August 11th, 2012
If a powerful intellect were essential to the right understanding of Scripture, you perceive at once that to the mass of the world, who possess only common minds, it would be a mere dead letter; but as no higher intellectual powers are necessary than fall to the common lot of man, in connection with the spirit of docility and dependence on divine illumination which all may, if they will, possess, it is manifest that the Bible is fairly open to all; and that every individual is as truly responsible for his religious opinions as for his moral conduct.
W.B. Sprague, Letters on Practical Subjects to a Daughter
Letter XIII, “Forming Religious Sentiments”
February 19th, 2012
Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics I. pp.267-269
But when, as in Schleiermacher, feeling is detached from faith, from the religious representation, it loses its own quality and becomes completely independent of the categories of truth and untruth, good and evil. Then every individual feeling is already as such religious, true, good, and beautiful. And that was romanticism’s great fault as a whole.
One then, naturally, also slips into the error of confusing and equating religious feeling with sensual and aesthetic feeling. Known to us all from history is the kinship between religious and sensual love and the passage from the one to the other. But equally dangerous is the confusion of religious and aesthetic feeling, of religion and art. The two are essentially distinct. Religion is life, reality; art is ideal, appearance. Art cannot close the gap between the ideal and reality. Indeed, for a moment it lifts us above reality and induces us to live in the realm of ideals. But this happens only in the imagination. Reality itself does not change on account of it. Though art gives us distant glimpses of the realm of glory, it does not induct us into that realm and make us citizens of it. Art does not atone for our guilt, or wipe away our tears, or comfort us in life and death. It never turns the beyond into the here and now. Only religion does. It is and conveys reality. It bestows life and peace. It poses the ideal as the true reality and makes us participants in it. Aesthetic feeling, accordingly, can never take the place of religious feeling, any more than art can replace religion. Granted, the two are connected. From the very beginning religion and art went hand in hand. The decline of the one brought with it the decay of the other. The ultimate driving force of art was religion. In recent years this fact is being acknowledged by increasing numbers of people who keenly realize the indispensability of religion to art. In religion, specifically in worship, the imagination has its rightful place and value. “Also the imagination, mind you, is involved in the religious process, not as the generative principle, but only as the principle of experience. The power of the imagination can never do more than shape the already available materials and drives; it is powerless to give birth to religion itself.” [Nitzsch, Lehrbuch der evangelische Dogmatik] The stage is by no means cut out to be a moral institution (Schiller). The theater cannot replace the church, nor is Lessing’s Nathan a suitable substitute for the Bible (Strauss). The ideals and creations of imagination cannot compensate for the reality that religion offers. Religious feeling, however intimate and deep it may otherwise be, is pure only when it is evoked by true ideas.
The result, accordingly, is that religion is not limited to one single human faculty but embraces the human being as a whole. The relation to God is total and central. We must love God with all our mind, all our soul, and all our strength. Precisely because God is God he claims us totally, in soul and body, with all our capacities and in all our relations. Admittedly, there is order in this relation of a human being to God. Here, too, every faculty exists and functions in a person according to its own nature. Knowledge is primary. There can be no true service of God without true knowledge: “I do not desire anything I do not know” (Ignoti nulla cupido). To be unknown is to be unloved. “Whoever would approach God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Heb. 11:6). Faith comes from what is heard (Rom. 10:17). Pagans fell into idolatry and unrighteousness because they did not acknowledge God (Rom. 1:18ff). But that knowledge of God penetrates the heart and arouses there an assortment of affections, of fear and hope, sadness and joy, guilt feelings and forgiveness, misery and redemption, as these are pictured to us throughout Scripture but especially in the Psalms. And through the heart it in turn affects the will: faith is manifest in works, in love (James 1:27; 1 John 1:5-7; Rom. 2:10, 13; Gal. 5:6; 1 Cor. 13, etc.). Head, heart, and hand are all equally—though each in its own way—claimed by religion; it takes the whole person, soul and body, into its service.
For that reason religion also comes into contact with all the other cultural forces, especially science, morality, and art. Proudhon once stated: “It is astonishing how at the base of all things we find theology.” But to that statement Donoso Cortes correctly replies: “The only astonishing thing in that fact is Mr. Proudhon’s astonishment.” Religion as the relation to God indicates the place in which human beings stand in relation to all other creatures. It embraces dogma, law, and cult and is therefore closely connected with science, morality, and art. It encompasses the whole person in his or her thinking, feeling, and action, in the whole of his or her life, everywhere and at all times. Nothing falls outside of its scope. Religion extends its power over the whole person, over all of humanity, over family and society and state. It is the foundation of the true, the good, and the beautiful. It introduces unity, coherence, and life into the world and its history. From it science, morality, and art derive their origin; to it they return and find rest. “All the higher elements of human life first surfaced in alliance with religion.” [Bousset, Das Wesen der Religion] It is the beginning and the end, the soul of everything, that which is highest and deepest in life. What God is to the world, religion is to humanity.
