Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Church in Frame's Frame, Part II

Part I

The Church is a Family

In the previous post, I argued that the Church is the company of God's eternally elect. But now as we examine the pattern by which God expands his people and thus causes the church to grow, we discover something startling: God's plan from the beginning has been for the Church to grow by means of human families. This fact leads naturally to a tension between the church as we see it and the church as only God can see it: the visible and invisible aspects of the Church.


When God created Adam and Eve, he created them to be the firstborn of a holy race1:

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground."
-- Gen. 1.27 - 28

We often focus on the ruling nature of man, but sometimes lost is the significance of the juxtaposition of vv. 27 and 28: Adam and Eve were intended to propagate the image of God. Their mandate was to create a people who would have fellowship with their creator.

And of course, this mandate was frustrated by the fall. We see this in the dashed hopes of Eve in Genesis 4, when she begets a son by the help of the Lord (cf. 3.15), and yet her son turns out to be an agent of sin rather than the seed who crushes Satan.

And yet, the vision of a holy race is re-promised in 3.15 with the protoevangelium. It is further articulated in the restatement of the mandate to Noah (9.1 - 3).

Most importantly, the vision of a holy race is explicitly articulated in the covenant God makes with Abraham. God intends to create a people for Himself within Abraham's family. Of course, His purposes are larger still. He intends to bless all the nations through Abraham. Some of the Gentiles (Ruth, Rahab) will be incorporated into the holy race through adoption. But at this stage in the development of the people of God, His primary means of multiplying His worshipers is through the family.

This has some important implications for the descendants of Abraham. First, all of the males receive the sign of purity, the sign of cutting away of the sin nature, the sign of circumcision. More importantly, all of Abraham's descendants are ethically obligated to keep God's commands, and not merely by way of external obedience, but from the heart (Rom 2.28, 29, with reference to such passages as 1 Sam 15.22, Hos. 6.1-6). But also, all of Abraham's descendants have a certain right, though not absolute or inalienable, to participate in the worship of the Lord. In fact, nominally, Israel is a people, a race, set apart and holy to the Lord. We may even speak of them as "historically elect" with the clear understanding that this term means "chosen out of the nations and obligated to be holy" rather than "chosen to be a part of God's remnant."

As Israel moved through her history in the OT, her designation as a holy race came into tension with the designation of God's people as His eternally elect. The simple fact was that many of Abraham's descendants themselves were not eternally elect, beginning with Esau. This fact created a problem not merely for systematic theologians but in the reality of Israel's experience. While Israel was normatively obligated to be holy to the Lord, a significant proportion of Israel -- a majority at times -- were idolaters. This was the burden of the prophetic oracles such as Amos. God's response to this situation was two-fold: first, to promise an eschatological age, a New Covenant, in which the heart would be circumcised; and second, to pursue a program of pruning out the branches that did not properly belong to Israel because of their lack of holiness. We can see this at work in the time of the Judges; in the books of Samuel and Kings; in the Bablyonian captivity; and ultimately in the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. In all of these, God preserved the remnant that He knew to actually be His, and provided judgments that prefigured the eschaton (cf. Joel) to winnow away those who were not.

Israel's theologians had a hard time understanding the tension between God's election and His means of growth. It was easy for them to mis-read their family descent from Abraham as an actual entrance into relationship with God, or for them to place confidence in the performance of sacrifices In fact, one way of putting the Jew/Gentile problem in the early church is that the Judaizing party had come to mistake the plan of growth through a holy race for election itself. More succinctly, they mistook "historical election" for "eternal election."2

Hence, the emphasis on circumcision: if you wanted to be "chosen by God", you had to become a part of the race. This is of course backwards, and Paul refutes it clearly in Galatians 3. Peter also, in his own way, refutes this thinking in Acts 10. Why are the Gentiles given the sign of cleansing and the outpouring of the Spirit? Because they demonstrate the fruit of God's regenerating work in themselves; they are already a part of the holy race.

With the church, now, the growth plan shifts in emphasis. The full extent of the Abrahamic covenant, that he would be the father of many nations, is now implemented much more through evangelism and the fulfillment of the Great Commission. But this fact does not annul the growth of God's people as a holy race, His work through the family. The Great Commission does not set aside the growth plan. Rather, it merely brings adoption to the fore as a more prominent means of growth.

We see this in part in 1 Cor 7.14, in which the families of believers have been "sanctified." Not made holy in the sense of magically turned into believers by virtue of parentage (cf. Luke 3.8), but sanctified in the same sense that Israel as a whole was sanctified: set apart and obligated to be holy. Children of believers are not themselves automatically believers, but they should be. That is to say, from the perspective of human contingencies, the children of believers have every opportunity and therefore have even less excuse than the pagan for disbelieving the Gospel (cf. Rom. 3.1-2).

