Orthodox Churches and the Distortion of “Grace”

Orthodox Churches and the Distortion of “Grace”

This is the first of a 2 part series of posts on the phenomenon of unbiblical understandings of “grace” that permeates Ghanaian Christianity.

Readers of my blog will notice that I have a problem with the way Ghanaian cultural Christianity uses the term “grace”. The hegemony that this term “grace” holds here (which I consider a distortion of what the bible actually means by the word “grace”) is encapsulated in the almost required response amongst cultural Christians to the simple greeting “How are you?”. If one answers with “by the grace of God I’m fine”, then one is considered a well brought-up Ghanaian Christian. If not, you might be required to bring your parents over for questioning on the kind of “upbringing” you were given.

But as I delve more into reading about the beliefs, culture and history of the Old Testament (a culture scholars refer to as the Ancient Near East i.e. ancient Israel and their Assyrian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Canaanite and Hittite neighbours), the greater the similarities I find between these beliefs and those of traditional and even modern Ghanaian culture. It has caused me to reflect a lot on things I have heard since I was old enough to process my culture around me, and increasingly I’m coming to a very important conclusion – long before the modern abuses of “grace” came along, our traditional orthodox churches failed to challenge the worldview of retributive justice that existed in our African cultures (and most other cultures worldwide), and that failure is coming back to bite us really hard in the ass in this modern, fast-paced, individualistic and pluralistic world. And for those reading this who may not be Ghanaian, in Ghana we use the term “orthodox churches” to refer not to either Eastern Orthodox or Oriental Orthodox churches, but rather to the churches founded by European missionary efforts i.e. the Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, AME, Roman Catholic etc who dominated the landscape before the rise of Pentecostalism and its junior brother – Charismatism.

Now, let me explain myself.

Retributive Justice in the Old Testament

Scholars point out that in the Ancient Near Eastern world, many people believed the gods to be intricately involved in the affairs of men, especially in their fortunes or misfortunes. The right worship of the gods (aka righteousness) led to the receipt of blessings from them. Consequently, it was also assumed that misfortune was as a result of the anger of the god(s) due to a failure in worshiping the gods or doing their bidding, whether one knew what one’s failure was or not. Hence, scholars use the term “retributive justice” to mean the following beliefs .

  • The god(s) reward righteous behaviour with blessings of material prosperity.

  • The corollary was this – misfortune could only be explained as resulting from the anger of the god(s) at one’s personal or inherited “unrighteous” behaviour.

This belief was also dominant amongst the people of Israel as expressed towards Yahweh, and is reflected in the Old Testament. The Psalms are full of passages about the Lord blessing the righteous and punishing the wicked, and this whole post will be taken up with examples if I attempt to give them.

However, some authors within the Old Testament began to question Yahweh about why the wicked were rather being blessed instead of the righteous. Many Psalms (like Ps 94) question God for allowing the wicked to rather prosper, calling on him to punish them immediately. The author of Ps 73 consoles himself about Yahweh’s eventual punishment of the wicked in the long run, even if not immediately.

The book of Proverbs is especially guilty of preaching the “righteous will always be blessed” mantra, leading to the notion that one can only be blessed with material prosperity if God explicitly gives it to you. No actual effort of yours counts towards this.

The blessing of the Lord brings wealth, without painful toil for it.” (Prov 10:22)

Thankfully, other wisdom books like the book of Job, Lamentations and Ecclesiastes were written to counter this simplistic thinking by the people of Israel. Sadly they seem to have made little impact in changing their minds about retributive justice, and even in the New Testament, Jesus’s disciples ask questions which reflect such thinking in John’s Gospel.

His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’” (Jn 9:2)

Enter Traditional Ghanaian Determinism

Many Ghanaians, including many well educated pastors and church leaders, have a deterministic view of life, drenched in traditional African notions of destiny. Traditionally Ghanaians express a belief in their god(s) already determining their destiny (“hyebre” in the Twi language), with the notion that if one doesn’t stray from the path that has been laid out for you by the god(s) (by correctly and constantly worshipping the god(s) and obeying their commands), then one will reach this destiny – which most of the time is hoped to be a materially prosperous one. If one’s life is turning out to be difficult, the best one can do is to plead with their god(s) to “change their destiny” (“sesa me hyebre” in the Twi language), so that at some point in the near future, prosperity will be their portion. Because one is not in control of one’s destiny, it presupposes that one is at the mercy of one’s god(s). The choice to give you a “good” destiny is in the hands of the god(s), and therefore it is a gift to you if one receives a “good” destiny. The Twi term for being gifted something one doesn’t deserve (or isn’t in control of) is “adom”, and that is how the word “grace” in the bible is translated in Twi bibles – “adom”. Hence, if one is doing materially well, has bought a new car, has gotten married or is generally alive and not dead, one must acknowledge the god(s) for this by saying “eye Nyame Adom” i.e. “it is by God’s grace”. A well brought up Ghanaian, when commended for some good fortune, is expected to say “it is by grace oh, not my doing”. Hence, the Ghanaian cultural expectation of the response “I’m fine by God’s grace” to the simple question of “How are you?” .

