Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Thinking Biblically About Work

One of the many blessings that God promises faithful man is that he will bless the work of his hands. This is a promise that appears several times over in Deuteronomy alone (e.g. 14:29; 15:10; 16:15; 24:19; 28:12). This is a very rich blessing indeed when we consider just how central work is to life in this world.

It’s important to understand that we are called by God to work. When God made Adam, the very first thing he did was to give him a job to do. He gave him the task of exercising dominion on his behalf (Gen. 1:26-28). This included such things as “working” and “keeping” the garden and naming the animals (Gen. 2:15, 19-20a).

Some people assume that life for Adam and Eve in Eden was a life of inactivity—lounging beside the pool, sipping lemonade, and working on their tan. Not so. God gave Adam a job to do.

It’s vitally important to understand that God commands us to work and that this command is not a post fall commandment. In other words, work is not a part of the curse which resulted from sin. The original command to work came before the fall, at the time of creation. It was Adam’s God-given calling, and this calling was included in God’s assessment that everything he made was not only good, but very good (Gen. 1:31).

The fall, of course, complicated things immensely. Work has become much more difficult than it was before. The earth doesn’t yield as much produce with as much ease (Gen. 3:17-19).

We tend to think of work as a necessary evil, as something to be done only because our survival depends on it. We tend to think that life is really only lived on the weekends when we can play. But I would argue that work is not only not a necessary evil, but a positive good.

The drive to work is a fundamental aspect of our being, and not simply necessary for our well-being. By this, I mean, that God, in making man after his own image and likeness, has woven into our very nature the drive to work. God is the divine archetype for man, the pattern after which man is made. And God is the ultimate worker. He made the heavens and the earth with his great wisdom and power. He exerted his strength. He exercised his ingenuity. He brought his artistic talents to bear. And he still, today, continues to work by upholding the world by the word of his power. “My Father is working until now,” Jesus said, “and I am working” (Jn. 5:15). God, then, is the ultimate worker; and we, being created in his image, have been called to imitate him.

This calling is so fundamental to our being that without work a man without work feels emasculated. The tragedy of a man not having a job lies not only in the fact that he cannot provide for his family. The worst part of it is that he doesn’t feel himself to be a man. If he doesn’t have something productive to do he’s lost much of the meaning for his existence. In this respect, work can be thought of as being therapeutic. Meaningful work, productive work, keeps a man sane. Honestly. I’m not overstating the case merely to make a point. If a man is depressed and troubled, if he doesn’t feel good about himself, one of the best things he can do for himself is to get up and go to work.

In a very real sense the meaning and purpose of a man’s life are wrapped up in his work, in his life’s calling. It’s an important aspect of his identity. What he does goes into the shaping of who he is. The opposite is also true:  who he is is reflected in what he does. This is why when you get some men together who don’t know one another, one of the first things they’ll ask each other is, “What do you do? What kind of work are you in?” We believe we have a natural, God-given interest in work, and we intuitively know that we can learn something important about a man by knowing what he does for a living and what his attitudes are toward his work.

One of the great needs of our time is to recover the sense of work as a calling from God. Some people see the goal of the Christian life as some kind of neo-platonic flight from this world and its concerns, instead of living faithfully in the world and fulfilling the callings which God has given us.

Along these lines, we must remember that every lawful calling is a worthy calling, and every lawful calling is one in which the Christian may glorify God. We must disabuse ourselves of the notion that the only calling in which a Christian “really” serves God is full time Christian ministry, meaning as a pastor or as a missionary, or something of that sort. No. Every Christian is in full time Christian service, of one sort or another, whether as a pastor, or a missionary, or a teacher, or a farmer, or a stay at home mother, or a mechanic, or a nurse, or policeman, or a line worker in a factory. It doesn’t matter what you do, so long as it’s a lawful enterprise and you do it with all of your strength to the glory of God.

We must not over-spiritualize the Christian faith.

One of my all-time favorite movies is Chariots of Fire, winner of four 1981 academy awards, including Best Picture. It’s the story of runner Eric Liddell, a devout Christian, whose athletic career culminated in winning the gold medal in the 400 meters at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. He was called “the flying Scotsman.” He was called this because, in the first place, he was from Scotland, and in the second place because he had a rather unorthodox running form. He would flail his arms as he ran, which gave him the appearance of a bird in flight.

