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Thursday, 18 December 2014

The Phanerosis doctrine of Dr. John Thomas: a short critique

One of the last writings of Dr. John Thomas, founder of the Christadelphians, was a booklet called Phanerosis. Published in 1869, two years before his death, it represented a mature expression of his theology, and in the typical style of the day, a lengthy subtitle declared it to be
An Exposition of the Doctrine of the Old and New testaments, concerning the Manifestation of the Invisible Eternal God in Human Nature, being alike subversive of Jewish Rabbinical Tradition, and the Theology of Romish and Protestant Sectarianism.
Now, the title of the work is a Greek word which occurs in the New Testament. The noun φανέρωσις (phanerōsis) occurs twice and the verb φανερόω (phaneroō) occurs 49 times.1

Why did Dr. Thomas choose to title his work with a Greek word rather than an English word (a tactic also used in his other works such as Elpis Israel and Anastasis)? As he noted in the preface,
This is a Greek word in an English dress, and may be found in the lexicons in this form, φανέρωσις; and occurring in the phrase ή φανερωσις της αληθειας, 'the manifestation of the truth.'2
This does not reveal the rationale for the title. However, it should probably be understood as a claim that this word, as used in Scripture, constitutes a technical term for the theological concept of God-manifestation as he understood it. As will be seen below, Dr. Thomas coined the adjective 'phanerosial' to describe his doctrine.

What does the Christadelphian doctrine of God manifestation entail? It is best to explain it in Dr. Thomas' own words using excerpts from Phanerosis:
We affirm, then, that the Mosaic and prophetic revelation concerning Deity is that there is One Power, multitudinously manifested; and that these manifestations constitute ‘GOD.’... Our proposition then, is, that Moses and the Prophets teach, that there were One Primary Creating Power and a multitude of Secondary Powers, as intimately connected with and dependent on the First, as ten or a hundred are upon number one; and that this multiplication of the One Power in the relation of Father, Sons, and Holy Spirit, was in existence before the Mosaic Creation. 3
As we have seen, Moses and the prophets teach ONE self-existent, supreme fountain of Power, AIL, who is Spirit, and self-named I SHALL BE, of Yahweh: that this ONE YAHWEH-SPIRIT POWER is ‘God’ in the highest sense and constitutes the ‘Godhead,’ or FATHER IN HEAVEN; that He is the Springhead of many streams, or rivers of spirit, which assume ORGANIC FORMS, according to the will of the Yahweh-Spirit Power, and that when formed after the model, archetype, or pattern, presented in HIS OWN HYPOSTASIS, or Substance, they become SPIRIT-ELOHIM, or sons of God; and are Spirit, because ‘born of the Spirit’ – Emanations of the formative Spirit being ex autou out of him. The Spirit-Elohim was also ‘God;’ nevertheless they are created. They are formed and made out of and by that which is uncreated. They are Spirit-Forms, the substance of which (spirit) is eternal; while the forms are from a beginning. Each one is a God in the sense of partaking of THE DIVINE NATURE, and being therefore a Son of God.4
Paul and Moses agree in this, as we have shown before, saying, ‘There be that are called Gods, whether in heaven or in earth, as there be Gods many and Lords many.’ There is consequently no room for dispute on this point. Paul affirms the plurality of Gods, and Moses shows that they existed before the creation of man.5
There are not three Gods in the Godhead, nor are there but three in manifestation; nevertheless, the Father is God, and Jesus is God; and we may add, so are all the brethren of Jesus gods; and ‘a multitude which no man can number.’ The Godhead is the homogeneous fountain of the Deity; these other gods are the many streams from which this fountain flow. The springhead of Deity is one, not many; the streams as numerous as the orbs of the universe, in which a manifestation of Deity may have hitherto occurred.6
Strictly speaking, based on the way he uses the word 'Gods', Dr. Thomas' doctrine is open to the charge of polytheism, which is defined as "belief in many gods". Although this is mitigated by the affirmation that there is only one supreme, self-existent fountain of Power, this too is consistent with polytheism in which "The numerous gods may be dominated by a supreme god."7

Moreover, based on the way he uses the word 'God', Dr. Thomas' doctrine is open to the charge of something akin to pantheism, inasmuch as 'God' seems to be understood in less than personal terms, analogous to a kind of energy or matter.

It is beyond the scope of this short blog post to examine in detail Dr. Thomas' biblical arguments for his position. However it will be worthwhile to look briefly at two lines of argument; one from the Old Testament, and one from the New.

The shema‘ (Deuteronomy 6:4) has long been considered the bedrock of Jewish monotheism. However, according to Dr. Thomas, the main idea conveyed by this passage is not simple monotheism but multitudinous God-manifestation. He states that "in plain English", the proclamation translates as, "Hear, O Israel! I WILL BE our MIGHTIES is One I will be!"8 This English strikes the reader as anything but plain. Beyond the stylistic concerns, however, this translation is at odds with nearly all interpretations of this passage in history, both Jewish and Christian, as is Dr. Thomas' claim that "The Shema proclaims a plurality of Elohim".9

In line with this interpretation, Dr. Thomas notes that there are 2470 [sic] occurrences of the plural 'elohim in the Old Testament. He refers to the work of the grammarian Gesenius who explained the great majority of these plural instances metaphorically to express the majesty or excellency of God. Disagreeing that this pecularity of grammar is to be explained stylistically, Dr. Thomas asserts that "The peculiarity is, to coin a word, phanerosial and doctrinal".10

This assertion was out of line with expert scholarship then, as it is now. Ringgren writes:
The form 'elohim occurs 2570 times in all, with both the plural ('gods') and the singular ('a god,' 'God') meaning. As a rule, verbs and adjectives used with 'elohim are either singular or plural in conformity with the meaning; there are only rare exceptions. Why the plural form for 'God' is used has not yet been explained satisfactorily. Perhaps the plural also or even originally designated not a plurality, but an intensification; then 'elohim would mean the 'great,' 'highest,' and finally 'only' God, i.e., God in general.11
That the plural use of 'elohim is intended to convey the doctrine of God-manifestation, in the shema‘ and in many other passages, can be definitely ruled out. In the first place, if the meaning of 'elohim is truly plural in order to convey the notion of God-manifestation, then how is one to explain the use of the plural 'elohim for singular false gods? In 2 Kings 1:2, Baal-Zebub is the god ('elohim) of Ekron. In 1 Kings 11:33 Ashtoreth is the goddess ('elohim) of the Sidonians, Chemosh is the god ('elohim) of the Moabites, and Molek is the god ('elohim) of the Ammonites (1 Kings 11:33). In 1 Samuel 28:13, the witch of Endor uses the word 'elohim to describe the singular figure she sees coming up out of the earth. It is inconceivable that in any of these cases the plural form conveys the doctrine of God-manifestation; thus the plural of 'elohim must be explained in another way, along the lines of Ringgren above.

Furthermore, if 'elohim truly carries a plural and doctrinally significant sense when used of Yahweh in Old Testament passages, why is 'elohim invariably translated into Greek with the singular θεός (theos) rather than the plural θεοί (theoi) when these passages are quoted in the New Testament? This includes the quotation of the shema‘ by Jesus in Mark 12:29. Jesus evidently knew nothing of a multitudinous interpretation of this proclamation. (Remarkably, Dr. Thomas discusses this text in Phanerosis, but seems to have missed the significance of the singular θεός. He states that "not content with one Eternal Spirit named Yahweh, the rejector of Jesus contends for only one eloahh").12

