The deepest, most complex, and most astounding aspect of biblical theology.

Reading Rabbi Milton Steinberg’s Basic Judaism has given me in the past two posts some examples of how Christians can take a cue from Judaism on topics like action/belief and what it means to serve God within the larger society. I think there is much that Christians can learn from Jews, which is one reason why I wish there was more interaction between us.

This is not to say, however, that I am in favor of blurring the distinctions between our two belief systems. I don’t see Judaism has having it all together, which should be fairly obvious in that I’m not Jewish. There is one thing that Jews are missing, and Steinberg helpfully provides an opportunity to talk about this missing piece when he writes:

Judaism does not expect perfection from man. There are religions which insist that he achieve it or be lost … In this respect Judaism is mellower, more realistic. It thinks too well of God to portray Him as exacting impeccability from flesh and blood He has made frail. It is too insensible to ask that man walk but never slip. To the contrary it predicts that he will not only slip but fall also. Its guidance is directed to the end that he shall so walk as to fall as little as possible, and having fallen, will pick himself up, brush off the dust and go on, wiser, surer of himself and of the good he seeks. (89)

Most of the time when Steinberg refers to “those other religions” I think he means to implicitly refer primarily to Christianity. And he probably has in mind Matthew 5:48 (cf. 19:21), in which Jesus says to the crowds gathered around him on the hill: “Be perfect therefore as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

The first problem here is that I don’t believe it’s appropriate for Steinberg to have a view of Jesus as if he represents another religion. Jesus was a devoted Jew his entire life and spent practically all his time and energy teaching other Jews. It’s not exactly clear when “Christianity” can be used to refer to the movement that Jesus launched, but in my view it’s certainly not during Jesus’s ministry. In other words, it’s one of his own that Steinberg must face if he has a problem with the commandment to be “perfect.”

A clarification I would like to make before the next point is that we have become used to thinking of “perfect” as description of something that is completely flawless, something that is completely above and beyond the idea of ever being improved upon. In this view, God is the only thing that can truly be called perfect. But “perfect” has historically referred to that which is complete, and the word translated “perfect” here in Matthew is a word which can definitely be translated “complete.” It is related to the word for “end,” or “goal.” Jesus taught that we would be perfected and whole, just as our Father has always been perfect and whole.

The other problem is that Christianity, while it anticipates perfection (or completion) and “impeccability,” it expects that man will “slip.” Just for one example, look at Paul’s letters. The recipients of those letters were definitely meant to aim for the goal of being perfect, complete human beings but the reason Paul must write to them is that they are not able to be perfect, at least not yet. And Paul would certainly say the same is true of him. That goal lies in the future, and Paul talks about in passages like 1 Cor 15, Philippians 3, and 1 Thess 4. (None of which are about a “rapture”; all of which are about being renewed humans in God’s renewed world. Dare I say “perfect” humans in a “perfect” world?)

The reason why Jesus can tell his fellow Jews that they must be perfect, and the reason why Christians, as part of that same story, must be perfect is that when all is said and done this perfection is not grounded in the determination or accomplishment of man but rather in the gracious and saving action of God.

Otherwise, I would agree with Steinberg. It in fact would not be “realistic” and it would be “insensible” for God to expect frail humanity to be perfect on its own.

What changes everything is that God himself becomes the perfect humanity that he requires.

It is in Jesus that humans become everything that they were meant to be, and, it is in Jesus that God becomes everything he needs to be to fulfill his promises to humanity. In Jesus God himself is faithful to humanity, who at the same time and in the same way becomes the faithful humanity that God requires.

To me, this is the most beautiful and awesome truth about the story of this God and this world. This is why Christology is the deepest, most complex, and most astounding aspect of biblical theology.

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Church-As-Society, Church-In-Society

In his book Basic Judaism Rabbi Milton Steinberg has helped me think about some important topics. The last post was about what Christians can learn from Judaism when it comes to belief and practice. This time his remarks about Judaism in society would fit right along with some points in my post on the Protestant world’s poor ecclesiology, which is as much about church-as-society as it is about church-in-society. 