Liddell was born to missionary parents who served the Lord in Northern China, but he received most of his education in Great Britain, where he excelled both as a student and as an athlete. He was fond of both rugby and track and field; but once he reached his early twenties he devoted himself exclusively to his running. His sister pressured him to give up his running and go back to China with her to serve the Lord on the mission field. She thought he enjoyed his running too much and that it was a distraction from his Christian service. Wasn’t he neglecting the real means by which he was called to serve the Lord?

Liddell struggled with knowing what to do. Was his sister right? Was he forsaking the Lord by pursuing his running? Would God be more pleased and better served if he quit his running and went to the mission field? These questions troubled him. He sought the advice of his pastor. And the advice his pastor gave him is a challenge I want to give you. He said, “Eric, you can praise the Lord by peeling a spud if you peel it to perfection. Don’t compromise. Compromise is a language of the devil.”

Shortly after this in the film, Liddell informed his sister that he would return to the mission field, but first he must complete his athletic training and competition. Trying to persuade him to return to China with her at once, she told him that God had made him for a purpose and that he should forget his running and be about the more important business of preaching the gospel. To this he replied, “Jenny, I believe that God made me for a purpose, for China. But he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure…To give it up would be to hold Him in contempt…To win is to honor Him.”

Eric and his pastor were right. There are many different ways to serve the Lord—and to do so as acceptably, as well, and as meaningfully as a minister of the gospel. Terry Applegate observes,

Leland Ryken, in his book, Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were, does an excellent job of documenting this understanding of work and business that existed in Puritan theology. He writes:

William Tyndale said that if we look externally “there is difference betwixt washing dishes and preaching of the word of God; but as touching to please God; none at all.” William Perkins agreed: “The action of a shepherd in keeping sheep ... is as good a work before God as is the action of a judge in giving sentence, or a magistrate in ruling, or a minister in preaching.” This Puritan rejection of the dichotomy between sacred and secular work had far-reaching implications. For one thing, it renders every task of intrinsic value and integrates every vocation with a Christian's spiritual life. It makes every job consequential by making it the arena for glorifying and obeying God and for expressing one's love (through service) to one's neighbor. Thus Hugh Latimer saw in the example of Christ the true dignity of all work:  This is a wonderful thing, that the Savior of the world, and the King above all kings, was not ashamed to labor; yea, and to use so simple an occupation. Here He did sanctify all manner of occupations.2

Their view of how Jesus Christ sanctified work by engaging in it Himself as a carpenter and, I might point out, as an independent businessman is very insightful. “What God has cleansed, you must not call common.”3 Quoting Ryken once more:

For the Puritans, all of life was God's. Their goal was to integrate their daily work with their religious devotion to God. Richard Steele [a Puritan scholar] asserted that it was in the shop “where you may most confidently expect the presence and blessing of God.”[1]

I couldn’t agree more. Honor the Lord in your work and he will honor you in your work. “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Col. 3:23). When we do this, even the most apparently mundane task is filled with sacred significance.

[1] Terry Applegate, Vocation as a Government in Chalcedon Report, March 2000 (http://chalcedon.edu/faith-for-all-of-life/the-biblical-doctrine-of-government/vocation-as-a-government/) My apologies for the quote within a quote within a quote, but not sorry enough not to do it.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Separation of Church and State?

What do you think of the idea of separation of church and state?

It all depends on what you mean by it. If you mean, “Do I believe in institutional separation, i.e., that the government of the church should be kept separate from the government of the state”, then yes I’m all for it. The church should not be a department of the state nor the state a ministry of the church. Each has its own officers and its own sphere of responsibility.

But if you mean, “Do I believe in the separation of God from government,” which is what so many people mean who cry “Separation of church and state!” then no, I don’t believe it for moment. The state, no less than the church, has a responsibility to acknowledge God and to be subject to him.

Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
            be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear,
            and rejoice with trembling
Kiss the Son,
            lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
            for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him (Ps. 2:10-12)

Those who hold office in civil government have a responsibility not only to live faithfully as Christians in their private lives, but also to govern faithfully as Christians in their public office, openly acknowledging the Lord’s authority and governing in terms of his word. Much of the Bible, in fact, is given as instruction to those who hold public office—the case laws of the Old Testament, for instance. God tells Moses, “These are the judgments [i.e., rulings] that you are to set before” the elders and judges of the people (Ex. 21:1; cf. Deut. 1:17). Civil magistrates are not to rule on their own authority, but are to look to God’s law as a guide in terms of the proper scope of government, as well as in terms of specific pieces of legislation, and in terms of how to rule in criminal cases.

