Hermeneutics of the History of Redemption

Why the Bible is Not About You

ebbd7b5e-b3f4-44cc-aea2-2cb73f3570fc_1.758981342fefc76e87d1a0b157caa5c3Joseph and the pit woodcut (The Cologne Bible 1478-80)

Why is the Bible Not About You?
Stephen T. Hague

Now that I have your attention, I could qualify this title by following with, “but it is to you.” This distinction would be the same if we were discussing Shakespeare or Aesop’s’ Fables, or any other great literature, since these are not about us, but were written to us and for us. Well, at least in a secondary sense, since authors most likely have their own contemporaries first in mind when penning their creative whims and wit. And, even though we do find their creations engaging because we identify with the characters and life-situations, and especially their stories, we would not for a minute pause and think, “oh, this story is actually about me,” or “this character is really me.” Yes, the great authors want us to enter into the worlds they create, and to identify with their characters and their topsy-turvy lives, so much like our own, but never so as to confuse the reader with the suggestion that they are actually the characters themselves! Nor that the primary reason they present us with their wondrous worlds is to illustrate our lives for us. There is no direct line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to some modern analogy. The story was about Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

Yes, we also find countless (actually 2,930) biblical characters and their life-situations that we can identify with, since this is true of all stories that engage us, because we humanly relate to them personally. Yet, even so, none of these stories are our stories; they belong to their times and places and persons, not to us.  They only do belong to us as ancient and received stories and texts. So, why then do so many teachers of the Bible insist on telling us that all the stories and characters of the Bible are really about us, and inter alia, they are us?[1] Please correct me, but have you ever heard anyone teach the great Old Testament story of Joseph in which eventually you were not told that somehow you are Joseph in the pit (of depression or woes or vanity), or that you are Joseph betrayed by his brothers, or Joseph the forgiver, or . . . . [add any number of other examples here]?

As in all such ways of interpreting biblical stories, these direct analogies draw a straight line that makes the story normative (what should be ordinarily expected in our present lives) for you and for me, and they pile up endlessly into a fragmented pastiche of moral applications that have little, if anything, to do with the original narrative. This unintentionally and ironically makes the actual story itself rather unimportant, or at least secondary. Since this is the most standard way of explaining these ancient stories today, there is no obvious reason for anyone to cry out, “Whoa, slow down here. What is the story of Joseph being sold into slavery to Egypt, by his betraying brothers, really about?”  Really simply, the question is, why did God use Joseph in the way he did? Why was he sold that way, and later imprisoned, and then raised to great prominence in Egypt? Why does his family then all go down to Egypt with Jacob? What connection does it have to the history of later Israel or the promises of God and his works of redemption?

It troubles some people when they hear that the Bible is not a story about them. But perhaps, there can be some consolation to hear rather that it is a word from God to them. After titling this, and writing thus far, I searched online and found that I am not the first to use this title, and so I am not alone in my observations on this (no, I am not giving up my title . . . at least not yet.) There may be many reasons that it disconcerts people to hear a declaration like this, that the Bible is not about them: for example, our individualistic, solipsistic, infatuation with ourselves, lazy habits of reading and poor foundations in basic hermeneutical principles, unbounded freedom for interpreters that allows great creativity in expanding the meaning of texts, and our contemporary pragmatism that treats the Bible as a great self-help source-book to improve on ourselves and our lives. I am not so much concerned here with these, but rather with the interpretive impact of the common assumption that the Bible is a book about me.

Consider Elijah. Is his story about us somehow? The way he depended on God for his food at the Brook Kerith, and the way we are to depend on God in times of need, and how God always provides for his people, therefore we should have more faith and trust God like Elijah? This focus on the similarity between Elijah’s circumstances and our own (drawing a straight line from the historical event to modern applications, makes that event normative for all times, morally prescriptive as a promise of material provision, rather than descriptive of what happened to the man Elijah). On the other hand, we could understand that this story in its context is about the covenant-curse (in the intensification of God’s judgment on Israel) being fulfilled in Israel by a holy Lord (understanding the present context in light of the past covenant-promises and covenant-warnings). Further to that, it is about the opening to the gentiles to be further grafted into the vine of the promises. That the gospel in Gen 3:15, and all the rest of the OT, is for all the nations also points forward to the completion of this in the future. It is not, therefore, a unilateral moral prescription for us today about how to work harder at trusting God for our daily bread, but a description of God’s promissory works of judgment and redemption both past, present, and future.

There is this the principle of ingrafting of the gentiles. The widow thinks her son’s death is due to her sin and she thus blames Elijah’s presence. Elijah is as surprised as the widow, so, he prays. They both knew God had brought it upon her. The prophetic ministry of God’s word is then brought even further to the heathen nation! The healing word comes to the enemy Sidonians, even more importantly, the resurrection word is revealed for the first time in the Bible, and outside Israel, while Israel stood under God’s judging word. God reveals his omnipotence, holiness, and mercy to the heathen. He uses Israel’s disobedience to teach the extent of the covenant-promise. God’s word will not be stopped. His eternal promise is sure, even when the temporal, conditional blessings are withheld. Further, a prefiguration of the reversal of the curse of God on our bodies (Gen 2:17; 3:17-19) is seen in the resurrection from the dead, as are all such miracles in the Bible. They all point back to the “first Gospel” (proto-Euangelion) of Gen 3:15 which pointed forward to the coming of the Messiah who would bring a reversal of the curse of death, while also crushing the deceiving Serpent’s head.

Consider the Gerasene/Gadarene demoniac’s story (in Mk 5 and Mtt 8). This is one of those really dramatic tales in which some two thousand swine are driven off a cliff by the demons Jesus cast out from a possessed man living out among the tombs. But, is this story about us and our struggles with our various “demons”? Is there some moral lesson here about our faith or our deliverances? We received this ancient story from the Apostles and the disciples along with all the other marvelous stories in the NT, but they are not about us. They are written to us and for us, so that we not just receive and accept the story but also that we might believe God and put our trust in the Son of God, since all who believe on him might receive his gift of salvation, a new heart, a new nature, the hope of a glorious future bodily resurrection, and a new heavens and a restored earth. This same Jesus who can still the seas, destroy demons, raise the dead, heal the lame, open the eyes of the blind, is the only One who can also redeem us and his creation, reversing God’s curse on the ground and our bodies. This is a story about the question, “who is this man?” The demons then answered it, shouting loudly that Jesus is “the Son of the Most High God.”

Consider Jesus’ disciples on the stormy sea (Mtt 8:23-27; Mk 4:35-41; Lu 8:22-25). How many times have you heard in sermons and in conversation that “Jesus stills the storms of your life, if you trust in him, if you believe and have sufficient faith in him, etc. etc. . . .” As Sidney Greidanus writes, “since not many of the hearers will find themselves threatened by a destructive storm and on a raging sea for the sake of instant application the storm and sea are spiritualized to ‘storms’ on the ‘sea of life’.”[2] Such exemploristic-moralistic-spiritualized interpretations miss the tremendous significance of the manifestation of Christ’s power in redemption-history: He is Lord even over nature, and this is just a foretaste of the eventual redemption of creation itself! The one particularly vexing need among the ancients in their pagan religions was to find a god who could control nature, and thus the nature gods prevailed. Here, nevertheless, is the Creator-Redeemer God of the OT manifested in the flesh, demonstrating the same kind of power that God did in dividing the sea in Israel’s deliverance. Real continuity with the OT is shown, as well as further marvelous revelation of God in Christ. Jesus alone had power over devils, illness, and nature, as illustrated repeatedly by his various corresponding miracles. Furthermore, we see in such Gospel miracle-narratives that the Creator is the Redeemer, and that his creation matters to him. There is much more that could be developed from this idea, particularly in the area of the continuity of our life now with life as we will know it on the earth for all eternity. For example, our entire lives, relationships, work, and character, are horizontal into eternity. If this was not so, why would Christ take on flesh, heal the sick, raise the dead, and still storms?

Most importantly, we can affirm that these stories are all an interconnected testimony to answer the questions of the disciples and the crowds, “What kind of man is this?” Who is Jesus? These questions are not about us, but about Christ. The focus of the text is therefore Christ. So, what exactly is our relationship to such stories? Do we ourselves have any part in the story? Yes, but not that we are in the story itself. Rather, in response to it, we are being asked to believe the historical testimony left to us by the Apostles and inspired by the Spirit of God – in order that we too might receive him and believe on Christ. This is not a story about us just having enough faith in Jesus and the storms of life will suddenly cease. That is the gravely mistaken message of the popular “prosperity” teachers.

