On The Absurdity Of Calvinism, part 2 of 7: Discourse Issues

part 1, Introduction. part 1b, More Introduction. part 1c, Last Introduction.

Welcome back! Thanks for reading. (Thanks especially for sticking around through all those introductions.)

As stated in the previous posts, I am specifically writing against J.I. Packer’s Introductory Essay to John Owen’s “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ”. This post will deal with a few issues, not regarding Calvinism in general, but regarding the specific angle of Packer in this essay.

First, a question: are you a Democrat? No? Well, then, you’re obviously a Republican, and thus…I’m sorry, what’s that? You’re not a Republican either? Well…but…that doesn’t make any sense…

Packer’s argument for Calvinism is exactly one against Arminianism. This is the theological dichotomy underlying most Calvinistic debates: if not Calvinism, then Arminianism. But this dichotomy covers about as much of the theological spectrum as the two parties named above cover of the political spectrum. To reduce politics to Republican vs. Democrat is to ignore the voices of the Libertarian, the Socialist, the Communist, the Constitutionalist, the Anarchist, and so on – regardless of how valid those voices are, one must acknowledge they exist. Similarly, presenting Calvinism as a polemic to Arminianism ignores the existence of Free Will Theism, Open Theism, Universalism, Moral Agency, and so on – again, it doesn’t matter at this point what the content of those theologies is, only that they be given a place to speak. The universe of discourse in Packer’s essay is very constrained, because [1] Arminianism is not the only alternative to Calvinism. (I might again direct the reader to an old post, linked to in part 1, in which I develop Calvinism, free-will theism, and universalism as three contrasting ideas each justifiable depending on your particular scriptural lens.)

Of particular relevance is the fact that both Calvinism and Arminianism (as presented by Packer) are monergistic theologies (mono, “one” + ergos, “work” = monergism, “one worker”); that is, they assert that salvation is completely the work of one entity. For Calvinism, that entity is God; for Arminianism, it is the individual. Calvinism says you’re totally helpless by yourself, but if God has chosen you, then He has saved you, but nothing you do has any impact on His decision. Arminianism says God would really like to save you, so much that He bought your ability to be saved and all you have to do is take it, but He’s done all He can; His hands are tied, and it’s all up to you now. I’m paraphrasing, of course, but that’s the gist of it. Usually when there are two polar opposite sides in an argument, the best solution lies somewhere in the middle; this case is no exception for me. From Scripture, reason, and common sense, it seems clear to me that [2] Synergism makes a lot more sense than either side of monergism. Synergism (syn, “together” + ergos, “work” = synergism, “working together”) is simply the idea that salvation is a cooperative process. Neither side can (or will) accomplish the work of salvation alone. Man, independently of Christ’s sacrifice and call and God’s openness to receive, cannot save or justify himself. God, despite His removal of the roadblock of sin through the atonement of Christ, cannot or will not force salvation on certain people while withholding it from others. Calvinist reasoning says that the issue is black and white, that salvation must be ALL God’s work or NOT God’s work at all; synergistic theology understands that this is not the case.

Packer only briefly mentions synergism at all, stating that it is difficult to believe the gospel if “our thoughts are caught in the toils of synergism”. He goes on to elaborate a bit, implying that synergism is “a bewildering kind of double-think about salvation”, since its adherents must attempt to simultaneously believe that salvation is entirely the work of God and entirely the work of man. Of course, this is a poor way to formulate the concept. It is similarly poor to imagine salvation as 50% God’s work and 50% man’s work, or 60/40 or any other such split. It is helpful to ponder other instances of synergism-esque things in our theology, such as the Trinity (is it all God? all Jesus? all the Holy Spirit? 33.3333% each?) and Jesus Himself (100% God, but 100% human? 50% God, 50% human?). These are difficult concepts, but we have adopted a sort of “faithful agnosticism” toward them, believing that they make perfect sense even if we can’t make perfect sense of them. This, I believe, is the best attitude to take toward a synergistic view of salvation; it’s God’s work, and it’s my work, and I don’t fully get that, but I don’t need to.

