The God who retcons

If you’re a Millennial, there’s a good chance that you’ve heard the term “retcon” before. If you’re not a Millennial, or if you are for any other reason unacquainted with the word, it is short for “retroactive continuity.” What’s that? I could give a definition, but examples are easier. Probably one of the craziest examples is from last year. Captain America (in the comics) was revealed to be secretly on the side of the evil organization HYDRA which he had ostensibly spent years fighting. Obviously, for the first several decades of Cap’s existence, no one thought of him like that. The character wasn’t invented to be that. But suddenly, his backstory was drastically rewritten with a single comic. The old, settled meaning of hundreds of comics was transformed by this new declaration. They changed the past. Thus “retroactive continuity,” or “retcon.”

The cool thing about God is that He invented retconning, at least if you believe the Bible. This probably sounds strange, so you may want proof. Very well; I can provide it. I think we all remember Hagar, but if not, try reading this passage from ye Old Testament:

Abram’s wife Sarai had not borne any children for him, but she owned an Egyptian slave named Hagar. Sarai said to Abram, “Since the Lord has prevented me from bearing children, go to my slave; perhaps through her I can build a family.” And Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So Abram’s wife Sarai took Hagar, her Egyptian slave, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife for him. This happened after Abram had lived in the land of Canaan 10 years. He slept with Hagar, and she became pregnant. When she realized that she was pregnant, she treated her mistress with contempt.

Genesis 16:1-4

Pretty good move on Abraham’s part, right? He’s waiting for God to give him a son, as promised, and so when his wife (for whatever reason) suggests he use her slave for that purpose, he jumps on it. As we find later, the son he has through Hagar, Ishmael, ridicules Sarai’s son, Isaac, who was the true promised child, and Hagar’s life is ruined, and in the end Ishmael’s descendants hate Israel. The story reaches into the present day as the source of modern Israeli/Arab conflict. So, this little debacle is pretty much responsible for 9/11 and modern Middle Eastern terrorism more generally. Thanks, Father Abraham!

From our perspective, this looks like a catastrophic failure. Abraham was given a promise and told to wait, but he ran out of patience and faith. So he created chaos for everyone. Not quite the most honorable legacy.

Except that’s not how God remembers it. Let us turn to Romans 4, where Paul recalls Abraham’s story as the background for his teaching about justification by faith. Here’s how he describes Abraham’s faith:

He is the father of us all in God’s sight. As it is written: I have made you the father of many nations. He believed in God, who gives life to the dead and calls things into existence that do not exist. He believed, hoping against hope, so that he became the father of many nations according to what had been spoken: So will your descendants be. He considered his own body to be already dead (since he was about 100 years old) and also considered the deadness of Sarah’s womb, without weakening in the faith. He did not waver in unbelief at God’s promise but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, because he was fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform. Therefore, it was credited to him for righteousness.

Romans 4:16b-22 (emphasis mine)

See, when Abraham is remembered in the New Testament, nothing is said about him letting his faith or his patience slip up with Hagar. Instead, Paul says under inspiration that Abraham did not waver but was strengthened in faith. He was fully convinced of God’s promise. That seems strange to us, but it’s how the Bible sees it.

How do we understand this? Is there some kind of contradiction? Does Romans 4 pretend that Genesis 16 never happened? To steal a phrase from Paul, by no means! See, we don’t know Abraham’s psychology. We don’t know what made him think it was actually a good idea to impregnate his wife’s slave instead of waiting for Sarai to conceive. But we do know one thing: God remembered him as righteous, not unfaithful. Whatever this little episode was, it somehow fell into a story of Abraham as a hero of faith.

The same goes for other Bible characters with massive flaws and failures. David had Bathsheba, but he was gladly upheld as the ideal king who points to the Messiah. Moses was, for sin’s sake, barred from the Promised Land, but good luck finding a negative word about him in the New Testament. He’s called instead “faithful as a servant in all God’s household” (Heb. 3:5).

This isn’t just exaggerated hagiography, as though the later Bible writers felt embarrassed and wanted to brush over the flaws of their favorite forefathers. This is the divine retcon: when God takes the mixed and cracked lives of His saints and reworks them into something beautiful, something, well, righteous. God justifies us, declares us righteous, by faith, and in declaring us righteous, He makes our whole story a story of righteousness, even the gross parts. It is just another aspect of how God works all things for good.

