Archive for March, 2012

“The most striking feature of contemporary moral utterance is that so much of it is used to express disagreements; and the most striking feature of the debates in which these disagreements are expressed is their interminable character.  I do not mean by this just that such debates go on and on and on–although they do–but also that they apparently can find no terminus.  There seems to be no rational way of securing moral agreement in our culture…

[We see] the conceptual incommensurability of the rival arguments in each [moral debate in our culture].  Every one of the arguments is logically valid or can be easily expanded so as to be made so; the conclusions do indeed follow from the premises.  But the rival premises are such that we possess no rational way of weighing the claims of one as against another.  For each premise employs some quite different normative or evaluative concept from the others, so that the claims made upon us are of quite different kinds…It is precisely because there is in our society no established way of deciding between these claims that moral argument appears to be necessarily interminable.  From our rival conclusions we can argue back to our rival premises; but when we do arrive at our premises argument ceases and the invocation of one premise against another becomes a matter of pure assertion and counter-assertion.  Hence perhaps the slightly shrill tone of so much moral debate.

But that shrillness may have an additional source.  For it is not only in arguments with others that we are reduced so quickly to assertion and counter-assertion; it is also in the arguments that we have within ourselves.  For whenever an agent enters the forum of public debate he has already presumably, explicitly or implicitly, settled the matter in question in his own mind.  Yet if we possess no unassailable criteria, no set of compelling reasons by means of which we may convince our opponents, it follows that in the process of making up our own minds we can have made no appeal to such criteria or such reasons.  If I lack any good reasons to invoke against you, it must seem that I lack any good reasons.  Hence it seems that underlying my own position there must be some non-rational decision to adopt that position.  Corresponding to the interminability of public argument there is at least the appearance of a disqueting private arbitrariness.  It is small wonder if we become defensive and therefore shrill.” (Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, pp. 6-8)

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“There is an outpouring these days of scholarly-looking books about the Bible.  They might appear to depart from more traditional works on this venerable subject in their tone of condescension toward biblical texts and narratives, toward the culture that produced them, toward God.  But these books in fact continue, however unwittingly, a tradition which is both long and unsavory.

We are culturally predisposed to sheltering criticism from criticism; we have enshrined the iconoclast.  If our feelings register some minor shock, or if we suppose the public might be somewhat irked, or even if we think we can discern some earnest hope on the part of a writer to irk or to offend ourselves or our neighbors, then a book is praised as a creditable effort and excused from the kind of attention that might raise questions about its actual novelty or merit.” (Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child, I Read Books, p. 95)

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Three False Images

“There are three images in my mind which I must continually forsake and replace by better ones: the false image of God, the false image of my neighbours, and the false image of myself.” (C. S. Lewis–this is what Lewis wrote by hand in the copy of The Great Divorce that he gave to Joy Davidman before they were married)

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“How can you live with the terrifying thought that the hurricane has become human, that the fire has become flesh, that life itself came to life and walked in our midst? Christianity either means that, or it means nothing. It is either the more devastating disclosure of the deepest reality in the world, or it’s a sham, a nonsense, a bit of deceitful play-acting. Most of us, unable to cope with saying either of those things, condemn ourselves to live in the shallow world in between.” (N.T. Wright, For All God’s Worth, p.1)

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Image“It is also good to love: because love is difficult. For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation. That is why young people, who are beginners in everything, are not yet capable of love: it is something they must learn. With their whole being, with all their forces, gathered around their solitary, anxious, upward-beating heart, they must learn to love. But learning-time is always a long, secluded time, and therefore loving, for a long time ahead and far on into life, is: solitude, a heightened and deepened kind of aloneness for the person who loves… The claims that the difficult work of love makes upon our development are greater than life, and we, as beginners, are not equal to them. But if we nevertheless endure and take this love upon us as burden and apprenticeship, instead of losing ourselves in the whole easy and frivolous game behind which people have hidden from the most solemn solemnity of their being—then a small advance and a lightening will perhaps be perceptible to those who come long after us. That would be much.”

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

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“Good reading, though it is not essentially an affectional or moral or intellectual activity, has something in common with all three. In love we escape from our self into one another. In the moral sphere, every act of justice or charity involves putting ourselves in the other person’s place and thus transcending our own competitive particularity. In coming to understand anything we are rejecting the facts as they are for us in favour of the facts as they are. The primary impulse of each is to maintain and aggrandize himself. The secondary impulse is to go out of the self, to correct its provincialism and heal its loneliness. In love, in virtue, in the pursuit of knowledge, and in the reception of the arts, we are doing this.”