With the principal Old Testament argument for his doctrine of God-manifestation seen to be flawed, let us turn to the New Testament. It is evident that one verse (1 Timothy 3:16) does much of the heavy lifting in the New Testament argument for Dr. Thomas' doctrine of God-manifestation. This verse is the only place in Scripture which explicitly says something approaching the subtitle of Phanerosis, namely, "the Manifestation of the Invisible Eternal God in Human Nature", inasmuch as it appears to use the verb phaneroō with God as its subject and 'flesh' as its object.
Dr. Thomas stresses the importance of this text as follows:
This mystery, which, as we see, was the burden of the apostolic preaching, was a great enigma – an enigma, dramatically, as well as doctrinally, explained. ‘Without controversy,’ says Paul, ‘great is the mystery of godliness – DEITY MANIFESTED IN FLESH, justified by spirit, made visible to messengers, preached among nations, believed on in the world, received again to glory.’ (1 Tim. iii. 16). It would be premature to go into the consideration of these six points of godliness. It is sufficient just now to bear in mind that they exist, and constitute integral parts of God-Manifestation as far as at present developed.13
A major problem with using this as a proof text for Dr. Thomas' doctrine of God-manifestation is that, in the opinion of most New Testament textual scholars, the correct reading of 1 Timothy 3:16b is not, "God (or Deity) was manifested in the flesh" (KJV), but "He was manifested in the flesh" or "He who was manifested in the flesh". The earliest and best manuscripts support the reading ὅς or ὅ rather than θεός. As Metzger explains,
no uncial (in the first hand) earlier than the eighth or ninth century supports theos; all ancient versions presuppose hos or ho; and no patristic writer prior to the last third of the fourth century testifies to the reading theos. The reading theos arose either (a) accidentally, through the misreading of ΟΣ as ΘΣ, or (b) deliberately, either to supply a substantive for the following six verbs, or, with less probability, to provide greater dogmatic precision.14
Nearly all modern translations follow the reading "He" or "He who" (NIV, NASB, NRSV, NET, ESV, etc.) Since the rest of the verse clearly refers to the life of Jesus Christ, it is best to take 'Jesus Christ' as the referent of the pronoun.

What this means, in short, is that 1 Timothy 3:16, the primary proof text for Dr. Thomas' doctrine of Phanerosis, actually says nothing about God being manifested in the flesh; it instead states that Christ was manifested in flesh. This is a statement of considerable Christological significance. As Lau explains,
the subject of the construction is clearly not God or any of his qualities or attributes, but Jesus Christ, who was revealed/appeared ἐν σαρκί, in a human body. Seen in the language of revelation this dative construction contains a profound christological implication... while ἐφανερώθη ἐν σαρκί is not a categorical assertion of Christ's pre-existence and his incarnational ministry and does not explicitly tell us of the mystery's hiddenness and subsequent revelation, the language and thought of line 1 echo that used elsewhere in the NT to depict how the Son of God had entered history, incarnated at a particular moment in time (cf. 'came into the world' - 1 Tim. 1.15; cf. 2.5-6); ἐφανερώθη ἐν σαρκί indeed can be understood in terms of the revelation and the execution of God's salvation-plan in the historical (incarnate) appearing of Christ on earth.15
Interestingly, if we look at the other uses of the verb phaneroō in the New Testament, we find that Christ (or an attribute of Christ) is the referent in the majority of cases: Mark 16:12, 1416; John 1:31; 2:11; 7:4; 21:1; 21:14; 2 Corinthians 4:10-11; Colossians 3:4; Hebrews 9:26; 1 Peter 1:20; 5:4; 1 John 2:28; 3:2, 5, 8. For instance, 1 John 3:8 tells us that "the Son of God appeared" (or was manifested).

Besides these, in one passage Jesus is said to manifest God's Name (John 17:6). In two other passages, God's attributes (but not God Himself) are said to be manifested through believers (2 Corinthians 2:14; 1 John 4:9). The noun phanerōsis is used both of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:7) and the truth (2 Corinthians 4:2). While the idea of God revealing Himself to the world, particularly through Christ, is of course present throughout the New Testament, the idea of Deity as "One Power, multitudinously manifested" is nowhere stated.

Phanerosis was a poor choice of title, since the various forms of this word are never used in Scripture to describe the doctrinal concept proposed in this booklet. We might excuse Dr. Thomas on the grounds that he did not have access to the text-critical resources which make it clear that the A.V. rendering of 1 Timothy 3:16 is incorrect. However, no such excuse exists in our day.

In conclusion, there is no reason to think that the word Phanerosis is a technical term for a particular biblical doctrine. However, the primary theological significance attached to this word in the New Testament is that God's Son, Jesus Christ, appeared in the flesh in human history to take away sins, manifested His divine glory through works of power and through the resurrection, and will appear again to bring life to those who believe in Him. As the one and only Son He made the invisible God visible. The true significance of Phanerosis is primarily Christological, unlike Dr. Thomas' doctrine of God manifestation which reduces Jesus Christ to one of a multitude of creature-gods.

1 There is also an adjective φανερός (phaneros, 18 times) and an adverb φανερῶς (phanerōs, 3 times).
2 Thomas, J. (1869). Phanerosis: An Exposition of the Doctrine of the Old and New Testaments, Concerning the Manifestation of the Invisible Eternal God in Human Nature, Being Alike Subversive of Jewish Rabbinical Tradition and the Theology of Romish and Protestant Sectarianism. Birmingham: William H. Davis, p. ii.
3 Thomas, Phanerosis, p. 20.
4 Thomas, Phanerosis, p. 23.
5 Thomas, Phanerosis, p. 24.
6 Thomas, Phanerosis, p. 39.
7 Merriam-Webster Concise Encyclopedia. (n.d.) Polytheism. Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/concise/polytheism
8 Thomas, Phanerosis, p. 29.
9 Thomas,

Phanerosis, p. 31.
10 Thomas, Phanerosis, p. 17 (italics his).
11 Ringgren, H. (1974). 'elohim. In G.J. Botterweck & H. Ringgren (Eds.), Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp. 272-273.
12 Thomas, Phanerosis, p. 32.
13 Thomas, Phanerosis, p. 13.
14 Metzger, B.M. (2002). A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd Ed.). Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, p. 574.
15 Lau, A.Y. (1996). Manifest in Flesh: The Epiphany Christology of the Pastoral Epistles. Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, pp. 98-99.
16 Note, however, that as part of the long ending of Mark's Gospel, the authenticity of these verses is suspect.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Which came first, the magi visit or the temple visit? Some Christmas chronology

(Note: for a short history of Christmas, and my view on whether the church should celebrate it, see here).

Popular Christmas folklore depicts the magi arriving at the manger in Bethlehem to pay homage and offer gifts to the newborn king, Jesus. This heartwarming story is reenacted countless times every year in Christmas plays. In contrast, another story from the Gospels' infancy narratives, namely the story of baby Jesus' encounter with the prophet Simeon and the prophetess Anna in the temple in Jerusalem, seems to receive little attention in Christmas observance.

The interesting thing is that an examination of the Gospel accounts makes it apparent that the visit of the magi occurred after the trip to the temple - perhaps even several months later!

The visit of the magi is recorded only in Matthew, while the trip to the temple for purification is found only in Luke, which makes it difficult to determine which occurred first. However, there are a number of clues that can assist us.

Firstly, Matthew does not say that the magi came to a manger or even to an inn, but to a house (Matthew 2:11). This suggests that by this time Mary and Joseph were no longer at the inn, which would rule out the magi having come on the very night of Jesus' birth.

Secondly, based on Herod's discussions with the wise men, he seems to have reckoned that Jesus might have been as old as two years by the time he gave the order to massacre the baby boys of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16). While Herod in his cruelty might well have estimated conservatively to maximize his chances of killing the young king, his estimate of two years still makes it likely that Jesus was at least a few months old by this time. This would place the visit of the magi after the visit to the temple, which can be dated precisely to 41 days after Jesus' birth (eight days until circumcision and an additional 33 days for Mary's purification as prescribed in Leviticus 12:1-7). We cannot assume that they traveled exactly on the 41st day, but being faithful Jews they would surely not have delayed the trip more than a day or two beyond that.

Thirdly, the Law stated that the mother should bring a lamb and a pigeon or turtledove to offer. If she was unable to afford a lamb she could bring two pigeons or two turtledoves (Leviticus 12:8). Mary brought two turtledoves, indicating that she and Joseph were too poor to afford a lamb. However, if the magi had already come with their expensive gifts of gold, incense and myrrh, surely Mary and Joseph would have been able to afford a lamb.

Fourthly, Matthew's account tells us that "when they had gone", an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and warned him to take the family to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-14). That they left during the night suggests that their departure was immediate. Theoretically there could have been time for a trip to the temple between the departure of the magi and Joseph's dream; however it seems unlikely that God would have allowed this trip knowing that Herod sought the child's life. It is certainly inconceivable that a trip to the temple could have taken place after Joseph's dream since this would entail blatant disregard for the angel's instructions to take flight.

