Friday, December 29, 2006

Toward a Christian Epistemology

Nobody should mistake this post as anything other than a brief broad brushstroke of a topic that very long books have been written about. But it may be worthwhile to describe in condensed summary form what a Christian view of knowledge looks like. Given the Reformed bent I operate with, it will be little surprise that my views on epistemology will draw heavily from Calvin and Frame.

Category-wise, there are essentially three different means of acquiring knowledge, which Frame would classify as 3 perspectives - the normative, situational, and existential. All 3 are completely valid and all 3 are essential where both God and man is concerned. On page 1 of the Institutes, Calvin said if we wanted to know more about God, we need to know more about ourselves, and if we want to know more about ourselves, we need to understand God. Calvin was noncommittal on where someone ought to start on that loop, and to some degree, it's the wrong question to ask. His point is that knowledge of God is linked to knowledge of ourselves, since we are made in God's image. He's right. Therefore (here's my own little syllogism), understanding God better means that each way we've been given to acquire knowledge is valid to acquire knowledge about God. All 3 perspectives are completely essential to gaining knowledge of God, because they are all essential in gaining knowledge about ourselves.

Quick example: How do I know that the people posting on online forums all have brains? I can't empirically see that, and while I sort of sense it, it's not the best way to prove it. In this case, the best way to know this is through logical deduction/syllogism. But what if I want to know the color of the sky? I can't really feel color, and color is not easy to prove logically. Here, the best way to know this is through empirical observation. But lastly, how do I know that I love my wife? I suppose I could prove it logically, but this would hardly be compellling. I suppose there are ways to verify love empirically, but such proofs wouldn't be absolute and can be very arbitrary. Here, the best way to know this is because I know what love feels like, and that's how I feel about my wife. All 3 ways of acquiring knowledge are essential to what makes us human. To discount any of these categories is to reduce humans to something less than they are. And if Calvin is correct in saying that knowledge of God is gained in part through knowledge of ourselves as humans, a distorted or deminimus view of humanity will inevitably compromise an accurate understanding of God.

The folly of secular philosophy (and the Christian philosophies that have followed them without major modification) is that it has attempted to absolutize one of these areas at the expense of the other two. For Hume, rationalism and experience had to bend the knee to empiricism. For Descartes, empiricism and experience had to bend the knee to rationalism. For Sartre, rationalism and empiricism had to bend the knee to experience. Kant, like Plato, got fairly close to a synthesis between all 3, but even Kantian philosophy greatly discounted the existential while trying to forge a synthesis between rationalism and empiricism. Christian philosophies have followed this secular imbalance, particularly Kant's. Ritschl, Schleiermacher, Schweitzer, and even folks like Gordon Clark, Kierkegaard, and Machen all forced legitimate expressions of knowledge to bend the knee to their respective preferred aspects.

The Bible strongly affirms all 3 aspects. Scripture often uses logical argumentation positively (in particular, I love Jesus' logical argumentation in Mt. 22:41-46). Scripture also positively affirms the legitimacy of gaining knowledge through empirical observation and testimony (the Doubting Thomas story of John 20 for example). And lastly, much of Paul's writings are based on theologizing from an existential change brought about by conversion. A lot of what Paul says about the old nature/new nature (such as in Rom. 7) is rooted not in logic or empirical observation, but existential realities of the Christian life.

As Christians, we need to embrace the doctrine of imago dei fully. This means that all 3 aspects of knowledge are necessary and legitimate. The key to a Christian epistemology is to realize that all 3 aspects fully and completely reconcile in God (this, of course, is the unifying factor in epistemology that is missing from secular philosophy and forces the imbalances we see), so the extent to which we are discounting any of them only compounds our inability to understand God better. The Reformed doctrine of general revelation means that secular philosophies may offer something of value to us as Christians - God works through pagans all the time (Cyrus anyone?). But under no circumstances are we to embrace secular philosophy uncritically, or attempt, as Schleiermacher and Ritschl did, to try and fit Christianity within a secular philosophical system that is not based on Scriptural principles of knowledge.