Redemption is not deliverance from the world but redemption of the world: “God so loved the cosmos . . .” We are reminded here, looking back to creation, that God sees his creation as “very good.” It also points forward, in a prefigurative sense, to the eventual restoration of all creation through Christ who is King over all of his creation. These narratives all give us a foretaste of the eventual healing of the world. Simply put, exemplorizing and spiritualizing this storm-narrative fails to convey its redemptive-historical meaning. It also risks presenting another gospel, one that teaches us simply to have more faith than the disciples in the boat during our storms of life, and then Jesus will still the storms for us (however defined). Nevertheless, this draws a straight line of application from the historical context of Jesus at Galilee to our present experience, suggesting this story is somehow normative for all times and thus prescriptive not descriptive, and when it is actually revelatory of who Jesus is. Assuming that the story is normative and about us and our needs, displaces Christ in the text, and by removing the story from its historical context misses the meaning of the text, making it me centered. Accordingly, it most seriously removes the story from its NT context, as well as from the broader redemptive context of the promises of God to Adam and Eve and the Patriarchs through all the ages that the line of the promise would produce one who would reverse the curse on the earth and our bodies. The central concern of this story is reflected in the final question that each of the synoptic accounts record: “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!” This question is the concern of the entire narrative of Scripture. Remarkably, it is answered by the demon possessed (discussed above) in the next event (recorded in Mtt 8:28-34 and Mk 5) – the demons understood that Jesus was the Son of God and that he had authority/control over them – when they shouted out, “What do you want with us, Son of God?” (Mtt 8:28).

This is the meaning and application of the many remarkable stories of the Bible, taking them on their own merits and in their own contexts. God the Creator is God the Redeemer – he does not rest from his work of redemption until he sends his Son to complete that work at the end of the age. Then, we will clearly see most fully how our own stories related to, and completed his works of redemption introduced to us in the testimony of the Bible. And yes, our names will also be written in Lamb’s Book of Life. This is our part in the big story.

This is what we might call a Biblical theological reading of the narratives, that reads them as fully as possible within the flow of the whole story, beginning with Creation and the Fall of humanity and ending with complete redemption. The many stories and characters are not normative, or repeatable, history (or just for moral instruction like Aesop’s fables), but rather redemption-history. That is, we know that the acts and lives of Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, etc., were lived once and cannot be repeated; they each have profound significance in the progress of redemption-history, but their persons and their life experiences are not ours, even when they have many similarities. We are not them and they are not us. God gave us the record of their lives for a specific purpose of revealing his redemption to us. It follows then that the events and characters and works done in the biblical narrative are not all normative for us today. The resurrected and ascended Jesus does not continue to walk about bodily doing miracles in our midst, as he did in ancient Israel. Nor are we supposed to imitate his works in that regard. There is no unilateral straight line from his miraculous works to us and our works. Indeed, none of his redemptive works are repeatable by anyone, since he alone is sinless Savior. In sum, the key questions these stories explore include: who is God and how is God presently at work? Who is the One promised to bring redemption from the curse? What will he be like? What will he do?

By contrast, moralistic spiritualizing leads us to ask questions of the most popular god of our generation, described so well by Christian Smith as the god of “therapeutic Deism”: “How do these narratives help me to be a better me, or a better Joseph, or a better David . . . .” ad nauseam.

How the Bible is about us

To put it another way, the Bible narrative is a history of our prior family story; it is like the mutually treasured family photo album and family history discovered in the attic of those ancestors who preceded us. We inherited these stories, written and compiled long before we were born. In a similar fashion, the Bible gives us the whole picture of the family story from beginning to end with varying degrees of completion. We also understand from the story itself that it is God’s perfect, revelatory record and interpretation of that story. Most importantly, this story reveals who God is, what he has done, what he is doing, and what he is going to do to redeem his creation. We do have a place in this story as members of the family who have been created by the same God, live in the same world, have the same kinds of problems, and are descendants of those in the recorded story (the biblical canon). This family story is especially focused on the fact that we have all been similarly rescued from darkness in our redemption.

Nevertheless, just like our more immediate family histories and photo albums, we are not personally in the narrative nor in the snapshots before we were born! Our place in our family histories begins of course after we are born. We do not in any real sense live their lives, seek to relive or imitate their lives, and we certainly are not in any sense the same people as our ancestors, and they are not us. We would never confuse the two. Similarly, our personal place in the family narrative of the redeemed begins after the canon of the Scripture was closed at the completion of the New Testament. Why then do we contrarily find so many interpreters insisting that we inject ourselves into the family photo album and family histories, as if we are in some sense them? Perhaps people believe that they can make the family history more “relevant” if we inject ourselves back into the narrative, or edit ourselves into the family photos. Yet, in so doing, they actually remove us from a proper relationship to that family history, since our relationship to it is of those who follow those who preceded. We experience a present continuation of the story as co-heirs of the same history and redemption, as a continuation of God’s redemptive works in the generations that succeed those before the canon was complete. In short, our part of the story is not written in the canon, and we would be amiss to revise the prior written story to include ours. There is not a unilateral line between us and them, as it were. We have a real ancestry in the ancient history of the Bible, but we are not our ancestors themselves! How peculiar we would seem if we read the personal histories and photos of our ancestors and claimed that what is really important is not them, but us, our stories, if by extension we are them and they are us. Put this way, to be blunt, it sounds ridiculous, but this is precisely the way so many teach and read the Bible today.

Surely, we might learn from our personal family history and photo album that a certain Uncle Wiggly became the town drunk, and that we would be warned to be wise and avoid his downfall. But surely we could concede that this was not “the reason” he existed and lived the way he did, so that we might find ourselves in the story or simply to be warned against his choices. Can we not then grant that the same is true of the 2,930 characters in the Bible, and all of their stories – and even more so – since in this case their stories recorded in Scripture show us God’s purposes and will and plans to bring to light his glory before humanity, and to redeem his creation, not just to give us some moral guidance or models for self-improvement. Yes, we have a real connection to all of these biblical characters and their stories in the history of redemption, but we do so as recipients of their stories not as participants in their stories. We do also have similar stories, as sinful recipients of redemption, as those who also believe and receive that redemption. Nonetheless, we are not to be identified as the people in the prior narrative of the story. We have received from them a “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1), and we too are witnesses to our present generation of their testimony, but all the same we are not them. Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Zipporah, Elijah, David, Bathsheba, Solomon are not you and you are not them. Abraham’s faith is not yours and yours is not his, Joseph’s suffering in the pit is not your suffering, nor your suffering his. You are not promised that God will take you to some palace if you only trust God like Joseph! Yes, in Adam all have died, yet his sin is not our sin (though we do inherit his guilt). Yes, in Abraham we are all counted righteous by grace through faith, yet his faith is not ours and ours is not his. The Gerasene demoniac is not our story; it is his story. Jesus’s story is not our story; it is his story, and exclusively.

Why then do so many insist on reading and interpreting in this way, often leaving us feeling that we must just try harder – like Noah, like Abraham, Job, or like Joseph, or like David or Solomon, or like Jesus – then we will really experience God’s blessing, or presence, or . . . . whatever we might want. Once we work up enough faith like them, then God will take us from our flooding ark of problems to prosperity, deliver us from our pit of depression to the palace, raise us from the ashes of despair to double-fold blessings, going from the sheepfold to the kingship, and from the cross to glory. We are members of a generation of folks raised on this famishing diet of moralizing, and as G.Goldsworthy states it:

“While I certainly do not want to appear to be carping and critical of the multitude of faithful volunteers who prepare curricula and teach them in Sunday Schools, I get the impression that both tasks are often carried on with little or no understanding of the big picture of biblical revelation. Consequently, children are often taught a whole range of isolated Bible stories, each with its neat little application deemed appropriate to the respective age levels. So much of the application is thus moralizing legalism because it is severed from its links to the gospel of grace. By the time many of these children reach their teenage years they have had a belly full of morality, enough, they would think, to last them for the rest of their lives. They thus beat a retreat to live reasonably decent but gospelless lives.[3]

Ultimately, what is at stake here is the Gospel of Christ. Let us then strive together to bring an end to these solipsistic and narcissistic readings of the Bible, specifically by rejecting and challenging their legalistic, moralistic applications that so plague us today. In doing so, let us put to rest the false god of “therapeutic Deism” that rules over these self-help interpretations. Such hermeneutics of “do and don’t” like “so and so” terribly diminishes the great and awesome story of God and his wondrous works of creation and redemption which reveal his glory to us through the narratives and characters of the Bible.[4]

Let us further be done with the prosperity preaching of our generation which puts all of Scripture through the meat-grinding grid of blessings of health, wealth, and success . . . if only we can be an Abraham, a Joseph, a Job, Elijah, or a David in our faith. This prism of prosperity-thinking totally distorts the meaning of the biblical text and should therefore be rejected regardless of how much people get a feeling of blessing or a sense of deeper insight into the text. This may sound too strident in conclusion, but our responsibility to “guard the gospel” must begin in our own house. It is not enough to condemn the Liberal (historical-critical) approach to reading the Bible when we in fact (even if inadvertently) so distort the meaning of biblical texts that what we communicate is a contrary “gospel” of works and not the gospel of grace. Doing so, we totally fragment the biblical story into an endless litany of moral points placed on the shoulders of those already burdened by the weight of their own sense of failure.

