Reno on the real threat of Babel

I’ve been using R. R. Reno’s theological commentary on Genesis in my preparations for a sermon on the Tower of Babel this Sunday.  As a kid I remember thinking that God stops the building of the tower because he is somehow threatened by human ambition – as if human beings might have actually reached out from the top of the tower and grabbed God by the ankle, or something like that.   I’m sure that is how many people interpreted the story as children, and it is quite possibly how some still read it.  The confusion of languages, then, would be God’s way of protecting himself against humanity – limiting their ability to scheme together and take heaven by storm.

The story of the expulsion from the Garden is often taken in a similar sense: God sends Adam and Eve away because he’s worried they’ll eat from the tree of life, and therefore they’ll become divine.

Of course, this can’t be the meaning of either text.  Reno succinctly summarizes an orthodox theological interpretation:

“Faced with an accelerating project of prideful ambition on the plains of Shinar, God acts on the same rationale he gave for the expulsion of Adam and Even from the garden of Eden.  The LORD says, “ This is on the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose will be impossible for them” (Gen. 11:6).  We need to be sure readers here. It cannot be the case that human beings can make themselves divine by dint of their efforts, any more than the fruit of the tree of life and sheer deathlessness would give Adam and Even divine life – “like one of us” (3:22).  Nor can God be threatened by human striving, as if he were a vulnerable despot anxious to protect his prerogatives.  No, the temptation of the covenant of the lie is precisely the false promise that worldly abundance is enough to bring rest to human beings.

…Therefore, the danger that God identifies in both the tree of life and the tower of Babel is simple.  It is the limitless human capacity to live according to the covenant of the lie.  However impossible the pure negation of radical evil, we really can say an enduring “no” to the covenant of life. As “slaves of corruption” (2 Pet. 2:19), we have a striking ability, day after day, to give ourselves over to sin.  God intervenes not to protect his power, but in order to protect us from the tenacious power of our own corruption” (R. R. Reno, Genesis, 132).

In other words, the confusion of languages is not God’s way of protecting himself from human beings, but it is his way of protecting human beings from themselves – it mitigates against the social corruption of sin.  It is an act of mercy-in-judgment.

John Wesley’s Theological Interpretation of Scripture

Last week I was assisting Howard Snyder as he taught the class “John Wesley and the Mission of God” at Tyndale Seminary.  Towards the end of the class I asked the students about their general impressions of Wesley’s sermons.  One of the first comments was that Wesley doesn’t really do “exegesis” of a text.   Rather, he usually takes a single verse as his starting point and then expounds upon a theme.  His sermons are, in a sense, more “topical” than “exegetical.”

Personally, I’m quite wary of topical preaching.  Typically it means that the preacher begins with a topic, knowing what they want to say, and then goes to the Bible to find a verse or passage that supports their preconceived idea.   Scripture then becomes (in the worst case scenario) a prop to support the preacher’s ideas.  The better way, then, is to begin with a passage of scripture and a blank sheet of paper – no preconceived agenda, other than allowing the text to speak to the particular context in which you are preaching.

Having said that, it would be wrong to dismiss Wesley’s sermons as examples of “topical” preaching.   Although his preaching is not exegetical in the contemporary sense of the term, I would argue that his sermons are thoroughly biblical, in that they arise out of Wesley’s consistent theological interpretation of scripture.

This point is underscored by an excellent essay, “Wesley as Biblical Interpreter,”  by Robert Wall, which is included in the recent Cambridge Companion to John Wesley.   Though, as Wall indicates, Wesley is sometimes misread by some as an uncritical biblicist, a closer reading reveals that he can be seen as “an exemplar of theological interpretation of the Bible.”

Wesley had a keen sense of the overall shape of the Biblical narrative, centred on the saving message of salvation by faith, and read through the Epistle of 1 John as the simplest and most sublime statement of the gospel.  While it might seem arbitrary for Wesley to give 1 John primacy of place, his logic was that the Apostle John lived the longest, and his writings were the last, and therefore, the most advanced witnesses to Christ.