We see this further in the commands given to families in Ephesians 5. Husbands, wives, children, and parents are all obligated to act in the Lord towards one another. Noticeably absent is any exemption for children who are unbelievers. Paul gives no qualification that children are to obey their parents in the Lord, unless they happen to not belong to Christ. No, the obligation is laid upon all children with the expectation that "this is right." The ethical obligations enjoined upon Israel are also enjoined upon all who belong to the Church (cf. 1 Cor 5, 6).

Even empirically, we see that God calls people by means of families as well as evangelism. Around the world, historically, Christianity has been a family affair. Given the safe assumption that all whom God has effective called have come to faith, it is worth noting that God has apparently chosen to disproportionately elect children of believers.

And finally, the continuation of the plan to grow a holy race is seen in the language employed to describe God's people. They are "children of God", "brothers of Christ", "brothers of one another", "a holy nation."

So within the Church, as within Israel, God's plan of growth by means of family continues. This plan of growth, along with the very real evangelistic problem of pseudo-faith (cf. Matthew 13), creates the same tension in the Church that was present in Israel: the "Church as we see it" is not the same as "the Church as God sees it."

In the New Covenant, the promised Holy Spirit helps to better define the boundaries of the Church, but He has not (apparently) chosen to make those boundaries crystal clear. Our knowledge of the Church, as with many things, is "through a glass, darkly."

The next post will consider our knowledge of the Church by means of various perspectives.

JRC

1. I am indebted to a conversation with Dave Durant for the particular way of putting this. Also present here are ideas from O. Palmer Robertson and John Murray.
2. It also seems that the schools of the Pharisees mistook remnant theology (the notion that God had chosen a remnant by grace) for covenantal nomism (the notion that their status was "in the covenant" unless they fell away by failing to keep the law).

14 comments:

David Weiner said...

Jeff,

First, relax; I have no intent of attempting to drag you into an extended exchange. It is just that these two posts on the Church haven't gotten any comments and so to make sure you know that at least one person is very interested in what you have to say on the subject, I thought I would comment.

But first, you said on Greenbaggins in your exchange with Mark that "We cannot push beyond this and say that God sees the visible Church as his body. Else, 2 Cor 6 makes no sense." Right, the VC is a mixture and one which seems to be explicitly rejected in that chapter. So, doesn't that say that there should be an ongoing effort by 'us' to purify it and not just accept it as 'God's family?'

"When God created Adam and Eve, he created them to be the firstborn of a holy race"

Could the word holy here be replaced with, for example, 'unique' and still have the sentence carry the same meaning? Holy is what God is called; it just seems to imply the wrong thing when it is applied to man.

You say that circumcision is the sign of 'purity.' Where do you see it called this in Scripture?

"Paul gives no qualification that children are to obey their parents in the Lord, unless they happen to not belong to Christ."

Another possibility here. Paul is talking to elect members of the church: whether husbands, wives, children, slaves, or masters. My 'proof' of this is 1 Cor 6:5b-8, 9b. Just a thought.

Jeff Cagle said...

David, you have always been a gentleman, and I am happy to converse with you at length as the Lord leads. And thanks for reading them.

:)

So, doesn't that say that there should be an ongoing effort by 'us' to purify it and not just accept it as 'God's family?'

Yes, I think clearly so. In fact, the purpose of church discipline is precisely that.

I would say, however, that we recognize that the effort towards purity (a) will not be 100% successful, and (b) cannot be pursued to such a degree that we deny God's work through families.

Historically, where the RC church went off the rails, among other places, was in overemphasizing the nature of the visible Church in its doctrine of ex operato sacraments and theories of papal vicarship. But the Puritans imploded by trying to overpurify the visible Church and guarantee congruence between VC and IC in their endless quest for the perfect metric of God's true regeneration.

What you see in my response is the tension that I mentioned in the post. We can't make the visible Church the whole show (as in Catholicism), but we can't deny its role either.

"When God created Adam and Eve, he created them to be the firstborn of a holy race"

Could the word holy here be replaced with, for example, 'unique' and still have the sentence carry the same meaning? Holy is what God is called; it just seems to imply the wrong thing when it is applied to man.


Ah, yes, I would not mean it in the Isaiah 6 sense, certainly. But I would mean it in the sense of "Be holy because I am holy", or in the sense that Adam was happy and holy in the garden.

Something a little stronger than unique is required, I think, to convey that Adam is in God's image.

BTW, I didn't mention it in the post, but this reading makes Genesis 5 make sense. I've read interpreters who want to make "the sons of God" be fallen angels who sleep with men and have children by them.