In summary, there is ample evidence to support the conclusion that the trip to the temple took place about six weeks after Jesus' birth, and that the visit of the magi and consequent flight into Egypt took place at some point thereafter, perhaps as late as the second year of Jesus' life.

The one significant difficulty with this chronology is that Luke reports that "When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth" (Luke 2:39). If the visit of the magi in Bethlehem was still in the future at this point, why does Luke have the family returning to Nazareth?

Like Matthew, Luke was aware that Jesus was born in Bethlehem but raised in Nazareth. Unlike Matthew, however, Luke seems not to have been aware of the visit of the magi or the flight into Egypt. Since Luke had no other events to place between the temple purification and Jesus' upbringing in Nazareth, it was only natural to transition the narrative by having the family return from the temple to Nazareth.

Luke has not made any statement that should cause us to doubt his historical credibility or indeed his divine inspiration. He has simply omitted information that was not available to him, and joined together as smoothly as possible the material that was available to him.

The conclusion we have reached has implications for the celebration of Christmas. If the visit of the magi is close enough in time to Jesus' birth to be celebrated at Christmas (and I certainly have no objection to this), then the visit of the holy family to the temple ought also to be celebrated at Christmas. In particular, the canticle of Simeon, the so-called Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:29-35) is theologically rich and contains a veiled link between the Christmas story and the greater story of the cross. I would love to see this passage gain a more prominent place in the church's observance of Christmas.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Who tempted Jesus in the wilderness? Ten points to ponder

Accounts of Jesus' temptations in the wilderness are found in Mark 1:13, Matthew 4:1-11, and Luke 4:1-13. In all three accounts an agent of temptation is identified. But who was 'he'? Traditional Christian teaching has identified this 'devil' as a supernatural personal being. Today, however, many Christians regard such a doctrine as an embarrassing relic of pre-modern thought. Some claim that while Jesus and the early church no doubt believed in such a devil, we cannot, and so we have a warrant to reinterpret, 'demythologize' or 'psychologize' this tempter. Others go further and claim that these texts were never intended to convey the idea of a personal devil in the first place. On the vanguard of this school of thought have been the Christadelphians, a millenarian group which formed in the mid-19th century. 

The founder of the movement, a British medical doctor named John Thomas, understood the biblical devil to be a figurative depiction of sin. However, in the case of the wilderness temptations he taught that the tempter was an unspecified human being; thus, still an external tempter. He was followed in this interpretation by his successor as the de facto head of the movement, Robert Roberts. However, it was eventually supplanted by a different view (familiar to but rejected by Roberts) which regarded the devil as a personification of Jesus' own internal desires and hence interpreted the whole account figuratively. In other words, it is held that the Gospel writers (and ultimately Jesus himself) internalized and psychologized the devil. Thus the 'modern' view of the devil is not a modern innovation; it was there in the text all along, just waiting to be discovered! This latter view dominates Christadelphian teaching today.

The Christadelphian interpretations allow Christians to circumvent having to come to terms with a Jesus who believed in a personal devil. However, as attractive as this feature might be to the modern mind, the main question that must be asked is how the original readers of the Gospels are likely to have understood the temptation narratives. What follows is a ten-point summary of more detailed analyses of the temptation narratives (here and here), intended as talking points to assist Christadelphians and others in arriving at a sound biblical answer to the question posed in the title.

1. The genre of the Gospels is narrative.

There can be no doubt that, broadly speaking, the genre of the Gospels is narrative; that is, they report a series of related events. The writers expected their readers to understand these documents as narrating factual, literal events in the life of the historical person Jesus of Nazareth. Thus, when we encounter the temptation accounts, which certainly sound like narrative, our first impression is surely to read them as factual, literal events in the life of Jesus.

To say that these accounts are not straightforward, literal narrative but rather figurative prose is to claim that the writers are using a very subtle and sophisticated literary technique here. Besides being subtle and sophisticated, this technique is completely without parallel in the Gospels, which otherwise stick rigidly to the narrative genre.

True, there is material within the Gospel narratives that falls under other genres, such as parables and discourses. Such material is more likely to contain literary devices such as personification. However, this material is easily distinguished from the narrative itself inasmuch as it is invariably spoken by one of the characters in the story - usually Jesus himself. By contrast, the temptation accounts are not spoken by Jesus but are presented as a story involving Jesus. And there are simply no other stories involving Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels which could be construed as anything other than straightforward narrative.

This is why appeals to personification in other parts of Scripture, such as Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 8, fail to establish a precedent for a figurative reading of the temptation accounts: they fail to take into account the vast difference in genre between poetic wisdom literature and Gospel narrative.

Before even looking at the text in detail, on the grounds of genre alone, a straightforward, literal reading of the temptation narratives is necessarily the default interpretation and a figurative reading must be judged an unlikely possibility which carries a very heavy burden of proof.

2. The importance of Mark's account

Mark's very brief temptation account is sometimes passed over as though it has nothing to tell us about the tempter that is not found in Matthew or Luke. However, Mark's version is actually very significant for two reasons.

Mark is generally agreed to have been written before Matthew and Luke, the latter two having used Mark as a source. However, Matthew and Luke evidently had a different (and probably common) source for the temptation narrative. This hypothetical source is referred to by scholars as Q. It is clear that the agent of temptation in the Q source was ho diabolos (the devil). Matthew and Luke reflect a separate, more detailed temptation tradition which does not seem to be dependent on Mark. Neither Matthew nor Luke include's Mark's detail that "he was with the wild animals", and both Matthew and Luke use ho diabolos as the main designation for the tempter as opposed to Mark's ho satanas. Of course, ho diabolos and ho satanas are equivalent and interchangeable terms, as is clear from Matthew 4:10 and other passages such as Job 1:6 (Hebrew and LXX), Mark 4:15/Luke 8:12, and Revelation 12:9.

Thus, Mark shows that there are two independent and early strands of tradition which attribute Jesus' temptations to Satan/the devil. It is thus very likely that this attribution goes back to the teachings of Jesus himself rather than being the literary stroke of a later writer. (Of course, Jesus must have recounted the wilderness temptation to his disciples, or otherwise we cannot explain how the tradition came about, since no eyewitnesses appear to have been present.)

The other significant feature of Mark's version of the temptations is its very brevity. It is evident that Mark regarded the sentence, "And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan" as self-explanatory. Mark was able to assume that his readers would understand what he meant without providing any further clues as to the identity of this 'Satan'. This is remarkable since satanas is not a Greek word but a transliterated Semitic term. Mark often uses Semitic terms in his Gospel but usually provides a translation for his predominantly Gentile readers. In this case, he provides no translation or explanation. This suggests that Mark regarded ho satanas as a proper name or, at the least, as a specific theological term well known to his readers.

Thus, we need to ask ourselves, at the time Mark wrote his Gospel (c. 50s or 60s AD), what concept of ho satanas could have been well established in the church? The most likely answer is a concept of 'satan' found in the Old Testament and/or intertestamental Judaism. The problem is, while 'satan' is used for personal beings (and in some cases, arguably a specific personal being) in the Old Testament and intertestamental Judaism, there seems to be no evidence for a well-developed figurative concept of 'satan' at this time. Mark thus presents the Christadelphian view with a real historical difficulty.

3. Not a devil but 'the' devil; not a satan but 'the' satan

All three Gospels use the definite article when introducing the devil for the first time. Mark has ho satanas, literally 'the satan' (or 'Satan' if it is taken to be a proper name). Matthew and Luke have ho diabolos, 'the devil', whom Matthew also identifies as ho peirasmos ('the tempter'). The significance of the definite article here cannot be discounted. It is further evidence that the writers expected their readers to know who or what they meant by these terms. It was not merely a satan, or a slanderer, or a tempter, but THE satan, THE slanderer, THE tempter par excellence!

