Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Why a Virginal Conception? A response to Doug Wilson (Part 2)

Christians who regularly recite the Apostles' Creed—a salutary exercise—are so familiar with its twin confessions that "Jesus Christ, (God's) only Son, our Lord" was "conceived by the Holy Spirit" (conceptus est de Spiritu Sancto) and "born of the virgin Mary" (natus ex Maria virgine), that they are often surprised at how small a role the precise mode of his birth actually plays in the New Testament's larger Christological portrait. Indeed, the virgin birth of Jesus—or, better, his virginal conception—often has played a greater role in Christian polemics and internal boundary marking (i.e., to mark off so-called "Bible believing Christians" from more "liberal" ones) than it does even in the narratives of the two Evangelists who wrote about it. This has resulted, not entirely surprisingly to anyone raised in very conservative American Protestantism, in a situation in which affirmation of the historicity of the virginal conception has all too often taken precedence over reflection on its theological significance.

Confusion reigns in two areas in particular. The first, which I discussed in my previous post, concerns the common misunderstanding that Matthew, by stating that Jesus' virginal conception "fulfilled" Isaiah 7:14, thereby believed that the prophecy was a direct prediction of that miraculous conception. This is not surprising, given that commonplace Western perceptions of what prophecy and its "fulfillment" entail. However, careful analysis of Isaiah 7-8 demonstrates quite clearly that the prophecy, in its original setting, directly related to a birth in the 8th century BCE, most likely that of Isaiah's own son, Maher-shalal-hash-baz. As a result the Evangelist has often been accused of misunderstanding the prophecy and, consequently, of fabricating a miraculous conception, based on similar pagan stories, in the service of a grand, "proof-from-prophecy" scheme he weaves throughout his lengthy narrative. "Not so fast," I argued. On the contrary, an examination of Matthew's use of the Old Testament suggests quite strongly that, rather than being a fabricator or a rube, the Evangelist operated with a hermeneutic more subtle and profound than both his detractors and simplistic pious defenders imagine. In short, Matthew, perceiving the organic connection between the Immanuel prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 and the explicit "messianic" prophecies of Isaiah 9 and 11, saw in the birth of the Maher-shalal-hash-baz to the "young woman" a typological anticipation of the literal virginal conception of Jesus, whom he and the early Christians believed was the Davidic "shoot" promised by Isaiah.

The second confusion relates to the reason Jesus had to have been born of a virgin. This is not entirely surprising, given the paucity of New Testament references to Jesus' conception and the reticence of Matthew and Luke to provide any definitive answer to the question. Nonetheless, many a theologian has rushed in to fill the void, as it were, with confident proclamations as to the virginal conception's rationale and even necessity. One such traditional suggestion has recently been reaffirmed by Doug Wilson. According to this suggestion, Jesus had to have been conceived without the benefit of a human father for soteriological reasons, viz., to preserve him from sin so as to enable him to be the perfect sacrifice needed to save his people (or the world) from their sins. In Wilson's words:
The Bible says that we are objects of wrath by nature (Eph. 2:3). So if Jesus had been born into the human race in accord with the normal, natural process, he would have been an object of wrath also. So God needed to perform a supernatural act, but perform it with a true man-child. He did this through what we call the virgin birth.
The Bible is clear that Jesus had a genuine human lineage, all the way back to Abraham (Matt. 1:1–16), who was himself descended from Adam. But the Bible is equally clear that Jesus never sinned (2 Cor. 5:21). The fact that Jesus was sinless was obviously related to who his Father was (Luke 1:35), but also because of who his Father wasn’t (Luke 3:23). The other sons of Joseph were sinners in need of forgiveness just like the rest of us. For example, James the Lord’s brother tells us to confess our sins to one another (James 5:16), and then he goes on to tell us that Elijah had “a nature like ours,” including himself in this (James 5:17). And earlier in the Gospels, we even told what one of those sins was, the sin of unbelief (John 7:3–5). Joseph was father of one who became a great and godly man, a pillar in the church, but Joseph was not the father of a sinless man. If Jesus had been born to Joseph and Mary in the ordinary way, he could have been a great apostle—like his half-brother was—but he could not have been our Savior.
Wilson continues by getting to the heart of the matter: it is all about original sin:
While we shouldn’t start speculating about the half-life of original sin, one acceptable answer from all of this is that sin is reckoned or imputed through the male line. This is the position I hold and I believe it’s fitting because Adam was the one who introduced sin into the world in the first place (Rom. 5:12).
While this suggestion has a venerable pedigree and may have a certain initial plausibility within various theological systems, I am convinced it is just about entirely wrong. For one, it runs aground against the jagged rocks of genetics. Not only did Jesus have to have DNA, including the all-important Y chromosome, from a source other than Mary—he certainly wasn't a clone; presumably the DNA profile would have been the result of God's direct creative activity (more on this presently)—the human nature of his mother was also just as sinful as that of her forebears and later offspring. Hence in any case Jesus, born of a woman, would have had to be protected from the taint of the corruption endemic to human nature. Even granting, for the sake of argument, that Romans 5:12-19 teaches the direct imputation of "original" guilt to the post-Adamic human race, the notion that corruption and guilt are thereby passed down, as Wilson asserts, "through the male line," is a non sequitur, unless one follows St. Augustine's "seminal" view of imputation, which he based on the Vulgate's unfortunate rendering of Romans 5:12d (eph' hōi pantes hēmarton, "because all [have] sinned") by in quo omnes peccaverunt, "in whom (i.e., unum hominem, i.e., Adam [Rom 5:12a]) all sinned."

