Theology Wednesdays: Toward A Resurrection Ethic

Of the questions that I habitually ask myself (and I would also encourage you to do likewise), there is one that never fails to kindle in me a pensive mood: “What will I say when I meet God, my Maker?” There rests upon me some great fear that I should awake one morning and look wistfully back on all the latent opportunities that God presented before me, and yet, despite His amenity, find that I had done little for His glory’s sake. Inasmuch as the Word of God calls us to be ‘content’ in God (Philippians 4:11; cf. 3:7-11; 1 Timothy 6:6-8; 2 Corinthians 9:8; Hebrews 13:5), such hortative statements are not meant to quell ambition or to asphyxiate zeal. My experience oftentimes points me to the idea that we falsely attribute the continued absence of positive outcomes conveniently to “God’s timing,” rather than acknowledging laxity and indolence where it has presented itself in our lives.

I am convinced that such misinformed morals develop from a deficient understanding of the theology of the resurrection. For all the attention we afford to Jesus’ death on the cross (and rightly so), it sometimes appears that we sell short the resurrection of Jesus Christ in whom, and through whom, we are now called to live (Galatians 2:20; Romans 6:5-11). For the most part, the theological significance (and therefore, ethical implications) of Jesus’ death comes intuitively. Put simplistically, Jesus Christ died for the sins of the world (John 1:29; 3:16; Galatians 1:4; Romans 5:8; 1 Peter 2:24) – ergo, those who accept and believe in this Gospel ought to make efforts not to sin (cf. Romans 6:1-3). Jesus’ death, and our partaking in His death, serves a prophylactic purpose encouraging us to no longer participate in our old ways of life (Ephesians 2:1-3; see esp. Colossians 1:21-22).

There does not appear to be any abstruseness with respect to what we shouldn’t do; perhaps not necessarily because we have been convinced it is in keeping with biblical principles, but because the wider culture (especially those Western nations formed upon Judeo-Christian foundations) also appeals to these values. For instance, the moral value of most of the Decalogue (Exodus 20:1-17) is unequivocal, and this is abetted by the fact that most of these imperatives appear in the negative: “You shall not have other gods … You shall not make for yourself a carved image … You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain etc.”

But enigmatically, we are divorced between the theology of the Bible and a present-time, positive Christian ethic. By way of example, if hypothetically, we asked how one might, “remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy,” (Exodus 20:8) or “honour your father and your mother” (v. 12) we are suddenly benighted and a great blanket of bewilderment sets upon most. But for those who object to my use of an Old Testament ethic (as prominent a position as the Decalogue has been, and should be, afforded in Christian doctrine), I will use a New Testament example to illustrate. Take, for instance, the marvellous passage of Matthew 6:25-33. The negative, “do not be anxious about your life” (v. 25) is comfortable for most to understand, especially in light of the following verses. The negative, “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (v. 33) presents itself to most with a much greater measure of ethical ambiguity: “how do I seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness?”

There is merit in following the popular aphorism, “When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras.” Perhaps we find ourselves increasingly disconnected from the ideal of “alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11; 1 Corinthians 15:22; Ephesians 2:5) because we find ourselves increasingly disconnected from the theology of the resurrection, and the implications it should hold in the present and tangible realities of our lives.

Theology Wednesdays: The Book of Chronicles

Although I lament the seeming absence of Old Testament preaching from pulpits today, whole sections of the Bible (forget for a moment even individual books!) seem to be either unappreciated or categorically ignored. The Book of Chronicles, certainly, occupies a position somewhere at the top of the list of unrecognised biblical literature.

