Sunday, March 29, 2015

Jesus' Most Political Day

Last week marked the beginning of the official 2016 presidential campaign season as Senator Ted Cruz announced his candidacy for POTUS. But Cruz didn't merely announce his run for the highest office in the land; he did so at Liberty University. Conventional wisdom suggests it would have been more prudent for Senator Cruz to have picked some place a bit more neutral, a bit more middle-of-the-road conservative. Sure, there's a primary to be won and a base to be energized, but even religious commentators are questioning the senator's decision, arguing that the religious right wing of the GOP has all but been dismantled.

While I understand the desire to unhitch Jesus from right-leaning (or even left-leaning) political causes, I believe we do ourselves a great disservice when we imagine a politically neutral King of Kings.

Today is Palm Sunday. It's the day when we celebrate Jesus' arrival in Jerusalem for the Passover celebration, the week that led to His crucifixion and resurrection. On this day nearly 2,000 years ago, men, women, and children tossed palm branches in Jesus' path and shouted "Hosanna!" which means "Salvation!" or "Liberty!" Jesus, for His part, rode atop a donkey's colt. He did this in fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9, which says:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Jesus' entry into Jerusalem on the foal of a donkey was a declaration that He was the king Israel had been waiting for. And while Jesus reigns in the hearts of all who trust in Him for their salvation, it is impossible to deny the political statement Jesus made that first Palm Sunday. The very next verse of Zechariah tells us what kind of king Jesus would be:

[H]e shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.

Palm Sunday leaves us with a choice: Will we submit to Jesus' rule or will we continue to rebel against His authority? And that's where it gets political. Since Jesus has claimed dominion over everyone and everything, we are not free to push Him out of our political decisions. Here in America, we enjoy the right of a type of limited self-government. Since we get to vote, we get a voice in who our leaders will be and in what direction we'd like our nation to head. And Jesus gets to tell us who to vote for. After all, He is King over everything—including our political choices.

Ted Cruz announced His candidacy for president at Liberty University. I'm sure, to some extent, this was a calculated move to try and reconstitute the coalition of conservatives who swept Ronald Reagan, and later George W. Bush, into power. But I believe it may also be something more than that.

Liberty, whether or not you agree entirely with its theological and political convictions (I certainly have a few reservations), has built into its mission the goal of "develop[ing] Christ-centered men and women with the values, knowledge, and skills essential for impacting tomorrow's world." In other words, Liberty wants to fill the world with leaders who will yield their authority and influence to Christ. It's a way of living out Christ's reign across the world, but especially across our nation.

Such a goal sounds radical, but maybe that's only because we've grown accustomed to faith that never leaves the pews, to convictions that stay firmly embedded in our hearts and nowhere else, and to a never-ending political debate in which a Jesus of our own making is used to champion our causes. Maybe it's time to simply yield to our King. Otherwise, we're in danger of becoming the "Hosanna!"-shouting crowds—those people who were eager to crown Jesus king if it meant that He would fulfill their dreams but who turned on Him just five days later when it seemed Jesus would not be the enemy of Caesar they had hoped for.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Why Some Debates Need to End

This week, the title of Richard Weaver's oft-cited work, Ideas Have Consequences, rang true in Colorado. On Friday, it was announced that Dynel Lane, the 34-year-old woman who allegedly lured a 26-year-old mother-to-be, Michelle Wilkins, into her home in an attempt to steal her still-developing seven-month-old unborn daughter, would not face murder charges. After promising her a deal on baby clothes via a Craig's List ad, Lane attacked Wilkins, cutting open her womb and removing the baby girl. Wilkins survived, but Aurora—that's the name the child was to receive—did not.

There are moments when there are no words. Aside from the demonic, I don't know what kind of evil could possess a person to commit such a horrible crime. But what is almost as shocking is that the law in Colorado has no appropriate response. Colorado is one of a dozen states where the violent killing of an unborn child is not considered a homicide. Though there was a bill put before the state legislature in 2013 to reverse this injustice, the legislature failed to pass it, fearing it would interfere with abortion rights. 

There it is: If an unborn child—at any stage of development—is a human being, then killing that child would be murder. But that would place abortion among the cruelest of acts, so definitions need to be reconsidered and our laws need to be double-checked for careful wording.

