Friday, February 29, 2008

The Pew Report

There's lots to chew on in the recent Pew U.S. Religious Landscape Survey.

I've played around with the numbers a bit. What I'm interested in the relative decrease (or increase) in childhood versus current affiliation of adults in the different denominations. The Pew Report stated the absolute amount of the decline or increase. That doesn't help us to understand gains and losses in the different denominations relative to each other. My numbers on the percentage loss or gain among denominations, comparing current affliation of adults to their childhood affliation:

Methodist 25.3% Decline
Catholic 23.9% Decline
Presbyterian 20.6% Decline
Lutheran 16.4% Decline
Pentecostal 12.8% Increase
Non-Denominational 200.0% Increase

The labels, of course, cover major differences. The LCMS has seen a decline in overall baptized membership of around 8 percent since the early 1970s (not including losses from churches leaving the denomination due to the Seminex controversy). So it appears that liberal Lutheranism has seen a more serious decline than conservative Lutheranism.

Nonetheless, why should the LCMS experience any decrease at all? There is, of course, a huge amount of attention being paid to evangelism. But for all the smoke, I'm unsure how much fire there is yet.

One temptation might be to look and see what non-denominational churches are doing. And I don't think there's any problem with looking to see if there's something to learn. The thing is, if we look at Joel Osteen's church, the apparent reason for the growth is an Stuart-Smally type, non-confrontational message, "How to Become a Better Me."

But there seems to be some bimodality in growth patterns. I recall research by a University of Oregon professor who saw growth in churches that placed real demands on their members.

So the irony is that growth may be bi-modal -- you grow if you water down the Gospel, but you also grow if you preach an uncompromised Gospel. If true, then the worst church model is trying to mix approaches.

But that's just speculation.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Jesus’ Discourse in Matthew 24-25 Part IV. A Few Quibbles with Gibbs’ argument

I think Gibbs presents a good argument regarding how to read Matthew 24 & 25. So this post should not be taken in the spirit of "how wrong he is." I think the most important move is the one that Gibbs takes – that Matthew 24 is not all about the final judgment. It is, first, a continuation of Jesus’ discussion of the temple in relation to his, and Israel’s, vocation.

Nonetheless, there are several aspects of the text that seem to me to tip against Gibbs’ (and Kik’s) argument that Jesus shifts at verse 36 from discussing the destruction of Jerusalem within one generation to discussing the final judgment. As a result, I’m inclined to read both chapters 24 & 25 as talking about events that start within that generation. (Although as I discuss below, I take the ingathering Jesus speaks of in v. 31 to start at that time, but to extend beyond the destruction of the temple.)

I’ll argue four points: [1] The burden of proof, as it were, lies on the case for reading the “pivot” in Mt 24. The reader does not expect a dramatic break in Jesus discourse. So, unless there is clear evidence otherwise, context and naturalness invite reading all of Matthew 24 & 25 as speaking of one event.

[2] Parallel passages in the other synoptic Gospels suggest that language that Gibbs takes as referring to the “final judgment” actually applies to 70 A.D.

[3] Jesus says in Matthew that his “coming” in judgment on the temple will be unexpected. So the post-v. 36 “surprise” language cannot be taken to refer only to the final judgment.

[4] The “ingathering” referred to in Mt 25.31 refers to the same “ingathering” that Jesus mentions in Mt 24.31. The subsequent verses in Mt 25.31-46, refer to what the respectively “gathered” people do. This explains what Christians are to be doing while they wait for 70 A.D.

Let’s take each of these arguments in turn.

[1] Naturalness and context. I don’t want to make too much of this relative to the other arguments, because, in a sense, it depends on the other arguments. Nonetheless, it seems to me that it is natural to read a single discourse as though it relates to the same subject. To be sure, this sort of “presumption” is only that, a presumption. Nonetheless, I would argue that the burden of proof is on Gibbs and Kik, given that they argue that there is a sudden shift in Jesus’ discourse from talking about an event that will occur a few decades in the future to talking about something that will occur thousands of years in the future.