I’m conflicted about some figures in church history. Many of the great ones spent at least part of their lives basically cut-off not only from the church world but from the larger society. There time was spent in deep study and prayer, but from every facet, it looks like it shouldn’t fit too well with Christianity. Christianity is neither private nor solitary. It is personal, but not about individuals. When adequately accounted for, it is undeniably communal.

Steinberg says that “Judaism in its main stream has not only never condoned hermitism, it has condemned it … In the eyes of the Tradition, the recluse … is both immoral and unwise … Everything he is, needs, and uses–life, language, tools, ideals–has come to him from society. Having accepted these benefits at its hands, it is wrong for him to yield nothing in return” (83).

Can a communal religion tolerate hermitism? According to Steinberg, Judaism cannot. I wonder why Christianity has sometimes failed to realize the same throughout its history.

Steinberg continues his criticism of the hermit. His greatest fault, Steinberg points out, is that “he overlooks the so obvious truth the individual and the community are inextricably bound together in a common fate” (83).

In his development of this critique, Steinberg cites this sharp little parable from the Rabbis:

It happened once that men sat together in a boat at sea. Whereupon one of them drew f oath an awl and began to bore into boat’s bottom.

“Stupid one,” the others cried at him, “what are you doing?”

“And what concern is it of yours?” he answered. “Is it not under my own seat that I am making a hole?” (83-84)

That’ll preach.

So will this: “He who is solicitous over the health of his soul has no other course except to see to the health of his community.”

Yet again he’s too good not to quote at length:

To do God’s will, which requires of us justice, mercy, and humility, we must live with, among, and for other men.

If we are to show forth His glory and sanctify his name our fellows must be present with us; otherwise we shall have neither spectators nor audience.

Certainly the building of His kingdom on earth pre-supposes our involvement in society, since the Kingdom, as we shall see later, is the in the main our own society perfected and regenerated. (85)

All of which can be readily applied to the Christian.

Indeed, here Steinberg is speaking of the Jew, but I’m going to modify it a bit:

“[The Christian] must bear himself warmly and well as a kinsman, congregant, citizen, and human being in order to find life worth while, to be true to his nature, and to advance God’s design” (85).

Church-as-society, church-in-society.

Doing and Believing

Christians can always stand to learn something from other religions. If something is true, it’s true. And therefore beneficial.

Especially since Christianity and Judaism share the same roots, there is a good amount of beneficial truth that these religions can find in the other.

I was talking with a friend recently about the Chick-Fil-A controversy, and how so many Christians can rally together in defense of an idea, but can’t seem to so readily rally together in a matter of practice. As much as I get annoyed with some of the memes out there, that one that was passed around on Facebook during all this did have a point. Look at all the crowds clogging the Chick-Fil-A grounds, it said. Do you ever see this sort of thing at places where Christians should be serving the poor–the sort of thing that Jesus actually said to do?

I said to my friend that what Christians could stand to learn from Judaism is that as concerned as it is with truth, it does not dwell on the ideological to the point that it neglects the practical. The Talmud is largely a record of a bunch of Rabbis arguing, but their argument tends to not be about mere ideas but about how best to live and to act as Jews. It appears in this thought world that whatever you may believe and how you understand something is largely up to you — it’s what you’re doing that is important. In other words, say “right or wrong” to a Jew and he or she will probably think of actions. It is becoming increasingly more likely nowadays that if you say “right or wrong” to a Christian he or she will probably think of ideas.

This is why in many Christian circles solid belief in the Trinity, for example, is valued more as a tell-tale sign of proper faith than say sharing your possessions or praying with any regularity.

The same culprit is responsible for this great irony: Many Christians defend with fervor the idea that the Bible is nothing less than the inspired, infallible, inerrant Word of God itself. But so few of them actually read it.

We slack on practice to the point that it’s ok if its virtually non-existent. But we stress ideology to the point that we can’t often tolerate different views within the church.