Nevertheless, religion is distinguished from all the forces of culture and maintains its independence from them all. Religion is central; science, morality, and art are partial. While religion embraces the whole person, science, morality, and art are respectively rooted in the intellect, the will, and the emotions. Religion aims at nothing less than eternal blessedness in fellowship with God; science, morality, and art are limited to creatures and seek to enrich this life with the true, the good, and the beautiful. Religion, accordingly, cannot be equated with anything else. In the life and history of humankind, it occupies an independent place of its own, playing a unique and all-controlling role. Its indispensability can even be demonstrated from the fact that at the very moment people reject religion as an illusion they again turn some creature into their god, thus seeing to compensate for their religious need in some other way.
November 14th, 2011
Subjective Sources of Abraham’s Remarkable Obedience
In John 8:56 Christ said that Abraham rejoiced to see His day, and he saw it, and was glad. If that is a reference to a specific occasion in Abraham’s life, I think it was most probably something that happened while the events recorded in this chapter were taking place. If that is true, it illustrates in an eminently vivid way that God sends trials for the benefit of those who are tried (James 1:2,3). If you could interview Abraham and ask him what was the most severe trial of his life, there can be little doubt that he would point to this time. The text itself marks it as a particularly intense time of testing when we read at the beginning of the chapter that God tempted, or tested Abraham. And by the end of this chapter Abraham himself has much cause to count these trials a joy: from his own experience he can say, in faithfulness thou hast afflicted me (Psalm 119:75). And the more we study this chapter, the more I think we will come to see the truth of Paul’s statement, that these things were written for our admonition (1 Corinthians 10:11; cp. Romans 15:4). I can’t even attempt to give a full treatment to the many themes that coalesce in this portion of Scripture, but I want to give a few hints about the sort of things we can learn from it. And I want to approach it from the standpoint of Abraham’s mindset. What was it that enabled Abraham to render such prompt obedience to God’s terrible command? It can’t have been easy. God didn’t make it easy. For one thing, He reminded Abraham of how precious Isaac was in the very way that He phrased the command: thy son, thine only Son, Isaac, whom thou lovest. But more than that, God required Abraham himself to kill Isaac. Matthew Poole explains how it was to be done:
[Isaac’s] throat was to be cut, his body dissected into quarters, his bowels taken out, as if he had been some notorious traitor, and vile malefactor and miscreant, and afterwards he was to be burnt to ashes, that if possible there might be nothing left of him.
And Abraham was supposed to start on all of this promptly, and yet was given time enough in the journey to anticipate its horrors. What did Abraham have to know and believe in order to even begin to go through with this? By what unshakable and unquestionable convictions did Abraham face and pass this most severe test?
I. First of all, Abraham knew the absoluteness of God. God was ultimate for Abraham. This appears in two ways.
A. Nothing was more important than God. This is the point that God highlights at the moment of crisis. Now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me. Here was Isaac -Abraham’s son, only child of the beloved Sarah, living proof of the power of God; but Abraham did not withhold him. If it was a choice between God or Isaac, there was no question as to which it was to be. Isaac was never a contender. There was no competition. And all parents have to learn this: it could be in the case of children who die, or children who are rebellious, but they cannot be put in the place of God. And of course not only parents, but all people: the first commandment is still, Thou shalt have no other gods before Me. God was supreme to Abraham. And that supremacy of God in Abraham’s heart was matched by a similar supremacy in Abraham’s mind.
B. What God commanded, must be done. This sounds simple, but this was more than just a test of devotion. In a way, it was a repetition of the test that Eve failed in Eden. You remember that God had told Adam that in the day he ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil he would die. When the tempter spoke to Eve he contradicted that, and when Eve looked at the tree she could see that it was good for food, pleasant to the eyes, to be desired to make one wise. God had said that evil would come from eating: but Eve could see that the tree was good in every way. And so she trusted her judgment more than God’s revelation. She acted as though “bad” and “good” were something that existed independently of God’s will, and that right and wrong and good and evil could be decided apart from God’s word: and so she ate the fruit and gave it to her husband as well. In that situation there was a command which perhaps didn’t seem necessary, and it was rejected. But when we come to Abraham, it seems that the trial is more severe, because Abraham is given a command which is contrary to nature, and which was opposite to instinct, to law, and even to what God had said in the past (Genesis 9:6).
