Saturday, December 31, 2011

Some Soteriological Notes

This paper consists of some personal reflections on some of the Soteriological material presented in class. My initial reaction to most of the material was how far removed talk of Christ’s atoning work on the cross was from the actual biblical source material and its Jewish-Christian context. While Anselm, for instance, retains the notion of substitution one finds in the New Testament (unfortunately ὑπέρ in these contexts is often translated “for” or “for the sake of” when the sense “in place of” is in fact syntactically more probable), he sets it in a very different frame of reference than the salvation-historical framework one finds in the New Testament, where Jesus’ atonement is linked with Torah and Israel’s plight under its curse (particularly in Galatians and Romans). Paul, for instance, seems to see Israel’s transgression of the Torah and subsequent condemnation by it as playing some important, non-accidental role in producing salvation (see especially Galatians 3, Romans 5, 9-11).

None of this, however, makes it into the considerations of the mostly ahistorical, abstract accounts of Christ’s work that we have studied. That is not to say that there is not much valuable in these accounts and that a more biblically-oriented account would not be understood at least partly in these terms when elaborated philosophically, but it does mean that these accounts necessarily leave out some of the key data that must be taken into account when constructing a view of the atonement. On the other accounts, Jesus might as well have come and died as a Greek, an Arab, or a Bantu – his Jewishness and Jewish context does not seem to play any part in the makeup of his saving work.

While Aquinas keeps much of Anselm’s view, it looks like Aquinas (at least according to our reading from Caesario (81)) eventually held that Christ’s satisfaction on the cross was not ultimately necessary for God to justly save us. It was simply more convenient in obtaining (mostly subjective) goods which more naturally flow from Christ’s satisfaction on the cross than from elsewhere. Of course, since it is the omnipotent God we are speaking of, it is not clear what it would mean to speak of him doing something more easily or conveniently in one way than another. It seems to me, however, that this makes it difficult to see the point of the atonement. If God could just as well accomplish our salvation in some other way, Christ’s crucifixion seems to represent pointless, unnecessary pain and suffering. Sure, it gets us redemption and all sorts of goods, but it was not really necessary for all of that. It certainly seems that we need some kind of stricter, less contingent connection between Christ’s work and our salvation.

Herbert McCabe (in his 2002 book God Still Matters) takes the problems with Anselm and Aquinas recounted above, however, and makes them even worse. This is something that bothered me quite a bit when I read him. He at least tries to put in some historical context but his grasp of that context is questionable and gets both Second Temple Judaism and its relation to Jesus and the New Testament wrong, importing much later (and ironically often more Protestant) Christian criticisms of Jews as unloving and legalistic (and Christ as the ancient equivalent of the stereotypical 1960s hippie – pro-love and anti-law or anti-authority) back into the first century, thus divorcing Jesus from his Jewish context in a way not justified by the New Testament or Second Temple evidence.

In any case, the nod to apparent historical context essentially functions in the McCabe work as a mere foil to press yet another basically ahistorical understanding of Christ’s work. It becomes all about an abstract principle of love and the preaching of that love, and the kingdom of God becomes more or less just the realization of that love on earth. Indeed, only the humanity of Christ seems to be important in McCabe’s chapter, as it is Christ’s full humanity and the perfect love wherefrom that does all the work here – the divinity seems to be well-hidden indeed.

What is worse, however, is that, while at least Aquinas had some kind of goal for the crucifixion, even if it could have been accomplished differently, McCabe does not even seem to retain this much. Questions such as “Why did Jesus opt for crucifixion?” are basically replaced with “Why would humans crucify someone like him?” The second question would certainly be an interesting one, but it completely changes the subject so that we are no longer even speaking of Christ’s saving work or its goals anymore but rather fallen human psychology. McCabe’s answer, that this is what fallen people do to people who truly love and preach the same, does not really address or even acknowledge the need for Jesus to die, or why he would go to Jerusalem in order to die in accordance with God’s will, both of which are forcefully presented in the New Testament, especially in the Gospels (but which several of our readings would appear at first glance to want to avoid). McCabe, in other words, substitutes essentially ahistorical principles of armchair human psychology for the divine objectives of the cross – a pale substitution indeed.

McCabe completely ignores the perspective in the Gospels whereby Jesus in fact purposely provokes the hostile reaction of the leaders leading to death, going to Jerusalem in order to die precisely as the climax of his ministry and not, as McCabe would have it, the failure of it. It is precisely the culmination of his mission, not its failure (or even a failure then used victoriously by God). McCabe’s chapter, in effect, seems to make Jesus’ crucifixion just an accidental effect of telling people to love each other, without any real point, purpose, or objective effect. It is difficult to see in McCabe’s crucifixion any real, objective redemption rather than just an accident of history. It instead becomes a mere pastoral illustration of what happens when people talk “too much” about love.

What many of these accounts lack, then, would need to be remedied in a more serviceable account of the atonement of Christ on the cross. What we need is an account that is based firmly in the biblical data and actually takes it all into account, taking the event of the crucifixion in its historical context and its biblical place within the salvation-historical narrative of Scripture rather than simply trying to abstract from it a mere instance of some acontextual timeless principle. From these beginnings, it can then engage philosophically and systematically with the biblical theology and concepts and understand what is contained therein in new ways. At this point, however, it would be best I think to draw a tighter connection between Christ’s death and its results, making the crucifixion once again an actual need of ours met by God in Christ according to the divine plan for our salvation.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Aquinas and Christmas

Like the great councils of Nicea, Constantinople I, Ephesus, Chalcedon, and Constantinople III, Aquinas addressed, in his own theory of the Incarnation, many of the Christological concerns that had been prevalent during the patristic period. Indeed, one way to see what he is doing is to try to do justice in a philosophical framework to the insights of these great councils, seeing Christ as having both a human nature and a divine nature and these as united in the one person of the divine Word, each with its own characteristic activity and operations. In my previous paper, I showed how the councils just mentioned addressed these concerns; in the present paper my concern will be to show first of all how Aquinas addresses these. As his own views entail that in some sense Christ is not a human person, I will also show how Aquinas can maintain this in light of Christ’s full humanity. Similarly, in regards to Christ’s full divinity and full humanity, I will describe how it is that Aquinas thinks Christ’s human will can be the principle of its own self-determining action but always as an instrument of and in cooperation with his divine will.

In the Incarnation, what is most essential perhaps is that God becomes man. However, to do justice to the divine transcendence requires explaining this in a way that does not impinge on the transcendence and immutability of God. The distinction between the two natures in Christ provides the beginning of a way to do justice to this. Since God qua God – that is, as existing in and through the divine nature – cannot change, then it must be something else that undergoes a change, since obviously some change does occur with the advent of the Incarnation. So it must be the Creation itself which undergoes change, not the Creator. After all, one can say that the divine Word does change in the sense that at one time certain predicates (such as being a man) cannot be applied to the Word but then later one is indeed able to apply such predicates. But that is compatible with there being no actual change in the Word himself as existing in his divine nature since the change which results in a change in which predicates can be appropriately applied may be in something outside of that divine nature.

This change, which is not in the Word in his divinity but in creation, involves the creation by God of a human nature in personal dependence on the Word as the Word’s own. A bit of creation, in this way, has been taken into the divine life, conjoined to God. It is not a pre-existing human nature but a created nature created precisely as a way of being for the divine Word, itself dependent upon the Word and lacking its own separate individual existence distinct from and apart from the Word since it is itself a mode of the Word’s own existing.

For Aquinas, this change in creation and subsequent relation of dependence of the humanity of the Word on the person of the Word involves the coming into being of new mixed relations rather than relations in which each term is really related to the other. Instead, the human nature is really related to the Word as one of its two modes of existence. The relation is real in it as it comes into existence united to the Word. This involves a real effect in the humanity without a change or any kind of effect in the Word in his divine existence, guaranteeing thus both the possibility of full humanity and full divinity since the two natures thus remain unmixed yet united in the one person of the Word, the human nature subject to change and really related to the divine but the divine nature still immutable and only in ideal relation to the human nature, the relation being in the human nature alone. Because God thus remains immutable in becoming human, we can truly say that it is God in Christ who has become a mutable man, not some other entity which in becoming a human would be subject to change and hence devoid of the divine transcendence proper to God. This works precisely because it is one and the same divine Word who, in addition to his divine nature, has conjoined to him a human nature in addition, thus permitting the communication of idioms when speaking of Christ.

