Monday, June 25, 2007

John 5 and Christ "as Agent"

Several New Testament scholars - most notably A.E. Harvey ("Christ as Agent" and Jesus and the Constraints of History) and James Frank McGrath (John's Apologetic Christology: Legitimation and Development in Johannine Christology) have written that key christological verses in John's Gospel - particularly in Chapter 5 - may be explained not in terms of Jesus' ontological equality with His Father (as has been understood by the Early Church Fathers and orthodox commentators and scholars ever since) but in terms of the Jewish legal concept of "Agency." Not surprisingly, a number of anti-Trinitarian apologists have taken up this argument in an effort to undermine the Biblical evidence for Christ's Deity.

Here is a typical example:

"Even if the texts were saying that they were to honor Jesus"as much" as they honor the Father, it wouldn't be problematic to the JW view, nor would it assist trinitarianism. Jesus' relationship to the Father is developed by John according to the paradigm of 'agency', and this paradigm is summed up by the phrase, "the agent is equated with the principal," or "the agent is as the principal." Jesus' role as the "Word" (= God's spokesman) was to representatively reveal God to us. Thus, within the parameters set by the Father, the principal, Jesus was legally equal with God. To honor an agent is to honor the principal he represents, and to dishonor an agent is to dishonor the principal he represents. So when Christ performs functions that are ultimately the prerogatives of God himself, he is due the same honor that would be given to God himself.

The reason this doesn't present a problem is because, according to the agency paradigm, it is ultimately the principal who is the true recipient of the honor that is given to his representative. It is Jehovah's office and authority we honor when we honor his Son"

It must be said at the outset that this argument has a lot of merit. Trinitarians agree that Jesus is - in Harvey's words - God's "Agent par-excellence." He does represent the Father to the world. He is the direct "agent" of creation, salvation, resurrection, and eternal life.

The question is: How far can one press the idea of agency? Can one argue - as my Witness friend has, above - that agency completely eliminates the possibility that the Son of God is ontologically equal with God the Father? If Jesus is the agent "par-excellence" because He is God's Son, then can all of the references to Jesus as God (both direct and indirect) be explained away?

I've given this topic a lot of thought and research. I hope to write a formal article on this topic in the future. In this blog entry, I'll attempt to give a brief summary of my findings and preliminary conclusions. In short, I believe that while "agency" may be a helpful category to explain how easily some Jews were able to accommodate Jesus into their monotheism, it goes well beyond the available evidence to suggest that Jesus was simply God's Agent, to the exclusion of His essential Deity.

For further research, I'd suggest the following sources:

Larry Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity
Larry Hurtado, One God and One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism.
Richard Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism & Christology in the New Testament.
Darrell Bock, Blasphemy and Exaltation in Judaism: The Charge Against Jesus in Mark 14:53-65.

Is "Agency" Biblical?
It has been asserted - both by Harvey and McGrath (and a handful of others) - that the Jews of Jesus' day would readily have understood Jesus calling God "his own Father" and "making Himself equal with God" (John 5:18) in terms of agency. But the evidence they offer is usually in terms of extra-Biblical texts - many of them dating later than the NT. For example, the key concept, highlighted by the Witness apologist quoted above, is: "The agent is equated with the principal." While we can certainly find texts that indicate that God's agents represent Him (Luke 20:13), communicating His prophecies and commandments, and even "stand-in" for Him in very specific circumstances (e.g., Moses was "made like God" to Pharaoh, Exodus 7:1), there are no examples of agents (other than Jesus) who are said to be equal to God.

McGrath also points to Exodus 23:21 and several extra-Biblical texts to demonstrate that principal agents of God could bear His name. Each of these texts are very similar in the wording they use:

Exo 23:21 - Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him; he will not forgive your rebellion, since my Name is in him.

Apocalypse of Abraham 10:3 - And when I was still face down on the earth, I heard the voice of the Holy One, saying, “Go, Yahoel, the namesake of the mediation of my ineffable name, sanctify this man and strengthen him from his trembling!”

Apocalypse of Abraham 10:8 - I am Yahoel named by him who shakes those which are with me on the seventh vault, on the firmament. I am a power in the midst of the Ineffable who put together his names in me.

3 Enoch 12:5 - He [the Holy One]… called me, 'The lesser YHVH' in the presence of his whole household in the height, as it is written, 'My name is in him.'"

