Monday, December 15, 2008

Christianity: A Sapiental Philosophy?

I was reflecting on the train today that Christians have all too easily slurred the Old Testament as being all about works and held up the New Testament as the liberating and spiritual way forward. The Old was all about what to do (keep the Sabbath day, honour your parents...) and what not to do (don't murder, don't steal, don't wear clothes of mixed material, don't move your neighbour's boundary markers...). In turn, the New Testament has been understood as taking the nitty-gritty historicity of the Old Testament and moralising and philosophising it. So Jesus becomes a sapiential teacher of timeless truths (hence why we dress him as a Grecian sage) and Paul is cast as spurning the Old Testament and in contrast to Torah he teaches about love and esoteric experiences.

There are several problems here, the least of which is hideous Marcionism. To characterise Jesus and the early church as being disconnected from Israel and her history is to miss the point. The story of Jesus is the fulfilment of the Torah (Matthew 5.17) and the apostles can speak against the law because although being a good, God given thing, it's purpose in the lives of God's people has been taken by Christians' unity to Christ and the dwelling of the Spirit in their bodies. Not because Israel was trying to earn her salvation and needed to be set straight, rather that Israel (and the rest of humanity and creation) has been redeemed in Jesus. The people of God are no longer marked by circumcision and other marks of Torah-obedience, but faith in the faithfulness of Jesus, so that whoever confesses that Jesus is Lord and believes in their heart that God raised him from the dead will be saved.

You would also be hard-pressed to separate Paul from the nitty-gritty of reality. Not just an intellectual idealist, Paul is concerned as much as the Law is in living out life rightly. From circumcision to sex and money to political authority, Paul has more to say than a justified by faith free-for-all how to live life. By the same token, to portray the Law as being just about works and not love is a vulgar misrepresentation because it is love itself that lies at the heart of the Torah: "And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good?" Deuteronomy 10.12-13 (cf. Deuteronomy 10.12-22, 6.1-9 and 7.7-16).

As Oliver O'Donovan helpfully states:
"On two occasions in the writings of Saint Luke we are told that a crowd which heard the preaching of the gospel asked, 'What shall we do?' The answer was different in either case. John the Baptist (Lk. 3:10ff.) responded with some specific moral counsel: 'He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.' Saint Peter, on the other hand (Acts 2:37-38), replied, 'Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.' It would be mistaken to interpret this difference in terms of a contrast between law and gospel, between preaching before and preaching after the coming of Christ. John the Baptist was quite capable of giving the reply that Saint Peter gave (apart from the name of Jesus and the promise of the Holy Spirit), while Saint Peter could easily have replied as John did..." Resurrection and Moral Order, pp. 182-183.

1 comment:

Mike Bull said...

Well said, Matt.

I hate to push it, but the misunderstanding of the significance of AD70 is a large part of evangelicalism's gnosticism.

Concerning timeless truths, the first century Jews were just as guilty of syncretism with Greek philosophy:

“The Jews and the Circumcision rightly said that God had given the Law and that the old arrangement was good. That’s true: It was good as long as we were children. But now we must move on toward adulthood. This movement into the future was what is rejected by the Jews and the Circumcision. For them, all time was the same, and there is no progress in history. They had become philosophers, treating the Law as a timeless ideal instead of as rules for children in their home.
This is how all paganism thinks. For them, time and change are evils. The writings of Mirea Eliade explore this hostility to time in depth. The pagan will admit to eternal cycles, bt not to any real progress or maturation in history and biography. It is for this reason that pagans never grow up. They never progress beyond childhood and adolescence. Any missionary will tell you this, that the heathen are just like children. Greek philosophy and literature also never progresses beyond adolescence and Homer’s two great poems are about adolescents. Stuck in the time before marriage, the Greeks became homosexuals. Because this hostility to God’s plan is part of our sinful nature, we find that the Church repeatedly falls into the same way of thinking...
While it is true that a major sin is to cling to the past, to the old way, and not embrace the new birth and the new marriage, it is also possible to move into a new future that is a false future. Think of adolescence. Our very bodies impel us toward a new relationship with a member of the opposite sex. It is possible to enter a sinful future by having sex without marrying first, to seize forbidden fruit. It is possible to leave home in a rebellious way.
We see this phenomenon in a very striking way in the New Testament history. The fact is that what we call the Old Testament was not complete, for the completion awaited the New Testament writings. In the Restoration era, the Jews became wonderfully enamoured with the Bible and studied it constantly. At some deep level of their psyche they became conscious that it was incomplete. But then they jumped the gun and created their own new testament, their own completion of the Bible. This was the demonic Oral Law tradition that Jesus fought, which was eventually written down as the Mishnah and is commented upon in the Talmuds. Thus, they were impelled forward, but they refused to remain patient.
This false future was really no future at all. The Oral Law is not a new kingdom, but a perversion of the old. The Law of God was taken as timeless truths, as an Ideal, on the model of Greek philosophy, and then turned in upon itself to generate new laws in order to create a perfect, static timeless order, a Jewish version of Plato’s Republic and Laws. Thus, the Oral Law provided nothing new at all, but rather reflected a complete rejection of time and history.”

Excerpts from James B. Jordan, From Bread to Wine, Toward a More Biblical Liturgical Theology. Booklet available from


Now all you need to do is bravely deal with evangelicalism's yellow-bellied dehistoricising of Genesis and Revelation.