The gospel we received from the prophets and the many authors of Scripture, their Apostolic witness, is one that proclaims the story of redemption by grace; it is that of the Christ who is, who was, and who is to come (Rev 1:8) and who came in the flesh to complete redemption by fulfilling the ancient promises of redemption. That redemption is a gift to us of God’s grace, and for which we presently await its fullness – along with the saints of all the ages – to experience at his return the final consummation of the redemption of all creation (Rom 8:18-25). That is our part in the story, the greatest of all stories, since this story gives the true and complete meaning of every story ever told. It will only be then that we will drink together in his glorious presence of his new and everlasting wine, and when we will have many a tale to tell of how he worked out his precious grace to make whole our broken lives.

[1] This may be also called biographical exposition, and could consume the entire career of the expositor with the 2,930 characters in the Bible! The shift from a theocentric/Christocentric to anthropocentric exposition should be obvious.

[2] Greidanus, Modern Preacher and Ancient Text, p. 160.

[3] Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, p. 151.

[4] Having said this, we certainly do not reject biblical ethics, nor do we advocate for antinomianism, but our ethics must be built biblically and in the proper hermeneutical fashion.

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Review of Christopher Watkin. Thinking Through Creation: Genesis 1 and 2 as Tools of Cultural Critique.

Christophewatkinr Watkin. Thinking Through Creation: Genesis 1 and 2 as Tools of Cultural Critique. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2017.

As vitally important are the questions of origins and creation in Gen 1-2, often we do not explore their equally valuable theological and cultural implications and applications. With frequent reference to philosophers, theologians, and cultural critics, Christopher Watkin walks us through the labyrinth of philosophical dualisms, that for many people are working models used to understand the universe, while at the same time he deftly dismantles their edifices through exposition of the foundational truths that the triune, personal, loving God created the universe. The dualisms that govern modern perspectives on the world, theories through which the meaning of everything is processed, include the following: impersonal structure/unstructured person; transcendence/immanence; the one/many; function/beauty; facts/values; nature/culture; intellectual/manual work; secular/sacred; nature/culture. Watkin proposes that the biblical creation narrative, rooted in the Creator/creation distinction, tells a very different story, and the only one that can fully address and resolve these dualistic (and totalitarian) theories. I add that they are totalitarian, in that these theories play out in various forms such as Marxism, psychoanalysis, Feminism, eco-theory, and Deconstruction, all of which become ways to think through everything, not just ways to think about everything. Since such theories are all encompassing, and subsume all other theories as well, Watkin proposes that we must articulate the biblical narrative in such a way that we demonstrate that it is the whole story, being true, that explains all other stories. We must not just argue against, we must out-narrate the dualistic alternatives by telling the one true story that encompasses them all. The biblical story is not just a story within a story; it is the story of reality. So, we must stop apologizing for this fact and get to the work of telling the whole story, and particularly why and how all things – everything in life, culture, the universe – have their place only truly within that story. This sounds much like a proposal for biblical theology to me, and a welcome one, to redress the fragmentation of reading the biblical narrative so widespread today in the moralistic, exemploristic, spiritualizing ways people are taught the Bible.

Stressing the fact that a personal God, who is also absolute, created the world, the biblical narrative is one in which love is fundamental and primary. Love and relationships are the bedrock of our universe, since they are rooted in the Triune God. That is, “the universe is not structured simply according to relationships in the abstract, but according to relationships of mutual love modeled on the Trinity” (p. 63).

On the many who claim to be prophets today, and dreamers of dreams

Jeremiah in Sistene ChapelFor one who teaches biblical hermeneutics, I am cautious to pull a text like this into our contemporary context, since it is from the end of the pre-exilic context of ancient Judah when Jeremiah wrote dire warnings against them for their idolatries and against the scores of people who then claimed to be prophets sent from God. Nevertheless, can we not ask if there is any similarity with our own generation in regards to the countless claims from people of God revealing, speaking, giving further revelation, visions, and prophecies, so many of which have been widely shown as both false and often misleading? (An example that “there is nothing new under the sun.”)

(left)Jeremiah by Michelangelo (Sistine Chapel) 

Does not the principle stand that for anyone to claim a revelation or prophecy from God, and who did not actually receive such (but only imagined or hoped to have received such), they would most certainly be considered a false prophet. In biblical terms, that is. Even if they prophesied something concrete, in a predictive fashion, that happens to occur, and it did not come directly from God, it still makes them a false prophet. Yet, consider the many thousands of people today claiming prophecies, dreams, visions, etc., who have made themselves a laughing-stock with their oftentimes outrageous and patently false claims. At best they are mostly ignored, but at worst they frequently manage to point people away from the actual canon of revelation in the Old and New Testaments to themselves and their seemingly benign imaginings. Many people have even started movements and organizations on the basis of such spurious revelations, but even if they have many followers it does not make them a prophet from God.

In sum, take heed from Jeremiah to all who claim, “The Lord said to me” or “The Lord gave me this dream  . . . or vision.” And, to all who listen to these many self-proclaimed prophets of our times, take heed lest you too are taken captive by all sorts of vanity and delusions that may appear marvelous, but are nothing more than “the visions of their[the prophets’] own minds.”

Jeremiah 23

16 Thus says the Lord of hosts: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. 17 They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.’”

   25 “I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy falsely in My n, me, saying, ‘I had a dream, I had a dream!’ 26 “How long? Is there anything in the hearts of the prophets who prophesy falsehood, even these prophets of the deception of their own heart, 27 who intend to make My people forget My name by their dreams which they relate to one another, just as their fathers forgot My name because of Baal? 28“The prophet who has a dream may relate his dream, but let him who has My word speak My word in truth. What does straw have in common with grain?” declares the LORD. 29“Is not My word like fire?” declares the LORD, “and like a hammer which shatters a rock? 30“Therefore behold, I am against the prophets,” declares the LORD, “who steal My words from each other. 31“Behold, I am against the prophets,” declares the LORD, “who use their tongues and declare, ‘The Lord declares.’ 32“Behold, I am against those who have prophesied false dreams,” declares the LORD, “and related them and led My people astray by their falsehoods and reckless boasting; yet I did not send them or command them, nor do they furnish this people the slightest benefit,” declares the LORD.

Jeremiah was not alone in confronting those who claimed to receive prophecy from God.  Ezekiel, as well as a number of other OT prophets, also confronted those who claimed to be prophets:

Ezekiel 13:1-3
“The word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘Son of man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel who prophesy, and say to those who prophesy from their own inspiration, ‘Listen to the word of the Lord!’ Thus says the Lord God, ‘Woe to the foolish prophets who are following theory own spirit and have seen nothing.”

Also, Ezekiel continues this exhortation against false claims of prophecy in  in 13:4-10

“O Israel, your prophets have been like foxes among ruins. 5“You have not gone up into the breaches, nor did you build the wall around the house of Israel to stand in the battle on the day of the LORD. 6“They see falsehood and lying divination who are saying, ‘The LORD declares,’ when the LORD has not sent them; yet they hope for the fulfillment of their word. 7“Did you not see a false vision and speak a lying divination when you said, ‘The LORD declares,’ but it is not I who have spoken?”’”

8Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD, “Because you have spoken falsehood and seen a lie, therefore behold, I am against you,” declares the Lord GOD. 9“So My hand will be against the prophets who see false visions and utter lying divinations. They will have no place in the council of My people, nor will they be written down in the register of the house of Israel, nor will they enter the land of Israel, that you may know that I am the Lord GOD

 

Revelation from God and the limits of the canon of Scripture (and the question of continuing revelation)

Does revelation communicated from God continue today? If so, is it inspired? And, if it is inspired, should we consider it infallible (since God cannot lie)? And, if it is infallible revelation from God should we not have it written down and included in the canon as inerrant Scripture?

To consider an answer to these questions, see illustration and brief discussion here:

Revelation and the limits of the canon of Scripture

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The metaphysics of meaning, part II: theology, the disappearance of definitions, and Rob Bell on blasphemy

Why Words Mean: why ducks do not bark and dogs do not quack.

For pdf, The metaphysics of meaning part II by S.Hague

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Must we mean what we say and define what we mean when we say?
Must we define what we mean when we say so that we say what we mean?

š›1. Theological language means something

“Language determines the realities we attend to.”[1]

Since so much of our daily language, not just that of the theologians, conveys important theological and philosophical assumptions and concepts in profoundly obvious and oftentimes not-so-obvious ways, it could be proposed that the term “theological language” could apply to much of our human language. Though that could be the subject of an entire essay, that is not my primary focus here. My concern is that if it be true that our language contains profoundly vital information for our lives at all levels, how important is it that we understand the definitions and implications of our terms used? Does it really matter in any very serious sense how we define our terms and the words we choose to communicate? More to the point, does it matter with regard to our expressions of faith and concepts about it? After all, is it not more important that people see our heart, our compassion and sincerity, not so much how we define and use our terms? After all, isn’t wrangling over words a sin? The same could be asked about historical accuracy in our discourse: is it all that important we discuss the past in terms and definitions that are in agreement with the facts, since it could be said that historical facts are rather difficult to ascertain with certainty? Isn’t it more important to just get the gist, or spirit, of the events and characters and choices, and not worry about the details? Depending on how we answer such questions, we must also consider whether legal documents like deeds and mortgages and contracts and constitutions depend on accuracy of language and historical fact? Do government, the economy, the scientific enterprise, architecture and art, medicine, and the diagnosis of illness in heart, mind, and body, depend on accuracy in definition of terms and agreement regarding the use of each distinct discipline of discourse? Does not even the weather broadcaster communicate life and death information that depends upon factuality and truthfulness?

