A strong sense of collective and unthinking sin is overtaken later in the Old Testament by a sense of individual guilt (e.g., Ezek. 18:1-4) and a New Testament emphasis on intentionality that we have seen.

The theology of the Old and New Testaments is thus the same but it differs in emphasis and precision. Jesus is God's final word. The New Testament gives a fuller and more precise understanding than the Old, even though they agree. God judges in the New Testament as well as the Old, but the Old Testament in general paints a harsher picture of God than the New. God is holy in both the Old and New Testament, but the New Testament gives a fuller and more precise picture of God's holiness than the Old. The New Testament gives a fuller and more precise picture of God's love than the Old, not least because the New Testament shows us the fullness of Christ.

I mention this principle of biblical theology because there is often a tendency to read the Bible in a "flat" way that does not recognize the growing theological precision from the Old Testament to the New. We should take context and the inner logic of biblical passages into account when we are building a biblical theology of sexual ethics.

The Principles
What then are the fundamental biblical principles underlying a Christian and Wesleyan sexual ethic? The three principles that are candidates are 1) the holiness of God, 2) the love of neighbor, and 3) societal stability (which is a working out of the love of God corporately). Let us start with the more obvious and work to the more uncertain.


Adultery is clearly unloving toward one's spouse. It is a violation of relationship and commitment. It is hard to see how it is not a worse sin than homosexual acts, because it is full of disregard for neighbor, for spouse, for children, for the spouse and children of the other. In the justice-by-revenge world of the Ancient Near East, adultery created tremendous social instability.

Rape is even worse than adultery. In context, this is clearly part of the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah that is attempted. This is an act similar to what would later take place in Benjamin (Judges 19:22-29), where after initially threatening to rape the man, in the end they raped his concubine to death. These are violent men, not the modern understanding of a homosexual. It is an act more akin to prison rape than modern homosexuality. In that culture, they likely had wives and children.  

This interpretation is not particularly controversial from an inductive standpoint. The homosexual nature of the proposed act is likely also a component of the vice of these men, but in context it comes behind the sins of violence and mistreatment of the stranger. When Jesus mentions the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, he is focusing on how these men treated the messengers of God (Matt. 11:20-24).

Incest violates both the love of family and societal stability as well. If rape is evil in itself, incest is the rape of one's family. The compounding of unlovingness is the compounding of the evil. 

The Bible nowhere prohibits polygamy. In fact, the Pentateuchal Law assumes its practice. Deuteronomy 21:15-17 assumes that a man might have two wives. The law of Levirate marriage probably assumes a man will take on the wife of his dead brother as an additional wife (Deut. 25:5-6).

We are thus reading things into Genesis 2:24 when we think it is assuming monogamy. A man became one flesh with each of his wives. Someone who visited a prostitute became one flesh with the prostitute (1 Cor. 6:16). Becoming one flesh is not the same as getting married, although it is supposed to take place in the context of marriage. Becoming one flesh is about having sex with someone.

Marriage between one man and one woman is therefore the trajectory of Scripture but not the explicit teaching of Scripture. Once again, the Old Testament is less precise in this area than the New Testament, which seems more or less to assume monogamy. Even here, though, monogamy is more a description of marriage in the New Testament than an explicit prescription. Overseers in leadership in the church are supposed to be the husbands of one wife, but nothing is said of non-overseers (1 Tim. 3:2). [1]

What therefore is wrong with polygamy? It does not normally give the woman full status and value. In other words, it violates the principle that women are equally created in the image of God. Polygamy is thus less than God's ideal that "in Christ there is not male and female" (Gal. 3:28). Although it contributed to societal stability in the ancient Near East of Israel, it is deficient from the standpoint of the love of neighbor.

Pre-marital Sex
In the Old Testament, having sex with a virgin to whom you were not married upset the stability of society. To resolve the situation, the man either had to marry the girl (if the father wished) or had to pay the bride price (Exod. 22:16-17). In the latter case, she presumably would remain with her family. In both situations, the woman had a secure place in society.

In the New Testament, Paul assumes that random burning with passion is at the very least not desirable (1 Cor. 7:9). At least in the earlier days of his ministry, his preference was for virgins to remain with their families (1 Cor. 7:38). Although he does not give reasons, Paul clearly assumed that the unmarried should not be having sex with each other. We might speculate that sex should always take place in the context of commitment, which preserves the stability of human society.

Prostitution and Pornography
The Old Testament indicates that no Israelite woman should be a prostitute (Lev. 19:29; Deut. 23:17). The apparent reason is that it degrades her. The man is simply using her. Prostitution violates the love of one's neighbor. 

In the new covenant, it is clear that God cares about all men and women, not just the Israelite ones. Men and women of all peoples are created in the image of God. For this reason, no woman or man should be a prostitute because no human being should be devalued as some simple toy or plaything. And, accordingly, no man or woman should visit a prostitute because it violates love of one's neighbor.

We can extend the argument further to pornography. Although no physical contact is made, the man or woman is mentally using the other. Since sin is ultimately a matter of the mind even before the body acts, to lust after another in pornography is to use them and have sex with them in your heart. Meanwhile, the men and women in pornography have been degraded as prostitutes of a sort. It also seems that human trafficking stands behind much pornography. For this reason, to use pornography is to promote the enslavement of others, which clearly violates the love of one's neighbor.

Don't do it.

In the above cases, we have found good reasons for traditional sexual norms both in the love of one's neighbor and in the preservation of society's stability, which is also part of loving one's neighbor. In that sense, the holiness of God is offended because the love of others is offended. It does not seem that the holiness of God is directly offended in these cases but rather that it is offended because others are violated.

[1] It is possible that this passage is saying that a church overseer (probably the role of being one of many elders) should only have one spouse in their lifetime.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Introduction to Hebrews -- Explanatory Notes

I realized that I have not written an introduction to Hebrews for my Explanatory Notes. Thought I would knock that out in a bout of insomnia. I might also add that I went through the entirety of Hebrews in both a podcast and video form as part of my Through the Bible in Ten Years series. 

And now, an Introduction to Hebrews


A Book of Riddles
From an inductive standpoint, the book of Hebrews is full of puzzles. It does not name its author. It does not name its recipients. It does not say where it is being written from or where it is being written to. It does not explicitly say why it is being written or when. What exactly is its genre? The only contemporary person mentioned in the whole of the book is a Timothy (13:23). We assume it is the Timothy we know from Paul and Acts, but we do not have enough information to be sure.

Tradition, of course, had Paul as its author. Almost no expert on Hebrews today thinks that is likely. This is a strong consensus that has persisted for well over a hundred years. Not only is the style of Hebrews different than any of Paul's letters but the way Hebrews approaches questions like the Jewish Law is different from how Paul does. Perhaps most strikingly, in Hebrews 2:3 the author does not consider himself an eyewitness of Christ, something Paul vigorously affirms in his writings (e.g., 1 Cor. 9:1).

The author is almost certainly male, for he identifies himself as such grammatically in 11:32. As just mentioned, he is a "second generation believer" in the sense that he is not an original apostle but someone who came to believe in Jesus from the message of the apostles (2:3). He would seem to be highly educated and rhetorically trained. [1] The mention of Timothy in 13:23 may suggest he was part of the Pauline mission in some way.

The early church was divided on who the author was. Voices from the eastern part of the church eventually settled on Paul as the author or at least the source of Hebrews' theology. Origen, writing about AD200, famously suggested that the thoughts were Paul's, but who the actual writer was "God knows." It is still the best answer. Other names were suggested. Tertullian writing from the west around AD200 suggested Barnabas.

Apollos has received significant support in the last century, although his name was not really suggested until Martin Luther. Even if somewhat superficial, the numerous parallels between Hebrews and the Alexandrian Jew Philo make a certain cumulative case for someone who had swum in Alexandrian waters at some time. If I have to choose, Apollos would be my speculative vote. Priscilla is an admirable suggestion but completely unlikely given the masculine participle in 11:32.

A Sermon to Rome
Although somewhat speculative, most votes would also go to Hebrews being a sermon sent to Roman Christians. Hebrews 13:22 styles the book a "word of exhortation," a phrase that Acts 13:15 uses in relation to a synagogue homily. Rome fits 13:24, where the author sends greetings to the church from some who presumably originated from Italy. It is easy to wonder if this is a referent to Priscilla and Aquila at Ephesus, although this idea is again speculative.

Hebrews suggests that the audience had previously experienced persecution (e.g., 10:32-35), which would fit Rome (and no doubt many other locations too). Some of the evangelists who had preached to them the good news had probably been martyred (13:7). We remember that Peter and Paul were both likely martyred at Rome. The first engagement we have with Hebrews in the early church is by Clement of Rome in the late 90s.

Primarily Gentiles
It will no doubt be surprising to some to learn that I lean toward a primarily Gentile audience. I once was with popular sentiment--"Surely it must be written to Jews given how thoroughly Jewish the book is." This sentiment crumbles with a puff of smoke. After all, I am a Gentile, and I love Hebrews. I am a Gentile, and I know quite a bit about the Old Testament. 

In the end, the assumption that "Hebrews must be for Jews because of its concern for the temple" is rife with anachronistic thinking. We know from Acts and beyond that many non-Jews were attracted to Judaism even before Christianity made its way around the empire. We call such individuals "God-fearers." [2] They were attracted to Judaism and the God of Israel but did not undergo circumcision to convert fully. We can assume that they were thoroughly acquainted with the Jewish Scriptures even before some of them came to believe Jesus was the Messiah. We should know from sociology that converts to a religion are often more zealous for it than those born into it.

Similarly, Christianity was not a separate religion from Judaism in the first century. Gentiles who became Jesus-followers no doubt saw themselves as converting to a form of Judaism. They were becoming "Gentile Jews," in a manner of speaking. We also anachronistically assume that the earliest followers of Jesus would have had no place for the temple in their theology, whereas the book of Acts gives us a different picture. Paul seems to offer a sacrifice in the temple rather late into his mission, around the year AD58 (Acts 21:24). While the earliest Christians very quickly saw Jesus' death as a sacrifice, the book of Hebrews itself suggests it may have taken decades for them to realize its universal scope.