Christ has a full human nature, however, composed of a fully human soul united to a fully human body. The problem is having this body/soul compound and full humanity in Christ yet not have it constitute its own person in addition to the divine person of the Word. A Boethian conception of personhood would let any concrete nature capable of consciousness and freedom to be a person, in which case there would be a human person in addition to divine person of the Word. Aquinas, however, requires of personhood or being a hypostasis that it be complete and existing independently of other things. In this sense, there is only one person in Christ for Aquinas, the divine person of the Word.

A union of joined body and soul, however, would in normal circumstances result in the existence of a human person. In Christ there is no such person but only a human nature since the human nature of Christ does not exist apart from all other hypostases but instead exists only in dependence on the person or hypostasis of the Word. Otherwise, the human nature would have its own human person, existing apart from the Word. The divine person, then, takes the place of the human person, preventing the human nature of Christ from being the mode of existence of a separate human person. If we understand a human person as a human nature existing hypostatically in itself, then on Aquinas’s view, there is no human person of Christ, only a divine person existing compositely in both divine and human natures.

For Aquinas, a person or hypostasis is not equivalent to the modern notion of a personality or a stream of consciousness but an individual existent. Personhood is a matter of who, not of what. The hypostasis of someone specifies who it is, its nature specifies what it is, giving the way in which that who exists. Being fully human, however, is a matter of what one is – one’s nature – not who one is – one’s hypostasis. Whether or not the person who has the human nature is divine or human does not impact the full humanity of that person, since being a divine person in no way effects what that person is. Insofar as they have a full, working human nature, that person is thereby fully human. The absence of a human person does not, in Christ, involve an absence of anything in his humanity but rather is the result of its addition to the divine person. Christ, then, is fully human and in that sense, subsisting in a human nature, can be said to be a human person. But Christ’s personhood does not arise from the human nature on its own, existing apart from everything else, and in that sense Christ is not a human person, but in such a way that his full humanity remains intact.

All this shows, then, that on Aquinas’s views it is truly God who is redeeming us as a man, but in such a way that the divine Word retains his divine transcendence and yet also possesses full humanity and unites both divinity and humanity in a single person. To show, however, that Jesus’ humanity is truly a mediator in our salvation and not simply an instrument of God (and hence is a full humanity and able to save human beings through his life, death, and resurrection), Aquinas must elaborate a dyothelite position which allows for truly human acting and willing. Otherwise, the divine will and activity crowd out the human and it becomes the divine nature alone which is active, the human nature being merely a passive participant and not a truly human source of human willing and human activity. It is the human suffering and willing of the divine Word in a genuinely human fashion that is redemptive, after all.

In Aquinas’s view, it seems that there is first of all a coordination of the divine will and human will in Christ rooted precisely in the fact that it is one person who possesses both wills, both principles of genuinely divine and human activity. The human will of Christ receives its principle of activity and is moved towards the intentions of God by the divine will. In this way, the human will of Christ acts as an instrument of the divine will in bringing about the divine ends. It is not a mere instrument, however, as the actions of the human nature of Christ are mediated by his human will, which is free and self-determining. It is, hence, a conjoined will as the will of the very divine person using it as an instrument, but also an instrument of the rational order with its own principle of action moved via that principle by another principle of action, the divine. It is hence not passive in this interaction but actively pursues and chooses for itself the intentions and goals of the divine will.

The human will of Christ, hence, is moved by the divine will to freely act and is graced by God in its hypostatic union with the person of the Word with the grace necessary to do so. This grace perfects in some way the human nature of Christ, as human nature is always perfected through the infusion of divine grace, which thereby makes Christ’s will free to always follow the good. In this sense of freedom, freedom to do the good, the hypostatic union and corresponding instrumentality of the human will of Christ in fact guarantee the freedom of that will rather than take away from it. The divine will, then, moves the human will of Christ towards freely pursuing the good and the divine ends, but through the self-determining and active principles of the human nature, not directly and without that mediation. As a conjoined will being used by a divine will, the influence of that divine will is one from the inside (internal to that person), as it were, not an external or coercive one. This may very well require, as perhaps Aquinas, White and Crowley seem to think (see, for instance, White 415, 421), a progressive human knowledge in Christ of who he is and of God’s will in given situations, graced upon him as part of the cooperation of his human nature with his divine, thus helping to secure a psychological unity for Christ as a single, integrated person of unmixed humanity and divinity. As already said, this grace perfects Christ’s humanity rather than detracts from it. By always being aware of the good and will of God, Christ, because of his graced human nature and will, always acts in accordance with the good and divine will, the human and divine wills thus being coordinated and yet their own principles of genuinely free activity in the person of Christ.

The person of the divine Word, then, acts as a single person precisely through this coordinated cooperation of his two natures and two wills. The Word is fully God, transcendent and unchanging even in the Incarnation. The Word is fully human, possessed of a union of body and soul with a functioning human life and active, self-determining will. It is one divine person who exists in and acts through each of these natures; there is not a distinct human person in Christ. Hence, it is in Christ truly God who redeems and truly through his own humanity and its activities and will that he does so. Aquinas appears, then, to have further elaborated and defended the very balancing of the various Christological concerns that was so vigorously defended by the great councils of the church.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Patristic Christology

I have finally finished all my commitments for this semester at the GTU! I'm currently applying both for philosophy employment (please pray for that) and for New Testament PhD programs at the same time and will see where Providence takes us. In the meantime, I'll make a couple of posts from the papers (mostly summarizing my own synthesis of course materials) I wrote for my Historical Development of Christology class. Here's the first one:


Arius, Apollinaris, and Nestorius represented respectively for the early church three different foils for the development of Christological doctrine. In response to the Christological imbalances in the views of these thinkers and others after them, the successive ecumenical councils of the early church progressively centered in on a truly balanced Christology, taking into account Christ’s full humanity, full divinity, and unity, while at the same time maintaining the transcendence of God within the mystery of the Incarnation. In this essay I will consider each of the three heterodox thinkers listed above and show how Nicea, Constantinople I, Ephesus, Chalcedon, and Constantinople III all redressed in their particular ways the doctrinal mistakes of those three.

Arius was the first early heretical thinker to provoke his own ecumenical council devoted to adjudicating his views. It is arguable that one of the key determining factors in Arius’s Christology was his concern to protect the transcendence of the divine as he understood it – to keep the divine immutable and well-removed from the earthly realm of becoming and corruption. Arius’s God is, in effect, not so different from modern Deist versions of the deity, if not even more aloof from his creation, if that is possible.

The Logos serves in Arius’s thinking, as in Origenist theology of the period, as the intermediary in creation between God and the world, keeping the two firmly apart. But since the Logos is thus involved in creation, the Logos cannot be transcendent in the same way God is. With the rejection of a Platonic view of levels within God and a focus on divine transcendence as essential to divinity, this apparently lower being, the Logos, cannot have a share in that divinity. As such, the Logos must be created by God Himself, all else coming from the Logos directly rather than God in his unsullied distance from Creation.

Apart from cosmological considerations, Arius’s understanding of transcendence also pushes him towards a rejection of the Son’s divinity because of his view of the Incarnation and the nature of the unity of the Incarnate Son. Arius takes onboard the Logos-sarx framework then fashionable in Alexandria, according to which Jesus Christ had a human body but instead of a rational soul in the way other humans do, he had the supreme Logos as his rational, animating principle (I will return to this framework below in discussing Apollinaris). As such, since Christ underwent suffering and change, the Logos as his vital principle also underwent these. But since the divine nature is immutable and impassible, not to mention transcendent, the Logos cannot possess the divine nature as its own.

Arius, then, certainly protects divine transcendence as well as the unity of Christ – the Logos is not an additional entity but rather takes the role of the soul in the man Christ, thus combining Logos and human body in one incarnate being. The Platonically-influenced thought was that if something is the rational, animating principle of a human body then that basically makes it a human soul. However, the Logos was very different from a human soul, hence the worry with Logos-sarx Christology that Christ’s full humanity had been compromised. Christ becomes a kind of super-creature with a human body but something very different from the human mind or soul possessed by the rest of the human race. While preserving the need for Christ to actually suffer and die, thus entering into human reality, that very human reality is compromised by replacing the soul with the Logos. Christ, rather than being a human being, becomes in this view of the Incarnation a new kind of entity, compounded of human bodily parts and the super-creature who mediates between God and man. And if Christ, as many argued, needed to be fully human in order to fully save humans – possessing every bit of human nature in order to redeem every bit of it – then this Christ is not able to redeem us as whole human beings, bodies and souls. Jettisoning divinity for Christ, Arius thus also ran afoul of the objection that his Christ, lacking divinity, could not save, since only God can save.