Leaving aside the obvious biological problems, this interpretation is IMO inferior to seeing "the sons of God" as Seth's line, and "the sons of men" as Cain's. We thus have a continuation in Gen 5 of the narrative of failure of the first Adam's seed to be a holy race, leading directly to God's judgment in Gen. 6-9 (followed by a reaffirmation of the creation mandate!).

You say that circumcision is the sign of 'purity.' Where do you see it called this in Scripture?

Here's one of the clearer passages:

Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. If those who are not circumcised keep the law's requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker.

A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man's praise is not from men, but from God. -- Rom 2.25-29


Circumcision means something: the obligation to keep the Law; the obligation to be holy. It reflects on the outside what is to be true on the inside, the "circumcision of the heart", a cutting away of the sin nature.

Other passages that reflect circumcision as a symbol of purity: Deut. 10.16 and 30.6; Is. 52.11; Jer. 4.4 and 9.25; Ezek. 44.7 and 9; Acts 11 esp. vv. 3 and 9; Col. 2.11.

The meaning of circumcision as purity also forms the backdrop for the Judaizing conflict in Acts 15: "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved."

More speculatively, I would suggest that circumcision applied to the organ of procreation speaks of the clean descendant of Abraham who was to come: Jesus.

Grace and peace,
Jeff

David Weiner said...

the effort towards purity . . . (b) cannot be pursued to such a degree that we deny God's work through families.
I'm confused by this statement; want to say a bit more?

Yes, there is a tension (e.g., RC approach, puritan approach) in trying to purify the VC. But, when either side goes off the tracks it is because they have stopped following Jesus and are leaning on their own understanding. How easy it is to stumble when one has the best of intentions and becomes convinced of their own righteousness.

I knew I was pushing it with unique. Just my way of trying to point out how I thought holy without explanation could imply too much. I am pretty sure we both see it in the same way as used in Scripture and applied to man.

That is exactly my view on Genesis 5; although I can't remember ever hearing it that way from the pulpit or the pews.

Circumcision as purity:
Thanks, I now see how you get this. Circumcision according to Genesis 17 is the sign of the covenant; it is not the covenant. The covenant was that God would be their God and they would be His people and He would bless them, if they obeyed. Additionally, He promised to give them the land and there were no strings attached. Somebody who did not want the sign, was cut off and not part of this covenant.

Since the Jews understood this, Paul used this idea of circumcision to explain a deeper truth than what God had told Abraham in Genesis 17. Further, you mention several verses that support this idea that circumcision relating to purity. I'll just pick one so as not to bore you to death. Deuteronomy 30:6: "Moreover the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live."

I say this has nothing to do with the sign that God gave Abraham, i.e., circumcision. The Hebrew word (moul) just means to cut or cut away. Here, God is indeed talking about cutting away the hard heart (i.e., the new covenant of Jeremiah 31). This is clearly a figurative usage of the word. But, this cutting and the cutting of circumcision are not the same thing. It is only our creative linking of them that makes the connection and leads to the purity idea of circumcision, the sign. Anyway, that is my 2 cents.

Jeff Cagle said...

Interesting thought; perhaps the translators have overly influenced our reading? Not being a Hebrew scholar, I have to rely on tools like BDB and such for lexical meanings. I have "mul" -- to circumcise. The LXX has περικαθαει, to clean around (not περιτομει, to circumcise). What do your sources have?

But also, it's not just you and I that make that connection; Paul does too in Rom. 2. Hmm...

Jeff

Jeff Cagle said...

More info on 'mul'; it is the same word used in Gen 17.10 "every male among you shall be circumcised."

JRC

David Weiner said...

Well, I did a little study and this is what I have concluded about the Hebrew word mul. I think I may have told you before that I studied Hebrew for five years in order to be ready for my bar mitzvah. However, at this point, I know nothing and have forgotten much more than I ever knew. At any rate, the original meaning of the word is unclear. Now that is a surprise!!

The meaning of 'cut off' seems to be the most likely pre-Genesis meaning. For example, psalms 118:10 has mul and it is usually translated this way; with no reference to circumcision, the rite. When God gave the sign to Abraham in Genesis 17:10 he defined what it was that was supposed to be cut off and the idea of cutting around came to the fore (no pun intended). So, the English word, has the idea of cutting around from the Latin circum + caedere (to cut).

Originally, then, it just had the meaning of cutting and then (here is where my opinion gets in the way) it took on the other meaning of cutting away bad stuff and thus leaving a pure version in its place. So as always, one has to know the context to have a clear understanding of what a word means.

Jeff Cagle said...

Hey, thanks for that. Two questions:

(1) So are you suggesting that the meaning of circumcision developed into a metaphorical sense from Abraham's time until Moses'?

And given that Moses wrote Genesis, would you say that he had the fuller meaning in mind in Gen. 17 or the more limited meaning?

(2) How did you come to Christ?