Accordingly, we can easily imagine that there were Gentile Christians who were just as invested in the Jerusalem temple and its atonement as there were some Jewish Christians. If this suggestion seems strange, it is only because we are thinking with our modern hats on, where Christianity is a quite distinct religion from Judaism and we know the temple was never rebuilt. We know that Christ's death was universal and timeless in scope, not least because we have the book of Hebrews in Scripture. At the time, we would argue that the book of Hebrews was a somewhat fresh voice connecting dots that many had not yet connected.

The strongest argument for a primarily Gentile audience comes from the list of first beliefs in Hebrews 5:11-6:2. The author harkens them back to things they came to believe when they believed in Christ. But 6:1-2 is not a list that Jews would have first believed when they turned to Christ. Here again, our anachronistic assumptions can betray us. Jews would have already believed this list before they came to Christ. The list thus fits best a community of Gentiles coming to Christianity. From what we can infer from Romans and Acts, it also fits the likely ethnography of the Roman church as a primarily Gentile church.

Central Message
Regardless of the specifics of Hebrews' situation, its central message seems abundantly clear. The sermon alternates between "teaching" and "preaching," between exhortation to the audience and the exposition of Scripture supporting that exhortation. [3] Hebrews thus has a central point for its audience and it supports that point with a central argument.

The central point of Hebrews is that the audience needs to keep going. They need to endure in faith. This is what the faith chapter of Hebrews 11 is all about--keep going, like these other heroes of faith who persisted whether they received the promises in their lifetimes or not. God keeps his promises. Keep going. Do not be like the wilderness generation whose corpses fell in the desert. Do not lose your birthright like Esau. Endure the Lord's training. Keep going! Those who fall away cannot return.

The author supports this central admonition with a central argument about the superior atonement provided by Christ. Christ offered a sacrifice superior to any Levitical sacrifice in a sanctuary superior to the earthly wilderness tabernacle (and by inference its successors), and he did so as a superior priest to the Levitical priests on earth. Christ is mediator of a better covenant than the old covenant with its Law. Christ is greater than the angels who delivered the first Law to Moses. Christ is greater than Moses himself. Moses was a servant in the house of God while Jesus is the Son of God.

These dynamics are clear even though we do not know for certain all the particulars of the audience. The message of Hebrews is that the audience and should endure in faith because Christ's sacrifice is definitive for all time. The sacrifices of the Jerusalem temple were only illustrative. They were ineffective except as pointers to Christ. The audience can have faith that God will keep his promises and that Christ will return to set the world straight and commence with an unshakeable kingdom.

Inducing the Situation
What situation might have led to such rhetoric? Since the author uses the all-sufficiency of Christ's atonement as the fundamental reason for them to continue in faith, surely some question relating to atonement stands at the heart of their wavering. In addition, although Hebrews stays theoretical in relation to the wilderness tabernacle, it is unthinkable that the temple not stand somewhere in the backdrop of the situation. [4]

Here the date becomes a significant factor. If Hebrews were written prior to the temple's destruction in AD70, its argument would unavoidably come across as anti-temple, a polemic against reliance on the standing temple in Jerusalem. Hebrews then becomes deeply controversial. Their reliance on the Jerusalem temple is somehow interfering with their faith to Christ. 

In that case, perhaps they have come to believe that they are cut off from atonement if they are disassociated with mainstream Judaism. The cryptic comments in 13:9-10 could refer to some synagogue meals thought to mediate temple participation in some way. They think that if they are expelled from the synagogue, they will not get atonement. Alternatively, we think of the older view that the audience were a group of Jerusalem priests.

I have long thought that a post-destruction of the temple date fits Hebrews better, especially not long after its destruction. Hebrews never makes the negative argument against utilizing the tabernacle. Even the cryptic instruction in 13:9-10 is against "strange teaching," not mainstream sacrificial practice. Instead, Hebrews makes a positive argument to rely on Christ. It is thus less a polemic against the temple as an argument for Christ.

What if Hebrews is meant to reassure an audience troubled by the destruction of the temple? They are worried about atonement because the temple has been destroyed. They are worried about persecution because the whole Jewish world has become the enemy of Rome, and Christians are still part of that world no matter how distinct the two factions within Judaism may think they are. If they are Gentiles, it is not a return to mainstream Judaism that they are so much thinking about but a turning away from the "living God" of Israel period. Meanwhile, some strange teaching has arisen in the synagogue saying that atonement is now only available through its channels, since the temple is not standing.

Now a host of allusive comments come to life. "We have here no city that remains" (13:14). Abraham was looking for a heavenly city, not the land he was in (11:10). The audience has arrived at a heavenly Jerusalem, not an earthly one (12:22). 

Hebrews becomes a letter of consolation in the recent loss of the temple. The earthly temple was never meant to actually take away sins. Jesus was always the sacrifice toward which all earthly sacrifices pointed. They do not need to worry that their land is destroyed. We have a heavenly homeland. 

The emperor's son Titus marched defeated Jews from Jerusalem around Rome in triumph, killing them all when the parade ended. It must have been terrifying for Jews in general, and Christians were a Jewish sect, including the Gentiles who were part of it. Hebrews reminds them of all the heroes of faith who ignored the edicts of the king because they served a God who was greater still.

The central message of Hebrews is clear, whatever the particulars of its historical situation. They need to continue on in faith to the living God. They need not worry because the promises of God are sure and the atonement provided by Christ is superior to that of any earthly sacrifice or sanctuary. Perhaps they are believers in Rome trying to figure out the significance of a God that lets his temple be destroyed. [5]

The Outline
Students of Hebrews have long debated the literary structure of Hebrews. Although there is a lot of debate around the outline of the first part, some aspects of Hebrews' train of thought seem clear enough:

  • There is a major shift from teaching to preaching around 10:19. Before that part of the sermon, Hebrews gives a lot of theory about the superiority of Jesus to various elements of the old covenant--Moses, the Levitical system. Even angels are ministers of the first covenant (2:2). After that part it is mostly exhortation to the audience to keep going and continue with faith.
  • Chapter 13 is a letter conclusion. Some have even argued that it didn't originally go with the rest of the book, but the vast majority do not find any real evidence for this conclusion.
  • The book in general alterates back and forth between teaching and preaching, between exposition of Scripture and exhortation to the audience. 1:1-14 is teaching. 2:1-4 is preaching. 2:5-3:6 is teaching. 3:7-4:13 is preaching. 4:14-5:10 is teaching. 5:11-6:20 is preaching. 7:1-10:18 is teaching. 10:19-the end of the book is preaching.
  • 7:1-10:18 is clearly the central argument/exposition of the book, its nucleus, if you would. [6]
  • There is a very similar set of verses in 4:14-16 and 10:19-25, with lots of recurring words and themes. This has led some to argue for a three part structure to Hebrews: 1:1-4:13 (Christ the Son), 4:14-10:18 (Christ the High Priest), 10:19-12:29 (Application), with a letter conclusion in 13. 
  • Albert Vanhoye argued that 2:17-18 were the key verses of Hebrews, a general statement that played out in the central argument of Hebrews. [7]
  • Walter Übelacker argued that 3:1 could be seen as beginning the argument of Hebrews proper, with the first two chapters as a kind of introduction. [8]
With these observations, let me suggest the following outline for Hebrews. [9]

I. Sermon Introduction (1:1-2:18)
     A. Exordium (1:1-4)
     B. Celebration of the Enthroned Son (1:5-14)
     C. Background of Salvation (2:1-18)

II. The Argument (3:1-10:18)
     A. Enter into God's Rest (3:1-4:13)
     B. High Priestly Argument (4:14-10:18)
          1. superior priest (4:14-7:28)
          2. superior sacrifice and sanctuary (8:1-10:18)

III. The Application (10:19-12:29)
     A. Keep Going! (10:19-39)
     B. Witnesses of Faith (11:1-40)
     C. Endure God's Discipline (12:1-29)

IV. Letter Conclusion (13:1-25)
     A. Closing Instructions (13:1-21)
     B. Closing Greetings (13:20-25)

[1] Some have suggested Luke as the author, since the Greek of Luke-Acts comes the closest in the New Testament. Such a suggestion would also fit with Timothy. See David L. Allen, Lukan Authorship of Hebrews (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2010).

[2] See, for example, the Jewish historian Josephus' account of the conversion of the house of Adiabene in Antiquities 20.17-95.

[3] More than anyone else, George Guthrie has explored this dynamic in The Structure of Hebrews: A Text-Linguistic Analysis (Leiden: Brill, 1997).

[4] Unless Hebrews was written decades after the temple was destroyed, when mention of the tabernacle might not immediately invoke thought of the temple.

[5] I work out this hypothesis for Hebrews' situation in A New Perspective on Hebrews: Rethinking the Parting of the Ways (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2019).

[6] There is some debate about whether it extends to 10:25.

[7] Albert Vanhoye, La structure littéraire de l'Epître aux Hébreux (Tournai: Desclée de Brouwer, 1963).

[8] Walter Übelacker, Der Hebräerbrief als Appell: Untersuchungen zu exordium, narratio und postscriptum (Hebr 1-2 und 13,22-25) (Lund: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1989).

[9] The final post of my Explanatory Notes on Hebrews here on the blog has links at the bottom to all these sections of Hebrews collected together in one place.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Explanatory Notes -- Hebrews 12:12-29

Here and there over the last two decades I have posted interpretive notes on Hebrews in various forms. This post represents the completion of the more detailed explanatory notes version. I hope to edit those notes and self-publish them within the next few weeks.


The Consuming Fire (12:12-29)

12. Therefore, strengthen the drooping hands and the having been weakened knees. 13. And make straight paths for your feet so that you might not be lame but rather be healed.