The Council of Nicea, called to address Arius’s views, succeeded in theologically resolving at least some of Arius’s imbalanced theology. Without addressing issues relating to the divine transcendence or Christ’s humanity or unity, Nicea did affirm the full divinity of Christ, declaring him same in substance or being (ὁμοούσιος) with the Father. The Origenist notion of levels of divinity in the Godhead via emanation from the ultimate, transcendent, unitary God was abandoned. This safeguarded both Christ’s full possession of the divine nature shared with the Father as well as his ability to save in virtue of this fact.

Since Nicea did not address the other issues involved in Arius’s view, however, it is not surprising to see Apollinaris accept Nicea and the full divinity of Christ (or at least attempt to do so) and yet fall into other problems related to Arius’s view, all stemming from Apollinaris’s acceptance of the same Logos-sarx framework as Arius. Like Arius, Apollinaris views Christ as a composite of the Logos and a human body, the former again replacing the human soul in Christ. But once the Logos is recognized as fully divine, the combination with the Logos-sarx view, while rendering Christ a true unity, in fact causes problems in almost every other area.

Since the Logos, on Apollinaris’s view, joins with a human body, it seems to form a new, composite entity, Christ (similar to the way it does in Arius’s view) – a tertium quid neither fully human nor fully divine but something else. Just as in Arius’s view, a human body with the Logos instead of a human soul is not fully human. Christ apparently also cannot be fully divine for the additional reason that since it would seem that the Logos, as the replacement for the human soul, would have to serve as the seat of Christ’s suffering and other experiences. But that would make the Logos passable. The Logos in such a case could not have the full divine nature, lacking divine transcendence and its impassibility. Being neither fully God nor fully man, Christ would then neither save as God nor be able to redeem whole human persons since he would lack whole human personhood himself. While it could be claimed that the Logos retains its impassibility, this would require a mere appearance of suffering and human experience and hence a retreat to a docetic Christ, a denial of the true reality of the man Jesus and his real suffering, human life and free obedience for our salvation as he is swallowed up in the transcendent divine.

The First Council of Constantinople condemned Apollinaris and affirmed the true, full humanity of Christ. Rather than a mere human body, his humanity was a full one, involving a combination of both body and soul, complete humanity for the salvation of human beings. It thus also safeguarded against a violation of divine transcendence as well as the danger of docetism since the Logos was not directly compounded with a human body (and hence helped save the reality of the man Jesus).

Without the Logos-sarx framework, however, the problem of accounting for the unity of Christ returned. If we start with the divine Logos on one hand – God – and this complete human being on the other – the man Jesus – then how do we account for their unity in Christ? The unity of Christ thus provides the central problem affecting Nestorius’s Christology. Nestorius accepted both a full human nature and a full divine nature in Christ, but seems to have had problems putting them together in such a way as to form a convincing unity, so averse he was to the danger of forming a tertium quid out of the two as Apollinaris or Arius did. Nestorius’s notion of a nature was that of an concrete individual entity and hence he thought of the incarnation as the coming together of two concrete individuals, which results in one new prosopon or phenomenal reality of unity. On Nestorius’s view, then, there is not a single subject who is the Logos and hence has divine properties and who is also the man Jesus and hence has human properties – existing both as God and as man. Hence, there can be on his view no communication of idioms – no applying of predicates of divinity to the man Jesus and no applying of predicates of humanity to the divine Logos, as would have followed were the subject identical. Mary, on this view, cannot be rightly said to be the Mother of God – the Theotokos (Θεοτόκος) or God-Bearer.

Nestorius, in trying to maintain full divinity and divine transcendence on the one hand, and full humanity on the other, thus trips over the issue of the unity of Christ, which in turns raises the issue of whether Christ on Nestorius’s view would be able to save, given that only God can save, since it would seem that one would not then be allowed to say that God lived, suffered, died, and was raised for our salvation. Human mediatorship in salvation is secured, but the role of the divine, being pushed out of the created world as in Arius’s view, seems to be damaged.

The Council of Ephesus responded to Nestorius by rejecting his views as providing insufficient unity for Christ. It is one and the same Logos who is at once God and man, to whom both divine and human attributes accrue and hence Mary is indeed Theotokos. As Cyril noted, divinity and humanity are united in the one hypostasis or person of the divine Logos, hence the communication of idioms is completely appropriate (it is, in fact, just an application of the logical rule Leibniz’s Law, also known as the Indiscernibility of Identicals) – we can say both that God truly suffered on the cross and that the man Jesus is creator of the world, Second Person of the Trinity, since these are really one person, God the Son. Unity is hence found in the person of the Logos, not in some special extra relationship added as an outside extra to Christ’s divinity and humanity. Hence the unity of Christ and the divine role in salvation were secured for the time being by the council.

Ephesus, however, did not solve the question that Nestorius’s view seems to have addressed fairly well; that is, how to maintain divine transcendence and full divinity in the face of full humanity, taking both the divinity and humanity seriously as demanded by Nicea and Constantinople I. The idea of dividing humanity and divinity into two distinct, unmixed natures seems to do this, allowing for full humanity without being distorted or altered in nature by mixing with divinity and for full divinity without being distorted or altered in nature by mixing with humanity. Hence, in divinity Christ can remain transcendent and divine, whereas in humanity he can be a full, though sinless, human.

The Council of Chalcedon takes on this important usage of the notion of two natures, but without adding in Nestorius’s interpretation of the notion. That is, Constantinople does not interpret the notion of a nature in terms of a concrete individual entity. The natures are not independent things added together to form Christ but, instead, the human and divine natures are distinct sets of characteristic properties or ways of being, united in the person of Christ as the one subject of these properties who thus exists in two fully distinct ways – the divine way and a particular human way. Without changing in the divine nature, the single person of Christ took on a new mode of existence in the Incarnation, which is a change in the created order rather than in Christ qua God. Chalcedon thus takes on the important insights of the two-nature view held by people like Nestorius but without the distortions caused by too-concrete a notion of what a divine or human nature might be. Chalcedon thus successfully integrates the insights of Nicea – that Christ is fully God – and of Constantinople I – that Christ is fully human – with that of Ephesus – that Christ forms a unity in the person of the divine Logos.

The Third Council of Constantinople clarified and further developed the Chalcedonian trajectory of Christology by addressing Christ’s full humanity not merely in the sense of the possession of an abstract, though concretely realized, nature but also in terms of a fully human way of life and activity, a human use of human freedom to form a truly human life, giving truly human obedience to the Father unto death. Without a distinctly human will and human activity, which were rejected by the monothelites, there is an inherent danger of a kind of implicit Apollinarism or even docetism, where the human life of Christ is consumed by rather than perfected by the divine life he also possesses. There is a danger then in the two directions of either failing to respect divine transcendence by, in effect, replacing much of the functionality of the human soul with that of the divine Logos, or, on the other hand, failing to respect the true reality of the man Jesus. In either case, a truly human life has been compromised and, if as in the West, it is thought that such a life and human obedience are important for our salvation, then such a view will certainly not do. If Christ is to save us by humanly taking on as free, human action, a human obedience unto death on the cross, this would seem to require that he actually act and will in his human nature and that he both have a human will and source of activity and that these not simply sit there inert, as good as absent from him.

The Third Council of Constantinople addresses this concern by investing in Christ a fully human reality – Christ, in addition to his divine will, has and uses a human will, a human principle of activity. Christ, in other words, acts in both of his natures, not simply the divine one. The real human existence, activity, and freedom of the man Jesus are thus at last properly ascribed to the one Logos who is at once also in possession of a divine existence, activity, and freedom, unified together in that one divine person who acts and exists in each nature.

In conjunction with the councils before it, then, Constantinople III guarantees that Christ is truly one of us – the perfect human being and representative of us as human beings before the Father and to us of what we as Christians can and must become in Christ. At the same time, however, Christ is guaranteed as where we are able in this life to directly meet God – not mediated through creation but the divine Son himself who, in virtue of his consubstantiality with the Father, reveals to us the Father as well. In Christ, we encounter God himself in the only way we are currently able to do so – the infinite taking on the finite in order to be revealed to the finite.

