Monday, June 08, 2009

Some verses, their context, and what that means

Passages discussed: 1 John 2, especially 1 John 2:22-23; and John 8, especially John 8:44; and others

Anyone who reads this blog will know that recently there was a huge bust-up over whether or not Scripture claims that Jews (indeed any non-Christians) worship Satan. Now anyone who reads the combox will know I utterly reject that. But several passages of Scripture were used to justify this view. So it makes sense to consider them in context, and to scrutinise them carefully to see if the cited Scriptures really do say this.

The main verses cited are 1 John 2:22-23:

22 Who is the liar? Whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ. Whoever denies the Father and the Son, this is the antichrist.

23 No one who denies the Son has the Father, but whoever confesses the Son has the Father as well.

and John 8:44

44 You belong to your father the devil and you willingly carry out your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in truth, because there is no truth in him. When he tells a lie, he speaks in character, because he is a liar and the father of lies.

These are by no means the only ones that are damning in this vein. On the face of it these two verses, and similar ones seem to say that the Jewish people are Satanic in the Gospel verse, and worshiping a false God in the Epistle (since they don't even have the Father).

But is that what these are really saying? Let's discuss 1 John and its second chapter in detail.

1 John was written to the Churches of Asia Minor, who were under the jurisdiction of the Apostle John. This letter was likely written around the same time as the Gospel, because they use so many of the same ideas and turns of phrase as to be indisputably by the same hand. And one of the purposes of the Gospel of John was to dispute the notion of that Christ was not Divine and consequently belief in Him was not essential to the Faith. The letter was similarly addressed to this theme, among others. In the second chapter John discusses these people who were clearly in the Asia Minor community and sought to lead people away from believing in Christ. In verse 19, just a few verses before the verses in question, John mentions that these deceivers proved they were never truly members of the community to begin with.

Then he goes on to explain that the reason he is writing is to help explicate the lies that were recently in their midst, not because they are ignorant, but because they are in fact knowledgeable. And now we come to the verses themselves. In helping them to see this then he gives a rubric. What was the lie? In its nutshell, it sought to deny Christ, and since the Father wouldn't be a Father without the Son, by denying the Divinity of Christ they also denied the Divinity of the Father! Thus they were true enemies of Christ, even though they said that they were not. A few verses later (verse 26), just in case people forgot, he reminds again that he's speaking specifically of the lie that was dividing them.

When we read it in context we realise there's nothing about the Jews, Muslims, Hindus or anyone else. This is about people trying to undermine Faith from within. The letter discusses the idea that sin can be deadly, can cut us off from the Salvation offered by God. Thus warning against the Deceivers is critically important, because if their deception is believed, they cut the believer off from Salvation. But, and again John says it twice, these are the lies of people who were within the community, not people from any other Faith. So this verse cannot safely be used to accuse the Jews or anyone else of worshiping Satan. What these verses can be safely applied to, even today, are the sorts of people who say Jesus was the founder of our religion, you know, if he even existed, but if he did he was most likely a hippy communist revolutionary, or something...but God? Rose from the dead? We're too educated for that! ... Those are the people today against whom these verses can be applied. Because their denial is considerably more pernicious.

But what about the verse from John 8? It says that Jews have Satan for a father! That's much more damning, isn't it? Is it?

The 8th Chapter of John, after the Pericope Adulterae, is a long argument Jesus has with people the Gospel identifies simply as Pharisees; it's not more specific. But during the course of this argument, Jesus rather deliberately explains that He is the same God they have always worshiped. These people to whom He is speaking cannot claim invincible ignorance, since they know the Scriptures. They know the prophesies, they know the signs, and here Jesus explicitly tells them repeatedly, at least three times, that He is the I AM of the Theophany to Moses (aka the Burning Bush). Just as in Chapter 6, Jesus does not back down from the incredulous, instead He becomes ever more specific. In Chapter 6, the people became indignant that Christ would command people to eat His Flesh and drink His Blood. Cannibalism they cried! But rather than reassure them it's all just symbolic, He presses on and uses term like "gnaw" that He really means it/ It's so hard a teaching that people reject Him. Well, the same thing goes on in Chapter 8. He slowly but deliberately gets more and more forceful in His language. When verse 44 has come around, it is at the point where, in spite of their constant word-plays and rejection, He is offering them one last chance, but to shock them into understanding this, He accuses them of being no Sons to Abraham (who looked for and would rejoice in the sight of Christ), but rather they have handed themselves over by their rejection to being "Sons of the Adversary."