Now, all this is not to say that all ideology is distinct from practicality, or all practicality is never grounded in ideology. Balance is good. (If I knew the Latin for this phrase it would become a personal motto.)

So, having made these points recently, I read just yesterday from Rabbi Milton Steinberg in his book Basic Judaism:

“Judaism, to a unique degree among historic religions, has cherished and encouraged freedom of thought … Jewish theological opinion has always ranged far and wide … The Jewish religion is highly intellectualistic in the sense that it places understanding among its supreme purposes, and in the further sense that it believes in knowledge as a key to understanding” (35).

So, Judaism places a proper importance on ideas and is comfortable enough with ideas to allow a good deal of wiggle room when it comes to what to believe about certain topics.

However, “[as highly as Judaism] rates the life of reason, it rates the good life even higher. For all its heavy intellectualism its sets morality above logic, the pursuit of justice and mercy over the possession of the correct idea” (35). Mmhmm …

Steinberg continues:”And so where other historic religions have used themselves with doctrine first and ethic second, Judaism has done just the opposite” (35). I’m afraid Steinberg has Christianity in mind here. And I would dissent with his implication that we should have ethics first and doctrine second. I would advocate a theology where doctrine and ethic are hardly distinguishable (as Ben Witherington III has done in The Indelible Image). But nonetheless, at least in his point Steinberg raises the question and takes a stance on the true significance of what is done over against what is simply believed. And here Christians can, and should, find a series of important lessons.

In light of the Chick-Fil-A controversy, one of these lessons is how to approach the topic of right and wrong actions. If Steinberg helps provide us with a balanced way of thinking about doing and believing, what’s a more balanced view of wrong? From his Jewish point of view, he writes:”With sin as with evil the Tradition is far more concerned that men act rightly than that they shall speculate in some approved fashion” (87). What’s more important? Speculation about what is wrong (and spewing that speculation on anyone who might hear you), or actually doing the opposite of what is wrong?

So, yes, it’s certainly a valid question: What good are we if we do not actually believe in what we do? This is admittedly crucial. But, more to the point at hand, What purpose do we serve if we do not do what we actually believe? One last question: What do we actually believe in the first place?

One of the Greatest Fixes We Need in Our Theology

Part of me (rightly) thinks that I shouldn’t take a negative stance on this blog all the time and always correct what I perceive as being errors in common thought or practice. That can get annoying, and a bit depressing. So I try to maintain a balance. But some things just need to be fixed.

I think the most-needed fix in Protestant and evangelical thinking at least in America is its poor ecclesiology. I do consider myself Protestant and evangelical, and I’m satisfied with many of the things that these traditions have stood for. But much of the time we fail to grasp what the church is for in the first place.

Here’s just one piece of evidence of this: 80% of Americans claim to be Christian, but less than 50% of them are actually affiliated with a congregation, according to the most recent issue of Christianity Today.

Here in statistical language is the common view that what Christian faith is all about is a personal, one-on-one relationship with God. Who needs church, when you can cultivate that one-on-one relationship on your own with private Bible reading and prayer. If even that, but that’s another issue.

Sadly, even among those Christians who do regularly connect with a congregation, the same idea can be found. It can be seen in the worship leader who encourages everyone to ignore everything and everyone around them as the congregation sings praises to God. “This time is about you and God alone,” he says.

If this is really the case, why would anyone go to church? Probably the main reason for some people, or at least one of the reasons, is that the church gives you what you can’t give yourself–but still, only for the sake of that all-important one-on-one relationship with God. You can’t preach to yourself. You can’t play the guitar and lead yourself in a couple of praise songs. So go where the people are that can give this to you. It is a consumer mentality, and it’s a poisonous way of thinking when it has its way in the church. But that’s another issue.

What is so often overlooked but nonetheless so often emphasized in the Bible is that God’s work in the world has always been about making a people for himself (1 Samuel 12:22). The major reason why this has been ignored? It is probably due to what is often perhaps the central missing piece in the church’s conception of the story of God and the world, which is the story of God and the people of Israel.