So for us, even in our worst moments, we can know this: if we continue in faith, our story ends with “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” We may not feel good or faithful now, but God is writing the story, and He has given us a glorious sneak peek into the ending. Whatever happens in the meantime, He will fit it all into that ending. For the God who justifies the ungodly is the God who retcons.

Advertisements

The key to understanding the Bible is reading it

“You need to become a first century Jew.”

Oh, how many times I have heard this kind of thing from people discussing the New Testament. And it’s not, of course, entirely incorrect. The Bible was written for all of God’s people in every time and place, but it was not written to all of us. Each book was written to a particular ancient audience very different from us today. So, often enough, we can understand a book of the Bible better if we learn to put ourselves in the original audience’s place, to think and feel like they did.

My problem is with what people who say these kinds of things tend to mean. They don’t just mean we need to learn the perspective of the people the Bible was written to. They often mean we need to learn this perspective by studying a bunch of technical background stuff about history, anthropology, archeology, and everything else. And this is where I start feeling a bit uncomfortable.

Now, let me be clear. I’m not saying these studies are bad or useless. No, they are great and very useful. I think the work done in these fields is invaluable. And they work: the findings of historians and others actually do make tons of things in the Bible clearer. But do we really need them to get the majority of the Bible? Can we never know the real, original meaning of it all without the help of our scholarly magisterium? To put it another way, is the average Martin doomed to get everything wrong without top-notch commentaries to hold his hand? I can’t help but suspect the answer is “no.”

See, the key to understanding any text is to think the way that the author expected the reader to think. That’s the whole point of studying the historical and cultural context of the Bible. We can use what we learn to shift mental gears into the same configuration as that of ancient Israelites. But there’s more than one way to neutralize a Dalek, so to speak, and I think Martin Luther had the right idea.

Sola Scriptura, “Scripture alone,” is the Protestant belief that, ultimately, everything we really need to know about God can be found in the Bible. We don’t need a magisterium, Holy Tradition, or N. T. Wright’s marvelous book The New Testament and the People of God, however helpful they might sometimes be. Cue the ironically-named doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture, or the clarity of the Bible. Not everything in the Bible is equally clear, but the good stuff we most need to know can be easily found and proved.

I think this extends further than some people give it credit for, and not as far as others do. I don’t think this means that any Martin can just crack open a Bible and get any particular thing, even the Gospel itself, right at first glance. But on the second, or the third, or even the fourth time… Scholars put a lot of historical work into finding the worldview of the Bible’s first readers, but we can’t forget that the Bible contains its own worldview, at least implicitly. And the Bible is big. There is enough stuff in there to actually build an entire way of thinking, feeling, and doing. This is stuff that we absorb without even realizing it as we read. So if we absorb more as we read more, then our hearts will be filled more and more with the real Bible.

My point, then, is that this rare and mythical process—you know, reading—can actually give us the perspective we need. The more we consume the Bible, the more it becomes a part of us. “You are what you eat,” it is said, and this applies mentally as much as physically. Just like we digest food and use its parts to build our bodies, so we digest books and use their parts to build our minds. So if you read enough Bible, you will, perhaps slowly, begin to understand it more accurately.

Still, consistency, willingness to learn, and comprehensiveness are vital. Many people read the Bible their whole lives without learning to read it well. There are plenty of reasons for this, of course. But, for many of these people, their reading has often been scattered, blocked by presuppositions they couldn’t give up, or neglectful of certain parts. This last one is a biggie. I would say without hesitation that many Christians get a lot of the Bible wrong because they don’t pay enough attention to most of what’s in Genesis 4 to Matthew 1, or don’t read/skim over books like Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Ecclesiastes, Chronicles, Lamentations, or the Minor Prophets. Few Christians really get to know the Psalms, except for a few of their favorites, or the ins and outs of Jude. They’re scared of Revelation (except when they’re not and run over it like a toddler on a bulldozer) and Ezekiel. They’ve only read 3 chapters of Job, the first two and the last one. Yet we need all of these parts in order to learn to think like the Bible thinks, and so even get our favorite parts right.