The orthodox view developed in the councils examined in this paper, then, does something that the heterodox thinkers do not – that is, present a picture of Christ which balances all the important considerations and truths we get from theology and Scripture. While the heterodox views latch onto and appear to do extremely well with certain considerations, they do so at the cost of others, failing to take into account other important considerations or truths and thus ending up with a lopsided theology as a result or even a Christ who perhaps cannot even save.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

More on Ephesians 5 and Principles of Interpretation and Application of Scripture

It's commonplace for Christians to take the Bible as speaking directly to them - to individualize and personalize whatever is written and read it as addressed particularly to me in my current context (however wide or narrow I may take that). In this, Christians have a lot in common with the early Rabbis (and later ones, I believe) and certainly with certain strands in Paul and the rest of the New Testament. How we read in this way and how we take into account the fact that the human authors of the Bible did not, generally, have me in particular as their direct addressee, will differ, however. In what way we take the Bible to be addressed to me in particular is very important and has ramifications for the theological and ethical interpretation of the Bible. In my opinion, the Bible is addressed to me in particular in that the Holy Spirit uses the Bible to speak to me - words that were not originally addressed to me and perhaps with a different meaning are reused by the divine activity within me to address me in my particular situation. This, I think, retains both the freedom of God to speak to my current situation in Scripture while also retaining the integrity of the Scripture's original meaning. A lot of people, however, do maintain this sort of distinction in practice and treat Scripture as if in its original meaning it was speaking directly to me personally.

Another problem is to confuse description and prescription. Pastors must often appeal to this distinction when our favorite Bible saint obviously acts not-so-saintly, but otherwise the distinction unfortunately tends to get ignored. That the early church is described in Acts as doing things a certain way (or not doing it, as the case may be), for instance, does not tell us necessarily whether that is how we are to do things - i.e., description is not prescription. Telling us that something is happening a certain way (or will happen or did happen) is not the same as telling us that things should be thus and so or that we should do such and such.

The Ephesians 5 passage on wives and husbands, which I discussed in my last post, is a nice case to look at in regards to both the above problems. This passage, as hinted at in the other post, is a flashpoint in the gender wars going on in Evangelicalism today. On one side are the Egalitarians, who uphold things like women's ordination and functional equality in the home (anti-patriarchal, in other words). On the other are the Complementarians, who (at least for some of them) are against women's ordination and uphold things like patriarchal household structure as a Scriptural norm to be followed.

Ephesians 5, I maintain, is actually a difficult passage to use for either side, despite its current wide use. As argued previously, it first of all does not contain a single command for wives to submit - it merely says that they are or will do so (in other words, it describes but does not prescribe submission). But what about the whole "the husband is head of the wife" thing? Well, there's a big debate here over the meaning of "head" in Greek (kephale), which some Egalitarians argue always or almost always lacks any connotation of hierarchy (unlike the word for "head" in Latin, Hebrew, or English, all of which have exactly that connotation). Let's set that debate aside, however, and simply assume for the moment that the Greek word has the same meaning as the English one and here indicates a position of leadership or power over the household. What then?

Well, notice that the language here is actually on its surface at least descriptive, not prescriptive. Paul says, "the husband is the head of the wife as Christ of the church," but does not say "the husband should be the head of the wife as Christ of the church." That does not mean Paul did not think the latter or did not mean for us to believe it, just that he did not go out and write it, which makes it more difficult to argue that this is some kind of norm for the Christian family just from this passage. What Paul says, however, is also consistent with the thinking that, though the husband is head of the wife, that is not how things should be and that such an arrangement should be avoided where possible (ceterus paribus, of course).

Note also that we ought to avoid the problem noted in the first paragraph of this post. Paul uses the present tense to describe male headship. But, of course, Paul wrote in the first century, not the twenty-first! Which means, Paul is not even necessarily describing the current state of things but rather the way things were in the first century (and perhaps in an even smaller context than that even - he probably did not have in mind Native American societies, for instance, in his description - though, on the other hand, he may indeed have intended his description universally - unfortunately the text is not specific enough to tell for sure). In first century Asia Minor, his intended addressee, the male was indeed the head of the household. Both Jewish and Gentile cultures here were thoroughly patriarchal, after all. It is a mistake, then, to see a translation like "The husband is head of the wife" and automatically assume that Paul is saying this about our current time. Maybe he meant it as an eternal truth, but maybe not - the text does not obviously specify the former, in any case. At the very least, Paul is making an observation about the state of affairs in their cultures, but it's not easy to go beyond that. Even if, then, Paul did in fact mean male headship to be prescriptive rather than merely descriptive, that would not tell us directly whether or not it is prescriptive for us today (rather than being so only for those cultures to which Paul was directly speaking).

Take some of the other passages in the same series: Paul commands children to obey parents and slaves their masters. In the first instance, we think this is still a good arrangement and prescriptive generally across the board. In the second, nowadays, we tend to think that it addresses situations where slavery is socially accepted but is compatible with thinking slavery to be wrong. Similarly, the wife passage may be taken either in the same way as the children passage or in the same way as the slave passage - is female submission to male headship an eternal arrangement or just a way to deal with an unjust situation which is systemic in a particular culture (in this case, patriarchal dominance)?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Ephesians 5 Contains No Command for Wives to Submit - Or, Why Things are Often More Interesting in the Original Greek

With all of my Greek studies, I've gotten to the point where I don't really like translations all that much any more (although it has increased my appreciation of the KJV somewhat, ironically). While I still primarily use the NIV for personal reading, for instance, I would never use it for more in-depth study. It's translations of Romans and Galatians, for instance, are particularly horrid and completely distort the sense of the Greek, reading into it things that either are not there or even completely changing the meaning in an unwarranted fashion. More literal translations tend to be better but not necessarily - the NASB's version of Song of Songs, for instance, misreads crucial sections of the Hebrew so that the Wisdom sub-genre of the Song is nearly lost, resulting in a very inferior version.
In any case, looking at the (in)famous "wives and husbands" passage in Ephesians 5, a favorite at weddings (well, more conservative ones at least), one finds something somewhat different from what winds up in most English translations. Most treat verse 21 as a command for everyone to submit to one another and then move on in 22 to a command for wives to submit to husbands, and then a rule to the effect that this is how things ought to be in verse 24. The thing is, in the Greek none of these commands, "should"s or "ought"s show up in the Greek. Sure, "submit" words show up, but none are in the Imperative mood - which is what is used in Greek to make commands (there are no modal or "ought" words either).
What is found instead is a full complex sentence in verse 18, ending with a command to be filled with the Spirit. What follows in 19-21 are a string of phrases built around a series of participles (think "-ing" words like "singing" or "submitting"). The ESV has a fairly decent literal translation of 19-21:

19addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Verse 21, then, contains a participle, not an imperative. All these phrases are attached to a clause with an imperative, yes ("be filled with the Spirit" in verse 18), but the participles here are probably best seen as describing the results of what is said in that clause rather than, say, what it consists in. 19-21, then, are telling us what happens as a result of the Ephesians being filled with the Spirit. They are not commanded to submit to each other in 21, then, but the submission is portrayed as a natural byproduct of being Spirit-filled.
Now we turn to verse 22, which normally gets stated in English as "Wives, submit to your husbands, as to the Lord". In Greek, however, what it literally says is "Wives to your husbands as to the Lord". It is common in Greek to leave out a word from a sentence or phrase if it has already been used in the previous one and this is what is happening here - this apparently verb-less expression is actually picking up its verbal element from the previous verse. And the verbal element from the previous verse, while a form of the verb for "submit", is not in the imperative form. So it's not a command. Instead, it is a participle - one that was explaining the result of being filled with the Spirit. So this is saying how things are or will be, not how they ought to be let alone commanding them to be that way.
In verse 24 we have something similar - another verse usually translated as a command in English (e.g., "Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands"). But in fact, the Greek has literally "but as the church submits to Christ so also wives to husbands in everything". The second half of that sentence "so also wives to husbands in everything" lacks a verbal element but again picks it up from the previous bit. But the previous verbal element, though again a form of "submit", is not in the Imperative. It is not a command, but a statement of what is in fact happening - the church is submitting to Christ. So again, we have a case of explaining what is going on rather than a command that wives are required to follow.
All in all, then, the Greek syntax seems to bar this passage from being used straightforwardly for any view of women's roles in life. There are, of course, other passages in the Bible that could be used by either side in that debate, but I don't think a very good case could be made for whatever side you take based on this particular one.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Thoughts from Ephesians 3:1-13

A sampling of some thoughts written down for a session of our Young Marrieds group we happened to lead at the end of June:

*In bringing the Gentiles into the Church through Christ, there were obvious differences in how people lived and followed Christ. These differences could at times cause problems. So far, Paul has told us that the use of the Law to divide God’s people has been abolished (2:14-16) and now Gentiles have been accepted into the promises and privileges of Israel as equals. It’s not that Gentiles have replaced Israel or that all Israel has been rejected (see also Romans 9-11) but Jews as Jews and Gentiles as Gentiles are accepted in Christ as parts of the one people of God made up of many peoples (see Isaiah 19:23-25) on the basis of grace through faith (2:4-9). In history, however, as Gentiles became the majority, this was forgotten and Jews were expected to become Gentiles and leave their Jewishness behind them – theologians even thought that performing the Jewish aspects of the Law would condemn you to hell! The church, historically, then, has not dealt well with differences.