More fundamentally, such an interpretation manifests sloppy method, albeit one that all too many systematicians have used from time immemorial. Simply put, to derive this theological rationale, the interpreter must go far afield and understand Matthew and Luke in light of Paul, without asking whether or not Matthew and Luke provide their own explanations of the miracle's meaning and rationale. Yes, Matthew connects Jesus' virginal conception in some way with his mission to "save his people from their sins" (Matt 1:21), which Jesus himself will later connect with the "giving of his life" as a ransom for "many" (20:28) and the "shedding of his 'blood of the covenant'" for the forgiveness of sins (26:28). Yet nowhere does Matthew ascribe Jesus' suitability for his salvific role to the pristine perfection of his human nature (even though for him, like the rest of the New Testament authors, Jesus' sinlessness was, we can assume, a bedrock conviction).

A better place to look is suggested by a careful reading of Matthew's skillfully constructed infancy narrative, namely, to eschatology and Christology. Indeed, Matthew's concern in chapter 1 is to identify Jesus precisely in terms of his significance in bringing about the fulfillment of God's covenant promises to his people. This is made abundantly clear in the opening superscription (Matt 1:1)—"A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham"—which simultaneously refers to Jesus' genealogy (1:1-17) and serves as a title of sorts for his Gospel as a whole. Jesus, in other words, is identified as Israel's promised Messiah, the heir of the Davidic promise who would rescue the nation from exile and inaugurate the expected everlasting kingdom, and—even more fundamentally—as the "seed" of Abraham in whom the promise of blessing for the whole world is fulfilled.

The momentous nature of what Matthew is about to write is masked by the translation I offered above. The first two words of his Gospel are biblos geneseōs, reflecting the name given at the time to the first book of the Torah and providing a deliberate allusion to the same formula (Hebrew sēpher tôledôt) used  in Genesis 5:1 LXX (cf. Gen 2:4a; 6:9). By this simple maneuver Matthew relates the story of Jesus to follow with the primeval history narrated in Genesis. The theological implication of this linguistic move is likewise obvious: the Gospel he is writing is the narrative of the New Genesis, the eschatological counterpart to the primeval creation accounts. The birth of Jesus, in this scheme, is to be viewed as the dawn of the anticipated new creation, which would come about ultimately through  his life and (especially) his death and resurrection, the very subject matter Matthew would write about in his narrative.

That this is Matthew's intention is made clear in Matthew 1:18, which the NIV translates, "This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about ..." Such a translation obscures Matthew's deliberate connection of his narrative of Jesus' virginal conception (1:18-25) with the superscription (1:1) discussed above. For he does not write tou … Iēsou Christou hē gennēsis ("the birth of Jesus Christ"), but rather tou … Iēsou Christou hē genesis ("the origin of Jesus Christ") [note: the obscurity of the latter reading, reflected in the oldest and best MSS, led it to be altered to the former reading in the mass of later Byzantine minuscules]. Later Matthew has the angel tell Joseph that the child conceived in Mary was "from" (ek) the Holy Spirit. The preposition is one that entails source or origin. The point is that the Spirit does not, as in pagan stories, take the place of a human father. As Raymond E. Brown noted, "the manner of begetting is explicitly creative rather than sexual" (The Birth of the Messiah [2nd ed.; New York: Doubleday, 1993] 124). The new creation had indeed dawned with the creation of new human life in the uterus of the virgin Mary.

New creation, of course, meant the fulfillment of God's saving purposes, which the angel explicitly told Joseph along with the instruction to name the child "Jesus," which, by popular etymology, meant "YHWH is salvation" (1:21). As mentioned above, the saving activity of Jesus is ultimately focused on his redemptive, atoning death on the cross. Earlier, however, he anticipates this both by his healing (cf. 9:2) and his controversial and deliberately confrontative claims to forgive sins (cf. 9:1-8). Forgiveness of sin is, as Jesus' interlocutors in the Markan parallel to this episode complain, the prerogative of God alone (Mark 2:7). Davies and Allison (The Gospel according to St. Matthew [ICC], 1:210) note that in some Second Temple literature the final victory over sin was linked to either an angelic or human leader (T. Levi 18.9; 11QMelch. 2.6-8; 1 Enoch 10.20-22; Tg. Isa on 53:4, 6-7). The point is taken, but one wonders if Matthew himself would have considered such a possibility.