Now, do you see where I’m going with this? Do you see the similarities between this way of traditional Ghanaian thinking and those of retributive justice as evident in some parts of the bible? And do you see how our European missionaries and their Ghanaian counterparts who took over from them have failed to see where they are reading the bible with Ghanaian cultural eyes and assuming that it lines up with their pre-existing beliefs, despite both Old and (especially) New Testament evidence to the contrary?

The Effects of this Syncretism

Because these Ancient Near Eastern beliefs reflected in especially the Old Testament are quite compatible with this traditional Ghanaian (and largely African) worldview, Christianity, despite all it’s positive achievements in Ghana, has also had a very dark side in the Ghanaian experience. Here are some of its effects.

  1. It is very difficult to question the source of a church member’s riches in a Ghanaian church. Because the bible expresses God’s desire for righteous people to be materially prosperous, and because of passages like Prov 10:22 quoted above, it is assumed that God must have given the person these riches. Hence, God’s will has been confused with God’s causation.

  2. Because God is assumed to have actively caused people to become materially rich, it is not surprising for people who have gained wealth through all sorts of nefarious and illegal means to be immediately elevated to positions of huge influence in our churches, and to be treated specially. This may not necessarily be due to an attempt to benefit from their riches, but an inherent assumption that this person must be a “righteous” person to be that “blessed” by God.

  3. Given the above 2 effects, church leaders typically resign themselves to benefiting from such “blessed” people for the benefit that their wealth will bring to the church’s ABCs – attendance, buildings and cash. Afterall, God has already placed their “stamp” on such people, so who are they to ask questions but just to “tap into such blessings”.

  4. Listening to Ghanaian gospel music, one can see how it has become saturated with “Eye Adom” (it’s by grace) and “Hyebre” (destiny) and “Nhyira” (material prosperity). These sound deceptively biblical, but are purely based on a traditional Ghanaian worldview than by the worldview defined by Jesus and especially the New Testament.

  5. Traditionally, Western Christianity has been guilty of “spiritualizing” the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus says “Blessed are the poor” (Lk 6:20) instead of usual “blessed are the rich” of retributive justice, by a flawed interpretation of Matthew’s version “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Mt 5:3). By his declaration that “the kingdom of God is at hand”, Jesus turns the retributive justice principle on its head, urging the church communities to take active steps in elevating the poor from their status, which one sees in the book of Acts and the life of the New Testament and early church. However, “Blessed are the poor” taken literally, sounds totally against every fibre within the bone of our traditional Ghanaian “God must bless me” worldview.

  6. These deterministic beliefs undermine the need for hardwork. Despite all our lip service about the importance of hard work, we preach and act as if hard work isn’t necessary to material prosperity. Using passages like Prov 10:22, we keep our people in church for so many hours, engaged in myriads of “church programmes” because that is the means by which we show our “righteousness”. Coupled with giving to the church, this is preached as the means by which God will “bless” us. Given that 70% of Ghanaians are Christians, is it surprising that we as a nation remain poor?

  7. Ghanaian Christians live with a very huge cognitive dissonance. Despite all their “good worship” of God, our nation continues to wallow in poverty. We keep quoting the portions of scripture that tell us that being righteous will lead to us being materially prosperous, whiles the Japanese, Chinese, Indians etc who largely don’t even care about Christianity are living much better lives in terms of material prosperity than we do, and are giving us loans and grants. Confront church leaders with this, and they’ll give you some flimsy reasons, just like the people of the OT when it comes to why the wicked prosper.

The Seeds Have Always Been There

The only reason why our “orthodox” Christian churches were a bit reserved in their endorsement of materialism (as compared to the modern Charismatic movement and it’s love affair with Word of Faith teachings) was because they had a much larger focus on saving souls from hell to heaven. Now that the seeds of syncretism that they planted regarding an incorrect view of divine determinism and “grace” are being taken advantage of by these prosperity preachers, leading to a loss of church membership, our “orthodox churches” are beginning to sound more and more like their Word of Faith counterparts.

In the next post, I will explain how the Ghanaian Charismatic church (which has largely imbibed Word of Faith teaching so much it’s difficult to find a non-WOF Charismatic church in Ghana) is hammering the word “grace” out of all proportion in the pursuit of material wealth.

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Discipleship and the Imago Dei

following-jesus

A few years ago I gave a presentation to young undergraduate Christian students on the importance of discipleship, which was then followed by multiple small groups to discuss the subject further. During this group session, somebody asked if a “disciple” is a higher level of Christian than a “believer”. I felt a bit devastated with the question, given all that we had said before, but I managed to clarify that to be a Christian was to be a disciple. But such levels of ignorance about discipleship amongst young educated minds who will in the future become leaders in Ghanaian churches and Christian communities made me realise that there really was a huge gap of understanding between what the New Testament expected of us, and what our churches were training us to be. Reflecting on J. Richard Middleton’s “The Liberating Image – Imago Dei in Genesis 1” brought home the centrality of discipleship to the whole enterprise of Christianity, evangelism and church. As i promised in my last post, its time to learn a thing or two from him.