But Abraham doesn’t cavil. Abraham doesn’t object. God had spoken, and He had done so clearly, and that was enough for Abraham. He didn’t pretend to have a standard of right and wrong that was independent of God’s word. He didn’t argue that God couldn’t have commanded him to do that: he packed a knife and he set out on his journey. John Calvin (Institutes III.23.2) made a similar point in writing about God’s decree:
The will of God is the supreme rule of righteousness, so that everything which he wills must be held to be righteous by the mere fact of his willing it. Therefore, when it is asked why the Lord did so, we must answer, Because he pleased. But if you proceed farther to ask why he pleased, you ask for something greater and more sublime than the will of God, and nothing such can be found. Let human temerity then be quiet, and cease to inquire after what exists not, lest perhaps it fails to find what does exist.
God’s word was enough for Abraham. If God commanded him to kill his son, then killing his son was the right thing to do, however difficult it might be. God was to be obeyed, not questioned or resisted. The Lord was supreme in Abraham’s heart and mind.
Now we should remember that God did stop Abraham from following through: it is certainly not His will that we should kill our children. We must accept whatever God does as right, however much it offends us, and we must do whatever God commands, however unnatural and hard it may seem. But what God has told us is that we must not commit murder -Thou shalt not kill. That applies of course to abortion, which I think is the most widespread form of murder in our nation. But it applies also in an area we don’t often think about -fertility treatments. There are many options available to those couples who are having difficulty conceiving to be able to have a child. But some of those options, like in-vitro fertilization, almost always involve the conception of more than one child -but not all of them will be allowed to live. The episode of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar shows that people will do quite desperate and repulsive things in order to get a child, and the fertility industry is filled with unsavory and wicked practices; but while God’s law says, Thou shalt not kill, God’s people must never be in the position of participating in the destruction of children, even if it happens as “collateral damage” in the process of getting a child. If that means not having children, then submit to God’s will in that regard, but do not violate His word.
God gave that command, and then cancelled it, so of course, there was something for Abraham, and for us, to learn from God’s command and its suspension. He saw that God required consecration, that God does not hesitate to challenge the dearest treasures of our hearts for His own rightful place: Christ applied that teaching to us in Luke 14:26,27: If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.
God will be supreme: Christ will have our hearts. But there was something else as well. When Abraham surrendered Isaac to God, he got to keep Isaac. Christ announced that those who give up family and possessions for His sake and the Gospels will receive an hundredfold in this time (Mark 10:29,30). The only way to keep anything is to put it in God’s hand, to give it up to Him. Now that is not a guarantee. If you knew that by telling God that He could have this or that you would get to keep it, it would just be a mental game. When you abandon a project, a dream, a relationship, a possession to God there is no promise that He won’t take it away. No, the surrender must be real. But trying to hang on to something is not going to work. Nothing is yours to keep; God can do what He wills with everything you have and everything you are. It is God’s anyway, and you may as well recognize the fact. And when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it. Mark 8:34,35. You see the guarantee in the text: first of all, that if you try to save your life, it will be lost. What you try to cling to apart from God, without reference to His will, is inevitably going to be taken away. But when you turn everything over to God, you find that He has been very generous towards you, that your life has been saved, and that what you have lost is trash in comparison with Christ (Philippians 3:8). Abraham surrendered Isaac wholly to God: and not only was Isaac spared, but God again pronounced abundant blessing upon Abraham.
There was also a vivid reminder for Abraham in what happened here, and Abraham fixed on that aspect when he gave a significant name to the place where these things happened: Jehovah-Jireh, the Lord sees, or will be seen. This means that God will provide, or (what amounts to the same thing) that God will manifest Himself on our behalf. I call it a reminder because Abraham had already announced this to Isaac. When Isaac asked, “Where is the lamb?”, Abraham replied that God would provide himself a lamb. We can apply this across the board, and in any kind of lack remind ourselves that God is the God of Abraham, the God who provided. But it is true of worship: God is the one who supplies what is necessary so that we may worship Him acceptably, as in this case he provided an acceptable sacrifice. And it is true of salvation: God is the one who provides everything necessary for our deliverance, as He provided for the deliverance of Isaac.