What Christians need to do with people like Kant, Sartre, Rorty, and Derrida is to rethink them within a Christian lens, rather than rethinking Christianity within a secular lens. Derrida in particular has much to offer and he should not be dismissed out of hand. But Derrida's views, while quite insightful, are also dangerous a fair amount of the time (his views on hospitality are particularly provocative). Christians who have a biblically informed epistemology will, by definition, be able to see the imbalances inherent in secular philosophy (as well as philosophies regrettably adhered to by other Christians) and be able to thoughtfully critique them intelligently. It will also help us to see the imbalances in our own ways of thinking as well, since Christians tend to be as inclined toward imbalance as everyone else.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Hebrews 4.15-16 - More Radical Than We Dare Think

One of the more beloved passages in the NT is Hebrews 4.15-16. It reads as follows:

15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Verse 16 clearly links itself to what is said in v15 as the basis for its confident exhortation to approach the throne of grace to receive mercy in times of trouble. And it makes perfect sense for v16 to be linked to v15. Why? Because in v15, the stunning claim is made that during Christ's earthly ministry, he was tempted in every way that we are, yet didn't sin.

Americans in particular tend to read this verse and equate the temptations of Jesus with their own temptations. And this indeed causes us to be in some awe of how Christ could resist sin despite being tempted like we are. But this individualistic understanding actually dilutes just how radical the claim of v15 is. Verse 15 is not somehow reducing the temptations of Jesus to the temptations that any one person might struggle with. No indeed! Verse 15 is saying that Christ was tempted in every way as WE are - plural. This is an inconceivably radical claim. Take all the temptations of all the people in the world, or even just all the temptations of all the Christians in the world, put them all together, and this is the scope of the temptations of Christ. Some of us struggle with jealousy, while others don't. Some of us struggle with addictions, while others don't. Some of us struggle with any number of sexual sins, while some don't. Christ, by virtue of taking on human flesh and identifying himself with us, took on every possible temptation of humanity - not just the ones you or I might struggle with, but the totality of temptations humanity at large struggles with!

Verse 15 is telling us something about Christ that is so radical that it is impossible to completely grasp it. And frankly, we're scared to grasp it because of its implications. If Christ endured the totality of human temptation, this means a lot of things we might prefer not to think about. There are people who are tempted by things like same-sex attraction, the desire to hurt people deeply, the desire to lash out and wage war, the desire to cheat or steal, and on and on. As Christians, we tend to be very uncomfortable thinking about our Savior being tempted by these kinds of things. We're not totally okay with the radical Jesus that the NT gives us, and what Hebrews 4.15 tells us. I mean, we can be okay with the idea that Jesus might have been tempted to be impatient, or a little gossipy, or even to tell a 'harmless' lie - and that thankfully, Christ didn't act on any of these things. But the idea that Jesus would have been tempted by lust the way many of us are almost makes the fact that he remained without sin beside the point. We're not comfortable with Jesus being tempted by particularly 'heinous' sins - that's just a little too radical for us. But that's what Hebrews 4.15 is saying, and thankfully so! It is precisely because Jesus endured the full brunt of humanity's temptations that he is so completely familiar and sympathetic with our struggles - even our darkest struggles. And what verse 16 says is that it's this complete and total familiarity and compassion for human struggling and striving that makes Jesus so capable of offering us mercy and grace when we confidently go before his throne in prayer and repentance.

