Answering Questions about the Bible, Apologetics, Case Studies, How Do Christians Determine What They Accept As Scripture

Law and Grace: A Case Study in Doctrinal Non-contradiction

Over the last five weeks, we’ve taken a look at a case study on the apparent doctrinal contradiction between the loving God of the New Testament and the wrathful God presented in the Old Testament.  Today, we’ll take a look at a second case study, examining the tension which exists between the Scriptural depictions of Law and Grace.

Anyone who has ever conversed with a Biblical Christian about their faith has likely heard the words of Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”  (NASB)  Used to demonstrate that there is nothing a human being can do to restore their relationship with God, verses like these seem to be at odds with passages like James 2:14, “What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?”   If doctrinal non-contradiction is a rule for establishing canon, how did both passages make it into the Bible?

To answer this question, we need to spend a few minutes in the Old Testament.  The first five books (known as the Pentateuch) focus heavily upon the Law that God gave to His people – so much so that some have been led to believe that the rule for Salvation actually changes somewhere between the Old and New Testaments.  A closer examination of the text, however, reveals that this is far from the truth.  In fact, passages like Genesis 15:6:  “Then he believed the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” and Habakuk 2:4: “Behold, as for the proud one, His soul is not right within him; But the righteous will live by his faith” clearly indicate that even when the Law was being actively observed, it was not obedience which saved a man, but faith.

If this is the case, why did God bother with the Law at all?  According to Galatians 3:24-26, “the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith.  But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.  For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.”  Rather than being a means by which a person can be saved, the Law is a means for demonstrating that people need to be saved.  Our inability to perfectly keep God’s rules is immediately apparent when we compare our actual behavior with this depiction of desirable behavior.  We just can’t do it.  And that’s the point.

Paul clarifies the point in Romans 4:1-8, “What then shall we say that Abraham our forefather according to the flesh, has found?  For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.  For what does the Scripture say?  ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’  (Genesis 15:6)  Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due.  But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing on the mad to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered.  Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account’ (Psalm 32:1,2).”  The truth is, God’s gift to us becomes all that much more magnificent when we realize that we can do nothing to contribute to our own Salvation!

So how do we clarify the presence of a text like James 2:14 in the midst of all these verses about salvation through faith?  More easily than you might think!  My Dad used to say that if you ignore context, you can make the Bible say anything you like.  His favorite example was to mix the phrases, “Judas went and hanged himself” (Matthew 27:5) and “Go thou and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).  Of course, any intelligent observer would note that the two verses involved different situations and were found at different places within the text.  They really had nothing to do with one another other than the fact that they were both a part of the sacred writ.

The same principle applies to Ephesians 2:8-9 (written to a Church that needed to be reminded that it was faith, not works which saved them) and James 2:14 (which was written to a congregation struggling with persecution and fighting to “let their light shine”).  While the former needed to remember the origins of their Salvation, the latter needed to be reminded that true faith would bear real fruit. I love to compare this to the difference between saying that I believe a chair will hold my weight and actually sitting in the chair and proving that I believe it won’t collapse beneath me.  James was pointing out that real faith is more than just uttering a few words about “trusting Jesus for Salvation” – it was about actually trusting Jesus.  And actual trust is demonstrated through obedience.

So do the two passages contradict?  Not at all!  In fact, we find that both are in perfect harmony – real faith, actual trust in Christ as the full payment for our sins – will save us.  Not works.  Not empty words.  Genuine faith.

Next week, we’re back on track, investigating the role of “authenticity” (Was the book written by an eye-witness or someone else?) in the selection of the Christian canon.  Meanwhile, if you’d like a more in-depth look at the roles of faith and works, why don’t you take some time to read through the book of Romans?  It’s a short read, full of deep theology!

 

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Answering Questions about the Bible, Apologetics, Case Studies, How Do Christians Determine What They Accept As Scripture

God of Wrath and Love: A Case Study in Doctrinal Non-contradiction Part III

Today, we’re continuing our four part series “A God of Wrath and Love” in which we’re examining the apparent doctrinal conflict between the text of 1 Samuel 15:2-3 (in which the Israelites are ordered to kill every Amalekite man, woman, and child) and 2 Peter 3:9 (in which God expresses His desire for all to be saved).  In Part I, we took a look at a few of our presuppositions about the passage and how they influenced our view of the Amalekites.  In Part II, we considered the options available to those disinclined to embrace the God of Israel.  This week, we’ll take a look at God’s patience and love and the role that they played leading up to the battle.

