Christmas Calvinism: The Grammar of Luke 2:14

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace
among people with whom he is pleased.”
– Luke 2:14 [NET]

Until a few days ago, I’ve always read this verse in a Calvinistic way (I’ll use the term “exclusivist” for the rest of this post). That is to say, the peace being announced here is for a select group of individuals (not all of humanity) who have pleased God. Indeed, this is is how the ESV, NIV, and NRSV all steer their readers, replacing the above noun “people” with the pronoun “those” for a phrase that reads similar to “peace among those with whom his favor rests/he is pleased.”

However, I recently heard a sermon where the preacher read the text in a very inclusive way. That is to say, he read the peace being announced here as for all people, who as a collective, have God’s pleasure. The NET (quoted above) and NASB both leave this reading as an option, depending on how you mentally organize the clause. Does the phrase “with whom he is pleased” describe the type of people who are recipients of this peace or is it more of a simple description of the broad category of “people/humanity”? Thus reading: “Peace on earth among people/humanity, with whom he is pleased.”

It’s easy to see the various theological leanings which would play into how one chooses to read this verse. Surely God is not pleased with everybody, right? Or could it simply be God’s pleasure to send the Incarnate Son to redeem his perfectly loved, if not damaged, Image Bearers? Indeed, just before this angelic announcement there is another very inclusive phrase from the lips of the divine messenger: “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people (παντὶ τῷ λαῷ).” [Lk. 2:10]

I know there are some issues with the Greek (and variant manuscripts) of this verse (see below*), but . . .

What do you think?
Should Luke 2:14 be read in an exclusive or inclusive way?
Why or why not?


Greek text of Luke 2:14 (marked off as poetry)

δόξα ἐν ὑψίστοις θεῷ
καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς εἰρήνη
ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκίας

A quick consult with some of my more proficient Greek friends offered no help as to why exactly different translators have made the decisions they did or as to whether the Greek gives a definitive nod toward an exclusive or inclusive reading.

Confessing Christ for Church and World by Kimlyn J. Bender

IVP Academic provided a copy of this book for review.

9780830840595

Confessing Christ for Church and World by Kimlyn J. Bender is a collection of essays that “are really ‘looking along’ with Schleiermacher and Barth to the reality they were trying to describe, which for both of them meant (though in radically different ways) the reality of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ” (16). The essays are divided into three sections:

  1. Church and Conversation (Chs. 1-4) focuses on ecclesiology and ecumenity.
  2. Canon and Confession (Chs. 5-9) focuses on scripture, biblical authority and tradition.
  3. Christ and Creation (Chs. 10-12) focuses on Christology, creation and covenant.

I am just starting to read the book, and as a Baptist I decided to start with Ch. 8 “Barth and Baptists: A Fellowship of Kindred Minds.” In this chapter, Bender focuses on Barth challenge to Baptists’ reluctance to acknowledge the importance of creeds or traditions. Bender begins by pointing out some key thoughts shared by Barth and Baptists, such as baptism, ethics of discipleship, the importance of the local congregation, and the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Yet, the shared space he builds from in challenging Baptists is found in this quote:

In Barth we see a truly unparalled focus on Jesus Christ, a truly christocentric theology at work, with a firm commitment to Holy Scripture as the unparalleled authority for the church’s faith and confession, and with an emphasis on proclamation and preaching as central to the church’s worship and practice, all within a theology dedicated to service to the church that focuses on themes of witness and discipleship (249).

From this foundation, Bender builds a case for challenging Baptists tendency to make “statements of opposition and mutual exclusion, for example, pitting the Bible and tradition against one another” (250). Bender, first, explains that while Barth realizes that scripture and tradition have a relationship it is not on equal grounds. Scripture, as the unique revelation of God, is unquestionably superior to tradition. He writes, “All church proclamation, as well as church tradition, comprised of doctrine, creeds and confessions, must be based on Scripture which stands over them” (250). But, Barth does not go so far as to empty confessions, or tradition, of all meaning. Rather, Barth insists that for the church to confess its faith in the present it must pay attention to the church’s past confessions. Thus, tradition is important because in tradition the church reads scripture together.