Imago Dei in the Ancient Near East

One of the important reminders about reading the Old Testament is that there is the general scholarly consensus that it was edited and compiled during the exile. It thus exhibits certain tendencies to be critical of the ideologies that it was confronted with before and during the exile. And the 2 most dominant ideologies that it critiques are those of Mesopotamian ideologies (ie Assyria and Babylon, who ended up enslaving Northern Israel and Southern Israel respectively) as well as Egyptian ideologies which they inherited after the Exodus. Viewed in this light, Middleton points out how the idea of humans being created in the image of God would have developed to counter specifically the Mesopotamian ideas about humanity, seeing as Israel was exiled there for 70 years.

Middleton points out that in the Ancient Near East amongst whom Israel existed, almost all the dominant cultures viewed human beings as slaves of the gods, created to do the menial work that the gods didn’t want to do. However, there was a small but very important distinction amongst human beings. The Egyptians believed that their Pharaohs were gods (or incarnations of the gods), whiles Mesopotamians believed that their kings were humans, but were made in the image of their gods. Alongside these Mesopotamian kings, the priests, who served in the presence of the gods were also made in their image. This implied that every one else was just a slave of the gods via the gods’ appointed representative “images” ie the king and his priests. Given this status of a Mesopotamian king, to disregard the commandments of a king like Nebuchadnezer was to question not just the king, but Marduk himself, the primary deity of the Babylonians whom the king represented. You can understand why Shadrack, Meshack, Abednego and Daniel wouldn’t have been holding hands and singing kumbaya in Babylon, as recorded in the book of Daniel. Of course there were times Mesopotamian kings not only held their “image” status dear, but blurred the lines between being the image and being the god themselves, but that is of course the way of humans when power gets into their head.

Imago Dei in the Old Testament

However, the people of Israel tell a different story about human existence. Their story went like this.

  1. Yahweh, the Creator god, created all human beings in his image. All humans are of equal worth to Yahweh, meant to “rule over the earth”, not be slaves for the benefit of others made in his image.

  2. Being “made in Yahweh’s image”, each and every human being’s responsibility was to look a little bit like that of a previous group of people I have mentioned above who were made in the image of the gods in Mesopotamia – kings and priests. It is therefore not for fun that both Yahweh’s address to Israel after the exodus, and John of Patmos’ vision in the book of Revelation are aligned when they speak of Israel and the church respectively.

    Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’” (Ex 19:5-6 NIV)

    And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.”(Rev 5:9-10 NIV)

  3. The primary problem then would seem to be that humans have lost the sense of direction as to what god in whose image they were made. They therefore worship their own creation or themselves, and fail to live as Yahweh had designed them to live. Just as Eve got deceived by the serpent into thinking that the fruit of knowledge of good and evil was desirable for gaining wisdom” (Gen 3:6 NIV), humans craft their own “wisdom”, leaving behind the real source of wisdom – Yahweh himself. Hence the wisdom statement “the fear of Yahweh is the beginning of Wisdom” (Prov 9:10;Ps 111:10 NIV)

  4. And even when humans discern this god in whose image they were made (as Israel claimed to have discerned after the Exodus), they misunderstand understand his character and so do not reflect it properly. Speaking of Israel during the Exodus, Yahweh says:

    For forty years I loathed that generation, And said they are a people who err in their heart. And they do not know my ways” (Ps 95:10 NIV)

In short then, the key problem of human beings is not that they have failed some morality test that God set for Adam and Eve, but that they have rejected covenant relationship with the loving Creator god, Yahweh which will enable them to reflect his ways as image bearers upon this earth. This has lead to frustrations, inequality, poverty, violence and death. As NT Wright puts it in his book “The Day the Revolution Began”, the key problem of humanity is idolatory, leading to not being a true image bearer after the one in whose image we are made.

Once this conclusion hit me, being an avid reader of the Psalms and the prophets, I began to notice how stridently they criticize the “nations” aka Gentiles for not listening to Yahweh, and why Paul the apostle launches his epistle to the Romans with the standard Jewish criticism of this problem – the problem of idolatory leading to immorality.

Enter Jesus

Jesus enters the scene, and makes certain claims about his identity. The people of Israel think they know who Yahweh is, and what his character is like. But Jesus makes a scandalous claim – he is the embodiment of Yawheh, Israel’s God, and everything they previously knew about Yahweh, they knew in part. He had come to reveal Yahweh’s fullness. The Gospel of John puts the above scandalous statement pointedly.

No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” (Jn 1:18 NIV)

John even puts these words in Jesus’s own mouth

Stop grumbling amongst yourselves”, Jesus answered … “No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father.” (Jn 6:43-46 NIV)

The author of Hebrews nails it down further

The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Heb 1:3 NIV)

It is important that Christians not miss the implication of the incarnation of God in Jesus. Since Yahweh desired that the human beings he has so loving created in his image will actually learn to “be his image” (not the image of Marduk, Enlil, Zeus, money, sex, power and a million other gods that can be named) and to properly represent his character and “ways” on this earth, he came in the flesh and showed us who he was like. And when he had finished showing us who Yahweh was like in the person of Jesus – that Yahweh was a loving God who was willing to sacrifice himself even to death for the ones whom he loved, including for his enemies – he made a simple statement that large swathes of Christianity have been avoiding for centuries on end.