Not only this, but much of the material in the prophets is both a denunciation of rulers for failing to uphold God’s law, and a call for them to repent.

Church and state each have their own particular spheres of responsibility. The state has two chief responsibilities. First, it is to defend its citizens against foreign invasion. Second, it is to maintain domestic order by enforcing laws against what God defines as criminal behavior.[1] The church, on the other hand, is to teach the word of God and to be a center for his public worship. So church and state each have their own responsibilities, but both are under the authority of God and his word.

Leaders in civil government ought to be members of the church who listen to the teaching of God’s word and faithfully apply it to their calling as public officials. This was, in fact, a requirement in the early days of our nation. The colonies, and later, after the War for Independence, the states had religious tests for public office-holders. As a part of the swearing in ceremony officials had to swear that they believed in the Christian religion and in the divinity of Christ, and that they accepted the Bible as God’s own revealed word.[2]

It is unfortunate that our nation’s founding documents are not more explicit in this respect. Our Founders shied away from requiring a religious test for federal office-holders,[3] not because they were hoping to establish a secular society, but because they deemed this something to be taken care of at the state level. The states had their own religious tests. If the federal government imposed a religious test, it would impinge upon the right of the states to do so.[4]

The Founders seem to have taken it for granted that ours was a Christian nation and the states would send Christian men to serve in the Federal government and so they didn’t see the need to express themselves more fully on this point in our founding documents. In the Declaration we have mention made of the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” And it is said “all Men are created equal,” and that they are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” In the Constitution we have an acknowledgement of the Lord’s Day, and the date of its passage is said to be “the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven.” So there is clearly a Christian presupposition in these documents. But we could wish the Founders had been prescient enough to have seen the need to give a fuller account of these things so that there would not be so much confusion today concerning their original intentions.

[1] Note that I said criminal behavior, not sinful behavior. All criminal behavior is sinful, but not all sinful behavior is criminal.
[2] See, for instance, Gary DeMar, America’s Christian History:  The Untold Story (Powder Springs, GA:  2005)
[3] “…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States” (Article VI).
[4] This is also the rationale behind the establishment clause of the First Amendment:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” The Amendment restricts the power of Congress in these matters lest the acts of Congress contradict the laws of the states. 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Is it a sin for a Christian to get a tattoo?

This is a very timely question seeing as how we are witnessing a proliferation of all kinds of body modification, including piercings and cuttings and tattoos. The Bible actually mentions these things very directly in Leviticus 19:28. The Lord says, “You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves.”

A couple of interpretive questions arise. The first concerns the words “for the dead”. You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead…” It was a practice among the pagans to cut themselves for a variety of reasons, one of which was as an expression of mourning for the dead.

In the Ugaritic story of Baal and Anat, the god Baal is killed and the other gods, his friends, cut their cheeks and chins and lacerate their forearms, chests and backs.[1]

We find, too, that the priests of Baal, in their contest with Elijah, “cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them” (1 Ki. 18:28).

The question is:  Does the Levitical prohibition against cutting and tattooing only have to do with mourning rites and with the worship of idols? Or is it a general prohibition that applies across the board in all circumstances? I think it applies across the board. God’s law frequently teaches us general principles by the use of specific cases. Cutting and tattooing oneself “for the dead” is a specific case from which we are to deduce a general principle. Namely, we are not to mutilate or mar the body.

The second question that arises is this:  Is this a law that still applies today? Some laws of the Old Testament no longer apply—the laws concerning sacrifice and offering, for instance. These looked forward to Christ and were types and shadows of his work of atonement. They were like prophecies in the form of object lessons, and since Christ has come, there is no longer any need for them. The kosher laws no longer apply either. They were designed, in part at least, to keep Israel set apart from the nations. And now with the calling of the Gentiles to be joint heirs with the Jews of the promises of God, they are no longer binding.

Other laws, however, obviously still apply. It is as wrong today to commit murder as it was when God gave us his law on Sinai. It is as wrong today to commit adultery, to steal, to blaspheme, to commit perjury, and so on.