It is this idea, that the church, past and present, is needed for understanding scripture that Bender challenges Baptists tendency to have a “me and my Bible” approach to reading scripture. He even repeats a phrase I have heard often as a Baptist, “Ain’t nobody but Jesus going to tell me what to believe” (263). Bender argues that Barth challenges us at this point by reflecting on the importance of reading scripture together in the present by using the past. Bender writes, “Barth sees a real authority in confessions but does not see them as absolute, nor does he espouse forced subscription. He upholds the uniqueness of scripture against all creeds and confessions, but does recognize a real authority in them and refuses to ground Christian faith in subjective personal experience” (264).

As a Baptist, I appreciate this challenge from Bender to take the past seriously. Baptists can sometimes fall into the trap of thinking Christianity began on the day they were saved. Faith begins when we “walk the aisle” and so why should we go back. But this idea is not only misguided it is dangerous as it leads us to prioritize our feelings and leads us to towards a “me and my Bible” approach to reading scripture. In Barth, Bender finds a voice that challenges this tendency by asking us to reconsider this approach and instead come to understand reading scripture as “we and our Bible.” While there is much we might want to argue with in Barth, surely this is a place we can find some humility and acknowledge he might just be right.

Or as Bender writes, maybe we can ask and answer with Barth, “How does Jesus tell us what to do? Jesus’ voice is found in Scripture, and Scripture is read in a community of persons that, like us, he has called to be one people” (263-4).

 

Jesus the Interpreter: Divine Violence in the Old Testament

“We may perhaps be allowed to look forward to a new day, in which Jesus himself is acknowledged, in his own right, as a thinking, reflecting, creative and original theologian.” – NT Wright[1]

I am committed to non-violence because I am committed to Jesus.[2] As a non-violent Christian, I’m commonly asked some form of the following question: “How can you think that God is nonviolent or that his people must always act nonviolently when there are so many examples in the Old Testament of God acting violently or encouraging such behavior?”

It’s a good question and one of the biggest obstacles for most Christians when they consider adopting a non-violent ethic.[3] However, I’ve always thought that this is a question that can actually be punted to Jesus himself. That is to say, I believe a more illuminating form of the question would look like this:

How could Jesus think that God is nonviolent and expects his people to be nonviolent in light of the many Old Testament texts that seem to contradict this?

 Of course this question assumes two things:

  • First, that Jesus was familiar with the major stories & themes of the Old Testament (including those that depict God as violent and his people as acting violently in obedience to God’s commands.[4]
  • Second, that Jesus still believed & taught that God was nonviolent and likewise expected his followers to be nonviolent.[5]

If both of these assumptions are true,[6] we are faced with important questions: How did Jesus interpret these texts? What was his hermeneutical logic? And even more to the point, are Christians obligated to agree with his conclusions, even if we aren’t necessarily predisposed to agree with his interpretations?

We might not normally think of Jesus as a biblical interpreter or theologian, but we should. After all, he grew up in a religious environment surrounded by many different popular interpretations of his religious tradition. In this context, Jesus inherited, learned, formed, and communicated very specific beliefs about what God was like and what he expected of his people. In so doing, he also explicitly and forcefully rejected certain interpretations & expectations that were popular during his lifetime.

I have to imagine that Jesus was often confronted about his non-violent teachings, especially by the more revolutionary Jewish groups common during the first-century. In Matthew 5, he preemptively and explicitly rejects the Old Covenant law of retaliation in favor of a new, radical ethic of nonviolence. In Luke 6, Jesus tells his disciples to “love your enemies, and do good and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” It’s not a stretch to picture Simon the Zealot disagreeing with Jesus’ assessment of the Father as a merciful enemy-lover. “Jesus, are you not aware that God commanded the slaughter of men, women, and children who stood against his people?” What would Jesus’ response be? Would he recant or qualify his statement? Or would he provide an alternate interpretation and assume that it is more authoritative than any other reading of the text that would lead to a different conclusion?

This problem is even more acute in an account in Luke 9 where Jesus rebukes his disciples for attempting to imitate a story from the Old Testament by calling down fire on their enemies in (cf. 2 Kings 1:9-12). I can imagine the disciples reminding Jesus of this beloved Old Testament story – what was his response? How did he read such texts and come to such different conclusions than many of his day (and our day)? I believe that these sorts of questions are some of the most important ones to be asked in any conversation about Jesus and violence.

Jason Micheli recently offered an excellent post attempting to answer a question of this nature: How did Jesus read Psalm 94 and it’s cry for vengeance against enemies while at the same time commanding and embodying a responsibility to love his enemies? Read his engaging post here: Jesus’ Enemy Loving Offensive. Jason’s attempt embodies the posture Christians should take when engaging Old Testament texts that seem to contradict Jesus’ own teachings and example.