If Jesus was only tempted by lesser temptations, verse 16 would not be in the Bible absent significant clarification. The boldness of v16 is thoroughly linked with the radicalness of v15. Because v15 relates to the totality of human temptation, v16 is applicable to all Christians at all times who are struggling with absolutely anything. Verse 16 is for the man with an anger problem. It is for the child who struggles with defying authority. It is for the infertile woman who is secretly insanely jealous of people who are able to conceive. It is for people struggling with same-sex attraction, for people struggling with addictions of all kinds, for people crushed by doubt and low self-esteem, for those who are depressed, for those who are arrogant and unfeeling, etc. We can confidently approach the throne of grace like v16 tells us to because there's nothing we can bring before God that he isn't already personally familiar with as v15 says. We can receive grace and mercy because there's no temptation, no matter how dark, that Christ himself was not exposed to. Christ was tempted more than any individual ever was because his temptations were the temptations of an entire race. This is radical stuff that we are often too scared to embrace. But the radical nature of Christ's temptations is the exact basis for the confidence we now have in going to him with our struggles. Don't water down the person and work of your Savior, because to do so is take the wonder and awe out of your faith.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Christmas Sermonette

It is a tradition in our home that Christmas Day include the singing of a hymn or two, and an informal 'sermonette' before any gifts are opened. The following is the sermonette I prepared last year for Christmas, 2005. While the opening illustration is now dated, it's fresh enough to set the mood for what follows...


Jason Foster

As much as any year I can remember, 2005 has been the year in which America has obsessed about what the 'true' meaning of Christmas is. Books have been written documenting what some believe to be a 'war on Christmas'. Others, on the other hand, have asserted that throughout the 20th century, Christmas has been an often comfortable blending of the sacred and the secular, and that to exclusively define Christmas by either camp's ideas of meaning cheapens the season and robs it of something essential. As Christians, we are certainly a long way from the manger of 2,000 years ago. As just one example, the humility and poverty of the stable have been replaced with indulgence and materialism, and this replacement certainly exists in the church. This raises the uncomfortable question of whether it's even possible to recover the 'true' meaning of Christmas, given the disconnect that clearly exists between our culture and the time of our Lord.

Fortunately, the unchanging Scriptures of our faith have left us a historical record and the interpretation of it by the apostles. Today, on Christmas day, it is right and proper for us to celebrate the actual event that took place in the manger – the Incarnation. The Incarnation is something we profess to be true as a great article of our faith. But it is rarely contemplated, rarely thought about, and rarely relevant to our lives. But in reality, the Incarnation, as confusing and wondrous as it is, was absolutely necessary when it happened, and it is vitally relevant to us today. Let's look at Philippians 2:6-11.

There are two main things I'd like to point out. First, verse 7 demonstrates an incredible initiative on the part of Christ to take on human flesh. He is still God, but in the taking on of human likeness, Christ voluntarily surrendered his sovereign abode. He did not surrender his deity, but he did surrender his position. More specifically, John 17:5 tells us that in the Incarnation, Christ gave up his divine glory for the sake of men during his time on earth. He did this voluntarily and proactively on our behalf. The Incarnation is thoroughly God-initiated.

This leads to the second point in verse 8. In becoming the God-man, Christ was perfectly obedient to the will of the Father, including his death on the Cross. In doing this, we begin to see the purpose of the Incarnation, and why it was so necessary. But in order to complete the story, we need to look at Hebrews 2:10ff.
What is Hebrews saying? The amazing thing about the Incarnation is that God the Son purposed to take on human likeness in solidarity with us. Through Christ, God enters into the mud of sin and death and saves us right there. But why was the Incarnation necessary to do this? Couldn't the salvation of the human race come some other way? What's so special about the Incarnation event of Christmas?

Look at verses 14 and 17 of Hebrews 2. In taking on human flesh, Jesus became the great and final High Priest. Why? Because in order for Christ to offer himself as a sacrificial substitute to pay for the sins of the human race, he had to be both God and man. Jesus had to be God in order to offer a perfect sacrifice without blemish and unstained by sin in order for his sacrifice to be once for all and acceptable to the Father. But Jesus also had to be man in order to be a truly legitimate representative of the human race on the Cross. Unlike the human priest of the OT who had to include his own sins in the act of yearly atonement for the people, and unlike the animals who imperfectly represented men as the sacrificial instruments, the Incarnation allowed Christ to be the perfect sacrifice because he was the perfect priestly representative of the people before God. The Incarnation was absolutely necessary for the salvation of the world.