So, in the end, my proposal is simple. If you read the Bible enough—and I mean seriously, not just like daily devotional material—you’ll learn it deeply. It will enter the crevices of your heart. Doing this over a long enough period of time can, when done well, truly make you a competent reader, up there with the scholars. You’ll be that first century Jew, just by a different route.

(P.S. I’m not claiming to have scaled these heights yet. I’ve cheated by reading excellent Bible-readers like N. T. Wright, Peter Leithart, James Jordan, and Alastair Roberts, among others.)

Step outside and see the world biblically

A few weeks ago I read James B. Jordan’s book Through New Eyes, and it did indeed leave me with new eyes to see. The book is essentially a primer of biblical worldview. This is not, Jordan explains, the same as Christian worldview in a philosophical sense. Rather, it is about how the Bible portrays the world we live in, all on its own terms. This involved two main categories: symbolism and history.

As Jordan explains, the world is designed to reveal God and His glory. This isn’t a secondary function, or frosting on the cake of creation. It’s what the world is at its heart: a symbol of God. And every part of the world symbolizes God in its own way. Through New Eyes uses the Bible to show demonstrate how certain different parts of creation symbolize God, so that you can go outside and see, instead of just matter, a world on fire with the glory of God.

While Through New Eyes looks at lots of different symbolism, I just want to highlight here some of the stuff that stuck out to me the most and has had the largest impact on my own vision. So here are a few natural symbols in biblical perspective:

Sky
The sky is called “heaven/the heavens” in Scripture, and it’s not a coincidence that this word is also used for the realm of God and the angels. The two are not the same place, but the sky is the image of heaven. It is above us no matter where we are, symbolizing that God and His host are watching over everything. Being higher also symbolizes God’s authority. The sun symbolizes the face of God, which shines on the righteous and the unrighteous, giving light, heat, and glory to the world, yet also scorching and burning. The sun, the moon, and the stars together also symbolize the rulers and authorities in the world, both earthly and heavenly. The clouds also represent the weight and glory of God, along with His double-edged comings of blessing and judgment.
Trees
Trees represent people, as can be seen throughout the Bible, such as in Psalm 1. Trees and men both come from the earth, and both grow up toward the sky which represents heaven. Those which are healthy and well-watered flourish, creating shade and fruit as a blessing, just as the Christian is given new life when baptized by the Spirit, which leads him to a life of love and fruit which blesses others. Unhealthy trees represent the wicked, who are dry and lifeless and good for nothing but to be cut down and thrown into the fire. People tend to surround homes, apartments, schools, and other such places with trees, and these trees represent the intended flourishing of the people who populate those places. Trees also represent a ladder to heaven, reaching from the earth to the sky, something which men are meant to become by the Spirit.
Animals
All animals are designed to represent God in various ways. They variously represent strength, power, beauty, sight, or other things which God has in abundance. Most interestingly, the animals which were unclean represented death. This is because the curse of human death was bound up with the cursing of the ground and its dust.
Rocks and stones
The Bible calls God a “rock.” He is strong and hard and massive, and this has two edges. On the one hand, rocks represent the safety God gives to His people. In the cleft of a rock a man can find shelter and shade. On the other hand, rocks represent the danger God poses to unbelievers. Whoever falls upon the rock will be broken, and if the rock comes falling down, whoever is beneath it will be crushed. The rock of the kingdom of God grows into a mountain, which elevates God and His people, Christ and His Church, above the whole world. It will stand and never be shaken. Smaller stones, like rubies and diamonds and the like, represent by their inner glint God’s fire of purity and holiness, and His Holy Spirit. By their brilliance they represent the glory of God, the shining and luminescent aspect which beautifies Him and His world.

So go out, look at the world, and see God. He is behind it all, and it all is meant to be a picture of Him.

Faith grows

Everyone familiar with Genesis knows the story of Abraham and Hagar. God promised to give Abraham a son. But it was taking a very long time, and his wife Sarah seemed simply barren. Eventually, they reason that he should try the common practice of taking his wife’s slave as a second wife. So Abraham slept with Hagar and got Ishmael. Impatience and perhaps some lack of faith created another line, outside of the promise, which led to lots of trouble down the road. God promised Abraham children, and he didn’t know what to think about that promise based on his life situation, and he messed things up by trying to fix it himself.