Indeed, one must demur if for no other reason than the use Matthew himself makes of the quotation of Isaiah 7:14. Jesus' birth, as we have seen, "fulfilled" the promise of the birth of a child who would be called "Immanuel," that is, "God with us." Matthew's interpretation of "Immanuel" is taken verbatim from Isaiah 8:8 (LXX) (meth’ hēmōn ho theos). In itself, this title could, like it did in Isaiah 7-8, mean little more than that Jesus is the agent in whom God's active presence with his people is manifest. And at this early stage of the narrative this is all he could have expected his readers to pick up on. But, as one would expect, there is sufficient ambiguity in the expression to allow for a developing Christological perspective to accumulate. Such a presumption is fairly thrust upon the attentive reader at the very close of the Gospel where the resurrected Jesus promises his disciples before his ascension: "And behold, I am with you always until the end of the age" (Matt 28:20). This serves as a transparent inclusio with 1:23. Note the wording:

Matthew 1:23—meth’ hēmōn ho theos
Matthew 28:20—egō meth’ hymōn eimi
Note the clear interplay between "I" and "God" in these two passages. As John Nolland says, this "may allow us to find allusion to the divine name in the [egō eimi] of the latter" (The Gospel of Matthew [NIGTC; Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2005] 102). If so, then the implication is obvious: Jesus is the embodiment of God's presence with his people to save them from their sins (cf. Matt 8:23-27; 18:15-20; 28:18-20).

This, I suggest, is the real significance of Jesus' virginal conception. Matthew does not, as does Luke (1:35), articulate an explicit "Son of God" Christology at this point. But the implication seems clear nonetheless (so argued Rudolf Pesch, “Der Gottessohn im matthӓischen Evangelienprolog (Mt 1-2): Beobachtungen zu den Zitationsformeln der Reflexionszitate,” Biblica 48 [1967] 395-420). The virginal conception was the means chosen by God to bring about the incarnation of his Son. More profoundly, as Karl Barth suggested, it was a sign pointing to the mysterious unity of divinity and humanity in the person of Jesus of Nazareth (cf. Church Dogmatics, IV/1, 207).

The virginal conception remains a mystery for us as, no doubt, it was for the earliest Christians. Yet profound mystery ought to breed profound awe and worship of the one who humbled himself to take human flesh to rescue his people from a plight they had brought upon themselves. This Christmas season let us all take to heart the immortal words of Charles Wesley:

Christ, by highest Heav’n adored;
Christ the everlasting Lord;
Late in time, behold Him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th’incarnate Deity,
Pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.

Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Why a Virginal Conception? A Response to Doug Wilson (Part 1)

The Annunciation of Cortona (1433-34, Fra Angelico;
Museo del Prado, Madrid) (image@en.wikipedia.org)
Fifty years ago the late Andy Williams expressed a common sentiment when he sang, with reference to the Advent/Christmas season, "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year." The little child that still lurks within my breast would heartily agree. Nor would the theologian that serves as my semi-public persona quibble overmuch. Jester Hairston may have been exercising a little artistic license when, a mere seven years before, he wrote the charming Christmas song "Mary's Boy Child," with the refrain, sung so memorably by Harry Belafonte, "And man will live forevermore, because of Christmas Day." I know, of course, that good theology would place the emphasis instead on Jesus' death and resurrection. Nevertheless, New Testament scholars have rightly coined a helpful expression, "the Christ event," to denote the entire nexus of events from Jesus' birth to the outpouring of the Christ's Spirit at Pentecost, which together constitute God's decisive saving act in Christ. All the constituent parts, in other words, hang together, and draw their complete significance in light of each other. In particular, Jesus' death could never have had the universal significance attributed to it by the New Testament unless his birth in 5/4 BCE was, as the fourth Evangelist put it, the "incarnation" or enfleshment of the eternal Word of God (John 1:1, 14).

To 21st century Western ears—just like, reading between the lines of such texts as Mark 6:3 and John 8:41, not to mention later anti-Christian arguments recounted in writers such as Origen (Against Celsus 1.28, 32), it was to ancient ones—the most distinctive (and most difficult to swallow) element of the infancy narratives of Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 is their stunning description of the modus operandi of Jesus' conception, viz., that he was conceived in Mary's uterus directly by the power of the Spirit without the required exigency of sexual intercourse having taken place. To be sure, partial parallels in Greco-Roman sources, such as the famous account of the miraculous conception of Alexander the Great (Plutarch, Alex. 2), have led even some evangelical scholars (e.g., A. T. Lincoln in his spanking new Born of a Virgin?) to posit literary and/or theological motives for the Matthean and Lukan accounts, obviating the somewhat uncongenial task of affirming or defending their putative historicity. Nevertheless, more than 80 years ago J. Gresham Machen demonstrated that the theory of pagan derivation was, upon thorough examination, far weaker than is often supposed, a view supported even by such deniers of the virginal conception as W. D. Davies and Dale Allison in their magisterial ICC volumes on Matthew (1:214-17). What is more important, as Allison writes, "Matthew, we can be sure, believed in the virginal conception of Jesus" (1:221). And what little evidence we have for the earliest post-apostolic Christianity reflects the same belief (e.g., Ignatius, Eph. 18.2-19; Smyr. 1.1-2). Ultimately, of course, the virginal conception made its way both into the so-called Apostles' Creed and the definitive Niceno-Constantinoplitan Creed of 381.