Throughout Scripture, the picture of the relationship between God and humanity is one of effectual work on both sides. God frequently presents people with choices, leading to mixed results of obedience and disobedience. God sometimes intervenes and causes things to happen in a particular way for His purposes; other times, He allows humanity to sort things out for themselves; sometimes, we are even told He changes His plans based on human deeds. But the overarching thrust of Scripture is a communal interaction between God and humans – not a one-sided one. There’s no reason to believe salvation should deviate from this paradigm. Isaiah 64:5 speaks of God “assisting those who delight in doing what is right” – a God who assists people, not who controls and coerces them. In Mark 9:24, the father of a demon-possessed boy cries out to Jesus “I believe; help my unbelief!” The man has some faith, and still needs help – that very assistance of which Isaiah spoke. The imagery of the vine in John 15 is one of mutuality; Jesus says, “Remain in me, and I will remain in you.” In Paul’s sermon before the Areopagus in Acts 17, He states that God set things up in the world (His sovereign choice and effort) “so that [people] would search for God and perhaps grope around for him and find him” (human effort); and that He commands “all people everywhere to repent” (more human effort). Indeed, the author of Hebrews reminds us that we must have faith that God “rewards those who seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6). And it’s too much to quote, but look at 1 John 4:7-19 and ask yourself – who’s doing the work there? Who’s the “first mover”? The language almost seems intentionally synergistic – if we love, then we are from God, but we love because we are from God, but if we love, the love is perfected…it’s a beautiful, loving mess. Just the way it should be.

My last issue with Packer’s discourse is that he repeatedly characterizes a God who is unable (or unwilling) to completely do the work of salvation on His own as “weak”, “pitiable”, “impotent”, and “pathetic”. But don’t take my word for it, here are some direct quotes:

“Our minds have been conditioned to think of […] God’s love as a weak affection which cannot keep anyone from hell without help…”
“The pitiable Saviour and the pathetic God of modern pulpits are unknown to the old gospel.”
“… it reduces God’s love to an impotent wish and turns the whole economy of “saving” grace […] into a monumental divine failure.”
“…it compels us to misunderstand the significance of the gracious invitations of Christ in the gospel of which we have been speaking; for we now have to read them, not as expressions of the tender patience of a mighty sovereign, but as the pathetic pleadings of impotent desire; and so the enthroned Lord is suddenly metamorphosed into a weak, futile figure tapping forlornly at the door of the human heart, which He is powerless to open.”

“…we depict the Father and the Son, not as sovereignly active in drawing sinners to themselves, but as waiting in quiet impotence “at the door of our hearts” for us to let them in.”

Clearly, I have left out exact contexts and referents for these quotes, but you can read that for yourself by searching for them in Packer’s article (see link above). My purpose was just to show the general pejorative attitude toward a not-fully-saving God.

In response to that, particularly the last two quotes, I offer Revelation 3:20, in which Jesus states: “Listen! I am standing at the door and knocking! If anyone hears my voice and opens the door I will come into his home and share a meal with him, and he with me.” In no way is one out-of-context verse the be-all-end-all of salvation discussion; I will never attempt to use any single verse that way in this series. However, I find it odd that Packer rejects and diminishes the imagery of the Lord standing at the door and knocking, waiting for the door to be opened, when it is imagery attributed to the voice of Christ Himself in His Word!

Other Biblical refutations of certain ideas above will be addressed in a later post. But I would like to close by suggesting that, in general, [3] the attribution of “weakness” to God, and more importantly to Christ, is neither a deplorable nor radical idea. Jesus came as the suffering servant, did He not, as the poetic prophecy of Isaiah 53 suggests? And yet in both the suffering and the servitude there is a measure of what might be deemed “weakness”. Packer’s Calvinism would make Jesus into a grand king, though it is precisely this role that Jesus shied away from during His ministry. His birth was lowly, in a stable surrounded by barnyard animals and their accompanying filth. Even by being born, taking on human form, God in Jesus subjects Himself to the inherent weaknesses of humanity. This man Jesus is “impotent” in His inability to perform miracles in His faithless hometown (Mark 6:5); “pathetic” in His homelessness (Matthew 8:20); “pitiable” in His emotional distress at the grave of Lazarus (John 11:33) and the outskirts of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41); “weak” in His anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane, to the point that His sweat became as drops of blood (Matthew 26:36ff; Mark 14:32ff;  Luke 22:44). And no verses need be cited regarding His weakness during His passion and crucifixion, the ultimate display of subjection. Indeed, Paul summarizes it in 2 Corinthians 13:4, which states Jesus “was crucified by reason of weakness”. This is our Savior, our Lord; does He look afraid or ashamed of weakness? I grant you, joyfully, that He now reigns in strength and power; no argument there. Yet He is no stranger to these conditions Packer so ardently vilifies.