In many ways, the Book of Chronicles has unfairly been characterised as the locum tenens – the “substitute teacher” if you will – to the lacuna of Joshua through to 2 Kings. This legacy is traced back even to antiquity, where the Greek translators to the Hebrew Bible unceremoniously titled the Book of Chronicles as “Παραλειπομένων, concerning things omitted.” I have my suspicions that such identification comes almost intuitively because Chronicles draws heavily upon other biblical material. To this end, Chronicles becomes a kind of “supplement” – reiterating and legitimising especially the other historical books of the Bible, and this has sadly been the view that some scholars have made (cf. e.g. Wellhausen, Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels, Nabu Press, 2010).

Chronicles is Chuck Norris
The Book of Chronicles is Chuck Norris. You better chuck yourself before you wruck yourself (geddit?).

Yes, it is true that Chronicles draws extensively upon the Books of Samuel and Kings which serve as a primary source of material. But the Book of Chronicles, at the very least, colours and shapes the history of Israel through a vastly different lens. Samuel-Kings sought to provide closure and solace to the exiles in the aftermath of the fall of Jerusalem and its temple, and the end of Davidic reign; Chronicles by contrast, addresses the post-exilic community who are returning to worship in the restored Jerusalem temple. Further to this, Chronicles is an attempt to reconcile Israel’s otherwise fragmented identity: certainly, the exile was no accident but the direct consequence of unfaithfulness (cf. 1 Chronicles 2:7; 5:25; 10:13, 25; 2 Chronicles 36:14), and the pressing question for Israel has now become, “Are we still the people of God?”

In the Hebrew canon, the Book of Chronicles follows Ezra-Nehemiah in the third and final section – in many respects, it is the capstone theological statement to the expectation of Israel, and in this sense the concluding invitation is poignant: Whoever is among you of all his people, may the LORD his God be with him! Let him go up!” (2 Chronicles 36:22-23). So, Chronicles functions as a kind of culmination and development of all that preceded it – worship in the Temple, the priests, and the restoration and reformation of the Priestly Code are all brought together in Chronicles, coagulating worship to YHWH as the religious glue of an otherwise broken and disenfranchised post-exilic “all Israel” (1 Chronicles 9:1; cf. 2:1; 11:1; et passim).

To this end, the question, “Are we still the people of God?” is intrinsically linked with the question, “What do God’s promises to David and Solomon mean for us?” and so the united monarchy of David and Solomon simply dominates much of Chronicles’ theological position. God has promised David the establishment of his throne forever (cf. 1 Chronicles 17:3-14), and God has furthermore promised that should His people humble themselves, repent and seek after Him that they will be forgiven (2 Chronicles 7:12-22). Thus, Hezekiah in the final pericope of 2 Chronicles 29-36 is presented as a type of David and Solomon – a Davidic king under whose rule Israel will worship in solidarity at the Temple in Jerusalem, and thereby restore Israel to a position of blessing and favour under YHWH once more. It is these themes that well and truly undergird the theological profundity that the Book of Chronicles affords, and it is both my hope and expectation that our reading of it will pay greater dividends on account of it.

All well and good, but what does the theology of Chronicles mean for us practically? In keeping with the broad thematic brushstrokes previously outlined, there are a number of ethical implications.

Firstly, the conception of “all Israel” and the constant emphasis upon it in Chronicles has two progressions: (a) there is a strong sense of solidarity in worship that repudiates the belief that faith can be confined to a kind of privative individualism; and (b) our identity is inextricably linked with God’s purposes for us, His people, and His world. It is no offhand remark that Adam is mentioned from the very outset (1 Chronicles 1:1), and the murder of Zechariah in the Jerusalem Temple likewise spells the loss of Israel’s identity: “because you have forsaken the LORD, He has also forsaken you” (2 Chronicles 24:20-22).

Secondly, although there is an element in which the people of Israel are incorrigibly resolved to turn away from YHWH, there is nevertheless an important sense in which this faithlessness is catalysed and expedited (if not initiated altogether) by poor leadership. The consequences of poor leadership are profound: no explanation is given as to why 70,000 Israelites were punished for David’s sin (cf. 1 Chronicles 21:17), but paradigmatically we see this in everyday happenings: businesses capsize on account of the faux pas of their leaders, political parties implode internally through leadership spills and motions of no confidence, and churches hinge upon the removal of their pastors.