What is the takeaway from the metaphor of a father disciplining his children? The audience needs to get it together. They need to lift their drooping hands and strengthen their weak knees. They need to snap out of it and "just keep swimming." The last part of the chapter climaxes with the judgment while also presenting the great hope of those who are faithful.

The expression of drooping hands and weak knees alludes to Isaiah 35:3. Given that the verses in the last part of this chapter relate to judgment, it is very possible that the context of Isaiah 35 played a role in the author's choosing of this imagery. [1] For this reason, I think it more likely that 12:12-13 are more the introduction of the second half of the chapter than the conclusion of the first half. [2]  

Isaiah 35 was about enduring through the hard times that Israel was experiencing because of the promise of salvation that was coming. God was going to come with a vengeance on the enemies of Israel (35:4). God was creating a "highway of holiness" for Israel on which the righteous would walk (35:8). 

The parallels to Hebrews are clear. Through Jesus, God had created a highway of holiness for those who have partaken of his sacrifice. Meanwhile, God was going to bring judgment on the enemies of his people, as Hebrews 12 goes on to picture. In the meantime, God's people needed to walk forward in faithfulness in "straight paths."

14. Pursue peace with all and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord...

With Isaiah 35 in the background, it is no coincidence that the author's next thought turns to holiness. In Hebrews, holiness is associated with the purity that comes from the cleansing of Christ's blood. However, maintaining that "sanctified" state requires continuance in faith. This is the main purpose of Hebrews, to urge the audience to continue in faith.

This verse was a classic preaching text on entire sanctification in the Wesleyan tradition. Certainly the pursuit of holiness for Hebrews means moving in the opposite direction as sin. However, it would read foreign elements into the verse to see it as urging the audience toward "a second work of grace," just as Wesley overread Hebrews 6:1 in terms of Christian perfection ("Let us go on to maturity").

The audience is urged to pursue peace with everyone with whom they can be at peace. This statement might especially have in mind any Roman authorities that might look for some excuse to pounce on a Christian community. Nevertheless, it is wonderful instruction for us all in any age. We should not go looking to get persecuted or to get the church in trouble. Christians should be people of peace whom others find to be peaceable.

15. ... watching lest someone should be lacking from the grace of God, lest some root of bitterness springing up should cause trouble and through it, many could be defiled.

Failure to pursue and maintain holiness would result in a loss of the grace of God. The author has already warned them of this possible outcome in 10:29. Those who continue to sin intentionally by walking away from God are treating the blood of the covenant as if it were unclean, even though they were made holy and sanctified by it. They are insulting the Spirit of grace.

How could such a thing happen? It can start with a "root of bitterness." It can start out small. It can be some little thing that begins to drive a wedge between the community and God. One can get weary of persecution and shame. One can have a doubt about whether it is all true. One could wonder where you will get atonement with the temple gone and see the mainstream Jewish synagogue as a haven.

Doubt and hesitance can be contagious. The spirit of weariness can resonate and spread like an infection. Before you know it, many can be defiled. "A little leaven leavens the whole lump" (1 Cor. 5:6).

16. ... lest some sexually immoral or godless [person] like Esau [should arise], who for one meal sold his birthrights. 17. For you know that also afterward, wanting to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he did not find a place of repentance, although with tears having sought it. 

These verses give us a third warning passage, the first two being 6:4-8 and 10:26-31. In some respects, it is the most striking of the three. Esau sold his birthright for a single morsel. Then later he could not get it back, even though he wanted it.

Given 13:9, we wonder if there is something involving food that is going on in the audience's environment. It is threatening their "sonship." Barnabas Lindars wondered if it might be a synagogue meal of some kind. [4] If the temple were destroyed, perhaps some argued that participation in the synagogue meal was the best substitute for the sacrificial offerings and meals until God restored the temple. Perhaps some in the audience felt a tug back to the mainstream synagogue in a sense of still needing atonement.

It is a reasonable hypothesis even though quite speculative. 13:9 is probably too peripheral to the overall argument of the sermon to be the reason for the sermon, coming in at the last minute. But it clearly relates to the core concern of the audience for how they might find atonement. We have argued that the destruction of the temple in general could have triggered that concern.

Esau is said to have been sexually immoral and godless. Such descriptions are not entirely apparent in the Genesis text. In any case, what is important with such Old Testament references is the point Hebrews is making, not whether it was using contextual interpretation.

After he lost his birthright, Esau wanted to get the blessing of a son (birthright) back, but he could not find a place of repentance. He did not find a place to turn, even though he sought it diligently with tears. This illustration fits with the most obvious reading of 6:4 and 10:26. Once one has apostatized and abandoned Christ, there is no clear way back.

There is some debate about what "it" is that Esau could not find. The word it here is feminine, so it must refer back to a prior word that is feminine, its "antecedent." However, both the word blessing and the word repentance are feminine, leading some to suggest that it was the blessing that Esau could not find though seeking it diligently with tears. Nevertheless, repentance is the closer feminine word and so by far the most likely referent. Esau sought to find repentance, but he could not. This fits with 6:6, where it is impossible to renew to repentance after falling away.

This interpretation seems overwhelmingly likely. However, as with the two previous passages it wreaks havoc with the theology of most traditions. Some traditions believe that once you are "saved," you cannot become "unsaved." Other traditions, such as my own, believe that it is always possible for the prodigal son to return. Hebrews paints a picture where it takes a significant turn away from God to fall away but that then you can never return.

The pastoral situation seems clear enough. If it is the Holy Spirit that empowers us to repent, then anyone who truly repents can return. Someone who has truly fallen away will not truly repent. They may know with their heads that they need to do so, but their hardened heart will not find its way to do it.

18. For you have not come to what is being touched and having been burning with fire and darkness and gloom and [a] whirlwind, 19. and to the sound of a trumpet and a voice of words that the ones hearing implored that no word be added to them. [3] 

12:18-24 contrasts the mountain of the first covenant with the mountain of the second. Within this contrast, 12:18-21 present the first mountain, Mt. Sinai. The purpose is to paint a picture of the greatness of the new covenant in comparison to the old covenant. Throughout Hebrews, the author has used an argument "from lesser to greater" (a fortiori or a minore ad maiorem in Latin, qal wehomer in Hebrew). Disobedience under the old covenant was severe. How much more severe will apostacy be under the new covenant.

These verses are a picture of the giving of the first covenant at Mt. Sinai. There was fire and darkness and gloom and a trumpet (Exod. 19:16-19). The people were afraid to hear God's voice for fear it would kill them (20:19).

20. For they were not bearing that which was being commanded, even "if a beast should touch the mountain, it will be stoned." 21. And so fearful was that which was being seen that Moses said, "I am afraid and trembling." 

Even Moses was afraid. In keeping with the holiness of the mountain, any stray animal that touched it must be stoned (Exod. 19:12). This was a physical mountain. It could be touched, another hint of the sermon's dualism. The mountain that follows is a spiritual mountain.

22. But you have come to Mt. Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem and ten thousand of angels in assembly 23. and to the assembly of the firstborn having been inscribed in the skies and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous who have been perfected 24. and to the mediator of a new covenant, Jesus, and to a blood of sprinkling that speaks better than that of Abel.

12:22-24 presents the other mountain, the greater one. It is the heavenly Jerusalem and the true Mt. Zion of the living God. The phrase "living God" has appeared now four times in Hebrews (3:12, 9:14, and 10:31), perhaps implicitly in contrast with the "dead" gods of the other nations.  

They "have arrived" at this mountain. The perfect tense is used. It is probably proleptic, meaning that it is a future destination to which their arrival is certain only if they remain faithful to the end. There is no mention of this heavenly Jerusalem ever coming down to earth, as in Revelation 22. However, one way or another, it would seem the only Jerusalem that is destined to remain.

It  is the spirits of the righteous that have been perfected, another instance of the dualism of the letter. We also remember from 1:14 that angels are ministering spirits. The spirits of the righteous possibly include the spirits of all the examples of faith from chapter 11, but there is also a sense in which the spirits of the faithful still on earth participate in the worship of the heavens. All of these are the "church of the firstborn" who, unlike Esau, kept their birthright until the end.

Abel's blood spoke for justice. Jesus' blood speaks even better than Abel's blood. Jesus' blood has mediated a new covenant. The new covenant is effective to take away sins, unlike the first covenant which foreshadowed the sacrifice of Jesus.

25. Look not to refuse the one speaking. For if those did not escape who refused the one speaking on earth, how much more [will not escape] we who turn from the one [speaking] from heaven,

We reach the final judgment in 12:25-29. We are about to see the shaking of both skies and earth. The author once again invokes the lesser to greater argument. When God's voice spoke to Moses and Israel from Mt. Sinai on the earth under the old covenant, the penalty of disobedience was fearsome. How much more fearsome then would be to reject the word from heaven. We see the dualism of earth and heaven once more.

26. ... whose voice shook the earth then. But now it has been promised, saying, "Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the sky."

The author now quotes Haggai 2:6. In the final judgment, God will not only shake the earth, as at Sinai. God will shake the skies as well. The author probably has the created skies (or heavens) in mind here rather than the highest heaven where God's presence was. 

27.  The [expression] "yet once more" makes clear the removal of those things being shaken, as having been created in order that things not being shaken might remain.

The removal of what is shaken, since it has been created, sounds like the removal of the created realm. This seems to be what the author means in some sense. The statement helps us hone in on the precise nature of the dualism that the author of Hebrews is operating under. There is that which is created and there is that which is not.

It would be all too easy for us to read our metaphysical assumptions into such a statement. We rightly believe in creation ex nihilo, that God created everything out of nothing--including space itself. However, this understanding was probably formed during the Gnostic controversies of the late second century AD. Just as God did not worry about adjusting the New Testament authors about the earth going around the sun, God probably revealed himself without mentioning to them that he created matter out of nothing. They probably would have assumed that creation was the ordering of matter that was just there.

