Chapter 1 - The same old arguments|
by Mushfer Brains
Imagine that you are a New Testament seminary professor. You are standing at the front of the classroom working through the day's lesson. Perhaps you and your students are studying Koine Greek verb conjugation, or analyzing one of Quintilian's rhetorical handbooks. It is another normal day in the seminary education system, and you have a lot of material to cover.
Then the sound fills your classroom. Yelling. And screaming. A fundy atheist has entered the school and is yelling at people as he makes his way down the hallway toward your classroom.
What would you do?
If you were a seminary professor (say, Ben Witherington III at Asbury Theological Seminary), you would take immediate action. You would shut off the lights in the classroom. You would close and lock the classroom door. You would put up a big sign on the door that said MOVED TO SIBERIA. You would tell your students to cover themselves with copies of D. A. Carson's Exegetical Fallacies. Then you would stand in the middle of the room and begin doing the watusi in the hopes that the fundy atheist would think that this was the seminary's aerobics class.
But the fundy atheist doesn't know what a real seminary class looks like, so he came into the classroom holding a giant baseball bat with the word ACME stencilled on it. He walked right up to the professor with a huge grin on his face.
"In a situation like this, it seems appropriate to pray to the creator of the universe," the fundy atheist says. "If anyone could help stop me from hitting you with this baseball bat, God is the one. As an all-powerful being, God can do anything. As an all-knowing being, God can see exactly what is happening, and he knows exactly how best to help. As an all-loving being, God would certainly want to help. Why would an all-loving being want to see a group of students and their teacher to be beat up with this baseball bat?"
"I'm not sure what your point is," the professor replied. "As far as I'm concerned, a lunatic like you is the result of a series of social system failures. Your parents could have raised you better. Your teachers could have taught you better. Tens of thousands of people have crossed your life and could have done something to improve you. Our media is filled with violent images that we just let into our homes without a thought, or let into the homes of others with little or no protest. For all I know a doctor didn't prescribe medication for you that he should have. I don't see why you think any being -- whether all-powerful or not -- is obliged to make up for the mistakes that we make."
"Uh?" the fundy atheist said, scratching his head with the baseball bat. "But, duh, Jesus makes it very clear in the Bible that he hears and answers prayers. For example, In Matthew 17:20 Jesus says,"
The professor rolled his eyes. "Look, stupid. How realistic is it to think that this is a literal license to overturn topographical features? Or even to get whatever you asked for at any time? Do you know anything about ancient language?"
The fundy atheist moved to scratch his behind and put a puzzled look on his face.
"I didn't think so," the professor continued. "Look -- people of the Biblical world -- and in many ancient cultures, and even modern cultures today -- have what is called a dramatic orientation. We'd say that they used a lot of hyperbole to express themselves. Let me give you some examples. This is an inscription offered by the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses III [taken from Moshe and Trude Dothan, Peoples of the Sea, 27]:
I slew the Denyon in their islands, while the Tjekker and Philistines were made ashes. The Sherden and the Washesh of the sea were made non-existent, captured all together and brought on captivity to Egypt like the sands of the shore.
Now look -- clearly when Ramsses tells us his enemies were "made non-existent," he was not meaning this literally, since he goes on to indicate that they were captured. Here's more. G. B. Caird, in The Language and Imagery of the Bible [110ff], notes the frequent use of hyperbole among Semitic peoples, and notes that "its frequent use arises out of a habitual cast of mind" which tends to view matters in extremes, or as we would say, "black and white." The Semitic mindset is dogmatic, and despises doubt; things are either one way or another, and there is no room for introspection. More examples may be found from Rihbany's The Syrian Christ [108ff]. I think this quote from Rihbany tells it well:
A case may be overstated or understated, not necessarily for the purpose of deceiving, but to impress the hearer with the significance or insignificance of it. If a sleeper who has been expected to rise at sunrise should oversleep and need to be awakened, say half an hour or an hour later than the appointed time, he is then aroused with the call, 'Arise, it is noon already...' Of a strong and brave man it is said, 'He can split the earth.' The Syrians suffer from no misunderstanding in such cases. They discern each other's meaning.
Rihbany offers other examples of such sayings from daily life. Here is a welcome he received from an old friend when he came to his home: "You have extremely honored me by coming into my abode. I am not worthy of it. This house is yours; you may burn it if you wish. My children are also at your disposal; I would sacrifice them all for your pleasure." The Westerner who hears this might well be shocked and offended, but what is being said behind the verbiage is no more than "I am delighted to see you; please make yourself at home." Jesus' pledge of faith moving mountains is of the same order. It doesn't mean you'll get each and every prayer answered positively; that's ridiculous. It's a dramatic statement of God's love for his clients. Okay?"
"Duh," the fundy atheist replied.