The lone Biblical text does not say that anyone called the angel YHWH, or that God wanted Him to be so addressed. There is no hint that the angel is God's "principal agent," or co-regent. Instead, God says that the Israelites must obey the angel as if he were God, "since my Name is in him." The focus is on obedience; God placing His name in the angel need mean nothing more than He placed His authority in this particular circumstance in him. This text simply cannot be regarded as supporting the exaggerated view of agency advocated by McGrath and anti-trinitarian apologists.

The Apocalypse of Abraham is dated slightly after the NT period (80 - 100 AD). It refers to the angel Yahoel as the "namesake" of God, in whom God "put together his names." This language is so similar to the Exodus text, that it most likely is derivative of it. Later Jewish mysticism read much into such texts, but there is little evidence that the author of the Apocalypse regarded the angel Yahoel as the principal agent of God. He was granted God's authority in a specific situation, like the angel in Exodus.

3 Enoch dates from the later half of the 3rd Century AD. Jewish Merkabah mystics also made use of this text, and it probably contributed to the so-called Two Powers Heresy (see Alan Segal, Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports About Christianity and Gnosticism and James McGrath and Jerry Treux "'Two Powers' and Early Jewish and Christian Monotheism"). However, as McGrath and Truex argue, this 'heresy' probably developed over time. The fact that Paul and the other NT authors saw no reason to address it in relationship to their exalted view of Christ argues strongly that it did not exist in their day (contra McGrath and Truex, who argue that it did, but was not regarded as heretical until much later).

James McGrath also points to Philo's concept of the Logos as a "second God" as supporting the common idea that God has a principal agent, and he finds this idea also present in the NT. He writes: "For example, it is widely recognized that John’s concept of the Logos has similarities with Philo’s ("Two Powers"). But McGrath seems to be over-reaching, both in his sweeping statement about Philo's and John's Logos being "similar" (many NT scholars would sharply disagree), and most importantly in regarding Philo's language as supportive of personal agency. As Larry Hurtado cogently argues:

"In Philo, as in Greek philosophical tradition, the Logos was solely an important logical category posited to deal with an intellectual problem. By contrast Justin's view [which was, I would argue, influenced by John's Gospel] was obviously shaped by the fact that he was applying the term to a real figure who had appeared in history and was reverenced in Christian worship under his own name along with God the Father" (Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ, p. 644, emphasis in original).

In summary, while the notion of God sending agents into the world is surely Biblical, there is no evidence supporting the idea that the agent was to be understood as being equal to God. This leads us, then, to an examination of John 5.

Equal with God
John 5:18 - For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.

Anti-trinitarians argue that Jesus calling God His "own Father" and "making himself equal with God" can be accommodated under the rubric of agency. As we have seen, there is no Biblical evidence that such can be the case. However, if the Jews in Jesus' day can be shown to have understood equality with God to be purely functional (to the exclusion of ontology), we might agree that while prior agents were never equated with God, Jesus as the agent par-excellence could be so equated.

I must stress is that the phrase "equal with God" is not spoken by the Jews; it is John's explanatory statement. God knew the minds of the Jews, and God inspired John to explain what the Jews meant when they accused Jesus of claiming God as his own Father, i.e., "making Himself equal with God." "Making Himself equal with God," is appositional to "saying God is his own Father." This view is commonplace among commentators and grammarians, including the McGrath and Harvey. McGrath goes so far as to creatively retranslate John 5:18 to avoid what he acknowledges is the consensus view and the negative implications of that view for his position (McGrath, Jesus and the Constraints of History, p. 88).

The Jews sought to kill Jesus for what they perceived to be blasphemy. While it is possible that the Jews would have thought someone claiming to be God's agent who really wasn't was blasphemous, there is little evidence to support this idea. For example, nowhere in Darrell Bock's extensive study (see above) does he suggest that 'blasphemy' can be so tightly defined. Nor is there evidence that words or actions against God's agent were considered blasphemous because the offender failed to honor the agent just as he honored God. In fact, his examples are all verbal insults hurled against God's people or their leaders, which were perceived as attacks against God Himself, not refusal to give even unequal honor.

On the contrary, regarding oneself as ontologically equal with God was regarded as blasphemy of the highest order, as we shall see.

