Thursday, January 11, 2018

Two tricks for understanding the Old Testament

I've just finished preaching through the book of Exodus and wanted to share some of my experience preparing for and then preaching from it. Exodus for many people is a foreign country. After Creation and then the stuff about Abraham and his kids, it becomes a bit of a blur of rules, weird stories and bloody sacrifices. Although interestingly, unlike Leviticus, sacrifice is not a big theme in Exodus. If you had to summarise the book into one phrase it would be 'being rescued into God's presence' and forms a magnificent sequel to Genesis. If you're a preacher it also roughly divides into two separate and manageable series', the rescue from Egypt chapters 1-16, and then instructions for living in God's presence chapters 17-40.

One of the advantages of preaching from the Old Testament is you can use its exotic unfamiliarity to create rhetorical tension. The only time this doesn't work is when the material seems both alien and irrelevant. So, for example, everyone is keen to hear how you'll handle the 10 commandments but less interested in the relevance of priestly garments and tabernacle construction. The juicier passages that feature strict regulations, violence or weird rituals can be preached very simply, by presenting the strange potency of the material and then resolving the tension on a case by case basis. (More on that below.) The priestly garments and tabernacle instructions are trickier because you need to highlight our sinful condition first and then show why these things are necessary before finally linking them to their fulfilment in Jesus.

People over-complicate the Old Testament. But here are two tricks that help with preparation and then presenting the rhetoric of the gospel as you understand and apply the Old Testament. Firstly treat the Old Testament like the New Testament or Watership Down or Lord of the Rings or any other great text. Admittedly, the stakes are higher with Scripture, God, the cosmos and life and death.You might read The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli carefully but hopefully, you won't let it change your life! Essentially, you consider the audience, it's meaning and the authorial intent. In other words, what is the text saying to the '1st hearers', us the '2nd hearers', what's the underlying principle and what is the purpose of the passage? You do exactly the same with the New Testament. The second trick is to beware of continuity and discontinuity between the old and new covenants. Some things continue, some things are different. Sometimes it'll be obvious (e.g High Priest), at other times you'll have to hold both in tension (e.g 2nd Commandant). Jesus has completely fulfilled the Law, but it's still a good thing, showing us God's holiness and our own sinfulness, among other things.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Book Review: Israel Matters by Gerald McDermott

Israel Matters by Gerald McDermott

Gerald McDermott in Israel Matters: Why Christians Must Think Differently about the People and the Land, (2017) presents a cogent theological argument for the continued importance of a Jewish nation living in the land of Israel. This is controversial because the dominant Christian paradigm has been Supersessionism, the idea that “[t]he church has replaced the Jews as the inheritors of all the biblical promises concerning Israel. … The Jews are no longer God’s people in any special way, and the land of Israel is like the land of any other country in the world.” (page 2) McDermott traces out the history of that paradigm. For example, Irenaus saw Israel as only a temporary phenomena and Origin spiritualized Israel. This pattern was formalised in Augustine’s amillennial theology. The miscalculation of Supersession is highlighted by Schleiermacher who claims the New Testament has more importance and potency than the Old Testament.

However, McDermott traces out a contrary paradigm, that sees a continued place for the Jewish people and Israel in God’s big story. For example, Tertullian sees a place for the Jewish people and their land in God’s plans. Significantly, study notes in the Geneva Bible (first published in 1557) highlighted the importance of the Jewish people in God’s future plans, a theme picked up by some of the Puritans. Then Jonathan Edwards continued the growth of this contrary paradigm, noting that Scripture predicted a return of the Jewish people to their land. An idea that influenced Lord Shaftesbury an early Evangelical Zionist who in turn was part of the movement behind the Balfour Declaration, a document that declared British support for a Jewish state.