Some time ago I wrote a couple of posts dealing with the problem of the virginal conception's historicity. In the first, I pointed to N. T. Wright and Charles E. B. Cranfield as examples of two eminent historians who, while recognizing the obvious fact that such a "miraculous" birth could hardly be "proven" by the strictures of modernist historiography, nevertheless can, in good conscience and by reasoning historically, affirm it to be a warranted belief. In the second, I pointed to a real life Sheldon Cooper, Cambridge theoretical physicist-turned-Anglican vicar, John Polkinghorne, as an example of a decidedly not fundamentalist Christian who, like C. S. Lewis before him, understands the virginal conception historically and literally as an example of an enacted myth. I have nothing new to add at this point, other than to say that I too am able to confess the words of the great creeds ex animo and without reservation.

What often gets lost in the discussion, however, is the point of it all. Why did Jesus have to be conceived virginally? What, in other words, is the theological logic behind the event (or the narrative, if one decides to suspend belief)? Recently Doug Wilson put his two cents' worth in with a post succinctly entitled "Why a Virgin Birth?  Wilson prefaces his answer by rather pugnaciously (as is his wont) declaring that in Isaiah 7:14, the text cited by Matthew as being "fulfilled" in Jesus' conception/birth (Matt 1:22-23), "Isaiah prophesied that a time would come when a virgin would conceive and bear a son."

The text, in the NIV, reads as follows: "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel."  And thus it would appear, on a cursory reading, to indicate just that. But, as always, things aren't as simple as they initially appear. In this case, the problems begin with the Hebrew term translated "virgin." It is ‘almâ, which even evangelical scholars recognize refers to a "young woman of marriageable age" (e.g., John Walton, NIDOTTE, s.v., 3:416-18), not bĕtûlâ, the normal term for "virgin." Thus Old Testament scholars and mainstream English translations (e.g., the NRSV) regularly render the term "young woman" here and search for a referent closer in context and in time to the 8th century prophecy itself. Wilson, however, is not impressed. He sneers at so-called "liberal scholars" who like to point out this lexical point—certainly not a small one, I might add—and condescendingly say to their more conservative brethren, “You conservatives ought to think about this a bit harder, and join the rest of us in the 21st century as soon as you are able.” In answer to such presumed liberal "snobbery," Wilson has one presumed trump card: the Greek LXX translation, which rendered ‘almâ by parthenos, which can only mean "virgin," instead of neanis, "young girl" (later Greek versions, such as those of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion, represent ‘almâ by neanis in apparent reaction to the Christian apologetic use of Isa 7:14). By doing this, so Wilson argues, the LXX reflects the fact that "centuries before there was any Christian agenda around to influence the story, the expectation among the Greek-speaking Jews (at a minimum) was that a virgin would conceive and bear a son."

Wilson may well consider me a liberal, though my membership in the Evangelical Theological Society and graduate degrees from the famously conservative Dallas Seminary would belie such a presumption. Nevertheless, his argument, despite its venerable conservative pedigree (e.g., E. J. Young, The Book of Isaiah [NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965] 1:288-94), simply fails to hold up to sustained scrutiny. For starters, the supposed Jewish expectation of a virginally conceived Messiah is notable only for its absence in every other strand of Second Temple literature available to us. Moreover, post-Christian Jewish sources are unanimous in their rejection of such an understanding of the prophecy (e.g., Trypho: "The passage is not, 'Behold the virgin will conceive ...' but 'Behold the young girl will conceive ...'" [Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 67.1]). Indeed, even if the LXX translation reflects an implied virginity in the reference to the "young woman" in Isaiah 7:14, it still need not have necessarily entailed a virginal conception, for the virginity could have referred to the girl's assumed state at the time the oracle was spoken.

More significantly, a close reading of Isaiah 7-8 demands a referent of the prophecy closer to home, as it were. In context, Isaiah promises, as a "sign" to King Ahaz of Judah, the birth of a son in whose early years (7:15-16) the two kings dreaded by Ahaz (i.e., those of Israel and Syria) would suffer ruin. Most later Jewish exegesis understood the prophecy as pointing to Hezekiah (e.g., Trypho, in Justin, Dial. 67, 77; Exod. Rab. on 12:29; Num. Rab. on 7:48). More plausibly, however, is the suggestion that it refers to Isaiah's own son, Maher-shalal-hash-baz (cf. Isa 8:3-4: "Then I made love to the prophetess, and she conceived and gave birth to a son. And the Lord said to me, 'Name him Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. For before the boy knows how to say ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the plunder of Samaria will be carried off by the king of Assyria'."; cf. 8:1-10 as a whole).

If so, then what justification did Matthew have for claiming this prophecy was "fulfilled" in Jesus' virginal conception? Certainly the Evangelist was not simply inventing an "event" to match a presumed scriptural or national expectation of such a conception in ignorance of the original context of the prophecy. Nor did ignorance of the original Hebrew text lead him naively to believe in a one-to-one correspondence between the Isaianic prophecy and its coming about in Jesus (for the text-forms of Matthew's "fulfillment citations" [see below], which often diverge from the LXX under the influence of the Hebrew text, see Bob Gundry's now almost 50 year old Manchester thesis, The Use of the Old Testament in St. Matthew's Gospel with Special Reference to the Messianic Hope [SNT 18; Leiden: Brill, 1967]). Rather, sustained reflection leads one to conclude that he was operating with prophetic categories more subtle and profound than the simple prediction/fulfillment paradigm most modern Westerners assume.