Therefore, when Hebrews speaks of the removal of that which is created, it probably does not mean the removal of the underlying "stuff" but the removal of the cosmos as it currently exists. It would be rather unprecedented for the author to say that only heaven would be left after the judgment. For many years, this was the interpretation I took of the passage. However, I have eventually conceded that such a meaning would not only be atypical of the New Testament. It would not only be unheard of within Judaism, but it would have been completely unknown in the broader world as well. 

Something more akin to "transformation" thus seems to be in view. The created realm is removed in its current form... and a new creation takes place. This is the perspective of 2 Peter 3:13. Even though the elements are consumed by fire (3:12), a new heavens and earth are created. Similarly, after the judgment of the world in Revelation, there is a new heaven and a new earth (Rev. 21:1-2). As dualistic as Hebrews is, it seems likely that the author is expressing something along these lines in highly dualistic language.  

28. Therefore, having received an unshakeable kingdom, let us have grace through which we might worship God pleasingly, with godliness and awe, 29. for our God [is a] consuming fire. 

What remains after the complete transformation of the cosmos is an unshakable kingdom, presumably on a transformed and recreated earth. The kingdoms that now exist are not unshakeable. They are rather shakeable down to their very bones. But the kingdom that is coming will be purified and completely under obedience to God.

God is a consuming fire, possibly a picture of how God will remove the created realm, as in 2 Peter 3. We remember that the author is clearly warning the audience that they would become the object of that wrath if they abandon their faith. That is what this section of the chapter has been pointed toward. The rewards of continued faithfulness are immense, but so is the doom of any who might turn away.

Therefore, they should conform to the grace of God. They should not insult the Spirit of grace by turning away (10:29). They should not fail in it (12:15). This sense of "falling from grace" (cf. Gal. 5:4) may seem alien to some because they are not operating with a New Testament sense of grace. As we have seen, grace was the language of ancient patronage. [5] True, it was not merited in the sense that it was not earned, but it could be solicited. True, it did not have formal conditions, but there were expectations often involved, informal ones.

The notion that someone would continue receiving grace after scorning and treating the giver with contempt would have been absurd. That is basically what the author of Hebrews is saying. God has extended to the audience a tremendous grace. If they treat that grace with contempt, they should not expect to receive it on the Day of Judgment. The person with uncertain loyalty to God--"let not that person think they will receive anything from the Lord" (Jas. 1:7).

[1] New Testament authors did not always feel the need to bring the context of an Old Testament verse into their use of that verse.

[2] This is always a consideration with the word therefore. Does it conclude what went before or commence a new unit of thought?

[3] relative pronoun conforming to case of antecedent

[4] Barnabas Lindars, The Theology of the Letter to the Hebrews (Cambridge: Cambridge University, ***).

[5] See John Barclay, Paul and the Gift ***.

My outline of Hebrews with links to both the more detailed explanatory notes and the bullet point notes:

I. Sermon Introduction (1:1-2:18)
     A. Exordium (also here and here and video commentary here) (1:1-4)
     B. Celebration of the Enthroned Son (also here, here, and video commentary here) (1:5-14)
     C. Background of Salvation (2:1-18)

II. The Argument (3:1-10:18)
     A. Enter into God's Rest (3:1-4:13)

     B. The High Priestly Argument (4:14-10:18)
          1. A Superior Priest (4:14-7:28)
               a. Hold Fast (4:14-16) -- explanatory noes on 4:14-5:10
               b. Appointed High Priest (5:1-10)
               c. Central Exhortation (5:11-6:20)
               d. The Order of Melchizedek (7:1-28)
               e. Superior Sanctuary and Sacrifice (8:1-10:18)

III. The Application (10:19-12:29)
     A. You Need Endurance (also here) (10:19-39) 

     B. Witnesses of Faith (11:1-40) 

     C. Endure God's Discipline (12:1-29)

IV. Letter Conclusion (13:1-25)

Friday, July 22, 2022

Wesleyan philosophy 5a -- How should we live as individuals?

next installment
Being versus Doing
The branch of philosophy that deals with the question of how we should live our lives is called “ethics.” Should I shoot my neighbor? What is the “Christian’s secret to a happy life”? What is the greatest good, the summum bonum? Ethics deals with the “should” questions, especially those that concern us as individuals.

Clearly, ethics is extremely relevant to life, especially to us as Christians. If there are areas of philosophy that sometimes seem less crucial, ethics is not one of them. Every day we make decisions of an ethical nature. “How should we then live?” is a core question of our Christian faith and, indeed, of any religion.

Approaches to ethics tend to focus more or less on either who we should be or what we should do, being and doing. The question of who we should be is a question of character. From a Wesleyan standpoint, our character has especially to do with our intentions, our attitudes, our motivations, and our choices. The Bible often refers to this dimension of who we are as our “heart.”

It is easy for us to divert from questions of character and virtue to questions of action. It is hard to see the heart. We can be fooled. Indeed, we can fool ourselves about our own character. In the words of one cartoon character, “I am such a good person.” It is much easier to see action. It is easier to know what a person did than who a person is.

For this reason, a focus on being easily deteriorates into a focus on doing. We become “legalistic,” where we are concerned primarily about rule-keeping rather than the reasons behind the rules. We love the rules for their own sake rather than for the purposes of rules.

On the other hand, we can also focus so much on some hypothetical sense of who we are that our actions become irrelevant. The extremes of Protestantism have sometimes run into this territory. Martin Luther famously said that we are “at the same time righteous and sinner, as long as we are always repenting.” This can be an inappropriate conclusion for someone who believes in “eternal security,” “once saved always saved.” They might conclude that it does not matter what a person does after they become a Christian. God looks at Christ’s life and not mine.

This is neither the ultimate direction that Luther or Calvin went nor is it what the Bible actually teaches. Protestants may believe that we are “saved by grace through faith” (Eph. 2:8). We only can get right with God by trusting in what God has done through Christ, not through our human efforts (Eph. 2:9). Nevertheless, all mainstream Protestants believe that real righteousness will follow to some extent or another. Wesleyans believe that God actually wants to make us literally holy, not just fictionally. [1]

Clearly, both who we are and what we do are important, and they flow naturally from one to the other. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reorients ethics from mere action to the heart that results in the action. It is important not to murder. It is important not to commit adultery. But Jesus indicates that these sins are committed in one’s heart long before one actually picks up a knife or goes into your neighbor’s house (Matt 5:21-30). The sins we do with our bodies happened in our minds beforehand.

Our orientation to doing can easily lead us to miss the primary point of Matthew 5. We might more or less stop at 5:17-19–all the commands of the Old Testament are still in force, even the least of them. But Jesus goes on in the chapter to demonstrate what it means to fulfill the Law, and his fulfillments undermine a doing approach to the Law. The Law says to keep your oaths. Jesus says not to make oaths. The Law says “an eye for an eye.” Jesus says nope.

What Jesus is doing in Matthew 5 is reorienting Law-keeping around the love commands. When asked how we should live, Jesus reduces the entire Law to do of its commandments: love God and love neighbor (Matt. 22:34-40). This is a “being” approach to ethics. The core value is to love. The right actions will naturally follow.

Biblical Virtue
The approach to ethics that focuses more on who we should be than what we should do is called “virtue based ethics.” Approaches to ethics that focus more on doing are called “act based ethics.” From both a biblical and a Wesleyan perspective, the heart of ethics is virtue based, resulting in actions characterized by love.

The core biblical ethic is love. As Jesus indicated to his opponents in Matthew 22, the heart of the Law is love. “You will love the LORD your God will all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5; Matt. 22:37). This plays itself out in our lives as love toward others. “You will love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18; Matt. 22:39). Not only Jesus but Paul also says that this command sums up the Law (Rom. 13:9).

And if someone should want to wiggle out of the command by how they define their neighbor, Jesus gives no out. In Matthew 5:43-48, our enemies are included within the scope of those we must love. Similarly, the Parable of the Good Samaritan makes it clear that my neighbor is anyone who is in need, even if they come from a “hated” people group (Luke 10:29-37).

John Wesley and the Wesleyans who have followed have centered their ethic on love as well when they have been at their best. Like most traditions, we have at times become distracted with the minutia of doing. What does it mean to keep the Sabbath law? Can I go to a restaurant on Sunday? Can I watch television on Sunday? Should I even have a television or go to a movie?

At our best, however, we have focused our ethic on the love command. Wesley formulated Christian perfection in terms of “perfect love.” Similarly, entire sanctification in our tradition has predominantly been understood as an experience of the Spirit’s empowerment that enables us to fully love God and our neighbor.

While Wesley acknowledged that the Bible includes broader understandings of sin, he defined sin “properly so called” as a “willful transgression of a known law of God.” This focal understanding of sin is thoroughly in keeping with the New Testament. While the Old Testament includes a broader sense of sins committed in ignorance, both individual and corporate, the focus of sin in the New Testament is overwhelmingly on wrongdoing that is intentional.

According to James 4:17, a sin of omission is when a person knows the good that he or she should do but they do not do it, an intentional omission. In Romans 14:23, Paul describes a situation where whether an action is sin or not depends on whether a person thinks it is wrong to do or not. “Whatever is not of faith is sin.” In other words, sin is when you intentionally do something you know you should not do. These are sins of commission.

In both cases, sin is not “to miss the mark,” a common definition that has no basis in the New Testament. The definition is based on a number of word fallacies the chief of which is the idea that some meaning a word had in its history is determinative of what it means later. There is also the lexical fallacy which supposes there is some root meaning in play whenever a word is used.

No, sin in the New Testament is overwhelmingly a function of intentionality. Paul’s argument in Romans 14 is particularly insightful, for it points to a situation where two individuals could do exactly the same action and it be sin for one and not the other. The difference would be the intentionality of the actor. And the standard of intentionality is the extent to which it is or is not loving in its intention, where love toward others is seeking their true benefit.

Both the Old and New Testaments are heart-focused in their ethics. God famously tells the prophet Samuel that “A human looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). Actions are a matter of outward appearance. Jesus similarly makes it clear that evil is something that comes from the inside out. It is not something that attaches to you by what you touch. “Out of the heart” flows all evil (Mark 7:21-23).