Abraham, however, did not stay this way. In Genesis 24, another stage has come to the story of Abraham and God’s promise. Abraham is old and about to die, and Isaac is all grown up. Isaac needs a wife if he is to continue the line of promise. So Abraham sends his servant back to his extended family to find a wife for Isaac. The reason for this restriction is obvious: Abraham’s family worshipped Yahweh, but most other people were idolaters.

But if Abraham’s family is to provide a wife for Isaac, and they don’t live in Canaan, what happens if they don’t want to send a daughter into a distant land to marry Isaac? The servant asks Abraham about this possibility, and the conversation goes as follows:

The servant asked him, “What if the woman is unwilling to come back with me to this land? Shall I then take your son back to the country you came from?”

“Make sure that you do not take my son back there,” Abraham said. “The Lord, the God of heaven, who brought me out of my father’s household and my native land and who spoke to me and promised me on oath, saying, ‘To your offspring I will give this land’—he will send his angel before you so that you can get a wife for my son from there. If the woman is unwilling to come back with you, then you will be released from this oath of mine. Only do not take my son back there.”

Genesis 24:5-8

Abraham has certainly changed. He is no longer worried about how God will fulfill His promise to give them descendents. If Isaac can’t get a wife from Abraham’s family without leaving the promised land, then Isaac will just have to wait. They will not leave the land. They will simply have to trust God that He will provide for Isaac as He provided for Abraham. There is no doubt here, only faith in God and His promises.

This, of course, is by the grace of God. God worked on Abraham, trying and refining him over the years to hone his faith. He brought Abraham from faith to faith, and the growth brought about great good. So if our own faith is weak, and it tries to fail, we must persevere. We must keep holding on, despite the difficulty, for God will work on us and teach us to trust Him. Abraham’s faith grew, and so may our own.

Biblical terms we usually misunderstand

Does “saving justice” sound right to you? How about “holy love”? What about “gracious judgment” or “avenging mercy”? They should, but I suspect that for many, or most, of us at least some of these don’t really make sense.

Sadly, I’ve gotten the impression that over time our theological technicalities have led us to miss the actual meanings of many biblical terms. But these are important terms, and when we misunderstand them we misread the Bible and end up with confused theology. So without further ado, I want to list a few terms we tend to misunderstand:

Justice
Often, we think of justice as “punishment for wrongdoing,” but this is overly narrow. In Scripture, especially in the Psalms and the prophets, God’s justice is also connected with salvation, love, and faithfulness to the covenant (see Psalm 98, for example). Biblically, God’s justice is better described as His commitment to “rightness,” to putting things right in creation. This includes both salvation for His people and judgment for the wicked, healing for the hurting and destruction for the evildoers. This also connects with God’s righteousness and faithfulness. In Scripture, God’s justice includes a strong note of faithfully exercising His covenant responsibilities.
Mercy
The most common definition I’ve heard of biblical “mercy” is “not getting the bad you deserve.” Again, this isn’t necessarily wrong to say what it says, but Scripture treats mercy as a larger topic. Mercy in the broader sense is simply to alleviate suffering. If someone is suffering and you help them, it is mercy. This can, and in Scripture often does, apply to people who don’t deserve the suffering they are experiencing, like the exploited poor. But it does apply especially to us who are suffering deservedly under our sin, when God freely rescues us anyone.
Grace
In parallel to the definition of “mercy,” people tend to define grace as “getting the good you don’t deserve.” Again, though, this seems slightly off, although closer to the biblical usage. It seems closer to the biblical use to say that grace essentially means “gift.” The point of the gift isn’t specifically that someone doesn’t deserve what they’re getting, but that dessert has nothing to do with it at all. Gifts are regardless of merit or demerit, and are not specifically about what you don’t deserve (or what you do deserve).

I thought of trying to add some other ones, but these are the bigguns I’ve been thinking about lately, so I’ll leave it at that. Try these alternative definitions out for a test drive in your Bible reading.

No, you are not a soul

You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.

C. S. Lewis

Amen, right?

By no means!