Before we begin, however, we must define what we mean by “love”.  For many people, the word conjures mushy feelings of “good will” – something we give to people unchecked regardless of how deserving they may or may not be.  It’s our willingness to turn our heads and look the other way when someone slights us.  In Biblical terms, this is considered “mercy” and it does have an important role to play when it comes to love, especially the unconditional kind.  But it isn’t the only aspect of genuine love and, by itself, it becomes license – allowing an offending party to do whatever they please without fear of repercussion.

Take a look at the shopping mall and you’ll probably see your fair share of children throwing fits because they didn’t get what they wanted from the toy department.  You’ll probably also see a fair number of parents punishing the children for their bad behavior.  Are these children unloved?  Probably not.  While genuine love recognizes the need not to hold the fit against the child (mercy), it also recognizes that this behavior is inappropriate and will harm the child later in life.  (Imagine a full-grown adult pounding the floor of his boss’ office screaming and crying because he didn’t get the raise he wanted!)  A good parent will take the time to discipline the child (justice) in the hope that their efforts will result in a well-adjusted adult, capable of functioning within our society.

It isn’t surprising to think that God does something similar with the people of the earth.  While we tend to focus on the major acts of judgment portrayed in Scripture, i.e., the flood (Genesis 6-9), the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18-19), and the obliteration of entire villages during the conquest of Canaan (Numbers-Joshua), these were only the final punishment after smaller rebukes were ignored.  (In a way, they would not be unlike the adult mentioned in the previous paragraph losing his job after that unsightly tantrum!)

Unlike a parent’s rules which may or may not be evident to the child, the Bible tells us that God’s standards are known to all the people He created:

“For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.”  (Romans 1:20-21)

A few acts of disobedience, however, aren’t enough for God to give up on us.  2 Peter 3:8-9 declares, “…do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day. The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.”  Nahum 1:3 explains that, “The LORD is slow to anger and great in power.”  And we see this demonstrated in the case of the Amalekites.

In the Bible, we need flip only a few pages between God’s promise to give Abraham the land of Canaan and the conquest of the land, yet in reality, over 400 years passed between that promise and the giving of the Ten Commandments at mount Sinai – and another 40 between that and the actual conquest!  Why so long?  “God said to Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. Then in the fourth generation they will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.” (Genesis 15:13,16)[1]  If we approach the passage with the presupposition that the God of the Bible is true and that the text as a whole is non-contradictory (we’ll talk a bit more about why even a non-Christian should at least take a moment to attempt to view the text this way next week), we can presume that God didn’t just deal out judgment on a whim.  He gave the Amalekites sufficient knowledge of their sin and plenty of time to correct it – enough for several generations to pass!

For most of us, though, these are just “side issues.”  In the end, the destruction of all the men and women in the city could rightly be anticipated were the invading army to win.  Unlike the Amalekites, who launched an attack against Israel when they were weak and unarmed, the Israelites were coming against a defended city – one in which despicable acts were taking place.  Each of us is aware that most human beings are willing to fight for the sake of their homes and loved ones.   Even many children will stand and fight the enemy (real or perceived) in such a situation and we see this played out regularly in wars fought around the world.  Everyone on the side of the “invaded” becomes a combatant.  Everyone on the side of the “invaders” becomes an enemy.  In a situation in which nearly everyone is an aggressor, the options that remain are to kill or be killed.

But what about those too young to fight?  Those who aren’t old enough to know right from wrong or to make a moral judgment based on anything more than, “My parents said…”?  If you feel there’s a moral conflict here, you aren’t alone.  We’ll tackle this difficultly next week beginning with a brief lesson in anthropology.


[1] Traditionally, the term “Amalekite” was used as a reference to both the Amorites and the Canaanites.  This verse, then, would be a reference to a subgroup of Amalekites.

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Answering Questions about the Bible, Apologetics, Case Studies, How Do Christians Determine What They Accept As Scripture

God of Wrath and Love: A Case Study in Doctrinal Non-contradiction Part II

Last week, in “A God of Wrath and Love Part I” we began a four part series examining the text of 1 Samuel 15:2-3 and the apparent conflict between the Old Testament command to exterminate all of the Amalekites and the New Testament depiction of God as wanting all men to be saved.  (2 Peter 3:9)  We looked at what is known about Amalekite society (both from Biblical and extra-Biblical texts) and came to the conclusion that the Amalekites (as a people) were not innocent by any common moral standard.  At the same time, we recognized that, if our society is to serve as a model from which we may (rightly or wrongly) draw conclusions about other cultures, it is highly unlikely that every Amalekite (as an individual) was actively involved in child sacrifice and warmongering.  That word “actively” is where we will start this week’s discussion.