So the question is this:  does this law against cutting and tattooing oneself still apply today? It is perhaps not as obvious as the commandments against murder and stealing and adultery, but I think it does still apply.

In the first place, cutting and tattooing the body contravenes the natural order. God created man in his own image and pronounced his creation good. Therefore, man should not disfigure the divine image given to him by scarring or tattooing his body, but should have a bias in favor of the natural created form. Paul argues in this way on another matter in First Corinthians when he says, “Does not nature itself teach you…” (1 Cor. 11:14).

And even if we’re mistaken in thinking that the commandment against cutting and tattooing is an abiding commandment, there is still another thing to take into consideration. Paul, on several occasions, appeals to the accepted practices of the churches of God:

This is my rule in all the churches… (1 Cor. 7:17)

We have no such practice, nor do the churches of God (1 Cor. 11:16)

As in all the churches of the saints… (1 Cor. 14:33)

We ought to have a high regard for the accepted practices of the church through the ages.

The simple fact of the matter is that the practice of body modification did not originate with the people of God, but with pagans. And in all times and in all places the churches have discouraged the practice. This alone ought to give a Christian pause in considering it.

Western Civilization has been profoundly influenced by the Christian faith. This is why tattooing and other forms of body modification, until recent times, have been relatively rare. But as we have moved away from our Christian heritage we have seen a significant rise in these things. Body modification has come into prominence among those who wish to defy convention—another very good reason for a Christian to avoid it.

The bottom line is that our bodies, as Paul said, are members of Christ (1 Cor. 3:15). And he goes on to say,

“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 3:19-20).

We are not free to do whatever we want with our bodies, but we must hold them, and keep them, and do with them whatever God commands.

[1] R. Laird Harris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan Publishing House, 1990), vol. 2, p. 616

Sunday, March 9, 2014

On Avenging Oneself

“You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
~ Leviticus 19:17-18 ~

The purpose of this passage is, in part, to set a limit to the measures an individual may take to personally redress a grievance he has against his neighbor. If his neighbor has sinned against him, he may confront him and “reason frankly” with him. The Hebrew word (yākah) means to rebuke, reprove, or correct.[1] What the law has in view here is precisely the situation Jesus had in mind when he said, “If your brother sins [against you], rebuke him, if he repents, forgive him” (Lk. 17:3). Such verbal correction, it should be noted, is not merely permitted, but encouraged. Rebuke for wrongdoing is beneficial. “Whoever heeds reproof,” Solomon says, “is prudent” (Prov. 15:5).  He is “on the path to life” (Prov. 10:17) and “will dwell among the wise” (Prov. 15:31). On the other hand, “A scoffer does not listen to rebuke” (Prov. 13:1). “He who hates reproof is stupid” (Prov. 12:1). “Poverty and disgrace will come to him” (Prov. 13:18). It is as if he “despises himself” (Prov. 15:32). Hating reproof may, in fact, lead to an untimely death (Prov. 15:10).  This is why David said,

Let a righteous man strike me—it is a kindness;
            let him rebuke me—it is oil for my head;
            let my head not refuse it (Ps. 141:5).

Reproof is never a pleasure either to give or to receive, but it is nevertheless an act of kindness. David no doubt smarted under Nathan’s pointed, “Thou art the man!” (2 Sam. 12:7). But the rebuke had its intended effect. It brought David to repentance (2 Sam. 12:13; Psalm 51). In the end he would agree with the Proverb, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (27:6).

This highlights the fact that the goal of reproof is repentance, which involves not only internal remorse for the wrong done, but also restitution to the victim (Ex. 21:33-36; 22:1-15; Lev. 6:1-5; Num. 5:6-8). When restitution is made, the victim is restored to a state of wholeness. By the very nature of the case, however, some offenses cannot be amended by restitution. No restitution is possible for murder, for instance. David could not restore Uriah to Bathsheba. In every case, however, in which restitution is possible, it is a necessary aspect of genuine repentance.

