Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 4

Read 1 Samuel 4 

It seems that some years have passed since the “man of God” prophesied the Lord’s rejection of Eli’s house (2:27-36). Eli is now ninety-eight years of age, and almost blind. Until now the focus of the story has been on Shiloh, and on Samuel. Now the focus expands to take in national affairs, and Samuel disappears. Israel’s old enemies the Philistines, who had troubled Israel in the days of Samson, return once more to trouble them again. The chapter has two major parts. Verses 1-11 describe the Israel’s loss on the battlefield, while verses 12-22 describe the death of Eli.

In the early part of the chapter, the two armies face each other, and in an initial battle, Israel is defeated with a significant loss of life. After the battle the elders of Israel determine that God has allowed this defeat (GNB), or more directly, that the Lord himself has defeated Israel (NRSV, ESV). They therefore call for the ark of the covenant of the Lord so that God may be among them and save them from the Philistines. Despite the enthusiasm of the army, the plan fails, Israel is decisively defeated, the ark is captured and the two sons of Eli die in the battle, as prophesied by the man of God in 2:34.

The loss of 4000 soldiers in battle would an extraordinary loss. To lose 30,000 would be devastating to the nation as a whole. A whole generation of men—the loss of army, husbands, fathers, sons, farmers, etc. The magnitude of the slaughter is unimaginable, and such a massive defeat would decimate and impoverish the nation. Numbers in the Hebrew Bible are a problematic matter for biblical scholars, and a number of interpretations are suggested including, the numbers are to be understood literally, symbolically, as hyperbole, or re-translated since the Hebrew word ’elep can mean not only “thousand” but family or clan or tribal leader. Many scholars suggest the third option has the least problems and so is to be preferred. (And though I have said that a thousand times, no one believes me!) Nonetheless, even allowing for numeric inflation, this was a devastating loss for Israel, resulting in their being occupied by the Philistines for over twenty years. The Judges’ cycle of apostasy, oppression and deliverance is being repeated here.

A question arises as to whether the soldiers and the elders have a superstitious regard for the ark. Are they “taking the name of the Lord in vain,” as it were, presuming on God in a kind of civic religion that assumes “God” will give them victory no matter the condition of their ongoing relation with God? Evans takes this interpretation, and warns that symbols of the divine presence cannot be treated superstitiously as though we can manipulate God and gain our own ends (42). There is no doubt that this is a perennial issue in Christian spirituality. It seems that we are endlessly creative in devising means of “using” God to get what we want. We imagine that God’s power is an impersonal “force” that we can “tap into” and direct toward our advantage. Such forms of spirituality are more akin to magic and superstition than biblical faith.

Murphy takes a different view, arguing that “the elders had every reason to think that the ark is literally the presence of the Lord.” It was “a strategy of good faith, not superstition” (37). In Judges the conquest of the land is initiated by the priests carrying the ark across the Jordan. At Jericho, the ark led the people as they marched around the city. Yet in this case, there will be no victory, not because God now is impotent, but because of divine judgement: Hophni and Phineas accompany the ark. “The battle at Ebenezer is lost, not because of the elders’ supposing that the ark would automatically save them, but because of the impious behavior of Eli’s sons” (37).

This view finds implicit corroboration in the text itself. Four times in three verses (vv. 3-5) the ark is named the “ark of the covenant of the Lord.” While it is certainly true that the covenant of God with Israel provided many privileges, benefits and blessings to the people, it came also with obligations and responsibilities—obligations that Eli and his sons, at least, had forsaken. Eli had “scorned” God’s sacrifices and offerings, and honoured his sons above Yahweh (2:29). Though the sons accompanied the ark, they had violated their office, the people, the people’s sacrifices and worship, and so the covenant itself. Though they accompanied the ark, the blessing of the covenant would not accompany them.

Luther@500: The Pastoral Luther

Almost ten years ago, internationally regarded Luther scholar Timothy Wengert said,

As Luther fans the world over are already gearing up for the celebration in 2017 of the 500th anniversary of their posting [i.e. the Ninety-Five Theses] on 31 October 1517, too often the celebrations will focus on Luther’s break with Rome or his Reformation breakthrough rather than on Luther’s own stated reason for the dispute: pastoral care for his flock in Wittenberg (“Introducing the Pastoral Luther” in Wengert (ed.), The Pastoral Luther: Essays on Martin Luther’s Practical Theology (Lutheran Quarterly Books; Eerdmans, p. 5).