Matthew's citation of Isaiah 7:14 is not sui generis. Indeed, it is but the first of ten (eleven, if one includes the citation of Micah 5:1 [5:2 in English versions] in Matthew 2:5) such quotations in his Gospel which are prefaced by an editorial comment that the cited text was "fulfilled" (plēroō) in Jesus. Taken together, these citations underscore his fundamental conviction that the events of Jesus' life and death are the "fulfillment" of what God had promised in the scriptures. Years ago Doug Moo articulated the force of Matthew's notion of "fulfillment" as follows: "The word is used in the New Testament to indicate the broad redemptive-historical relationship of the new, climactic revelation of God in Christ to the preparatory, incomplete revelation to and through Israel" ("The Problem of Sensus Plenior," in Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon [ed. D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986] 191). 

In short, I would argue that Matthew understands Isaiah 7:14 to be a typological anticipation of Jesus. In Biblical Theology, "typology" involves the recognition of correspondences and patterns in God's progressive unfolding of salvation history, with "typological" foreshadowings (events, persons, offices, liturgy, etc.) designed to anticipate God's ultimate saving action in Christ, whose "antitypical" completions of these patterns are marked by heightenings or escalations of the original patterns.

In the present case, typology works as follows: just as the birth of "Immanuel" (Maher-shalal-hash-baz?) was a sign to Ahaz of God's direct intervention ("God with us") to judge the wicked (Isa 7:15ff.!) and deliver his covenant people—which would, in the flow of Isaiah's prophecy, ultimately come in the golden age promised in Isa 9:2-7 and 11:1-16—so the miraculous birth of Jesus signified that God would finally act to bring this "golden age" precisely through Jesus' saving of his people from their sins (Matt 1:22). As the late Raymond E. Brown noted:
... [T]he sign offered by Isaiah was not centered on the manner in which the child would be conceived, but in the providential timing whereby a child who would be a sign of God's presence with his people was to be born precisely when that people's fortunes had reached their nadir (The Birth of the Messiah, 2nd ed. [New York: Doubleday, 1993] 149)
The validity of Matthew's use of Isaiah 7:14 here is tied, as I see it, to two important factors in the text of Isaiah itself. First, in Isaiah 7:13 the sign given to Ahaz is addressed to "the house of David." Second, in Isaiah's prophecy the ultimate hope of Israel is tied to one called a "son" or "child" (Isa 9:2-7; 11:2-16). Thus the "Immanuel" prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 is organically connected in Isaiah's prophecy both to the birth of the royal child who would be called "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace" (Isa 9:6), whose coming would herald the dawn of the long-awaited and darkness-dispelling great light (9:2-3), and to the shoot from the hacked-off stump of Jesse, on whom the Spirit would rest, enabling him to reign in righteousness, justice, and faithfulness (Isa 11:1-9). Matthew, we can be sure, drew these connections, and did so rightly.

But why was Jesus born of a virgin? What theological significance attaches to this seemingly strange event once it is divorced from any necessary role in an apologetic, proof-from-prophecy scheme? It will be the aim of our next post to discuss this problem.

Friday, November 22, 2013

John F. Kennedy and the Arts: An Appreciation

At the interment of President John F. Kennedy, Arlington National Cemetery, 25 November 1963

Those of us of a certain age, say, those of us over the age of 55 or so, know exactly where we were when we heard the awful news that John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, had been assassinated, fifty years ago today, in Dallas, Texas. I was a six year old second grader that fateful Friday, and was playing in our family's living room on Balwynne Park Road in the Wynnefield Heights section of Philadelphia. At the time, I was of course too young to grasp the horribleness of death or the significance of the event for my country, but I vividly recall it for one reason: it remains one of the only times—indeed, perhaps the only time—I ever witnessed my mom crying uncontrollably. To this day, the details of the next few days—the shooting of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, the somber-yet-impressive state funeral—remain images indelibly impressed on my memory.

From a historian's perspective, Jack Kennedy was an ambiguous figure. Indeed, in the intervening years both conservatives and liberals have wanted to claim him as one of their own (or, for the more responsible ones, to claim that he held positions amenable to their own, properly nuanced, of course). He was a hawkish Cold Warrior and advocated lowering taxes. Yet only the most inveterate purveyor of anachronisms would dare to claim he would have advocated the later sweeping reforms of Ronald Reagan, let alone the simplistic rhetoric of the current Tea Party. On the other hand, he never advocated for the developed liberal policies associated with his younger brothers Bobby and (especially) Teddy. For my part, I find it difficult to believe he would have disagreed in principle from his successor Lyndon Johnson's Great Society reforms. Nevertheless, the nasty fact remains that he presided for too short a time to establish a definitive legacy on domestic issues.