These observations indicate that the ethic of Scripture and of Wesleyanism are appropriately virtue-oriented, with actions flowing from our hearts as an indicator of whether we are inwardly virtuous or not. Accordingly, it is no surprise that Christianity is a religion of the Spirit. It is what is going on inside that is the truest indicator of what we are.

Clearly, a righteous spirit will produce good fruit, so this virtue orientation is in no way divorced from what we do. It is simply the priority. James 2 makes it clear that “faith without works is dead” (Jas. 2:26). So there is no righteous heart-orientation that does not result in righteous action. Paul agrees. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:23-24). If we are right on the inside, these virtues will flow into our lives on the outside.

The Highest Good (summum bonum)
The ancient Mediterranean philosophers were similarly virtue based in their approach to ethics. Aristotle in the 300s BC looked to happiness (eudaimonia) as the greatest good toward which we should aspire. He distinguished forms of happiness on three levels: that of pleasure, that of a good citizen, and that of contemplation. He considered the satisfaction of contemplation to be the highest.

Aristotle believed that our quest for happiness shaped everything we did. When we sought pleasure, we did so with the goal of happiness or fulfillment. Happiness was human flourishing, being what we were supposed to be. A life of eudaimonia was a life well lived.

Plato before Aristotle identified four cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, self-control, and justice. Wisdom was the virtue of our heads. Courage was the virtue of our chests. Self-control was the virtue of our abdomen. And justice was when all of them were working together in proper concert.

As Christians, we would should not locate the greatest good in ourselves but in God. In the previous entry, we mentioned the Westminster Confession. “What is the proper end of humanity?” “To glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” This statement suggests that the proper path to eudaimonia is in a life oriented around God.

We should not, however, think of goodness as a thing. When 1 John 4:8 says that God is love, it does not mean that God is composed of love atoms. It is a figurative statement, a metonymy. A metonymy is when something is so associated with something else that we can refer to the one by the other. “Tom is generosity.” “Michael Jordan is basketball.” When the Bible says God is love, it is saying that God’s actions in the world are so typified by love and that love is so aptly described in God’s interaction with the world that we can say “God is love.” To try to say more is to overread what the passage is saying.

Love of God is thus the highest good, with love of humanity entailed within it. Good is an adjective. It is a word that describes intentions and actions that are loving.

Rights and Wrongs
In Romans 14:14, Paul says, “Nothing is unclean in itself, except to the one who considers it unclean.” He is thinking especially of whether a person should eat food that has been sacrificed to an idol. However, it gives us one perspective on the relationship between intention and action.

One could argue that actions in the world--as acts, not in terms of intentions or consequences--are in themselves morally neutral. It is the intentionality that surrounds an action that makes the adjectives good or evil appropriate. A tsunami or tornado is not evil, even though they may cause great death. But they did not intend to do anyone harm. Similarly, if I am cleaning my roof and accidentally knock off a shingle that kills you, I have not committed murder.

David Hume’s “fact-value” problem thus does not matter to us as Christians. God has revealed to us the value of love as the highest good. There may very well be a detachment between facts and values, between what happens and the significance of what happens. But God has revealed to us the valuation to lay over our observations of events in the world.

This is a quite different approach to ethics than those that heavily focus on types of activities themselves, act-based ethics. As I mentioned at the beginning, it is all too easy for our religion to shift from intentionality to acts. Acts are easy to see and measure, while intentions are often clouded. In Philippians 3:6 Paul can say that he was blameless at keeping the Jewish Law as a Pharisee because, from the perspective of some Pharisees, they had quantified, concretized, and externalized law-keeping to where one could actually keep the Law perfectly. [2]

Ethics that focus on language of absolutes fall in the category of act-based ethics. Despite his use of the categories of virtue, Plato in the early 300s BC was an absolutist who believed certain rights and wrongs were intrinsically right and wrong regardless of intention or circumstance. He was also a realist when it came to right and wrong, for he believed good was a thing that existed apart from the gods. It was a standard by which even the gods were to be measured.

Immanuel Kant in the late 1700s was also an absolutist in ethics. If something was wrong, it was always wrong regardless of the circumstances. He called this the “categorical imperative.” If something was an imperative, a “must,” a true ethical command, then it applied categorically, in all circumstances.

This is not the way that the New Testament generally treats ethics. For one thing, values compete with each other. If a leader of Jericho comes to my door and asks if I am hiding Israelite spies, do I tell the truth and say they are hiding on my roof or do I save their lives and lie? The Bible never critiques Rahab for lying but rather considers her works an example of righteousness (cf. Jas. 2:25).

The normal scope of biblical ethics is rather what we might call universal values with exceptions or universal principles. Moral absolutism does not allow for exceptions by definition. However, it has more to do with Western cultural assumptions than with biblical presuppositions. For example, Paul and Peter both instruct Christians to submit to and obey secular authority (Rom. 13:1; 1 Pet. 2:13). However, it is clear from Acts 4:19 that this is not an absolute. When submitting to earthly authority conflicts with submission to divine authority, exceptions must be made.

That is not to say that there are not rough equivalents to absolutes in Christian ethics, even if such language is foreign to the Bible, an example of Western philosophy imposed on Scripture. The command to love God and the command to love one’s neighbor are both absolutes in the sense that there is never an exception to these commands. However, even to look at them as commands–rather than the delight of one’s heart–is to subtly switch from a virtue-based ethic to an act-based one.

Paul’s position on food sacrificed to idols is even a relativist position by definition. Whether it is right or wrong depends on one’s personal convictions. What Wesleyans call “convictions” are actually examples of individual relativism. However, they must be located within a broader ethical framework of universal values.

There can be actions that are right or wrong depending on the culture as well. Paul is not in any way opposed to Jews keeping the Sabbath on Saturday, but he does not require it of Gentile believers (Col. 2:16). This would be an example of cultural relativism. Paul says, “To the Jews I became like a Jew that I might win Jews… to those not under the Law I became as one not under the Law… that I might win those not under the Law” (1 Cor. 9:20-21). Again, these instances of cultural relativism must be placed within the broader universal ethical framework of loving God and loving neighbor.

It seems impossible for universal principles to anticipate all possible situations. This is the Pharisaic problem. They had the principle of Sabbath, but what constitutes work? Who decides how to define what the boundaries in time of the day are? Are there exceptions to the Sabbath rule? Jesus in Luke 14:5 indicates that you should pull your ox out of a ditch even on the Sabbath. Similarly, Jesus does not argue about whether his disciples violated the Sabbath by picking grain in Mark 2:23-28. He indicates rather that the rule had exceptions.

Applying moral principles almost always involves what one ethicist called “improvisations.” [3] It seems you can never anticipate every possible situation in which a principle might be applied. It is thus no wonder that people gravitate toward absolutism. It requires as little thought as it is likely to play out in oppressive and truly unloving ways. It is not, however, God’s way much beyond the fundamentals of loving God and neighbor. [4]

To say that Christianity is oriented around universal rights and wrongs that will sometimes have exceptions is to believe in definite right and wrong. It is a fallacy of false alternative to say, either you believe in absolutes or you do not believe in right and wrong. This is absurd. There are at least three positions on the moral spectrum in between absolutism and moral nihilism: universal principles, relativism, and moral scepticism. I have given clear biblical examples above of the first two, the first of which I have argued is the normal operating scope of biblical ethics.

Greater Good
The act-based approach to ethics that we have been discussing is called “duty-based ethics” or “deontological ethics.” There is also another approach to act-based ethics called “consequential ethics” or “utilitarianism.” Every day we make utilitarian decisions. “Will my family get greater pleasure from Arbys or McDonalds?” There is thus nothing intrinsically wrong with utiliarian considerations.

Nor is there anything intrinsically wrong with “egoist” ethics. If utilitarian ethics asks what action will bring about the greatest good (or pleasure) to the greatest number, egoist ethics asks what action will bring about the greatest good (or pleasure) to me. There is nothing wrong with asking, “Will I be happier eating strawberry shortcake or watermelon?”

The problem with such ethics comes into play when they come into conflict with more crucial values, especially universal values. In such cases, “the end does not justify the means.” The pleasure I might get from “getting rid of” my neighbor cannot outweigh the value that my neighbor is created in God’s image and that Christ commands me to love my enemy.

It is thus only when I am free of moral duty that I can bring consequences to bear on an ethical decision. For example, the consequences of an abortion in my life cannot be used as an argument for its allowance if abortion violates an absolute moral duty not to murder the innocent. [5] If it is a moral imperative not to kill innocent individuals while bombing a city like Dresden or Hiroshema, then the consequence of expediting an end to war and saving a greater number of lives cannot be invoked. [6]

Nevertheless, the question of consequences is often in play when a moral principle is universal but not absolute. Similarly, although the New Testament focuses primarily on intentional sin, we can unintentionally wrong someone. This is also sin, even if sin for which God does not consider us as morally culpable. When we unintentionally wrong someone, we have sinned in terms of the consequences to others. Repentance is still appropriate, and the blood of Christ still atones for it (cf. Heb. 9:7).

There are also areas where we wrong others in negligence. These sins are somewhere between intentional and unintentional sin. If we drive without sleep and end up killing someone, we still bear some moral culpability. John Wesley called such sins, “sins of surprise.”

How then should we live? We should give our full allegiance to God without exception. We should commit to love our neighbor and enemy, without exception. These are the two great absolutes.

Within these general moral values are other principles that play them out generally. We cannot love our spouse and have an affair. We cannot love our neighbors and whimsically steal from them, let alone kill them. These broad, universal principles will play out in various ways in specific situations. Also, if we love our neighbor, we will be concerned about the consequences of our actions on them. 

Sexual Ethics
In a follow-up next week, I want to address sexual ethics.

[1] Our righteousness in Luther tends to be more of a “legal fiction,” even though Luther certainly believed that our lives should become more literally righteous too.

