Interpreting Scripture as if Jesus is the Center and not the [Nation] of Israel

Is the nation of Israel distinct as a people of God, or was the nation of Israel the prefigural and pre-incarnate mode of God’s Self-revealing life in the unfolding reality of salvation history; such that Jesus then is the distinct person[s] of God who is the Israel of God, and indeed the point of the nation of Israel’s existence? I hold to the concept that Jesus is the ‘Israel of God’; however, I did not always hold to this interpretation. In my previous life as a Dispensationalist I held that a defining feature of  salvation history, and God’s prophetic plan for the nations was that Israel was distinct from the Church (which is probably the sine qua non of what it means to be a dispensationalist in any of its expressions); and that God’s primary intention with his dealings with creation had to do with the nation of Israel (the Church was simply an ‘add-on’ in God’s plan). But this old belief of mine runs contrary to the Patristic (early Church–’Church Fathers’) interpretation of Scripture, and even more importantly, I believe it runs counter to the Apostolic and Dominical (Jesus’) interpretation of the Old Testament Scriptures (and we have their interpretation deposited for us in the New Testament writings). Robin Parry (Gregory MacDonald) provides a really good and precise statement on my belief:

The insight that throughout the New Testament Jesus is portrayed in terms that recall the nation of Israel and its mission is so commonplace I shall not spend long defending it. The kinds of evidence appeal can be made to include the fact that many titles for Jesus have strong associations with Israel. For instance, Jesus’ use of the title Son of Man as influenced by Daniel 7 (e.g., Mark 14:62), where it refers to Israel or Israel’s representative of the nation. This could suggest that Jesus, in his role as messianic king of Israel, represents and embodies the destiny of that nation. Now the title Son of God did evolve during the New Testament period and afterwards into something closer to the later title of God the Son, but its messianic connections are still clear in places. This insight helps explain some otherwise peculiar Christian interpretations of the Old Testament, such as when Matthew takes the words of Hosea 11:1, “out of Egypt I called my son,” which in their context refer to the exodus of the Israelites, and applies them to Jesus’ flight to Egypt after the death of Herod (Matt 2:15). Once it is perceived that for Matthew Jesus is Yahweh’s son because he is embodying the story of Israel, this apparent misuse of an Old Testament text begins to make sense. The title Messiah/Christ could also suggest one who represents the whole nation before God; and, in light of our arguments in the previous chapter, thinking of Jesus as Isaiah’s Servant of Yahweh, as the early Christians certainly did (Mt 3:17/Isa 42:1; Mark 10:45/Isa 53:10; Acts 8:30-35/Isa 53:7-8), is to think of him as one who fulfils the story and mission of Israel. On top of this, we can see how the Gospels can tell the story of Jesus in such a way as to parallel the story of Israel. For instance, after Jesus is baptized he goes into the wilderness for forty days before crossing the Jordan into Israel to begin his mission just as Israel went into wilderness for forty years before crossing the Jordan into Canaan. However, where Israel failed its testing in the wilderness, Jesus succeeds. [Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, 75.]

This way of interpreting Jesus’ reinterpretation and “re-living” of the nation of Israel has been called recapitulation; something that dominated Church Father, Irenaeus’ method of re-interpreting the Old Testament, and the nation of Israel, in light of its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. J. N. D. Kelly remarks in regard to Irenaeus’ method:

The conceptions, Pauline in its ultimate derivation, of the inauguration of a new, restored humanity in Christ seems to have reached Justin [Martyr] from the theological tradition of Asia Minor. It was taken up and deepened by Ireanaeus, who was also the first to work out comprehensive theories both of original sin and of redemption…. [J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christ Doctrines, revised ed., 170.]