Jesus applies Leviticus 19:17, not only in Luke 17:3, but also in Matthew 18:15. Compare the passages below.[2]

Leviticus 19:17
Luke 17:3
Matthew 18:15
“You shall reason frankly with him [your brother]”
“If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him”
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother”

The Matthew passage goes on to give us a more expansive account of Jesus’ teaching on the subject. If the offender does not listen, the offended party is to take one or two others with him and confront him a second time. If the offender still does not listen, they are to take the matter to the elders of the church (assuming the offender is a member of the church). The elders should then hear the case and render judgment, imposing whatever church discipline may be appropriate (Matt. 18:16-20; 1 Cor. 5:1-3; 6:1-8). Anything beyond verbal correction and seeking the discipline of the church is forbidden, unless it is a legally actionable offense, in which case he may take the offender to court in order to recover damages as specified under God’s law.

This legislation is given by God in order to impose a limit on what an individual may do to redress a wrong done to him. The offended party may rebuke his neighbor, but he may not personally exact vengeance on him (v. 18). He may not strike him. He may not seize his property, or do anything else to harm him or what belongs to him.

It should be pointed out, however, that this law does not forbid the use of force in self-defense. It forbids after the fact vengeance. While a violent criminal act is in progress, a victim may use force to defend himself. What he may not do is hunt the perpetrator down afterward and take his own vengeance. This is the meaning of the distinction which is made in Exodus 22:2-3 between a thief who “is found breaking in” and one on whom “the sun has arisen.”

If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him, but if the sun has arisen on him, there shall be bloodguilt for him.

While the crime is in progress, the homeowner is justified in using force; not so after the fact. Afterward, “when the sun has risen on him,” there is a strict limit to what he may do. (See The Ethics of Killing in Self-Defense.) He may rebuke him with the hope that the thief will be moved to repentance and make amends for his theft; but he may not do anything more on his own. Thus this law forbids personal vengeance, vigilante action, feuds, duels, etc. It forbids these things not because the Lord is uninterested in amends being made to the victim, but because he is interested in justice, and justice can only be served when there is a due process of law. This includes the gathering of evidence, the examination of witnesses, the application of relevant case law, the rendering of an official verdict, and the administration of appropriate punishment. A just end must be reached by just means by those whom God has authorized for the task.

It should be stressed that it is not the desire for vengeance which is forbidden in this passage, but the seeking of vengeance in an unlawful way by taking the law into one’s own hands. The desire for vengeance is a desire to see justice done, and refers specifically to the desire of the victim, who has a very personal interest at stake. It is a desire to see the wrongdoer suffer the due penalty of his wrongdoing, especially if he should he continue unrepentant. This is a legitimate desire. This should be clear from the fact that Scripture represents the Lord as being a “God of vengeance” (Psalm 94:1). “Vengeance is mine, and recompense,” says the Lord (Deut. 32:35; cited in Heb. 12:19; Heb. 10:30). He will take vengeance on his adversaries (Deut. 32:41; Nah. 1:2) and avenge himself on his foes (Isa. 1:24).

Moreover, the Lord not only avenges himself on his enemies, but also on the enemies of his people, who are very dear to him, whom he deems to be the apple of his eye (Deut. 32:10; Zech. 2:8). In Deuteronomy it is stated that the Lord “avenges the blood of his children” (Deut. 32:43). He is a “jealous and avenging God” (Na. 1:2). This is why the martyrs have confidence to pray, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev. 6:10)

What is forbidden in the passage is “extralegal retribution,”[3] an attempt to bypass the judicial process and take the law into one’s own hands. Ultimately, vengeance belongs to the Lord, but he has authorized rulers and judges to act on his behalf.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God... [T]he one who is in authority…is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer (Rom. 13:1, 3, 4).

This is why Paul says in another place, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Rom. 12:19). This is sometimes taken to mean that the victim of wrongdoing should do nothing at all toward seeking a remedy for the injustice committed against him. This is not Paul’s meaning, however. Certainly he encourages his readers to patiently endure mistreatment and to respond in kindness (Rom. 12:20), but he does not forbid recourse to the proper authorities to make things right. What he prohibits is avenging ourselves, or taking the law into our own hands. We are either to leave the matter to God alone or else seek the aid of his appointed ministers of justice. To take the law into our own hands is itself a lawless act. 

In addition to setting a limit on what an individual may do to seek a remedy for a wrong done, the passage also encourages a patient and forgiving spirit when wronged. It opens with a prohibitive commandment, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart,” and closes with the corresponding positive injunction, “But you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” These two commandments stand like book ends to the instruction in between them. The passage should be understood as follows.