Vose Seminary will commemorate this anniversary with a mini-Conference on The Pastoral Luther. Conducted on October 30, four papers will be presented as follows:

  1. Dr Peter Elliott (Perth Bible College): The Pastoral Roots of Luther’s Reformation
  2. Dr Michael O’Neil (Vose Seminary): Freeing Salvation: Luther’s Pastoral Theology
  3. Ps Matthew Bishop (Bethlehem Lutheran Church Morley): Of Good Comfort: Luther’s Pastoral Letters to the Depressed
  4. Dr Brian Harris (Vose Seminary): Luther as Leader

I am very much looking forward to this event. If you are in Perth, perhaps you can make it along.

For details and registration, go to:
https://www.trybooking.com/book/event?eid=321641  

The Gilead Novels (Marilynne Robinson)

I have read Gilead and Home twice now, and I have just finished reading Lila for the first time. I have also listened to the audio versions of Gilead and Home. These are beautifully written novels, gentle, slow, and humane. Robinson’s gift is bringing her characters to life in an easy and unforced manner, letting them grow in depth, colour and texture as the novels proceed. The novels are set in the 1950s, although they recall earlier periods of American history as the stories of the characters’ lives unfold.

Each of the novels centre around the Iowa town of Gilead where Rev. John Ames is pastor of a small Christian congregation. Late in life—and to his utter surprise—Ames marries and fathers a child. Gilead tells something of his story, of Lila, and of Robert, their son. It also introduces the Boughtons who have been lifelong friends of Ames, and still are. Home picks up the Boughton’s story, especially that of Glory, one of the daughters, and of Jack, the wayward and troubled son come home.

Each of the novels unfolds from the inner life of its major character—John Ames, Glory Boughton, and now Lila Ames. Detailed observation and rich dialogue introduce and develop the other characters and provide the drama of the novels. Through the dialogue and reflections we are introduced into the complexity and wonder of human life and relationships. Surprises and intrigue emerge, as does a portrayal of human life and relationship in all its messiness and meanness, glory and hope.

The religious permeates the pages. Robinson brings depths of theological reflection into her work, including her admiration of Calvin and her undying conviction of the supremacy and triumph of divine grace. One of the amusing sentences in Lila has Lila responding to something Ames says:

“That’s Calvin. The way he talks about it, they must still have been doing it in the sixteenth century. Four hundred years ago.”

“I didn’t even know he was dead. Calvin. The way you and Boughton talk about him” (Lila, 131).

It is likely, however, that stricter Calvinists will be less than happy with her universalist tendencies which are present in each volume, but especially so in Lila. Lila fills in the back story of Mrs Ames, and is a very different novel, because Lila’s is a very different voice. Abandoned and stolen as a child, and cared for by a fugitive, Lila grows up isolated and lonely, scared and suspicious, hurting and ready to flee. Lila’s inner reflections run seamlessly between reminiscences of an earlier time, and present thoughts and conditions. Much of the novel is about her learning to live a different life, to relax into a new kind of life completely foreign: to be loved, and to be happy. That she is married is as much a surprise to her as it was to Ames. That she will be a mother is a revelation, and the ground of new anxieties and hopes.

There is much to savour here, not least the beautiful and evocative style Robinson brings to her work. Her vision is of life suffused with grace, utterly permeated with divine providence even in the midst of the sheer ordinariness of everyday existence if only we have eyes to see it. Indeed, the providence is there even when we cannot see it, or can see it only dimly or in hindsight. But there is no easy faith here. Life may be ordinary; it may also be banal, cruel, and tragic. And yet divine grace is all around, tugging and calling gently to any and all. And grace—the divine goodness at the centre of it all—cannot bear to be without that which it loves.

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 3 (Cont)

Despite a number of scholars suggesting that Zadok is the “faithful priest” (2:35) who will replace Eli, the author or editors of 1 Samuel have placed the call of Samuel immediately after this prophecy. This shows that in the present narrative at least, Samuel is seen as the successor of Eli and his sons, in terms of national leadership if not as high priest. Once more, as Evans suggests (p. 39), the story highlights “the power of God and his empowering of the powerless: The inexperienced youth, the decrepit priest and the barren woman are all presented as significant tools in the outworking of God’s purposes.”

In her exposition of this chapter, Francesca Aran Murphy meditates on the idea of calling or vocation: “a vocation is not a project I make for myself, but a call to me, from someone else, to which I hear and respond. Vocation results from calling” (27). Samuel begins to be the person God intends him to be only because he hears God’s call and responds obediently to it.