As I mentioned earlier, the temple discourse consumes a huge part of the Gospel of Matthew. It begins in Mt 21 and continues through Mt 25. It begins in Mt 21 with a pointed “cleansing” of the temple, and Jesus invoking Jeremiah 7 to teach that the temple is now a faux-sanctuary for an apostate Israel. The leaders of Israel then appear one after another as Jesus interacts with them in the temple, and as he confounds each of them. Jesus concludes this part of his discourse in Mt 23 as he began it – by predicting destruction for the temple, and for Israel more generally.

In response to all of this, official Israel gathers to put Jesus to death in Mt 26 (vv. 3-5). So Mt 21-25 explains to us why official Israel wants to put Jesus to death. And it’s not because Jesus taught that there would be a final judgment. It’s because, like the prophets before him, he taught that the destruction of the temple was God’s will for an apostate Israel.

So it doesn’t seem to me to be a stretch to understand that what Jesus has in view from the beginning of Mt 21 through the end of Mt 25 is 70 A.D. This is Jesus’ final plea and warning to official Israel.

In this sense, it doesn’t seem to me to be natural for Jesus to change the subject suddenly in v. 36 and inject a lengthy discussion of the final judgment that will occur thousands of years later. This is a topic that is not in dispute in relation to the temple discourse, which is the culminating focus of the Gospel starting in Matthew 21.

To be sure, Gibbs argues that the questions in Mt 24.3 provide that evidence for the pivot, “what will be the sign of your coming, and of the end of the age?” But this is an assumption. There is no reason to read this as anything other than “when are you coming in judgment on Jerusalem, and when will the temple age end?”

I think there is little reason to resist allowing the “end of the age” language to apply to the destruction of the temple, Jerusalem, and Israel. Since Abraham’s time, the land of Israel was the locus of Israel’s hope. Since the time of Moses and the tabernacle, and Solomon and the Temple, these were the locus of God’s presence in Israel, the evidence that God dwelled with them. This was Israel’s hope, indeed, the world’s hope as well. Their fulfillment and intensification in Christ are redemptive events of the very first magnitude.

Hence, Luke writes of the destruction of the temple as “your redemption drawing near”; as the very “kingdom of God” being “near” (vv. 28, 31). This, along with Jesus’ resurrection and the Pentecost, is evidence that Jesus is the long-awaited Davidic king; that Jesus is the ascended king at God’s right hand. This is the turn in Israel’s history, and the world’s. Jesus’ discourse in and actions toward the temple after entering Jerusalem is the culmination of his earthly ministry to Israel. This is the provocation that impels his crucifixion.

So I don’t think there’s anything that a reader needs to apologize for if he resists the claim that the “sign of your coming and of the end of the age” necessarily refers to the final judgment and cannot refer to what Jesus has been talking about and enacting for the last three chapters. If all we had is the Old Testament, what Jesus is telling us is God’s will in Mt 21-23 is absolutely earth-shattering.

[2] The parallel passages in Mark and Luke do not include the disciples’ “second” question in Matthew (the one ostensibly about the final judgment), nonetheless they in fact record answers to the “second” question in Matthew. This suggests that the disciples do not really ask two separate questions, but only one.

Let’s start with Mark. He records the disciples’ questions as “when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are going to be fulfilled?” (Mk 13.4). So there is no express “sign of your coming and of the end of the age” question in Mark. Their question responds to Jesus prediction of the temple’s destruction (13.2).

Despite the absence of an purported “final-judgment” question for Jesus in Mark, nonetheless, Mark reports similar language to what we find in Matthew, all now applied in the context of 70 A.D.:

“Even so, you too, when you see these things happening, recognize that it is near, right at the door. Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But of that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heave, nor the Son, but the Father alone.”

“Take heed, keep on the alert; for you do not know when the appointed time will come. It is like a man away on a journey, who upon leaving his house and putting his slaves in charge, assigning to each one his task, also commanded the doorkeeper to stay on the alert. Therefore, be on the alert – for you do not know when the mater of the house is coming, whether in the evening, at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning – in case he should come suddenly and fin you asleep. What I say to you I say to all, ‘Be on the alert!’” (Mk 13.29-37).

Luke even more clearly pulls together the “come suddenly” language with the events of 70 A.D.

In 21.36, Luke records Jesus saying, “keep on the alert at all times, praying in order that you may have strength to escape all these things that are about to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

But sandwiched in between “this generation” in Lk 21.32 and “these things that are about to take place” in Lk 21.36 is an admonition regarding the “suddenness” of the coming judgment on Israel:

“Be on guard, that your hearts may not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life, and that day come on you suddenly like a trap; for it will come upon all those who dwell on the face of all the earth [land]” (vv. 34-35).