Edmund Burke once said that, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”  We see this principle played out daily both in our country and throughout the world.  Indeed, most of us would agree with Abraham Lincoln that, “To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.”  To sit on our hands as we witness evil and do nothing either to alter, to reform, or to remove is, indeed a great crime.

Our judicial system punishes those who by their silence are considered accomplices in unlawful acts and most of us would agree that (at least in the case of heinous crimes) this is only right.  We hold a man guilty not just for molesting a child, but for being aware that the molestation was taking place and keeping silent.  We refuse to excuse not only a boy who walks into an elementary school and begins shooting students and teachers, but also his friend who knew of the plan in advance.  We punish not merely sins of commission, but also sins of omission – the failure to do what is right in the presence of that which is wrong.

That presume that such “sins of omission” were being committed within Amalekite society is not unreasonable, yet even this is not sufficient to establish the guilt of the whole, nor provide any form of defense for the command to kill every man, woman, and child.  Was there really to be no hope at all, even for “conscientious objectors”?

I think that, in this case, we must turn to another passage of Scripture for our answer.  In Joshua 2, we read the story of Rahab, a harlot from Shittim – a town which the Israelites had been ordered to destroy.  Two spies had been sent out to “scout the territory” and return with information that would lead to the eventual fall of the city and the destruction of all who lived there.  Rahab (being a “conscientious objector”) chose to help the men, hiding them on her roof until they had the opportunity to escape.

That she was awed by the God of Israel is obvious… as is her rejection of the lifestyle of the city.  “Now before they lay down, she came up to them on the roof, and said to the men, “I know that the LORD has given you the land, and that the terror of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land have melted away before you. For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. When we heard it, our hearts melted and no courage remained in any man any longer because of you; for the LORD your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath. Now therefore, please swear to me by the LORD, since I have dealt kindly with you, that you also will deal kindly with my father’s household, and give me a pledge of truth.”  (Joshua 2:8-12)  Later on, in chapter 6, we read that because of her willingness to embrace the Israelites, her life was spared.  And in Matthew 1:5, we find that she even made her way into the genealogy of Jesus!

Would the same have been done in the case of Amalekite objectors?  It wouldn’t be unreasonable to presume that it would have.  What about objectors who didn’t embrace Israel’s God?  According to this passage, news of the Hebrews’ advance (and the acts which their God had performed on their behalf) had preceded them.  Doubtless, those who objected to the depravity of Amalekite society, but were not ready to embrace Israel’s God, still had time to escape.  Only those without the foresight to do so would be lost.

If you’re anything like me, our explanation so far isn’t sufficient to clear up all of your questions about the apparent conflict in the text (or to convince you of the moral rectitude of either the Israelites or their God).  Next week, we’ll take our case study a step further as we explore the question of God’s patience and love and the role they play in a scene of carnage like this one.  (And don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten the command to execute all of the children!  We’ll get around to that one too.)

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Answering Questions about the Bible, Apologetics, Case Studies, How Do Christians Determine What They Accept As Scripture

God of Wrath and Love: A Case Study in Doctrinal Non-contradiction Part I

Last week, we took a look at the rule of “Doctrinal Non-contradiction” and the role that it plays in determining what is or isn’t admitted to the Christian canon.  Over the next four weeks, we’ll go in depth with this rule as we examine the apparent contradiction between God’s wrath in the Old Testament and His love in the New Testament – and why most Christians don’t see a conflict at all.

While there are plenty of Old Testament texts which clearly show God as wrathful, I’ve chosen one of the most troublesome for this article.  In 1 Samuel 15:2-3 we read, “Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘I will punish Amalek for what he did to Israel, how he set himself against him on the way while he was coming up from Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’ ”

The wholesale slaughter of any group of people should unsettle us and, for most of us it does.  After all, human history is full of examples of horrific genocide – often senseless and unprovoked.  The strong attack the weak and the weak lose.  It grates against our sense of justice, so to see such an account given within the pages of a book which claims religious authority (especially when the God of that book is portrayed as having ordered the massacre) is appalling.  And even more so when the same volume which presents such an apparently violent and wrathful God goes on to claim that the same deity, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.”  (2 Peter 3:9)

So what do Christians do when we see such seeming conflict within the pages of Scripture?  We begin with a look at both the context of the passage and an examination of our own presuppositions.