Since Harvey and McGrath are comfortable leaving the Bible to establish what they think represents common Jewish thinking in NT times, I will do so as well. In 2 Maccabees 9:12 we read the following cry of remorse from a cursed Antiochus:

"And when he could not endure his own stench, he uttered these words: "It is right to be subject to God, and no mortal should think that he is equal to God."

That Antiochus did not merely regard himself as God's principal agent is clear from the context:

"He who had just been thinking that he could command the waves of the sea, in his superhuman arrogance, and imagining that he could weigh the high mountains in a balance" (2 Maccabees, 9:8). Antiochus was claiming divine power and authority, tantamount to ontological equality with God. And in verse 28, he is called "blasphemer."

The explicit reference to divinity, here, is ISOQEOS (which the classical Greek lexicon LSJ renders: "equal to the gods"). I've consulted several standard translations of 2 Maccabees with these results:

RSV: "Equal to God"
Bartlett: "Equal to him [God]"
Tedesche: "God's equal"

The verbal similarity to John 5 is obvious, and has been recognized by Hurtado, Bock, Meeks, and Harvey. Indeed, in Jesus and the Constraints of History (page 170), Harvey cites the Jews' accusations in John 5:18 and says that claiming equality with God was "blasphemous." But on page 171, he references 2 Maccabees 9:12! He actually agrees that the Jews understood Jesus to be claiming ontological equality. He believes Jesus answers the Jews by claiming merely to be God's agent, but he acknowledges the very point I have been raising. I'm not sure how Harvey can, on the one hand, agree that "equal with God" connotes ontological equality and is John's explanation of what "claiming God as his own Father" means in John 5, and on the other, claim that 'Son of God' was not blasphemous. It would seem a contradiction in his argument.

In the Decalogue 61, Philo calls "impious" those who would honor a creature equally with God, comparing them to those would would honor a viceroy equally with a King. This statement not only supports the idea that equality with God could include ontology, but also that agency does not require even functional equality in the way Harvey and McGrath argue.

In evaluating the "Christ as Agent" claims of scholars and anti-Trinitarian apologists, we must first determine if there is any basis in history for someone claiming to be God's agent, and being accused of blasphemy the way those claiming ontological equality with God were. We can speculate that such would have been the case, but the fact is that no prior agents of God ever claimed what Jesus was claiming. None ever claimed to work on the Sabbath just as their own Father was working (John 5:17); none claimed that God showed them everything He does (John 5:20); none claimed to do everything the Father showed them, and in the same manner (John 5:19); none claimed that believers must honor the 'agent' just as they honor the Father, and not to honor the 'agent' was not honoring God Himself (John 5:23). These are stupendous claims! Even Harvey says that Jesus is the agent par-excellence, the Son of the Sender. The reason a Son was the perfect envoy in the Jewish culture, was not only because the son was loved by the father, but because the son was the perfect representation of his father (Hebrews 1:3), his own son and heir - ontologically equal with his father (e.g., Colossians 2:9), but under the Father's authority.

As Harvey asks, "how far can we take this idea of agency?" How far, indeed?

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Five Reasons To Be Skeptical About the Lost Tomb of Jesus

If you haven't heard about the Discovery Channel's "The Lost Tomb of Jesus," or the accompanying book (The Jesus Family Tomb), you've probably been out of the country or otherwise disconnected from the Internet for the past week or so.

Just in case, here's a link to the Discovery Channel website.

And here's a link to my Lost Tomb Resources page with detailed analyses and responses.

I've been pleasantly surprised by the vigorous responses by Evangelical and other scholars of all related disciplines. Since there is such a wealth of material out there, from folks far more qualified to comment intelligently than I am, I will simply list here the five most compelling reasons to remain skeptical about the claims made in the Discovery Channel documentary and it's supporters.

The Talpiot tomb was originally discovered in 1980. It has been well-documented by archaeologists familiar with tombs dating from the Second Temple period in Jerusalem. Those experts have never suggested the tomb belonged to the family of Jesus of Nazareth. Why are James Cameron and Simcha Jacobovici now claiming that it is? They say it is because they have discovered "new evidence" that makes it very likely that the experts have been wrong, and that this really is the "Lost Tomb of Jesus" afterall.

The two most significant pieces of "new evidence" is the use of DNA to establish that "Jesus son of Joseph" and "Mariamne the Master" were married; and that statistically, it is overwhelmingly probable (600-to-1) that this tomb was that of the Jesus Family, based on the collection of names on the ossuaries it contained.