What I want to focus on today is something different, a matter hardly ever discussed in our increasingly Philistine culture. I am speaking about the arts, specifically the necessary role the arts play in a functioning, civilized society. Less than a month before he was killed, Kennedy gave a brief speech at Amherst College in honor of the four-time Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Robert Frost, who had died on 29 January that year (to listen to the speech, go the NEA website here). The transcript of the speech is as follows:
Our national strength matters, but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much. This was the special significance of Robert Frost. He brought an unsparing instinct for reality to bear on the platitudes and pieties of society. His sense of the human tragedy fortified him against self-deception and easy consolation. "I have been" he wrote, "one acquainted with the night." And because he knew the midnight as well as the high noon, because he understood the ordeal as well as the triumph of the human spirit, he gave his age strength with which to overcome despair. At bottom, he held a deep faith in the spirit of man, and it is hardly an accident that Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.
The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state. The great artist is thus a solitary figure. He has, as Frost said, a lover's quarrel with the world. In pursuing his perceptions of reality, he must often sail against the currents of his time. This is not a popular role. If Robert Frost was much honored in his lifetime, it was because a good many preferred to ignore his darker truths. Yet in retrospect, we see how the artist's fidelity has strengthened the fibre of our national life.
If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.
If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth. And as Mr. MacLeish once remarked of poets, there is nothing worse for our trade than to be in style. In free society art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideology. Artists are not engineers of the soul. It may be different elsewhere. But democratic society--in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation. And the nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost's hired man, the fate of having "nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope."
I look forward to a great future for America, a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral restraint, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose. I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our natural environment, which will preserve the great old American houses and squares and parks of our national past, and which will build handsome and balanced cities for our future.
I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well. And I look forward to a world which will be safe not only for democracy and diversity but also for personal distinction.
Robert Frost was often skeptical about projects for human improvement, yet I do not think he would disdain this hope. As he wrote during the uncertain days of the Second War:
Take human nature altogether since time began . . .
And it must be a little more in favor of man,
Say a fraction of one percent at the very least . . .
Our hold on this planet wouldn't have so increased.
Because of Mr. Frost's life and work, because of the life and work of this college, our hold on this planet has increased.

I too share President Kennedy's view of the necessary role of the arts in a civilized society. Indeed, the banal, stultifying oppressiveness of the individualistic and exclusively economic worldview of the present Zeitgeist have, in my view, robbed this country of much of what, at one time, made it great. Would that another leader arise to awaken this sleeping giant from its soul-destroying artistic slumber. 

Friday, November 8, 2013

On the Death of a Pet

Earlier this week our family's red tabby cat, Brynn, died. To be more precise, she was killed while running in haste across the street in order, as was her wont, to greet my son and me when we arrived home in our car. As a mere feline, she naturally failed to look both ways before crossing the street directly in front of an approaching vehicle, and so her love and loyalty, her two most salient characteristics, proved to be her ultimate undoing.

If one is an animal lover and lives long enough, one is bound to experience the pain caused by the loss of a beloved pet. In the case of our family, the losses have been frequent: innumerable guinea pigs, four rabbits, and—worst of all—three cats and three dogs. The joy such animal companions both radiate and produce is short-lived indeed, and quickly turns to heavy-hearted grief when they are taken from us in an untimely way.

Brynn Kitty was a uniquely klutzy cat with a ponderous gait and an unmusical meow. But such attributes simply contributed to her charm, adding a humorous dimension to a personality dominated by the aforementioned traits of love and loyalty. From the day my daughter bought her at the Humane League of Lancaster in 2005—the deciding point in her favor was their shared name of Brynn—Brynn Kitty leavened her innate feline independence with copious amounts of affection for her new family. Whenever I arrive home from work or play, my Westie Louisa always gallops to the door, howling and tail a-wagging at the joy of seeing me. Until this past Tuesday, however, following closely behind was faithful Brynn Kitty, the leaden thump of her paws clearly audible as she hurried down the stairs to say hello. Such affection as she regularly showed could be irritating at times, such as her penchant for plopping down on the keyboard as one tried to use the computer. Nor could one often simply sit down to watch the telly without Brynn jumping on one's lap or on the back of the chair, her tail flicking the back of one's head as she lay there in contented bliss. Such momentary irritations are now but a thing of the past, kept alive thankfully by memory. Oh to experience such irritations today.

I have nothing profound or novel to say about this all-too-common human experience. Just allow me three short reflections. First, living with a beloved cat or dog reinforces the point that animals are intended by God to be companions of his human image bearers. Indeed, this is partly the point of the charming story in Genesis 2:18-25, where God parades the various animals in front of the man, who names them but fails to find in any the desired "helper" corresponding to him, which deficiency God rectifies when he creates woman out of the man's side. Animals, like humans, are given the "breath of life" (Gen 7:22) and are the beneficiaries, along with human beings, of the covenant God made with Noah in Genesis 9. As God's image bearers (Gen 1:26-27), human beings are given the unique vocation to mediate God's rule over what he has made and to sum up the inarticulate praise of creation to its maker. Such "dominion" is emphatically not the dominion of the pillager who rapes the land and uses the created order as a means to achieve his or her own designs. Rather, it is the "dominion" of the steward, who acts so as to cause the ultimate flourishing of creation. As C. S. Lewis argued in his The Problem of Pain, such an understanding suggests that "[t]he tame animal is therefore, in the deepest sense, the only ‘natural’ animal—the only one we see occupying the place it was made to occupy…” "Survival of the fittest" may be an empirical description of the modus operandi of how the animal world has developed, but it certainly is not consistent with the Bible's consistent eschatological vision towards which the divinely-designed human vocation vis-a-vis animals is directed.