Indeed, it could be argued that our very existence depends upon our God-given ability and task to name things,[2] and with accurate consistency. If this task of naming (taxonomy) could be understand to relate to the biblical principle of having dominion, and that it continues in every generation, would it not therefore especially include the theological endeavor, as well? When we speak of “technical terms” in the various disciplines we mean that in order for communication-events to occur there must of necessity be some collocation and consistency of received, and agreed upon, terms and definitions for the purposes of achieving meaningful discourse. Particularly, therefore, we can assert that when speaking of God and the eternal concerns of theological ideas, beliefs, doctrines, and formulations for faith, the need for clarity and accuracy must be accompanied with the zeal for carefulness in definitions. Sloppiness will not work in building bridges and high rise buildings, nor in programing computers that can fly humans to the moon. It might be countered that theological language is not a scientific enterprise, and not as much depends upon it for human safety and survival as does the science of geometry and calculus in constructing the wonders of civilization upon which we have built our modern world. Yet, to counter this objection to my claim to the contrary, the world and its civilizations depend upon the ideas that define their identity, character, morals and visions for what constitutes a just and honorable society that lead to human flourishing for all, and therefore human beliefs (theological ideas) about origins, God, human nature, the relationships between all created things, people, and creatures. In sum, we can therefore conclude that all knowledge in every sphere is theologically potent, in the sense that even mathematics and quantum physics are rooted in theological and metaphysical frameworks. Yes, not just contextually, but that they originate from theological conceptions.

Despite all this, there are endless examples in our world of disregard for definitions and received terms. In fact, entire industries (as advertising and politicking) depend upon distortion, and sometimes obfuscation, of meaning in order to achieve objectives. Dictators and totalitarian regimes also depend upon their power to control the meaning, definitions, and use of terms. Empires sometimes have been able to extend their dominions through controlling the lexicon; but we can be thankful that such tyranny is always tenuous, since humans are inclined to resist in their need to communicate truthfully, in spite of all efforts to hinder and prevent it, and of course of necessity must do so for their survival. Even in our free society, there are many who would take total control to rewrite our lexicons for their political purposes, financial gain, or for ideological agendas. For example, in recent history, the Postmodern movement sought in language (theory) to unhinge (called slippage) referents (signifiers) from their objects (signified), creating widespread “hermeneutical suspicion” and epistemological atheism, rooted in a total indeterminacy of meaning in language. Nevertheless, in the nature of human language and communication, meaning and the necessity for meaning to be determinate and not indeterminate, requires that words consistently correspond sufficiently with reality to be meaningful. Engineers, scientists, architects, doctors, and astronauts have not generally followed the Postmodernists in practice, if even in theory, for which are most grateful.

In the pendulum swings (in linguistics and politics) from totalitarianism to anarchy, humans will always gravitate towards what will allow them to be free, but also necessarily towards what requires them to be responsible. A great danger with freedom is whenever it is not accompanied by responsibility. History has taught us this at least: freedom must be followed by responsibility to remain free. This is profoundly true especially with our language, the greatest gift of God besides life, to communicate meaningfully. Therefore, we have the supreme responsibility to employ it rightly and faithfully. Interpretation of every/any particular thing in reality requires language responsibly defined in terms and principles of interpretation, wherein each aspect of the process itself depends entirely upon language.

Identifying and classifying is the fundamental function of human language, differentiating things (so we establish in regards to everything that A is not non A in the law of non-contradiction). Language enables us to see the unity and distinctions of all things which are absolutely essential for human society to be possible. This naming, and the interpretative role of language in gathering knowledge of the created world, its proper interpretation and the discovery of new insights, is the foundation of all science, art, literature, philosophy, architecture, and theology.

Most significantly, theological language is the source and ongoing context of the meaning of all else, since it originates in revelation from God in order for us to have the interpretative matrix upon which to construct an accurate interpretive narrative for all of known reality. Therefore, as all of our language must correspond to reality in a coherent and comprehensible way, it is critical that we attend to our theological language with the utmost zeal and care. This is consistent with our belief in the triune nature of God the Creator of all reality, in which there is an absolute and necessary selfconsistency and coherence (since a perfect God can have no inconsistencies or contradictions), there is also logical consistency and coherence in his creation, since it is always contingent upon God who is the Logos.

Inconsideration of God, or misrepresentation of his nature, are as agreeable to corrupt nature, as the disowning the being of a God is contrary to common reason.[3]


2. Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis declaration on blasphemy means something, too, but it does not ring true
                           “The fate of hermeneutics and humanity alike stand or fall together.”[4]

There are a seeming infinite number of possible examples to illustrate how easy it is to mislead others through a lack of care in language use, and the confusing misuse of terms poorly defined and re-employed for some purpose. We are all daily inclined to this, our motives and reasoning being so corrupted. All-the-same, we are in Scripture held to the high standards of truth and justice, honesty and faithfulness, consistency and integrity, in all of our words and our actions. This is the moral nature of our discourse, requiring proper definitions, exposition, and interpretations of reality; this is the life and death nature of our words and our lexicons. This is why we “guard the gospel” (2 Tim 1:14) entrusted to us, the orthodox tradition of the Apostles, not to be revised, since it is the bedrock of the people of God, the foundation of Christ’s church. This is just one of many important reasons to avoid confusion in our language, especially when speaking of God and matters of the faith.

One example of confusing theological language came to my attention recently in a post from a friend on Facebook of a popular quote from Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis:

“Questions, no matter how shocking or blasphemous or arrogant or ignorant or raw, are rooted In humility. A humility that understands that I am not God. And there is more to know.”

This quote at first surprised me, but then with alarm to see how many people both “liked” and “loved” the quote. The proper netiquette in this case perhaps eluded me, but I had to respond with a “Huh?” that was apparently not happily received.

It was this interchange that precipitated my reflections here, since I think it is very mistaken not to understand Bell’s total reversal of the meaning of biblical categories and terms as a good example of the all-too-common carelessness and sloppiness in theological discussions these days. Even if not intentional, it is in any case seriously problematic. Bell has done this on a number of theological issues, and has generated Much Controversy among Christians with his slippery use of, and misuse of, theological language.[5] Some might object to my concern and say that his use of language is not so important, but rather his motives, his intentions to communicate the gospel in a refashioned way to this generation. Yet, we really have no idea what his motives were, nor whether his heart is right with God despite his poorly worded verbiage. We cannot say what Bell’s intention was, but I can say that his use of English tortures biblical categories in this statement, as he often does in his interviews and public statements flowing from the ideas in his publications. I would like to hope that he was just being careless, even if seriously, but this kind of loose theological affirmation, even if for the sake of a perceived effort to point others to a more intimate relationship with God, is deeply concerning.

It could have been intended to make the gospel message more palatable to unbelievers who find many aspects of biblical history and faith distasteful (but I wrongly digress into unknown motives). Even so, if we attempt to redefine biblical doctrine, and language, in order to make it more acceptable to people who sincerely believe they are on a higher moral plane than God, and that we must justify the God of Scripture to them, since they find many things in the Bible morally indefensible, then our motives become entirely irrelevant to the question of whether we are being faithful to the gospel of Jesus and the Scripture in our definitions and use of theological terms.

Bell does not say in this statement, as someone might suppose, that he is speaking of questions that seem to be blasphemous; he says plainly that blasphemous questions “are rooted in humility.” As an academic, I accept the criticism that I may be over analyzing and over-critical in such a case as this. Even so, biblically speaking, we are called to “bring every thought captive,” and to wisely discern all pronouncements and assertions, regardless of their source. As an academic, I also understand, and always fully support, the idea of having and allowing for others the freedom to ask questions of God, the deepest questions that concern us. But biblically, there is a universe of difference between lament, painfully crying out to God for answers to those questions, and blasphemy and arrogance. In Bell’s convoluted declaration, even arrogance is somehow equated with humility, when in any lexicon arrogance has historically been an antonym of humility. And, historically (and biblically), blasphemy meant God-hating arrogance and rebellion against God; it is not rooted in a humble heart nor in humility; it is shaking the fist at God in foolish anger and arrogant stupidity. It is the condition of our hearts when God, or the god we imagine is God, is despised and rejected.