On the Absurdity of Calvinism, part 1c of 7: Last Introduction, Seriously

Okay, sorry, I know this is getting ridiculous. But I keep having “introductory” thoughts I want to share. I know we’re all very excited to get past the introductory remarks and into the real body of work, but I can’t continue without just a couple more things. I’ll keep it very brief.

First, I will be citing a plethora of Scripture verses which stand in contrast to Calvinistic thought. (P.S. all my direct citations will be from the NET Bible, which is a phenomenal translation and study tool.) I’ve been combing Scripture for a week now in search of such verses, to make my argument as Biblically comprehensive as possible in such a brief period of time. Lo and behold, I’ve also come across plenty of verses whose plain reading stands solidly in favor of Calvinist ideals. For me to deny the existence of such verses would be as silly as a Calvinist denying the existence of their own Scriptural problems. But here is exactly why I have chosen a destructive rather than constructive approach in my writing: any theology which must systematically force the entire Bible to fit into a single well-defined framework will inevitably be met with resistance from Scripture itself. I do not advocate such a theology because I don’t have one. I defy Calvinism because it is one. It is better for us as Christians to live with the tension of Scripture – and still apply it to our lives, behavior, and mission as the Church – than to expend needless energy and conduct intellectual gymnastics to force Scripture to fit a mold it simply refuses to. It’s perfectly okay for a Christian to not fully understand the Bible, even to question it; as Wes Howard-Brook says, “Living in the questions is much less certain, but full of life.”

That said, if you are irrepressibly bothered by the fact that I am not offering a specific alternative to Calvinism – if you simply must have a contrasting option to latch onto – you should leave this blog, not bother reading the rest of this series, and head over here to listen to the incredible Bruxy Cavey‘s sermon series on Calvinism. In seven comprehensive and well-designed sermons, Bruxy replaces “TULIP” with “GRACE” and exegetes a fantastic alternative structure for understanding these ideas we’re discussing. Bruxy calls his position “Arminian”, but it’s not Arminian in a traditional sense, specifically in the sense that Packer criticizes Arminianism (see part 2). Most importantly, it is Anabaptist – the third branch of Christianity, besides Catholicism and Protestantism – and emphasizes the fact that this whole debate is irrelevant anyway. Now, I don’t necessarily agree with every little thing he says, but I certainly favor a lot of it, and his sermons and notes have provided me with some excellent notes above and beyond those I came up with. So if you read these posts AND check out the sermons, you’ll definitely notice some overlap. Additionally, even if you don’t check out the sermons, you should click that link to Bruxy’s website and read his seven blog posts called “What’s the Word on Scripture?” He really explains the purpose of the Bible and our approach to it in a beautiful way. Hat tip to my brother in Christ who pointed me to Bruxy’s sermons. Thanks!

Oh, and by the way…you might ask why I’m not structuring my series as an attack on TULIP. Two reasons. One, I’m structuring it as a response to Packer’s essay, which is not based on TULIP; and two, as any good Calvinist will tell you (Packer included), TULIP isn’t really five points, it’s five consequences of one point (“God’s sovereignty”). If any one point fails, essentially all five do. So it’s not really worthwhile to try to discredit each of the five separately. Besides, it’ll come about naturally as we go; I will note often when verses or points apply to one or more specific aspects of TULIP.

Now, as promised – on to part 2.