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35)

The implications are clear, if one is paying attention and not reading the Gospels as nice stories for Sunday school children.

  1. God has shown us his character and his ways in Jesus. To “worship” Yahweh then, is to “follow Jesus”.

  2. We who are created in his image are meant to follow in manifesting that character and way. There is a reason why the disciples were called “followers of The Way” (Ac 22:4).

  3. That way leads through the path of self-sacrifice and loss, and into eternal life both on this earth, and in the life to come.

  4. God himself takes upon himself defeats the powers of death and sin that enslave us from living as people made in his image by taking upon himself the punishment for our sins in the person of Jesus on the cross. We can now truly live as those made in his image.

The apostle Paul caps it off with a seminal statement about God’s goal for calling people into his church, using imago dei language of Genesis 1.

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29 NIV)

The Priority of Discipleship

The Christian life then, is centered around discipleship – following in the way of the one in whose image we were made. The Christian life is not about “saving souls” and giving them a ticket to heaven so they don’t go to hell. The Christian life is not about elevating “spiritual issues” over daily life ones. The Christian life is not about living in a constant state of “sin management”, as Dallas Willard puts it. All these are side issues that have clouded the real issue. The Christian life IS about being human on this beautiful earth that Yahweh, the Creator god intended for us to live, in anticipation of the new heaven and the new earth that he himself will bring to pass. In Jesus we see what it means to be human, because we see the character of him in whose image we were made. The church Father put it this way.

Christianity is an entirely new way of being human.”- Maximus the confessor,

And that is why Jesus reminded us of the 2 most important things in the world, what Scot McKnight calls “The Jesus Creed”. a) Worship the right God (Yahweh, as revealed by Jesus) and b) follow in that God’s ways (ie love your fellow human being as Yahweh does, for they are also created in Yahweh’s image, as you are).

The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mk 12:29)

Whenever we think discipleship is a side issue, whether in evangelism, apologetics, theology or running a church, we are indeed missing the heart of the matter.

Vicit Agnus Noster, Eum Sequamur – The Lamb has conquered, let us follow Him

 

Communion & The Greatest Commandment

Jouvenet_Last_SupperI have a confession to make – I’ve developed a deeper appreciation and interest in the Old Testament, and it’s deepening my reading and understanding of the New, especially of the Gospels and of Paul’s letters. It has also radically re-aligned my understanding of one of the most important practices within Christianity since it’s foundation – the Communion or Eucharist. This is partly because I’ve been reading a lot of OT scholars of late, but also because of Richard Hays’ enlightening work in “Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels” about making use of metalepsis when reading OT quotations one finds in the NT. By metalepsis, Hays simply means that when one sees a verse of the OT quoted in the NT, do not just look for the corresponding verse in the OT and be satisfied, but rather read the whole OT chapter or chapters from which that one verse was obtained and quoted in the NT. Following that advise has wrecked my theology of Communion – but only for the better. So let me share with you how metalepsis has challenged my understanding of Communion.

The Greatest Commandment

The Gospels record a time when Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment in the Torah. Jesus responded by saying

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment” (Mt 22:37-38 NIV)

Years ago I simply thought of this as an injunction to strengthen my personal relationship with God via much bible study, prayer, church activities and a zeal to be obedient to God’s laws as found in the Bible. Of course, having been brought up a Pentecostal, such an individualist interpretation of this passage is well within acceptable bounds and will be common to many readers of this post. But going back to read and reflect on Deuteronomy 6 where Jesus quotes this from yields a much more interesting interpretation than most will be used to.

The Shema, Ancient Israel and the Ancient Near East

If one reads the above passage from any good bible, one might see a footnote that points to Deut 6:5 as the source of Jesus’s quotation in Mt 22:37-38. What many readers of the bible may not know however is that Deuteronomy 6:4-9 is the foundation of a famous prayer called the Shema which was recited by Jews in Jesus’s day and is still recited by modern day practicing Jews as well. You can find out a bit more about it here. The fact that Jesus was quoting from the Shema is more obvious if you read Mark’s account of the interaction (Mk 12:29-34), which starts off with “Hear, O Israel…”, exactly as the opening line of the Shema.

Reading the whole of Deuteronomy 6 however, I found that the primary concern of Yahweh giving that commandment to love him so wholly was tied to something I’m discovering more and more all over both the OT and subsequently, seeing it’s footprints in the NT – Yahweh had a covenant relationship with Israel, who in their Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) culture were surrounded by many neighbouring nations who worshiped many other gods. Therefore this injunction to love Yahweh with their heart, soul and mind was a covenant reminder – a reminder not to go chasing after those other gods. Check out some subsequent verses in Deut 6.