I know of no one who celebrates the actions of Dynel Lane. But is what she did really so different than abortion—from Aurora's perspective? For Aurora, it makes no difference if her beating heart was stopped with the consent of her mother. For Aurora, it matters little if the procedure was performed by a licensed abortionist or a deranged attacker. The result is the same—her life was snuffed out violently. Aurora was robbed of every good gift this world has to offer. 

Though I believe that Aurora is being held in the arms of her Creator tonight as I write this, I also believe that Aurora's worth as a daughter of the King knows no limit. Colorado's laws do not reflect that reality, and as a result, it will be impossible for Aurora to receive justice in the state's courts. 

Ideas have consequences. To justify abortion, we must also justify a murder like Aurora's. Because in reality, they aren't very different. The debate over abortion seems never-ending, to the point that some Christians even entertain the notion that the issue should be considered "controversial." There is no controversy here for me. I think that if we consider Aurora and the tens of millions just like her who have met the same fate, "controversy" becomes one of those words that has now lost all meaning. 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Missing the Forest for the Trees: A Reaction to Dr. John Walton's Adam and Eve—Part Three

Though it may not seem like it from the previous two posts, I believe there is a lot to admire about the work or Dr. John Walton. I appreciate him as a Bible scholar, especially as one who is attempting to address the great issues of our day. Writing about Genesis is not an easy task, and I applaud Dr. Walton for taking up the challenge. Perhaps that's why I find some of his statements so troubling. 

We need scholars to shed new light on familiar passages of Scripture, to help us understand what the Bible teaches in an age of new challenges. What we don't need are compromises that impose something foreign on the beautiful gift of God's Word. This is my concern with Dr. Walton's recent theories concerning the early chapters of Genesis. He writes: 

The distinction between innocence and sinlessness or sinfulness is important, and it's one that Paul makes. He says in Romans 5, "Sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not [charged] where there is no law." Sin, in that sense, isn't so much a matter of behavior as it is being held accountable for certain behavior. When I say the first humans were innocent, I'm basically saying they were not yet held accountable for what they did (45). 

In effect, Dr. Walton contends that Adam and Eve sinned (erred morally) before the fall, but it wasn't called sin or credited as sin because there was no law to err against. But this line of thinking flies in the face of Paul's teaching in Romans: "For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law" (2:12). It seems God makes no distinction between those who sin apart from the law and those who sin in full knowledge of it. The law brings us knowledge of our sin and guilt, to be sure, and it gives us the grace of accountability, but it doesn't create sin. 

Dr. Walton mentions Romans 5:13 to make his point, but if he would have continued reading, he would find "Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam" (v. 14). Adam's sin was against a command, but Paul here again makes no distinction: death comes through sin, whether that sin violates a direct commandment or not. 

I'm not quite sure why Dr. Walton feels it's necessary to paint Adam and Eve as sinners before the fall. There is nothing in Scripture to suggest that they were in any way immoral prior to that blasted fruit. They were said to have been created in God's image. One of the primary ways theologians throughout the ages have understand the imago Dei is as a reflection of God's character—his holiness. 

And that gets us to a deeper point about sin. Sin is not mainly a violation of a commandment. That's putting the cart before the horse. The commandments exist to reveal God's heart. Sin occurs whenever we act against God's goodness, truth, or beauty, whenever we fail to walk in His ways. The commandments were given as guardrails to keep us on the path, but they do not, in themselves, create the path, nor do they create sin. 

In fashioning his Adam and Eve as ignorant yet fully-engaged sinners, Dr. Walton has minimized the serious nature of sin. If Adam and Eve were already sinners, then the fall was just a legal status change. Before the fall, they were counted as righteous, even though they were sinners. And with that bite of forbidden fruit, their label was simply corrected. We are no worse off than they before the fall—at least not morally. The only difference is that we're counted guilty and hell bound, apart from Christ. 

And in redefining sin as he has, Dr. Walton has also changed our hope. To be saved from our sin is no longer to have a new heart, but rather to be rid of the commandments. Our innocence can never be regained, our purity never recaptured. If Dr. Walton is right, and the blessed state of the Garden was ignorance rather than sinlessness, we are only now shooting for second-best. The power of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil cannot be undone. There is no regaining innocence when innocence never really existed in the first place. 

What we do with Genesis matters, for when we begin messing with the beginning of the story, we undoubtedly change the ending.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Missing the Forest for the Trees: A Reaction to Dr. John Walton's Adam and Eve—Part Two

Reading my last post, one might draw the conclusion that I'm a strict traditionalist—someone who blindly upholds older interpretations of Scripture for tradition's sake. But actually, I hold (however loosely) some fairly novel beliefs regarding some of the most familiar passages of the Bible.