You shall not hate your brother in your heart [when he sins against you], but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him [by seeking to harm him in return]. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people [for the offenses they commit against you], but you shall love your neighbor as yourself [by eschewing personal vengeance and showing patience and kindness in return]; I am the Lord.

This is no different in spirit than what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount.

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well (Matt. 5:39-40).

Please note that the offenses Jesus mentioned are relatively minor—a slap on the cheek, taking an article of clothing. They are unjust acts, certainly, but offenses which are capable of being rather easily absorbed. Paul said something very similar in his first letter to the Corinthians.

To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers!” (1 Cor. 6:7-8)

It is the case, then, that Moses, Jesus, and Paul encourage forbearance when wronged. It sometimes happens that refusing to retaliate for a wrong suffered, but instead showing kindness in return, results in the softening and repentance of the offender. “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals [of shame] on his head [leading to repentance]” (Rom. 12:20). This voluntary repentance, whether elicited by “reasoning frankly” with the offender or by returning evil with good, is preferable to a lawsuit. A lawsuit, however, is not forbidden. The Lord has established the courts for the very purpose of maintaining the rights of the innocent against those who seek to harm them. 

[1] TDWOT, vol. 1, p. 376. In a judicial setting it can mean to mean decide, judge.
[2] See also Galatians 6:1
[3] Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus (CCS), (Minneapolis, MN:  Augsburg Fortress, 2004), p. 233

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

“We don’t need evidence,” says the reasonable scientist

When it comes to evaluating the scientific data allegedly supporting the theory of evolution, it’s important to remember the philosophical foundations of the theory. Evolution is the inevitable theory of origins for the one who has made a prior commitment to the philosophy of naturalism, the belief that there is nothing beyond nature. Carl Sagan expressed the view about as concisely as it can be stated in his famous paean to the Cosmos. “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”[1]

It’s this basic underlying philosophical assumption that determines in advance the outcome of one’s scientific investigation concerning origins. This is reflected in a statement made several years ago by Richard Dawkins, one of the world’s foremost promoters of evolution. In a speech delivered at Washington University in St. Louis, Dawkins said, “We don’t need evidence. We know it [evolution] to be true.”[2]

We don’t need evidence? Isn’t a scientific theory based on evidence? And if we don’t need evidence, on what basis can we say we know it to be true? Obviously, Dawkins “knows” evolution is true because of his philosophical presupposition. His prior commitment to naturalism (i.e., atheism) is all he needs to be persuaded. His worldview doesn’t admit of any other possibility. Dawkins admitted what Christian philosophers and scientists have been contending for a long time:  the theory of evolution is rooted in philosophy, not in science.

[1] http://vimeo.com/68345819
[2] http://www.worldmag.com/1997/03/quotables_1

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

When Justice becomes Injustice

We are making our way through the book of Leviticus in my Sunday school class. This is the passage we considered this past Sunday:

“You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor. 
~ Leviticus 19:15 ~

We have here a general prohibition followed by several specific examples. The general prohibition is:  “You shall do no injustice in court.” The court, we should understand, is not a human invention, but a divinely authorized institution (Deut. 1:9-18; Rom. 13:1-7). It has been established for the purpose of pursuing justice (Deut. 16:18-20). Justice involves the administration of law in order to prevent one person from harming or defrauding another and to provide a legal remedy when such harm or defraudation takes place. The role of the judge is to decide cases in terms of God’s law. Judges, therefore, are to recognize the Lord as the ultimate source of justice and to understand their role as mediating “divine decisions.”[1] This is why judges are sometimes referred to as elohim, i.e., gods (see for example Ex. 21:6; 22:8-9; Ps. 82:6). This is also why Moses charged the judges of Israel, saying, “You shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God’s” (Deut. 1:17).[2]

This last statement is very significant. As judges decide cases under the authority of God’s law, they are rendering the Lord’s judgments. They are his decisions. It must be stressed, however, that this is only the case when the decisions are made in terms of the body of case law which the Lord gave to Israel.[3] Case law consists of a collection of past legal judgments that serve as a rule to guide judges in deciding all present and future cases. The use of case law involves reasoning by analogy, comparing present cases with previous rulings and making judgments accordingly. The Lord provided Moses with a number of legal scenarios which were likely to come before the judges of Israel for a decision. In each scenario God declared his will concerning how the case should be decided. “If this happens (i.e., if this offense should occur, or if that crime should be committed) here is how the matter should be handled judicially.” This would be of immense practical value to those charged with ruling Israel.