The question is, in a mid first century context what did ho satanas or ho diabolos (without qualification) refer to? Ultimately we should make recourse to Job 1-2; the writings of Second Temple Judaism also provide useful background. However, right in the Gospels we have an account of a dispute between Jesus and his contemporaries about a personal ruler of demons whom Jesus refers to as ho satanas. Now, it has been claimed that Jesus merely assumed this view of Satan for the sake of argument (though I've argued elsewhere why this interpretation doesn't stand up to scrutiny). However, what is more immediately relevant is that the dispute establishes that 'the satan' was in contemporary Jewish usage the title or name of a specific personal being. This also forms an important part of the larger Gospel context against which 'THE satan' and 'THE devil' must be understood.

Thus the use of the definite article in the temptation narratives shows that a particular being or figure is in view. This rules out any possibility of interpreting the tempter as an unspecified human opponent. Moreover, in light of the Beelzebul controversy we have grounds for claiming that Jesus' contemporaries would have understood ho satanas to be the designation of a specific supernatural being. The Christadelphian view faces a serious obstacle in the lack of evidence for a figurative concept of 'satan' that had become so entrenched in the church by the time the Gospels were written that the writers perceived no risk of misunderstanding in describing Jesus' tempter as the devil and the satan without qualification.

4. The devil came and said...

It was already mentioned that the reader's first impression upon reading the temptation accounts is that of a straightforward, literal narrative. This reading is borne out by a closer inspection of the text. Matthew tells us, "And the tempter came and said to him..." The verb translated 'came' here is proserchomai. This verb occurs 87 other times in the New Testament (50 of them in Matthew!) and in every one of them it takes a literal meaning. Among these 87 occurrences is Matthew 4:13, "angels came and were ministering to him." Thus in the same immediate context we have the verb being used literally of personal beings coming to Jesus.

Proserchomai can take a figurative meaning, similar to how we might say in English, 'I don't know what came over me.' However, this meaning is very rare - rare enough, as we have seen, not to be attested in the other 87 uses of this word in the New Testament. 

Furthermore, the fact that proserchomai is used together with another verb, epo, militates against taking it figuratively. The combination of proserchomai with another verb is a common feature of Matthew's style, and in most cases he uses it to introduce interpersonal encounters - particularly dialogues (Matthew 8:2; 8:5; 8:19; 8:25; 9:14; 9:28; 13:10; 13:27; 13:36; 14:15; 15:1; 15:12; 15:23; 16:1; 17:7; 17:14; 17:19; 17:24; 18:1; 18:21; 19:3; 19:16; 20:20; 21:23; 21:28; 21:30; 22:23; 25:20; 25:22; 25:24; 26:17; 26:49; 26:69; 26:73; 28:18). It would be distinctly odd for Matthew to use his stylistic idiosyncrasy here with a completely different meaning.

5. The devil left and angels came

As already mentioned, the verb proserchomai is used literally of angels coming to Jesus in Matthew 4:13. What is even more striking about v. 13 is that the coming of the angels is contrasted with the devil's leaving. The devil left and the angels came. One is very obviously a literal statement about personal beings; on what basis could we insist on taking the other as a figurative statement about a personification?

Furthermore, it should be noted that the statement that angels came to Jesus (corroborated in Mark 1:13) establishes beyond any doubt that Jesus did interact with supernatural personal beings while in the wilderness.

6. Dialogue between a person and a personification?

The main focus of the temptation accounts in Matthew and Luke is the dialogue that takes place between the devil and Jesus. If we are to interpret the accounts figuratively, then obviously no actual dialogue took place; instead this is a dramatic depiction of an internal struggle in Jesus' mind. There are two significant difficulties here. The first is a very simple matter. If the struggle is between aspects of Jesus' thought process, within Jesus, then why is "Jesus" one of the interlocutors, as opposed to, say, 'the servant' or some other figurative representation of the obedient aspect of Jesus' will? The fact that it is "Jesus" who is in dialogue with "the devil" makes it quite clear that "the devil" is entirely distinct from Jesus and not a part of Jesus.

Second, the dialogue stretches the limits of figurative language to the breaking point. In some cases in the Bible, impersonal entities are described as speaking or singing (but with no actual content of their speech or song specified). For instance, in Genesis 4:10 God tells Cain that Abel's blood cries to him from the ground (note that, while this figure of speech occurs within a narrative, it part of a statement by God and not an event described by the narrator). In Psalm 98:8 "the hills sing for joy". Rarely, in obviously figurative contexts, personified figures speak with the content of the monologue actually spelled out (e.g. Lady Wisdom crying in the streets in Proverbs 8, or the foot hypothetically talking to the hand in 1 Corinthians 12:15).

However, what we do not find are dialogues between personified figures in which one speaks and the other answers, back and forth. And we certainly do not find such dialogues between a literary device and a literal person! To claim that this is what is happening in Matthew 4 and Luke 4 is to require the writers to have invented a brand new genre -- and camouflaged it within a genre which is normally read in a straightforward, literal manner!

7. A physical act of worship

Both Matthew's and Luke's accounts of the temptation are explicit that what the devil demanded from Jesus in the third temptation (second in Luke's order) was a physical act of obeisance. In Matthew's case this is expressed by combining the verbs proskuneo (to worship) and pipto (to fall down). Proskuneo on its own almost never takes on an abstract or reflexive meaning; certainly it never does elsewhere in Scripture. Any lingering doubt about whether it is literal in Matthew 4:9 is removed by the addition of pipto. Jesus was to fall down and worship the devil. These two verbs are combined in two other passages in Matthew (2:11; 18:26) and in both cases the sense is a physical act of obeisance.

Luke is less explicit but his language still implies a physical act of worship since he modifies proskuneo with enopion, a word meaning 'in the presence of' or 'before'. So according to Luke, Jesus was to worship before the devil. The language in both Matthew and Luke is perfectly clear: what the devil demanded of Jesus was not merely an internal shift in allegiance but a physical act.

Now if the devil in fact represented an abstract concept, a component of Jesus' mind, a physical act of obeisance before the devil is meaningless: there is no physical object of worship! One is left to try to force 'fall down and worship me' to represent an internal decision, contrary to the plain meaning of the words. One cannot allow an interpretation which implies that what the text says Jesus was tempted to do is not what he was actually tempted to do!

8. A property transaction

There is a Roman legal term called traditio longa manu which sheds additional light on this third temptation. Traditio ('delivery') referred to the process of transferring ownership of property from one person to another. For movable assets this normally consisted of a physical handing over. In the case of immovable assets such as land, however, the law provided for the 'delivery' to take place by the seller bringing the buyer to the spot and pointing it out to him. As long as the seller and buyer both had the intent to exchange the land, the transaction was considered to have been effected. With this background in mind, the devil's move in showing Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and his offer to give them to Jesus can be understood as an offer to transfer this property to him. This shows that the temptation was transactional in nature; a transaction requires two distinct parties.

As in the case of the worship language, this legal background to the temptation is rendered meaningless if only one person was involved.

9. The devil's pitch

In Luke's version of the temptation account, the devil makes an extended pitch not found in Matthew. He says, "To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will." This pitch makes perfect sense if the devil is a personal being trying to persuade Jesus that he is capable of delivering on his offer. However, if this 'dialogue' is actually an internal struggle in Jesus' mind, this is a very odd line. If the authority has already been delivered to 'me', and 'me' and 'you' are not actually distinct persons but aspects of one person, what does it mean for 'me' to give it all to 'you'? Furthermore, if the whole dialogue is about Jesus and no one else, what possible meaning does the hypothetical 'whom' have in, "I give it to whom I will"? To whom else might the Son of God contemplate giving all authority and glory?

10. What about the very high mountain?

The only positive exegetical argument that Christadelphians typically raise against taking the temptation narratives literally involves Matthew's reference to a very high mountain from which the devil showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. Since there is no mountain on earth from which all the kingdoms of the world can be viewed, it is argued that the whole account must be taken figuratively.

However, this issue can be satisfactorily resolved without resorting to a figurative interpretation fraught with much more serious difficulties. First of all, in a first century context, "all the kingdoms of the world" does not refer to the entire globe but rather to the then known world, namely the Roman Empire and its environs. Secondly, being shown "all the kingdoms of the world" can be understood hyperbolically (Jesus didn't literally see the whole world, but a vast expanse of land which he and the devil understood to represent the whole world). 