For example, I am energized by Ben Witherington III's hypothesis that Lazarus (not John) was the Beloved Disciple who wrote the fourth Gospel. I believe, based on recent comparative linguistic studies, that the "still, small voice" Elijah heard in 1 Kings 19 was neither still nor small. And I think there's strong evidence in the original Hebrew that "Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it" (Proverbs 22:6 ESV) should really be rendered "Train up a child in the way he will go ..." With that sense, it's actually not a word of advice to parents, but a solemn warning.

I hope that any conclusion I draw is based on the text itself. I want Scripture to inform my understanding of Scripture. And I hope that I'm never so convinced of a new idea that I let it blind me to the plain and clear teaching of God's Word. This is why I'm so concerned about Dr. John Walton's views on the book of Genesis, as presented in a recent Christianity Today interview. I'm afraid that in his attempt to shed some much needed light on the creation account(s) of Genesis 1 and 2 using other ancient Near Eastern texts, he's placed himself at odds with what Scripture plainly tells us.

For example, Dr. Walton believes we jump to the conclusion that Adam and Eve were created immortal. This is not so, he says:

The fact that God provided a Tree of Life suggests to me that there was death before Adam and Eve. Sin is the reason we lost access to the remedy and are therefore subject to death. It’s not like death came into existence when Adam and Eve sinned. I don’t know if we can even talk about death “existing.” And it’s not that animals, plants, and cells did not experience death. Death at the cellular level is required for development. For those who are willing to accept evolutionary theories, death prior to the Fall is not a problem (44).

For Dr. Walton, death is inevitable; the fall makes no difference. But he's muddying the waters a bit with his insistence that death, at a cellular level, must take place for there to be development in living organisms. As he noted in the interview, "When Paul focuses on why humans are subject to death, he’s not concerned about death at the cellular level" (44). I would submit that nowhere in Scripture is anyone concerned with the death of cells. Dr. Walton is introducing a modern scientific concept and imposing it on the ancient book of Genesis. And he does this, apparently, so he can play fast and loose with the concept of death. 

Every ancient reader of the Bible would have known what Scripture means by "death." Those of us who have seen a loved one die, or have had to put a pet to sleep, or have even mismanaged a houseplant know what it is for something or someone to die. Paul says that "sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin" (Romans 5:12). But according to Dr. Walton, what's really meant here is not that death came into the world through sin. Death was actually already quite at home. Instead, the only thing that changed when Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was that Adam and Eve were judged. Mankind lost access to their temporary remedy for death—the Tree of Life. 

It's hard to imagine that Paul holds such a narrow view of death, at least the death he's discussing here. The power of his statement is all but washed away, and it does not match the cosmic view he takes just a few chapters later when he says that creation longs for the day when it "will be set free from its bondage to corruption" (Romans 8:21). In Dr. Walton's view, everything God created as "very good" (Genesis 1:31) was subject to death before the fall, so corruption is hardly a new or different reality for the natural world. Paul, however, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, seems to believe otherwise.

But there's a deeper problem with death reigning before sin entered the world. As I showed in my previous post, Dr. Walton believes that Adam and Eve were not the first or only people God created in the beginning. They are just the only ones God allowed in the Garden. He writes:

[Adam and Eve] are the ones given entry to sacred space as representatives, just like priests serve in sacred space. Not just anybody could wander into the temple. Priests serve in sacred space, and they represent the people there. A priest’s role is not reduced to performing rituals. Priests are given access to God’s presence, and they mediate revelation. That’s what I believe Adam and Eve did (44).

On the one hand, I am grateful to Dr. Walton for highlighting the Garden of Eden as a temple, for that is how it functions in the story of redemption. However, by assuming there were other people created alongside or just before Adam and Eve, he's painted himself into a very awkward theological corner. 

Dr. Walton imagines Adam and Eve as mediators between God and those not chosen by God for access into the Garden. They were to deliver fruit from the Tree of Life to those who dwell outside of God's presence, passing it through the bars of the fence, so to speak. Problematic as it might be to imagine a two-tiered humanity (Jim Crow in the Garden, as it were), there is a tempting literary parallel here between the Old Testament high priest who entered the Holy of Holies to mediate between God and His people and the scenario Dr. Walton envisions here in Genesis. However, Dr. Walton's hypothesis begs the question: If there is no real sin in the world, why does mankind need a mediator?