JRC

David Weiner said...

Your first question is hard. I really don't know what was in Moses' mind as he wrote Genesis 17. However, at least up to Psalms 118 (during King David's time?) it still had the 'non-metaphorical' meaning. After Psalms, it only appears twice in Jeremiah. In 4:4 it definitely seems to be a figurative use in the vein of the Israelites purifying themselves. In 9:25 it has both the literal (cutting of the foreskin) and the figurative meanings in the same verse. And, of course, Paul uses the word to teach the spiritual (purity) idea and to discredit trust in the physical rite. Does it sound to you like we are on the same page?

As to your second question, I have an MS Word talk that I have given in a few churches that I will send you via e-mail. Alas, I don't have your e-mail adress. Here is mine and if you send me yours, I'll forward my brief testimony to you. cdweiner at comcast dot net.

Jeff Cagle said...

But what about Deut. 30.6? There's the "circumcise your hearts" phrase used by Moses (or Joshua).

I'll send you an e-mail for the other.

Jeff

Anonymous said...

"But what about Deut. 30.6?"

I am not exactly sure what you are asking. This series started with the question about the idea of purity being inferred in the word circumcision (Heb. mul), I believe?

I don't want to just repeat myself; but I understand the word to originally to have had the meaning of to cut off/away. God had to explain to Abraham just exactly what to cut off when he gave it to him as a 'sign' (i.e., the cut organ is the sign; the act of cutting is not the sign) of the covenant. So now mul has taken on the meaning of circumcise instead of just cut off. In many places the word mul is used when it clearly means a figurative cutting away of something other than the original organ as in Genesis 17:11. Of course, if one removes that which is unpure than what is left is purer. But, the word itself, circumcise, does not have the idea of purity in it as far as I can tell.

Surely in Deut 30:6 God is not saying that a physical part of the heart is to be cut away so that they can then love him with all their heart! The use of mul in this verse has 'figurative' written all over it. By the way, Deuteronomy 10:16 is even clearer. Although most English versions have 'circumcise your heart' the actual Hebrew is 'mul the foreskin of your heart.' So reference to circumcision in these verses is really a reference to the Abrahamic Covenant and the way in which one who was under the covenant was to live their lives. Once this cutting away is applied to the heart it is talking about a spiritual cleansing so that one can conduct their lives as God desires. But, I don't think the rite itself is a picture of purity. Not that it matters one iota what I think, of course. Are we getting closer or farther apart on this?

Jeff Cagle said...

Dunno. I'm confused. I thought you were saying that 'mul' originally meant 'cut off', but then developed into a metaphorical meaning of 'purify' by the time of David.

So then I asked about Deut., where a metaphorical meaning is evident long before David's time.

So ... I'm confused as to where we are.

To me, it looks as if the metaphorical usage of 'mul' either developed very quickly (i.e., by Moses' time) or else was regarded from the beginning as having metaphorical significance.

One argument in favor of the latter would be the connection that God makes in Gen. 17 between circumcision and belonging to His people: "I will be their God" would seem to require holiness on their part, no?

Jeff

Anonymous said...

Jeff,
I must admit to being confused also and am most likely the source of this confusion. Sorry. Here is what I have (by the way, this is not a big deal, just a curiosity):

I asked: "You say that circumcision is the sign of 'purity.' Where do you see it called this in Scripture?"

You responded with what you understand circumcision to mean and a number of verses that indicate this to you.

I responded with my view of circumcision as 'just a sign of the Abrahamic Covenant' and my view that Paul used this sign to explain a deeper truth than what God had revealed to Abraham. In that post I also discussed Deut 30:6 and said that this verse used the English word circumcision but that it was not talking about circumcision per se but simply the figurative 'cutting away' of something. This use of mul shows up a lot in the OT. So all I have been trying to say (albeit not very well!) is that we are possibly being lead astray by the translators. mul always means cut away. It does not always mean anything related to the physical rite of circumcision or circumcision as a sign of the covenant. Although it is most often translated as circumcision.

Holiness is required to be His people, yes. The Israelites were holy (i.e., they were set apart). They certainly were not pure. But, circumcision (the physical kind) did not make one pure it just showed that the person was a member of the covenant people. Now, that was supposed to result in that person living a life of purity. But, it did not do this. The figurative circumcision of the heart always accomplishes this purity in Christ.

Jeff Cagle said...

So I think I understand you now:

On your account, mul had as its base meaning, "to cut away." Thus, as it is used in both Gen 17 and Deut 10, it means "cut away" -- but in two different senses. Only later, in middle classic (Davidic) Hebrew did these meanings merge.

And thus, Paul (being steeped in that merge) observes something about the Jews in Romans 2 that Abraham would not have known.

Is that a fair summary?

Jeff

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