And that leads on to another lesson which Abraham and Isaac would have learned from this event, the truth of substitution. Isaac was a condemned victim; but God interposed and saved him, and did so by means of a substitute. By God’s decree a ram had gone up that same mountain, and had gotten tangled and trapped in a thicket. God had appointed that a substitute for Isaac would be there at the very time when he was needed. So Isaac went free, but the ram was killed. Abraham offered up that ram in the stead of Isaac his son. They learned not merely that God provides, that God is the God of deliverance, but that God delivers through the provision of a substitute. Abraham’s son went free because there was a substitute to take His place. But years later, when another Father raised His hand against His son, no one called from heaven to prevent it; that Father killed His Son, and there was no substitute. Abraham’s son was delivered by a substitute; God’s Son, on the other hand, was not delivered because He was the substitute for a sinful people.
II. In the second place, Abraham knew the infallibility of God’s promises. Perhaps the hardest part of this trial was that God called upon Abraham to destroy the child of promise. When God promised that Abraham would have a son by Sarah, Abraham had not believed that promise right away; he had laughed and asked for God’s blessing on Ishmael (Genesis 17:17,18). But God had strengthened his faith, so that he had ceased to consider his own age, or the deadness of Sarah’s womb: and God had fulfilled that promise, Isaac had been born. And now God commands him to kill that very child, with whom God had said he would establish his covenant. God’s promises to Abraham were centered in Isaac. In Abraham’s position I think I would have been very confused and hesitant and grieved; but Abraham rose up early and promptly went to carry out his duty. He knew that obedience to God will never result in forfeiting God’s blessing, however destructive obedience seems. And he knew something else: we don’t know at what point he came to this conclusion, though I suppose it was at some point on the journey to Moriah. But as we learn from Hebrews, at some point Abraham came to the conclusion that if he killed Isaac, God would raise him from the dead. The Bible doesn’t say that God told him that. I believe he reasoned his way to that conclusion. He had two things to work with. One was that God had told him to kill Isaac, and he was committed to doing just that. The other was that God’s promises could never fail. And that meant that not even the death of Isaac could interfere with the fulfillment of God’s promise – God would bring him back to life if that was what it took. And God confirmed that faith in Him, that belief in resurrection, in giving Abraham a figure of the resurrection when Isaac was spared (Hebrews 11:17-19). Is it any wonder that Christ said that Abraham saw His day? Abraham saw salvation by a substitutionary death, and resurrection by the power of God in faithfulness to His promises.
Abraham’s faith in God as the Just and Supreme One Whose word is unquestioned, and whose faithfulness and power limitless enabled him to obey the hardest commandment laid upon him. May God give us grace to have a similar faith, that we may obey as much as our father Abraham. The record of Abraham’s failing in the exact point where he was strongest, his faith, show us that it wasn’t his superhuman virtue that enabled him, but the grace of God: and what the grace of God did in Abraham, the grace of God can do in us. When we see Christ taking our place, and the Father lifting up His hand against Him, and then again when we see Christ rising from the dead, how can we doubt that we must give Him first place in our minds and hearts, that we must surrender all to Him to do with it as He sees fit; and how can we doubt that He will abundantly satisfy all those who put their trust in Him?
September 4th, 2011
Patrick Fairbairn, The Revelation of Law in Scripture
In short, the question handled by the apostle in this part of his writings upon the law, was not whether the holiness and love it enjoined were to be practised, but how the practice was to be secured. The utterance of the law’s precepts in the most peremptory and solemn form could not do it. The converting of those precepts into the terms of a covenant, and taking men bound under the weightiest penalties to observe them, could not do it. Nor could it be done by a regulated machinery of means of instruction and ordinances of service, intended to minister subsidiary help and encouragement to such as were willing to follow the course of obedience. All these had been tried, but never with more than partial success—not because the holiness required was defective, but because the moral power was wanting to have it realized. And now there came the more excellent way of the Gospel—the revelation of that love which is the fulfilling of the law, in the person of the New Head of humanity, the Lord from heaven—the revelation of it in full-orbed completeness, even rising to the highest point of sacrifice, and making provision for as many as would in faith receive it, that the spirit of this noble, pure, self-sacrificing love should dwell as a new life, an absorbing and controlling power, also in their bosom. So that, ‘what the law could not do in that, it was weak through the flesh, God sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk not after the flesh, but after the spirit.’ He who is replenished with this spirit of life and love, no longer has the law standing over him, but, as with Christ in His work on earth, it lives in him, and he lives in it; the work of the law is written on his heart, and its spirit is transfused into his life. ‘The man (it has been justly said) who is truly possessor of “the spirit of life in Christ Jesus,” cannot have any other gods but his Father in heaven; cannot commit adultery; cannot bear false witness; cannot kill; cannot steal. Such a man comes down upon all the exercises and avocations of life from a high altitude of wise and loving homage to the Son of God, and expounds practically the saying of the apostle, “Whosoever is born of God sinneth not, but he that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not.”. . . . Christ’s cross, then, delivers Christians from what may be termed moral drudgery; they are not oppressed and pined serfs, but freemen and fellow-heirs, serving the Lord Christ with all gladness of heart. It magnifies the law and makes it honourable, yet delivers those who accept Jesus Christ as their Saviour from the bondage of the letter. Instead of throwing the commandments into contempt, it gave them a higher moral status, and even Sinai itself becomes shorn of its greatest terrors when viewed from the elevation of the cross. Love was really the reason of the law, though the law looked like an expression of anger. We see this, now that we love more; love is the best interpreter of God, for God is love.’