I strongly believe that those in Christian churches who say (or have the attitude), “don’t ask questions, just believe,” have done great harm to many people. So, hopefully, I will not be misunderstood when I object to the plain meaning of Bell’s convolution of words that can lead to some rather serious conclusions and rationalizations. As stated, I zealously agree with the conviction that we must encourage questions, but it is because we know with certitude that God has given us answers, and sufficient answers, in the revelation of the canon of Scripture. These are what we must live for and work for through study, reflection, prayer, and teaching, to learn of God and his ways and to share in fellowship and rejoicing with the body of Christ in the glories of the gospel. Questions themselves are not blasphemy, but neither is blaspheming simply asking questions.

And, I would add, the gospel makes very good logical sense. Indeed, the gospel is the only theological system in the world that makes perfect logical sense, because it is entirely true. In fact, the gospel is the key to all of reality, since Jesus is the one who is the LOGOS by whom, through whom, and for whom the universe was made. This is particularly the reason we must strive to accurately define all of our terms in discussing God and matters of our faith, and to be consistent when using those terms. Our language matters immensely, because what we think we may be meaning in discourse could be a serious misconstrual and miscommunication of colossal proportions. The problem of communication and understanding derives from us (not from Scripture), because of the noetic effect of sins on our minds/hearts, when we do not understand things in Scripture. We are slow of heart/mind to believe and understand; it is not that Scripture is insufficiently perspicuous (understandable). In the Gospel of Christ, the mysteries of God are made known (Col 1:27; 1 Cor 15:51; 1 Cor 2:7; Eph 6:19).

In conclusion therefore, we are responsible to properly and fully define all of the terms of that Gospel, based solely on the canon of Scripture. This does not mean we have comprehension of God and all things, since he is infinite and eternal, but we can have sufficient and reasonable faith and understanding. We can also grow daily in fuller understanding, as we will for all eternity increase in our knowledge of Him, never ceasing. In sum, ignorance of, distortion of, and unbelief in the gospel of Christ are not a result of its incomprehensibility, but rather the hardness of the human heart, and the inclination to mis-represent, mis-define, and mis-interpret. Missing the mark, we then speak past one another and reality itself, properly defined. Mis-representing the terms of the gospel is therefore to by-pass its reality for fantasies and fairy tales of our own imagining.

And, this is why ducks do not bark and dogs do not quack,
and why Rob Bell’s revision on blasphemy and arrogance does not ring true.0000501_531


Some biblical texts on blasphemy

Ex 22:28 “Do not blaspheme God or curse the ruler of your people.”

Mk 7:22 Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: 23 All these evil things come from within, and defile the man.

Col 3:8 But now you also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy talk out of your mouth.

James 2:7 Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called?

2 Peter 2:12 But these people blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like unreasoning animals, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like animals they too will perish.

Jude 1:8 Yet in like manner these people also, relying on their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones.

Rev 13:5 (NASB) There was given to him a mouth speaking arrogant words and blasphemies, and authority to act for forty-two months was given to him.

Some biblical texts on arrogance

Lk 1:51 He has done mighty deeds with His arm; He has scattered those who were proud [arrogant] in the thoughts of their heart.

Ja 4.16(NASB) But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. 17 Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin.

1 Jn 2:16 (ISV) For everything that is in the world—the desire for fleshly gratification,d the desire for possessions, and worldly arrogance—is not from the Father but is from the world.

Col 2:18 (GWT) Such a person, whose sinful mind fills him with arrogance, gives endless details of the visions he has seen.

Jude 1:16 (NASB) These are grumblers, finding fault, following after their own lusts; they speak arrogantly, flattering people for the sake of gaining an advantage.


Thank God that our sins of arrogance and blasphemy are also forgivable!


Quotes on words and language

Words differently arranged have a different meaning, and meanings differently arranged have different effects. Blaise. Pascal (Pensées, 23)

“At the point of divergence between right and wrong, between truth and falsehood, is not a chasm but a razor’s edge.” John Murray, Principles of Conduct, p.

“Objective falsity cannot be the source of subjective truth.” Phillip Hughes, The True Image, 367.

“The very act of naming things presupposes a faith in their existence and thus in a true world, whatever Nietzsche might say.” Czeslaw Milosz, The Witness of Poetry, Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1983, p. 57

“In the matter of Christian doctrine, a great part of the nation subsists in an ignorance more barbarous than that of the dark ages, owing to a slatternly habit of illiterate reading. Words are understood in a wholly mistaken sense, statements of fact and opinion are misread and distorted in repetition, arguments founded in misapprehension are accepted without examination, expressions of individual preference are construed as ecumenical doctrine, disciplinary regulations founded on consent are confused with claims to interpret universal law, and vice versa;  with the result that the logical and historical structure of Christian philosophy is transformed in the popular mind to a confused jumble of mythological and pathological absurdity.”  Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mind of the Maker pp. xi-xii

Metaphors are locomotives of meaning; they bear the freight of insight from place to place. . . . The arrival of a powerful metaphor alters the geography of our thoughts and forces us to redraw our conceptual maps.  Terrence W. Tilley, Story Theology, Wilmington DE:  Michael Glazier, 1985, p. 1.

“If correct behavior depends on right thinking, and right thinking on the right use of language, then we may say that, in terms of active influence, the sequence actually proceeds the other way: Language4 thought4behavior.” Chilton Williamson, Jr. Chronicles, Feb 2006, p. 17.

“After the Fall, the worst violence done himself by man is to deny the Truth of the Word—and by implication and descent, all words and their inherently divine relationship with one another. This is because man cannot, through his abuse of words, distort the concept of the divine Nature without distorting his understanding of human nature along with it, as Orwell and other critics of the human language have understood.” Chilton Williamson, Jr. Chronicles, Feb 2006, p. 17.

“This is because man cannot, through his abuse of words, dis­tort the concept of the divine Nature without distorting his un­derstanding of human nature along with it, as Orwell and other critics of the enemies of language have understood. ‘And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness . . .’    Ac­cording to the Word, man is a kind of copy, however faint and imperfect, of God. But if the Word does not exist, then God does not exist, and what, then, is man a copy of, in God’s ab­sence? The problem is, all language is constructed according to a logic that assumes the existence of God and a divine relation­ship with man: God, in other words, is structured into human language, because He is encoded in the human mind and in human thought. To refuse to know Who God is, is to refuse to accept what we are and how we are meant to act in the world, how we are intended to comport ourselves, how we are expect­ed to behave, in respect of ourselves as well as of others. In the degree that men deny the reality and integrity of language, they reject the idea of Model-Modeler and Modeled, and with it the possibility for the coherent and respectful human activity and behavior they once called decency and manners.” Chilton Williamson, Jr. Chronicles, Feb 2006, p. 18.

Stephen T. Hague, March 2017

[1] William Kirk Kilpatrick, The Psychological Seduction, New York:  Thomas Nelson, 1983, p. 127.

[2] See Stephen Hague, ‘The metaphysics of meaning, part I: taxonomy The disappearance of the author, and the death of God”: https://stephenhague.wordpress.com/2016/02/29/the-life-and-death-matter-of-language-and-hermeneutics/

[3] Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996, two volumes in one, vol. 1, p. 90.

[4] Kevin Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text: the Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), p. 22.

[5] Many have written on the various theological statements and directions of Rob Bell, so this is not meant to be such an extended critique. Suffice it to say that Rob Bell has shifted from some fundamental biblical perspectives over the years, and has taught theological concepts at odds with traditional orthodoxy. His notoriety and influence also has increased after being endorsed by Oprah Winfrey, of whom he has reportedly said that “She has taught me more about what Jesus has for all of us, and what kind of life Jesus wants us to live, more than almost anybody in my life” (https://spectator.org/61174_defense-religious-mediocrityAmerican Spectator, accessed 3/7/2017 Yet, for all she expresses about “spirituality,” Oprah is not even remotely Christian in her views and convictions.


Blasphemy in the Bible as defined by various lexicons

Hebrew

5829  ] נֶאָצָה5830) [Hebrew) (page 611) (Strong 5007( † נֶאָצָה] n. f. contempt )toward (י׳, blasphemy;—pl. נֶאָצוֹת Ne 9:18, 9:26 c. עָשָׂה of Isr.; נָאָצוֹתֶיךָ Ez 35:12 of Mt. Seir, spoken against הרי ישׂראל.