This fits easily with the Jesus’ “be ready” warnings in Matthew. In Matthew, the evil slave “eats and drinks with drunkards” (Mt 24.49). The foolish virgins became drowsy rather than remained “alert.”

So I find reasonable what Gibbs rejects as unreasonable – that Jesus is saying that the time is near, meaning that the judgment on Jerusalem expected within the next generation – but that its actual arrival will come suddenly.

Think about it. If I were to tell you that a catastrophic event were to occur sometime within the next forty years, years and decades could go by where nothing happens. It is entirely reasonable to think that ordinary people might get used to nothing happening, might grow “drowsy” and think that there’s a “delay,” and would not be prepared for the catastrophe when it finally came. I see very little tension between Jesus’ comments that the time is “near,” and his warnings against growing drowsy when it seems to “delay.” So, too, I see little tension in saying that the day is near, but also saying that the exact day and hour of the event is unknown.

(A secular example: Winston Churchill wrote of the "gathering storm" of WWII. He thought that war would break out sometime within a ten-year window. Nonetheless, the precise beginning of the war, Germany's invasion of Poland, occurred quickly and unexpectedly. There is no inconsistency between expecting a catastrophic event and yet being surprised at the speed and unexpectedness of its start.)

[3] Matthew writes of the “coming” of Jesus in judgment on the temple as being quick and unanticipated. So the post-v. 36 language of a sudden return after a delay does not betoken a change or pivot in Jesus’ discourse.

In Mt 24.27, Jesus says, “For just as the lightning comes from the east, and flashes even to the west, so shall the coming of the Son of Man be.”

This verse comes in the middle of Jesus’ discussion of the temple’s destruction. I take the image Jesus uses here to suggest that his coming in judgment will be unanticipated and fast, just like lightning. Despite its location in the discourse (pre-v. 36), Gibbs says that this verse is talking about the final judgment. Gibbs apparently takes the Greek word, parousia, as a technical term for the final judgment. Although the word means “presence,” as is used in and out of the Bible to refer to someone’s “presence” without referring to judgment, let alone a final, definitive judgment.

So in Matthew itself, as well as in the similar passages in the other synoptics, Jesus warns his disciples to pay attention and not be fooled into normalcy by the length of time it takes before the judgment on the temple. When the day arrives, Jesus says he will come with lightning speed.

So I do not think that we can read the post-Mt 24.36 parables dealing with drowsiness and delay as though they cannot apply to the coming judgment on the temple. But the ostensible temporal shift in the language is the strongest argument for the pivot approach to Mt 24 & 25.

While I would not rule out that approach as entirely unreasonable, I would have to say that the evidence is not sufficient to endorse it when the chapters’ language is entirely consistent with understanding Jesus merely to continue his discussion of the coming judgment of the temple.

[4] For me, the stronger argument in favor of the “pivot” theory of Mt 24-25 is what to do with Mt 25.31-46. Here, clearly, are elements dealing with the final judgment – some people inherit the kingdom (25.34) while others are sent away (25.41).

So a couple of observations.

First, while I wouldn’t absolutely insist on it, I think that the coming of the Son of Man in glory with his angels, his enthronement, and the gathering of the nations before him, echoes Mt 24.30-31.

The reference to the “Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” is, I think, a clear reference to Jesus’ ascension and enthronement (Mt 26.64, Acts 2.34-35, Dan 7.13). To be sure, Jesus ascends and is enthroned soon after his resurrection. But v. 64 does not say that Jesus ascends at that point, it says that Israel (the “tribes of the land”) will see the ascended Jesus after the tribulation. I take this to mean that they will accept Jesus as their ascended Lord as a result of their experience. This follows the pattern of judgment in the OT. God judges Israel, they repent and return. So, here: God judges Israel for her faithlessness, Israel repents and returns to God. (I unpack this argument a little more here.)

So v. 31 is the world-wide evangelism that occurs after 70 A.D. (Recall the passages in Luke about redemption and the kingdom coming with Jerusalem’s destruction.) Christians are gathered into the church. This is one point in these chapters that does have an open-ended time period. The gathering of the elect continues on throughout history, up to the present day.