Consider this quote from Wesley’s Journal, July 18, 1765:

In the evening I began expounding the deepest part of the holy Scripture, namely, the first Epistle of St. John, by which, above all other, even inspired writings, I advise every young Preacher to form his style.   Here are sublimity and simplicity together, the strongest sense and the plainest language!  How can any one that would “speak as the oracles of God,” use harder words than are found here?

The reality is that every interpreter makes these kinds of choices, but most protestants read the Biblical canon through Pauline eyes, rather than Johannine (which is generally seen as the Eastern preference).  Not that Wesley spent all his time in 1 John.  His sermons are peppered with scriptural quotations and allusions which range throughout the biblical canon.   But 1 John served as a kind of hermeneutical key for Wesley.  As Wall summarizes:

Whereas Wesley’s extensive use of biblical citations and allusions in his sermons instantiate an interest in letting each part of Scripture engage the whole – obscure texts illuminated by more lucid ones – his final court of appeal is 1 John.  (“Wesley as Bibilcal Interpreter,” p. 117-118).

Wall also goes on to list ten “interpretive practices” in which Wesley engaged as a biblical interpreter (his headings, my summaries in brackets):

  1. The intuited text (role of the HS)
  2. The naked text (use of critical tools to understand the literal sense)
  3. The canonical text (sense of the way the whole of scripture fits together)
  4. The community’s text (reading scripture in the church, alongside other interpreters)
  5. The salvific text (reading scripture “for salvation”)
  6. The ruled text (use of the “analogy of faith” – the non-negotiable core of Christian faith – as a rule for interpreting each part)
  7. The preached text (translating the text to the immediate context)
  8. The responsive text (interpreting scripture so as to be changed by it)
  9. The performed text (relating scripture to Christian experience)
  10. The sacramental text (using scripture as means of grace for the community)

These practices, so helpfully illuminated by Wall, give us a rich picture of Wesley as a nuanced interpreter, who was well attuned to important theological and pastoral issues as he read scripture – a far cry from an uncritical biblicist!

The essay is well worth reading if you are a student of Wesley.

Christ as the Good Samaritan

In preparing for a sermon on the Good Samaritan, I came across some classic interpretations which see the parable as pointing to Christ.  Here are selections from three ancient doctors (courtesy of the Ancient Commentary on Scripture), and a 20th century giant:

Ambrose, from his Exposition of the Gospel of Luke, 7.73-84:

Jericho is an image of this world. Adam, cast out from Paradise, that heavenly Jerusalem, descended to it by the mistake of his transgression…He was greatly changed from that Adam who enjoyed eternal blessedness.  When he turned aside to worldly sins, Adam fell among thieves, among whom he would not have fallen if he had not strayed from the heavenly command and made himself vulnerable to them…he received a mortal wound by which the whole human race would have fallen if that Samaritan, on his journey, had not tended to his serious injuries. 7.73]

…Here the Samaritan is going down.  Who is he except he who descended from heaven, who also ascended to heaven the Son of Man who is in heaven?  When he sees half-dead him whom none could cure before, like her with an issue of blood who had spend all her inheritance on physicians, he came near him.  He became a neighbour by acceptance of our common feeling and kin by the gift of mercy.

…”And bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine.” That Physician has many remedies with which he is accustomed to cure.  His speech is a remedy.  One of his sayings binds up wounds, another treats with oil, another pours in wine.  He binds wounds with a stricter rule.  He treats with the forgiveness of sins.  He stings with the rebuke of judgment as if with wine.”

Since no one is closer than he who tended to our wounds, let us love him as our neighbour.  Nothing is so close as the head to the members.   Let us also love who is the follower of Christ, let us love him who in unity of body has compassion on another’s need.