July 25th, 2011
Thomas Manton, in his sermon on 2 Thessalonians 2:13, has a profitable word for ministers, and all believers who speak to others, to be cautious in how the threatenings of God’s word are presented to His people:
How careful we should be to support the hearts of God’s people, when we speak of his terrible judgments on the wicked. This was the practice of the apostles everywhere; as when the author to the Hebrews had spoken of the dreadful state of apostates, ‘whose end is to be burned:’ Heb. vi. 9, ‘But we are persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany salvation, though we thus speak;’ he did not condemn them all as apostates, nor would discourage them by that terrible threatening. So again, after another terrible passage: Heb. x. 39, ‘But we are not of them that draw back unto perdition, but of them that believe to the saving of the soul.’ Once more, when another apostle had spoken of the sin unto death, which is not to be prayed for, he presently addeth, 1 John v. 19, 19, ‘Whosoever is born of God, sinneth not; but he that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not. And we know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in wickedness.’ Zuinglius saith, Bone Christiane, haec nihil ad te, &c.—Good Christian, this is not thy portion, when he had flashed the terrors of the Lord in the face of sinners. The reasons of this are partly with respect to the saints, who, sometimes out of weakness and infirmity, and sometimes out of tenderness of conscience, are apt to be startled, electorum corda semper ad se sollicite pudeant (Gregor.) We deserve such dreadful judgments, and therefore fear them; partly, with respect to ourselves, that we may rightly divide the word of truth: 2 Tim. Ii. 15, ‘Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.’ Give every one his portion; make not their hearts sad whom God would not make sad, and, therefore, they are much to blame who, in reproving sinners, stab a saint at the heart, and take the doctrine but for a colour to make a perverse application. The apostle here useth more tenderness: ‘God shall send them strong delusion. But we are bound always to give thanks for you, brethren, beloved of the Lord; because the Lord hath from beginning chosen you to salvation, through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth.’
August 22nd, 2010
Augustine on Psalm 116
“Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; yea, our God is merciful” (ver. 5).
He is gracious, righteous, and merciful. Gracious in the first place, because He hath inclined His ear unto me; and I knew not that the ear of God had approached my lips, till I was aroused by those beautiful feet, that I might call upon the Lord’s Name: for who hath called upon Him, save he whom He first called? Hence therefore He is in the first place “gracious;” but “righteous,” because He scourgeth; and again, “merciful,” because He receiveth; for “He scourgeth every son whom He receiveth;” nor ought it to be so bitter to me that He scourgeth, as sweet that He receiveth. For how should not “The Lord, who keepeth little ones” (ver. 6), scourge those whom, when of mature age, He seeketh to be heirs; “for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?”
August 7th, 2010
Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah, (on Isaiah 9:1):
As always the people of God must decide what reading of their experiences they will live by. Are they to look at the darkness, the hopelessness, the dreams shattered and conclude that God has forgotten them? Or are they to recall his past mercies, to remember his present promises and to make great affirmations of faith? Isaiah insists here that hope is a present reality, part of the constitution of the ‘now’. The darkness is true but it is not the whole truth and certainly not the fundamental truth.