The preface to the first collection of biblical case law states:  “Now these are the rules that you shall set before them” (Ex. 21:1). The word translated “rules” (mishpatim) might better be translated judgments. The idea is that the decisions given in the specified cases represent God’s judgments. They represent the decisions he would give if he should personally preside in the case. Thus, the case laws provide the judges of Israel with a divine exemplar for rendering legal judgments in all similar cases. They serve the purpose of providing legal precedent. If past rulings were just and equitable, then it is good and wise to decide present cases consistently with past ones. Israel, however, was a new and independent nation; her judges had no legal history from which to draw when deciding cases. Of course they had the example of Egyptian law; and there were other legal codes available to them that provided case law,[4] but these were all fundamentally flawed in that they were of merely human origin and did not recognize the one true and only God. But the Lord provided Israel with a body of case law to establish legal precedents that were stamped with divine perfection.

Just laws, however, are not sufficient to guarantee a just society. A legal system, however well-grounded in God’s law, is only as good as the men who administer it are honest, hence the command in v. 15a, “You shall do no injustice in court.” In other words, You shall not turn the justice system into a tool of injustice. We find many similar admonitions in Scripture (e.g., Ex. 23:2-3; Deut. 1:17; 16:19; 27:19; Ps. 82:2; Jas. 2:9). The integrity of the courts is perhaps the single greatest indicator of society’s faithfulness or apostasy. The prophet Isaiah laments the state of the legal system in his day when he says,

No one enters suit justly;
no one goes to law honestly;
they rely on empty pleas, they speak lies,
they conceive mischief and give birth to iniquity (Isa. 59:4)

Asaph speaks of the Lord confronting unjust judges.

God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods [i.e., judges] he holds judgment:
“How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked? (Ps. 82:1-2)

The legal system had become a tool of injustice, the very thing the Lord had warned against in Leviticus 19:15.

The text goes on to prohibit several specific ways in which injustice might be done. “You shall not be partial to the poor” (v. 15b). Levine remarks, “In the pursuit of justice there can be no favoritism, even toward those for whom we have instinctive sympathy and who are otherwise deserving of our aid.”[5] This is a point which is also stressed in Exodus 23:3, “nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit.” This principle stands as a rebuke of the socialist/liberationist agenda, which claims that God is on the side of the poor. He is not. Let me repeat. God is not on the side of the poor. This does not mean, however, that he is on the side of rich, as the rest of the verse makes clear:  “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great.” Justice is no respecter of persons. This is a principle which is stated repeatedly in Scripture and has its ultimate foundation in the very character of God, who is himself impartial.

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe (Deut. 10:17).

[He] shows no partiality to princes,
            nor regards the rich more than the poor (Job 34:17) [6]

The impartiality God requires of judges is a reflection of his own impartiality. Justice does not take into account the litigants’ economic status. Rich and poor alike are subject to the same law. A poor man who steals from a rich man is as answerable to the law as a rich man who steals from a poor one. The same law applies. The same holds for other offences, as well. This is an application of the principle stated in Exodus 12:49, “There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you” (cf. Num. 9:14; 15:15-16).

The commandment is expressed in a way that corresponds to the natural temptations a judge might feel: pity for the poor and deference toward the rich. But if he decides in favor of the poor only because he is poor or in favor of the rich only because he is rich, he has committed injustice. He is to have a regard only for the law and for the facts in the case. There must be no favored classes and no favored individuals.

[1] See Jonathan Burnside, God, Justice, and Society:  Aspects of Law and Legality in the Bible (New York, NY:  Oxford University Press, 2011), Chapter 4:  “Justice as a Calling,” pp.  103-144
[2] Years later King Jehoshaphat “appointed judges in all the fortified cities of Judah, city by city,” and charged them in words very similar to those of Moses:  “Consider what you do, for you judge not for man but for the Lord. He is with you in giving judgment” (2 Chron. 19:5-6).
[3] See for example Exodus 21-23; Leviticus 18-21; and Deuteronomy 13-27
[4] Martha T. Roth, Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor (Atlanta, GA:  Scholars Press, second edition, 1997)
[5] Baruch A. Levine, The JPS Torah Commentary:  Leviticus (New York, NY:  The Jewish Publication Society, 1989), p. 128
[6] See also Ex. 23:3; Lev. 19:15; Deut. 1:17; 16:19; 2 Chron. 19:7; Ps. 82:2; Prov. 18:5; 24:23; 28:21; Acts 10:34; Rom. 2:11; Gal. 2:6; Col. 3:25