What is important to understand about this passage is that nowhere does it say that the people simply called Pharisees were ever deputised to stand in for all Jews then and now. Jesus says this shocking thing to the people He's speaking to, because this group of specific people rejects Him (they actually make to stone Him in the last verse of the Chapter). But it cannot be inferred that these people to whom He specifically addressed were made by God to speak for all Jews ever. The only Sons of the Adversary were these specific people. Why? Because they should have known better, but they hardened their hearts and refused to see what was before them. Out of sufficient knowledge and consent of the will, they rejected Christ. So, this verse too, cannot safely be used against the Jews of today or anyone else. It can however be used for those who have sufficient knowledge and are presented with Christ and then reject Him.


I think one of the reasons this view is "necessary" for some people is the fear on their part that my view somehow is a slippery slope to Universalism. It isn't. My affirming that the Jews of today worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is not in any way a soteriological statement (soteriology is the theology of salvation). It is simply a statement of fact. Nor is this meant to imply that Christ is not the way to salvation, and that belief in Him is essential to that. Nothing that I affirm takes anything away from this. Finally, nothing in what I have said is meant to exonerate people from being saved or hindering missionary mandates, etc. In fact, in my next post, I will discuss how this view of mine is little different from St Paul's in Romans Chapter 11.


Before I close, I want to say a few things about this practice that so annoys me about certain Christian approaches to Scripture; the penchant to slice out verses completely absent their context. But hold on! Isn't St Paul a repeat offender on this front? It only appears that way. In fact, the common practice at the time was to use certain verses as a kind of short hand, a code if you will. By citing a single verse, they intended their interlocutor to reflect in his or her mind on the whole passage from which it came.

A good example of this is Romans 9:8-13:

8 This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants.

9 For this is the wording of the promise, "About this time I shall return and Sarah will have a son."

10 And not only that, but also when Rebecca had conceived children by one husband, our father Isaac -

11 before they had yet been born or had done anything, good or bad, in order that God's elective plan might continue,

12 not by works but by his call - she was told, "The older shall serve the younger."

13 As it is written: "I loved Jacob but hated Esau."

If one looks at that, or even in the wider context of Romans 9 (which I urge you to do), you see that it doesn't really flow very well. What do these verses really have to do with his point in and of themselves? Well, that's the point, they by themselves do not. Rather, one is supposed to consider the whole episode from which each verse is excerpted. Another more famous example of this, by the way, is Christ's "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" which is the opening line from Psalm 22. If one reads and reflects on the whole Psalm it is a song of suffering that leads to later triumph and vindication. That is calling us to reflect on, and when we see it like that, the words themselves take on a much different meaning, don't they?

Therefore, it irks me to no end when people take verses out of context, because this whole idea is not just poor exegesis, but is also alien to the very authors, under the Inspiration of the Holy Ghost, who are so abused by this methodology. They didn't do it, and neither should we. When they cited verses, they expect you to know the context (although sometimes the contemporary exegetical understanding of that context is not always immediately apparent). We should be doing the same.


Pr. Lehmann said...

Thanks for this post. Though I disagree with your conclusions, it does help me understand your perspective better, and that IS valuable.

I'm going to try to crystalline my specific point of disagreement in one or two sentences.

Though I think that you correctly identify the specific context and the immediate problem that John is addressing in his first epistle, I think you fail to recognize that the theological point that he is applying in response to his opponents also applies to a broader group. Namely, others who deny the divinity of the Father by denying the divinity of Son earn the same condemnation: liar, antichrist, etc.

Ogden Chichester said...

I think our disagreement in general, especially after we have ability to come back to it after emotions have cooled was instructional for us both.

I will say that yes and no to your point. But in order to lie about the Divinity of Christ, and thus make oneself an Enemy, one must deliberately do so. In other words if I have long believed you were born in Afghanistan and repeat that, it is is a lie, but not an intentional one. I am not your enemy until and unless you come to me, correct it and I refuse your correction. The reason John's rubric works here is because these people to whom he applies the label of Anti-Christ fit this; they were of the community, knew better and still refused to give their assent to the dogmatic article of Faith.