Doesn't it seem more likely that the state of humanity before the fall would mirror in many ways the state of humanity after redemption? All believers are a priesthood (1 Peter 2:5). Jesus Christ, God Himself, is the only mediator we need (1 Timothy 2:5). If there were a temple today, you and I would have access to the Holy of Holies (signified in the temple veil being torn in two at the death of Jesus; Matthew 27:51). But Dr. Walton's imagined "others" create the need for a much more complicated scenario. 

Isn't it more likely that Adam and Eve constituted the entire human race in the beginning and, therefore, all people had access to God's presence—that they were a priesthood of believers as we are today? That Adam and Eve were priests does not mean there were others who were barred from the Lord's good presence—especially since Scripture explicitly says at the time of Adam's creation that there was no one else—"no man to work the ground" (Genesis 2:5).

Concerning the Tree of Life, once again, Dr. Walton imagines things that are simply not there. The Tree of Life, according to Dr. Walton, was to preserve the fragile life of human beings. In order to keep on living, Adam and Eve would need to eat regularly of the Tree. However, hear what God says about the Tree of Life:

Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken (Genesis 3:22-23).

All Adam had to do, according to the Lord, was to reach out his hand and eat of the Tree's fruit in order to live forever. Living forever in a sinful, separated-from-God state would be a curse, so in His mercy, God banished Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. But notice that God is concerned that the man might eat from the Tree at all—just one time—not continually. The Tree of Life appears to be a remedy for death, not a prescription drug that merely keeps its symptoms at bay. In that way, the Tree of Life points forward to Jesus, our Life. It is not necessary to come to Christ again and again to be saved after each new sin. Yes, we "eat" of Jesus regularly through communion, through fellowship with Him, and in our personal confession of sin. But we need only come to the Lord once and for all in order to gain eternal life.

In Dr. Walton's view of things, original creation was like a new car, but a lemon of a new car. It works if we remember to add a quart of oil every 100 miles or so (i.e. eat of the Tree of Life to stave off death). I believe Dr. Walton is right to insist that creation was not perfect from the beginning. The Bible never says it was perfect, only that it was "very good." However, I don't think you need to see the world as broken in order for it not to be perfect. There is a state of goodness in which personal, physical, and spiritual growth are possible. There is goodness in discovering deeper relationships with loved ones and with God. Perfection implies stasis. That's not something Scripture promises us on either side of the fall or on either side of the end of the ages. Thank God.

Before I let this CT article go, there is one more aspect I'd like to consider, and I'll use my next post to do just that.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Missing the Forest for the Trees: A Reaction to Dr. John Walton's Adam and Eve—Part One

A few years ago, someone asked me what I thought about heaven, specifically how time might work there. The scenario was this: What if a husband passed away decades before his bride? Wouldn't he miss her in those intervening years? And if there's not supposed to be sadness in heaven, how would that work? 

I thought I had the perfect answer—an insight that would alleviate the problem while showing off my theological skills. I reasoned that since God is not bound by time, neither must we be in His presence. Perhaps when we die and go to heaven, all of the time between that moment and Jesus' return to earth flashes by in the blink of an eye. In that way, the earliest Old Testament saint and the final end-times martyr would approach the culmination of history at once. 

I thought I was brilliant. I had solved the problem and given everyone present something interesting to think about. And I thought I was actually correct. Until the woman who asked the question responded: "But the book of Revelation teaches that the martyred saints cry out to God, asking how long He will delay His judgment."

Though she didn't cite chapter and verse, she apparently knew the Bible well. She was referring to Revelation 6:9-11, in which John sees such a scene play out in heaven. There, murdered saints clearly feel longing and, in some sense
, the passage of time. My answer just wouldn't do justice to this passage, nor would it do justice to the other times Scripture pulls back the curtain between heaven and earth. 

I was wrong, and I was caught doing some clever theological hopscotch to avoid dealing with the text. I don't know the answer to this woman's original question. We know there is no sorrow in heaven because Scripture clearly teaches us this is so. But how exactly will this be? I am not sure. I can only trust God's Word on the matter. 