Now let’s return to Mt 25.31-46. Here we have the ascended/enthroned Jesus coming with his angels, gathering the nations before him, and separating them into sheep and goats. This does not strike me as necessarily something other than what we see in Mt 24.30-31. So this has reference to what occurs around 70 A.D.

The “separation” isn’t the separation of the Day of Judgment, but is the separation that occurs in history as the Gospel spreads throughout the earth. Many receive it and many reject it. Those who receive it feed the hungry, show hospitality to the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and the imprisoned. As a result of receiving the Gospel, they are invited into the kingdom at the end of history. Those who reject the Gospel do not show mercy to the needy, and are not invited into the kingdom.

The passage does not stand apart from the other passages dealing with being faithful disciples before the judgment on the temple. The immediately preceding parable talks about what servants do with the talents a master gives them before his trip (25.14-30). This, too, is connected with the final disposition of these servants (v. 30). The same with the virgins (25.12).

Verses 31-46 simply unpack what it is that the wise disciples are supposed to be doing while they wait for the temple’s destruction. They’re supposed to be doing what every other wise disciple in history is called to do: feed the hungry, show hospitality to the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned. They’re not supposed to be holding their breath for forty years, waiting for the other shoe to drop. They’re to be busy with the work of the kingdom.

So while there are implications for the post-70 A.D. church (just as Mt 24.29-31 have implications for the post-70 A.D. church), we cannot thereby force our agenda on Jesus’ remarks here. The focus of Mt 25.31-46 is on faithful discipleship. While the pre-70 A.D. disciples would live in exceptionable times, that did not mean that they were therefore excepted from faithful discipleship. The passages fills out what faithful servants do with the “talents” Jesus gives to them; it fills out what makes the wise virgins actually wise. “Blessed is that slave whom his master finds so doing when he comes” (24.46).


So, anyway, I do not see a great need to read Mt 24-25 as being about anything than Jesus interacting with his disciples about the temple, concluding a discourse that began in Matthew 21 and, indeed, is basically what his entire ministry is about: Jesus is the Davidic king who comes to build the true temple, and who thereby brings the presence of God back to his people. But official Israel is caught up in sin, having turned their back on their Abrahamic vocation to the Gentiles. As with the OT pattern, God will shake up his people in judgment. In response, they will return to him with hearts circumcised anew.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Jesus’ Discourse in Matthew 24-25, Part III: Picking up Gibbs on Mt 24

In Mt 24.1-3, after all the events and discussion of Mt 21 through Mt 23, disrupting the temple work and not-so-implicitly predicting its destruction within a generation. Jesus becomes painfully literal in response to his disciples. The physical temple itself will be destroyed (v. 2).

Matthew tells us that in response to Jesus’ statement, “the disciples came to him privately, saying, ‘Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of your coming, and of the end of the age?” (24.3)

Gibbs argues that there are two different questions being asked here. The first is “when will the temple be destroyed.” (“When will these things happen.”) The second is “what will be the sign of your coming at the final judgment.” (“The sign of your coming, and of the end of the age.”)

This second question is, arguably, unasked in the parallel passages in Mark and Luke. In Mark: “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are going to be fulfilled” (Mk 13.4). And Luke: “Teacher, when therefore will these things happen? And what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?” (Lk 21.7).

So Gibbs (and Kik), not implausibly, argue that Jesus answers two questions in Mt 24-25 – one regarding the destruction of the temple, and one regarding the final judgment – while the other two synoptic Gospels report only the asking and answering of one question, regarding the destruction of the temple. This, the argument goes, accounts for why Jesus’ discourse in Matthew goes far longer than the parallel discourses recorded in Mark and Luke. This, too, would then account for why most of the material from Mt 24.36 through Mt 25.46 is not recorded in Mark and Luke: That passage answers the second question the disciples ask in Matthew, a question that is not asked and, therefore, is not answered in Mark and Luke.

For Gibbs and Kik, the point at which Jesus moves from answering the first question to answering the second question is at 24.36.

Before we discuss why, I should underscore a central reason why Gibbs, contrary to most evangelical opinion in the U.S. (at least in the pew and in the popular pulpit; I don’t know whether this is also true about the professoriate at evangelical seminaries), wants to argue that the first thirty-five verses in Matthew 24 relate to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. rather than to Jesus’ final judgment.