As far as non-Biblical history goes, our information concerning the Amalekites is pretty scarce.  We know that they lived in the land of Canaan and that (like most of the locals), their social life was… well, anti-social.  Temple orgies were pretty common as was child sacrifice.  War was the norm, so there’s nothing here to contradict the Biblical claim that the Israelite conflict with the Amalekites was the result of an unprovoked assault against the Hebrews before they ever even entered the Promised Land.  (Exodus 17:8-16 and Deuteronomy 25:17-18)  We are told in Judges 6:2-5 that the Amalekites continued to harass Israel even once they were settled in the land, devastating everything they encountered as they enacted total war.

This isn’t to say that Israel was never at fault or that they never did anything to aggravate the situation (Numbers 14:44-45), but it does clarify what was going on and goes a long way towards challenging a few of our natural assumptions.  To begin with, the Amalekites were not “innocent” bystanders who got in the way of the advancing Israelite army only to be obliterated.  Most of us would agree that adults (in general) are capable of moral judgment and, as a result, are responsible for their own actions.  Most of us would also agree that slaughtering children or engagement in unprovoked warfare against a weak people (Deuteronomy 25:18) are morally despicable acts.

But this still doesn’t fully explain why a God presented as loving in the New Testament would order such a wholesale slaughter in the old.  Surely, not every Amalekite was engaged in these horrific practices!  I won’t argue there.  If we are to judge by what we know of our own society (rightly or wrongly), there is, indeed, a good chance that not everyone who was of Amalekite lineage was guilty of these crimes.  But by that very same standard, we are forced to draw several other conclusions as well… and we will take a look at these next week as we continue our case study.

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Answering Questions about the Bible, Apologetics, How Do Christians Determine What They Accept As Scripture

How Do Christians Determine What They Accept as Scripture: Doctrinal Non-contradiction

Over the last few weeks, we’ve taken a look at different aspects of the test of Non-contradiction and the role that it has played in determining what has or hasn’t “made the cut” and found its way into the Christian Scriptures.  In “Cultural Understanding”  we explored how our comprehension of ancient societies influences our perceptions of the documents they produced and how what appears contradictory to us may not have been contradictory at all!  In “Logical Non-contradiction”, we explored the difference between a contradiction that is logically impossible (like there being “only three men” in the room in one account and there being five in another) and the apparent contradiction created as different historians give an account to varying audiences.  This week, we’re going to continue our series on non-contradiction with a look at the issue of doctrine – and why contradictions in this field have almost uniformly led to the discarding of candidates for the Canon.

Turn on your television.  Go ahead.  It happens to be drawing close to Christmas at the time of this writing and I have begun (with great enthusiasm) to anticipate the inevitable flood of documentaries on “The Real Jesus”.  One of the mainstays of such documentaries is an attack upon the consistency of Gospel accounts – usually with some reference to the doctrinal “spin” produced by the eye-witnesses of the events and later disproven in the gnostic gospels (most of which were written nearly 400 years after the events and, you guessed it, by people who didn’t witness them).

I’m not about to argue that there aren’t some apparent doctrinal inconsistencies within the pages of the Christian Scripture (emphasis upon the word “apparent”).   Any reasonably intelligent human being will note that, in a quick “skim” through, the God of the Old Testament  seems wrathful and self-centered while the God of the New Testament is loving and fatherly or that the Old Testament was largely about rules while the New Testament appears to teach freedom from these rules.

So why sit here and defend doctrinal consistency when such clear and apparent contradictions exist?  Quite simply because these, like the contradictions demonstrated over the course of the previous two weeks, are just that: “apparent” contradictions.  The truth is, many of the anomalies we see when we merely “skim” the pages of Scripture begin to disappear as we delve deeper into its pages.  They exist only when we isolate specific portions of the Bible from the rest of the volume (the Books of the Law, for example, from the Books of History).  The issue is one of context, not contradiction.

It should be obvious that neglecting the context of a passage is dangerous (we’ve all had our own words taken out of context from time to time), but the temptation to do just that is overwhelming.  After all, which one of us doesn’t want to appear to be on top of current scholarship?  Over the next few weeks, we’ll take a closer look at the issue with a couple of case studies centering on the tricky apparent contradictions mentioned earlier.

This week, however, we’ll conclude with the generally accepted (but sometimes questioned) rule that if texts which are otherwise sound (are scientifically and historically accurate, display the cultural understanding of eye-witnesses, and are logically consistent) fail to be doctrinally consistent, they don’t qualify for inclusion in the Christian Canon.

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