On the Absurdity of Calvinism, part 1b of 7: More Introduction

That got exciting quickly.

Since the posting of part 1, there has been lots of feedback, positive, negative, and indifferent. I wanted to address a couple of things that have come up before moving on with the series.

First, my friend Dustin, who blogs over here, has decided to make this a genuine dialogue rather than a one-sided diatribe. You might remember him from when he blogged a response to my post on Jonah a while a back. That’s basically what’s going to happen here, except we’ll share thoughts and drafts with each other before each subsequent part, and then post our critique and response at the same time so that people get two biased perspectives rather than one. I welcome this dialogue, and am excited to see how it proceeds.

Second, I got substantial push-back even from people who are on “my side” of the argument about my choice of words and attitude. Most obviously, the contention was with the following phrasing: “I will shamelessly point and laugh as Packer trips over his own feet and falls into his own trap” (regarding the topic of evangelism). A few people lovingly suggested I should change that wording. I’m not going to, for three reasons. First, it’s honest, and I want to be honest with my readers. While reading Packer’s essay, I really did laugh out loud at the evangelistic paragraphs. It’s those passages as much as anything that helped me settle on using the word “absurdity” in the title of my posts – “absurd” being a combination of irrational and comical. Second, it’s already been seen by a bunch of people. I never like redacting history. For better or worse, I said it. You know I said it (if you didn’t, now you do). I’m not going to sheepishly pretend I never said it. Third, because I’m writing about it now, I might as well keep it there for posterity. (That kinda overlaps with the previous point).

Here’s what I’ll admit though: it wasn’t particularly graceful or loving. And it definitely undermined my claimed intent of wanting to promote dialogue and discussion. For that, I need to take a step back and realize that my tactlessness was less than appropriate. If I offended or caused anyone to stumble, I’m sorry.

Lastly, and most importantly, I want to revisit the question of why I’m writing this in the first place. This is really a discussion specific to my church community (so if you’re reading this from elsewhere on the internet, this may not be relevant). I specified that my purpose is destructive and not constructive. I want to maintain a certain level of freedom and fluidity in our community’s theology. We’ve done incredible things as a church for several years without doctrinal issues such as Reformed-vs-not theology coming up at all. But the more we gravitate toward that pole (or any pole), the more constrained our doctrinal focus is, the more importance we place on doctrine, and thus the less importance we place on praxis. Indeed, I believe that doctrine is only a good thing inasmuch as it directly affects praxis. If we, as a church or as individuals, pursue theology to the point that it becomes more important than actively living out the Kingdom of God, then theology – even correct theology – is a bad thing. Furthermore, the particular pole of Reformed theology often brings with it a lot of church structure ideas that I find dangerous and misguided, and fear our church heading down that road. Also, gravitating toward a specific theological pole threatens both to alienate current members who don’t hold that particular belief set (or don’t hold strongly to any particular belief set) and to render the church inaccessible to future members of this same sort. Where would our church be now if it had chosen to be more doctrinally strict two years ago?

All that said, it’s still tough for me to justify this. I’ve been part of a couple of good churches that happen to have Reformed beliefs. New Song Community Church, in nearby Sandtown, has been doing the work of the Kingdom in incredible ways for more than twenty years. If the Garden suddenly or gradually becomes a “Reformed” church, do I think that will prevent us from doing great things for God in the city of Baltimore? No, not really. But I still believe it would be better for us to maintain a lack of doctrinal absolutism in favor of a broad variety of theological viewpoints that are able to be perpetually in discussion and conversation.

Additionally, and I want to be very careful how I write this paragraph…I believe it is never right, in any church, regardless of doctrine, for the pastor to have a monopoly on theology. I believe that it is important for each member of the congregation to be led and taught not only by the pastor, but by small groups, by each other, by books, by blogs, and most importantly by the Holy Spirit. I am not saying this because of any personal problem with our pastor! Please understand that. I love the man and consider him a close friend. But I also regard him as a brother in Christ on equal footing with me. No congregation should blindly accept what its pastor teaches. A good pastor wouldn’t want that; I don’t think our pastor wants that. Again – that doesn’t mean that I think he’s generally wrong. It just means that I want to reserve the right for myself and any of us to disagree with him.