I can’t help but think that Christians are making a fundamental mistake when we use the Old Testament to qualify or change the teachings of Christ. It strikes me as odd that we might imagine our interpretations of various Old Testament texts to be more authoritative than Christ’s. Did Jesus not know about these Old Testament texts? Did he misread them? Can we qualify correct Jesus’ teachings because we are better equipped to read the Tanakh?

My evaluation of the current conversation surrounding God & Old Testament violence is that we have lost our interpretative imagination under the weight of years of tradition and cultural influences. The Old Testament is not as clear on the issue of violence as one might think. There are plenty of ways to interpret the classic “texts of terror” in ways that lead logically to Jesus’ non-violence. Again, I suggest reading Jason Micheli’s enlightening post. Other options remain: perhaps we should acknowledge a multiplicity of voices in the Old Testament (some more peaceful, even promising a future of peace), perhaps a reading of the “texts of terror” in light of comparable ANE texts would reveal a fairly radical non-violent trajectory, or perhaps the point of the cumulative narrative of the Old Testament is that violence did not ultimately accomplish God’s Kingdom. These are just a few of the many possibilities for reading the Old Testament in a way congruous with Jesus’ life and teachings. But these are the types of readings that I believe Jesus forces us to explore.

 


[1] Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 479.
[2] I find myself unable to avoid the conclusions that Jesus unequivocally commands his followers to act nonviolently and also personally modeled this nonviolent commitment with his own life. I’m also unable to ignore a theological conviction that the historic life of Jesus, as portrayed in the Gospels, is the clearest and most complete revelation of the character and will of the Triune God that humanity has ever been given. Thus I’m always a bit surprised to find that many Christians view my nonviolent stance as mistaken (at best) or heretical (at worst).
[3] I’ve found that it is, along with the violent passages in Revelation, one of the biggest obstacles for most Christians when considering a commitment to nonviolence. For the violence in Revelation, see these posts: Jesus is Cruciform, Not Octagonal (A Response to Mark Driscoll) and Interpreting the Violent Imagery in Revelation.
[4] Jesus is surrounded by Jewish groups with a violent revolutionary bent and explicitly rebukes such desires. Even more telling is that Jesus’ own theological agenda seems to be one that would fit nicely with these traditions (see the revolutionary language of his mother in her famous song), yet he interprets the revolution as a spiritual one – a battle against Satan, not Rome. Again – see N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God.
[5] Jesus is as clear as possible: see Matthew 5:38-48.
[6] (I know of few who would doubt the first and have yet to see good evidence against the second).

A Hermeneutic of Trust

I posted a few days ago on the idea of teaching students to read scripture uncritically. Richard Hays, in his article ‘Salvation by Trust? Reading the Bible Faithfully‘, has this say about the work of interpretation.

The real work of interpretation is to hear the text. We must consider how to read and teach scripture in a way that opens up its message and both models and fosters trust in God. So much of the ideological critique that currently dominates the academy fails to foster these qualities. Scripture is critiqued but never interpreted. The critic exposes but never exposits. Thus the word itself recedes into the background, and we are left talking only about the politics of interpretation, having lost the capacity to perform interpretations.

Although Hays’ article is not about reading uncritically, I think his message is applicable to teaching students to read uncritically. Any interpretation that moves move to quickly to critique, whether it is using scripture to critique an opponent or using our experience to critique scripture, is in danger of ignoring the text. And if we ignore the text how will we ever hear its message of grace. To quote Hays’ article one more time,

Left to our own devices we are capable of infinite self-deception, confusion and evil. We therefore must turn to scripture and submit ourselves to it…in order to find our disorders rightly diagnosed and healed.

 

The Holy Spirit – Our Mother

Obviously the Holy Spirit is genderless. However, for a variety of reasons it’s not uncommon for scholars to refer to the Holy Spirit with feminine pronouns. That’s why I was fascinated when I came across the following quote which put the concept of the Holy Spirit as feminine together with an interesting take on a classic passage in Romans 8.

“When teaching us to cry ‘Abba,’ the Spirit behaves like a mother teaching her own little baby to say ‘daddy,’ repeating that word along with the baby until it becomes so much the baby’s habit that it calls it’s daddy even in its sleep.” – Diadochus of Fotike, On Spiritual Perfection, 61.