So this is

… the distinctively Irenaean interpretation of the work of Christ. ‘Because of His measureless love,’ he writes, ‘He became what we are in order to enable us to become what He is.’ The method he outlines in the oft-repeated assertion that what we lost in Adam we recovered in Christ; its premiss is the idea that, if we fell through our solidarity with the first man, we can be restored through our solidarity with Christ. The key-conception which Irenaeus employs to explain this is ‘recapitulation’ …, which he borrows from St. Paul’s description of the divine purpose as being ‘to sum up all things in Christ’. He understands the Pauline text as implying that the Redeemer gathers together, includes or comprises the whole of reality in Himself, the human race being included. In close conjunction with this he exploits to the full the parallelism between Adam and Christ which was so dear to St. Paul. Christ is indeed, in his eyes, the ‘second Adam’ …, and ‘recapitulated’ or reproduced the first even in the manner of His birth, being generated from the Blessed Virgin as he was from virgin earth. Further, just as Adam contained in himself all his descendants  so Christ (as the Lucan genealogy proves) ‘recapitulated in Himself all the dispersed peoples dating back to Adam, all tongues and the whole race of mankind, along with Adam himself’ [sic] Thus, when He became incarnate, Christ ‘recapitulated in Himself the long sequence of mankind’, and passed through all the stages of human life, sanctifying each in turn. As a result (and this is Irenaeus’s main point), just as Adam was the originator of a race of disobedient and doomed to death, so Christ can be regarded as inaugurating a new, redeemed humanity. [Kelly, 172-3.]

As we can see from Kelly’s description of Irenaeus’ method, the whole of it is shaped by a deeply rooted christological conditioning; such that all of Israel’s history, both in its obedience and disobedience (mostly the latter), and in its Adamic heritage is taken up in a Christian way, so that Christ is understood as the center of what it is to be God’s primary hope and purpose for all of creation, for all of the nations.

It is this method of interpretation, an Apostolic (if you will) method that is at the heart of my own hermeneutical theory. It is working in a ‘depth dimension’ as Thomas Torrance has called it, and Adam Nigh has developed it in our edited book, Evangelical Calvinism, and Nigh’s chapter, The Depth Dimension of Scripture: A Prolegomenon to Evangelical Calvinism. And as can be observed, this kind of method has soteriological shape to it, such that Scripture is to be interpreted through the saving and mediating (e.g. ‘Priestly’) person of Jesus Christ for us. It is this kind of hermeneutic that leads to (and from, really) an ‘ontological theory of the atonement’, which we have developed in detail in our book (already mentioned).

Maybe this will better help some appreciate where I am coming from with even more clarity than heretofore. And maybe it will help some of you who have known me in my past to better understand why it is that I have rejected dispensationalism as my hermeneutical method.

Postscript

Recapitulation has been developed further, and has been taken up, in certain ways, by what has become known as (especially in Reformed circles) ‘Covenant theology’. I advocate a certain form of this kind of theology, one that is tied to what Barth and Torrance have called an ‘analogy of faith’ versus an ‘analogy of being’ interpretation of the text of Scripture (which in my application of this refers to God’s life and Self revelation as a God who is grace and not Law … which is fodder for another post).

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What Did Jesus Teach About Hell? Is it eternal, conscious, torment?

“Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; . . . 46. And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Matthew 25.41, 46 (NRSV)

 Craig S. Keener comments on this pericope in his New Testament Background Commentary in this way:

25:41-45. Some Jewish traditions (like Qumran War Scroll) report that Belial (Satan) was created for the pit; destruction was not God’s original purpose for people (4 Ezra 8:59-60). In many Jewish traditions, the demons were fallen angels (cf. comment on 2 Pet. 2:4). Jewish tradition was divided on the duration of hell; this passage’s description of it as “eternal” was certainly not merely a concession to a universal image in Judaism.

25:46. Eternal life was promised to the righteous after their resurrection at the end of the age (Dan. 12:2). Some Jewish teachers believed that hell was temporary and that at the end some people would be burned up and others released; other Jewish teachers spoke as if hell were eternal. Jesus here sides with the latter group.[1]

This begs the question; what did Jesus believe about what has been labeled the eternal conscious torment doctrine of hell (the Traditional teaching)? According to Keener, and in this particular dominical teaching of Jesus; Jesus held to the belief that hell (or the after-life separated from participation with God through Christ [my gloss]) does indeed articulate that there is a literal hell that involves eternal conscious torment. As the quote from Keener also illustrates, the Jewish context in which Jesus taught as a Rabbi was not monolithic on this doctrine; it is just that Jesus appropriated and taught the strand that articulated that hell fits with what today would be called the traditional view.