Greek

1033  βλασφημέω

βλασφημέω, βλασφήμω; imperfect ἐβλασφήμουν; 1 aorist ἐβλασφήμησα; passive (present βλασφημοῦμαι); 1 future βλασφημηθήσομαι; (βλάσφημος, which see); to speak reproachfully, rail at, revile, calumniate (Vulgate blasphemo); absolutely:  Luke 22:65 ; Acts 13:45; 18:6; 26:11; 1 Tim. 1:20; 1 Pet. 4:4; with accusative of person or thing (as in later Greek, Joseph, Plutarch, Appian, etc.): Matt. 27:39; Mark 3:28 L T Tr WH; 15:29; Luke 23:39; Titus 3:2; James 2:7; Jude 1:10; with the cognate noun βλασφημίαν, to utter blasphemy (Plato, legg. 7, p. 800 c.; see ἀγαπάω at the end), Mark 3:28 R G (where L T Tr WH ὅσα for ὅσας, see above); (followed by ἐν, 2 Pet. 2:12; cf. Alexander Buttmann (1873) as at end, and see ἀγνοέω, a.).  Passive βλασφημοῦμαι to be evil spoken of, reviled, railed at: Rom. 3:8; 14:16; 1 Cor. 4:13 (T WH Tr marginal reading δυσφημούμενοι); 1 Cor. 10:30; Titus 2:5; 2 Pet. 2:2; τό ὄνομα τίνος, Rom. 2:24; 1 Tim. 6:1.  Specifically, of those who by contemptuous speech intentionally come short of the reverence due to God or to sacred things )for גִּדֵּף, 2 Kings 19:6,22 cf. 2 Kings 19:4; cf. Grimm on 2 Macc. 10:34); absolutely:  Matt. 9:3; 26:65; Mark 2:7 L T Tr WH; (John 10:36); τόν Θεόν, Rev. 16:11,21; τήν θεάν, Acts 19:37 (G L T Tr WH τήν Θεόν); τό ὄνομα τοῦ Θεοῦ, Rev. 13:6; 16:9; τό πνεῦμα τοῦ Θεοῦ (βλασφημεῖται), 1 Pet. 4:14 Rec.; δόξας, Jude 1:8; 2 Pet. 2:10 (see δόξα, III. 3 b. γ.); εἰς τό πνεῦμα τό ἅγιον, Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10 (εἰς θεούς, Plato, rep. 2, p. 381 e.).  The earlier Greeks say βλασφημαν εἰς τινα, περί or κατά τίνος; (on the N. T. constructions cf. Winer’s Grammar, 222 (208); 629 (584); Buttmann, 146 (128)).*

1034  βλασφημία

βλασφημία, βλασφημίας, ἡ, railing, reviling (Vulgate blasphemia); a. universally, slander, detraction, speech injurious to another’s good name:  Matt. 12:31; 15:19; Mark 3:28; 7:22; Eph. 4:31; Col. 3:8; 1 Tim. 6:4; Jude 1:9 (κρίσις βλασφημίας, equivalent to κρίσις βλάσφημος in 2 Pet. 2:11, a judgment pronounced in reproachful terms); Rev. 2:9. b. specifically, impious and reproachful speech injurious to the divine majesty:  Matt. 26:65; Mark 2:7 (R G); 14:64; Luke 5:21; John 10:33; Rev. 13:5 (not Lachmann); ὄνομα or ὀνόματα βλασφημίας equivalent to βλάσφημα (cf. Winer’s Grammar, sec. 34, 3 b.; (Buttmann, sec. 132, 10)):  Rev. 13:1; 17:3 (R G Tr, see γέμω); τοῦ πνεύματος, genitive of the object, Matt. 12:31; πρός τόν Θεόν, Rev. 13:6.  (Euripides, Plato, Demosthenes, others; for נֶאָצָה Ezek. 35:12.(  )BB.  DD. under the word Blasphemy; Campbell, Diss. on the Gospels, diss. ix. part ii.)*

From the New Bible Dictionary

BLASPHEMY

  1. In the Old Testament

Here the root meaning of the word is an act of effrontery in which the honour of God is insulted by man. The proper object of the verb is the name of God, which is cursed or reviled instead of being honoured. (Compare the common biblical and rabbinical phrase, ‘Blessed art thou, O Lord.’) The penalty of the outrage of blasphemy is death by stoning (Lv. 24:10–23; 1 Ki. 21:9ff.; Acts 6:11; 7:58).

In the first reference it is a half-caste Israelite who sins in this way; and, generally speaking, blasphemy is committed by pagans (2 Ki. 19:6, 22 = Is. 37:6, 23; Pss. 44:16; 74:10, 18; Is. 52:5), sometimes incited to it by the bad example and moral lapses of the Lord’s people (2 Sa. 12:14). It follows also that when God’s people fall into idolatry they are regarded as committing the blasphemy of the heathen (Is. 65:7; Ezk. 20:27). The name of Yahweh which it is Israel’s peculiar destiny to hallow (see G. F. Moore, Judaism, 2, 1927–30, p. 103) is profaned by the faithless and disobedient people.

  1. In the New Testament

Here there is an extension of the meaning. God is blasphemed also in his representatives. So the word is used of Moses (Acts 6:11); Paul (Rom. 3:8; 1 Cor. 4:12; 10:30); and especially the Lord Jesus, in his ministry of forgiveness (Mk. 2:7 and parallels), at his *trial (Mk. 14:61–64), and at Calvary (Mt. 27:39; Lk. 23:39). Because these representatives embody the truth of God himself (and our Lord in a unique way), an insulting word spoken against them and their teaching is really directed against the God in whose name they speak (so Mt. 10:40; Lk. 10:16). Saul of Tarsus fulminated against the early followers of Jesus and tried to compel them to blaspheme, i.e. to curse the saving name (Acts 24:11), and thereby to renounce their baptismal vow in which they confessed that ‘Jesus is Lord’ (cf. 1 Cor. 12:3; Jas. 2:7). His misdirected zeal, however, was not simply against the church, but against the Lord himself (1 Tim. 1:13; cf. Acts 9:4).

The term is also used, in a weaker sense, of slanderous language addressed to men (e.g. Mk. 3:28; 7:22; Eph. 4:31; Col. 3:8; Tit. 3:2). Here the best translation is ‘slander, abuse’. These verses condemn a prevalent vice; but their warning may be grounded in a theological as well as an ethical context if we remember Jas. 3:9. Men are not to be cursed because on them, as men, the ‘formal’ image of God is stamped and the human person is, in some sense, God’s representative on earth (cf. Gn. 9:6).

There are two problem texts. 2 Pet. 2:10–11 speaks of blasphemy against ‘the glorious ones’ whom angels dare not revile. These are probably evil angelic powers against whom false teachers presumed to direct their insults (cf. Jude 8). The blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Mt. 12:32; Mk. 3:29) carries with it the awful pronouncement that the sinner is ‘guilty of an eternal sin’ which cannot be forgiven. The verse is a solemn warning against persistent, deliberate rejection of the Spirit’s call to salvation in Christ. Human unresponsiveness inevitably leads to a state of moral insensibility and to a confusion of moral issues wherein evil is embraced as though it were good (‘Evil, be thou my Good’; cf. Is. 5:18–20; Jn. 3:19). The example of this attitude is that of the Pharisees, who attributed Jesus’ works of mercy to Satan. In such a frame of mind repentance is not possible to the hardened heart because the recognition of sin is no longer possible, and God’s offer of mercy is in effect peremptorily refused. To be in this perilous condition is to cut oneself off from the source of forgiveness. Hebert adds a helpful pastoral note: ‘People who are distressed in their souls for fear that they have committed the sin against the Holy Ghost should in most cases be told that their distress is proof that they have not committed that sin’ (TWBR, p. 32).

Bibliography. HDB, 1, p. 109; H. W. Beyer, TDNT 1, pp. 621–625; H. Währisch, C. Brown, W. Mundle in NIDNTT 3, pp. 340–347.

  1. P. Martin.[1]

From Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels

Blasphemy

In both the Old and New Testaments blasphemy is, at its root, a word or act detracting from the power and glory* of God*.

  1. Background
  2. Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit
  3. Jesus Accused of Blasphemy
  4. Background

The Greek noun blasphēmia may be derived from phēmē (a “saying”) and a shortened form of blaptō (“injure”) or blax (“stupid”) or ballō (“throw” or “strike”) or blabos (“harm”).

1.1. Greek Usage. In Greek literature “to blaspheme” meant to speak ill or abusively rather than to speak well of someone (euphēmeō, Philo Migr. Abr. 117; euphēmia, Josephus Ant. 16.2.1 §14; 17.8.4 §200; 2 Cor 6:8). This meaning is also found in (e.g.) 2 Maccabees (10:34; 12:14), Philo (Spec. Leg. 4.197), Josephus (Life §232) as well as in the NT (Acts 13:34; 18:6; Rom 14:16; 1 Cor 10:30; Tit 3:2; 1 Pet 4:4). Someone can be said to blaspheme against an idol or false god (Diodorus 2.21.7; Philo Spec. Leg. 1.53; Josephus Ant. 4.8.10 §207; Acts 19:37). Blasphemy is also associated with “bad language” (2 Macc 12:14) or insulting a person (Mt 12:32) as shown by the synonyms ōneidizō (“revile,” Mt 27:44 par. Mk 15:32 and Lk 23:39) and loidoreō (“to abuse,” Jn 9:28; Acts 23:4; Josephus J.W. 2.14.8 §302).