So in becoming the God-man, Jesus joined us in solidarity with us as a proactive act of love and mercy. He identified himself with us, so that he could legitimately die on our behalf as our representative. But in addition, by identifying himself with us in every way except sin, the God-man tasted our sufferings and afflictions, became a man of sorrows acquainted with grief, and experienced what it was like to be human. When we pray to God, we are not praying to an ivory tower God who knows nothing about our sufferings and grief. Through the Incarnation, Jesus Christ's role as Savior was perfected as a result of becoming like us. And as he makes intercession for us as our great High Priest today, he does so as the God-man who loved us enough to unite with us in his flesh. Christ didn't have to do this. God didn't have to save anyone. But because God purposed to have a relationship with sinners and save them from darkness, Christ had to become Incarnate in order to share in our miseries so completely that he could be our perfect priestly spokesman before God in both his death and his continuing role as intercessory Priest.

So when we contemplate exactly what we're celebrating this Christmas, take heed of the wondrous love shown to us in the Incarnation. The God-man became one of us of his own volition in that manger so long ago. In doing so, He extended the highest form of hospitality to a completely inhospitable world that wanted nothing to do with him. He gave up his divine glory by identifying himself with us and our poverty. He was tempted like no other individual. He suffered more than any one of us ever will. And he has delivered us from slavery and death. Rejoice O Christian! Your sins have been forgiven because Jesus met you in your poverty and joined you there, and has lifted you out of the muck so that you will one day ascend to God just as he did. Look at the baby in your nativity scene, and think on these things. Merry Christmas indeed! Amen.

Merry Christmas in Christ our Incarnate Lord.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Senate Should Remain Controlled by Democrats

With news that Tim Johnson (D-SD) has suffered a brain hemorrhage or something similar, the inevitable inside-the-beltway sport of 'what next' has already started. While Johnson lies in critical condition at GW Hospital in DC, the fate of the Senate is what everyone is talking about. If Johnson is impaired beyond his ability to serve out his Senate term, the Republican governor of South Dakota will have to appoint someone to take Johnson's place in the Senate. It is customary in cases of Senate appointments for governors to appoint people from the same party as the governor, not necessarily the same party as the Senator who is otherwise unable to complete his term. If the Republican governor appoints a Republican to complete Johnson's term, the Senate will once again be 50-50 w/Cheney being the tiebreaking vote. This would technically put the Senate back in Republican control, although it's more complicated than that.

For my part, I think the Senate should stay in Democratic hands, and I say this as someone who usually votes Republican. First off, my hope is that Johnson will be able to complete his term, because that will mean that his health condition has greatly improved, which is something we should all hope for as human beings. But second, if it turns out that Johnson cannot continue in the Senate, I don't think Senate control should flip over something like this. I've long said that changes in congressional control should be decided at the ballot box and not through convenient party switches or untimely illness or death. I believed this when Jeffords switched back in 2001, and I believe it now.

On this issue, I happen to think that consistency is the highest virtue. If a person didn't have a problem with Senate control switching when Jeffords switched, one forfeits the right to complain when and if the South Dakota governor appoints a Republican as is customary and was in fact done pretty recently when Republican Paul Coverdell (through his passing) was replaced with a Democrat by a Democratic governor. If, however, someone disapproved of the Senate switch in 2001 because it happened outside the ballot box, one must stay consistent now and reject an outside-the-ballot-box switch in 2007. That's my position, even though the result is a Democratic controlled Senate that I personally don't like. But in this country, the will of the voters must be respected, even though neither side does. Both sides try to get around the will of the electorate all the time by trying to muscle things through the courts that they could never get through the legislature. Likewise, it is clear from the last election that a broad cross-section of the electorate wanted Democrats in charge of Congress. I may not like it, but there's little denying it. Overturning the electorate's will through the Senate's version of a recess appointment is not a compelling reason for doing an end-around public sentiment.