Second, the tragically short lives of animals is a salutary reminder to us, who are all too prone to delusions of immortality, of the nasty, unwelcome fact of our own inevitable demise. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews puts it this way: "Just as it is appointed for human beings to die once, and after that comes judgment ..." (Heb 9:27 [ESV, alt. JRM]). The note of judgment is unappealing to many people in the postmodern West, but it is a consistent refrain in the Bible. Thankfully, the context of Hebrews 9:27 provides the way in which all of us can approach that inevitability with confidence based entirely on what Christ has done externally on our behalf: "For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him" (Heb 9:24-28, ESV).

Finally, a musing on the possibility of an afterlife for animals. One thing I was confidently taught in my early biblical studies was that humans are distinct from animals in that they alone have "souls." The corollary of this was quite clear. Humans, in that they are endowed with an "immortal" soul, have an afterlife; animals, not so endowed, do not. Well, as in so many areas of my theological development, things are not as clear to me as they once appeared. For one, developments in neuroscience and increasing intellectual distance from an assumed Greek philosophy have, at minimum, cast doubt on the long regnant "substance dualism" (i.e., mortal body, immortal soul) I had been confidently taught (see esp. Fuller Seminary Professor Joel Green's Body, Soul, and Human Life). For another, it is quite clear from St. Paul that God alone is inherently immortal (1 Tim 6:16), and that any immortality attaching to human beings must be granted when they receive their resurrection body (1 Cor 15:53). So the presence of a soul, or lack thereof, is no necessary index to a definitive answer to the question.

Increasingly Christians are coming to the biblical realization that the climax of salvation history, and the final state of the redeemed, will be on a renovated/reconstituted earth rather than in an ethereal, disembodied state in "heaven." This means an earth on which human beings will at last live and function as they were intended from the beginning by God. And that means as well a creation that, as Paul says, "will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God" (Rom 8:21). One need not be a naive literalist to see in such prophecies as Isaiah 11:6 ("The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat ...") an indication that the final state of the kingdom of God will be a state of affairs in which all of creation, including animals, will be redeemed and live as God always intended them ultimately to live.

Indeed, even John Calvin in his Commentary on Romans argued that all creatures will ultimately share in the blessed state consequent upon the restoration of the present fallen world (at Rom 8:21). Yet he deemed it "neither expedient nor right," and indeed "unbalanced," to speculate further about the perfection and possible "immortality" of all sorts of animals in the coming eschaton. Nonetheless, others have dared to go where the venerable Genevan feared to tread. Oxford theologian Keith Ward, in his 1982 work Rational Theology and the Creativity of God, argued that God, who has revealed himself to be a God of both love and justice, must and therefore will ultimately recompense animals who have suffered unjustly in the present world. The aforementioned C. S. Lewis, while not a theologian per se, argued in The Problem of Pain that some animals, by virtue of their inextricable connection with redeemed people, will be resurrected along with their masters to experience eternity.

Such suggestions are mere guesses, of course. We must distinguish the matters of animal presence on the new earth and the resurrection of individual animals to provide that coming population. There certainly is no explicit scriptural support for the latter notion. Nevertheless the arguments of such men as Ward and Lewis are at least suggestive. The God who raised his Son Jesus from the dead and has promised to do the same for his people certainly can raise animals to immortal bodies as well. And it is not inconsistent with a God of love to do so for his beloved children whose lives were so improved by their animal companions in this life. Thus, I cannot say whether or not it will be so. But I have my suspicions ... and my hopes, one of which is to once again hear and see my Brynn Kitty running down the stairs to greet me as I walk through the front door.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Happy Reformation Day (from 31 October 2012)

Today is Reformation Day. For the historically and theologically challenged among us, today is the 495th anniversary of the day when Dr. Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg, nailed a copy of his "Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences"  more commonly known as the "Ninety-Five Theses"  on the door of All Saints' Church (the Schlosskirche) in Wittenberg, sparking the Protestant Reformation.

Of all the people who have walked this earth in the 20 centuries since St. Paul brought his "gospel to the Gentiles" across the Mediterranean world, Martin Luther is my greatest hero. To be sure, Dr. Luther had his faults. He was often intemperate, and his rhetoric against the Jews  even granting the spirit of his age and the theological, rather than racial, basis for his rants  is offensive. Indeed, it was considered offensive even in his day. His colleague, Philipp Melanchthon, even commented at Luther's funeral (quoting Luther's erstwhile theological opponent, Erasmus): "Some have complained that Luther was more vehement than need required. I will not dispute against any, but I answer thus, that Erasmus has often said about Luther, 'God has given this last age a sharp physician because of the great diseases of the same.'"