Another alternative, more likely in my view, is that Jesus did see all the kingdoms of the world, but that this required a supernatural experience, such as supernaturally enhanced vision or being taken up from the mountain into the heavens. Several points can be raised in support of this interpretation. Firstly, Luke does not mention a mountain but says that "the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time". The 'taking up' and 'moment of time' both emphasize the supernatural character of the experience. 

Secondly, the whole temptation narrative depends heavily on Deuteronomy (the forty days = forty years in the wilderness, the testing of Israel in the wilderness, and the fact that Jesus' responses to the devil all quote from Deuteronomy). In light of this, it is very likely that Matthew intends this mountaintop temptation to be read in light of Deuteronomy 34, in which Moses ascended Mount Nebo and God showed him all the land that the Israelites were about to receive. Geographically inclined commentators advise us that some of the places mentioned in Deuteronomy 34:1-3, such as Zoar, are not actually visible from Mount Nebo. They conclude, therefore, that this account must be understood as involving some kind of supernatural visionary experience on the part of Moses. Of course, this does not negate the literal nature of the narrative in Deuteronomy 34, nor even the literal nature of the mountain. A similar mountaintop visionary experience is described in 2 Baruch 76:3-4 (a Jewish text roughly contemporary with Matthew). Thus it may be reasonably supposed that first century readers of Matthew would have understood Matthew 4:8 in terms of a supernatural - but still objective - visionary experience atop a literal mountain.

Thus the reference to the very high mountain does not provide us with an escape hatch by which to justify interpreting interpreting the entire temptation account figuratively.

Conclusion

It should be apparent to the reader that, whatever difficulties it might present to the modern scientific mind, the only plausible interpretation of the wilderness temptation accounts is that this was a literal encounter between Jesus and a personal being known as Satan or the devil. This being had sufficient notoriety to be referred to as THE tempter par excellence. He was in a position to make a credible claim to be able to hand over the kingdoms of the world to whomever he would. He possessed the supernatural power necessary to set Jesus on the pinnacle of the temple, and take him up to show him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time.

There can be only one conclusion. The devil that tempted Jesus - and thus the devil of Scripture - is a supernatural personal being.

Monday, 3 November 2014

The temptations of Jesus and Roman Law

Four decades ago, David Daube, a scholar whose expertise in ancient law produced a "near revolution in New Testament studies",1 published a book whose rather dull title, Studies in Biblical Law, conceals its fascinating contents. The work illustrates numerous biblical texts whose meaning is illuminated by the background of ancient law. One of the topics treated in the book is law governing the transfer of land from one owner to another. Daube explains the concept as follows:
In Roman law there was a mode of transfer of ownership called traditio. If you wished to make over a thing to me, you 'tradited' the thing to me, that is to say, you put me in possession, in control, of the thing, and the moment you had done this it became mine. As is to be expected, the Roman jurists had a great deal to say about what amounted to control, about what exactly was needed in various circumstances for control, and with it ownership, to pass from one party to the other. Everything would be clear, for example, if in order to pay you I took a coin and handed it over to you. You would now have command of the coin, traditio would manifestly be completed, the coin would therefore belong to you and my debt would be paid...Special problems arose in the case of land and buildings. Evidently, these cannot be delivered as simply as movables; they cannot be physically handed over by the former owner to the new like a horse or a sack of corn. In this dilemma, the Romans appear to have recognized a way of transferring control without a literal 'handing over'. More precisely, there appears to have been an ancient rule concerning land and buildings, to the effect that, provided you took me to the spot and pointed out the property to me, this counted as traditio: I acquired control and the transfer was good. It was not even necessary for me to step on the land or touch it with my hands: I might seize it, it was held, with my eyes.2
Daube reminds the reader of what might seem obvious: a change of ownership only took place when the owner explicitly or implicitly expressed the intention to transfer the property. The particular type of traditio that Daube is referring to is known technically as traditio longa manu (literally, 'delivery with the long hand'), defined as
A form of traditio in which the thing to be transferred to the acquirer was placed with his knowledge and consent in his sight (in conspectu) so that he might take possession thereof whenever he pleased.3 4
Du Plessis similarly explains that traditio longa manu occurred
when the property was indicated or pointed at, providing that it was within sight of the parties and capable of being taken at once into the transferee's control. This type of delivery was of obvious relevance in cases where the thing to be delivered could not easily be handled, e.g. land or heavy movables5
Although this ancient legal concept (which is still in use today in some jurisdictions such as South Africa6) is known to us primarily through Roman law, Daube argues for the possibility that it was also used by the ancient Hebrews. Daube identifies three biblical narratives which he believes reflect this legal principle. Two of these relate to promises of land by God in the Pentateuch: to Abraham (Genesis 13:14-15) and to Moses (Deuteronomy 3:27-28; 34:1-4). The significance of the legal background is that, if Daube is correct, these statements by God concerning land which Abraham and Moses were asked to survey with their eyes constituted legally binding contracts. For instance,
When God led [Moses] to the top of a mountain and from there showed him Palestine, he was not merely granting him a last personal wish, but was performing an act with a definite legal effect. God, the owner, pointed out the land to him, fines demonstrabat, indicated to him the boundaries of the territory, and thereby made him its sovereign.7
Daube adds that the detail given in Deuteronomy 34:7 that Moses' "eye was not dim" may be intended to stress that "Moses saw the land full well, that in spite of his age he was capable of controlling and validly taking it with his eyes."8 Of course, in spite of these transactions with God taking place, both Abraham and Moses died without having physically enjoyed ownership of the land (Acts 7:5; Hebrews 11:13). This could be compared to the 'already/not yet' eschatology found in the New Testament. Just as believers in Christ have the legal sentence of condemnation lifted immediately but do not experience the benefits physically until the resurrection (Romans 8:1, 11), so Abraham and Moses were granted legal title to the land immediately but will not physically possess it until the resurrection.

Another interesting biblical example of the traditio longa manu principle is found in the wilderness temptation narratives of Matthew 4 and Luke 4. One of the devil's temptations (third in Matthew's order and second in Luke's) reads thus:
8 Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; 9 and he said to Him, “All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Go, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.’” (Matthew 4:8-10 NASB)
5 And he led Him up and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. 6 And the devil said to Him, “I will give You all this domain and its glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I give it to whomever I wish. 7 Therefore if You worship before me, it shall all be Yours.” 8 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.’” (Luke 4:5-8 NASB)
Daube comments as follows on this passage:
The other narrative containing the idea of transfer of land by pointing it out and seeing it, many centuries later than that of Abraham, is the narrative of the temptation of Jesus, with Satan's offer of all the kingdoms of the world...I am not suggesting that there is any emphasis on the legal points; all that I mean to say is that the notion of transfer of ownership by one party offering and pointing out the object and the other accepting and seeing it is here noticeable in the background. Indeed, it is no mere coincidence that the property to be transferred is here offered from a high place, as in the case of Moses and in that from the Digest where 'my vendor from my tower points out neighbouring land to me'. It would be easier thus to overlook the land, fines demonstrare. Satan was a good lawyer, and, incidentally, aware how attractive the glory of the world must look when you are so placed that you can take it all in at one glance: the transaction that he contemplated failed only through non-acceptance by the other party.9
What implications does this legal background have for our interpretation of the devil in this narrative? Firstly, there is good reason to believe that the legal principle of traditio longa manu would have been understood by the authors of the Gospels (who, if tradition is correct, were educated men - a tax collector and a physician, respectively). The same is true of the addressee of the Third Gospel, "most excellent Theophilus" (Luke 1:3), a form of address which "seems to indicate a specific person of high social standing."10 Thus, while Daube is correct that the narratives do not emphasize the legal aspect of the temptation, both the Evangelists and educated readers such as Theophilus are likely to have taken the legal connotations into account when forming their understanding of this event.

It is significant that in Luke, the devil claims the authority to be able to transfer ownership of the land to Jesus.11 He then offers to do so, with the legal setting indicating that the transfer could be effected immediately if Jesus agreed to his price. When the temptation is read in this light, there is no escaping the transactional nature of the exchange. A transaction, however, requires two parties. It cannot be interpreted as a struggle within the mind of Jesus. Just as one cannot worship oneself, so one cannot transfer property to oneself. Attempts to read the whole episode figuratively break down decisively at this point because they render both the devil's offer and the devil's demand meaningless.