I hope that clarified some things and puts us all in a better position to continue this discussion, on this blog (use the comments section!) and in person.

On The Absurdity Of Calvinism, part 1 of 7: Introduction

Well, here I am again.

I grew up in a free-will-believing Southern Baptist church. The ideas of Calvinism, election, predestination, and the like were not refuted – they were simply never brought up at all. Until college, I didn’t know Calvinists really existed, much less made up the seeming majority of protestants.

Then I started dating a Calvinist. Suddenly, I found myself thinking about these theological issues more than ever before – but not being swayed by them. While I have grown out of many aspects of the faith in which I was raised, human free will is not one of them; it has continued to make the most logical and theological sense to me. But I am not ignorant of the scriptural arguments and philosophy behind Calvinism; I simply find them lacking. I wrote a bit about Calvinism on this blog some time ago, in my response to Albert Mohler’s review of “The Shack”. Some of that discussion and criticism will overlap with this post series.

Once this relationship ended and I departed the Reformed church I had been attending, I joined a rather non-denominational church (though of Baptist heritage) and hoped that I would never have to deal with the problem again. If you’ve read my past blog posts, you know I don’t like doctrinal squabbles (or doctrine at all), and generally feel it a waste of time to write in such a vein.

But it seems the Calvinists are taking over; many, if not most, modern popular Christian authors come from the Reformed perspective (i.e., Tim Keller, John Piper, Mark Driscoll), and their voices have seeped into our church and taken us quietly down the path of Calvinistic theology. Given my extremely strong feelings on the subject and my deep love for my church, I can’t sit silently by and let this happen.

I will begin with some confessions to put things into perspective. First and foremost, I have a vitriolic hatred of all things Calvinism. I’m not going to try to disguise that. But I’m going to attempt to write lovingly rather than angrily, as I’m not going to convince anyone of anything by yelling at them.

Second, I will be writing in a strictly and specifically destructive way; I will not be offering (constructing) a particular alternative to Calvinism. I do not feel it is my place to do this, because I do not hold a well-defined code of beliefs. I keep my theology loose, in order to allow the Spirit to lead me to new places whenever I am wrong. Importantly, I am open to being wrong; I think any theology is poor if it claims absoluteness. Saved or not, sanctified or not, we’re all human, and I don’t think any one of us has a complete understanding of God and His purposes, thoughts, and ways. As the prophet Isaiah states, “Who comprehends the mind of the Lord?” (Isaiah 40:13, NET) Certainly not I – yet I press on continually toward deeper understanding. But just because I am not advocating a particular theological paradigm doesn’t mean I have no right to tear down what I feel is a pervasive and egregiously inappropriate one.

Recently, I was presented with J.I. Packer’s Introductory Essay to John Owen’s “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ” as a fairly comprehensive introduction to and defense of Calvinistic theology. It will be pretty important for you to read that before proceeding with my critique, because I’m going to rely on it heavily. I read through it, pencil in hand, underlining curiosities, jotting notes about inconsistencies, and chuckling at absurdities. I then organized my thoughts into six very loose categories. I hope you’ll forgive me if these categories aren’t 100% accurate, but if the worst you take from reading all this is that I did a poor job naming and classifying my objections, I can live with that.

Part 2 will be Discourse Issues, in which I will discuss a couple of problems specific to what is – and, more relevantly, is not – addressed in Packer’s defense of Calvinism, as well as how some things are addressed. Part 3 will be Logical Contradictions, where we’ll explore some places where the dialogue seems at odds with itself or with common sense. Part 4 will be Scriptural Inconsistencies, where we’ll dig into the Bible to bring up all those verses Calvinists have to massage, redefine, and/or ignore. Part 5, everyone’s favorite, will be Evangelistic Doublethink, in which I will shamelessly point and laugh as Packer trips over his own feet and falls into his own trap while trying to make evangelism make sense in a Calvinist context. Part 6 will be Theological Unsavoriness, in which I explain why Calvinist theology is just a generally terrible idea that does exactly the opposite of what it claims to do, stripping God’s sovereignty and Jesus’s life and sacrifice of their power and meaning. Part 7 will wrap up with some Unanswered Questions, in which I will throw out several behind-the-scenes underlying ponderables that Calvinism is ill-equipped to provide satisfactory answers for.