Murphy insists that the story of Samuel indicates the importance of the individual in the making of history. This runs counter to much social-scientific philosophy which would lodge the rationale for historic change in mass movements, social dynamics and environmental features. Murphy demurs: “it is characters, not conditions and contexts, that make history” (28). This, perhaps, is a “both-and” question. The sixteenth-century Reformations were no doubt assisted because of the social, political, religious, and economic factors in play at the time, but whether they would have occurred without the catalytic character of Martin Luther is indeed questionable. History, in this sense, is not inevitable, but “the one God guides history by calling out unique actors to stage a providential history” (28). While the study of such historical factors is not unimportant, biography is more so.

Most ancient New Eastern cultures created national records and lists of their kings with their purported achievements. Israel surpassed them in history writing and created, in Regum [i.e. the books of Samuel and Kings], the first real long-range historical work because it grasped more deeply than these collectivist cultures the principle that “men are free and responsible moral agents is the fundamental principle of historical thinking: no free will, no history—no history in our sense of history” (28, citing John Lukacs, Historical Consciousness, 252, original emphasis).

But Murphy goes further: God does not simply call individuals, he creates them by his call. God’s call separates the one called from the collectives to which they belong (in Samuel’s case, family and tribe) into a direct relationship with himself. The divine call constitutes the moral individual as they respond in obedience to that call, answering God and becoming a responsible participant in what God is doing. Such persons not only act in history, but in partnership with God they become co-creators of it (29).

God’s call separates a person his or her culture, and this break with the internal social dynamic of a culture gives them the spiritual wherewithal to found a genuine community, spreading from and embedded in the work or task that is named in the divine call. Such characters are made individuals in order to give their lives to their community (30).

The divine call is not to privilege and status but to service. Samuel is to serve the word which has been addressed to him, and this is neither easy nor comfortable. His call is not to lead “his best life now,” but to hear the word of God and declare it, in spite of his discomfort in doing so. He must announce judgement to Eli, and later to Saul. He would mourn over his task, yet he proved faithful in its execution.

God’s call is the foundation of personal identity and mission. Our identity is not self-grounded, not established in anything within ourselves, but is a gift received when the personal God calls us by name to bind him to himself. In this call is given a task or a mission issuing in a life of self-dispossession that a community might be founded and gathered, which in turn will hear the divine voice and call. Here the call of Samuel becomes our call, and his story ours. Will we hear as he heard, and respond as he did?

The boy-priest in his little ephod became a prophet declaring the message of God, and if not a king, still a national leader and king-maker, a precursor of kings, the last and greatest of the judges, though still an isolated and lonely figure. As such, “Samuel is a living analogy to the prophet, priest, and king that Christ will be in the fullest sense. Of none of Israel’s kings can it be said with historical plausibility that he was prophet, priest, and king. It can credibly be said of only Samuel” (Murphy, 18).

What is Marriage? (Part 4)

The first three parts of this series (see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) detailed the positive arguments made by the authors for a “conjugal” view of marriage. The remainder of the book—chapters four through six, the conclusion, and the appendix—address objections to the view that the authors have presented. The fourth chapter, “What’s the Harm?”, addresses an objection commonly put by advocates of same-sex marriage, that extending the institution to same-sex couples will increase the blessings of marriage while doing no harm to existing marriages or marriage itself. The authors list six harms (53-72) that may arise from changing the definition of what a marriage is. Their argument is based on the ideas that Law tends to shape beliefs; beliefs shape behaviour; and beliefs and behaviours affect human interests and well-being (54). The particular harms identified are:

  1. Redefining marriage redefines it for everyone. Opposite-sex unions would increasingly be defined by what they had in common with same-sex unions; that is, they would come to be seen primarily or even exclusively as emotional unions, and this would make the basic goods of marriage traditionally understood, more difficult to realise. For example, choosing a suitable partner might be reduced to emotional signals of compatibility rather than a prospective partner’s fitness for such prosaic things as domestic relations and parenting.
  2. By making marriage about emotional union, the norms of marriage make less sense. If sexual complementarity is optional, so too are permanence and exclusivity. As the norms weaken, so might the emotional and material well-being that marriage gives to spouses.
  3. Conjugal marriage reinforces the centrality of reproduction and parenting, and the idea that men and women bring different, complementary strengths to the tasks of parenting. As the connection between marriage and parenting is obscured, no parenting arrangement will be recognised as ideal. The problem here is not that same-sex couples cannot be excellent parents, but the development of the idea that mother or father is superfluous. The authors argue that the result will be the diminishing of the social pressures and incentives for husbands to remain with their wives and children, or for men and women to marry before having children. Ultimately, because having a loving biological father and mother is ideal for child development, many children, and so the state also, will be worse off.
  4. The authors suggest that moral and religious freedom will be threatened for anyone who does not agree with the new legal definition of marriage. If support for conjugal marriage is really akin to racism—as has been claimed by those supporting changes to the definition of marriage, then those who support the traditional view should be subject to similar cultural and legal treatment that racists receive.
  5. The revisionist view will undermine friendship and make things harder for single people. As marriage is defined simply as the most valuable or even only kind of deep communion, it becomes harder to find emotional and spiritual intimacy in nonmarital friendships.
  6. Finally the authors address the so-called “conservative objection” that extending marriage would impose its norms on more relationships, which can only be a good thing. This objection fails, they suggest, because the state could not effectively encourage norms for which there is no deep and rational basis. “Rather than imposing traditional norms on same-sex relationships, abolishing the conjugal view would tend to erode the basis for those norms in any relationship” (67, original emphasis).

Chapter five, “Justice and Equality” (73-81), addresses the criticisms that the conjugal view is inconsistent when dealing with infertile marriages, and at odds with the principle of equal access to marriage. The second objection is easily addressed:

Laws that distinguish marriage from other bonds will always leave some arrangements out. You cannot move an inch toward showing that marriage policy violates equality, without first showing what marriage is and why it should be recognized legally at all. That will establish which criteria (like kinship status) are relevant, and which (like race) are irrelevant to marriage policy (80-81, original emphasis).

The authors argue, as noted in an earlier post, that infertility does not invalidate a marriage, for even the infertile couple engage in an act of bodily union that is fit for and capable of reproduction even if the goal is never achieved. Further, the infertile couple demonstrate that marriage is a human and social good in itself, that marriage is more than merely reproduction. Of course a friendship between two men or two women is also valuable in itself, but “lacking the capacity for organic bodily union, it cannot be valuable specifically as a marriage; it cannot be the comprehensive union on which aptness for procreation and distinctively marital norms depend” (76, original emphasis).

Is support for the conjugal view of marriage “a cruel bargain”—the title of the sixth chapter (83-93)? Does it win support for the many at a cruel cost for the few? Why argue for a position that harms the personal fulfilment, practical interests, and social standing of same-sex-attracted people? The authors agree that same-sex couples, and indeed many other kinds of relational partnerships seeking practical legal benefits (such as recognition as next of kin, financial and medical rights, etc.) should not be hindered from obtaining them. Further, because every marriage policy will keep some people from legally recognised relationships, we must fight against arbitrary or abusive treatment of those for whom this is the case, with the same force and diligence that we use to oppose unjust distinctions by race or sex (91).

Legal recognition does not include changing the definition of marriage, however, for sheer legislative will cannot erase the very real differences between the conjugal and revisionist views of marriage, or make disregarding them harmless to the common good. “Redefining civil marriage means pretending otherwise” (87).

The same-sex civil marriage debate is not about anyone’s private behavior, but about legal recognition. … Legal recognition makes sense only where regulation does: these are inseparable. The law, which deals in generalities, can regulate only relationships with a definite structure. Such regulation is justified only where more than private interests are at stake, and where it would not obscure distinctions between bonds that the common good relies on. As we have argued, the only romantic bond that meets these criteria is marriage, conjugal marriage (90, 92).

The authors conclude, therefore, that marriage is a particular kind of union with distinct and essential features which cannot be set aside without fundamentally changing and weakening what marriage is. They make this claim on the basis of philosophical and legal considerations without appeal to religious or theological authorities. They have amassed a great deal of evidence to highlight the rationality of their arguments, and to show how and why counter-arguments fail.

Marriage is not a legal construct with totally malleable contours—it is not “just a contract.” Instead, some sexual relationships are instances of a distinctive kind of bond that has its own value and structure, which the state did not invent and has no power to redefine. As we argued in chapter 1, marriages are, like the relationship between parents and their children or between the parties to an ordinary promise, moral realities that create moral privileges and obligations between people with or without legal enforcement. Whatever practical realities draw the state into recognizing marriage in the first place (e.g. children’s needs), the state, once involved, must get marriage right to avoid obscuring the shape of this human good (80, original emphasis).