Daube's comment that "Satan was a good lawyer" is also intriguing inasmuch as Satan is depicted as a heavenly lawyer (more specifically, as God's overzealous prosecutor) in the Old Testament (Job 1-2; Zechariah 3), an idea also found in New Testament texts such as Luke 22:31, Jude 9 and Revelation 12:10.

Finally, although this is a point I have addressed elsewhere, it is worth emphasizing another point of contact between the temptation narratives and Deuteronomy 34 cited above. A figurative, 'psychological' interpretation of the temptation narrative has sometimes been defended on the grounds that there is no mountain on earth from which one can see all the kingdoms of the world (even when one considers that 'the world' here is probably restricted to the Roman Empire and its environs). However, the same problem occurs in Deuteronomy 34:
Here the phrase 'as far as Zoar' refers to the southern end of the Dead Sea, which is not visible from the summit of Mount Nebo, because of the mountain range extending from the viewer's left that blocks the view such that only the northern part of the Dead Sea is visible. Moses was given a vision of the promised land in its entirety that no tourist today can see without ascending into the skies. Perhaps this fact helps to explain the subsequent tradition known as The Assumption of Moses, with its account of Moses being taken directly to heaven rather than dying a natural death. Jude 9 appears to refer to such a tradition, which was apparently well known in early Jewish circles. At any rate, it would require such an airborne experience for Moses to actually see all that the biblical text says he saw in his vision from the summit of Mount Nebo.12
I doubt that anyone would claim that in the narrative of Deuteronomy 34, "Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah" refers to a figurative event in Moses' mind. It is clear that Moses really did ascend a mountain; and yet the details of the land he was shown indicate that the vision had a supernatural element to it. Why can we not interpret the Gospel temptation narratives in the same way? This would not be the only case of a transcendent experience occurring on a mountaintop in Matthew (cf. 17:1-8; 28:16-20). Thus, the fact that no mountain exists from which the whole Roman Empire may be seen with natural vision no more implies that the whole temptation is figurative than the fact that Zoar cannot be seen from Mount Nebo implies that Deuteronomy 34 is figurative.

Professor Daube's insights contribute to the substantial body of evidence that the devil who tempted Jesus was an external personal being.



1 Davies, W. (2000, April). A Gentle Hawk. Retrieved October 31, 2014, from http://www.law.berkeley.edu/library/daube/davies.html
2 Daube, D. (1969). Studies in Biblical Law. New York: KTAV Publishing, pp. 26-27.
3 Berger, A. (1968). Encyclopedic Dictionary of Roman Law. American Philosophical Society, p. 740.
4 See also Buckland, W.W. (2007). A Text-Book of Roman Law: From Augustus to Justinian. Cambridge University Press, p. 227.
5 Du Plessis, P. (2010). Borkowski's Textbook on Roman Law. Oxford University Press, p. 181.
6 Van der Merwe, C.G. & Du Plessis, J.E. (Eds.). (2004). Introduction to the Law of South Africa. Kluwer Law International, p. 215.
7 Daube, op. cit., p. 28.
8 Daube, op. cit., p. 39.
9 Daube, op. cit., pp. 35-36.
10 Bock, D.L. (1994). Luke 1:1-9:50. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, p. 63.
11 This need not actually imply that the devil actually had this authority, since the devil is a liar (John 8:44; Revelation 12:9). However, for the offer to be tempting, the devil's claim would need to be at least credible. To this end it is worth noting that Jesus and the New Testament writers regarded the devil as having considerable power, to the point of being referred to as "the ruler of this world" (John 12:31; cf. Acts 26:18; 1 John 5:19; Revelation 2:13).
12 Christensen, D.L. (2002). Deuteronomy 21:10-34:12. Mexico City: Thomas Nelson, p. 871. Emphasis added.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

The devil didn't make me do it: an appeal to Christadelphians

Over time, in discussions with Christadelphians, I have repeatedly encountered the accusation that Christians who affirm the existence of a personal devil do so in order to avoid taking responsibility for their sins. This idea needs to be addressed.

I recently listened to a talk delivered at the Orlando Christadelphian Gathering in March 2013 entitled, 'The Devil made me do it'. The speaker was one whom I grew up calling 'Uncle' and for whom I have the utmost respect. He framed the talk as a courtroom session in which the audience was invited to judge whether the defense 'The devil made me do it' has any validity. A foundational assumption of the case he presented was that professing Christians who believe in the devil's existence do hold the position that 'The devil made me do it' and thereby attempt to transfer blame for their actions to an outside entity.

A quick Google search reveals that the sentiments expressed by this speaker are widespread in the worldwide Christadelphian community. The Glasgow-Kelvin Christadelphian ecclesial website says this on its page about the devil:
You know the phrase, "The devil made me do it."  This is the popular view, that some kind of supernatural being or force for evil makes us do things that we would not normally contemplate.
A meditation on the Tidings magazine website states:
This problem of finding somebody upon whom to blame our problems must be the reason so many people want to believe in the devil — for then we can shift the blame by saying, “The devil made me do it.”
The widely distributed Christadelphian teaching manual Bible Basics describes belief in the devil as inventing "an imaginary person outside our human natures who is responsible for our sins". 

Referring specifically to the Jehovah's Witnesses' belief in the devil, Watkins writes,
"[The devil] relieves them of the great burden of guilt that they would otherwise have to carry. If they lose their devil a great load of sin comes down on their shoulders, for which they cannot escape the blame."1
Another writer, not a Christadelphian but from a group called Christian Restoration Centre with similar beliefs, describes the devil in his thesis That Old Serpent called the Devil and Satan as "a convenient scapegoat to blame"2.

In another booklet entitled The Devil and Satan Defined, a Christadelphian writer states:
Unfortunately, current ideas upon the subject are astray from the Bible. It is taught that the devil is a superhuman monster, a fallen angel, who dominates the minds of humanity, inducing mankind to sin. The teaching induces fear of the devil, and also provides an excuse for sin by blaming it on him.
Nearly a century earlier, Williams had made the same point in his book, The World's Redemption:
Such men as commit murder and other crimes of the grosser sort, either from delusion or dishonesty, shift the blame from themselves to an imaginary supernatural devil; and they are encouraged in this cowardice by the popular religious leaders.
Such quotations could be multiplied, but these suffice to show that the accusation described at the beginning is widespread in Christadelphia. Since the saying "The devil made me do it" seems to be regarded as epitomizing the attitude of mainstream Christians toward their transgressions, it will be useful to trace the background of this phrase. I'm no linguist or etymologist, so I'm limited to what I can find on the Internet. On Google Books, the only occurrence of this exact phrase prior to 1965 was in a poem entitled Ode to the Devil written in the late 1700s by the British satirist John Wolcott (who used the pen name Peter Pindar). The line was made famous, however, by American television comedian Flip Wilson in the 1970s. Through The Flip Wilson Show, "The devil made me do it" became a national catchphrase and "a mainstay within the American cultural psyche"3.

A Google web search for the exact phrase "the devil made me do it" yields hits falling into three main categories:
1) Popular culture references
2) Christian sermons, blogs and articles
3) News stories referring to criminals who used the phrase as an excuse for their crimes

The widespread use of this phrase in popular culture today testify to the lasting influence it has had since Flip Wilson popularized it forty years ago. That criminals and sociopaths (including a missionary who molested children) use this phrase with seeming regularity to explain their actions is disturbing. However, neither of these could be considered fair and reliable sources for mainstream Christian teaching on the subject. For this we need to turn to the second category of Google hits to see what Christian writers are saying.

When we do this, it becomes clear that when Christian writers uses the phrase, "The devil made me do it," they almost invariably do so in order to refute this notion as unbiblical, even as they affirm the real, personal existence of the devil.