It is the Lord your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear. You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are around you – for the Lord your God in your midst is a jealous God – lest the anger of the Lord your God be kindled against you, and he destroy you from off the face of the earth.” (Deut 6:13-15 NIV)

Note that the consequence of following those other gods were not just personal. This injunction was about the fate of the nation Israel, not about an individual’s own punishment.

I also began to notice that many of the commandments in the Torah are prefixed or suffixed by a reminder that Yahweh was the one who delivered them from Egypt (or the one who created the world) and hence the only one they were to worship (Ex 20:1-3; Deut 5:6-7; Lev 26:13-14).

Many of us modern readers may miss the seriousness of this injunction because we tend to have separations between our religious convictions and our day to day interactions with people around us, but in the ANE world, everybody’s religious beliefs were part and parcel of their lives and all activities, including how they related to other neighbours. Having one’s “personal” or “family” gods in addition to national gods was the norm, not the exception amongst ancient Israel’s neighboring nations with whom they interacted regularly.

Hence what Jesus calls “the greatest commandment” was a commandment to Israel mainly to remind them to avoid unfaithfulness to Yahweh and switching their loyalty away from him to other gods. It was a covenant reminder. In a culture that was surrounded by many gods, an intentional effort was needed to remind them of the one Creator god with whom they had a special relationship as a nation. Hence the encouragement not just to love with all their minds, heart and soul, but additionally to “impress them on your children”, “tie them as symbols on your hands” etc etc. As with all outward showings of belief aka rituals, doing these things were not a guarantee of one’s love for Yahweh, but a means to remind oneself of who one was vis-a-vis one’s God. Unfortunately as with all outward expressions of inner belief, sometimes the rituals themselves gain a life of their own, leaving what it was supposed to remind us of itself behind. This is exactly the case by the time Jesus arrived on the scene, but in addition this has been the bane of all religions, Jewish, Christian, Islam, you name it. Too many of us find our comfort in our symbols rather than what they are supposed to represent.

The Wine as a Covenant Reminder

Having been directed to the importance of covenant in understanding the death of Jesus Christ by Michael Gorman of which I wrote about here, my mind immediately saw the link between “The Greatest Commandment”, and the wine of communion. When Jesus picked up the wine to share with his disciples, he called it “the blood of the covenant” (Mt 26:28 NIV) and “new covenant in my blood”. In this process, Jesus was not only evoking the “blood of the covenant” in Ex 24:8, he also invoked Jeremiah’s prophecy of a “new covenant” (Jer 31:31). Mulling this over, I came to the following conclusion.

Drinking of the communion wine is primarily an act reminding us that we the gathered people together are in a covenant relationship with God. It is a reminder to uphold the 1st great commandment – to not follow any other god but Yahweh, who has revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ.

The Bread as Community and Unity Reminder

Which brought me then to the subject of the bread. I’m yet to find any Old Testament linkage of Jesus’s use of the bread to signify his body. However, looking at Paul’s epistles and his statements about “the body of Christ”, it seems to be that the bread then stands for the unity of the participants gathered as one people of God. Paying better attention to the full context of Paul’s injunctions in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 then, one sees Paul’s rebuke of disunity in the body of Christ at Corinth as manifesting itself in how they actually didn’t have “the Lord’s supper” , but rather were eating individual meals (v 20-21). And given that the whole NT is emphatic that love of God must lead to love of brother, I came to the second conclusion.

Eating the communion bread is primarily an act reminding us that we who are gathered are one in the body of Christ, accepted by grace and of equal worth before God. Just as the unleavened bread used in the Passover during Jesus’s last supper with the disciples, we are indeed holy and set apart for his purposes – that of being a royal priesthood and a holy nation for the benefit of the world. We are made up of Jews, Gentiles, slave, free, male, female, Ewe, Akan, Dagomba, Fante, American, Chinese, Yoruba, Igbo etc. Nothing must divide us, because nothing can separate us from the love of God which we already confess by taking the wine. It is a reminder of the second greatest commandment – love your neighbour as yourself.

Rethinking Christian Unity

Following from these 2 conclusions on Communion, it became more obvious to me the futility of building Christian unity without prioritizing what Jesus explicitly commanded we must do regularly – communion and its associated Christian fellowship. As I put on my Facebook wall recently, Jesus never said “when you meet, have bible discussions in remembrance of me”, but rather speaking of communion, he says “do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me”. As Scott McKnight pointed out recently whiles reviewing Christian Smith’s “The Bible Made Impossible” (a book I enjoyed myself and highly recommend), it is impossible to build unity around unity of biblical interpretations, and the abundance of divisions between many churches all claiming to obtain their authority from “Scripture only” is clear evidence to that fact. Unity built on “doctrine” and biblical interpretations is only possible among those who hold the same thoughts on these kinds of matters, which renders the concept of Christian unity quite unattainable.