August 1st, 2010
You see that to bear the cross patiently is not to have your feelings altogether blunted, and to be absolutely insensible to pain, according to the absurd description which the Stoics of old gave of their hero as one who, divested of humanity, was affected in the same way by adversity and prosperity, grief and joy; or rather, like a stone, was not affected by anything. And what did they gain by that sublime wisdom? they exhibited a shadow of patience, which never did, and never can, exist among men. Nay, rather by aiming at a too exact and rigid patience, they banished it altogether from human life. Now also we have among Christians a new kind of Stoics, who hold it vicious not only to groan and weep, but even to be sad and anxious. These paradoxes are usually started by indolent men who, employing themselves more in speculation than in action, can do nothing else for us than beget such paradoxes. But we have nothing to do with that iron philosophy which our Lord and Master condemned — not only in word, but also by his own example. For he both grieved and shed tears for his own and others’ woes. Nor did he teach his disciples differently: “Ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice,” (John 16:20.) And lest any one should regard this as vicious, he expressly declares, “Blessed are they that mourn,” (Matthew 5:4.) And no wonder. If all tears are condemned, what shall we think of our Lord himself, whose “sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground?” (Luke 22:44; Matthew 26:38.) If every kind of fear is a mark of unbelief, what place shall we assign to the dread which, it is said, in no slight degree amazed him; if all sadness is condemned, how shall we justify him when he confesses, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death?”
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.8.9.
June 19th, 2010
One of Miller’s tricks is to be constantly using apocalyptic language, to sprinkle every page with phrases like “cosmological flux”, “lunar attraction” and “interstellar spaces” or with sentences like “The orbit over which I am travelling leads me farther and farther away from the dead sun which gave me birth.” The second sentence in the essay on Proust and Joyce is: “Whatever has happened in literature since Dostoievsky has happened on the other side of death.” What rubbish it is, when you think it out! The key words in this kind of writing are “death”, “life”, “birth”, “sun”, “moon”, “womb”, “cosmic” and “catastrophe”, and by free use of them the most banal statement can be made to sound picturesque, while what is outright meaningless can be given an air of mystery and profundity. Even the title of this book, The Cosmological Eye, doesn’t actually mean anything, but it sounds as though it ought to mean something.
-George Orwell, “Review of The Cosmological Eye by Henry Miller”
Which nicely sums up quite a bit of theological literature as well, though of course words like “semiotic” are substituted for dramatic terms.
June 6th, 2010
Respect of persons is wrong in the context of justice, with regard to judgement (Proverbs 24:23). When it comes to matters of justice, right and wrong, crime and punishment, the persons, the individual characteristics of the litigants are irrelevant. When a murderer is brought to trial it doesn’t (that is to say, in justice it doesn’t) make any difference whether that murderer is rich or poor, famous or unknown, smart or stupid, Korean or Icelandic, male or female, Christian or Muslim, likeable or aggravating, Deuteronomy 1:17. It’s not a situation where the rich, powerful, famous or popular can escape; nor is it proper that the poor, weak or unpopular should be favored, Exodus 23:1-3; Leviticus 19:15: Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment: thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honour the person of the mighty: but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbour. It’s not a popularity contest; it’s not a beauty pageant; it’s not a quiz show; it’s a courtroom, and all that matters is guilt or innocence. Wrong is wrong, no matter who commits it.
It’s interesting that the Bible makes such clear prohibitions against favouring the poor: outside of Israel, that doesn’t seem to have ever been a temptation. Roman law, for instance, did not allow poor people to sue the rich, although the rich could sue the poor. While sympathy cannot be allowed to override right, it is very intriguing that it was only within the context of those whose lives were in some way affected by God’s grace that it would seem to be something that needs to be warned against. We see in our day that this prohibition against favouritism towards the poor needs to be trumpeted again: one of the most successful ploys you can use to get special treatment for yourself is to play the victim card. If you are a victim, the feeling seems to go, it can’t be right to punish you for anything, no matter what you’ve done. The French anthropologist René Girard has pointed out that this is a radical change from the way society used to be. In ancient times, the community would vent its wrath upon a scapegoat of some kind: a victim would be sacrificed in one way or another, and peace would be restored. But since Christ has come and the story of His unjust condemnation and subsequent resurrection from the dead (a clear vindication of His righteousness as over against the officials who condemned Him), that’s all changed. Before the victim was assumed to be unrighteous, and that wasn’t a point of dispute; now, we assume that the victim is right, and the officials are wrong. The Bible gives us a more balanced position: it upholds the absolute righteousness of everything God, the ultimate authority, does; and it shows us that human “justice” is often simply cruelty according to parliamentary procedure. But it is remarkably helpful for our understanding of the ancient and modern worlds to realize that the events of Christ’s life have had such a powerful sociological impact.