Marriage understood as the conjugal union of husband and wife really serves the good of children, the good of spouses, and the common good of society. When the arguments against this view fail, the arguments for it succeed, and the arguments against its alternative are decisive, we take this as evidence of the truth of the conjugal view. For reason is not just a debater’s tool for idly refracting positions into premises, but a lens for bringing into focus the features of human flourishing (97).

The Sinlessness of Jesus 3: Wolfhart Pannenberg

In his classic work Jesus – God and Man (German original 1964) Wolfhart Pannenberg argues for the sinlessness of Jesus, as most of the Christian tradition has done.

Pannenberg begins his treatment of the topic with a survey of the doctrine in the history of theology, beginning with the New Testament texts which affirm Jesus’ sinlessness. These, Pannenberg argues, together with the earliest Patristic theologians, assert that Jesus did not sin, although his humanity was like ours in every respect. Later Christian theology shifted this understanding of Jesus’ sinlessness, however, to an affirmation of his impeccability: the idea that Jesus could not sin, and so that his humanity was decisively different to ours. Augustine explained this with recourse to the ideas of original sin and virgin birth, and the conciliar tradition with recourse to the impersonal humanity of Jesus in the anhypostasia-enhypostasia doctrine.

In the nineteenth, however, the idea of human personality and agency, along with questions about the doctrine of orginal sin, led some theologians to locate Jesus’ sinlessness in his “inner life,” or his “moral exemplarism.”

Pannenberg rejects all these options, and develops his argument in three moves. First, he follows the witness of the New Testament and the earliest theologians, that Jesus’ sinlessness is to be understood as his “not committing any sin” during his earthly life, rather than any concept of his incapacity to sin. He rejects these later views because they render the biblical testimony to his temptations and struggles impossible to understand, and so his humanity as qualitatively distinct from normal human life.

Second, while he rejects the Augustinian doctrine of original sin as an explanation for the transmission of sin to each succeeding generation, he finds in it a valid description of the empirical existence of humanity, if not a description of human essence.

If sin is not associated with the essence of the divine destiny of man, but with the structure of present human existence, one cannot conceive of a natural sinlessness of Jesus. It is inconceivable that Jesus was truly man, but that in his corporeality and behavior he was not stamped by the universal structure of centeredness of animal life that is the basis of the self-centeredness of human experience and behavior, but which becomes sin only in man. The conception that at the incarnation God did not assume human nature in its corrupt sinful state but only joined himself with a humanity absolutely purified from all sin contradicts not only the anthropological radicality of sin, but also the testimony of the New Testament and of early Christian theology that the Son of God assumed sinful flesh and in sinful flesh itself overcame sin (362).

Thus Pannenberg argues that the eternal Son did indeed take sinful flesh (Romans 8:3) when he became human, and hence faced the kind of temptation and struggle that all humans face. And it was from within this solidarity with humanity generally, and not exempted from it, that he overcame sin. That he did so is known – both to himself and to us – only in the resurrection.

This is Pannenberg’s third move. It is pointless for us to try to prove the sinlessness of Jesus on the basis of his virgin birth, or his “inner life,” or his moral superiority. The testimony of his life, like that of every person, is ambiguous. Only in the light of the resurrection can we assert Jesus’ sinlessness, and apply it retrospectively to his life on the basis of the divine vindication expressed in this event.

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 3

In this chapter Samuel grows up. The most significant aspect of his growing years was his hearing the call and word of Yahweh. The story presents him as just a boy when Yahweh calls him—an encouragement to children and children’s ministers! At first Samuel does not recognise Yahweh’s voice, mistaking it for Eli. Indeed, like Eli’s sons, Samuel “does not know the Lord”—yet (v. 7; cf. 2:12). Eventually Eli discerns the truth and gives the best advice, telling Samuel to respond, “Speak Yahweh: your servant is listening.”

But God’s speech is a word of judgement against Eli! (cf. Isaiah 6), and so not at all what one wants to hear. Like the prophecy given in the second chapter, the judgement is against Eli and his house, on account of the activities of Eli’s sons and his failure to restrain them. While it is possible to reflect on this passage with respect to parenting responsibilities, it is more likely that Eli is presented in terms of his role as high priest responsible for the work and worship of the tabernacle. Many years will pass before these words of prophecy come to pass by which time Samuel is an adult. There will, however, be no forgiveness for Eli, neither by sacrifice nor offering. This is a harsh, or at least a stern, word of unremitting judgement.