We saw above that in Mt 23.36, Jesus specifically states that the judgment he’s predicting will come upon “this generation.” So, too, in Mt 24.34, Jesus reiterates, “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”

Gibbs takes Jesus at his word at these points. As a result, he concludes, most reasonably to my mind, that the events up through 24.34 (including 35, which adds the “this is most certainly true” exclamation mark to v. 34) had to occur within roughly 40 years of the time that Jesus said them. Placing Jesus’ death in the early 30’s A.D., allows Jerusalem and the temple’s destruction in 70 A.D. just to make it within the typically understood forty-year period of a biblical generation. (I should underscore that I don’t think that God was pushing it here – rather, it is a last bit of evidence regarding just how patient God was toward Jerusalem that he waited almost the full generation before judging her.)

There is, of course, some initial puzzles for the modern reader with this view, particularly regarding the apocalyptic-seeming language in 24.29-30. I’ve discussed some of that here. Gibbs does a good job of discussing that passage (although I might give a tweak here or there as I detail below). In any event, I don’t think the language here is really a problem. Along with others, N.T. Wright is at his comprehensive best in discussing the use of these prophetic categories, particularly in light of their extensive use in the Old Testament. (There, too, they are not taken as signs of the end of the physical creation, but rather are vivid descriptions of what modern Americans would call "earth-shattering" events.)

Further, this is why it’s important to see that Mt 21-Mt 25 is a single, united discourse. From the get go in Mt 21, the focus of Jesus attention as the Davidic king – the one who builds and reforms the temple – is the temple itself as it is intimately intertwined with all of official Israel. It really pushes credulity to think that the disciples ask Jesus, “So when will the temple be destroyed,” and, Jesus, ignoring their question and the actual, coming destruction of the temple in 70 A.D., instead launches into a discussion of the final judgment in verse 4 of Matthew 24.

Given this, though, why does Gibbs thinks that Jesus shifts from discussing the destruction of Jerusalem to discussing the final judgment starting in 24.36?

First, he argues that Matthew records the disciples asking two basic questions, rather than the one essential question reported in the other synoptic gospels. So Jesus has to take up the second question at some point. If not at verse 36 then where?

The affirmative evidence for the “pivot” in verse 36 is that the language and tone shift in verse 36.

On the one hand, the Christian who listens to Jesus will know the time of the temple’s destruction in his pre-verse 36 discourse. “Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near; so, you too, when you see all these things, recognize that it is near, right at the door” (24.32-33).

Jesus is warning the disciples precisely so that they can avoid being surprised by the events. They will escape the judgment by fleeing from Judea into the mountains; they will know better than to try to clear out their houses or to try to retrieve their cloaks (vv. 15-18).

Jesus tells the disciples these things specifically so that they “know” (v. 33 Gk) when “it is near, at the door.”

In contrast, for the event discussed in v. 36ff, “But of that day and hour no one knows” (v. 36), “be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming” (v. 42), “the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not think he will” (v. 44).

This theme continues through the remainder of the passage. “the master of that slaved will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour which he does not know” (v. 50). “Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour” (25.13).

So, too, the period before Jerusalem’s fall seems to be a period of frenetic activity for the disciples. Tribulation and persecution (24.9), apostasy (vv. 10, 12), false prophets (v. 11), and the preaching of the gospel. There is hardly enough time to squeeze all of these events into one generation before judgment comes to Jerusalem

In contrast, the coming in v. 36 and after comes without warning after a long, sleepy “delay” (25.5). The master returns only “after a long time” (v. 19). The picture here is one of quiet normalcy suddenly brought to an end, not one of frenetic activity, tribulation, and persecution before the end.

Further, the described outcomes are results of the final judgment. The door is shut for “the wedding feast” (25.10, cf., Rev 19.9). The slave who was unprepared is thrown into “the outer darkness; in that place [where] there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Finally, there’s Mt 25.31-46 in which “the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him,” sitting on “his glorious throne,” and separating the gathered nations before him in eschatological judgment (vv. 32-33, 34, 41, 46).

What could be clearer? If 25.35-46 relates to the final judgment, and we move backwards up through chapter 25 and then through chapter 24, where else but Mt 24.36 could Jesus have taken up the second question? There is no similarly obvious dividing point between 24.36 and the end of chapter 25.

