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A Moment on the Edge

In an earlier blog, I suggested that passages traditionally understood by distinguishing between “positional” and “conditional” reality would be better perceived as NT uses of the OT rhetorical device known as the “prophetic perfect.”  Having briefly made that case, I would like to take it one more tentative step. Let me first of all say that I know that the inference I am going to draw will seem radical to many.  But is not the blogsphere the place for edgy ideas?  (I don’t know who wrote that rule, but I’ll appeal to it when it suits me!)  In truth, I am loathe to embrace or espouse radical ideas. And yet I am convinced that there could be profit in at least considering a further – if incendiary – ramification of the case I made earlier for finding the Old Testament prophetic perfect on the pages of the New Testament.  And thus, a brief and uncharacteristic moment on the edge.

 

My concern is for the reading of NT passages which have in recent decades been construed as describing theological realities which are “already/not yet.”  Indeed, the “conditional/positional” construct has been almost entirely replaced by the notion expressed as “already/not yet.”  Again, if that turn of phrase were intended to say only that the promises referenced are absolutely certain of fulfillment, I would take no umbrage.  But the formula has become shorthand for the notion that the promise at stake can be both fulfilled and unfulfilled, a possession both presently possessed and not yet possessed. 

 

I know I am treading on very sacred ground here, and I don’t anticipate many will agree.  But that construct seems to introduce into the passages a measure of abstraction that borders on incoherence, if not contradiction.  (“Already – but not yet!”  I ask humbly and honestly, are we perhaps taking liberties with the law of non-contradiction?)  Furthermore, a great many theological inferences are drawn from the perceived “already/not yet” character of those passages (cf. Col 1:13).  On the other hand, if those passages are read simply as New Testament uses of the prophetic perfect, then the “already/not yet” dynamic is not to be found in those passages, and thus those inferences cannot be drawn.  But nothing is lost exegetically; indeed, those passages are seen to be straightforward and powerful affirmations that the promises under discussion are absolutely certain of fulfillment.

 

If nothing more than as an intellectual exercise, I would argue that it is worthwhile at least to ponder the following:  a) the minds of the NT writers were certainly saturated with Old Testament truths and thought forms, and b) if the NT writer is simply utilizing a nuance borrowed from the Old Testament, a rhetorical device which to the mind of his readers powerfully bespeaks certainty of fulfillment, then c) the passages can be read as straightforward expressions of absolute certainty, such as that which was conveyed consistently in the older Scriptures by the exact same rhetorical device, and therefore d) the inferences drawn largely from those passages deserve to be rethought.

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Being an attempt to make full proof of the following proposition:

The writers of the New Testament wrote in Greek, but they thought in Hebrew.

 

In my mind, one of the most compelling evidences of that remarkable intellectual habit of mind is that Hebrew grammatical nuances – forms which are foreign to the Greek language – are employed by those Greek-writing Hebrew-thinking apostles.  One of those is the use again and again in the New Testament of a construction which, in the Old Testament, is known most commonly as the “prophetic perfect.”

 

The Old Testament thought form

Throughout the Old Testament, when the future is foretold the anticipated event is spoken of as if it were a completed reality.  That is, the grammatical form in which the prophecy is framed (i.e., the Hebrew perfect or perfective) would normally be read to describe completed action. But in these cases the event is in fact future, and yet because the matter being foretold by God is certain to come to pass, it is spoken of as already accomplished.  Although this may sound strange to a modern Western ear, it is a very common feature of the Hebrew tongue. 

 

The standard grammar of Biblical Hebrew, Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, describes one of the uses of the Hebrew perfect as follows:

To express facts which are undoubtedly imminent, and, therefore in the imagination of the speaker, already accomplished (perfectum confidentiae), e.g., Num 17:27, behold, we perish, we are undone, we are all undone. Gen 30:13, Isa 6:5 (I am undone), Prov 4:2. . . . This use of the perfect occurs most frequently in prophetic language (perfectum propheticum). The prophet so transports himself in imagination into the future that he describes the future event as if it had been already seen or heard by him [my emphasis], e.g. Isa 5:13 therefore my people are gone into captivity; 9:1ff.,10:28,11:9…; 19:7, Job 5:20, 2 Chr 20:37.

 Section 106n, pp. 312-313

 

Again, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Waltke & O’Connor) refers to this usage as the “accidental perfective,” in which “a speaker vividly and dramatically represents a future situation both as complete and as independent [my emphasis].”  That text allows that this form is also known as the “prophetic perfect or the perfective of confidence” (Sec. 30.5.1.e, pp. 489-490).  And again, Jewish authorities consistently recognize this usage (though some have inconsistently tried to argue that the messianic prophecies in the canonical prophets must refer to a past Messiah, as those prophecies are in the perfect). Commentator Nahum Sarna says of Exodus 12:17 (“I have brought your armies out of the land of Egypt,” though that event was yet to happen),

     This is an example of the “prophetic perfect.” The future is described as having already occurred because God’s will inherently and ineluctably possesses the power of realization so that the time factor is inconsequential.