I am praying for Johnson's recovery as a Christian. I am hoping that public sentiment is respected as an American, should it become necessary for the governor to intervene.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Separation of Church and State

This time of year in particular, there is a lot of bluster in the air, at least on the national level, about the uncomfortable intersection between church and state. My goal here is not to weigh in on the legalities of this question, or to lament some 'war on Christmas', but to hopefully talk soberly about a more important disconnect - a disconnect between the hot air of partisan national voices, versus the realities on the ground.

If all one does is listen to the overheated rhetoric about religion and matters of the State that gets highlighted on the evening news, one would think that the division is so sharp and the chasm so deep that it would be a miracle to see anything like compromise or cooperation. But this simply isn't the case.

When I did my field work for the MDiv degree I recently received, I saw firsthand how faith communities and local governments were working together on a variety of matters with no hesitation about the legalities or prudence of such a partnership. Local governments and faith communities are working together on issues of homelessness, low-income housing, utility and transportation assistance, medical and prescription aid, and of course, hunger. Long before there was ever an official federal liaison for faith-based initiatives, many local governments had already seen the necessity of officially and formally working with the faith community where possible to address difficult issues. Many local governments have long had something like a formal department devoted to promoting cooperation and collaboration between government and the faith community on matters of mutual interest. Contrary to what one might think from exclusively following the contentious church-state battles in DC, there is, in many parts of the country, no real stigma between governments and faith communities in actively trying to work together on a variety of fronts. In many communities around the country, local governments have long realized that the faith communities are not only powerful players, but more importantly, are very committed to addressing social problems outside the church walls. Many local governments long ago realized that it is simply foolish and negligent not to actively seek opportunities for collaboration with players like these, and many have done so with little hesitation. Now it's true that some governments are skittish about extending a hand to faith communities, and it is also true that more than a few churches won't cooperate with the government, mainly for ecclesiastical reasons. And this is fair enough. But this is a long way away from the over-the-top rhetoric and sentiments about church-state cooperation that we hear pretty regularly from cloistered partisan interests and their cheerleaders in the press.

There was an article just today about how employees are increasingly bringing their religious beliefs into the workplace, and that for the most part, the shift away from employee automaton that has resulted has been pretty smooth. While there are clear lines that can't be crossed (favoritism, proselytizing, etc) that provide some red meat for the partisan faithful, the fact is that these lines are recognized as legitimate by virtually everyone, with very few incidents of people crossing such lines. As a result, workplaces around the country, from law firms to glass companies, allow voluntary Bible studies to take place on employer property, and more and more executive suite memos are citing religious-based principles and values as complementary of the company's principles and values. Again, the bluster in DC is disconnected from the realities on the ground.

There will always be partisans on both sides of the church-state question who actively try to push their position beyond the bounds of reasonableness. As a Christian, I know there is some legitimacy to the fear of many non-religious and even nominally religious people about the partisans on my side of the divide pushing our religion on society in a hard-nosed, uncompromising fashion. Chuck Colson is correct in saying that as Christians, we should be in the business of proposing, not imposing. But thankfully, there are also a number of non-religious friends of mine who acknowledge the legitimacy of the concerns of religious people that there are mainly secular-minded interests trying very hard to put an unreasonable and belittling lid on religious expression and legitimacy in this country. Unfortunately, these respective partisans are the ones who get most of the air-play and drive the coarseness of the debate. Because these folks get all the attention, not only does the extensive positive collaboration between governments and faith communities go ignored in the national discussion, but observers who often don't know any better presume from the national debate that the two partisan sides depicted are the only two choices available. This inevitably skews one's perception of the question, and usually, it tends to either create a new round of partisans who faithfully take up the cause and join the bluster, or it creates disinterest, disengagement, and disappointment.