So that’s the basic argument. And, actually, I do not at all think that it’s a poor argument. Even sitting here typing it, I felt the pull of its attraction. So I don’t think that there’s anything at all terrible in endorsing it.

Nonetheless, there are a few problems with it that incline me more to Wright’s view, that the whole discourse is about Jerusalem and the temple. I’ll turn to that argument in the next post.

Jesus’ Discourse in Matthew 24-25, Part II: The Broader Context in Matthew

As I mention below, I’ve read Jeffrey Gibbs’ book, Jerusalem and Parousia: Jesus’ Eschatological Discourse in Matthew’s Gospel (Concordia University Press 2001). I cannot do full justice to Gibbs’ detailed argument in a blog post. He seeks to place Jesus’ eschatological discourse in Matthew 24 within the broader context of Matthew’s gospel. Gibbs spends most of the book (which is based on his dissertation) discussing the rest of Matthew. He does so that we can read Matthew 24 in context.

A little context will help here as well before we dig into chapter 24.

I generally take chapters 21 through 25 (and lapping over into the first five verses of chapter 26) as a connected unit. Very briefly:

Mt 21.1-17. Jesus enters Jerusalem as the Davidic king, enters the temple and clears out those buying and selling (including those selling sacrificial doves) and disrupting the money changers (who were necessary to exchange “secular” money into temple money).

In quoting Is 56.7 (“My house shall be called a house of prayer,”) Jesus rebukes Israel for having hid their light under a basket rather than being a light unto the Gentiles. (In this, Israel has rejected her Abrahamic vocation.)

In invoking Jeremiah 7.11, (“a robbers’ den”), Jesus identifies the current generation of Temple goers with those whom Jeremiah prophesized to. The specific point of the robber’s den reference in Jeremiah 7 is not that there was stealing gone on in the temple. The point is much, much more serious than that. The point was that an utterly corrupt Israel wrongly looked upon the temple as a sanctuary. (Recall that a robber’s den is not where robbers rob, it’s where robbers seek rest and sanctuary in between their thieving.)

Jeremiah says that God is going to destroy the temple; he will not let it be a sanctuary for an apostate Israel: “Therefore I will do to the house which is called by my name, in which you trust, and to the place which I gave you and your fathers, as I did to Shiloh” (Jer 7.14). Jesus could hardly make a more chilling reference than by echoing Jeremiah’s prophesy in calling the temple of his day a “den of thieves.” Jesus is saying that God will destroy the temple as he did in Jeremiah’s day.

Mt 21.18-22 provides short interlude to Jesus’ presence in the temple, but the upshot is the same: The fig tree has no fruit, and so is cursed. The faithful prayer casts the mountain – “this mountain” (almost certainly a reference to the temple mount) – into the sea. Again, judgment and destruction.

Mt 21.23-23.39. Jesus returns to the temple, and is immediately set upon by the chief priests and elders regarding what he did and said the day before. Where does he get off, they ask him. Jesus speaks with them (21.23-22.22), the Sadducees (22.23-46), then speaks to the crowds and disciples about the scribes and Pharisees (23.1-33).

Jesus has condemned all of official Israel. He then prophesies judgment for Israel and Jerusalem (23.24-37), and implies the temple’s destruction (23.38).

In so doing Jesus is explicit as to the timing of when this will occur: “Truly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation” (23.36). From the moment of his entry into Jerusalem as the Davidic king, Jesus attacked the temple and prophesied its destruction. Judgment will come within a generation. The axe is already at the roots.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Jesus’ Discourse in Matthew 24-25 Part I A Brief Summary of Different Views

I’ve read Jeffrey Gibbs’ book, Jerusalem and Parousia: Jesus’ Eschatological Discourse in Matthew’s Gospel (Concordia Academic Press, 2000). I’ve also been re-reading N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God. They do not agree in all particulars (which I’ll describe below), yet I can’t help but give them both three cheers for not futurizing the entirety of Jesus’ discourse in Matthew 24-25. I feel a lot less lonely after seeing their arguments in print. (Gibbs' book is a particular encouragement, since he is a professor at Concordia Seminary - St. Louis.)