The above quote was supposedly said by C. S. Lewis, one of our favorite theological writers of the modern age. The sentiment is echoed all over the place in Christianity. People complain about their bodies and long for the day that they will be free of them in heaven. When people sin, they excuse their sin by saying they didn’t mean to do it, but their passions or instincts got the best of them. People who struggle with body image are always reassured that the body doesn’t matter; only what’s inside counts. The underlying dogma is clear: your body is not really you. It’s just a temporary shell. Your soul is the real you, and you may even be better off without a body.

This is antichrist.

I could go on for a long time on why this is so wrong, but I’ll focus on the problems with Gnosticism and resurrection. So, Gnosticism:

A strict separation of body/soul doesn’t resemble the Bible at all, but is closer to the ancient heresy of Gnosticism. The Gnostics were a heretical cult in the early church. They believed many problematic and even ridiculous doctrines, but a core distinctive was their view of the physical and the spiritual, or the material and the immaterial. Matter and flesh came from an inferior, perhaps evil, creator, whereas spirit and soul came from the true and good God. So they saw the body as at best irrelevant and at worst an evil obstacle to salvation. But the spirit was the true and good self which could reach salvation through enlightenment. Unfortunately, while not guilty of all of the heretical ideas in Gnostic thought, the whole “you are a soul, not a body” thing really does get its shape from this kind of thinking.

The problems with this approach go on and on. For one, this reasoning is what led to the heresy that Jesus was not completely human, or only had the appearance of a body (called Docetism). Yet John calls them deceivers who “do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh” or (as the NLT puts it) “deny that Jesus Christ came in a real body” (2 John 1:7). Jesus was God made flesh. This flesh is essential to the Incarnation which saves us.

This view also leads to some of the moral problems of Gnosticism, which continue even today. If your body isn’t really you, only the soul, then perhaps you should practice extreme asceticism, denying yourself every bodily pleasure to instead live hungry, cold, and alone. Then your soul can focus on God. On the other hand, if the body isn’t really you, it might make sense to brush off moral responsibility in your body. What does it matter what you do if it’s just your body? Many Gnostics used this to justify sexual immorality, but even today in evangelical Christianity it can lead us to blame our bodies for our sins and insist that our souls are actually pure. (And in a less direct way, this leads to the unrealistic and extremely dangerous thought, “He seems harsh and jerkish on the outside, but he’s actually a good person once you get to know him.”)

Besides the Gnostic connections, another problem with this soul-centered view is resurrection. Jesus’ bodily resurrection is at the heart of the Gospel, and ours follows from it. The Apostles’ Creed literally says it as, “I believe in the resurrection of the flesh.” Paul made this point powerfully in 1 Corinthians 15. Some people in Corinth, probably influenced by Greek philosophy, were saying that there wouldn’t be a physical resurrection. Paul rebuked them and pointed to Jesus, saying the Gospel was at stake.

In fact, I think the popularity of this deviant view is why so many Christians underemphasize, or even don’t realize at all, the saving importance of Jesus’ resurrection. According to the Bible, Jesus’ resurrection is the source of our regeneration (1 Jn. 1:3), justification (Rom. 4:25), sanctification (Rom. 8:11-13), and glorification (Rom. 8:23). In a certain sense, resurrection is salvation, and we will not be “fully” saved until our bodies are raised for eternal life with Christ in renewed creation. If we miss this, we miss a major element to the Gospel. For the Bible, the body is not an addon, a shell, or an obstacle. It is saved, redeemed, and glorified in Christ.

Now I realize there are some who would object on the basis of the war between the spirit and the flesh. After all, Paul says this: “For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13). Doesn’t this mean that your physical body is corrupt and that your spirit/soul is pure? Not really. For the acts of the flesh are “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like” (Gal. 5:19-21). While many of these are body with the body, they are all rooted in the heart, and some of these only take place within. Thus the flesh as Paul speaks of it against the Spirit is not the human body. What the flesh actually means is debatable (I favor the view that it refers to natural humanity living without relation to God but only to humanity), but it doesn’t mean human body by itself.

To conclude, let’s drop the dualist silliness. You are a body and a soul. Your body without your soul is dead, and your soul without your body is naked. God made us to be both. We cannot ignore the body, but must let our body and soul serve as instruments with which to glorify God. For we will be raised forever, to live bodily with Christ.

Oh, by the way, it is a most likely a myth that C. S. Lewis said the above quote. Thankfully. (Though to be honest, I’m unsure whether he might have agreed.)