The church has a tendency to muffle the Old Testament, to the point that the only things we can hear it saying clearly are those scattered verses that appear to prefigure Christ. Or, if not only this, the Old Testament merely provides a treasure trove of illustrations to pull from when a New Testament lesson needs to be expounded.

In this light, “tragic” probably wouldn’t be too strong of word to describe what has happened: The big story isn’t acknowledged. The record of God’s interactions and purposes for Israel aren’t seen for what it is, which is the very basis for everything that comes to us in the New Testament. The latter part of our Bible is itself the climax and preliminary fulfillment of the story of Israel which at the same time points us onward to future hope in the final fulfillment of God’s work in the world.

To take the people of Israel into proper account, we need to ask what are they for? If God is going to reign on earth (which is the actual point of the Bible’s story, not going to heaven when we die as often supposed … another issue), then this entails having people who worship him and acknowledge him as ruler and lord.

Once humans failed at this original commission (Genesis 3), God took the initiative and started something new with Israel. He would claim Israel for himself, to be his very own people. But, Israel never existed for its own sake. Though Israel would forget, and many Christians today don’t even realize, and the prophets try to remind us, the plan all along was to work through Israel so that all the world would come to know the God who has made himself known among them.

Jews and Gentiles together, worshiping the God of Israel — the God who, as it turns out, is the one God and creator of all. Humanity’s purpose, fulfilled in worship. Though not worship involving mere praise but the worship involving taking part in the original God-given tasks. But, yet another issue.

Being a Christian, then, means not that you know God all by yourself. But that you are fortunate enough to be a part of the people of God that he has been in the process of making, redeeming, and preparing for himself. And it is in this context that we best understand the biblical portrait of salvation.

Salvation is not the reward you get once you’ve set up your own relationship with God. Salvation is indeed a very important part of the story of God and his people, but it is important as the means by which we finally become the redeemed, rescued, and restored people of God that he has intended to have since Genesis 1-2 and didn’t give up on even after Genesis 3.

In other words, salvation is a means to an end, not an end in itself. It is corporate, not just personal. And, it is future, not just present. To be saved is to be finally be a part of God’s renewed humanity in God’s new world, and this we are still waiting for — though it is happening already.

In this light, with the way word “salvation” is so often passed around these days in the church, a dictionary wouldn’t be at fault if it defined it for us as having to do with an individual making a single decision for God so that that individual can go to heaven. This is a faint shadow of the full biblical picture of what it means for God’s entire creation to be rescued. I wish more of our discussions would at least start with Romans 8 than the ones that begin and end with a short-sighted reading of Romans 3. Not to mention, Romans 9-11 would make much more sense and would be seen as much more relevant.

It is the church that is now and will finally be known as the people of God. Though it wouldn’t be popular especially in many evangelical churches to teach that salvation is found only in the church, according to the story of God and his world, that is a perfectly valid point. God has not set up a system by which individuals can find salvation him and only then go about their lives. God has written a story in which he claims a people to be completely his. Think of the Exodus, the first great example of salvation in the Bible that turns out to be paradigmatic for God’s rescue throughout the ages. It was God claiming a people and rescuing them to bring them to himself.

I must say this at this point: YES, of course, God knows us and even requires us to respond to him as individuals. One of the great blessings of the Protestant cause is that it reminded us of this during a time when we sorely needed the reminder. But as things often go, a helpful emphasis becomes an over-emphasis. That God knows us as individuals is no less true though God’s ultimate claim over us is as a people. But yet again, having a purely one-on-one view of oneself and God is detrimental when it comes to understanding what being a Christian is all about.

So, more than half of American Christians lack a connection with a congregation. I hope what little I’ve provided here shows that this is a contradiction in terms. We are in urgent need of a renewal of our understanding of the church because with it comes an understanding of who our God is and what he is up to. About this topic more than most others I can think of, there is much, much more that could and needs to be said.