After referring to the excuse, "The Devil made me do it" as a "mistake", Boa and Bowman note,
Ironically, many people twist the biblical teaching about the Devil's role in temptation into an excuse for sin. The Devil can tempt you, but the Devil cannot make you do anything. (Sorry, Flip Wilson!) Furthermore, ever since we fell from our original innocence, temptations generally appeal to our own selfish desires and attitudes. As James says, 'Each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust' (James 1:14 NASB). The Devil's role in tempting us to sin, then, does not diminish our responsibility in the matter. It's still our fault.4
An article on bible.org, having posed the question, 'Is the devil to blame for our sin and suffering?' emphasizes that it is wrong to blame the devil in order to remove our guilt. 
"Today, regardless of the various external sources of temptation (Satan and the world), the final source is our own sinful nature or the lusts of self-centered desires of our own hearts (Jam. 1:14-15)."
What could be clearer than this statement in a study on James 1:13 from studyjesus.com
The Lord never Himself tempts anyone to sin, but He does permit Satan to do so. And Satan finds within the natural man that which is ready to yield to his allurements. However, the Devil's temptations do not excuse the faltering sinner. All moral evil is chargeable to the doer thereof.
An article from In Touch Ministries warns against the danger of overemphasizing Satan's power:
Those who believe they are at Satan’s mercy deny themselves victory because they never make more than a halfhearted attempt to overcome temptation. This belief opens the door for all kinds of excuses: “I can’t help it”; “The Devil made me do it”; “There was no way I could say no.”
In an article about the devil addressed specifically to Christadelphians, Sir Anthony Buzzard highlighted the same points:
It must be emphasized that belief in Satan as an external spirit does not excuse us from responsibility for our sins or false beliefs. We cannot blame Satan for our errors, claiming that “the Devil made me do it.” We are responsible, with God’s help, for learning the Truth, and turning from our sinful ways.
In a devotional piece on the Daily Bread website, after referring to a case where a woman blamed Satan for her role in stealing from her church, a pastor (while allowing the possibility of Satan's involvement) described this blame-shifting as "faulty theology" and came to the conclusion that "When we sin, the blame lies within."

Another pastor, blogging about the phrase "The Devil made me do it", commented:
I don't know about you, but I don't need to devil to make me sin. I do it just fine on my own, thank you. Now he may talk and he may tempt and he may entice and he may try to shout out my reasons for obedience to God, but he does not and can not make me sin. If I sin, or rather when I sin, it's my own fault and I bear the responsibility...Being tempted does not equal being forced.
A question addressed on the GotQuestions resource website was, "Why is 'the devil made me do it' not a valid excuse?" Even the question presupposes that it is not! Yet another pastor addresses dangers found in some charismatic churches where sins are habitually blamed on demon possession. A similar sentiment can be found here.

Such comments could also be multiplied many times over. However, we have seen enough evidence to draw some basic conclusions.

1) The phrase "The devil made me do it" originates, not from Christian theologians or pastors, but from the realm of satire and comedy, from whence it became embedded in popular culture.
2) While individuals - including some Christians - may on occasion attempt to blame the devil for their sins, orthodox theologians and pastors overwhelmingly and unambiguously denounce such excuses and robustly affirm personal responsibility for sin.
3) Christadelphians have for decades been falsely claiming that 'mainstream Christians' regard the devil's influence as absolving them of moral responsibility - usually without even attempting to offer evidence for this claim.5

Sadly, this misrepresentation shows no signs of abating. Christadelphians continue to spread this caricature of Christian doctrine despite abundant evidence to the contrary lying just a few mouse-clicks or a visit to a library away. How are we to account for this phenomenon? It appears, in the first place, that many Christadelphians zealously oppose traditional Christian teaching which they have never actually studied for themselves in any depth. Instead they rely on secondhand reports from fellow Christadelphians which, in this case at least, have been shown to be woefully inaccurate. I used to be in this very boat myself.

Moreover, based on my own observation there seem to be other Christadelphians who know better (having read Buzzard's article, for instance) but who refrain from speaking out against this myth, and perhaps even subtly encourage it. This suggests the disturbing possibility that some Christadelphians are more zealous about denouncing 'mainstream Christianity' than they are about truth.

I hope that this suggested explanation is unfounded. The best way to prove it unfounded would be for Christadelphians, particularly those in prominent teaching positions in the community, to set the record straight and put an end to the slanderous misrepresentation of 'mainstream Christian' teaching about the devil which has plagued the Christadelphian community for so long.

Doing so will enable more effective dialogue between Christadelphians and other Christians on the subject of the devil. Biblically and theologically literate Christians are unlikely to find the Christadelphian view compelling if they perceive that their own view has been misunderstood and caricatured.

This then is my appeal to Christadelphians: please stop teaching that "The devil made me do it" is a theological position of mainstream Christianity.


1 Watkins, P. (1971). The Devil - the Great Deceiver. Birmingham: The Christadelphian, p. 42)
2 Hodson, B.C. (n.d.). That Old Serpent, the Devil and Satan, p. 99.
3 Smith-Shomade, B.E. (2002). Shaded Lives: African-American Women and Television. Rutgers University Press, p. 65.
4 Boa, K.D. & Bowman R.M., Jr. (2007). Sense and Nonsense about Angels and Demons. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, p. 115.
5 As far as I can tell, of the writers quoted above, only Watkins offers any evidence for his claim. He denies that he is caricaturing the Jehovah's Witnesses' position, citing a discussion with Jehovah's Witnesses in which he was told that he was "blaming human nature too much" and that "The devil was the one to blame." However, a single anecdote from a chat with Jehovah's Witnesses (perhaps on the doorstep) hardly constitutes the kind of evidence needed to show that the 'devil made me do it' attitude pervades the teaching of the church.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Like Father, like Son: ambiguous pronouns in 1 John

One feature that strikes any reader of the First Epistle of John is what Lieu calls "the frequent ambiguity as to whether 'he' (autos) refers to God or to Jesus."1 Smith similarly notes that "in 1 John there is often a question of which, the Father or the Son, is the antecedent. This is a perennial and difficult problem".2 The problem is difficult, not only for the lay reader, but also for academic scholars. Griffith observes that "the use of pronouns in 1 John is often so ambiguous that commentators are frequently divided as to whether Jesus or God is the referent".3

The following is a list of pronouns whose referent is grammatically ambiguous. That is, in each case below the antecedent of the pronoun (translated 'he', 'him' or 'his') could, grammatically speaking, be either the Father or the Son. All phraseology is taken from the ESV.

Reference in
1 John
Phrase
Grammatically possible antecedents
1:5
the message we have heard from him
“the Father” (v. 3) or “his Son Jesus Christ” (v. 3)
1:9
he is faithful and just to forgive us
“God” (v. 5) or “Jesus his Son” (v. 7)
1:10
we make him a liar, and his word is not in us
“God” (v. 5) or “Jesus his Son” (v. 7)
2:5
whoever keeps his word...by this we may know that we are in him
“Jesus Christ the righteous” (v. 1) or “God” (v. 5)
2:6
whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked
“Jesus Christ the righteous” (v. 1) or “God” (v. 5)
2:8
which is true in him and in you
“Jesus Christ the righteous” (v. 1) or “God” (v. 5)
2:12
your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake
“Jesus Christ the righteous” (v. 1) or “God” (v. 5)
2:13
him who is from the beginning
No antecedent; could refer to the Son or the Father
2:14
him who is from the beginning
No antecedent; could refer to the Son or the Father
2:25
the promise that he made to us
“the Son” (v. 24) or “the Father” (v. 24)
2:27
the anointing that you received from him…his anointing teaches you…abide in him
“the Son” (v. 24) or “the Father” (v. 24) (cf. “the Holy One” in v. 20)
2:28
abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming
“the Son” (v. 24) or “the Father” (v. 24)
2:29
he is righteous…everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him
“the Son” (v. 24) or “the Father” (v. 24)
3:1
the world…did not know him
“the Father” (v. 1) or “the Son” (2:24)
3:2
when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is
“God” (v. 2)/“the Father” (v. 1) or “the Son” (2:24)
3:3
everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure
“God” (v. 2)/“the Father” (v. 1) or “the Son” (2:24)
3:5
he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin
“God” (v. 2)/“the Father” (v. 1) or “the Son” (2:24)
3:6
No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him
“God” (v. 2)/“the Father” (v. 1) or “the Son” (2:24)
3:16
he laid down his life for us
“the Son of God” (v. 8) or “God” (vv. 9, 10)
3:19
reassure our heart before him
“the Son of God” (v. 8) or “God” (v. 17)
3:23
just as he has commanded us
“God” (v. 21) or “his Son Jesus Christ” (v. 23)
3:24
his commandments
“God” (v. 21) or “his Son Jesus Christ” (v. 23)
3:24
the Spirit whom he has given us
“his Son Jesus Christ” (v. 23) or “God” (v. 24)
4:4
he who is in you
No antecedent; could refer to God or Jesus
4:17
as he is so also are we in this world
“Jesus” (v. 15) or “God” (v. 16)
4:19
We love because he first loved us
“Jesus” (v. 15) or “God” (v. 16)
4:21
this commandment we have from him
“Jesus” (v. 15) or “God” (v. 20)
5:14
And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us
“God” (v. 11) or “the Son of God” (v. 13)
5:15
And if we know that he hears us…the requests that we have asked of him
“God” (v. 11) or “the Son of God” (v. 13)
5:20
He is the true God and eternal life
“him who is true” (v. 20) or “his Son Jesus Christ” (v. 20)