So, let's take a look at these two pieces of new evidence (which I think actually disprove Jacobovici's claims) and three others:

1. Questionable DNA Claims
Jacobovici claims that DNA evidence proves that "Jesus" and "Mariamne" were not siblings. Therefore, it is likely they were husband and wife, since this tomb was a "family" tomb. But the DNA extracted from the tombs is highly suspect and cannot legitimately be used to prove the "Jesus" and "Mariamne" were married. The DNA extracted was mitochondrial. Mitochondrial DNA can only establish (or disprove) maternal relations. Thus, the best that Jacobovici can do is prove that "Jesus" and "Miriamne" were not siblings of the same mother (or that they did not share a common female ancestor). But they could be father and daughter. Or, "Miriamne" could be the wife of "Matia" or "Joshe." Further, since the bones were removed by modern archaeologists, it is possible that the DNA examined belonged to one of them through incidental contamination.

2. Cooking the Numbers
The 600-to-1 odds sound impressive. They sound impressive because they are being used in a most dishonest fashion. The statistical results make it sound as though they represent the entire population of Jerusalem at the time. But they don't - they only represent the 1,000 tombs that have been investigated in Jerusalem. Thus, of the 1,000 discovered tombs, if one of them to belonged to Jesus and his family, there would be a 600-to-1 chance that this tomb was it. As Joe D'Mello points out here, such a methodology is seriously flawed.
A more reasonable estimate is only a 10% chance that the tomb contains the Jesus Family, and that is assuming that such a tomb existed at all.

3. What's in a Name?
Jacobovici assumes the correctness of the Bible in getting the names of Jesus' family and closest followers right. Yet, the names in the tomb are only loosely related to those in the Bible. For example, "Matia" is not a family member, according to the Bible. "Mariamne" is not the form of "Mary" for any of the 3 or 4 Mary's associated with Jesus. The "e Mara" that follows the name "Mariamne" in all likelihood means "Martha," not "Master." Indeed, the Miriamne ossuary's inscription is Greek (the only ossuary in the Talpiot tomb so inscribed), but if "Mara" means "Master" or "Lord," as Jacobovici claims, it is Aramaic, not Greek. "Joshe" is most likely the father of the Jesus in Talpiot(that is simply following the lineage engraved on the ossuary itself). But Jacobovici says it is Jesus' brother, in an effort to explain the absence of Jesus' siblings, as recorded in the Gospels (if Joshe and James were buried in the tomb, then only two brothers are missing). And speaking of the James ossuary, since a photograph of it exists dating from some four years prior to the discovery of the Talpiot tomb, it is impossible for it have come from there, despite Jacobovici's arguments regarding the similar patina.

4. Mary the Master
There is precisely zero credible evidence that the Mariamne in the Talpiot tomb is Mary Magdalene. She was known as "Mary" or "Maria" in the Gospels. She was never certainly referred to as Miriamne by any early Church father or gnostic writer. The Miriamne in the Acts of Philip is the sister of Philip, and only a few scholars have speculated that she might be Mary Magdalene. But the Acts of Philip is a late writing (no earlier than the 4th Century), full of mythic inventions (talking animals who hear the Gospel), and did not originate anywhere near Jerusalem. It is the sheerest speculation and wishful thinking that would attempt to connect the Mariamne in Talpiot with Mary Magdalene.

5. Jesus Son of Joseph <> Jesus of Nazareth
As pointed out above, Jacobovici presupposes the historical truth of the Gospel accounts, insofar as they correctly name Jesus' family members, his closest associates (at least in terms of Matthew and Mary Magdalene), and the location of his death. But he ignores the Gospels when they claim that Jesus was known as Jesus of Nazareth (in strict Judean fashion), that his family was from Nazareth (the most likely place for a family tomb, if one existed), that he came from a poor family (the Talpiot tomb is that of a wealthy family), and that by all accounts, his grave was empty and remained empty. Not even his opponents ever claimed otherwise. One cannot claim to be an historian and cherry pick what one likes from the available sources.

There are other issues as well: Scholars are not at all in agreement that the names on the key Talpiot ossuaries are Jesus/Yeshua and Mary/Mariamne; ossuaries were known to contain up to six skeletons, thus complicating any attempts to extract DNA samples from one individual; Tombs like Talpiot were generational, thus Mariamne and Jesus may not have even been contemporaries; other ossuaries have been found with a 'Jesus son of Joseph.'