Conclusion

So, I’ve come to some conclusions after such re-arrangement of my mental furniture regarding communion, Christian unity and the Great commandments. Whiles I continue to vigorously pursue improving my understanding of Jesus via the study of scripture, of theology and cultural/historical backgrounds of the biblical text, I’ve resolved that the pursuit of fellowship takes precedence over the pursuit of theological “rightness”. I’ve found myself having communion in some “unapproved” locations with some “unapproved” friends, and we’ve enjoyed doing so tremendously. This has not dulled my interest in learning one bit, but has rather led me to understand Jesus better – he was more interested in gaining a “negative” reputation for spending time eating and drinking with the “unacceptables” than he was pleasing the theological gatekeepers of his time. He didn’t have to compromise any of the truth he knew, but he knew that truth has a purpose – that in him (Jesus Christ) “God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor 5:19)

Isn’t it genius of Jesus to use the one practice he commanded us to do regularly to also serve as a means to remind us of the 2 Greatest Commandments?

Book Review: The Lost Word of Genesis One

lost_word_john_waltonIt occurred to me this weekend that though I read and recommend many books, mostly on theology, discipleship and church practice, I’ve never written a review of any of them before for the benefit of other people who might find these books useful themselves. So henceforth, I’ll be writing reviews of books which I find significant as I read them. And I’m starting off with a highly controversial one on no other subject than Genesis One. Hope you stick around for this and other reviews in the future.

PS: This will be a long review because I have a vested interest in this subject, as I’m sure many do.

How I Came to Be Reading It

I first heard of a cosmic temple way of looking at creation from NT Wright when he referred to GK Beale. Though I’m yet to read Beale himself on the subject (his book is still on my Amazon wishlist), subsequent references to the cosmos as the temple of God by other writers, as well as of Scott McKnight’s recommendation of John H. Walton’s take on Genesis 1-3 led me to this book instead. Interestingly I read the second in this “Lost World” series – “The Lost Word of Adam and Eve” before this one, but now I wish I’d bought and read this one first. Sigh. As they say, the water has already passed under the bridge. Suffice it to say that I need to go back and read his take on Adam and Eve again.

Who the Author Is

John H. Walton is Old Testament Professor at Wheaton College, a conservative evangelical university which was recently in the news in the issue of Prof Hawkins and her statements about Christians worshiping the same God as Muslims. Previously he was Old Testament Professor at Moody Bible Institute. One cannot get more conservative than Moody, which makes Walton an even more interesting character for his conclusions and perspectives.

The Book Proper

John Walton’s “The Lost Word of Genesis One – Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate” presents his ideas in the form of propositions he makes, and then explains in detail why he makes each proposition. His later propositions are more or less implications of accepting his earlier propositions, as any logical writer will do.

The Key Premise

The key to his propositions is that for too long, many interpreters of Genesis 1 have been approaching the subject from a material perspective – being more interested in the how of creation rather than a functional perspective – which is more interested in the why of creation. This has then led to the development of many “camps” in the attempt to interpret Genesis 1 to fit a materialistic ontology – ontology is a fancy word for “what it means for X to exist” where X is anything we want.

This has led to the development of 3 main camps when it comes to Genesis stories

  1. The Young Earth camp, which believe the earth must be only about 6000 years old or so and that everything happened exactly as described by Genesis 1 and reject modern scientific conclusions about the universe as we have it and the origins of humanity. Most Ghanaian Christians I know fall in this category mostly by default.

  2. The Old Earth/Intelligent Design Camp who accept most of what the scientists say about the origins of the earth i.e. that its millions of years old etc and not 6000 years or so, but still insist that the bible reveals scientifically how God created this world and must be factored into the equation when looking at scientific questions of origins.

  3. The evolutionists (both natural and theistic) evolutionists who believe that the bible doesn’t necessarily reveal the scientific details of how the earth and humans came to be, and side with whatever is the best scientific theory to explain the world and humanity today, including the current dominating theory of evolution.

John’s premise is that all these camps are stuck in a material ontology – they assume that Genesis 1-3 must be talking about the how of creation, not the why of creation. He then challenges all 3 camps to take Genesis and the Old Testament seriously not on the grounds of how modern people read a text, but how the ancient people to whom Yahweh was revealing himself as the creator of the world, would have understood what he was saying. He makes the following caution, one that expresses a warning I’ve learnt and give out to others copiously when it comes to reading the bible.

The Old Testament does communicate to us and it was written for us, and for all mankind. But it was NOT written to us. It was written to Israel. It is God’s revelation of himself to Israel, and secondarily through Israel to everyone else”. pp 7

Ontology

He gives examples of ontology, and shows that we all do speak of ontology in different ways, but seem to limit ourselves once we come to the book of Genesis.

For example, when we say that a chair exists, we are expressing a conclusion on the basis of an assumption that certain properties of the chair define it as existing … in our contemporary ways of thinking, a chair exists because it is material … we can analyze what it is made from. These physical qualities are what make the chair real, and because of them, we consider it to exist”. pp 21

But he throws in another mode of “existence” – a functional mode.