-C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

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“Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound!  Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.  The saying is trustworthy, for:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself.” (II Timothy 2:8-13)

I am generally of the opinion that most novel interpretations of Scripture which cut against the grain of the received wisdom of the ages are simply mistaken.  The majority voice in biblical scholarship over time carries tremendous weight with me, and I think it ought to with most Christians (especially with individualistic Protestants such as myself).  I believe that 98% of the Bible has been fantastically understood throughout church history by the teachers and theologians of the church, and our greatest need is almost never brand new interpretative insight into God’s Word.  Rather, it is the grace and faith to obey it, live it out, and apply it faithfully and creatively in each successive generation through the Spirit.  I deeply resonate with C. S. Lewis’ frustration with the “chronological snobbery” that seems to be a peculiar ailment of the snobbish Western academy of late.

Nonetheless, I present here a dissenting voice on the standard scholary consensus–as well as the widespread popular understanding–concerning 2 Timothy 2:13, in which Paul writes that “if we are faithless, he [God] remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself.”  The mainstream explanation of this passage, as represented both in the critical commentaries and in the “common sense” construal of most English readers today, is that Paul is encouraging young Timothy in his ministry by assuring him of God’s constant mercy (“He remains faithful”), even in the face of the anguished struggles and occasional failures in the life of believers (“even if we are faithless”).

Allow me to state right from the outset that such a sentiment is not only orthodox and consistent with the entire tenor of the gospel of grace as found in the New Testament, but it is beautiful and compelling and worth reminding ourselves of daily as we continue to wrestle with the effects of the sin that remains in our hearts.  Yet I am also convinced that inferring such a perspective from 2 Timothy 2:13 is a classic example of drawing out the right doctrine from the wrong text, for such a construal simply is not anywhere close to Paul’s intended meaning here.  I offer five reasons in defense of my exegetical unbelief:

1.)    It breaks the parallelism of the four stanzas in 2:11-13, the first two of which are indisputably positive statements of reassurance for believers.  The third (“if we deny him, he also will deny us”, echoing Matthew 10:33 and other similar utterances of Jesus) is surely a negative warning directed to confessing Christians.  It makes a whole lot of sense, a priori, if the fourth stanza completes the pattern by repeating or elaborating upon such a warning.  I am convinced that this is exactly what it does.

2.)   The use of “unfaithful” (apistos/apisteo) language in Paul is much more definitive and unyieldingly negative than the positive interpretation of 2:13 allows for.  To be “faithful” or “unfaithful” in Paul’s use of this vocabulary always draws a tight, clean distinction between believers and unbelievers.  To interpret it here as referring to authentic Christians who are merely struggling with old sinful habits would be utterly out of step with every other Pauline usage and waters down Paul’s typical employment of the word.  “Unfaithful” consistently refers either to outright unbelievers or to fallen, lapsed confessors who have decisively turned away from the Lord and are no longer walking with Him.

3.)   The positive interpretation of 2:13 does not fit the context of the immediately surrounding flow of thought.  Paul, as he has been wont to do structurally throughout the letter, is exhorting Timothy to not be ashamed of the gospel but instead to join with him in suffering for it.  As in several other places in 2 Timothy (see 1:15-18, 3:8-11, and 4:6-10), Paul expounds upon his call for faith-filled obedience in Timothy’s life by appealing to both positive and negative personal examples that illustrate the consequences of our potential responses to such weighty injunctions.  Here, both Jesus and Paul serve as models who first suffered in weakness, but who were later vindicated in their missions by God’s power–a pattern that the first two couplets in 2:11-12 expound upon.

And immediately after this ancient hymn, Paul goes on to mention Hymenaeus and Philetus in 2:14-19.  Apparently these two men were formerly teachers and leaders in the church, but have turned away from the faith (that is, they are “faithless”) and are even denying the future resurrection from the dead of believers.  Notice the eerily similar and intentional parallel to the latter two (negative) couplets of 2:12-13 in 2:18-19: “They have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some.  BUT God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.”  Verse 18 highlights a recent example of those who have denied the Lord and been faithless to Him.  Verse 19 illustrates that in spite of this faithlessness, the Lord yet remains faithful–that is, He knows who truly belongs to Him, and imposters who arise within the people of God are not a just cause for our trust in the Lord to be shaken.  Instead, they will be denied in turn.