1.2. Old Testament. In the canonical OT and Apocrypha blasphemy referred to contemptuous or dishonoring speech or actions against God through denying his ability (2 Kings 19:4, 6, 22; Ps 74:18; Is 37:6), oppressing his people (Is 52:5), gloating over their downfall (Ezek 35:12), killing Israelites (Tob 1:18 [S]), speaking directly against God (Dan 3:29), paying homage to an idol (Is 66:3; contrast Bel 9) or insulting his followers (2 Macc 12:14) or the Temple (1 Macc 7:38). However, the key passage is Leviticus 24:15–16: “Whoever curses God shall bear the sin. One who blasphemes the name of the Lord shall be put to death” (NRSV, cf. Lev 24:11; Ex 20:7).

1.3. Philo and Josephus. Originally the two sentences of Leviticus 24:15–16 probably had identical meanings. But Philo, taking them separately, understood the first to be the lesser offense of cursing a false god, the penalty of death being reserved for naming the Name of the God of Israel (Vit. Mos. 2.203–5; also Josephus Ag. Ap. 2.34 §237; Ant. 4.207). On the greater offense Josephus says: “Let him that blasphemeth God be stoned, then hung for a day, and buried ignominiously and in obscurity” (Ant. 4.8.6 §202; cf. Deut 21:22–23). On the actual nature of the offense of blasphemy, Philo says that if anyone “even ventures to utter his name unreasonably, let him suffer the penalty of death” (Vit. Mos. 2.206). In turn Philo seems to understand the unreasonable utterance of the holy name of God to be treating it as a mere expletive (Vit. Mos. 2.208).

1.4. Rabbinic Judaism. For the rabbis there were also two sins referred to in Leviticus 24:15–16. They understood the first sentence to mean that for cursing God the only sentence necessary was excommunication, for God would exact the penalty (b. Ker. 7b). From its interpretation of the second sentence the Mishnah gives us the only rabbinic definition of blasphemy, and it is similar to that of Philo’s: “The blasphemer is not culpable unless he pronounces the Name itself” (m. Sanh. 7:5).

  1. Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit

All three Synoptic Gospels record the twin sayings of Jesus that whoever blasphemes or speaks against the Son of man (Mark has “sons of men [i.e., people] will be forgiven”; see Son of Man) will be forgiven (see Forgiveness), but that the person who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit (see Holy Spirit) will never be forgiven (Mt 12:31–32 par. Mk 3:28–29 and Lk 12:10; cf. Did. 11.7; Gos. Thom. 44; Gos. Bar. 5:2). These sayings have caused much scholarly debate and anguish among Christians. The Aramaic original of the first saying was probably a broad statement saying that all sins and blasphemies on the part of or against persons (bar ʾenāšāʾ, a generic or collective term) will be forgiven, except blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. By translating the generic singular of the Aramaic with the plurals “the sons of men,” Mark means that all people will be forgiven all sins and blasphemies—except blasphemies against the Holy Spirit (Mk 3:28–29). The Q* tradition, probably best represented by Luke 12:10, took the saying to refer to blaspheming against the Son of man, or Jesus, being forgiven. Matthew 12:31–32 is a conflation of Q* and Mark.

The origin of these sayings has been discussed at length. The “Amen, I say to you” sayings (see Amen), such as this one, have been thought to have arisen either from Hellenistic Christian prophets* within the context of worship* or from a Jewish apocalyptic* milieu. However, it is yet to be shown how this unparalleled formula came to be attributed exclusively to Jesus. Indeed, the use of amēn in the Gospels is without parallel. In Jewish literature (e.g., Num 5:22; Deut 27:15; Neh 5:13; y. Soṭa 18b; b. Šebu. 36a) and the remainder of the NT (Rom 1:25; 9:5; 11:36; 15:33; 16:27; 1 Cor 14:16; 16:24; Gal 1:5; Rev 5:14; 7:12; 22:20) it was a response formula assenting to someone else’s blessing,* curse, oath,* word or prayer* (though see T. Abr. 8:7). Occasionally it was added to one’s own prayer as a concluding hope (Tob 8:8; m. Taʿan. 4:8). However, in all the strata of traditions in the Gospels it is used exclusively to introduce and confirm Jesus’ own words. This factor, along with the retention of “amen” in its Semitic form, the unusual Semitism of the phrase “the sons of men,” the accompanying sayings associating Jesus’ ministry with sinners, and the unprecedented scope of forgiveness, indicates the authenticity of the saying about all sins and blasphemies being forgiven.

The second saying, that of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, appears to contradict the previous saying. However this is an established OT idiom (Gen 2:16–17; Ex 12:10) and is also found elsewhere in the NT (Mt 15:24–32; 25:29; Mk 2:17; 9:37; Jn 1:11–12; 7:16). In this way the gravity of the sin that is excepted is emphasized. In light of the harshness and severity of the saying, its authenticity can hardly be doubted.

2.1. The Unforgivable Sin. There has been a great deal of discussion regarding the nature of the unforgivable sin. For Jesus the ambiguous statement, as reconstructed above, would have meant that an attack on him was pardonable, perhaps because the public mystery of his true mission and identity could mean that it was done innocently (cf. Acts 3:17). However, an attack on the Spirit of God working in him was beyond forgiveness. That would be detracting from the power (see Authority and Power) and majesty of God. In turn, the saying shows that Jesus was conscious of unprecedented spiritual power at work through himself, which he considered to be self-evidently of God.

For Mark the two sayings meant that all sins are forgivable except blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. That is, to have seen the power of his ministry, as in his exorcisms (see Demon, Devil, Satan), and then to say that Jesus had an unclean spirit was an attack on the Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s work was thereby attributed not to God but to Satan (Mk 3:22; cf. Is 5:20). There can be no greater sin.

Matthew has a similar perspective, but by deleting the reference to Jesus’ contemporaries (Mk 3:30) he makes the sayings more obviously applicable to the early church. Thus for Matthew it may have been forgivable not to recognize the identity of Jesus (cf. 21:32), but there was no excuse for the Christian who did not recognize the work of the Spirit. That would amount to apostasy.

In Luke the saying appears in the context of teaching about the followers of Jesus being called on to defend themselves and their ministries (Lk 12:8–12). To blaspheme against the Holy Spirit would be to deny God and the work of his Spirit in their lives, especially his ability to support them in trying times. In Acts 5:1–5 Luke gives an example of an unpardonable sin against the Holy Spirit.

  1. Jesus Accused of Blasphemy

All the Gospels agree that Jesus claimed or admitted equality with God—or claimed to be the Son of God (see Son of God)—and that this was considered by the Jews to be blasphemous and worthy of the death penalty (Mt 26:63–66; Mk 14:61–65; Lk 22:66–71; Jn 10:31–39; 19:7).

3.1. Blasphemy and God’s Prerogative to Forgive. In Mark 2:5 Jesus is reported as saying, “My son, your sins are forgiven” (par. Mt 9:3 and Lk 5:21). This passive expression would probably have been understood as an attempt to avoid pronouncing God’s name: “God forgives you.” The ambiguity of the statement “your sins are forgiven,” which is consistent with Jesus’ self-disclosure, could mean that Jesus was merely providing the man with assurance (cf. Mt 9:2, tharsei, “take heart”), reporting to the man the forgiveness God was offering him (cf. 2 Sam 12:13). However, the Aramaic expression reflected in the present indicative passive, “they are forgiven” (aphientai) means, “your sins are at this moment forgiven.” Indeed, the scribes are said to interpret the saying as Jesus himself offering forgiveness: “Can it be that this fellow thus blasphemes? Who can forgive sins but God?” (Mk 2:7 par. Mt 9:3 and Lk 5:21). In turn Jesus affirms that he was forgiving sins; that is, he did what the scribes considered to be the prerogative of God (Mk 2:10 par. Mt 9:6 and Lk 5:24).

As was seen above, in Jesus’ time there was a wide understanding of the nature of blasphemy. On the one hand, according to the narrow rabbinic definition of blasphemy, Jesus would not be guilty before the Law. In the Qumran document known as the Prayer of Nabonidus (4QPrNab), an exorcist is said to pardon the sin of a sick person. On the other hand, a more general definition of blasphemy known to Philo (Vit. Mos. 2.206) would indicate that those who observed Jesus may have thought he had encroached on the prerogative of God. Furthermore, there is a strand of tradition in the OT (Ex 34:6–7; Ps 103:3; 130:4; Is 43:25; 44:22; Dan 9:9), as well as in the Dead Sea Scrolls (1QS 2:9; CD 3:18; 20:34), in which God is clearly the one who forgives. Not even the Messiah (see Christ) was expected to forgive sins, only to be the means whereby God would forgive in the eschaton (Is 53; Jer 31; cf. Tg. Is 53:4–6). The offense, then, was the diminishing of God’s majesty and honor by usurping a role considered to be uniquely his alone.

3.2. Jesus Made Himself to be Equal with God. In John’s Gospel there are passages where statements by Jesus are said to provoke the Jews to accuse him of blasphemy or even attempt to carry out the death penalty for blasphemy.