[2] This was not the only Pharisaic perspective. The School of Hillel in particular seemed more focused on intentionality. However, for some it would seem that the intentionality that mattered most was the intention to keep the Law perfectly in a concrete sense.

[3] Samuel Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics.

[4] Admittedly, it is difficult to find an exception to the command not commit adultery.

[5] I worded this in an individual way to try to keep the illustration simple. If we were having the full discussion, we would want to address several additional questions. Is abortion an absolute moral imperative or one to which exceptions can be made, such as rape or incest? Under what circumstances? Is there a difference between saving the life of a mother in a way that results in the child’s death and causing the child’s death to save the life of the mother?

[6] My intention is not to take a position here but to demonstrate the interplay between duties and consequences.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Explanatory Notes -- Hebrews 12:1-11

I'm almost done with explanatory notes on Hebrews. Second to last installment.


C. Endure God's Discipline (12:1-29)

The Cloud of Witnesses (12:1-2)

12:1-2 Therefore, we also having such a great cloud surrounding us of witnesses, laying aside every weight and the easily ensnaring sin, with endurance let us run the set before us race. 2 looking toward the leader and perfecter of faith, Jesus, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising shame, and on the right [hand] of the throne of God has sat.

The word therefore suggests that these verses tell us what our take-away should be from the example list of Hebrews 11. Given the examples of Hebrews 11, the audience should run with patience the race set before them. The examples ran the race with distinction. So should we. 

If you are running a race, you do not want any extra weight. Sin weighs a person down as they run. The sin the author primarily has in mind is the sin of doubt and lack of faith about the promises of God. We might generalize the point however to anything in our lives that causes resistance to the love of God and the love of neighbor.

Jesus is an example of such faith for the audience (cf. 5:7). He was the pioneer of such faith and his faith became complete in his suffering on the cross. In a sense, if the heroes of faith from Hebrews 11 are in the stands cheering us on, Jesus is at the finish line. He is the goal toward which we run, the consummate and final example of faith.

Jesus disregarded the shame, another example of honor-shame language in Hebrews. Another translation suggests that Jesus "despised" shame, an ironic twist because it suggests that Jesus made shameful calling his death shameful.

Jesus' sitting at God's right hand is another allusion to Psalm 110:1. Jesus' race is finished, although he will appear yet a second time (9:28). He currently sits enthroned as Son of God, Lord, and Christ at God's right hand.

Endure God's Discipline (12:3-11)

3. For consider the one who has endured such hostility on himself from sinners so that you might not be discouraged, giving up in your souls.

We sometimes forget that Jesus himself is in the hall of faith. He is the last and consummate example of faithfulness to death. We look to him not only as the one who rescues and saves us but as the one who perfected and completed faithfulness as our model. We look to him at the finish line as yet another who has run the race and completed the course.

Jesus endured hostility from sinners just as the audience either already was or were afraid they were about to. "Sinners" here presumably connects not to sin in general but to the sinfulness of opposing God and God's plan. God raised Jesus victorious from the grave and so also the audience should not be discouraged and lose heart. The worst that humans might do to them was nothing compared to the victory that would follow. 

We can give up in our "souls" even though our body continues on. This is similar to the expression "to lose heart." Perhaps the primary pastoral purpose of Hebrews is to keep the audience from losing heart and quitting their faith. 

4. Not yet to blood have you resisted in your struggle against sin. 

William Lane used this verse to argue that Hebrews must have been written before the persecution the Roman emperor Nero conducted around the year AD64 after the fire of Rome. [1] He was assuming the common view that Hebrews was a sermon sent to Rome. I share this inclination but not his conclusion.

This verse suggests that, in the current situation of the audience, no one in their community as yet has lost their lives. By contrast, 13:7 suggests that some of the earliest evangelists to the audience had indeed lost their lives as martyrs for their faith. In my view, this verse also does not preclude the possibility that some Jews from outside their community might have lost their lives in some event such as when prisoners from Jerusalem were executed in the aftermath of the Jewish War.

5. And have you completely forgotten the admonition that is directed to you as sons [and daughters], 

"My son, do not minimize the discipline of the Lord
    Nor give up when being corrected by him.
6. For the Lord disciplines the one whom he loves,
    And he punishes every son that he receives?"

12:5-11 use the analogy of a parent disciplining a child as what God is doing to the audience. God, as the audience's father, is disciplining them. They need to learn from the discipline. The author draws on Proverbs 3:12 to encourage the audience to view their troubles as a positive thing, as the Lord's "discipline." 

The word discipline has two distinct meanings, and the author may float somewhat between them. We probably naturally think of discipline as punishment, and the use of Proverbs 3:12 does seem to have some of that connotation. However, it also can have a sense of training, and the use of the Greek word paideia probably suggests some of those overtones as well.

The experiences of the audience are thus "discipline." There does seem to be at least a little sense of punishment here. Proverbs 3:12 has a connotation of correction and punishment. Perhaps the correction was a waning in commitment. As 10:25 indicates that some had stopped meeting together. The social pressure the audience is feeling is forcing them to choose. They cannot simply fade away. They must make a choice to strengthen their commitment or abandon their faith consciously.

This passage gives a small window into how parental discipline was understood by the author of Hebrews. Punishment was seen as loving redirection. There is no sense here of punishment as penalty that must be dispersed for wrath sake, for judgment sake. Correction is for the benefit of the child, not to satisfy some abstract justice.

7. Endure for training. God is treating you as sons [and daughters], for what son [or daughter] is there whom a father does not discipline? 8. And if you are without discipline, in which all have become partakers, are you then not illegitimate and not sons [and daughters]? 

I have rendered the word paideia as "training" here. The theme of discipline as training was a commonplace in ancient Hellenistic literature. The theme appears in Philo, for example. The purpose of the Greek "gymnasium" or educational system was paideia. Given the level of Greek and rhetoric in Hebrews, it is possible that the author himself underwent such training.

Legitimate children, the author says, undergo discipline by their parents, presumably their fathers in particular. It is a slightly unpleasant illustration, but the sense is that real parents discipline their children. Perhaps, the passage suggests, a father might not bother to train an illegitimate child. The father wants the best for his son, especially. That suggests the father will have expectations and perhaps be demanding because he wants to see his son excel in life.

The athletic illustration is clear. If you want to be able to run a race as best as you can, you must train. No one simply gets up one day and runs a marathon. You have to train. Even the most naturally gifted swimmer or gymnast will never come close to the Olympics without rigorous training. Our potential cannot be activated otherwise. The Lord is a trainer.

9. Then we used to have fathers [as] trainers of our flesh and we ourselves respected [them]. Will we not much more submit ourselves to the father of spirits and we will live? [2]

Hebrews' dualism once again peaks through. Our bodies, our "flesh" has a father, an earthly father. But our spirits have a Father too, a heavenly Father. In this picture, we are flesh and spirit. Each part of us has a different parentage. [3]

The statement is also an allusion to Numbers 27:16. In that verse, Yahweh is the "God of the spirits of all flesh." We think back to Genesis 2:7 where God gives breath to Adam, making him come alive. Ecclesiastes 3:21 questions whether that breath or spirit of a person returns to God at death. However, the anthropology of Hebrews is probably more along the lines of a certain Greek conceptualization as opposed to Genesis' Old Testament understanding. Plato believed that the body was the prisonhouse of the soul. In the Old Testament, a soul is a whole living being, body with breath/spirit inside it.

10. On the one hand, they for a few days were disciplining according to what seemed [right] to them. But he [disciplines us] for what is beneficial so that [we] might partake of his holiness. [4]

This verse may hint that earthly fathers were not always just in their discipline. Certainly, no human father is perfect either in the administration of punishment or training. My hunch is that ancient fathers were far less in tune with the emotional well-being of their children as we are in a post-Freudian world. They probably were quite regularly what we might think of as abusive. 

But God the Father is perfectly good and righteous in his training. He does not administer punishment on a whim, out of misinformation, or because he is having a temper tantrum. God disciplined the audience--and disciplines us--purely for our good and the good of others.

God's discipline makes it possible for us to partake of his holiness. We cannot be his unless we are his. We have to turn toward him and away from our default trajectory that is separated and alienated from him. We partake of the heavenly gift of the Holy Spirit and turn to the atonement in Christ to become purified of our stains. Through the atonement of Jesus, we are properly prepared to be in God's presence.

11. And every discipline on the one hand for that which is present does not seem to be [a matter] of joy but of grief, but afterward they repay a peaceable fruit of righteousness for those who have been exercised through it.

Here the training sense of discipline becomes clear. Those who train bear the fruit of righteousness. They do their exercises and it pays off in the fruit that follows. 

There is a saying in athletics: "No pain, no gain." It may be a little exaggerated as exercise releases endorphins that can give the person exercising a kind of high. Still, most of us can identify with the sense that the exercise itself is not always pleasurable. It is the pay off that comes after the exercise that is most rewarding. So it is with the Lord's discipline, especially when it has a dimension of corrective.

[1] William L. Lane, Hebrews ***

[2] future middle

[3] The ancients probably thought of spirit as a thin type of material, rather than the immaterial soul that Rene Descartes invented.

[4] infinitive purpose construction

Friday, July 15, 2022

Wesleyan philosophy 4 -- What is a human being?

Next installment


Non-Christian Perspectives
In Friedrich Nietzsche’s novel, Thus Spake Zarathustra, a madman interrupts a group celebrating the fact that “God is dead.” He sees what they do not see. A world in which there is no God is a world where there is no inherent right and wrong. The implication is that human life is ultimately no more significant than any other life. We may have more power, but we are no more valuable.

When I was doing my doctorate in England, I chanced upon a discussion prompt on a student’s door. The student wrote, “If humans evolved, then other forms of life are just as significant as we are.” The thought that came to me was that “if humans are merely evolved animals, then our lives are just as insignificant as those of other animals.”