That the Jewish people and the modern state of Israel have a place in God’s big story is not simply a paradigm in Church History. In the New Testament ‘Israel’ is never used as a metaphor or type for the Church. McDermott argues that the Apostle Paul’s mission to the Gentiles is about adding to the “commonwealth of Israel” (page 5), not the creation of a new people. The Apostle’s mission reflects a deeper pattern across Scripture. God uses the particular (a particular person or people) to bring blessing to the universal (the world).” (page 46) Notably, observes McDermott, the land is included in the original promises, not as an after-thought or adjunct blessing.

McDermott then tackles the tricky topic of Law, focusing on the book of Galatians. The implication of Supersessionism is that God no longer has a concern for a specific people or a specific place. Additionally the Law of 1st century Judaism is often misrepresented as uniformly based on works-righteousness and devoid of a personal relationship with God. However, the gospels present Jesus operating within the Law. For example, Jesus says he didn’t come to abolish the law (Matt 5:17) and commanded his disciples to obey the Pharisees (Matt 23:3).  When he comes to Galatians McDermott overplays the idea that Galatians is addressed to a Gentile congregation. What is more likely is Brian Rosner’s thesis that the phrase ‘the Law’ has multiple referents and connotations. As he discusses the Law both in Galatians and Romans McDermott misses the way in which the Law is about regulating our access to God.

Recognising the ongoing theological significance of the Jewish people has modern political consequences. McDermott, however, is rightly cautious in his approach and encourages the reader to read widely and think carefully before they apply their theology to politics. He briefly notes the salient facts about the creation of the modern Jewish state, from the San Remo treaty of 1920, the partition of the British mandate into a Jewish and Arab homeland and then the controversial United Nations resolution 242. While Palestinian independence has become a cause célèbre for some, Christian Zionists says McDermott, should like the Jewish citizens themselves, be ready to criticise the modern state of Israel.

Finally, McDermott outlines several practical application of this paradigm. Firstly is his suggestion that the prophet Jeremiah’s famous promise of a new covenant (Jer 31:31-34) does not destroy the old covenant, but is a “deepening” (page 96) of the first. This is certainly true but probably a more useful way of viewing the two covenants is to see a changed pattern access to God. However, McDermott’s thesis helps us understand the continuity and discontinuity of the Old and New covenants more clearly. He also notes that the biblical genre of Prophecy has ongoing significance. Another application of McDermott’s argument is to view Israel’s relationship with God an ongoing parable of God’s faithfulness despite human sinfulness. Lastly, this paradigm reminds us of the importance of the Incarnation, the Son of God has taken on a Jewish identity, which is part of the ongoing ‘scandal of particularity’ at the heart of our faith.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Appeal to experts and experience

Rhetoric is a powerful tool. Last year I wrote about "staying beneath the parapet." That's the technique of not giving away what you think, of saying as little as possible.  Another rhetorical trick is appealing to experts (argumentum ad verecundiam) or experience (a version of ad ignorantiam). And like every rhetorical technique it has both strengths and weaknesses and can be used for both good and evil.

Generally, the way it works is to have a reputable source, 'an expert' supporting your argument. For example, you see this in parenting forums or debates about Climate Change or Islam. The weakness with an appeal to experts is that your opponent may have more or better experts to appeal to and so it becomes an escalating arms race of who has the best expert. An appeal to 'experience' works in a similar way. You either point to a friend's experience that supports your argument or just as powerfully subtly highlight your opponent's lack of experience. The classic example of this is during a debate about abortion, where male voices are often excluded because they lack the experience of "being a woman." The argument can be defused, ironically, with an appeal to a favourable expert who has the alleged experience but ultimately questioning the right for anyone to make judgments and observing the consistency of logic is more powerful.

Sometimes it's important to provide experts that support your view. This is because good ideas have a long provenance, you want people to know that your idea has a reliable pedigree. An appeal to experience can also be helpful when someone is unnecessarily assertive or in genuine need of assistance. But it's also important to be self-aware that you're using those tools and rely on the truthfulness and goodness of the ideas themselves to ultimately win over your opponents.

[Picture from of a random lab, where no doubt, experts are at work, but I can't say with certainty.]