If we're concerned about what the divisions in this country are doing to the stability of the national fabric, we need to have the ability to separate the heated rhetoric from sober realities, and recognize that there are very real distinctions between the two. An inability to do this has largely resulted in the divides we see and regret, because we've allowed the usual partisan suspects to speak for us.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

I must give credit where credit is due

I have never been a big fan of government, as some of my previous posts clearly reveal. Government bureaucracy is often too bloated, can't get out of its own way, and often does more harm than good even when they're trying to do good. But every now and then, government forces me to qualify these blanket views. My experience at the Virginia DMV a few months ago was one of those times (in and out in less than an hour). Another of these experiences happened today.

As part of our international adoption process, my wife and I had to go to a DHS fingerprinting facility to get our prints into the national system to verify that we aren't axe murderers or anything before we adopt internationally. I fully expected this little chore to take the better part of forever, but was prepared to be patient as we were cycled from line to line. But then God intervened.

We arrived at about 8:40am, and we were done by 9am. We had only one form to fill out, and as soon as were done with the forms, we were immediately taken back to be printed. It was efficient and routine. I'm pleasantly shocked.

So I must give credit where credit is due. I have heard god-awful things about dealing with INS, and how the immigration system is hopelessly broken. And perhaps in areas like citizenship and work permits for immigrants, this is still the case. But our limited experience with Immigration up 'til now hasn't been inconvenient or self-defeating. So bravo to the Feds. And bravo to my wife for figuring out how to go about what we've had to do to kickstart the adoption process!

Friday, December 01, 2006

Direction/Expansion in Acts

It's hardly news that the book of Acts is structured heavily on Jesus' pronouncement in Acts 1.8 that the gospel will spread from Jerusalem, through Judea and Samaria, and eventually to the ends of the earth. It is widely recognized that Acts 1-7 addresses the Jerusalem component, Acts 8-12 address the Judea/Samaria component, and Acts 13-28 addresses the ends of the earth. No surprises here.

But there are other very interesting directional structures in Acts. It's not simply that the Gospel is expanding geographically to the ends of the earth. What Acts also tells us is that the Gospel is expanding beyond the earliest Jewish followers of Christ, and as it expands geographically, it also expanding ethnically and culturally. In addition to Jewish converts like Paul, Acts shows that the Kingdom began including Samaritans (8.14), God-fearing greeks (17.4, 17.17), and gentiles of all stripes (11.1, 11.18). For Luke, the Gospel has not just expanded territorially, but culturally and ethnically. This is a major emphasis of Acts that is often missed.

What is also often missed is that Acts 1.8 is not the only signpost verse for revealing the structure of Acts. Acts 9.15 is another statement of Jesus that provides a roadmap for reading Acts. Here, God, speaking to Ananias, says that Paul will proclaim the name of Christ in the presence of the gentiles, and of their kings, and of Israel's sons. Not surprisingly, the section of Acts that primarily details the ministry of Paul is structured in this manner. Acts 13-20 focuses on outreach to the gentiles, while chapters 24-26 showcase Paul's speeches before pagan kings. Chapters 22 and 28 show Paul's testimony before the people of Israel. That Acts 1.8 and 9.15 are both statements of Christ himself should make us realize that even though the emphasis is on the apostles, the word of the Lord, and the manifestations of the Spirit, it is the words of Christ that frame the entire story.

In addition, when Acts is taken together with the Gospel of Luke, one notices something rather interesting. In his Gospel, Luke is concerned to show Jesus' gradual movement toward Jerusalem (Luke 9.51, 13.22, 17.11, 19.11). In contrast, Acts is concerned to show the Gospel's spread away from Jerusalem and towards the ends of the earth (Acts 8.1, 8.26, 8.40, 9.19, 9.32, 10.1, 11.19, 13.4). The Lukan corpus taken together shows the centrality of Jerusalem as the beachhead upon which the Kingdom of Christ expands through the preaching of the word of the Lord.