By contrast, good biblical leadership is encompassed in the person of Elisha, who occupies not only a prophetic role, but plays an essential civic duty that transforms the ethical culture around him, enhancing not only the spiritual welfare of Israel, but also the material. Above all, Elisha’s example is a proof that faithfulness to God’s commands ultimately allows a society to flourish on economic, social, and moral scales.

Even Rihanna Might Have A Better Understanding of Work Than Us
The travesty is that even Rihanna might have a stronger emphasis on the importance of work than some Christians.

To this end, there is not only a need to pray for more Christian leaders in all corners of life, but to willingly endeavour towards these positions. In one important respect, the Church today (or at least the circles I’m familiar with) lives parallel to post-exilic Israel, typically insulated in their own congregations, but very much under the rule of a post-Christian, post-(post?) modernist culture. But instead of engaging culture, it appears that we have for the most part, conceded ground and for the foreseeable future are happy to do so. The Christian work ethic of the Industrial Revolution (which some have even argued ushered in the capitalist zeitgeist), and the liberty afforded by various Christian movements seem to be all but lost for many content (but otherwise very devout) brothers and sisters in the faith.

Theology Wednesdays: Genesis 1:1

As we are wont to do, our familiarity with the Bible can often descend into a blasé recitation of God’s Word. Somewhere near the top of that list, I’d imagine, is the opening statement of Genesis, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” For the record, there is nothing incidental about the first verse of the Bible. To account the theological profundity of Genesis 1:1 to the happy chance of an inspired, but otherwise capricious biblical author is, at least in my mind, inconceivable.

The Theological Bedrock: God Outside Time, Space, and Matter
I mean, let’s flesh out some of the paradigms at work here. Firstly, for God to have created the heavens and the earth in the beginning of time, then another necessary premise must also be that God was at the beginning of time. Not only that, but God created “the heavens and the earth” which in the Hebrew (הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם … הָאָֽרֶץ”” cf. Genesis 2:1; Psalm 8:1; 33:6, 8; Isaiah 42:5; 45:18) idiomatically represents the totality of the material universe: space and time. God’s agency is emphatic, with the verb “to create” (בָּרָ֣א) used exclusively of divine activity. The biblical author could not express this in any stronger terms: it is God who created the universe at the beginning of time.

In fact, Genesis as a whole is, quite simply, a book of origins centred on the character of God. The entire universe finds its origins in the jussive fiat of God, “Let there be … and it was so”; through the Spirit of God, Man is born and given life, purpose, and stature; Abraham is elected by God to become the “father of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:4-5 cf. Genesis 12:2) and a vehicle of blessing (Genesis 12:3). In a marvellous sense, Genesis 1:1 is an anticipatory summary of the entire account of God shaping, filling, and ordering His creation (cf. Mark 1:1, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”; John 1:1-3, “In the beginning was the Word … all things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.”) It is clear that the God of the Bible stands at the centre of, operates in, and blesses His people and His world. Genesis 1:1 is testament to God’s character: the creation of the world was not a product of chance, or the accidental collocation of atomic matter, extreme heat and the necessary conditions to produce the universe as a chaotic happenstance. God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1), resolutely, sovereignly, effortlessly.

What Reading Genesis Should Feel Like
When Genesis starts getting juicy (from the first verse).

The Doctrine of Creation Changes Everything
As with any good theology, the doctrine of creation rightly understood ought to tug at our heartstrings and provoke a response of awe and majesty. But good theology also ought to lead to a heightened awareness of humankind’s unique role in the participation of redeeming creation. So what are the theological principles to translate into practice?