Exodus: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation (Philadelphia: JPS, 1991), p. 59.

 

Examples of this usage abound throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.

 

The New Testament Use

Again and again in the New Testament the future is spoken of as already accomplished.  Paul states that “those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom 8:30); orthodox evangelical theology would affirm that the first three steps in that blessed gospel progression are accomplished reality for the believer, but that the final step is yet future.  Yet it is expressed as if it were as much an accomplished fact as the three which preceded it.  Again, Paul states in Ephesians 2:6 that God has “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”  In Colossians 1:13 the apostle rejoices that Jesus “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son.”  In my experience, this verse as much as any other is used to argue that the Kingdom promised by the Old Testament is already here, but if the verse is read in a way consistent with biblical habits of mind, it means nothing more (nor less, God be praised!) than this: the coming of that future day when we will be entirely delivered from evil in the kingdom of righteousness is so certain that it can be spoken of as if accomplished – which is the way God expresses anticipated realities throughout His Word.

 

A brief disclaimer.  I know that most do not discern the use of the prophetic perfect in the New Testament passages to which I have appealed.  Instead, a rather abstract construct has historically been appealed to in order to explain the apparent anomaly of future events spoken of as already accomplished.  That construct is the supposed distinction between “conditional truth” (what is true of man’s actual condition in the present physical world) and “positional truth” (what is truly and certainly destined to be ours because of our position in Christ).  Let me be clear: I concur with the point being made via the “condition vs. position” construct. Indeed, I cherish that reality.  But I am persuaded that the whole c/p construct would have been counter-intuitive to the Jewish-Christian readers of the New Testament.  It seems an abstraction born of a Greek turn of mind.  But more importantly, there is ready to hand an explanation which results in virtually the same understanding of the past tenses in strategic NT passages, but which looks to the intellectual habit of mind evident throughout the Old Testament to explain the perceived anomaly.  That is what I am arguing for here.

There is in the 21st century evangelical world a staggering asymmetry between  what is being done and what is being talked about. The great preponderance of attention is given to the few celebrated ministries (perhaps, God forbid, “celebrity ministries”) which live in the limelight, but the great preponderance of God’s work is done by the unnumbered little known ministries who live in the backwaters.  The reasons for the imbalance are not hard to catalog, and a small few of those reasons are not pernicious.  But there is one inescapable result of that remarkable disproportion which is wicked in all of its parts – the longing to be noticed beyond the ministry which God has given me.  Celebrity wanna-be-ism.  Creeping narcissism.  Isaiah 14 revividus.  The pride of life as a Siren’s song to those engaged in ministry.  Take all of this as the whining of one frustrated by his own enduring insignificance if you will; who can blame you?  But is there not a cause?

 

The longing is not unique to our age, but it is a more besetting snare because of the technology that today makes it so remarkably easy to have an un-vetted, entirely non-peer-reviewed voice – even if only a whisper – beyond the actual sound of one’s voice.  (I can prove this: you are reading these words. The prosecution rests!)  This is not to decry those capabilities; it would be comically hypocritical to do so from this venue.  But it is perhaps a call to conscious, deliberate remembrance of a moral principle which is almost as easily forgotten as it is biblically undeniable: viz., in ministry, the longing to be celebrated is Luciferian in all of its parts.  God will not share His glory. This is the lesson of Numbers 20:10, read in light of the divine commentary of Psalm 106:33. The sin of Moses was that he “spoke ill-advisedly with his lips” – that is, He cried out “Must we fetch water from the rock!”  In the context of ministry, God has no patience with 1st person plural pronouns.  God has often expanded the reach of a man’s ministry beyond the reach of his voice; when that happens the person must handle that expanded ministry as part of the stewardship given him by his wise and enabling Lord. But with that sort of reach comes some level of notoriety, and with that notoriety comes the respect and praise of many who really don’t know the celebrated minister very well, and with that exaggerated praise comes the temptation to actually begin to believe your own press clippings!  Paul warns Timothy that pride will certainly wrap a person in a miasma of moral befuddlement (1 Tim 3:6), and the longing – yea, even the willingness – to wallow in the inordinate accolades so often bestowed today is certainly a function of pride. 