*In the 2nd century, Marcion saw a sharp dichotomy between an Old Testament creator god, Yahweh, who was full of wrath, judgment, and law and a New Testament rescuing god, the Father, who was full of love, mercy, and grace. The Old Testament was to be rejected as a product of the inferior god of the Jews who Jesus came to rescue us from. Despite being condemned, these views continue to be circulated in the church – people see the Law as bad, a way of getting salvation by works in contrast to the New Testament way of grace, the Old Testament religion as legalistic and primitive and to be replaced by good, rational, Gentile Christianity.

*Verses 10-11: God’s eternal purpose is to save a remnant through faith of all humankind, Jew and Gentile united together. This uniting and undoing of the division of sin and evil in the church will display to the “powers and principalities” that Jesus is now Lord, not them – their time is up and God’s bringing all things together (1:10) has begun in Christ in, through, and for the church.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Exegetical Notes on the Synoptic Beelzebul Controversy

Notes from various drafts of a couple papers written in the Fall, much of this culled from an earlier, over-long draft of a paper on the consistency of Jesus' argument in the relevant passages (many scholars see the passage as inconsistent).


In Mark, the controversy comes after Jesus has had some initial successes healing, performing exorcisms, and participating in controversies over the Law and Jewish customs, as well as whether he had personal authority to forgive sins. He then chooses the Twelve from among his disciples and our pericope begins from there. Mark 3:20-22 introduce the controversy, including the two related charges that Jesus is mad and that he is perhaps under demonic power in some way. 3:21, in addition, also serves as an introduction to a separate pericope involving his family which gets continued in 3:31 -35 immediately following Jesus’ response to the charge that he is in league with the demonic, thus creating a typical Marcan “sandwich”.

In 3:20, Jesus is once again at home, the last time having been in Mark 2:1-12, where previously there was also a crowd, charges of blasphemy, and mention of forgiveness of sin.[1] In 3:21, it seems that Jesus’ family, having heard about all the commotion he had been causing, comes to restrain him lest he bring shame on himself and the family, saying he must have lost his senses.[2] Since madness was often associated with demon possession, this verse prepares for the escalated, more serious charge of the next, where Jesus is accused of using demonic power in his exorcisms.[3] The Greek for “he has lost his senses” (or “he is beside himself”), ejxevsth, is a prefixed form of the verb i{sthmi, “stand,” which is used later in the pericope with regard to Satan and his kingdom, insinuating that for Mark it is not Jesus’ mind that is on shaky ground but Satan’s kingdom.[4]

In 3:22, some Scribes have come down from Jerusalem and now speak to Jesus, their ill-intent marked by their coming down and it being from Jerusalem, descent often having negative connotations in the Bible and Jerusalem in Mark as well.[5] They accuse him of “having” Beelzebul and further charge that it is by “the prince of demons” that Jesus casts out demons.[6]


Whether the scribes are saying that Jesus is possessed by Beelzebul or more specifically has him as his familiar,[7] the charge is further specified that Jesus is using this Beelzebul, who the scribes identify as the prince of demons, to power his exorcisms. It is not any old demon whose power Jesus is using, but the chief of them all – an implicit recognition of the great power and authority with which Jesus had been performing his miracles and exorcisms. Either Jesus’ power came from God – which the scribes would not admit – or it came from the chief of all demons.[8] The scribes choose the latter option, accusing Jesus, in effect, of being a kind of sorcerer or magician who has a spirit granting him power, a status which they likely saw as proscribed by Torah (e.g., Leviticus 19:31, 20:27) – in effect, marking Jesus out as a deviant perhaps in an attempt to stem his popularity and shame him[9] (as well as, maybe, to give a rationale for their own opposition). This emphasized by their choosing the name of a foreign god instead of something like “Satan” to refer to Jesus’ supposed spirit. Jesus had been, in their eyes, deviant with respect to the law and blasphemous before God and hence they now associate him with those outside the covenant people, as an outsider trying to lead Israel astray.[10]


Out of the KJV, NASB, NIV, and NRSV, the biggest difference between them (concerning this pericope) comes in verse 21 dealing with who exactly is coming to take hold of Jesus. Here, the NIV and NRSV are the only two that agree by rendering the relevant Greek as “his family”. The KJV and NASB, by contrast, have “his friends” and “his own people” respectively. The Greek here is simply “oiJ paraujtouæ”, which seems at first glance to mean literally something like “those from him”. In addition, the NRSV, despite its agreement with the NIV on how to translate the phrase, disagrees with all the other translations (NIV included) in that it seems to deny any identity between those who have come to take Jesus and those who are charging him with madness (it uses the generic “people” to describe the latter group). The other translations explicitly identify the two groups. In the Greek, the clause is simply “e[legon ga;r o{ti ejxevsth”. It clearly has someone asserting the contents of the o{ti clause (which falls inside the larger clause), but the subject is not explicitly found within the larger clause as a separate expression. The Greek e[legon indicates, though, that that it is a plurality of persons doing the speaking here.

The charge against Jesus in the same verse, meanwhile, is missing entirely from both Matthew and Luke. A form of the word used in the charge – ejxivsthmi – appears, however, in Matthew’s version of the beginning of the pericope in Matthew 12:23. Matthew perhaps retains and reuses this word taken from the rather different beginning of the pericope in Mark. Matthew’s earlier version of the exorcism story which both he and Luke use to introduce the pericope, after all, does not contain this word. Luke’s version does not contain it either but uses a form of qaumavzw just like Matthew’s earlier version. Hence, Matthew’s use of the participle form of ejxivsthmi, ejxivstanto, is probably editorial rather than original to the shared exorcism story in Q and may plausibly come from Mark’s use (of the aorist form, ejxevsth) of the same verb.

According to the BDAG (pgs. 756-757), phrases like oiJ paraujtouæ are used to indicate either someone’s envoys or else those intimately connected with someone, such as their family. In Reisenfeld’s article under parav in the TDNT, meanwhile, he states that this sort of construction could mean in secular Greek “those who belong to someone as well as those sent by him” and at times was used to refer to someone’s soldiers, servants, officials, heirs, friends, neighbors, or relatives. In the Septuagint, meanwhile, it seems mostly to be used for those around someone, particularly in I Maccabees. In the New Testament, it is also used in Mark 5:26 with a neuter plural article and indicates possession. With regard to Mark 3:21 in particular, Reisenfeld notes that the phrase on its own could refer to Jesus’ relatives or even to the disciples. And, in accordance with what most critical commentators seem to think,[11] he takes it that in the Marcan context in which the phrase appears, oiJ paraujtouæ are to be identified with the group of 3:32, which is Jesus’ family. This is especially probable given Mark’s widespread use of narrative sandwiches, 3:21 providing the introduction to and anticipation of the events in 3:31-35 involving Jesus’ family and his speech on who his true family is. The KJV is thus the odd man out here, with the NIV and NRSV agreeing and the NASB giving a very literal, neutral rendering of the phrase.

The next question is what the charge about Jesus in 3:21 is exactly and who is making it. As stated already, the word used, ejxevsth, is an aorist form of ejxivsthmi. According to the BDAG (pg. 350), in every usage of this word the idea is one of being involved “in a state or condition of consternation.” In its intransitive usage, which seems to be what is operative here, it has acquired a sense of being out of one’s normal state of mind, which could be either, on the one hand, in the sense of losing one’s mind or having lost one’s senses, or, on the other, in the sense of being amazed or astonished. The former sense seems to be what is mind in Mark 3:21 whereas in Matthew’s version of the pericope, it is used in Matthew 12:23 more in the latter sense. The TDNT article by Albrecht Oepke (pgs.459-460), similarly, notes that the intransitive use means literally “to remove oneself” and was used of the loss of capacities, figuratively in terms of loss of one’s mind or else being “terrified out of one’s wits”. In the Septuagint, it is used more in the latter sense, conveying strong emotions of “terror, anxiety, or astonishment, with a strong sense of the numinous.” In Mark 3:21, however, it seems to be used more in the former sense of losing one’s mind.