1 Kings 8:41-43

As important the Temple is for biblical theology, the first one isn’t established until the beginning of 1 Kings, over 400 years since Israel was rescued from their Egyptian slavery. Once this Temple is completed, and Yahweh fills it with his glory, King Solomon formally dedicates it to him in front of the Israelite people. We have the great prayer said by Solomon on this occasion recorded in 1 Kings 8, and a portion of it impacted me in a special way when I read it recently, verses 41-43:

“Listen also to the foreigner who isn’t from your people Israel but who comes from a distant country because of your reputation–because they will hear of your great reputation, your great power, and your outstretched arm. When the immigrant comes and prays toward this temple, then listen from heaven, where you live, and do everything the foreigner asks. Do this so that all the people of the earth may know your reputation and revere you, as your people Israel do, and recognize that this temple I have built bears your name.” (CEB, modified by myself at a couple points)

God claims the Temple of Israel as his residence on earth, the place on the map where he can be most fully encountered. Israel, and the city of Jerusalem itself is indeed privileged, but Solomon displays his God-given wisdom through his acknowledgement that God doesn’t claim Israel only for Israel’s sake. It is important, indeed important enough to mention at this key moment of Israel’s history, that God will do what is best when he listens to the foreigner. Solomon asks that God do everything that the non-Israelite asks of him when this person comes to pay homage to him at the Temple which Israel has built.

Why should God do this? So that not only Israel, but the entire world which God ultimately claims would know what God is like and therefore revere him. But why would the foreigner come to the God of Israel through the Israelite Temple in the first place? For the same reason, God’s reputation. As a result of God’s work in Israel by being present in a special way among them, the world would know about God and his power and want to experience it for themselves. That is one of the purposes of having the Temple in the first place.

Coming to the New Testament, as a result of the work of Jesus Christ Paul tells the people of God which are now, on the verge of the coming age of God’s salvation, made up of Israel and the nations, i.e., Jew and Gentile: You are God’s temple. He describes this in Ephesians 2:20-22, for example:

“As God’s household, you are built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus himself at the cornerstone. The whole building is joined together in him, and it grows up into a temple that is dedicated to the Lord. Christ is building you into a place where God lives through the Spirit.” (see also 1 Corinthians 3:16-17).

In 2 Corinthians 6:16, Paul includes himself as part of this new dwelling place of God: “We are the Temple of the living God.”

The church, the people of God, are now Yahweh’s central place of activity. If you want to know what this God is like, if you want to check on the reputation of the creator and lord of the universe, look at those people among whom God dwells. Is God being faithful to his promises? Look to his people. Is this God powerful? Investigate what he is doing among those who claim that he is. Just who is this God in the first place? Ask the people who wear his name tag.

It’s a great privilege, and as we know, a great responsibility. It is a vivid reminder that salvation is not an end in itself. Because, in God’s economy, you come to know him so that you can make him known.

Advice from Michael Bird

Let us allow the Australian New Testament scholar Michael Bird to discipline us a little bit in love:

“Our churches, some American ones in particular, need to spend less time telling non-Christians how to cope with being ‘left behind’ and start teaching Christians that to know Christ means to have fellowship with his sufferings and to be conformed to his death (Phil. 3:10)!” (Introducing Paul, 118).

Great Aunt Mary and the Duck

I’m digesting a Japanese lunch I just had with mom. I think we were both in a goofy mood.

She told the story about my great uncle Jack and great aunt Mary.

Aunt Mary was a lifelong Sunday school teacher, and a very devoted Christian woman. My mom never heard her say a cuss word. But when Aunt Mary got older and her mind started going my mom could hear her in the hall at night muttering profanities.

And one day Uncle Jack put a duck in the oven for supper. And he went hunting for a while with my grandfather, leaving Aunt Mary alone with the duck.

Well when they came back the duck was missing. It wasn’t in the oven. There was no trace of it anywhere whatsoever. Aunt Mary must have done something with it, but they never found out what. That duck was never seen again.