If God created the world (and lovingly so; the Piel participle “hovering, רָחַף” semantically serves as a metaphor for that of a mother bird brooding over her young cf. Deuteronomy 32:11), then the world is important and humanity ought to participate in the care and redemption of it (cf. Revelation 21, 22). The essence of Christian salvation is not that we should abandon the earth and go to heaven, but the very opposite – when Christ returns, heaven comes down to earth! We are taught to pray, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10), but rarely do we see a real desire to see these convictions become a matter of substance. But Christians seem to lack any kind of ethical grid when it comes to caring for creation beyond, say, recycling paper products or making a conscious effort not to litter (which, for the record, are great things to do).

The Beginning
How does God’s creative work connect with us? We’ll delve a bit deeper in Saturday’s “Bridging the Gap.”

For brevity’s sake, I have only really covered a surface-level understanding of the doctrine of creation, particularly in the ethical sense. Nevertheless, it should serve as a helpful starting point for fruitful thought to take place: where do we fit in among the grand scheme of God’s redemptive plan for His creation? To that end, stay tuned for more content on Genesis 1:1-2:3 upcoming on Saturday’s “Bridging the Gap” where we will explore the implications of the six days of creation (I will cover the Sabbath day separately) for you and for me.

Theology Wednesdays: The John Doe Approach to the Old Testament

Christians love their New Testament, and for good reason. I mean, the revelation of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, through whom God has made known His plans for His people and world is not only a brilliant message, but an exciting one. And there are few things more warming to the soul than to hear animated conversation come from the lips of fellow believers about what they’ve read in Scripture and how it’s shaping their lives. The pages of the Book of Philippians or of the Gospel of John are preached prolifically, and they hold deeply compelling messages. Commentaries on the New Testament fly off the shelves at Christian bookstores (alright, maybe they don’t fly off the racks per se, but you get my idea).

But mention the Old Testament and suddenly you come face-to-face with lethargic expressions or polite feigned interest (thanks guys – it never costs to be polite). Of course, sometimes you’re met with that happy chance of a fellow who’s done their Hebrew homework for the semester, and they’ll sit and chat about the brilliant theology behind the Book of Ruth, or the Christian ethics of the Decalogue. But of course, they are the exception that proves the rule. The point is that generally, people fall into one of three camps: they either (1) haven’t read the Old Testament; or (2) haven’t understood the Old Testament; or (3) don’t see the relevance of the Old Testament. What does that make people like me? Lonely campers.

But forgetting the banter for a minute, why is that for so many Christians the Old Testament seems to exude an aura of unapproachable hostility? The Hebrew Bible is not only a trove of theological profundity, but beautifully written, and has just as much to say (if not more) as the New Testament when it comes to matters of Christian ethic. In fact, Jesus came not to abolish the law and render it abortive, but to fulfil it (vide. Matt 5:17, which is a beautiful example of a triple entendre: Jesus came to πληρῶσαι ‘fulfil’ the Law: (1) through obedience; (2) to bring to its full measure; and (3) to bring to completion).

Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand: reading the Old Testament is daunting enough as it is, let alone trying to know it. Joining the dots from one chapter of the Hebrew Bible to the next is a mental challenge akin to recollecting the name of that really great phở joint in Cabramatta (Tan Viet? Pho Viet? Pho Tau Bay? Bau Truong? Or was it in Bankstown?). Reading the Old Testament is kind of like that. You need to make a real concerted effort to actually find the right places, but even when you do, you can’t make seem to make any sense of what they’ve placed in front of you, and the writing on the wall doesn’t help either.

Jazzy Monkey

This is all to bring it to the conception of Theology Wednesdays here at The Reformation of Manners. What better way to get over the hump of the working week than by looking at the character of God? But reading the Old Testament shouldn’t make for a poor second choice to flesh out the character of God, and so I’ll do my best to kill two birds with one stone (or two turtledoves with one sacrifice if you’re poor). If you didn’t get the joke in the brackets, that’s a sure sign you should subscribe and drop a line to me. Stay tuned.