Stick around, folks! This one’s going to get messy.

Table of Contents:
Part 1b, More Introduction
Part 1c, Last Introduction, Seriously
Part 2, Discourse Issues
Part 3, Logical Contradictions
Part 4, Scriptural Inconsistencies
Part 5, Evangelistic Doublethink
Part 6, Theological Unsavoriness
Part 7, Unanswered Questions

Faith like a Necklace

Last night after work I was talking to a few of my co-workers while sitting outside on the picnic tables. After a while the conversation changed when Michael said the he needed God in his life. I told him that He is right here. We began to engage in intentional conversations about the gospel but not everyone at this table was a fan of what we were doing.

We work at a hip tex-mex restaurant in the River Oaks/Montrose area of Houston, TX. If you don’t know about this area it is the place to be for nightlife in the fourth largest city in America. So nevertheless the sometimes-hostile environment of being a Christian in the service industry, but also between the bars, nightclubs, and hipster hangouts, a gospel centered relationship is not an easy one to build. But for some reason Michael and a few of my other co-workers feel comfortable talking to me about Christianity, no matter how much they do or don’t know about or agree with the faith. Sometimes the things I say about the Bible confuse them because that is not what they have heard about Christians or seen from the church.

These conversations are very difficult to walk though. I am a pretty open-minded guy and I don’t pretend to be anything that I am not, sometimes to a fault. Being in this place is sometimes hard for my faith because in all honesty I am a skeptic by nature. I have not always been a Christian much less a very good one, but the work that God has been doing in my life is progressive to say the least. All the questions that people throw at me I can field, sometimes with difficulty, sometimes with ease but always with conviction. See it was not very long ago that I was giving the same arguments to myself about Jesus. Trying to excuse my lifestyle by rationalizing my morals and what I believed about believing in “god”.

But last night as I was heading home I really started evaluating what my witness is. Do I offer a good witness to the world as a follower of Christ? What is the reason that people feel comfortable asking me these questions? Why do people enjoy getting into friendly debates with me? Is it because the Holy Spirit is drawing them near or is it because they think I am just a hipster with a cross necklace? Do I look any different to them than the next guy or do they see me as a minister of the gospel of Gods love?

19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel,that I may share with them in its blessings. -1 Corinthians 9:19-23 ESV

How does this look for our lives, testimony, or the building of the Kingdom? How can we become more intentional but less influenced?

The line between looking like a hypocrite and fool is very thin. If your witness is to be just like those you are surrounded by but wear faith like a necklace then your character shows no grace. Grace does not exist so that we may continue on in our old lives. Your testimony then becomes foolish. But at the same time to be so disconnected from the reality of our society and the relationships before us is to ignore the message of Christ. To distance ourselves from the world and continue to live in the arrogance that is our own lives is a masquerade of humility. People are not drawn to either person. Maybe they are but that is how cults get started.

Thanksgiving Litany

Below is a Thanksgiving litany that I came up with and intend to use tomorrow at the dinner table. Just thought I would share!

Thanksgiving Litany

Thanksgiving is a time to gather and give thanks for what we often take for granted: food, shelter, clothing, relationships, and community. Let us take a moment to be silent and lift these things before God. Feel free to call them out.

(Silence)

While it is important to give thanks for God’s provision, it is also important to remember and pray for those who struggle to meet their basic needs. Take a minute to be silent before Jesus. Feel free to pray out loud, if you feel led.

(Silence)

The traditional Thanksgiving story is rich with erroneous and mythical information that attempts to cover up the mass extinction and tragic oppression faced by native populations during the colonization of America. I believe that it is important to recognize that the ground we stand on once belonged to the Lenape Tribe, who planted corn, squash, and beans, and were sustained by the Delaware River. The Lenape tribe was forced out of Eastern Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New York, and pushed Westward due to the Indian Removal Act, which was signed into law by President Andrew Jackson in 1830. Today many live in severe poverty in Oklahoma, Kansas, Wisconsin, and Ontario. Take a moment to pray for the Lenape people whose estimated population in 2010 was 16,000.