I find the portrayal of Eli in these chapters to be somewhat ambiguous. He confronts his sons but does not restrain them, nor remove them from their position. It seems likely that he too was benefiting from their misappropriation. Nevertheless, it seems he does much better with Samuel than he has with his own sons. His blessing of Hannah is twice fruitful, and here, he is alive to the possibility that God may be or is at work. He bows before the word of judgement and acknowledges Yahweh’s sovereign right to judge. Yet even this acknowledgement will not save him from this judgement. It seems that his acknowledgement is not equivalent to repentance. “Eli stands as a warning against drifting through life with a well-meaning attitude but without taking up the responsibilities that are really ours” (Evans, 40).

1 Samuel 3:1, 19, 21 
And the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision. … And Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel was established as a prophet of the Lord. And the Lord appeared again at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord.

Under the ministry of Eli and his sons, the word of the Lord has been rare. Whether the spiritual condition of Eli’s house and of the people was due to the lack of divine revelation, or whether the lack of divine revelation was due to the failure of the people may be speculated. What is plain in this passage, however, is that the Lord takes the initiative, addressing Samuel by name, calling him in the night, speaking his word and then confirming it publicly, establishing Samuel as the Lord’s prophet.

Samuel hears but does not recognise Yahweh’s voice: “Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him” (v.7). Learning to hear and recognise God’s voice takes a certain sensitivity, quietness, openness, and readiness. It is unsurprising that Samuel hears in the period before dawn when he and all around him is quiet. It is difficult to hear “the still small voice” in the cacophony of daily busyness. It seems the voice was “audible” for Samuel but was not actually audible, for Eli was not awakened and did not hear. Initially Samuel mistook the divine voice for a natural occurrence, and needed the instruction and encouragement of Eli to recognise the subtlety of Yahweh’s speech. With Eli’s instruction Samuel returned to his bed and waited, and when addressed, was ready and responded as he had been instructed, “Speak Yahweh: your servant is listening.”

The gracious divine initiative here is unmistakable: God comes to Samuel, addressing and calling him. The response of readiness, openness and humility is required if one is to hear the voice of the Lord. The posture is one of a servant, serving the Lord, serving the word. Samuel obeys. Samuel declares what he has heard, though he is afraid to do so. His response is full. He hears, he obeys, he declares. “And the Lord appeared again at Shiloh.”

It appears in this context that God’s primary way of revelation and communication with his people is via the prophets—despite the word addressed to Joshua after the death of Moses (see Joshua 1).  Later in Israel’s history, Amos warns that in a time of judgement God will send a famine upon the land:

Amos 8:11-12
Not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea and from north to east; they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord but they shall not find it.

God has raised up a willing, responsive and faithful hearer of the word of God, who also becomes a speaker of the divine word that others might hear with the result that “the Lord appeared again at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord” (v. 21). “Recovery for Israel began with a new hearing and a new speaking out of the word of God” (Evans, 41).

The Sinlessness of Jesus 2: Hendrikus Berkhof

Although I cannot agree with some aspects of Berkhof’s christology, I have long appreciated his brief chapter on Jesus’ Life and Humanity (Christian Faith, 293-299).

In the history of theology the life of Jesus has always stood in the dark shadow, on the one hand of the two-nature doctrine, on the other of the doctrine of reconciliation.  … Even today in all kinds of orthodox instruction in the faith the impression is given that Jesus came to earth only to suffer and to die. The fact that the Apostles’ Creed has no article about Jesus’ life, but immediately moves from “born” to “suffered” is also responsible for that. 

Berkhof is correct to insist on the theological significance of Jesus’ life, and not simply his “humanity” understood in a vague or abstract way. Perhaps in the history of theology, it is the Anabaptists who have best understood this. That Jesus was born, grew up as a child, as part of a family, that he worked, hungered and thirsted, loved and served, taught and healed, had compassion, had friendships, suffered and prayed, fasted and went to synagogue, and so on, cannot be incidental to theology, to an understanding of his person and work, or our own person and work.

For Berkhof, Jesus is representative humanity, himself truly human and exhibiting a truly human life. This life was exemplified in his love for and obedience to the Father, and his passionate willing of the Father’s will. As representative humanity, Christ accomplished a kind of priestly work, establishing the covenantal order between God and humanity in his own person, and bringing forgiveness and healing to guilty and wretched humanity.