"Now the phrase 'moving mountains' was 'a Jewish metaphor for accomplishing what was difficult or virtually impossible' and 'points to the hyperbole of what is being said' (Hagner, 605) Later rabbis would ask for signs validating their views consisting of objects being uprooted. To complete the picture, add this: In Jewish thought, God was sovereign. Nothing happened that God did not permit or cause. 'Early Jewish teaching did celebrate God's kindness in answering prayer, but rarely promises such universal answers to prayer to all of God's people as the language suggests.' [Keener, 245] Only a small number of sages were considered pious enough to ask for and receive whatever they wanted -- and that piety was their key indicates that they weren't going around asking for just anything they wanted (like Hanina ben Dosa, and Honi the Circle-Drawer), but only what they supposed to be in the will of God. "' Such a call to believing prayer supposes a heart of piety submitted to God's will...'"
"Finally, note that limitations are clearly set by the context. The Lord's Prayer instructs us to pray for daily needs (Matt. 6:11) -- it does not say, 'Give us this day a Rolls Royce' or "Save us from this fundy atheist." Earthly children ask for bread or fish (7:9-10) which are 'basic staples in the Palestinian diet' that were provided to children on a regular basis. We can ask for 'good things' (7:11), a term which sometimes referred to prosperity generally, but also 'referred to agricultural produce that the righteous would share with with others (Test. Iss. 3:7-8).'"
"Duh," the fundy atheist repeated. "But the message is reiterated in Mark 11:24 when Jesus says:
The professor shook his head. "No different than what I have said. You're reading that as though it were written yesterday. It doesn't give carte blanche in prayer."
"Yeah, but but...in Matthew 18:19 Jesus says:
The professor sighed. "No, that's the least relevant of the three you picked. You've illicitly isolated Matthew 18:19 from its context to make it look like a general instruction on how to pray for whatever you want in any context. It's not for that purpose. The passage follows instructions for pursuing 'sheep' (members of the believing community) who go astray. Verses 15-18 are further instructions for community discipline. Verse 19 is an amplification on verse 18, using the 'Again, I say unto you' which indicates an expansion of what has been noted previously. Thus whatever verse 19 means, it is restricted to the context of discipline within the believing community of Christ. It is not, as you imagine, a license to request anything. Verse 18 refers to binding and loosing, a metaphor in Jesus' day to judicial authority. The allusion is to the fact that in Jewish thought of the time, 'the halakic decisions of the community have the authority of heaven itself.' [Keener, 454] The word for 'thing' (pragma) is 'a term frequently limited to judicial matters.' (Blomberg commentary on Matthew, 281; Harrington commentary on Matthew, 269). The reference to two agreeing mirrors the situation in a Jewish court representing the community in which two out of three witnesses agree. 'where the Shekinah abides with the court that judges justly' (Hagner commentary on Matthew, 533) The action described (v. 17) is the disfellowship of an unrepentant sinner from the community of believers, something which in turn is recognized in Heaven. This is the only context for this instruction. It does not even have tangible, earthly results; it is an issue of status."
"Duh," the fundy atheist said. "I don't get it. Jesus is God, and 'Nothing will be impossible to you' is a straightforward statement. So is, 'It will be yours.' So is, 'it will be done for them.'"
"No," the professor said, "you're just reading the text in modern English devoid of any defining contexts and assuming that it means what you think it means based on your decontextualized perceptions. You're doing what a fundamentalist like Bob Jones would do."
The fundy atheist scratched his ear and then raised the bat. Dressed completely in mauve and measuring 5 foot 2 inches tall, he looks like he could use a shave and a bath. It is now a two-on-two situation. There is the fundy atheist and his bat facing the professor.
"What should God do?" the fundy atheist shouted.
"Nothing," the professor said, and slugged the fundy atheist square in the jaw, causing him to fall like a house of cards. "I don't think God should do anything in a situation like this," he continued to the unconscious batsman. "Step back for a moment and look at this from God's perspective. We've had countless opportunities to reform characters like you. At the same time, I'm hardly a perfect example myself. I'm a sinner; forgiven, but a sinner still. What right do I have to ask God to run interference for me on these things? I don't go praying every time I need a band-aid; and when I pray in crisis, I do it fully aware that Jesus has NOT promised a positive answer every time or even most of the time. That's because I exegete the text in context, instead of raping out of it what I want to see because I'm a fundy atheist with some kind of burr under my saddle about religion. I don't go asking God to be my personal magician, giving people heart attacks or magically transporting policemen from across the street to here or putting magic force field around me. Good grief, man, do you want God to help you with your homework next? Or tie your boot laces for you? Why not? He's omnipotent and omniscient -- no problem for him! Well?"
The fundy atheist has a glazed look. Nothing happens. There is a porch light on, but nobody is home.
The pair of docs
A situation like this isn't that hard to figure. Chances are that you believe in God, and as an educated believer it is not at all difficult to understand what happened at the seminary. The promises of prayer in the NT were made in specific contexts of understanding. Ancient readers knew that they were not hyperliteral promises to get whatever you wanted whenever you wanted it. Jews especially understood this of YHWH, and understood that prayer was, first and foremost, a vehicle and expression of thanks and submission to God, a way to acknowledge His sovereignty. It was never seen as a fix-all for any problem that came up (even if it was serious).
It is hard for us, as intelligent Christians, to know what to think, because fundy atheists like Marshall Brain are senseless. We have no easy way to penetrate their thick heads with a good dose of reality.
What we do know is that these fundy atheists don't consult relevant scholarship before they mouth off.