Origen, Homilies on the Gospel of Luke, 34.3,9:

One of the elders wanted to interpret the parable as follows.  The man who was going down is Adam.  Jerusalem is paradise, and Jericho is the world. The robbers are hostile powers.  The priest is the law, the Levite is the prophets, and the Samaritan is Christ.  The wounds are disobedience.  The beast is the Lord’s body.  the pandochium (that is, the stable), which accepts all who wish to enter, is the church.  The two denarii mean the Father and the Son.  The manager of the stable is the head of the church, to whom its care has been entrusted.  The fact that the Samaritan promises he will return represents the Saviour’s second coming…

…the Samaritan, “who took pity on the man who have fallen among thieves, is truly a “guardian,” and a closer neighbour than the Law and the Prophets.  He showed that he was the man’s neighbour more by deed than by word.  According to the passage that says, “Be imitators of me, as I too am of Christ,” it is possible for us to imitate Christ and to pity those who “have fallen among thieves.”  We can go to them, bind their wounds, pour in oil and wine, put them on our own animals, and bear their burdens.  The Son of God encourages us to do things like this.  He is speaking not so much to the teacher of the law as to us and to everyone when he says, “Go and do likewise.” If we do, we will receive eternal life in Christ Jesus, to whom is glory and power for ages and ages.

Augustine, Sermon 179A.7-8:

Robbers left you half-dead on the road, but you have been found lying there by the passing and kindly Samaritan. Wine and oil have been poured on you.  You have received the sacrament of the only-begotten Son. You have been lifted onto his mule.  You have believed that Christ became flesh.  You have been brought to the inn, and you are being cured in the church.”That is where and why I am speaking.

…This is what I too, what all of us are doing. we are performing the duties of the innkeeper.  He was told, “If you spend any more, I will pay you when I return.  “If only we spent at least as much as we have received!  However much we spend, borthers and sisters, it is the Lord’s money.

Augustine, Christian Instruction 33:

God our Lord wished to be called our neighbour. The Lord Jesus Christ meant that he was the one who gave help to the man lying half-dead on the road, beaten and left by the robbers. The prophet said in prayer, “As a neighbour and as one’s own borther, so I did please” [cf 1 Cor 6.15]. Since the divine nature is far superior and above our human nature, the command by which we are to love God is distinct from our love of our neighbour.  He shows mercy to us because of his own goodness, while we show mercy to one another because of God’s goodness.  He has compassion on us so that we may enjoy him completely, while we have compassion on another that we may completely enjoy Him.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2, III, §18, pp 418-419.

The question with which Jesus concludes the story is which then of the three (i.e., priest, Levite, and Samaritan) proved to be a neighbour to the man who fell among thieves? And the teacher of the Law himself had to reply: “he that showed mercy on him,” i.e., the Samaritan.  This man as such, as the one who showed mercy, is the neighbour about whom the lawyer was asking.  And that is the only point of the story, unequivocally stated by the text.

For the lawyer, who wants to justify himself and therefore does not know who is his neighbour, is confronted not by the poor wounded man with his claim for help, but by the anything but poor Samaritan who makes no claim at all but is simply helpful.

It is the Samaritan who embodies what he wanted to know.  This is the neighbour whom he did not know.   All very unexpected: for the lawyer had first to see that he himself is the man fallen among thieves and lying helpless by the wayside; then he has to note that the others who pass by, the priest and the Levite, the familiar representatives of the dealings of Israel with God, all one after the other do according to the saying of the text: “He saw him and passed by on the other side;” and third, and above all, he has to see that he must be found and treated with compassion by the Samaritan, the foreigner, whom he believes he should hate, as one who hates and is hated by God. He will then know who is his neighbour, and will not ask concerning him as though it were only a matter of the casual clarification of a concept.  He will then know the second commandment, and consequently the first as well.  he will then not wish to justify himself, but will simply love the neighbour, who shows him mercy.  He will then love God, and loving God will inherit eternal life.

…The Good Samaritan, the neighbour who is a helper and will make him a helper, is not far from the lawyer.  The primitive exegesis of the text was fundamentally right.  He stands before him incarnate, although hidden under the form of one whom the lawyer believed he should hate, as the Jews hated the Samaritans.  Jesus does not accuse the man, although judgment obviously hangs over him. Judgment is preceded by grace.  Before this neighbour makes His claim He makes His offer.  Go and do likewise means: Follow thou Me.