3.2.1. John 5:16–18 provides the conclusion to the story of Jesus healing* a lame man at the Bethzatha pool and contains two accusations. The first is that “because he does these things” (hoti tauta epoiei) on the Sabbath* (cf. Jn 9:14; 20:30) the Jews persecute Jesus. The second accusation, of making himself equal to God, arises out of Jesus’ response to the first accusation. Jesus’ claim to be able to work on the Sabbath is based on his claiming the same right as his Father to work continually, including on the Sabbath (2 Macc 9:12; Ep. Arist. 210; Philo Leg. All. 1.5–6; Cher. 87–88; Corp. Herm. 11.5, 14; Exod. Rab. 30:6; Gen. Rab. 11:10). The Jews find fault in this not only because he claimed God to be his own Father (patera idion) but in claiming his capacity for common activity with God he also claimed to be equal with God. As in Mark 2:7 (see 3.1. above) the blasphemous act was in usurping the uniqueness or prerogative of God.

3.2.2. In John 8:58 Jesus says, “Before Abraham* was born (genesthai), I am (egō eimi).” In John’s Gospel egō eimi represents the name of God. So John portrays the Jews attempting to carry out the death sentence for blasphemy as set out in Leviticus 24:16. The historicity of this claim by Jesus has been brought into serious question by some NT scholars. Nevertheless, John is probably correct in indicating that, prior to trying him for blasphemy before the Sanhedrin,* the Jewish authorities perceived evidence of blasphemy in Jesus’ activity and his view of himself.

3.2.3. John 10:33 is the first time the official charge of blasphemy occurs in the Fourth Gospel. It would not be blasphemous for someone to describe Jesus as divine. According to Scripture God’s anointed would be called God’s Son (2 Sam 7:14; 1 Chron 17:13). What would be blasphemous, according to John, is Jesus himself claiming this divine status for himself; the blasphemy of self-deification. Jesus answers the charge by quoting from Psalm 82:6, thereby showing that it is not blasphemous to refer to people like judges as “gods” through whom the Word of God came. Jesus also says that as he has been given this status (hagiazein) and sent into the world by the Father, it cannot be blasphemous for him to say “I am the Son of God” (10:36). The Jews are not satisfied. Perhaps they feel his answer is beside the point since Jesus is claiming to be more than a son of God in a reduced sense, for John says that they attempted to arrest Jesus (Jn 10:39). Although they were initially unsuccessful, they eventually took him to trial (Jn 19:7).

3.3. Jesus Tried for Blasphemy. Matthew and Mark agree that the charge of blasphemy was involved in the trial of Jesus (Mt 26:57–75 par. Mk 14:53–72; cf. Lk 22:54–71; see Trial of Jesus). Jesus is asked if he is the Messiah (su ei ho Christos; Mt 26:63 par. Mk 14:61 and Lk 22:67). Jesus’ two-part answer provokes the charge of blasphemy. In Mark the first part of Jesus’ reply was probably “I am” (egō eimi, 14:62, cf. Codex Koridethi anus [Θ]; Mt 26:63). The fact that Jesus took on a messianic title or identity which only God could bestow and confirm by his blessing may, in itself, have been considered blasphemous (cf. Jn 19:7; Acts 5:34–39). This may have caused Matthew to place the responsibility for the direct answer back on the high priest by having Jesus say, “You have said so” (Mt 26:64), and for Luke to have Jesus evade the answer. In turn both Matthew and Luke have Jesus say, in effect, that God will confirm his messiahship. The second part of Jesus’ reply is about the Son of man being seated at the right hand of Power (Lk 22:69; cf. Ps 110:1), and is generally agreed to belong to the reliable traditions about Jesus. In its original Jewish setting this saying was probably meant to emphasize God’s approval. This would have compounded the earlier blasphemous act of taking on a messianic title. In Matthew and Mark Jesus’ answer concludes with an allusion to Daniel 7:13 which reinforces Jesus’ claims of a unique relationship with God. As related in the Mishnah, the appropriate response for the high priest having heard blasphemy is to tear his clothes (cf. m. Sanh. 7:5).

See also Holy Spirit; “I AM” Sayings; Son of God; Son of Man; Trial of Jesus.

Bibliography. E. Bammel, ed., The Trial of Jesus (SBT, 2d ser., 13; 2d ed.; London: SCM, 1971); J. Blinzler, The Trial of Jesus (3d ed.; Cork: Mercier, 1961); M. E. Boring, “The Unforgiveable Sin Logion Mark III 28–29/ Matt XII 31–32/Luke XII 10,” NovT 18 (1976) 258–79; D. R. Catchpole, The Trial of Jesus (SPB 18; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1971); J. D. G. Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1979); O. E. Evans, “The Unforgivable Sin,” ExpT 68 (1957) 240–44; D. Juel, Messiah and Temple (SBLDS 31; Missoula, MT: Scholars, 1977); O. Linton, “The Trial of Jesus and the Interpretation of Psalm CX,” NTS 7 (1960–61) 265–62; E. Lövestam, Spiritus Blasphemia (Lund; Gleerup, 1968); Str-B I.1006–20.

  1. H. Twelftree[2]

From Vines Expository Dictionary

  1. Verb.

blasphēmeō (βλασφημέω , (987)), to blaspheme, rail at or revile, is used (a) in a general way, of any contumelious speech, reviling, calumniating, railing at etc., as of those who railed at Christ, e.g., Matt. 27:39; Mark 15:29; Luke 22:65 (R.V., “reviling”); 23:39; (b) of those who speak contemptuously of God or of sacred things, e.g., Matt. 9:3; Mark 3:28; Rom. 2:24; 1 Tim. 1:20; 6:1; Rev. 13:6; 16:9, 11, 21; “hath spoken blasphemy,” Matt. 26:65; “rail at,” 2 Pet. 2:10; Jude 8, Jude 10; “railing,” 2 Pet. 2:12; “slanderously reported,” Rom. 3:8; “be evil spoken of,” Rom. 14:16; 1 Cor. 10:30; 2 Pet. 2:2; “speak evil of,” Tit. 3:2; 1 Pet. 4:4; “being defamed,” 1 Cor. 4:13. The verb (in the present participial form) is translated “blasphemers” in Acts 19:37; in Mark 2:7, “blasphemeth,” R.V., for A.V., “speaketh blasphemies.”

There is no noun in the original representing the English “blasphemer.”This is expressed either by the verb, or by the adjective blasphemos. See Defame, Rail, Report, Revile.

  1. Adjective.

blasphēmos (βλάσφημος , (989)), abusive, speaking evil, is translated “blasphemous,” in Acts 6:11, 13; “a blasphemer,” 1 Tim. 1:13; “railers,” 2 Tim. 3:2, R.V.; “railing,” 2 Pet. 2:11. See Rail.¶

Note: As to Christ’s teaching concerning blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, e.g., Matt. 12:32, that anyone, with the evidence of the Lord’s power before His eyes, should declare it to be Satanic, exhibited a condition of heart beyond Divine illumination and therefore hopeless. Divine forgiveness would be inconsistent with the moral nature of God. As to the Son of Man, in his state of humiliation, there might be misunderstanding, but not so with the Holy Spirit’s power demonstrated.[3]

[1] Martin, R. P. (1996). Blasphemy. In D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible dictionary (3rd ed., p. 142). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[2] Twelftree, G. H. (1992). Blasphemy. In J. B. Green & S. McKnight (Eds.), Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (pp. 75–77). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[3] Vine, W. E., & Bruce, F. F. (1981). Vine’s Expository dictionary of Old and New Testament words (Vol. 2, pp. 131–132). Old Tappan NJ: Revell.

New Testament Use of the Old Testament Exegesis and Interpretation by Beale

Beale’s Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament: Exegesis and Interpretation

  1. Identify the OT reference
  2. Analyze the broad NT context
  3. Survey the OT context, broadly and immediately
  4. Survey the use of the OT text in early Judaism
  5. Compare the texts (LXX, MT, etc)
  6. Analyze the author’s use of the OT
  7. Analyze the hermeneutical use of the OT Text
  8. Analyze the theological use of the OT Text
  9. Analyze the rhetorical use of the OT text.

Who is This Man? Reading Biblical Narratives

See the whole essay at Who is this Man and the Whole Story of Redemption

 Who is This Man?
How To Read Biblical Narratives

Stephen Hague
June, 2016

Table of contents

I.___ The fragmentation of the biblical text by liberals and conservatives 2

II.__ The antidote to fragmentation: Biblical Theology_ 2

  1. To illustrate this definition of Biblical Theology, consider an analogy in music 3
  2. To illustrate our definition of Biblical Theology, consider the analogies found in art 5
  3. To illustrate our definition of Biblical Theology, consider the analogies found in  literature_ 8
  4. To illustrate our definition of Biblical Theology, consider the story of Elijah, a prophet of God: 1 Ki 17:1-24_ 9
  5. To illustrate our definition of Biblical Theology, consider the story the Storm on the Sea of Galilee:  “What kind of man is this?_ 14

III.                   In conclusion, some of the problems with exemplorizing and spiritualizing biblical narratives: 15

IV.___ Biblical Theology bibliography_ 16

V.__ Illustrations 18

See the whole essay at Who is this Man and the Whole Story of Redemption