I plan to post about the text in Matthew 24-25, and interact with Gibbs’ argument in particular, in my next post. Here I post a sketch of what I understand to be the major modern approaches to Matthew 24-25. (Let me underscore the "I understand" in that sentence -- I do not claim to have a broad, or representative, understanding of all current approaches to the passage. The list below represents only my idiosyncratic theological exposure.)

[1] Mt 24-25 as a failed prophecy.

Albert Schweitzer held that these chapters predict the final judgment/end of the world within one generation of the time of the discourse. Since the end of the world/final judgment did not occur within a generation, it is a failed prophecy. (I do not of course agree with this view, but I think every orthodox reader of Mt 24-25 has to feel the weight of the argument: Jesus said that events of which he spoke would occur within a generation of when he spoke. So how can what he said be true if he's talking about the final judgment? And if he's not talking about the final judgment, then what is it that he is talking about?)

I should also probably add at this point that I fully and unequivocally believe in the future resurrection of the body and in the final judgment. I just don't think that the final judgment is what Jesus is focusing on in much of this passage. (In the next post, in interacting mainly with Gibbs' views, I'll pick up on the question of just how much of Mt 24-25 relates to the final judgment.)

[2] Mt 24-25 as a prophecy that predicts events that have not yet occurred.

This is, of course, the pop/evangelical view. It holds that these chapters predict the final judgment/end of the world within one generation of a yet future point in time. (One permutation on the riff is that the generational clock may have already started ticking sometime within the last generation. So the events the chapters foretell may be about ready to happen.)

[3] Mt 24-25 as partially fulfilled, partially to be fulfilled in the future.

This is Gibbs’ argument who, following Marcellus Kik (whom he cites) argues that there is a shift or, as Gibbs puts it, a “pivot” in chapter 24 (verse 36 in particular). For Gibbs, Mt 24.3-35 predicts judgment on Jerusalem within one generation of the point in time of Jesus’ discourse. But Mt 24.36-25.46 discusses the final judgment/end of the world.

[4] Mt 24-25 as entirely fulfilled.

This is N. T. Wright’s view in JVG. He argues that the entire passage relates to the destruction of Jerusalem. To be sure, he focuses mainly on a parallel discussion in Mark. So it may be unfair to impute too much to him on Mt 25.31-46.

[5] Mt 24-25 as entirely fulfilled save for the on-going in-gathering.

I guess this is pretty much the view that I’ll argue for. I take the events in the chapters to be fulfilled in their entirety, and for the in-gathering in Mt 24.31 and Mt 25.32 to have begun at that time. This ingathering, however, continues past the time of Jerusalem’s destruction. This is the only thing in these chapters that continues on into the future, up to the present day and beyond.

Let me hasten to add that I’m pretty open to Gibbs’ view, which holds quite a bit in common with Wright’s and what I’ll argue for, not least in not futurizing the whole of the chapters. I wouldn’t have to give up a lot to embrace Gibbs’ view and, indeed, I pretty much held it for some time.

My argument against it isn’t that Gibbs’ view is obviously inconsistent with the text, but that the view that I’ll argue for, which shares a lot with Wright’s view (although I came to it years before reading Wright), seems better to fit the data.

As I mentioned, Wright mainly focuses on Mark 13 (as, apparently, do most scholars). This is the opening that Gibbs takes to argue that there is, as it were, a question asked and answered in Matthew that is not asked (and therefore is not answered) in the other two synoptic Gospels.

I’ll write about that in the next post. Right now I just want to note that, even though Wright does not devote a lot of attention specifically to Matthew 24, he does argue that all of the questions in Matthew regard the same event:

“Matthew 24.3, therefore, is most naturally read, in its first-century Jewish context, not as a question about (what scholars have come to call, in technical language) the ‘parousia’, but as a question about Jesus ‘coming’ or ‘arriving’ in the sense of his actual enthronement as king, consequent upon the dethronement of the present powers that were occupying the holy city. The king, as David had become king, in the city that was at present still rejecting him. They were longing for their own version of the great event for which all Israel had been on tiptoe. Matthew is not, in other words, out on a limb from Mark and Luke at this point. The question at the start of all three versions, seen from within the story the disciples have in their minds, must be read to mean: When will you come in your kingdom? When will the evil age, symbolized by the present Jerusalem regime, be over?” (JVG, p. 346, emphasis added, citations omitted).