And speaking of the word of the Lord, the reader of Acts can hardly escape what seems like a constant refrain throughout the book - the word of the Lord grew. Acts 6.7 kicks off this emphasis, and it is repeated in paraphrase in 12.24, 13.49, and 19.20. In addition, there are well over a dozen other verses in Acts that speak of the preaching of the word of the Lord to captivated audiences. "The word of the Lord" is such an emphasis in Acts that it should come as little surprise that nearly a third of the book is devoted to preserving the actual preaching of Paul, Peter and others. Again, this emphasis is often missed, but it's vitally important not to overlook this important point. Interpreters of Acts are often fond of focusing on the miraculous events recorded in Acts, and this, of course, is fine. But it must be noted that in a number of cases the explanatory preaching of the miraculous takes up more space in Acts than the recounting of the actual events themselves. The Spirit's coming at Pentecost takes up about 13 verses in Acts. But Peter's later preaching about these events takes up 23 verses in chapter 2. The same goes for the healing of the lame man in the temple in chapter 3. The event itself is described in ten verses, but Peter's explanations of its implications comprise two speeches of Peter in chs. 3-4, totaling 22 verses. It is primarily through the sermons given to us by Luke in Acts that the meaning and implications of the miraculous are explained.

Acts is a wonderful book. In future posts, I hope to be able to talk about Acts in greater detail, because there's so much to mine in this book.

The OT Treatment of 'Aliens' and the Fourth Gospel - A Theory

For several decades now, commentators across the theological spectrum have wrestled with what some believe is the bipolar nature of the Gospel of John. The Fourth Gospel, quite simply, is a conundrum on many levels. But ever since the evil of the Holocaust, the sharp delineations made in the FG between insiders and outsiders has become an urgent focus of post-Holocaust scholarship. While phrasing the problem in a variety of ways, the basic issue is this:

How can one document be so bipolar when it comes to the insider/outsider motif we clearly find? As one example of many that could be cited, how can John 4 provide one of the most startling accounts of inclusion anywhere in the Bible (the inclusion of the Samaritan woman (who herself represents two outsider communities - women and Samaritans) into the Kingdom), while John 8 provides one of the most bitter exclusionist exchanges between Jesus and 'the Jews'? The well documented polarities throughout the FG (light/darkness, life/death, above/below, good/evil, truth/lies, sight/blindness) all contribute to the development of a sharp line of division in the FG between 'insiders' and 'outsiders'. How can the same document both praise and condemn the world? How can one document offer us the ingrafting vine motif of ch 15 by the same Jesus who refuses to pray for the world in 17.9?

These are difficult questions, and commentators have offered a great variety of theories and reconstructions to try and explain these difficulties. Allow me to add my own theory to the mix.

Present scholarship is largely correct in reversing the older view that the Fourth Gospel was more a Greek-influenced document than Jewish influenced (this older was fueled in large part by the FG's use of 'logos' - The Word). The reigning view today is that the FG is heavily Jewish in its influence, and my theory, if at all valid, would definitely strengthen this case. In short, my theory about the insider/outsider polarities in the FG are driven very much by the OT's treatment of 'aliens'. Consider this:

In the Mosaic administration, the nation of Israel was repeatedly commanded to remember what it was like to be orphans in Egypt and how it felt to be strangers (Gen. 15:13; Ex. 2:22, 18:3) and then delivered by God their great Host, and to do likewise to the orphans around them (Ex. 22:21, 23:9; Lev. 19:33-34; Deut. 10:19, 23:7). The protections of the Law applied not only to Jews, but to the 'aliens' among them (Lev. 24:22; Num. 9:14, 15:16, 15:29; Deut. 1:16, 24:17, 27:19; Josh. 20:9). Importantly, Numbers 15:15 declares that because the same Law applies to both Jews and aliens, the Jews and aliens will be the same in God's sight. God loves the alien and provides for him (Deut. 10:18, Ps. 146:9).