It is fair enough to say that the last five hundred years have seen a general deterioration of “theism” in the European-influenced world. [1] Theism is the position that God not only exists but is involved in the world. This is the only truly Christian and indeed Wesleyan position, for if God were not involved in the world, then Christ could not be the Son of God as we believe.

Deism then became a position of many thinkers in the 1600s and 1700s. With the rise of a scientific worldview, the world was increasingly seen as a machine that ran on its own once it was initiated. God created the world, made the clock and wound it up, but now is no longer involved. A deterministic view gained prominence as the world seemed to become predictable according to strict laws of cause and effect. Interestingly, it is about this time also that Calvinism rose to prominence, in keeping with the deterministic Zeitgeist of the age.

The distinction between natural and supernatural was born. Previously, the beings of the cosmos were understood to be on a continuum of being. Heaven might be thinner material but still a type of material, an “etherial” type. Rene Descartes subtly changes the paradigm. The soul is now immaterial, part of a different realm that is supernatural, above the natural. Nature proceeds by cause and effect. The angels belong to a different realm.

Evolution made it possible for Deists to become full-blown naturalists. A naturalist, as the name suggests, rejects the supernatural. Natural, cause-effect explanations of the world become adequate. This path easily leads then to Nietzsche’s “nihilism,” a sense that everything is ultimately meaningless.

This nihilist bottom point, at its most pessimistic, concludes that human beings are little more than roadkill waiting to happen. When you look at the experimentation the Nazis did on Jews and others, you are seeing the endgame of naturalism in nihilism. Why not dehumanize other people or other races? Why not only live for yourself and what is in your own selfish interests?

In psychology, the behaviorist B. F. Skinner more or less reduced humans to animals that can be manipulated. He was not wrong about our capacity for manipulation, but he was wrong to think that we are only animals. The Christian does not see any human being as a mere animal. Yes, we are highly sophisticated animals from one point of view. But that is not the most important definer of who we are.

As a final note, the 1950s saw an attempt to look at nihilism from a “glass is half full” perspective. Sure, viewed negatively, nihilism says there is no real meaning to life or the world. But you could also look at it this way: we can make up any meaning we want.

Atheistic existentialism was a sense that we choose the meaning of life. Jean Paul Sartre famously said that, having been thrown into the world, we are responsible for everything we do. We choose our path. We define who we are. Albert Camus similarly said that the primary question of philosophy was, “Why not suicide?” If you have chosen to live, you have an implicit choice hiding somewhere for your existence. Find out what it is and go with it.

But let me show you a better way…

A Core Christian Perspective
From a Christian perspective, all human beings are created in the image of God. That makes all human beings inherently valuable. Genesis 1:27 presents humanity as the pinnacle of God’s creation. The image of God there primarily has to do with “ruling” over the rest of the creation, analogous to the dominion that God has. This of course is not a rule to destroy but is best taken as a charge to steward God’s creation. With great power comes great responsibility.

Over the years, Christians have expanded their sense of the image of God beyond this ”political image.” John Wesley also spoke of a natural image and a moral image. The natural image involved our rational faculties in that we can think, similar to the fact that God thinks. The moral image is our capacity to do good, a capacity marred by the sin of Adam and our sinful natures.

While these other possible dimensions to the image of God make sense, they largely come from later Christian theology rather than from the Bible. The idea of a moral image has some basis in Ephesians 4:24 which speaks of our new selves in Christ as created after the image of God in true righteousness and holiness. However, Wesley’s theology built a theological scaffolding around this concept that had as much to do with Augustine in the 400s as with Paul.

I doubt that the most beneficial use of image-of-God language is to boast about humanity’s place in the cosmos. Yes, we are stewards of God’s creation. Yes, we are called to be holy. Yes, we were made “a little lower than God” in one sense (Ps. 8:5). But our takeaway should not be to build ourselves up but to value the lives of others because they are image-bearers. We should not curse other humans because they were made in God’s likeness (Jas. 3:9). Because humans are the image of God, all human life must be respected.

What is a human being? A human being is the only of God’s creations, at least on earth, that is created in God’s image. All human beings are inherently valuable because all human beings are created in God’s likeness. I did not put “intrinsically” because our value is based ultimately on the value that God gives to us. In a sense, our value is derivative, dependent on God. However, God is going nowhere. God loves us eternally; therefore, all human beings are eternally valuable.

What is the meaning of life? Victor Frankl (following Nietzsche) suggested that our purpose in life is to find a “why” of our own, in good existentialist fashion: "A person with a 'why' can live with any 'how.'" However, he was not correct in the ultimate sense. God is the ground of all meaning to the universe. As the Westminster Confession put it, “What is the chief end of man?” Answer: “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

Amid all the other meanings to our lives–our relationships, our families, our impact on the world and others–the ultimate meaning of life is our relationship with God. Life finds its ultimate meaning in our faith and love of God, and the love of others then naturally issues therefrom. “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless till it finds its rest in you” (Augustine’s Confessions). Not all may perceive such restlessness, but Christians believe that humanity finds its truest self in God.

It goes without saying, then, that no truly Christian perspective will tolerate a view of any “other” that dehumanizes them or denies them their full identity as image-bearers. The original US Constitution, which treated slaves as three-fifths of a person, was not Christian in that reckoning. Any devaluing of the immigrant or the other ethnicity or the other gender is not Christian.

Any devaluing of another race violates a Christian understanding of humanity. Even the violent criminal deserves a certain dignity as created in the image of God, even though they have denied that dignity to others. No dead human body should be left outside to rot like roadkill, no matter how immoral the person may have been in life because he or she is someone who was created in the image of God.

Wesleyans and Gender
Christians disagree on questions of egalitarianism and complementarianism The first allows virtually all roles equally to men and women, while the second specifies certain roles for the one and the other. Complementarianism can only be truly Christian if it affirms the equal value of women despite specifying differing roles for them in society and the church. I would argue that the trajectory of Wesleyanism tends toward egalitarianism, although there are many Wesleyans who are complementarians.

The Wesleyan Church holds that women can hold all roles of leadership within the church and society. A key passage in this regard is Galatians 3:28: “In Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek. There is neither slave nor free. There is not ‘male and female.’” While this passage primarily has in mind equal access to justification, holiness and Pentecostal circles have historically seen the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost as the great equalizer. For example, Acts 2:17 indicates that one of the signs of the age of the Spirit is that sons and daughters will prophesy.

The last two decades have seen a significant emphasis in Wesleyan and other circles on the essential role of the body in our human identity. In the 2000s, there was an emphasis on bodily resurrection in books like N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope and Joel Green’s, Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible. Wright emphasizes that the notion of the immortality of the soul is not particularly biblical. Green similarly does his best to explain away dualistic imagery in the Bible.

This movement took a different turn in the wake of Obergefell and the legalization of gay marriage in the US. Books like Timothy Tennant’s For the Sake of the Body virtually call any dualistic conceptualization of humanity as Gnostic. In addition to biblical arguments for traditional sexuality, physical embodiment is emphasized as a kind of natural revelation of distinct human identities that are different but equal.

While I would argue that the Bible is pretty clear on what forms of sex are appropriate and inappropriate, I suspect that the anti-dualism movement has gone well beyond what might be biblically justified. Dualism in itself is not Gnostic. [2] It seems to me that while more holistic approaches to human identity are perfectly acceptable, we cannot honestly deny that the New Testament operates extensively with dualistic imagery in relation to human identity. [3]

So even if the language is ultimately metaphorical, it is perfectly biblical to conceptualize a human being as a soul or spirit in a body. “Though our outward person is wasting away, our inward person is being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16). And we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ to give an account for the things we did in the body. (2 Cor. 5:10). Wright is not wrong, but he arguably goes too far, as does Green.

While there is thus currently a trend of Wesleyans toward a more complementarian approach, this is largely due to social reaction. Many in the Wesleyan Church still see the Day of Pentecost as the great equalizer that made the nature of our bodies irrelevant when it comes to spiritual things and matters relating to leadership in the church and the home. We should not "essentialize" gender except where our bodies are overwhelmingly clear (e.g., who gets to be pregnant). [4]

This is not a Gnostic position. Sometimes it is argued that it is the egalitarians who are being assimilated into secular culture. However, where did secular culture get this equal valuing of all human beings regardless of race or gender? It is arguably the continued fumes of a Judeo-Christian worldview! Ironically, then, I would claim, some in the church are proving to be less Christian on this issue than the surrounding culture when it comes to the equal valuing of all human beings. A push away from equal status and value would be a true corruption of the church by culture away from Pentecost.

Wesleyans and Determinism
Strictly speaking, Wesleyans do not believe in free will. I might add that Augustine’s understanding of the Fall, the sinful nature, and so forth involved development from Paul’s own categories. Paul did not think of Sin as a nature but as a power over our flesh. The “I” of Paul in Romans 7 is not corrupted–-it wants to do the good (Rom. 7:18). The spirit is just overcome by the flesh (note the dualism).

Total depravity, understood in an absolute sense, is thus an Augustinian category more than a Pauline one. We might call Paul's view something more like "thoroughgoing depravity." However we parse the details, Wesleyan and Christian orthodoxy holds that we cannot do good in our own power. We cannot come to God on our own. Our moral image is marred and corrupted. Without help from the Spirit, we are powerless in the face of the power of Sin.

For John Calvin, then, the only solution was irresistible grace. God chose to save some. He predestined them for salvation. They were unconditionally elected. They were empowered to do limited righteousness. The switch was flipped on for them entirely by God. They would be saved. The rest remained in their default state of corruption and damnation.

Jakob Arminius in the late 1500s disagreed. He found in Scripture a sense that God gave a choice to far more than just certain elect. Even though it was all by God’s power, election was conditional upon our choice. Wesley used the phrase “preventing grace” to refer to empowerment from God for us to be able to choose one way or the other, despite our underlying depravity.

Wesleyans thus do not believe that our eternal destiny is predetermined. Along with the Quakers, many Wesleyans have historically believed that God “lightens everyone coming into the world” at some point (John 1:9). Instead of an on-off switch, it is more like a dimmer switch. God turns the light up enough for us to choose.