So the charge is that Jesus has lost his senses or gone mad, but the question still remains as to whether it is his family (oiJ paraujtouæ) who is making the charge or some others who are doing it. Despite the NRSV’s interpretation (this is the RSV’s as well) that it was generic “people” who were saying Jesus was mad, it seems more plausible to see the ones coming to seize Jesus (oiJ paraujtouæ) as providing the appropriate grammatical antecedent for e[legon and hence taking subject place in that sentence. Most critical scholars appear to agree.[12]

Mark 3:21, then, seems to claim that Jesus’ family said he had lost his senses and that they thus went to seize him. This reading appears to be supported by most of the best manuscripts. The few alternate readings found in other manuscripts most people seem to agree are a result of scribes correctly understanding the verse and, finding it offensive, altering it to make it less so. These manuscripts alter the verse so that it is the scribes and others who make the accusation, with the phrase “oiJ paraujtouæ” no longer making an appearance. Thus we have at least two manuscripts whose version of the verse reads the following in place of “ajkouvsanteV oiJ paraujtouæ”:

ajkouvsanteV peri; aujtouæ oiJ grammateiæV kai; oiJ loipoi;

A number of others contain the very similar alternative reading:

o{te h[kousan peri; aujtouæ oiJ grammateiæV kai; oiJ loipoi;

Such variants would, if they were in fact correct, give us a reading of 3:21 on which the scribes and some others, having heard things about Jesus, come to seize him, saying that Jesus is out of his mind.

That Mark 3:21 does in fact implicate Jesus’ family as the ones charging him with loss of sanity may also be the way Matthew and Luke understood Mark, which perhaps explains at least part of the reason why they omitted this verse or any version of it in their own accounts of the pericope on Jesus’ true family. That Mark 3:21 does in fact claim that it was Jesus’ family who came to seize him and that it was they who claimed he was out of his mind, then, seems the most plausible view based on the evidence so far, thus making the NIV’s translation of 3:21 (though not necessarily of the rest of the pericope) perhaps the best of those examined and basically in agreement with most Marcan scholars.[13]


The beginning of the controversy in Mark thus already signals an ironic reversal of relations of inside and outside. In the passage just before, twelve disciples – a group which were otherwise outsiders with regard to Jesus and perhaps marginal at best in the eyes of the religious elite, are made the core insiders. And now here, those who should be the insiders par excellence, Jesus’ family and the religious elite, are strangely found outside, the Marcan sandwich concerning Jesus’ family, in effect, showing who the true insiders are in contrast to, say, the scribes here who are themselves accusing Jesus of being the outsider.[14]

Aside from a few variations, the sense of the beginning of the controversy in both Matthew and Luke are essentially the same as that given above for Mark with the important exception that instead of beginning with Jesus’ family thinking him out of his mind (the mention of which might have seemed somewhat scandalous to Matthew and Luke)[15], Matthew and Luke both begin with a short exorcism story designed to provoke the reaction of the opponents. Matthew’s exorcism story in fact appears earlier, with slight differences, in Matthew 9:32-34, where a demon-possessed man who was mute is brought to Jesus and becomes able to speak after Jesus casts out the demon, a story immediately preceded by another short miracle resulting in two blind men, who had been calling out “Have mercy on us, Son of David!”, recovering their sight. Matthew then contrasts the reaction of the crowds, who marvel at Jesus’ mighty works and emphasize their unique character, to that of the Pharisees, Matthew’s preferred targets for criticism (which perhaps explains why Matthew, in accordance with his practice elsewhere, has the Pharisees making the accusation rather than the scribes in Mark or some among the crowds in Luke)[16], who accuse Jesus of using the power of the prince of demons.

Matthew reuses the story from 9:32-34, with some modifications, to introduce the Beelzebul controversy in Matthew 12. This time, the demoniac is blind as well as mute. In part, this is likely a result of Matthew combining the characteristics of the two exorcisms in 9:27-34,[17] a link which is perhaps further confirmed by the change in the crowd’s reaction to include the phrase “Son of David” (Greek: uiJo;V Dauivd), which is the same phrase used by the blind men, and by the use of a form of the Greek verb qerapeuvw, “heal”, applied to the demoniac in 12:22 instead of a form of ejkbavllw, “cast out”, applied to the demon as in 9:33 (this also, perhaps, links back to 12:15).[18] The dual affliction may also be related to Isaianic passages connecting the healing of the blind with that of the deaf and mute.[19]

The appellation “Son of David” may, particularly in light of Matthew’s linking of Jesus and divine wisdom, allude to Solomon, who in Jewish settings had become regarded as the exorcist and miracle worker (and magician) par excellence and to whom the phrase “Son of David” was generally applied both within the Old Testament and without. Matthew may then be using the phrase both with this allusion and, more importantly for Matthew’s larger purposes, to emphasize Jesus as Messiah.[20] The use of this title may also prepare for the Sign of Jonah sayings immediately following the Beelzebul controversy in Matthew, the former ending with mention of people coming to hear Solomon’s wisdom and Jesus’ claim of being greater than Solomon – if the Pharisees who, unlike the blind and mute man, can physically see, are spiritually blind to the signs of the kingdom in Jesus’ words and mighty deeds, no other sign is left to them but the culmination of Jesus’ kingdom ministry, his death and resurrection.

Unlike Matthew or Mark, Luke does not specify Jesus’ opponents and instead leaves them faceless among the crowds.[21] Like Mark, however, Luke creates his own narrative sandwich with the story by inserting in 11:16 a call for a sign from heaven to validate Jesus’ ministry and teaching, which prepares for the Sign of Jonah sayings in response to this call in 11:29-32, immediately following the close of Jesus’ speech in response to the charges of being in league with the demonic. These others who ask for a sign are, in effect, taking on the role of Satan from the temptation narrative earlier in Luke (thus also linking them with the desert generation in the Pentateuch – see the next section), putting Jesus (and, by extension, God) to the test just as Satan did, the previous “sign from heaven” having been the successful triumph in 10:17-18 of the Seventy-Two over demons, which Jesus applauds by speaking of seeing Satan falling from heaven. By contrast with the disciples, those asking for signs are blind to the kingdom’s signs (11:33-36, thus connecting with 10:21-24), asking for signs (11:16) instead of the Holy Spirit (11:13) and putting Jesus to the test (11:16) instead of asking for deliverance from testing (11:14).[22]


In Matthew 12:27 and Luke 11:19, immediately following the Parables of the Divided House and the Kingdom, we have Jesus question his opponents concerning by whom certain people associated with them are casting out demons. The majority opinion, which seems to me more plausible than anything else, is that Jesus is here issuing a charge of inconsistency against his opponents – they do not charge certain others with being in league with Satan, yet Jesus, whose exorcisms and miracle working are even more unmistakably unlike magical practices than the more ambiguous exorcisms performed by Jewish exorcists, is the one accused of sorcery.[23] There is in fact no evidence in Jesus’ exorcisms that cast a negative shadow on them in comparison with other Jews whose exorcisms do not seem to be in question. Hence, without further evidence and given that these others are not in question, the opponents ought not to be putting Jesus’ exorcisms into question and attributing them to Satan.[24] If Jesus is casting out by Satan, then so must these others, a charge those others would likely not accept and perhaps condemn.[25] But this raises the question: If not by Satan, then by whom?

The alternative to casting out demons by Satan seems to be that Jesus does so by power from God. And if this is true, Jesus’ message is vindicated – the kingdom of God really has come in the person of Jesus. This is what we find in the Finger/Spirit of God saying in Matthew 12:28/Luke 11:20.[26] Jesus’ exorcisms are unique in that they point to the presence of the kingdom and this is due to Jesus’ unique relationship to the kingdom.[27] In Luke, the use of the phrase “finger of God” points to the Exodus narrative, particularly God’s saving his people from Pharaoh through sending the plagues on Egypt (e.g., Exodus 8:19, Deuteronomy 9:10) – as God rescued his people from the oppressor and gave them the Law on Sinai, so now Jesus as the new Moses inaugurates the coming of the kingdom, an eschatological exodus, a restoration of creation through God’s creation power, rescuing his people from the ultimate oppressor, Satan himself.[28] Like Pharaoh, and Israel in the desert, though, Jesus’ opponents, particularly those asking for a sign, have hardened their hearts against God’s salvific actions.[29]


In Luke’s version of the parable, an armed strong man guards his abode and is then defeated and disarmed by an even stronger attacker, who then divides his goods. Thus, instead of a robbery as in Matthew and Mark, we have pictured here an armed battle. Martin Emmrich suggests that Luke’s version more clearly than its parallels echoes the exodus pattern behind Isaiah 49:24-26 (and 59:16-18), with God’s people rescued from a tyrant who oppresses them by the even more powerful divine warrior.[30] Jesus seems clearly to be the stronger man who attacks Satan’s kingdom and overcomes him, linking to both Luke 3:16 and 4:1-13.[31]

This attack has similar results for Satan as in the parallels in Matthew and Mark, as he is disarmed and his goods taken. What happens with the goods, though, is slightly different. Whereas in the parallels, the goods seemed to be people and the idea seemed to be that they are released from Satan’s power, here the idea seems to be that in disarming Satan, Jesus brings blessings of some kind to people.[32] Despite the difference between accounts, the outcome seems to be similar – in casting out demons, Jesus (and perhaps his followers) are disarming Satan, thus bringing blessings to the formerly possessed and, in general via the power of the kingdom of God, to the world.