There is very little reason to suspect that Jacobovici and Cameron have actually found the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth. Indeed, there is far more evidence that Jesus rose from the grave - just as the Gospels proclaim - than that he came to rest in Talpiot or anywhere else.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

John 8:58 in the Sahidic Coptic Translation

Recently, Jehovah's Witness apologists have put a great deal of effort into promoting the Sahidic Coptic translation of John 1:1c, because they see it as an important early NT witness that supports the New World Translation's "the Word was a god." I have responded to their claims here.

I have said that we really cannot draw firm conclusions about how the Coptic translators understood John's Christology until we have examined other important Christological texts in the fourth Gospel. I have previously blogged on John 1:18 here, where I demonstrate that the Witnesses cannot point to this verse as supporting the NWT's translation, or its understanding of Christ.

I will now focus on another Christologically significant text: John 8:58. In the NWT, this verse reads: "Before Abraham was born, I have been." The Sahidic Coptic translation reads:

empate abraHam Swpe anok TSoop

Horner translates this: "Before Abraham became, I, I am being."

Horner understands 'anok' as being emphatic (Plumley, Section 46) - "I, I....", which follows the Greek text. The Coptic noun 'Soop' ('Swpe') is defined in Crum's Coptic Lexicon as, "Be, exist." The ti ("T") prefix signifies present tense.

So, right off the bat we see a dramatic disconnect between the Sahidic and the NWT. Witnesses - and others - who follow McKay in understanding EGO EIMI in this verse as a Greek Present of Past Action (PPA) find no support from the Sahidic translators.

Furthermore, the usual pattern for copulative sentences in Sahidic Coptic is to use the copulative pronoun 'pe.' If the Sahidic translators had understood EGO EIMI to be a copulative sentence with an implied predicate ("I am he"), they most likely would have used 'anok pe,' as for example they did in John 8:24.

Instead, the translators used the existential Soop. This choice - which was apparently not followed by the Bohairic translators a century or so later - cannot be without significance. It may be that the translators wished to echo Exodus 3:14, which in the Sahidic reads:

anok pe petSoop'...Je petSoop' pe ntaFtnno oyt' Sarwtn

"I am He who is...This is He who is who has sent me to you."

Exodus 3:14 in Sahidic is a fairly literal translation of the LXX: "EGO EIMI hO WN." The Greek 'hO WN' ("the one who is") = Sahidic 'petSoop' (Soop, prefixed by the definite article 'p' and the relative pronoun 'et,' ["who"]). This is the same word used by the translators at John 8:58, albeit with a different prefix.

Whether the Sahidic translators understood a connection with Exodus 3:14 or not, it is clear that they did not understand 'EGO EIMI' to be either a PPA or a copulative. They translated it as an existential present, in agreement with an overwhelming number of Greek scholars and commentators down through the ages, signifying the eternal existence of the Son.

Thus, while Witnesses may use the Sahidic translation to support the NWT's version of John 1:1c (at least to some extent), it does not appear that they can do so with 8:58. Further, if Coptic scholars are correct, and the Sahidic indefinite article in 1:1c can denote a qualitative meaning ("The Word had the same nature as God") or an indefinite one, the more verses we find in which the Deity of Christ is upheld (as it is in 1:18 and 8:58), the more likely the qualitative meaning becomes.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Biblical Agency and Exodus 3

From a prominent Unitarian Website:

I know it appears to our western minds that the one in the bush who says, “I am what I am” is Jehovah Himself. However, Stephen in Acts 7:30 identifies the speaker as “an angel.” And in verse 35 Stephen again speaks of “the angel who appeared to him [Moses] in the thorn bush.”

Thus we have the inspired interpretation of these OT passages from one who was filled with the Holy Spirit and with wisdom and faith. His understanding was that the Being who confronted Moses was not Jehovah Himself, nor the Son of God existing before his birth.

The same is true of Moses’ experience on Mount Sinai. Stephen says it was “the angel who was speaking to him on Mount Sinai” (v. 38). Yet again, when we read the Old Testament account the impression given is quite clearly that God Himself was the speaker. Hebrews confirms the presence of a divine agency when it states categorically that Israel received the Law through “angels” (Heb. 2:2).

These are classic instances of the principle of Jewish “agency.” When God commissions and sends a subordinate to speak and act for Himself, the subordinate is treated as though he is in fact God Himself. To oppose the “sent one,” God’s commissioner, is truly to oppose God Himself.