 

Therefore, it is imperative that day by day, by means of carefully designed strategies, those in ministry sit in merciless judgment on the ever present impulse to narcissism.  If God gives you a ministry beyond the reach of your voice, be careful!  By reason of that notoriety the devices available to Satan to tempt in your life are more numerous and more deceptive (2 Cor 2:11).  If you find yourself longing to be recognized beyond the corner of the vineyard where He has placed you, repent!  It is required of a steward that he be found faithful (1 Cor 4:2), not that he be found famous.  Know that the man who gives himself to ministry is not in some special sense inoculated from the sin of pride; indeed, he is the more vulnerable.  Thus he must be the more zealous daily and deliberately to humble himself in the sight of God; in so doing he will set the Sovereign free to lift him up in ways which will almost certainly mean very little in this life, but will mean everything in the next – the real – life (Jms 4:10).

When?  January 5 – 8, 2009

Where? Crossroads Bible College, Indianapolis, IN

What?  Teaching Module:  Biblical Theology of Old Testament Temple Worship

 

Crossroads Bible College is a remarkably strategic ministry, carefully and sacrificially training men and women for ministry, largely in urban settings.  I have long admired Crossroads from afar, and had gotten to know some of the faculty since our family’s move to this area.  But this was my first opportunity to share in the ministry.  It was a delightful experience.  I was impressed with the selfless and charitable spirit of all those with whom I rubbed shoulders in the course of the week.  A person could hardly be treated with greater kindness. The students who sat in my class were hungry to learn because they were hungry to serve, and obviously convinced that the effectiveness of their service was a function of their knowledge of and submission to the Word of God. The college demonstrates a well-defined and animating sense of mission. The course assigned me gave me opportunity to push back the boundaries a bit on the students’ grasp of the Old Testament, always a delight.  The insights and contributions of those students made the week to be a true fellowship of learning. Indeed, the week at Crossroads Bible College impressed upon me once again the nobility and strategic importance of those many ministries which are not as celebrated as some – perhaps not as celebrated as they deserve to be, but which touch and change lives for God’s glory day by day and year by year.  For more in that regard, see the post above.

I Wonder if We Wonder

The reality of the incarnation is so central to our faith that for two millennia every expression of Christianity that could make any claim to orthodoxy has busied itself articulating and defending and honoring that sublime verity. Nor could there be a more noble or God-honoring busy-ness to which we might give ourselves!  But might it be that in the course of those two thousand years we have become altogether too accustomed  to the notion of the God-man, that we have lost something of the wonder that ought to grip us as we contemplate that reality?  Even as the season especially given to the celebration of the nativity of our Lord passes, it is appropriate to take a moment to consciously contemplate the bottomless mystery intrinsic to that narrative.

 

I wonder whether God has ever set before men any truth that more thoroughly drives then to their knees in humble submission than this: The Word became flesh! How it scandalized the sensibilities of the Jewish generation to whom the man Jesus was initially revealed.  And well it might have.  Throughout her history, Israel was surrounded by pagan peoples who professed belief in whole companies of pretender gods.  Those puny “wanna-be” deities were said to live just outside of town on this or that mountain; they were wickedly and selfishly regarded as gods, but in fact they were nothing more than men-blown-big.  They lusted big and battled big, but in no sense did they transcend the things of this earth.  To the contrary, Yahweh, the God of Israel, had revealed Himself as holy, as transcendent, as ontologically separate from this universe in all of its parts, as the Maker of all that exists outside of Himself.  In short, central to all that the God of Israel revealed concerning Himself is this: Yahweh God is not a man!  And yet here was a man standing before that generation of Israel claiming to be God!  It is almost impossible for men today to appreciate how desperately difficult it must have been to bow the knee to such a claim.  But Jesus did many signs (Ac 2:22), and even given the claim to deity all that Jesus taught was entirely consistent with that which God had revealed in days gone by (Ac 17:11; Isa 8:20).  Thus were men brought to their knees in humble submission to the blessed but unspeakably difficult truth: indeed, the Word has become flesh!

 

But before there was a God-man, there was a God-baby. Here is a helpless child, recently born into ignominy and want, lying in a stone manger. Luke’s staggeringly sublime telling of the story of that birth includes the poignant remembrance that “Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (2:19).  What things she had to ponder!  The visit of an angel with the message that she, a peasant maiden residing in the most despised village in all of the land, would bear the promised Messiah.  The unmistakable recognition of the Baby newly gestating in her womb by another yet unborn child who had been growing for six months in the womb of Mary’s aged cousin, Elizabeth. The experience of giving birth to a child while she was yet a virgin.  The arrival of a company of shepherds to the humble place where the Baby had been born, and the story told by those shepherds of a company of angels who had assured them that they would find that royal Babe resting in an animal’s feeding trough. The young woman could not deny the reality of all that, and yet her soul/spirit staggered at it nonetheless.  And would we not be advantaged to ponder the bottomless wonder of those events, and especially the marvel of the central event of the narrative, the eternal Word made flesh!  Embrace that truth – celebrate it, share it, defend it!  But in all of that, vigilantly guard your spirit so that you never for a moment get used to it.