(Silence)

Now I am going to recite a special prayer offered by former Principal Chief Chief Thomas Strong Swiftwater of the Lenape people of Kansas City at a recent First Nations conference.

Ke-shay-la-min. Oh, Gitshe Manatoo,
Creator. Oh, Great Spirit.
Gut-ta-mak-ton-hay. Kin-knee-ke-nan e-le-nan,
I speak humbly. Watch over us.
Un-gunda-wakan- will-le-knee-o-knee-can.
Give us your blessings.
Wa-knee-shee. Wa-ne-shee. Wa-knee-shee nuka,
Thank you. Thank you, Father,
Wa-knee-shee nu-ka-lay. Gut-mak-ton-nack.
Thank you, Dear Father. I have spoken.

Some Follow-Up Thoughts on Jonah

My church, the Garden Community, recently finished up a four-week jaunt through the book of Jonah. Jonah is an interesting little story tucked away in the minor prophets, yet probably the most familiar to casual Bible readers. Children raised in the church come to know Jonah as well as Noah, baby Moses, and David. But there’s a lot more under the surface of this book that is not immediately evident to casual readers. I think our pastor, Joel, did a great job digging out the main truths and messages of Jonah’s story, but I’d like to add a few extra bits that stand out to me or that I simply hold a differing viewpoint on. I’m going to look at five relevant points, plus two other points that are interesting but not particularly worth a lot of weight to me.

1. The book of Jonah is not historical. Joel took special care to reject this view early in his sermon series, but I remain sympathetic to the idea, as it makes much more sense to me than the alternative. My main reasoning is that, unlike every other book of prophecy in the Old Testament, Jonah is primarily about the prophet himself rather than his prophecy. In fact, the entirety of Jonah’s prophecy merits exactly half of one verse out of the 48 in the book. Contrasted another way, God speaks to Jonah more than through him. (The only comparable minor prophet is Habakkuk, who dialogues with God more than with a nation, yet God still works in an element of genuine prophecy in his responses.) I find it much more likely that the book of Jonah is a story, an Old Testament parable, rather than a literal record of events. But wait, there’s so much detail! And wasn’t Jonah a historical figure? Well, yes…

2. Jonah was a real prophet, but this probably isn’t him. Jonah, son of Amittai, is recorded as being a prophet in 2 Kings 14, during the reign of Jeroboam II. According to the annals, Jeroboam “restored the boundaries of Israel from Lebo Hamath to the Sea of the Arabah, in accordance with the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher.” So, the historical Jonah prophesied about geographical expansion for Israel. Would God use the same prophet for a completely different purpose later, that would not be reported by Israel’s historians? Sure, it’s possible. But there is no Biblical hint, besides the name, that they are the same person. If my first theory holds, it wouldn’t be surprising for a Jewish storyteller to use a character from Israel in his parable. Perhaps it doesn’t fit with certain principles of mythology, but…seriously, a guy lived in a giant fish for three days? Really? Are there even fish that big in the Mediterranean? I believe in miracles, sure, but literary fiction seems like a better fit to me here. So what if Jonah’s not literal? More on that later.

3. Jonah never calls Nineveh to repentance; he actually prophesies against them. Once Jonah begrudgingly acquiesces to God’s purpose for him, he enters Nineveh and delivers the message. But either he does it halfheartedly, or the author didn’t feel the need to record any more detail, because the entirety of Jonah’s message is this: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” That’s it. No elaborate oracle like the rest of the prophets. No symbolism, no declaration of woe, no explanation, and certainly no call to repentance. Just a plain vanilla “Hey, you guys are screwed.” And yet, despite that one-sentence doomsaying, Nineveh repents anyway. Top to bottom. Peasants to royalty. Indeed, the king himself issues a decree of repentance, proclaiming the glimmer of hope that Jonah refused to: “Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” And what do you know, that’s exactly what God does. Turns out, that was His purpose from the beginning…which Jonah suspected, but never made explicit until verse 2 of chapter 4. Now, back to the historicity issue, I believe that God can transform people, and indeed whole cities – but the type of top-to-bottom repentance, with no impetus, is unparalleled. It’s far more likely Hollywood ending than historical event, and there’s another reason to think that as well…