Something like my theological hopscotch that day is at work in Kevin Emmert's interview with Dr. John Walton in this month's issue of Christianity Today. Admittedly, many of the questions Dr. Walton attempts to answer in his books, The Lost World of Genesis One and The Lost World of Adam and Eve, are among the most difficult in the realm of biblical studies and theology. But I'm afraid that some of Dr. Walton's answers do obvious damage to the biblical text. At times, he undermines doctrines clearly taught by Scripture in order to shed light on questions the Bible simply doesn't address, at least not directly. What I highlight here are simply a few of the most troubling scenarios he presents in CT. 

Dr. Walton makes a distinction between Adam as a prototype (the first of his kind) and an archetype (the representative of his kind). In fairness, the distinction is a good one, for Scripture demands that we see Adam as an archetype of the human race. Dr. Walton rightly points out that Paul has this in view, specifically in Romans 5:12. But Adam being an archetype of humanity does not rule out his being the prototype as well. Paul affirms this in 1 Corinthians 15:45, where he refers to Adam as "the first man," and he does so again while addressing Athenians philosopher on Mars Hill when he says, "[God] made from one man every nation of mankind" (Acts 17:26). 

Walton argues against the apostle Paul, however, when he says that Genesis 1 speaks of God creating a group of people, while Genesis 2 zeroes in on Adam and Eve, who may or may not have been part of that original group. He writes, "If I want to know whether Genesis 1 is talking about two individuals or humans as a whole, I look at ancient Near Eastern accounts. Sure enough, they always emphasize people as a whole" (43). I agree that the language of Genesis 1 describes people in general, but it does not specify how many people humanity began with. It is only when we get to Genesis 2 that we get the answer to that question:

When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the LORD God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground, and a mist was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground—then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature (Genesis 2:5-7 ESV; emphasis added).

If Dr. Walton's premise were correct—that Genesis 1 and 2 describe two different creation scenes and that God created a group of people in Genesis 1 prior to the events of Genesis 2—then the biblical text is wrong, or at best misleading, when it says "there was no man to work the ground" (v. 5).

But Dr. Walton also takes aim at the Bible's description of Adam being formed from the dust of the earth (v. 7). He writes, "[W]hen the text says Adam was formed from dust, it's not saying that guy was formed from dust, and the rest of us are born of woman. It's saying we all are dust" (44; emphasis original). Again, I think Dr. Walton has a point. Scripture teaches that we are to see ourselves as being made of dust. As the book of Job says, "If [God] should set his heart to it and gather to himself his spirit and his breath, all flesh would perish together, and man would return to dust" (Job 34:14-15; cf. Genesis 18:27; Psalm 103:14; Ecclesiastes 12:7). But that doesn't mean that Adam was not literally formed of dust. 

Scripture tells us that Adam's creation was unique. As the first man, how could it not be? The overwhelming witness from the patriarchs to the apostles is that Adam was formed by the very hands of God from the dust of the earth in His own image. Being made "not by human hands" is such a theologically heavy concept, it's painful to hear Dr. Walton brush it aside in favor of some evolutionary compromise to avoid putting Adam at the head of the human race. It's meaningless to declare an historical Adam, as Dr. Walton does, if Adam is stripped of his place in biblical history as the first human being. 

Paul says, "The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven" (1 Corinthians 15:47). But if Walton is right, and the description of Adam being formed from dust is merely a literary device (I would argue it is that AND so much more), then why should we believe that Christ's being from heaven is any more literal? Perhaps the apostle John and the other New Testament writers were simply making the point that once we identify with Christ, we should seek to live as though we, too, are citizens of heaven. But the power of our citizenship in heaven lies in the fact that Jesus is the Son of God who came from heaven. So, too, our unique creation by God among all the living things of the universe depends on our being hand-formed by Him and infused with life by His breath/Spirit (Genesis 2:7). 

The literary power of being formed of earth loses all of its strength if that's all it ever is—a literary device. There must be some point, as we look back in time, that God's hands got dirty. Even in writing this, I recognize the complexities created by the anthropomorphism of God having hands; my point is not to alleviate all the potential problems of a difficult text like this one but to respect appropriate boundaries—those that Scripture provides. 

We need scholars like Dr. John Walton who reexamine the text of Scripture in light of other ancient Near Eastern texts, cognate languages, and so forth. But to do so without letting Scripture first speak for itself is a dangerous proposition. 

The issues that I bring up today are not the greatest problems I see in Dr. Walton's reimagining of Genesis, but I'll save those for my next post.