In concert with this assessment, none other than The Evangelical Universalist, Gregory MacDonald (aka Robin Parry) holds that the dominical (Jesus’) teaching is consistent with Keener’s perspective; that is that Jesus taught that hell was eternal conscious torment. Note MacDonald,

[G]ehenna was a place of punishment and fire but beyond that was generally left unexplained. When we find Jesus drawing on the idea of Gehenna, we must remember that it was not a clearly worked out concept. Beyond its being a place of fiery punishment for the wicked, the details, if anyone wanted to fill them in, were up for grabs. That said, I think that it is quite clear that Jesus’ contemporaries would not have thought the he was a universalist of any variety. To the traditionalist this settles the case, but I think that there is more to be said. I want to argue, first of all, that none of Jesus’ recorded teachings about Gehenna explicitly affirm the notion that it was everlasting; and nothing Jesus is recorded to have said rules out the possibility that some or all of its inhabitants may at some point come to salvation. I am not trying to show that Jesus taught universalism nor that he taught that those in Gehenna could or would be saved, for he did neither. My aim is the much more modest one of showing that what he did teach does not formally contradict universalist claims. This, of course, does not provide any reason to suppose that a universalist interpretation of Gehenna is biblical without substantive additional reasons for embracing such an interpretation. My second task is to show that we do have such reasons.[2]

MacDonald helps reinforce Keener’s commentary, that indeed Jesus taught the Jewish tradition (amongst the many available, just as there are many available today for Christians—but not viable for most Christians) that there is a literal place in the life after life (to borrow Wright’s quip) known as hell; and that this will be a place that is characterized by final eternal conscious torment.

So this represents the dominical teaching; the teaching that Jesus taught. But this does not serve as a death knell for ‘Evangelical Universalists’; as MacDonald notes. For Jesus, in his context, the teaching that hell was eternal could very well have been “just” for his particular context. In other words, as MacDonald later contends, Jesus’ pronouncement on this topic could have been  to reinforce the severity of God’s judgment; and yet at the same time, not intending to be the last word on it. MacDonald writes:

[W]e should not suppose that, because Jesus did not explicitly teach universal salvation or explicitly repudiate the idea that many people would never experience salvation, universalism is an un-Christian idea incompatible with Jesus’ ministry. If later revelation leads in universalist directions, as I have argued it does, then we need to understand the ministry of Christ in that light. It is the whole canonical story that we examined in Chapters Two to Four that forms the broader theological context within which we must understand Jesus’ teachings about Gehenna, and it is that very context that serves to modify some of the understandings of it common in Jesus’ own day.[3]

For MacDonald, for Jesus not to teach universalism does not mitigate the fact that the whole scope and sweep of the canonical teaching does in fact teach a Christian universalism. We will have to redress this at another time.

Conclusion

The question that I have been seeking to answer through this short piece has been “What did Jesus believe and teach about the view of hell that involves eternal conscious torment; did he teach this view or not?” The result of some cursory (yet I think substantial) musing has been to conclude that Jesus did indeed teach that there is a literal place that has become known as ‘Hell’, and that hell is unfortunately characterized by eternal conscious torment.

This is an important point to establish because it places the burden on those who disagree to disagree with Jesus. Are there ways to do that, and still honor Jesus’ own teaching, and even his person? MacDonald believes that there are, and in fact he thinks he has (found the way).

There are other prominent foci (or focal points) to consider towards helping us understand how to place Jesus’ teaching, in the book of Matthew for example. In other words, there is a strong theological case to be made for a Christian universalism that attends to who God is as Triune Love, full of grace. If God is Love (and he is), then we have to interpret Jesus’ views and teaching on hell through that lens (the lens of the cross, the penultimate expression of his love … the ultimate being his resurrection). MacDonald’s contention to annex Jesus’ teaching to a particular situation he was addressing might have teeth in light of the theological argument; it might leave the door open for a Christian theological reification or classification of hell in ways that might favor something like MacDonald’s Evangelical Universalism. There might be hope. Maybe Jesus didn’t intend his teaching to offer the last word after all; on hell that is.