Mark’s passage, as described previously, emphasizes the ironic reversal of who is inside and who is out. Based on things such as Jesus’ perceived looseness with the Law and his claiming authority to forgive sins, he was opposed, accused of blasphemy, and finally, here, charged with madness by his own family and then with consorting with Beelzebul in an honor challenge by his opponents. These two groups, who should be in on what God is doing, are not. Jesus, exercising his authority, calls his challengers and bests them in the honor game, thus parrying their attempt to label him a deviant and outsider and instead deflecting aspects of the charge back onto them.[33] First, Jesus notes how if Satan casts out Satan, his kingdom would fall (here we can pick one of our three interpretations), using several analogies to back it up. And since Satan would not willingly give up his kingdom and so it would not fall from internal division, Jesus himself has assaulted Satan and is releasing people from his power.

Jesus, then, is the ultimate insider and, given the final saying on the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit in Mark 3:28-29,[34] his opponents’ attempts to cast Jesus as an outsider render them in danger of being complete outsiders in regards to God’s kingdom forever. In his response to them, then, Jesus turns the tables on his opponents and warns them not to blaspheme. By the Spirit Jesus works, saving people from their bondage to Satan, the “strong man”, and initiates the saving power of God, bringing them into a new, undivided household with Jesus at its head. To arrogantly say it is Satan instead of the Spirit behind all these works is to slander the Spirit and mistake it and its power for good and salvation for the power of darkness and its power for evil and bondage. To reject the Spirit is to miss forgiveness and salvation since it is precisely the Spirit which brings forgiveness and escape from evil’s bondage.[35]

In Matthew, we see Jesus, the Messiah and the one greater than Solomon in wisdom and power displaying the power of the kingdom of God in the healing of a deaf and blind man. The Pharisees, Jesus’ chief opponents in Matthew, reject other interpretations of Jesus’ identity, and treat him as in league with Beelzebul – they are blind to the true signs of the kingdom. Jesus, as in Mark, responds by talking about how Satan would fall if that was true. And the Pharisees are, in any case, guilty of hypocrisy in accusing Jesus of being in cahoots with Satan. Instead, Jesus is performing his actions by the Spirit and hence, because of who Jesus is, the kingdom of God really has arrived. Jesus is rescuing those oppressed by Satan, healing and casting out demons.

Matthew then shows us the consequences of this all-out battle with Satan, issuing a call to those who would listen. The kingdom of Satan is being invaded by the kingdom of God and there is no neutrality here, one is either on Jesus’ side or, like the Pharisees, one is an opponent or persecutor or otherwise on the wrong side – one either gathers with Jesus or one scatters (Matthew 12:30).[36] There is then a warning in some ways similar to that of Mark against blaspheming the Holy Spirit.[37] As the exact meaning of the versions of this saying in Matthew and Luke are controversial,[38] the only thing I think we can confidently say at this point without really delving into the topic is that it is a warning here based on the previous saying about scattering. There is no neutrality here between Jesus and Satan and the Pharisees are in danger of casting themselves on the wrong side forever. And the very fact that the Pharisees have uttered such dangerous blasphemy condemns them as evil. Jesus, in words very similar to those from the Sermon on the Mount, speaks of how evil words come from an evil internal character and how these words can thus prove as evidence both now and on the day of judgment.[39]

Luke is superficially overall very similar to Matthew but with more of an exodus theme than is present in Matthew. Here, Jesus is the bringer of the new creation, the eschatological exodus, the one who passes the test in contrast to those who test him. He is the divine warrior who is the one stronger than Satan and has violently attacked and disarmed him in order to distribute the eschatological blessings of the coming of the kingdom to those who side with him.[40] In the next chunk of text, Luke describes the spirit who is cast out, wanders in the desert, and returns with seven more demons. The spirit here undergoes a kind of anti-exodus as a kind of anti-Israel – it goes into the desert and returns to its home stronger than before. This creates a contrast between the nature of demons versus Jesus as the true Israel. Only Jesus can free Israel of the tyranny of Satan. Previous attempts at reform and cleaning house have only been temporary – the demonic powers have always struck back, thus also reemphasizing their unity and undivided power. Jesus is clearly not possessed and only his kingdom will succeed in rescuing Israel from the kingdom of Satan.[41]

[1] Donahue, J. R. and D.J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2002), 128.

[2] Some manuscripts have the scribes doing and saying these things, but this is almost certainly an effort to soften the otherwise seemingly harsh view of Jesus’ family portrayed here. Some English translations, likely effected by some of the same sentiments, have likewise interpreted the Greek here to refer to people other than Jesus’ family but scholars seem to agree that the Greek most likely refers to Jesus’ family, especially considering Mark 3:21’s status as one half of the Marcan sandwich which continues in 3:31 with Jesus’ family. Likewise, despite the RSV’S and NRSV’s interpretations that it was generic “people” who were saying Jesus was mad, it seems more plausible to see the ones coming to seize Jesus as providing the appropriate grammatical antecedent and hence taking subject place in that sentence. And since such charges would not likely be made up by the early church, there is a high probability that these verses accurately reflect a tension in Jesus’ family during his earthly ministry. See Ayers, James, “Mark 3:20-35,” Interpretation 51 (1997): 174; Best, Ernest, “Mark 3:20, 21, 31-35,” New Testament Studies 22 (1976): 309-314; Donahue, J. R. and D.J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2002), 129; Marcus, Joel, Mark 1-8 (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 270; May, David M., “Mark 3:20-35 from the Perspective of Shame/Honor,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 17 (1987): 85; Meier, John P., A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Volume One: The Roots of the Problem and the Person (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 370-371; Yarbro Collins, Adela, Mark: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2007), 225.

[3] Cf. Best, “Mark,” 309; France, R. T., The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2002), 169.

[4] Marcus, Mark, 271.

[5] Marcus, Mark, 271.

[6] The sorts of charges brought out in the Beelzebul controversy in the Synoptic Gospel are likely historical given the also likely historicity of Jesus’ exorcism and healing ministries (both charges of possession and ministries of Jesus also being attested to by the Gospel of John). See Donahue and Harrington, Mark, 130; Emmrich, Martin, “The Lucan Account of the Beelzebul Controversy,” Westminster Theological Journal 62 (2000): 269; France, Mark, 170; Harrington, D. J., The Gospel of Matthew (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991), 134; Meier, Marginal Jew I, 96; Wright, N. T., Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 187, 195.

[7] Yarbro Collins, Mark, 229.

[8] On the unity of the demonic world under a single demonic ruler (particularly, who took control, through his minions, of humans and the world) in Second Temple literature, see Alexander, Philips, “The Demonology of the Dead Sea Scrolls,” in Dead Sea Scrolls after Fifty Years: A Comprehensive Assessment, Vol. 2, ed. P. W. Flint and J. C. Vanderkam (Leiden: Brill, 1999) , 331-353; Russell, D. S., The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic: 200 B.C. – A.D. 100 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1964), 254-257.

[9] May, “Shame/Honor,” 85. Here, May takes the scribes in Mark to be issuing a public honor challenge in contrast to the opponents in the parallel passages in Matthew and Luke where the charges do not seem to be made publicly. Cf. Guijarro, “Politics,” 124.