As such the truly human life is one bound to God in love, fellowship and obedience, and as such, truly free.  Jesus enjoyed, on the basis of his fellowship with the Father, an utter freedom,

with respect to the temple and the cult, synagogue and commandment, priests and scribes, sabbath and government, mother and brothers, food and clothing, property and money, popularity and the power of the state. … It was the fruit of a strong carefreeness, which in turn was born from the absolute priority of the Father and his gracious lordship” (296-297, original emphasis).

Again,

here is the complete structure of what it is to be man, in his threefold relationship to God, the neighbor, and nature. Here is also the highest quality of what it is to be man, as love and freedom. Here human existence has reached its full maturity and therefore has fully become God’s partner and instrument.

Berkhof notes that this account of Jesus’ humanity is typically summed up in the term “sinlessness.” Berkhof considers this an “unfortunate” term as it is “too negative, too static, too limited” (297). He does, however, insist that Christian faith

stands or falls with the belief in Jesus’ sinlessness. But like us all, he had to become what he was. … Jesus did not know that in advance and he felt the full impact of the opposing forces. He had no idea of his sinlessness on which he, encouraged by it, could fall back. … Instead of the negative “sinlessness,” we have in the heading used the word humanity to express the core of Jesus’ life (297).

Berkhof opts for a functional kind of sinlessness in which Jesus did not sin, rather than Jesus was “without sin” (he compares the AV with the RSV to illustrate this difference). It may be that with respect to his being, Jesus was constitutionally unable to sin (this is my language, not Berkhof’s), but “human existence realizes and discloses itself only in a series of choices whose outcome is also for the chooser uncertain in advance, but which in retrospect yields a coherent life pattern” (299).

To consider the question otherwise, suggests Berkhof, is to render Jesus less than human with respect to our perspective of him. This is a pastoral issue, but perhaps also an accurate representation of the New Testament witness with respect to Jesus’ sinlessness.

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 2:12-36

Read 1 Samuel 2:12-36

Elkanah and his family have returned home, and the focus now shifts to Shiloh, where Samuel remains, serving the Lord. But all is not well at Shiloh, as the first verse of this passage notes: ‘Now the sons of Eli were worthless men. They did not know the Lord.’ The passage has four scenes: first a description of Eli’s sons’ disregard for the peoples’ offerings; second, a brief cameo of Hannah and Samuel’s interaction in succeeding years as Samuel grows; third, Eli remonstrating with his sons over their behaviour and warning them of the dire consequences that will follow; and fourth, a prophecy against Eli and his house by an unknown ‘man of God.’

Perhaps the key verse in the chapter is 30b: ‘for those who honour me I will honour, and those who despise me shall be treated with contempt.’ Associated with this is the prophetic declaration in verse 35 that God will raise up for himself a faithful priest, who shall do ‘according to what is in my heart and in my mind.’ This verse, as well as the contrast in this passage between Hophni and Phinehas on the one hand and Samuel on the other, provide some indication of what it is to honour the Lord. Further definition of this will be provided later in the book, in chapter 12. The verse provides another hermeneutical lens by which to understand the unfolding narrative.

The first scene (vv. 12-17) portrays Hophni and Phinehas’s complete disregard—indeed contempt (v. 17)—for the worship of God’s people, taking the best of their sacrifices—by force if necessary—for their own benefit. Later we hear that they are having sex with the women who serve at the tent of meeting—hopefully not by force—and that this is generally known. In the fourth scene Eli is implicated in their behaviour for he has not restrained his sons, but rather has made himself fat on the offerings of God’s people. He ‘honours’ his sons above God (v. 29). Though God holds Eli responsible for the exercise of his office, he does not diminish the responsibility of Hophni and Phinehas. They have dishonoured God and his worship, their own office and the people. They have abused their position and power, serving themselves rather than God, and mistreating the people of God. God’s judgement will be harsh—both will die on the one day. The priesthood will removed from Eli and given to the as-yet-unnamed faithful priest.

In the midst of all this Samuel ministers to the Lord as a little priest in a linen ephod made for him annually by his mother. Like Jesus (cf. Luke 2:52), Samuel grew physically and spiritually, gaining favour both with the Lord and with others. The simple devotion of Hannah and Samuel contrasts sharply with the lives of Hophni and Phinehas, the “anti-priests” who have inverted their true roles (Murphy, 24).