Consider a restaurant that is required to display it’s current permit from the city department of health. Without that permit, the restaurant could be said not to exist, for it cannot do any business … here … it is the government permit that causes that restaurant to exist, and its existence is defined in functional terms”. pp 23

Even staying in the realm of English usage we can see that we don’t always use the verb create in material terms. When we create a committee, create a curriculum, create havoc or create a masterpiece, we are not involved in a material manufacturing process”. pp 24

In effect then, “our material view of ontology in turn determines how we think about creation”.

ANE Cultural Survey

He proceeds in a survey of Ancient Near Eastern creation stories from Israel’s neighbours – Egyptians, Babylonians, Sumerians, Akkadian, Canaanites etc, and shows how their creation stories are functional in nature – describing how the god/gods created the earth, making it suitable for habitation by humans by establishing these:

  1. Day and night

  2. The weather cycles i.e. creation of clouds, winds, rain, sun etc.

  3. Separation of the earth from the land for vegetation to grow and to enable agriculture

Interestingly we almost see the same pattern after the flood of Noah when God promises that

As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease” (Gen 8:22)

Here Yahweh’s focus is not on the material form in which these things will take during their restoration, but the functional form in which they will take – to serve the needs of mankind so they can flourish again.

This doesn’t mean that the god/gods couldn’t have bothered about the exact how of their material creation, but simply that the fact that creation is material is taken for granted, and the focus is on placing these created things in such a way that it makes human life possible.

Hebrew Context of Genesis 1

Walton the proceeds to do a textual and cultural analysis of the occurrences of key words used in the creation narrative, and deals with words and phrases like “In the beginning”, “formless and void” (tohu va bohu), “create” (bara).

In the case of “bara”, the Hebrew word for “create”, he shows all the 50 occurrences of it in the Old Testament, arguing that a large percentage of the usages of the word are for non-functional purposes. He questions those who believe that “bara” in the context of Genesis 1 MUST mean material creation by the ff statement.

How interesting it is that these scholars then draw the conclusion that “bara” implies creation out of nothing (ex nihilo). One can see with a moment of thought that such a conclusion assumes that “create” is a material activity … Since “create” is a material activity (assumed on their part), and since the context never mentions the materials used (as demonstrated by the evidence), then the material object must have been brought into existence without using other materials (i.e. out of nothing) … [however] the absence of reference to materials, rather than suggesting material creation out of nothing, is better explained as indication that “bara” is not a material activity but functional one.” pp 42.

On this last point about functional usage of “bara” he makes a deeply stunning claim

This is not a view that has been rejected by other scholars; it is simply one they have never considered because their material ontology was a blind presupposition for which no alternative was ever considered.” pp 42.

In his opinion then, day 1 to 3 describes the creation of functions – day and night on Day 1, using the standard Jewish mode of counting days by “evening and morning” (v 3-5); the separation of waters above and waters below for dry land on Day 2 using concepts that were normal to ancient people because in ancient times people believed the sky was solid, holding up the rain with windows being opened to cause rain to fall ( v 6-8); and God simply speaking (this time the word “create” or “made” is not even used) to cause the separation of land from sea and speaking again to cause the land to produce vegetation.

Day 4 to 6 then describe functionaries – those who will function within ordered space. Day 4 sees the creation of the greater light (sun) and the lesser light (moon) to govern the day and night, and to mark off “signs, seasons, days and years”. I commend the NIV’s translation that says “let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years”. Walton points out that “The Hebrew word [seasons] when it is used elsewhere designates the festival celebrations that are associated with the sowing season, the harvesting season and so on”. The word then should not be associated with our scientific “Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall” or the Ghanaian “Harmattan and Rainy Season”. Note again that in Day 4 to 6, Yahweh largely speaks, assigning function, which is common to ANE contexts when a functional mode of creation is in view. Where he “creates”, he’d already “spoken” of what these functionaries should do, which should point us to the functional nature of the usage of the word “bara”/ “create” in these passages. Of course in Day 6, he creates mankind in his image. Note here that it doesn’t say he created Adam and Eve, but mankind. This leaves room for questions about whether Adam and Eve are the first human beings or not, but that’s a question for the second book.

Walton’s conclusions on Day 7 was for me the most revealing portion, shedding light on the rest of the days before it, and also on the rest of the bible story. Walton points out that whereas most modern people would have seen Day 7 as God simply resting i.e. taking a nap after all the hard work six days prior, an ANE reader will have seen it for exactly what it is – when a god/gods enter a temple to take their “rest”, it means it’s now time for the god/gods to actually operate after the previous days of preparation/consecration of that temple for the god. “Rest” then is not the ceasing of work for its sake, but the operation of a temple according to the way it’s supposed to have been operated after all the functions have been put in place and the functionaries i.e. priests have been appointed and consecrated. This would then hark back to the 2 Chron 5 and 1 Kings 8 where immediately the ark of the covenant was brought into the temple built by Solomon, the glory of the Lord filled the temple, a sign that Yahweh had “rested” in his temple after the 7 long years of construction, and which “rest” was then followed by “seven days and seven days more” of feasting by the people of Israel (1 Ki 8:65). It is from this Day 7 that Walton obtains the term “cosmic temple inauguration” to describe this view of Genesis 1.