I am working through 1 Samuel for a Bible Study Series, and of course early on in the narrative I encountered the issue of polygamy.  (Elkanah: “I’ve got two wives.  Isn’t that bigamy!”  It’s a joke, a pun of sorts!)  I needed a resource to which I could direct the teachers to help them prepare for that discussion and I was a bit frustrated in the effort.  So I put together some thoughts, knowing that the issue is a bit sensitive.  I have posted the essay here so that it can be accessed by those teachers, but I would appreciate any (gentle) response from the broader blogosphere.  I framed my discussion of the issue in four affirmations and some lesser observations.  The four affirmations are as follows.

 

1.  Polygamy does not fall under the interdict of the seventh commandment.

 

2.  The reason polygamy is not adultery is that polygamy assumes that the demands of the marriage relationship, as defined and displayed in Scripture, will obtain entirely in all aspects of the relationship. (Here begins a discussion of levirate marriage in the OT.)

 

3.  Under certain circumstances, polygamy is the least wicked and destructive of a number of unhappy “evils” available, and – though never morally desirable – it is in these cases morally acceptable.

 

4.  In its essence, polygamy is morally inferior (i.e., it dilutes the force of the leave/cleave principle) and socially destructive.  It is therefore to be regarded as morally legitimate only when practiced under divinely defined circumstances.

 

Click here for the entire essay

I’ve been here in the Philippines since last Friday.  It’s an amazing place in sundry ways, but with all of its charm and interest, one element of life here especially impressed me. 

The driving is a genuine wonder.  It has the quality of an unfolding act from the Cirque de Soleil festooning the country as a ribbon from one end to the other. The most thoroughly useless use of paint in all the world has to be the white line down the middle of the road.  Formally, you drive on the right side of the road in this country.  But in fact it would be more accurate to say that it is the habit of most to choose the right-most of the various openings which might be available at any given moment, but that being on the right is very low on the list of factors which would affect that choice. Drivers approaching a vehicle well into the left lane routinely and – for all one can tell – happily swerve to the shoulder, then to the edge of the road, and perhaps to the sidewalk in order to make room.

 

The assortment of vehicles is really rather stunning. The chief source of transportation for the locals is either a bicycle or small motorcycle with a little cage attached to it designed to hold a paying passenger – or cargo or animals or produce or whatever.  Those little vehicles, some pedal driven and others powered by motors chugging and coughing in protest, weave in and out of traffic, dodging cars and trucks and busses with amazing aplomb, using which ever side of the street seems most propitious, and stopping wherever and whenever either the driver or the passenger feels the urge. 

The local busses are long, low vehicles garishly appointed, and they too make their way with no regard whatever for any apparent rules or even protocols.  Passengers are hanging precariously from various apertures, and they hop on and off with reckless disregard for OSHA standards.  

If something special is happening which the locals would like travelers to stop and visit, or if the municipality intends for you to slow for a school zone (though the traffic seldom gets over about 25 – 30 mph by my estimate) a set of metal sawhorses are placed alternately in the road half way across the opposite lanes so that the traffic has to weave through the maze in both directions. The streets are also deep with motorcycles and scooters, and most of them are carrying passengers as well as the driver – sometimes 4 or 5 passengers. Very often a little child in diapers (that is, diaper age – I didn’t look that close) will straddle the bike in front of the driver and ride along with wide infant eyes watching life roll up at him over  the top of a set of handlebars. 

Plus, there may be a couple of people behind the driver, one of them perhaps carrying a child in her arms.  My friend, Steve, calls the motor scooter the Filipino mini-van. The larger vehicles – full size busses, cars, vans, trucks of every size, move along in a really dazzling but un-choreographed dance that is honestly rather fun to watch. The notion that it would be unwise to try to pass unless you can be confident that you can return to your own lane (such as it is) before encountering oncoming traffic simply has no place in the Filipino psyche. 

 

In short, there is a real sense of fraternity permeating the drama of driving here; if everyone were not willing to slow down or speed up or back up or move over or take to the sidewalk (such as it is) when necessary to save that other guy’s hide, the system simply wouldn’t work.  I am told that Filipinos find it very difficult to learn to drive in the States – everyone staying in his lane, but nobody looking out for the other guy.  Given that, I’m not sure we have anything to teach the Filipinos about driving!