The allusion to Numbers 16:5 (LXX) strengthens the likelihood of this interpretation.  In the story of Korah’s rebellion, a comparable historical situation is described.  An influential leader within Israel has turned away from the Lord, bringing judgment upon himself.  In spite of the panic this brings about for God’s people, the confident answer from Moses calms their fears: “In the morning the Lord will show who is His.”  Korah’s faithlessness has not nullified the faithfulness of God.  He actually does not belong to Him, and his apostasy has manifested this state of affairs.  Even here, the Lord’s act of judgment is not a denial of His holiness and promises, but instead their fulfillment.

4.)  The word “deny” (arneomai) is found both before and after the statement “if we are faithless, he remains faithful”, grounding these statements with the assurance that the Lord cannot “deny” Himself.  While not conclusive as an argument, this leads me to think that Paul’s thought remains in the same conceptual category in these latter two couplets that are linked by the word “deny”–that is, they both function as warnings.

5.)   There is a striking and almost completely overlooked parallel to 2 Timothy 2:13 in Romans 3:3-4: “What if some were unfaithful (apisteo)? Does their faithlessness [apistia] nullify the faithfulness [pistis] of God?  By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar.”  Not only is the language incredibly resonant with that of 2 Timothy 2:13, but the context is as well.  In Romans 3:1-8, Paul briefly introduces a heartbreaking theme that he will later develop in Romans 9-11: namely, that ethnic Israel’s unexpected and tragic rejection of the Davidic Messiah does not invalidate God’s faithfulness to His promises and His people; the word of God has not fallen to the ground empty (9:1-6).  All this in spite of the tremendous turmoil and erosion of confidence in God’s faithfulness that it apparently caused for many in the early church.

Years later, having learned this lesson well and at enormous personal cost to himself, Paul sorrowfully yet boldly reminds Timothy that God’s demonstration of His own goodness and righteousness are not thwarted by even the most shocking and heartbreaking defections from the faith within the confessing people of God.  The Lord knows who belongs to Him, and He will remain faithful regardless of those who turn away from Him.  This is the meaning of 2 Timothy 2:13.

I know that in my own life some of the most faith-testing and gut-wrenching experiences I have endured as a Christian have come through the Hymenaeus’s and Philetus’s (2:18), the Phygelus’s and Hermogenes’s (1:15), and the Demas’s (4:10) in my own life, those who have consciously turned away from Jesus after what seemed to be genuinely good beginnings in their spiritual devotion to the Savior.  2 Timothy, as even a casual glance at the letter demonstrates, is filled with such bitter disappointments in Paul and Timothy’s Christian relationships.  The leadership in the Ephesian church has apparently crumbled from within, abandoning the orthodox faith and thus fulfilling Paul’s earlier warning to the church in Ephesus (Acts 20:28-32).  Yet Paul’s faith is still solid, for the Lord remains faithful in spite of it all.  He cannot deny Himself.  This is the ultimate basis of Paul’s confidence.  And this divinely-constructed foundation possesses a permanent stability, whatever personal betrayals or rejections we meet with from those who formerly sang and worshiped and prayed with us among God’s people.  It is a good, albeit harsh lesson to learn before such times arrive for us.  Even now, may we all begin to lay down deep roots into the faithfulness of God, a faithfulness which remains even in the face of the worst, most unexpected human faithlessness.

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God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.  In this love has been perfected with us, in order that we might have confidence in the day of judgment, because just as he is so also are we in this world.  There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear, because fear has to do with punishment, and the one who fears has not been perfected in love.”   (1 John 4:16-18)

The promise of 1 John 4:18 is a perpetual favorite of many Christians, and for good reason.  Few things are more terrifying or unpleasant in life than the foreboding sense of remaining under God’s displeasure, or the prospect of one day being judged and excluded from His presence.  This is the stuff of ultimate nightmare for human beings.  Yet John holds out the possibility of Christians, in the here and now, receiving assurance of God’s pardoning love and favor to them.  What could hold more potential attraction or value than attaining this profound peace–assuming that such a subjective sense is in accord with objective reality?

Of course, that is the real rub: is our subjective assurance before God in accord with objective reality?  I cannot imagine that most clear-minded people would covet any perception of being in the right before God, if in fact that perspective did not line up with the way things actually are and will be in the universe.  Yet it is my contention that the most popular interpretations of John’s meaning in this passage tend to perpetrate that very danger. (more…)

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I’m currently teaching through an “Introduction to the Old Testament” class for Aletheia church here in Cambridge.  The audio of my lectures, as well as my lecture notes and handouts, are now available online for free here:


Further resources and audio will be made available each week after each class.

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“No serious writer, composer, painter has ever doubted, even in moments of strategic aestheticism, that his work bears on good and evil, on the enhancement or diminution of the sum of humanity in man and the City.” (George Steiner, Real Presences, p. 145)

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