There is, indeed, a biblical tradition of 'agency.' It is, perhaps, most clearly seen in the parable of the evil vine-growers (Mark 12:1-9). The "beloved son" sent by the father is the father's agent par-excellance: "The will respect my son." Why will they respect the son? Because he is not only his father's agent (as were the servants sent before him), but also his son, his heir in all his estate, deserving of honor equal to his father.

It is important to note that the evil vine-growers recognize the son: "This is the heir!" In indisputable examples of Biblical agents, whether they are OT prophets, NT apostles, or angels, the agents are recognized as agents; they are never confused with God. The prophets never once called themselves "God." The inspired text never describes them as God (unless the two passages described above are the lone exceptions). The apostles carefully avoided any confusion on this point (Acts 10:25-26), as did angels (Rev 19:10, 22:9).

Now, let's turn to the passages discussed on the Unitarian website:

"I know it appears to our western minds that the one in the bush who says, “I am what I am” is Jehovah Himself. However, Stephen in Acts 7:30 identifies the speaker as 'an angel.'"

The reason our western minds understand the speaker to be God, is because the text explicitly identifies the speaker as God, "God called to him from the midst of the bush" (Ex 3:4). The speaker identifies himself by saying, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." Yes, the figure in the bush is earlier described as the "Angel of the LORD," but the speaker is described as God. In fact, in this entire passage, it is God who is said to be speaking, not the angel.

But what of Acts 7:30? Careful examination reveals that here, too, the figure in the bush is identified as "an angel," but the speaker is God: "The voice of the Lord" (v. 31). Exodus 3 does not portray the angel as speaking on the Father's behalf, and neither does Acts 7:30. Both passages confirm that God was speaking, in close association with (or perhaps equated with) the Angel of the LORD.

The Unitarian website continues:

"The same is true of Moses’ experience on Mount Sinai. Stephen says it was 'the angel who was speaking to him on Mount Sinai' (v. 38)....categorically Israel received the Law through 'angels' (Heb. 2:2)."

As the website admits, "when we read the Old Testament account the impression given is quite clearly that God Himself was the speaker." Yes, indeed! The account does not merely "give the impression," it states without amibiguity that God was the speaker, that he "passed before" Moses, and that the Tablets were inscribed with his "finger."

Hebrews 2:2 simply acknowledges that formerly, God spoke His word through angels. In that sense, He used angels as agents or intermediaries. But it is not logical to conclude that He also did not speak directly Himself, particularly when the sacred text so teaches.

In short, Biblical Agency does not preclude God from acting and speaking on His own behalf. It also does not preclude the Angel (Hebrew ma'lak: "Messenger") of the LORD from being at once distinguised from God, and yet God Himself.

Going back to the parable of the evil vine-growers, the agent par excellance is the son. This parable is meant to picture the sending of the Son of God into the world, and the world's violent rejection of Him. The Son of God is the agent par excellance of His Father. This does not mean that He was simply a man, or perhaps an angel. Such beings, indeed, could be called the Father's agents, but there are no clear cases in Scripture where such agents are described as God.

Indeed, if agents can be described as God, can identify themselves as God, can be stand-ins for God, there is simply no way to determine when God is speaking anywhere in the Bible, and when it is an agent. The Gnostics and Neo-Platonists invented a series of intermediaries through whom their god had to act in the 'lower' world of material things. But that is not the God of the Bible, for whom the the physical universe (as He originally created it) was "very good," and who lovingly and sovereignly intervenes in human history, causing "all things to work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose."

Friday, February 02, 2007

Movie Review - "The Perfect Stranger"

Back in 1981, the must-see arthouse film was "My Dinner with Andre." Starring Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, almost the entire movie took place in a New York restaurant, where Shawn and Gregory dined and conversed about a wide-range of philosophical topics. It was a strangely compelling film, with Gregory weaving weird tales about Buddhist monks, experimental theater, being buried alive, and trips to the Sahara and Tibet, and Shawn desperately trying to manufacture conversational seques to bring the conversation back to reality.

When I first heard about "The Perfect Stranger," I thought, OK, it's "My Dinner with Andre" for Christians: "My Dinner with Jesus." And it is - but it is far more than that.