No matter what, in the end, the conclusion must be that Jesus did teach what some would call the Traditional view of hell as ‘eternal conscious torment’. How one places that, in its ‘universal scope’ is what still needs to be contended with (MacDonald has, I’m still working on it).

My personal conclusion, at the moment, is that Jesus’ teaching on hell should serve as the standard; I see it with ‘universal force’ and thus am not willing, as of yet, to annex it, or particularize it to his specific audience in the 1st century (which would be what MacDonald does, amongst others). I continue to hold to the trad teaching, but I also am willing to hold out that once we are present with the LORD in the consummation that he could surprise us in keeping with his life of grace and love.


[1] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary, New Testament, (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1993), 118-19.

[2] Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2006), 144-45.

[3] Ibid, 149-50.

The Wages of Sin Are Not Eternal? [The Foreverness of Hell]

Reading Jackson Baer’s book, “What The Hell,” and the fact that my brother is about to read, and my mom has already read Gregory MacDonald’s (Robin Parry) The Evangelical Universalist; has made me return to MacDonald’s book to review and reconsider his argument for a Christian Universalism. It is obviously not the majority report amongst the history of interpretation in the Christian Church, but it is not without historical precedent; nor does it necessarily require that it be considered heresy (maybe just heterodoxy, at most).

What I want to highlight in this post is how Parry seeks to argue for universalism through biblical exegesis. In his book he works through all the difficult passages and classic passages that “seem” to teach about a literal hell that involves eternal conscious torment. But Parry isn’t totally on the defensive, which is one of the things that make his book so good; he also offers his positive case for Evangelical Universalism. To get a flavor of this let me quote Parry’s closing paragraphs of his exegesis of Colossians 2:15ff; he is using this universalist passage to provide framework and scope for the rest of his argument and biblical theology of Evangelical Universalism. He writes:

[W]hat we find in Colossians, then, is a theology that locates the origin of creation, the revelation of God, and the salvation of the world in Christ. It recognizes the massive rupture introduced into the world through sin, and it sees the solution to this problem in the death of Christ. It requires a response of obedient faith to share in Christ and in the inheritance of eternal life. It offers no hope of a nice God letting everyone into heaven no matter how they live or what they believe. However, in spite of that, it holds before us a confident hope in the salvation of the whole creation. It is God’s covenant purpose that his world will one day be reconciled in Christ. For now, only the Church shares in that privilege, but this is not a position God has granted his people so they can gloat over the world. On the contrary, the Church must live by gospel standards and proclaim its gospel message so that the world will come to share in the saving work of Christ. This is the outline of the evangelical universalist theology I wish to commend to the reader. . . .

This chapter has set out to argue that Colossians works with a vision of reconciliation for the whole creation. We have seen that this vision is perfectly compatible with a strong doctrine of sin . . . , with a Christ-centred account of salvation, with the necessity of faith, with the current division between the elect and those lost in sin, and with a high ecclesiology. This vision, I suggest, can provide the contours for an evangelical, gospel-centred universalism. . . . [Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2006), 52-3]

This gives a sense into how Parry communicates, and how he will be proceeding in presenting his case for what he calls, evangelical universalism.

Without a doubt this is a controversial issue, and something that, probably most Christians know very little (to nothing) about. If you hold to the ‘Traditional’ view of hell (“Eternal, Conscious Torment”); then you need to read Parry’s book! I would imagine most Evangelical Christians wish that Eternal Conscious Torment hell was not a reality; well, MacDonald’s book provides argument that articulates a view that says that you don’t have to believe in ECT. In fact, if you are going to follow the Bible, according to Parry, then you must reject ECT.

What do you think about this stuff?

Torrance, Contra Limited Atonement and Universal Salvation: An Antidote for those struggling particularly with Evangelical Universalism

**Here is a repost, I have been struggling, somewhat, with Greg MacDonald’s ‘Evangelical Universalism’, yet it is the sentiment voiced by T.F. Torrance below that I find more persuasive than the “a prioris” that drive the exegetical decisions of MacDonald (and others like him). To be honest, I am tempted by MacDonald’s suggestion; but in the end, not enough. TFT, below, does not deal in detail with fine exegetical points; instead with an attitude and approach that carries each one of us one way or the other — relative to personal epistemological denouement.