4. Nineveh’s “repentance” didn’t last. Whether or not Jonah is literal, there is little such controversy about the prophetic book of Nahum which takes place 100-200 years after Jonah is purported to. Via Nahum, the Lord has some choice words in broad, sweeping condemnation of Nineveh. Absent  is the God who mercifully offered hope through the sending of Jonah, replaced by a God who is “jealous and avenging” and “maintains His wrath against His enemies”. He call Nineveh “city of blood, full of lies” and states that “I will pelt you with filth, I will treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle.” So much for repentance! The book closes with this ominous decree: “Nothing can heal your wound; your injury is fatal. Everyone who hears the news about you claps his hands at your fall, for who has not felt your endless cruelty?” One argument for the historicity of Jonah is that Jesus refers to Jonah as a historical figure in Matthew 12. I respectfully disagree; none of Jesus’ reference to the symbolism or message of Jonah requires it to be based in literal fact. The most compelling link would be Jesus saying that “The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here”. If those men of Nineveh truly repented, it certainly disappeared in a few generations. Now, of course, we can read the history of Israel and see genuine repentance transform into genuine idolatry in quite a short period of time, over and over and over. But again I suggest, Jesus’s words lose no power or merit if the “men of Nineveh” who repented were only part of a story rather than part of history.

5. The story of Jonah is not a prophecy, but a lesson for Israel. Going back to my point that the book of Jonah is not at all focused on prophecy, we must decide what it is focused on. It is clearly centered on Jonah, the person, as he runs from God, is repeatedly saved by God, eventually gives in to God, and then is taught a lesson by God. What is the crux of the story? It is not the transformation of Nineveh, although we can surely look at that. It is not the three-night slumber in the belly of a fish, as children are often taught. It is my belief that Jonah belongs to the category of “bridge texts” that serve as God’s way of preparing Israel for the forthcoming new covenant that will be open to all. In the Old Testament, Israel as a tribe, an ethnic identity, is God’s chosen people, the objects of His affection and protection. But in the New Testament, through Jesus, the doors of Israel swing open for Jews and Gentiles to enter. There are many such bridge texts in the prophets. A beautiful example is in Isaiah 19:19-25; another is Isaiah 66:18-20. Jonah is frustrated that God offered His grace to Nineveh, outside of chosen Israel, well-known for its wickedness. God convinces Jonah that it is simply His nature to care and offer mercy to all people (and beyond – see below). This is the message of the story of Jonah: God doesn’t just care for Israel, His chosen people – He cares for all His people, as He made them all and loves them as His own. And this is a beautiful, invaluable message, whether the story is literal or not.

Irrelevant point 1) What happened to Jonah’s shelter? Read chapter 4 carefully. When Jonah leaves Nineveh, he builds himself a shelter to provide himself with shade. Then the Lord causes a vine to grow, which…provides Jonah with shade. Huh? Then, God causes a worm to eat the vine, taking away Jonah’s shade…but what about the shelter? It’s not mentioned. We’re not told that the desert wind blew it away. It simply disappears.

Irrelevant point 2) “…and many cattle as well.” When God is persuading Jonah that He ought to care about Nineveh, He argues that it has “more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left”, meaning either Nineveh is a haven for the mentally deficient, or He’s only taking account of children, or He’s just making a racist comment to give Jonah a chuckle (probably not the case). Actually, that third option is probably the closest to the truth, except the statement is likely a metaphor for a more general lack of discernment among the Ninevites. But then God also reminds Jonah that the city has “many cattle as well”. So, is God implying that He also cares about the livestock? Well, probably. He is the Creator of all creatures, man and beast, so why wouldn’t He? His eye is on the sparrow, so it’s on the bull and the goat and the sheep as well.

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