If someone has been misled for generations on the identity and claims of a person, their repetition of these claims does not make them enemies until and unless, when they have been provided with the truth, they still reject the truth and continue to repeat the lie.

When I do my thing on Romans 11 tonight, I'll develop that thought more.

Pr. Lehmann said...

Our disagreement seems to center on what damns. I would argue along the lines of Saint Paul in Ephesians 2 that whoever has not received new life in Christ is actively walking in the way of "the prince of the power of the air."

You seem to believe that without active, conscious rejection of Christ that you are not in Satan's power. I believe that Saint Paul makes it clear that that's not a legitimate approach. Whoever is not for God is against Him. Whoever has not received faith in Christ through the Word of the Gospel is walking in death and serving Satan.

Ogden Chichester said...

Again, I affirm that whoever is born into this world is born into the state of Original Sin, which is alienation from God. Thus all are damned without the Salvation only Christ can give.

So, if one lives on some remote as-yet-undiscovered isle and has never heard of Christ ... do we say he has rejected Him? Unless God sends St Philip to the Eunuch, or finds some other similar way, we fear the worst. But why impute the sin of rejection to him that he has not committed? That seems unjust; he's already damned, why calumniate him?

Besides, it would be humorous in the extreme:

"You rejected Christ!"

"Who's that?"

"You know! You rejected Him!"

"Is that that guy who had a goddess wife called Resurrection? I'm a monotheist, so that seemed kind of stupid"


Pr. Lehmann said...

The state of original sin into which we are conceived is a state of spiritual death. It is by its very nature an active rejection of God.

So yes, the one on the remote island who has never heard of Christ is (apart from special revelation from God) in active rejection of him.

A dead man is dead whether he knows it "actively" or not.

What you are positing is theologically a distinction without a difference.

Ogden Chichester said...

See, this is where our two theologies severely diverge, because we do not recognise Original Sin in this way.

Paragraphs 402 to 406 of the CCC describe this better than I do. But essentially the particular sin of Adam, because he was given Original Holiness and Original Justice for not just himself but also his descendents, lead to the state of spiritual death that we inherit in human condition. That is, we are born into the state of exile. We did not personally reject God, but we are born into a state where we are in exile from Him, and our concupiscience leads us to betray Him over and over.

Thus from my theological perspective one cannot safely hold this point that you make. For I was not born personally rejecting Christ in some positive way, opening my mother's womb and crying "I deny Christ!" Rather I was born into a Fallen state of exile that leads my damaged will to no longer always pick what is in accord with the will of God, but rather to sin.

Pr. Lehmann said...


I really think that our disagreement is one that is 521 years old.

Though I suspect your approach might be a bit more sophisticated than the confutation (see article 2), the Apology of the Augsburg Confession describes my view very well.

Pr. Lehmann said...

For I was not born personally rejecting Christ in some positive way, opening my mother's womb and crying "I deny Christ!" Rather I was born into a Fallen state of exile that leads my damaged will to no longer always pick what is in accord with the will of God, but rather to sin.

Historical theology has a cool name for this understanding of original sin: Semi-Pelagianism. ;-)

Ogden Chichester said...

If yer just realising this now (re: what our difference boils down to)... ;)

But seriously, you're correct. But in a sense, this is what true dialogue is, Pastor. Neither you nor I are prepared to deny our firmly held positions, but ... we nevertheless have learned a great deal about the other person and his position.

Pr. Lehmann said...

But in a sense, this is what true dialogue is, Pastor. Neither you nor I are prepared to deny our firmly held positions, but ... we nevertheless have learned a great deal about the other person and his position.

Indeed. The best end to these sorts of conversations involves alcohol and cigars. Get thee to Garrett County.

Ogden Chichester said...

Historical theology has a cool name for this understanding of original sin: Semi-Pelagianism. ;-)

No. For I do not affirm anything in common with them. My understanding is straight and purely from St Augustine who articulated the Dogma of Original Sin in his disagreement with the Pelagians.

I know you had your tongue in your cheek, but no ... you are wrong.

Ogden Chichester said...

Indeed. The best end to these sorts of conversations involves alcohol and cigars. Get thee to Garrett County.

I'm saving up my pennies, Pastor; I really am.