These episodes show the corrupt state into which the national and religious leadership has fallen. Israel remains a tribal society, though the shrine at Shiloh has become a centre of religious and political focus, with Eli “at the apex of the network of local judges and assemblies, a ‘superjudge’” (Murphy, 12). The narrative, therefore, provides the theological justification for the judgement that will fall upon Eli and his house, as well as continuing the introduction of this special child who will become the final judge in Israel prior to the emergence of the monarchy. Despite Samuel’s presentation as a “little priest,” it is unlikely that he is the faithful priest who will replace Eli and his family. Some commentators suggest that the faithful priest is actually Zadok who served as priest in David’s reign, though Christians might also view this as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ priesthood, for he is the truly faithful priest who has done according to all that is in God’s heart and mind (Evans, 37; cf. 1 Kings 2:35).

The severity of divine judgement promised to Eli and his house reflects the standard of holiness required of God’s ministers, and the distance that this holiness makes between itself and sin (Murphy, 25). Abuse of power, position and privilege is always despicable, even more so when it also involves sexual abuse. When those who claim to represent God engage in these kinds of abuse it is especially reprehensible. In this passage we learn that Yahweh refuses to cohabit with such sin and will hold his ministers to account. Leadership implications for ministers today are plain: God calls us to faithfulness in ministry, to honour God above all else, and to find our ministry within the compass of that who is the “true minister of the sanctuary,” the true faithful witness and high priest: Jesus Christ. Religion without faith and piety is not just hypocritical; it is dangerous.

The Sinlessness of Jesus 1: Donald Macleod

For Donald Macleod, Jesus is ontologically sinless and so incapable of sin. Jesus’ humanity is genuine in every respect, but also utterly sinless. The human nature and flesh assumed by the eternal Son in the incarnation was a sinless human nature, sinless flesh. As such, Jesus Christ was free of both actual sin and inherent sin (Macleod, The Person of Christ Contours in Christian Theology, IVP, 1998, 221).

There was no lust. There was no affinity with sin. There was no proclivity to sin. There was no possibility of temptation from within. In no respect was he fallen and in no respect was his nature corrupt (222).

Macleod develops his own position in dialogue with, and refutation of, Edward Irving’s doctrine, whom he accuses of a Nestorian separation of the human nature from the person of Christ. He rejects Irving’s idea that in the incarnation, the Son assumed a ‘fallen’ human nature on the grounds that “it is impossible to maintain a distinction between ‘fallen’ and ‘sinful.’ Fallen Adam is sinful Adam. Fallen nature is sinful nature, dominated by ‘the flesh’ and characterized by total depravity” (228). According to Macleod, it is not enough to say that Jesus did not sin; one must go further and insist that he was unable to sin.

The crucial issue is whether Christ could have willed to sin. The answer rests entirely on his identity. He was the Son of God, ‘very God of very God’. If he sinned, God sinned. At this level, the impeccability of Christ is absolute. It rests not upon his unique endowment with the Spirit nor upon the indefectibility of God’s redemptive purpose, but upon the fact that he is who he is (229-230).

This is not to say that Jesus knew and relied on his sinlessness. Indeed, faced with temptation, he utilised every resource also available to Christians generally, in order to overcome temptation: scripture, the Holy Spirit’s presence, etc. By standing against and resisting temptation, Jesus serves as an example to all believers.

Macleod’s doctrine raises certain questions. Perhaps most importantly is his view of Jesus’ temptations which he limits to what he calls “sinless human weaknesses”: although Jesus could be tempted by such things as hunger, there was nothing within his person that could issue in temptation. If it is the case, however, that Jesus “was tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15), Macleod’s proposal is too narrow, fails to do justice to the portrayal of Jesus’ temptations in scripture, and leaves us with a sense that in fact, Jesus was not really like us at all, and thus not really equipped to be the kind of faithful and sympathetic high priest that Hebrews describes.

Another concern is Macleod’s rejection of Gregory Nazianzus’s teaching that “what is not assumed is not healed.” Macleod rightly notes that this teaching arose with respect to Gregory’s rejection of Apollinarianism, but then proceeds to insist that it can have no relevance beyond that provenance. Is it actually “quite perverse to suggest that ‘the unassumed’ in this statement is ‘fallen human nature’” (224), as Macleod insists? In fact, Apollinaris’s reason for rejecting the idea that Jesus had a human mind was because the mind was “filthy,” a great source of sin.

In the end, Macleod fails to convince. In seeking to say more than what scripture says, he ends up saying less, and in so doing, diminishes the glory of the gospel and the comfort believers can gain from it.