But importantly, this idea stands side by side with the disdain of foreign practices that were hostile to God and the repeated OT admonition to have nothing to do with such things. It seems as if a distinction was made between 'aliens' who wished to become part of God's covenant community (Ex. 12:48-49) and were therefore hospitably embraced and treated well (Ex. 23:12; Lev. 19:10, 23:22, 25:35; Deut. 5:16, 14:29, 24:14, 24:19-21), versus those 'aliens' who not only stood outside the covenant community, but actively opposed God through their practices (Deut. 12:30-32, 18:9-14, 20:18, 29:16-18). Hospitality is not extended to the Canaanites or the Philistines, but rather, warfare and destruction.

This dynamic extends into the exilic and post-exilic eras of the OT as well. In Ezekiel 22:7, 29, God declares that Jerusalem's mistreatment of the 'alien' is one reason why he sent Babylon to destroy the city and send the people into exile (cf. Ps. 94:6, Jer. 7:5, 22:3). During the Second Temple period, Zech. 7:10 reiterates the desire of God to see his people treat the ‘alien’ well (7:10) and not oppress him, while Malachi 3:5 laments the renewed abuse of the alien. But as before, the post-exilic period also witnesses a renewed wariness of those outside the community who stand in opposition to God. Ezra 9 is a lengthy account of how hospitably fraternizing with those who oppose God's Law is frowned upon rather than celebrated. The literal building of the wall in Nehemiah 4 is also representational of the insider/outsider motif that I think we find in the Johannine writings as well.

The OT distinction between 'aliens' who desired to be loyal to God, versus 'aliens' who were actively opposed to God has strong similarities with the polarities we find in the FG. For OT 'aliens' who wanted to be a part of the covenant community, the Israelites were instructed to embrace them and incorporate them into the religious and social life of the community. But for OT 'aliens' who were opposed to God, the Israelites were warned not to associate themselves with such people. Put simply, fidelity to God was the standard by which 'aliens' were judged and treated.

To me, this is quite similar to what we find in the FG. Faith in Christ (which dominates the entirety of the FG) and obedience to his commandments is the standard by which people are judged and treated (14:15ff; this is a theme that is strongly picked up on again in 1 John). The love and acceptance offered to those seeking to love God and be obedient to him parallels the accepting instructions given on behalf of 'aliens' who wished to follow the one true God in the OT. The harshness and even condemnation offered to those who oppose Christ and his Kingdom (which is what 'world' often means in the FG, though not in every case) parallels the sharp instructions given in the OT to separate from foreigners and their practices. There is a continuity between the testaments that speaks to an ongoing battle between two kingdoms that has been raging ever since Genesis 3.15.

While such polarities and talk of warring kingdoms strike many as uncomfortable and archaic, Scripture demands that we affirm both and not water down either. There is a spectrum of thought on such things, with some wanting to chuck all harshness in favor of universally accepting love, while there are others who downplay love and acceptance and emphasize condemnation and separation. Scholars often use where they fall along this spectrum as a starting point for their commentaries on the FG. But both the OT and the FG (not to mention the rest of the NT) do not allow us to pick and choose based on what we're already predisposed to believe. We must emphasize both, because that's what Christ himself did, in fulfillment of the same principles given to the Israelites in the Mosaic law.

A theory for consideration.

How 'Bout That! Sanity Prevails

The Chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors has now reversed the nannyistic regulation discussed in the previous entry. I'm not the biggest fan of the Washington Post, but they deserve kudos for bringing the enforcement of this regulation to light and exposing the County to intense criticism nationwide. It is because of the Post's reporting that pressure became insurmountable and the County was forced to retreat.

To celebrate, I think I'll eat a sandwich made in my County-uncertified kitchen.