As I see it, the challenge to Wright’s view from Gibbs’ viewpoint stems precisely from the seamlessness of the discourse. Once we push past Mt 24.34, there is no obvious stopping point until you’ve glided all the way over to Mt 25.31-46. But Mt 25.31-46 seem obviously to be about Jesus coming in final judgment. So if we do not stop "presentizing" the text at Mt 24.34, then where is the shift from the present to the final judgment by the time we reach Mt 25.31? Or is there another possibility?

I’ll pick up the last thought when I interact with Gibbs’ argument in my next post. (Actually, it's taking me longer to respond to Gibbs' view. I expect to interact with it in Part IV.)

Saturday, February 09, 2008

McCain, the Court & the Abortion Issue

I've liked John McCain for a while -- although I did support George W. against him in 2000.

Some of my friends now say that, if McCain is the GOP nominee this fall, that they'll either stay home, or that they'll even vote for Hillary.

I confess that I don't get it.

First, I'm basically a one-issue voter. Actually, that's not true. I'm a voter with what economists call "lexicographic" preferences. What that means is that, like a dictionary, I have a ranking of policies. The thing is, I don't trade off abortion against other policies (not unless life is involved, which it hardly ever is in equal measure to the human toll of abortion). So, in a dictionary, you don't trade off "Auror" against "Baal" just because "Baal" has "aal" in the second + position, and "auror" has "uror" in the second + position.

So, actually, I have preferences across many policy areas. It's just that abortion holds the "a" spot in my policy lexicon. So I'm unwilling to tradeoff tax cuts, or campaign regulations, or Iraq (unless it gets a lot bigger) against it. (I'd include immigration in that as well, but, if anything, I'm to the "left" (or the right, depending how you meausre it) to McCain on the immigration issue. I think that immigration to the U.S. is generally a good thing, and that current policies restrict it beyond what is reasonable.)

Given that abortion holds a privileged position in my policy lexicon, that means that who is appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court is pretty important to me.

So right now, it seems likely that there are four votes to overturn Roe v. Wade: Scalia and Thomas are explicit, Roberts & Alito are probable. To be sure, Roberts said that he believed Roe to be "settled law." But that doesn't mean that it can't be overturned. (We're playing probabilities here, recall.)

The thing is that the next president, in the next four years, will almost certainly appoint one Supreme Court Justice -- to replace the aging Justice Stevens -- and perhaps more than one. (Kennedy is getting up there as well.)

The most signficant replacement will be the one for Justice Stevens. Stevens nails down the "left" wing of the Court, along with Justice Souter (thank you GB #1). He was appointed by President Ford.

What that means is that whoever appoints Stevens' replacement will be able to affect the Court's median voter for perhaps 20 years or more. Justice Kennedy is now the "median" or pivotal justice on many constitutional issues, including abortion. But if the next president replaces Justice Stevens with a "conservative" justice, or even one more "moderate" than Kennedy, then that justice is the pivotal justice in five-justice votes, including on abortion.

To be sure, I concede maybe it won't happen. O'Connor, Kennedy, and Souter were bitter disappointments, given that the presidents who nominated them -- Reagan and Bush -- ran as pro-life candidates. But there is no other game in town. John McCain has a stronger pro-life record than GB #1. The Court doesn't need another Alito (not that I would complain if one were appointed), another Roberts would be sufficient.

If Justice Stevens is not replaced with a "moderate" to "conservative" justice, conservatives will have lost the opportunity to re-make the Court for another 20 years or more. That's why electing John McCain is critical in the fall.

And even if you don't believe that abortion is a privileged policy dimension, but nonetheless believe that constitutoinal language ought to be reasonably interpreted, then, again, a McCain appointee will almost certainly be better along that dimension than a Democratic appointee.

I don't understand other conservatives. For decades now, conservatives have said that they're with Christians on the abortion issue. I've personally been a bit suspicious, having interacted (very marginally) with "movement conservatives." I often felt as though they were willing to accept Christian support for their candidates, as long as Christians played the dupe, i.e., as long as we didn't expect "really" to win on abortion.

It seems to me that, now, the chickens have come home to roost. Conservatives who oppose McCain are not the Christians' friends on the abortion issue.

And I will not forget.