[10] Caragounis, Chrys C., “Kingdom of God, Son of Man, and Jesus’ Self-Understanding,” Tyndale Bulletin 40 (1989): 224; Humphries, Michael, “The Kingdom of God in the Q Version of the Beelzebul Controversy: Q 11:14-26,” Forum 9 (1993): 128-130; Marcus, Mark, 281; Wright, Jesus, 452-453; Yarbro Collins, Mark, 228. Lloyd Gaston also argues that in Matthew, the meaning of “Beelzebul” has links with Jesus’ claims to superiority vis-à-vis the Temple earlier in the Gospel, making the Pharisees’ charge in part an act of throwing such claims in his face. See Gaston, “Beelzebul,” 254.

[11] See footnote 3 for some references.

[12] See the following footnote.

[13] See, for instance, James Ayers, “Mark 3:20-35,” Interpretation 51 (1997): 174; Ernest Best, “Mark 3:20, 21, 31-35,” New Testament Studies 22 (1976): 309-314; Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2007), 225; J. R. Donahue and D.J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2002), 129; R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2002); Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8 (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 270; David M. May, “Mark 3:20-35 from the Perspective of Shame/Honor,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 17 (1987): 85.

[14] Cf. Busch, Austin, “Questioning and Conviction: Double-voiced Discourse in Mark 3:22–30,” Journal of Biblical Literature 125 (2006): 480-482.

[15] Cf. Boring, “Unforgivable Sin,” 260; Davies and Allison, Matthew, 332; Gundry, Robert H., Matthew: A Commentary on His Handbook for a Mixed Church under Persecution, Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1982), 230.

[16] Boring, “Unforgivable Sin,” 261. Cf. Davies and Allison, Matthew, 335. Note, though, that Matthew does directly echo Mark’s beginning, reusing ejxivstanto from Mark 3:21 to apply to the crowds’ wonderment at Jesus instead of ejqauvmasan as in Luke 11:14 and Matthew 9:33. See Gundry, Matthew, 231.

[17] Gundry, Matthew, 231; Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005), 498.

[18] Gundry, Matthew, 231.

[19] Collins, Raymond F., “Jesus’ Ministry to the Deaf and Dumb,” Melita Theologica 35 (1984): 17. Collins cites examples such as Isaiah 29:18 and 35:5. Note that all of these considerations so far explaining why Matthew has included blindness in the narrative renders Luz’s unsupported commented that, since Matthew used the story already he added to it so that no one would notice, rather lame. See Luz, Matthew, 199.

[20] Fisher, Loren R., “Can this be the Son of David?” in Jesus and the Historian: Written in Honor of Ernest Cadman Calwell, ed. F. T. Trotter (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1968), 85-89; Harrington, Matthew, 186. Contra Gundry, Mark, 231.

[21] See Marshall, Luke, 472 for evidence that it may have been Luke that deleted reference to the Pharisees in Q rather than Matthew that added his reference.

[22] Emmrich, “The Lucan Account,” 274; Johnson, Luke Timothy, The Gospel of Luke (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991), 181-183; Marshall, Luke, 473.

[23] Caragounis, “Kingdom of God,” 229; Davies and Allison, Matthew, 337; Fitzmyer, Luke, 918; Harrington, Matthew, 183; Luz, Matthew, 203. See, though, Shirock, Robert, “Whose Exorcists are They? The Referents of oiÓ uiÓoi; uÓmwæn at Matthew 12:27/Luke 11:19,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 46 (1992): 41-51, for an alternative (and, it seems to me, less plausible) interpretation according to which these exorcists are the disciples rather than Pharisees or some other Jews outside Jesus’ circle.

[24] Note that this important move on Jesus’ part in no way implies or requires the acceptance of the other exorcists and their exorcisms and Jesus’ part. At least some commentators notice this. See, for instance, Gundry, Matthew, 235. Hence, we need not follow, for instance, Humphries, “Q Version,” 132-134.

[25] Marshall, Luke, 471, 474-475, gets this right but still seems at times to think that on this interpretation Jesus must be accepting the exorcists and their exorcisms.

[26] Whether or not this Q saying originally spoke of casting out demons by the “finger of God” or the “Spirit of God” need not concern us, particularly given the amounts of evidence on both sides and the difficulty of adjudicating it. See Davies and Allison, Matthew, 340; Emmrich, “Lucan Account,” 271-273; Fitzmyer, Luke, 918; Harrington, Matthew, 183; Luz, Matthew, 200; Marshall, Luke, 475-476; Menzies, Robert P., The Development of Early Christian Pneumatology (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1991), 186; Rodd, C. S., “Spirit or Finger,” Expository Times 72 (1960-1961): 157-158; Wall, Robert W., “The Finger of God: Deuteronomy 9:10 and Luke 11:20,” New Testament Studies 93 (1987): 144-150. Whether or not the saying, in whatever form it originally took, is regarded as an authentic word of Jesus, it certainly fits the context well and probably went together with the charges of demon possession in the tradition (at least within Q’s version of it), which might give us at least some reason (even if it is not seen as decisive) to think this might originally belong with the DS sayings or even go back to Jesus (though its absence from Mark certainly makes these claims less supported than they otherwise might have been).

[27] Caragounis, “Kingdom of God,” 230-231; Davies and Allison, Matthew, 339. There may also be a sense of here of Jesus’ companions having won a victory for God’s kingdom over Satan as Jesus’ kingdom subordinates by attacking Satan via casting out his subordinates. See Johnson, Luke, 183.

[28] Fitzmyer, Luke, 922; Klingbeil, Gerald A., “The Finger of God in the Old Testament,” Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 112 (2000): 415; Marshall, Luke, 475; Williams, David, “Why the Finger?” Expository Times 115 (2003): 48. Against the alternative understanding of Wall, “Finger of God,” 144-150, see Emmrich, “Lucan Account,” 272n32.

[29] Emmrich, “Lucan Account,” 272, 275; Perkins, Larry, “Why the ‘Finger of God’ in Luke 11:20?” Expository Times 115 (2004): 261-262.

[30] Emmrich, “Lucan Account,” 273; Marshall, Luke, 478.

[31] Fitzmyer, Luke, 919.

[32] Marshall, Luke 477-478.

[33] Guijarro, “Politics,” 125; May, “Shame/Honor,” 86.

[34] On the authenticity of this saying and its belonging (or not) to its context within the Beelzebul controversy, see Boring, M. Eugene, “How May We Identify Oracles of Christian Prophets in the Synoptic Tradition? Mark 3:28-29 as a Test Case,” Journal of Biblical Literature 91 (1972): 501-521; Boring, “Unforgivable Sin,” 276-277; Emmrich, “Lucan Account,” 270.

[35] Cf. Ayers, “Mark 3:20-35,” 182; Donahue and Harrington, Mark, 131-136; France, Mark, 177; Marcus, Mark, 284; Williams, James G., “A Note on the ‘Unforgiveable Sin’ Logion,” New Testament Studies 12 (1965): 75-77; Wright, Jesus, 453-454.

[36] Davies and Allison, Matthew, 343; Gundry, Matthew, 236; Luz, Matthew, 205-206. Cf. Fitzmyer, Luke, 919; Marshall, Luke, 478. For alternative approaches to this saying, see Humphries, “Q Version,” 137; Kilgallen,, “Return,” 59n29.

[37] On the relationship between the Q and Mark sayings, how Matthew has combined the sayings, and trying to figure out the possible Aramaic prehistory of these and the relationships between them, see Boring, “Unforgivable Sin,” 258-279; Caragounis, “Kingdom of God,” 6-7; Davies and Allison, Matthew, 345-346; Gundry, Matthew, 237-239; Luz, Matthew, 201; Marcus, Mark, 275; Schippers, R., “The Son of Man in Matt. xii. 32 = Lk. xii. 10, Compared with Mk. iii. 28,” Studia Evangelica IV, Part I: The New Testament Scriptures, ed. F. L. Cross (Berlin: Akademic Verlag, 1968), 231-235; Yarbro Collins, Mark, 234.

[38] See Caragounis, “Kingdom of God,” 11, 227;Harrington, Matthew, 184; Maddox, Robert J., “The Function of the Son of Man according to the Synoptic Gospels,” New Testament Studies 15 (1968-1969): 59; Schippers, “Son of Man,” 235.

[39] Davies and Allison, Matthew, 349-351; Gundry, Matthew, 240.

[40] Cf. Robbins, Vernon K., “Beelzebul Controversy in Mark and Luke: Rhetorical and Social Analysis,” Forum 7 (1991): 276.

[41] Humphries, “Kingdom of God,” 139; Kilgallen, “Return,” 56; Marshall, Luke, 471; Wall, “Finger of God,” 148; Wright, Jesus, 456.