Here is Thomas Torrance commenting on rationalist thinking in regards to trying to articulate issues particular to the extent of the atonement. And then we have Torrance commenting on the inescapable reality of the universal range of the atonement, but not the universal salvation that a rationalist approach must reduce to; which Torrance is, of course, as am I, against! Torrance says:

The rationalism of both universalism and limited atonement

Here we see that man’s proud reason insists in pushing through its own partial insight into the death of the cross to its logical conclusion, and so the great mystery of the atonement is subjected to the rationalism of human thought. That is just as true of the universalist as it is of those who hold limited atonement for in both cases they have not yet bowed their reason before the cross of Christ. (Atonement, 187-88)

This was his concluding remark, he had just finished, previous to this, effectively arguing against both limited atonement and universalism (whether that be of Classic Calvinist or Arminian [or even Barthian] varieties). Now we get into his initial thoughts on the fact that Christ’s death had to be for all; according to both Scripture’s witness, and the ‘inner-logic’ scripture presupposes upon:

(i) Christ’s death for all is an inescapable reality

We must affirm resolutely that Christ died for all humanity — that is a fact that cannot be undone. All men and women were represented by Christ in life and death, in his advocacy and substitution in their place. That is a finished work and not a mere possibility. It is an accomplished reality, for in Christ, in the incarnation and in his death on the cross, God has once and for all poured himself out in love for all mankind, has taken the cause of all mankind therefore upon himself. And that love has once and for all been enacted in the substitutionary work on the cross, and has become fact — nothing can undo it. That means that God has taken the great positive decision for man, the decision of love translated into fact. But because the work and the person of Christ are one, that finished work is identical with the self-giving of God to all humanity which he extends to everyone in the living Christ. God does not withhold himself from any one, but he gives himself to all whether they will or not — even if they will not have him, he gives himself to them, for he has once and for all given himself, and therefore the giving of himself in the cross when opposed by the will of man inevitably opposes that will of man and is its judgement. As we saw, it is the positive will of God in loving humanity that becomes humanity’s judgement when they refuse it. (Thomas F. Torrance, Atonement, 188-89)

It is really hard for people to cope with what Torrance is saying, I think. It kicks against the way that we have been “trained” and “conditioned” to think. All I can say, is that folks should try to imagine a world where doing math for Theology does not exist; and then we’ll all be fine 😉 .

The Evangelical Universalist, First Impressions

I just received Gregory MacDonald’s (Robin Parry’s) book The Evangelical Universalist today in the mail. I just finished chapter 1, and am just pressing into chapter 2 (stopped at pg. 43 for the night). I wanted to register a bit of my first impression to Parry’s method and tone.

To begin with, I am a little surprised; the book is not starting out the way I would have assumed. It is much more analytical philosophical than I thought it would be. It is telling that Parry starts his book out with analytic philosophical concerns first — attempting to provide the Christian philosophical (reasonable) case for Christian Universalism — in one instance it does make sense that he would want to clear away any lingering rational considerations from the get go. But as I get into chapter 2, which is his transition from philosophy to the main thrust of the book — biblical theology, it seems to me that he is still qualifying his “biblical” work with the idea that even if folks are unconvinced by his (at the least) problematizing of the traditional reading of the eternal conscious torment hell passages of Scripture; that in the face of such stalemate — vis-á-vis his interpretive work and traditional — that he has already provided an incorrigible/indubitable case for universalism from “reason” (philosophy). And thus, in the last instance, if all else fails (the biblical exegeis and biblical theology); analytic philosophy (and the case made from that for universalism) ought to be brought in to “break-the-tie,” so to speak. This is just my first impression, we’ll see how things proceed.

As far as tone, I really find Parry very appealing; he is not saying his way or the high-way, he believes his perspective, but he’s holding it generously, relative to his attitude towards others under the rubric of Evangelical Christianity. His concern is that others show him the same attitude of deference and Christian charity (e.g. not label him a heretic, which of course then becomes ironic sense he writes the book under a pseudonymn — his real name is Robin Parry).

I’ll probably comment more on the book as I move forward. Stay tuned . . .