Pamela Brumley plays Nikki, a housewife and mother with a strained marriage and trouble at work. Brumley seems stiff in the early scenes, constrained by a script that - perhaps because it is based on a novel - has a few too many one-liners and sarcastic ripostes for my taste. But her performance becomes more and more compelling as the film progresses, and at the end, I found myself deeply moved. Her character progresses from hard-edged attorney to adoring child of God - an emotional range few actresses have been asked to protray, and Brumely does a superb job.

Jefferson Moore plays the Perfect Stranger. His performance is critical; if he's not 100% believable, the film falls flat on its face. Fortunately, Moore is up to the task. His character is charming, witty, loving, and wise.

But what makes this film so much more than "Andre" is the content. It contains one of the most attractive and winsome presentations of the Gospel I have ever seen. All the "Big Objections" to Christianity are woven into the dinner conversation - from "Aren't all religions basically the same," to "how can a Good God allowing suffering," to "how can Christians be so arrogant as to think that they have the only way to God?" Each question and objection is gently and clearly responded to by the Stranger. And as he does so, he is slowly opening Nikki's heart to the truth, healing years of doubt and pain.

The film, ultimately, is a apologetic for Christ in a pluralistic and secular world. Its message is as old and as true as the Gospel itself, but its presentation is refreshingly new.

I highly recommend this film to all.

For more information click here.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Does Mark 13:32 imply that the Holy Spirit is not God?

"But as for that day or hour no one knows it, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son except the Father." (Mark 13:32 NET)

This verse has often been used to disprove the Deity of Christ, on the basis that God knows all things, and if Jesus were fully God, He would have known the time of His second coming. Trinitarians reply that there were a number of things Jesus did not know during His earthly ministry. Luke 2:52 speaks of Him growing in wisdom. Surely, as a human child, Jesus had to learn everything any other human child must learn - how to crawl, walk, talk, etc. Otherwise, He would not have been fully human (John 1:14). Thus, it is possible to see the limitations of Jesus' knowledge as linked to the Incarnation - the Infinite God making Himself human and entering space and time.

But recently, I have seen non-Trinitarians using this pericope as a way to disprove the Deity of the Holy Spirit. The argument goes something like this: If we grant that the Second Person of the Trinity is limited in His knowledge by becoming Incarnate, what about the Third Person? Jesus says none but the Father knows the day and hour of His return, therefore the Holy Spirit cannot be God because there is something He does not know, and you cannot explain away this limitation by means of the Incarnation because the Spirit never became flesh."

It is important to note that this verse does not explicitly teach that the Holy Spirit lacks knowledge - He is not specifically named in this verse. Indeed, there is nothing in this entire passage having to do with the Holy Spirit. It is only by implication that He is included in the class of persons of whom Christ says "no one knows it." But is this implication Scripturally sound?

It would be if there were other verses that limited the Spirit's knowledge, but there are none. In fact, there is Biblical evidence that the Spirit's knowledge is no more limited than God's knowledge. Consider:

"God has revealed these to us by the Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who among men knows the things of a man except the man's spirit within him? So too, no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God." (1 Corinthians 2:10-11 NET).

In this verse - which deals directly with the knowledge possessed by the Spirit - Paul says that just as a man's spirit knows "the things of a man," so God's Spirit knows "the things of God." Since God knows all things, so too the Spirit of God knows all things.

Non-Trinitarians may object that the spirit of a man is not a Person, separate from the man himself. This is really an objection to the Spirit being a Person, not to the Spirit being omniscient. But this objection cannot be logically made in the context of the original argument. The original argument presupposes the Personhood of the Spirit. In other words, the non-Trinitarian conceeds the Personhood of the Spirit for the sake of his argument: "If the Spirit is a Person, He cannot be God because God knows all things, but there is something the Spirit doesn't know." Thus, in accepting the presupposition, the non-Trinitarian cannot abandon that presupposition to attack our answer.

Within the context of the original argument, 1 Corinthians 2:10-11 provides direct Scriptural evidence that the Spirit's knowledge is no more limited than is God's. It is a clear statement about what the Spirit knows. If we are to follow sound exegetical principles, we must allow this verse to inform our understanding of Mark 13:32. Since Jesus is not addressing the Spirit in this passage, and since Scripture provides clear evidence that the Spirit's knowledge is not limited in any way, we may confidently say that Mark 13:32 in no way undermines the doctrine of the Deity of the Holy Spirit.