At the same time, we should not assume that the dimmer switch will always be on. God is under no obligation to leave that "prevenient grace" for our whole life, for us to choose when we get around to it. It seems enough to satisfy justice that God simply give everyone a chance at some point.

Over the years, Wesleyans have had varying senses of human freedom within this overall sense of freedom to choose for or against salvation. Wesleyans have often seen God as having a detailed, perfect, individual will for our lives, often without realizing the tension of this concept with our sense of free will. But as we saw with the free will theodicy, it is important for us to recognize a God-given human freedom to mess up any plan. This freedom suggests that what actually happens in the world is often not God’s ideal but God’s concession.

There are also what I consider to be silly objections to free will. “It would violate God’s sovereignty.” Really? What if a sovereign God wanted to give us some freedom? Would God thereby make himself unsovereign? That’s just silly. If a sovereign God wants to give his creation some freedom, that’s his right and his business. “Who are you O clay to question the potter, ‘Why have you made me thus?’”

Similarly, the idea that we cannot have free will if God knows the future seems pretty silly as well. If God in some way is outside of time, then we can simply say he has seen what will happen without causing it to happen. I use the illustration of someone watching the recording of a football game that they were actually present at. God, having already watched the game, knows what is going to happen as he watches it with us in time.

In the end, God is both immanent and transcendent. He is both in the universe going through time with us and outside the universe looking in on all time. As transcendent, he knows the future. As immanent, the Spirit goes through time with us. This is the traditional Christian perspective, and Calvinism in this regard is the outlier.

Debated Issues
The Soul
The idea of a detachable soul is philosophically very helpful. It is a potential answer to a number of potentially thorny questions. Where do humans gain the capacity for free will? Why does human personhood begin at conception? If evolution were true, what made the difference between previous hominins and humanity in the image of God? A potential answer? The soul.

Most Christians throughout history, including Wesleyans, have believed that we have a detachable soul as part of our human identity. However, there is at least the possibility that biblical imagery of the soul is a picture, an expression of an eternal truth in the categories of a particular Greek worldview. The core belief is that we will continue to exist as personal, conscious individuals for all eternity. More than one metaphor might express that truth.

Here we note that the concept of a detachable soul is not as thoroughgoing in Scripture as we might think. In the Old Testament, the nephesh is not a detachable part of a person but the whole living person. “God molded the man from the dust [body] and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life [spirit], and the man became a living soul [a whole, living being]” (Gen. 2:7) The word sometimes translated “soul” in the King James Old Testament is thus never a reference to a detachable part of a person. In fact, even the living beings in the sea in Genesis 1 are also called nephesh chayyah (e.g., 1:20), “living soul.”

The New Testament often continues this concept of a soul. “Whoever loses his life [psyche] for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:39). Obviously we don’t lose our spiritual soul to find it. Nevertheless, other passages do use the Greek sense of a detachable soul. “Do not be afraid of those who can kill the body but not the soul. Fear the one who can destroy both body and soul in Gehenna” (Matt. 10:28).

Most Wesleyans continue to understand the concept of the soul literally. A human being is thus a soul in a body. However, there are also what we might call “non-reductive physicalists” in the broader Wesleyan camp. These are individuals who believe that we are holistic embodied beings (physicalists) even though our bodies do not fully define us. Although we are unitary beings, we cannot be reduced to our bodies as the naturalist does. We are destined for eternity and glorified bodies.

I have heard broader Wesleyans who believe in evolutionary creation speak of Adam as the first human with a soul. The notion that the genetic population of early humanity was never less than 10,000 complicates but would not necessarily make this scenario obsolete. God could at a certain point in time create souls for all the offspring of a certain pair. Such hypotheses are of course wildly speculative.

The non-reductive physicalist who believes in evolution might have a harder time demarcating when humanity truly began. Perhaps they could see the beginning of humanity in how God related to hominins rather than in some clear alteration or demarcation in human biology or anthropology. God would simply decide when humanity came to be in his image, and we would be so from then on.

Certainly, none of these questions are necessary if we go with the traditional view that humanity started full stop with the special creation of Adam. This is certainly the view Wesley had a century before the theory of evolution and the view of the vast majority of Wesleyans today.

Beginning of Personhood
The Wesleyan Church affirms that “life begins at conception.” On the one hand, I am not sure that this phrase is the best expression of what we are saying. The sperm was alive. The egg was alive. I believe it would be more precise to say something along the lines of “Human personhood begins at conception” or “The moral responsibility for preserving human life begins at conception.”

This belief emerges especially from our broader theology of life inasmuch as abortion does not seem to be explicitly addressed in Scripture. God certainly knits us in our mother's womb, as the psalmist says in Psalm 139:13 (also Jeremiah and Paul). We see this verse as an indication of God's care and concern for children developing in the womb. It is a beautiful expression of what we believe about all babies in the womb.

However, it is not a proof of that belief. We see that implication because we bring a broader belief to that text. The text itself is the reflection of one grown, sentient individual looking back on a future that God had already activated and preserved. It makes no explicit statement about all children in the womb. We see this passage as an affirmation of all life in the womb because we bring this premise with us to the psalm. We affirm the premise so it is not wrong to read the psalm with such overtones. 

Exodus 21:22 is also a passage sometimes mentioned in this discussion. It relates to a situation where a pregnant woman has “children come forth” in a fight between two men. However, similar statements in the other law codes of the Ancient Near East seem to have a miscarriage in mind. The historical context thus inclines us toward interpreting the verse as it was generally interpreted prior to the debates of recent decades. The mention of “children” coming forth is also curious since having multiple children in the womb was surely not the majority phenomenon. Perhaps it implies an unpleasant picture with not only child but various other tissues emerging in a miscarriage.

At the same time, the possibility that this Exodus passage does not treat the consequence of bringing about the child's death on the same level as harming the mother would not make the opposite case either. The Old Testament world was a brutal, vicious world. We do not stone rebellious sons or people caught in adultery. That is to say, most Christians believe that the civil law of the Old Testament was specifically directed at Israel in its ancient Near Eastern setting. The spirit of the New Testament would seem to support a less harsh, more compassionate civil code than that which Israel had in the context of the ancient world.

Here again, a belief that God creates a unique soul at conception is one way to theologically explain our sense that moral obligation for the life of the child begins at conception. Certainly, the bias of Scripture is toward the preservation of life. “Be fruitful and multiply.” It would go against the spirit of Scripture for abortion to provide a license for a promiscuous life. Any focus on “my freedom” that is selfish or trivializes life would go against the grain of Scripture.

Capital Punishment
What of war? What of capital punishment? There are Wesleyans who see a thoroughgoing “pro-life” stance as one that extends from conception to capital punishment and a pacifist stance. I deeply respect them.

However, there does not seem to be a biblical mandate for these positions. They are also theological extensions that go beyond the biblical text. For example, when the sixth commandment says not to murder, it does so in the midst of a law that frequently prescribes capital punishment and is established by way of the conquest of Canaan. In context, the sixth commandment not to murder clearly does not include these other ways of killing that are endorsed elsewhere under certain situations. It has in mind someone intentionally murdering another man or woman.

In Romans 13:4, Paul indicates that the Roman government does not “wield the sword” for no reason. This would seem to be an implicit acceptance by Paul of capital punishment by the empire. Similarly, soldiers are nowhere told in the New Testament that they must abandon their way of life, even though a number of centurions appear in the biblical pages.

That is not to say that capital punishment is something that Christians should be excited about. Arguments can be made that our current system of criminal justice often puts the wrong people to death. There is nothing wrong with believing as much time as possible should be given to a person in hope that they would repent. So there is no biblical mandate or prohibition on the topic of capital punishment. We must “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.”

War is also present throughout the Bible. In the New Testament, the church is not in a position to decide whether to go to war. On the one hand, Mark 13 seems to assume that Christians were generally not involved in the Jewish War of 66-72. However, the epithet Simon the Zealot remains curious, especially since the Zealots probably did not form as a distinct group until around the time of the Jewish War.

“Just war theory” has generally been accepted throughout church history by most Christians. War should not be pre-emptive but a last resort. It should be waged by a legitimate authority for a just cause for the right reasons with a probability of success. Generally, those who go to war would claim these things even when it is certainly not the case. In the end, those who are pacifists are usually closer to the spirit of Christ than those who are quick to justify violence of any sort.

In the end, we have to work out our salvation together with fear and trembling. We often act like our positions are obvious in Scripture and reason, but our arguments are sometimes weaker than we think. They are sometimes influenced by traditions and culture in ways in which we are not aware. On such serious matters, we should be humble seekers rather than presumptuous assumers.

What is a human being? A human being, more than anything else, is an image of God, created in his likeness, beloved by him. All human beings, from the most virtuous to the evilest, are therefore inherently valuable. No human being could ever be roadkill.

The Bible is thoroughly in favor of life. "Thou shalt not murder" is a clear commandment that is affirmed in both the Old and New Testaments, where murder is the intentional killing of an innocent man, woman, or child. However, the Bible does not equate murder with all killing. The Bible assumes that death in war and capital punishment can be appropriate actions. 

[1] I am drawing heavily here on the work of James Sire, The Universe Next Door.

[2] Gnosticism considered the physical realm to be evil. Biblical dualism (and Plato for that matter) only considered the physical realm to be inferior. "The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak" (e.g., Matt. 26:41). "The phrase 'yet once more' makes clear the removal of what is being shaken, as that which has been created, so that what is unshakeable may remain" (Heb. 12:27). 

[3] As someone who loves physics and cosmology, let me also suggest that there is a certain “earthism” to these arguments. Who knows how God might have created sentient creatures in other parts of the universe? I have a feeling we are going to feel pretty silly when we meet some creatures from other galaxies in heaven.

[4] To essentialize gender, as I define the phrase, is to stereotype men and women in ways that go beyond explicit physical characteristics.