Summary

Based on these descriptions of the functional nature of God’s creative activity in the 6 days of creation, and his “rest” on the 7th day, Walton proceeds in his remaining propositions to explain the implications of reading Genesis 1 as a functional and not material creation description.

  1. Though certain camps claim that they are taking Genesis 1 “literally”, they might find that they are rather imposing modern categories of material ontology on an ancient document whose focus is on functional ontology (I’m looking at you, Young Earth creationists). Speaking on the subject of “literal” meanings, he retorts “Someone who claims a ‘literal’ reading based on their thinking about the English word ‘create’ may not be reading the text literally at all, because the English word is of little significance in the discussion” pp 169.

  2. There’s no need for Christians to insist that science MUST align with Genesis, and the effort to align Genesis with science, especially to insist that the dominant scientific theory has holes in it that can only be filled by the existence of God (aka God of the gaps or Intelligent Design) is again barking up the wrong tree. Here I quote Walton himself – “If randomness cannot be sustained in certain cases, that still does not ‘prove’ design. Likewise, if design cannot be sustained in certain cases, that does not ‘prove’ randomness”. He goes on to say “We are fully aware that what we call ‘scientific truth’ one day may be different from the next day. Divine intention must not be held hostage to to the ebb and flow of scientific theory”.

  3. Modern Christianity must revises it’s attachment to the “natural/supernatural” dualism that modernization has now imbued us with. A large part of the resistance towards science is driven by the fear that if science provides a “natural” cause for an event, it means God could not have been involved in it. The idea of a “natural”/ “supernatural” explanation for the occurrences we find in creation is not natural to ancient readers, and is imported into the text by modern readers.

  4. Having revised our dualism as above, Christianity must then resist the attempt by some scientists to assert that because evolution may be the best scientific explanation for the world today, it presupposes that there is no meaning to our existence because “God couldn’t have been involved in it”. Science cannot prove purpose, it can only explain process. The idea that creation is purposeless is exactly what a cosmic temple view of Genesis undermines – it rather puts more responsibility on us as Christians to realize that existence is teleological i.e. purposeful. It has a goal, signified by understanding Genesis 1 as God creating for us a place where he could dwell with us and where we could share with him the task of taking good care of his temple – of his sacred space. No matter what scientific theory explains how we got here, that purpose will never change.

  5. Christians then should not feel the need to choose “science or faith”, because Genesis 1 is not meant to be a scientific description of material creation. Christians can and must engage in the sciences fully, knowing that their goal, just like every scientist is to make discoveries that are beneficial to human flourishing, whether other scientists are unwilling to admit God’s activity in those discoveries or process or not. Schools should teach whatever scientific explanations are currently accepted, without asserting meaninglessness or purposelessness.

Why I Find Him Convincing

Many people will find John H. Walton’s perspectives uncomfortable, and although there are still a few questions brewing in my head, I find his cosmic temple inauguration view a much better model of understanding Genesis 1 than the young Earth Creationist one I grew up with. My reasons are below.

  1. Having received previous theological shocks through reading New Testament theology with the history of 2nd temple Judaism in mind, I’ve come to see how immensely important historical context is to reading a text. Therefore I have no qualms at all with Walton’s prejudicing of Ancient Near Eastern history as a means of understanding Genesis 1. Cultures are never isolated and always imbibe and absorb from one another. To think that ancient Israel will be immune to this is to ignore the reality of human societies in favour of utopia.

  2. A cosmic temple view of creation makes sense of God’s desires to dwell with his people expressed in the Old Testament, and is also in line with the picture and activities of God revealed in Revelations 21 & 22 where heaven and earth come together and God dwells amongst us, with no temple because he himself is the temple.

  3. A cosmic temple view of creation, with humans being the images of the God of this temple, aligns very well also with both the Old and New Testament emphasis on God’s people (whether Israel in ancient times or the church today) being a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation”, tasked with carrying forth the task of “subduing the earth” i.e. of taking care of God’s temple in which we live.

  4. Walton’s views radically change the relationship between science and faith. Christians can stop being so scared of science not aligning with Genesis and get on with the business and purposes of their God – a purpose that science can never discover (because teleology is not possible to establish scientifically), but which Yahweh revealed to ancient Israel and which we have received today to carry forward.

  5. His view of rest also helps to explain Jesus’s almost “lackadaisical” attitude towards the Sabbath. Contrary to the idea of taking a nap, Jesus shocks the Pharisees with the statement that “My Father is always at work to this very day, and I’m working too” (Jn 5:17). Sabbath should remind us of whose in charge, and remind us of what we are called to be – stewards of the one in charge for the benefit of humanity and for creation itself. Hesitation in that responsibility of care is to lose sight of that calling, whether it’s a Sabbath or not.

Okay, this has been too long a post already. I hope to bring you a review of “The Lost World of Adam And Eve” soon, as I need to go back and digest it again. But certainly, Walton has an admirer in me.