In each case we can try to resolve the referent of the ambiguous pronoun exegetically by making recourse to the immediate and wider context. However, there are a number of cases which are very difficult to resolve, or where the resolution that seems most likely exegetically is staggering theologically. A case in point is "born of him" in 1 John 2:29. On the one hand, the birth imagery and the reference to "children of God" in 3:1 would seem to make it quite clear that "him" refers to the Father. On the other hand, it would be very odd grammatically if the pronoun had a different referent that those in v. 28, where "when he appears" and "not shrink from him in shame at his coming" seem rather plainly to refer to the Son. Again, in 3:2 and 3:5 "when he appears" and "he appeared to take away sins" would seem theologically to refer to the Son, as is explicit in 3:8. However, grammatically the nearest antecedent for these pronouns is "the Father" or "God" in 3:1; the Son has not been explicitly mentioned since 2:24!

Moreover, theologically speaking, "By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us" (3:16) would seem certainly to refer to the Son, but the nearest antecedent is "God" (vv. 9-10), and it is God's love that is mentioned in 3:17.4 Again, in 2:12 and 5:14, grammatically and contextually the more likely antecedent is the Son, but in both cases the Christological implications would then be staggering. For the Christological implications of 2:12, see here; 5:14 would have Christ hearing prayer that is offered according to his will.

Our main purpose here, however, is not to try to resolve the referent of each ambiguous pronoun, or to tease out the theological implications of the individual cases, but rather to reflect on the theological significance of the overall pattern that we see. This pattern is, namely, that John often uses ambiguous personal pronouns which could refer either to the Father or the Son. There are several possible explanations of this phenomenon:

1) John is an unskilled and sloppy writer.
2) John does not always bother to specify the referent of his pronouns because in his mind the Father and Son are indistinguishable.
3) John does not always bother to specify the referent of his pronouns because in his mind the Father and Son are essentially equal despite being distinct persons.

Option 1) can be ruled out since one does not observe such ambiguity in the use of pronouns in the Fourth Gospel or in 2 John and 3 John,5 which are all generally regarded as being the work of the same author. Option 2) can likewise be ruled out since, as Michaels has observed, in spite of the ambiguity about antecedents, 1 John makes "a clear distinction between Father and Son".6 This can be seen in the frequent references to "the Son of God" (3:8, 4:15, 5:5, 5:10, 5:12-13, 5:18?, 5:20) or "his Son" (1:7, 3:23, 5:9-10, 5:20), as well as statements which affirm the Father and Son together (1:3, 2:1, 2:22-24, 4:9, 4:14, 5:20).

Thus Option 3) is the most likely explanation. In John's mind, the Father and Son, although distinct, are virtually synonymous in role and function in relation to believers. This raises the question of whether John's theology led him to use ambiguous pronouns unconsciously, or whether the ambiguity represents an intentional rhetorical strategy on his part. In either case, the ambiguous pronouns could be seen as the working out in practice of some of the high Christological statements in John's Gospel. These include the reference to Jesus "making himself equal with God" (John 5:18), the claims "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30) and "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9), and the affirmation that Jesus is "God" (John 1:18;7 20:28). Commenting on the ambiguity in 1 John 2:5, Jobes writes:
The ambiguity of the antecedent of 'his word' (autou ton logon), whether God or Christ, continues here. Although we have argued above that Christ is the likely referent, John's Christology, which understands the Son and the Father to be one (John 10:30), would allow God as the referent as well.8
If the use of ambiguous pronouns represents an intentional theological move on John's part, then it is possible to see 1 John 5:20 as the culmination of this pattern. In that case, there can be no doubt that "He is the true God and eternal life" is at least partially a Christological statement. While scholars debate whether God or his Son is the antecedent of the pronoun here, Jobes rightly states that "Even if 'Christ' is not the explicit antecedent, John's logic requires this to be a statement of Jesus' deity...For by John's statement, to be 'in the True One' means to be 'in Jesus Christ'".9 Similarly, Griffith argues on the basis of the frequent ambiguous pronouns that "There is nothing in 1 John that precludes the identification of Jesus with the true God".10

Besides the ambiguous pronouns in 1 John, one should also notice the ambiguous referent of "the Holy One" in 1 John 2:20. In this instance, a case can be made for identifying the Father, the Son or even the Spirit as the referent. In support of "the Holy One" being God is the common use of this title for God in the Old Testament (see particularly Proverbs 9:10 and 30:3, where the concern with 'knowledge' is similar to 1 John 2:20; also 2 Kings 19:22; Job 6:10; Psalm 78:41; 89:18; 106:16; frequently in Isaiah; Jeremiah 50:29; 51:5; Ezekiel 39:7; Hosea 11:9, 12; Habakkuk 3:3). In support of "the Holy One" being Christ is the occasional use of this term as a Christological title in the New Testament, including by John (Mark 1:24, Luke 1:35?; Luke 4:34; John 6:69; Acts 3:14; Revelation 3:7). Finally, one might interpret "the Holy One" to refer to the Spirit, as Jobes does.11 Certainly the anointing has to do with the Spirit, and the Spirit is emphatically personified in John's Gospel (ch. 14-16). While the adjective hagios is nowhere else used absolutely of the Spirit in the New Testament, it is of course the most common adjective used to describe the Spirit, and is used of the Spirit by John (1:33; 14:26; 20:22). If the latter view is correct, this epistle would arguably reflect a nascent Trinitarian view of God.

However one understands the referents of the individual ambiguous pronouns scattered throughout the epistle, they collectively testify to a highly developed Christology in which the Father and the Son and their soteriological roles can be interchanged seamlessly. The writer has evidently taken to heart the teaching of his Gospel "that all may honour the Son, just as they honour the Father" (John 5:23).


1 Lieu, J. (2008). I, II & III John: A Commentary. Westminster John Knox Press, p. 215.
2 Smith, D.M. (2008). The Historical Figure of Jesus in 1 John. In J.R. Wagner, C.K. Rowe & A.K. Grieb (Eds.), The Word leaps the Gap: Essays on Scripture and Theology in Honor of Richard B. Hays. (pp. 310-324). Eerdmans, p. 313.
3 Griffith, T. (2002). Keep yourself from idols: A new look at 1 John. T&T Clark, p. 75.
4 The KJV translators chose to add the elliptical words 'of God' in 3:16, making explicit their view that God was the one who laid down his life for us.
5 Note, however, the ambiguous reference to 'the name' in 3 John 7. This is a remarkable turn of phrase inasmuch as Jesus is the most likely referent, but is not otherwise mentioned in this epistle! Like 1 John 2:12, this is evidence of how highly regarded the name of Jesus was in the early church (Acts 4:12; Philippians 2:9-10; Hebrews 1:4). It has taken over the function that the ineffable name of YHWH played in the Old Testament.
6 Michaels, J.R. (2005). Catholic Christologies in the Catholic Epistles. In R.N. Longenecker (Ed.), Contours of Christology in the New Testament. (pp. 268-291). Eerdmans, p. 287.
7 Following the two most respected critical texts of the Greek New Testament, UBS5 and NA28, both of which read monogenes theos rather than monogenes huios.
8 Jobes, K.H. (2014). 1, 2, & 3 John. Zondervan, p. 84.
9 Jobes, op. cit., pp. 241-242.
10 Griffith, op. cit.
11 Jobes, op. cit., p. 127.