Friday, February 21, 2014

On Snake-handling churches

Who knew there was such a program as National Geographic’s “Snake Salvation”? I certainly didn’t until a couple days ago when I saw this video while checking The Weather Channel for the day’s forecast. The star of the show was Jamie Coots, pastor of the snake-handling Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus’ Name, located in Middlesboro, Kentucky. [UPDATE: the video at the link above is no longer available. Here is one from ABC News.]

I say Coots was the star of the show, not because the program was cancelled (although it was), but because Pastor Coots is no longer with us. He was bitten by a rattlesnake during a service last Saturday and died two hours later after refusing treatment. Seeking treatment would have been a violation of his beliefs.

As strange as it seems, there are people who believe that God commands them…yes commands them…to handle poisonous snakes as an expression of their faith in God.[1] Their belief is derived from a misreading of the King James Version of Mark 16:17-18, “These signs shall follow them that believe…They shall take up serpents.” Coots and his fellow snake-handling aficionados believe the “shall” indicates a positive command. The problem is that the word “shall” can be used either as an imperative or simply to denote the future. English usage can be ambiguous. Greek verbs, however, have built-in indicators of tense, voice, and mood. The verb in question (ajrou~sin arousin) is not in the imperative mood, which would have certainly indicated a command. It is rather a future indicative. And while the future indicative was sometimes used for a command, there are weighty reasons against taking it as such in Mark 16:18. First, as Wallace observes,

The future indicative is sometimes used for a command, almost always in OT quotations (due to a literal translation of the Hebrew). However, it was used in this manner even in classical Greek, though sparingly. Outside of Matthew, this usage is not common.[2]

It should be added that when the future indicative is used as a command, it is almost always in the second person, “You shall,” not the third person, “They shall.”

Second, there are five other verbs in the passage with the same construction that cannot possibly be taken as commands. They are highlighted in bold below.

And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover (Mk. 16:17-18).

Two of the activities mentioned in this passage, speaking in tongues and healing the sick, are gifts of the Spirit mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12. Neither of these gifts are given to every believer. Paul asks rhetorically, “Do all possess the gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues?” (1 Cor. 12:30) The answer, obviously, is no. After all, he had said earlier, “To one is given through the Spirit…gifts of healing…to another various kinds of tongues” (vv. 7, 10). The Spirit, we are told, “apportions [gifts] to each one individually as he wills” (v. 11). It certainly cannot be a command to exercise gifts which God has not given. Is it not better to take the future indicatives of Mark 16, “they will speak in new tongues,” and “they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover,” as ordinary objective statements about the future rather than as commands?[3] The same is true regarding the casting out of demons and the picking up of serpents. Jesus is simply saying that these things will occur in the future ministry of the church.

Specifically with regard to picking up serpents, Jesus is not referring to intentional snake-handling, but to incidents like that recorded about Paul in Acts 28.

After we were brought safely through, we then learned that the island was called Malta. The native people showed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all, because it had begun to rain and was cold. When Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and put them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened on his hand. When the native people saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.” He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. They were waiting for him to swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But when they had waited a long time and saw no misfortune come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god (Acts 28:1-6).

Jesus’ statement in Mark 16 about picking up serpents was not a command, or even an invitation, to intentionally flirt with danger and simply “trust God” for protection. This is not faith, but presumption. How does it differ from the temptation the devil used against our Lord? Satan took Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and said, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” But Jesus answered, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Matt. 4:5-7).

Many news reports speak of how sincere Pastor Coots was in his beliefs. All well and good. But sincerity is no guarantee of truth. His interpretation of Scripture was badly flawed and it cost him his life.

[1] Just a year and a half ago another minister was in the news when he died of a snake bit. http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/06/01/death-of-snake-handling-preacher-shines-light-on-lethal-appalachian-tradition/  
[2] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics:  An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), p. 569
        [3] Besides is the future indicative, “they will recover,” a command too? Does God actually command the sick to recover?