Luther may not have been as formidable an exegete, or as balanced a theologian, as his younger contemporary Calvin was. But, I suggest, no one grasped the inner dynamic of the mind and temperament of St. Paul better than did the Wittenberger. Luther's 1535 Commentary on Galatians is no modern historical-critical commentary on the letter  how could it be?  but is as great a contextualization of the apostle's most personal and passionate letter as I have ever read. And those sensitive, effete theologians who today take offense at Luther would similarly take offense at the Paul who rained down anathemas on his opponents and hypothetically wished that the promoters of circumcision would have their knife slip and castrate themselves.

Most Protestant Christians today have never read the Reformer's great commentaries on Galatians and Romans, let alone the 1525 work Luther himself considered his greatest, De Servo Arbitrio (On the Bondage of the Will). But they do (hopefully) know his greatest hymn, "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott" ("A Mighty Fortress Is Our God"), based on Psalm 46 and written sometime prior to 1531. In English translation, the text of the hymn reads as follows:
1. A mighty fortress is our God, 
 a bulwark never failing; 
 our helper he amid the flood 
 of mortal ills prevaling.  
 For still our ancient foe 
 doth seek to work us woe; 
 his craft and power are great, 
 and armed with cruel hate, 
 on earth is not his equal.

2. Did we in our own strength confide, 
 our striving would be losing, 
 were not the right man on our side, 
 the man of God's own choosing.
 Dost ask who that may be?  
 Christ Jesus, it is he; 
 Lord Sabaoth, his name, 
 from age to age the same, 
 and he must win the battle.

3. And though this world, with devils filled, 
 should threaten to undo us, 
 we will not fear, for God hath willed 
 his truth to triumph through us.  
 The Prince of Darkness grim, 
 we tremble not for him; 
 his rage we can endure, 
 for lo, his doom is sure; 
 one little word shall fell him.

4. That word above all earthly powers, 
 no thanks to them, abideth; 
 the Spirit and the gifts are ours, 
 thru him who with us sideth.  
 Let goods and kindred go, 
 this mortal life also; 
 the body they may kill; 
 God's truth abideth still; 
 his kingdom is forever.

I leave you with a video of the greatest setting ever provided for Luther's immortal hymn, J. S. Bach's Cantate BWV 80, performed admirably by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Concentus musicus Wien.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

John MacArthur's "Strange Fire" Conference: Some Belated Reflections

Let me be up front right from the start: I am a non-charismatic Christian. I am, to steal a neologism coined by my friend and former student Greg Baughman, an "Anglibaptisterian," raised and trained in the faith in staunchly "cessationist" circles. And, taking into consideration the Calvinist soteriology to which I give credence, one could easily (and rightly) hazard the guess that I belong to that subset of Christians often comically referred to as "God's frozen chosen." And anyone who knows me well might also guess correctly that I am temperamentally indisposed to appreciate, let alone practice, so-called "charismatic phenomena," in particular such "gifts" as tongues, miracles, and prophecy as advocated by Pentecostalism in any of its various manifestations.

I also highly appreciate the ministry of John MacArthur. From the time I first heard MacArthur in January 1976 in Arch Street Presbyterian Church's magnificent neo-classical sanctuary while a student at Philadelphia College of Bible, I judged him to be not only a powerful communicator, but also to be a man who took the Bible seriously and cared enough to use it responsibly in its function as the final word for Christian faith and practice. When he wrote his The Gospel according to Jesus in the mid-80s, I was thrilled at his frontal take-down of the sort of bastard-Calvinist easy-believism that was then running rampant in American evangelical circles. MacArthur may never have ever risen at the level of John Stott, Jim Boice, or S. Lewis Johnson as scholar-pastors, but he remains one of American evangelicalism's best preachers.

Nevertheless ... I have some serious reservations—I would use the term "concerns," but to do so would be to sound more pious than befits me—about the "Strange Fire" Conference held on October 16-18 at his Grace Community Church in Southern California (his book of the same title is due for distribution on November 12). Ostensibly the conference and book take on the Word of Faith and prosperity gospel movements, not to mention such unscholarly-yet-popular preachers as T. D. Jakes and Joel Osteen. So far, so good. As a New Testament scholar and theologian such preachers and movements get under my skin like few others do. Just the thought of so many people being influenced by such purveyors of mindless error boggles the intellect and reinforces the culture's regnant perception that the American Christian populace consists largely of gullible nincompoops.

But, as is his wont, MacArthur doesn't stop while he's ahead. Both in the conference and in his book, MacArthur lumps all charismatics/Pentecostals together. Indeed, the connection is made obvious in the blurb on the cover of his forthcoming book, which states: "The charismatic movement has always been a breeding-ground for scandal, greed, bad doctrine, and all kinds of spiritual chicanery. As a movement, it is clearly headed the wrong direction. And it is growing at an unprecedented rate." Apparently he considers such theological aberrations as the prosperity gospel to be, not aberrations simpliciter, but rather the inevitable fruit emanating from the poisoned root that is the charismatic movement itself. And he epitomizes the negative impact of the movement quite succinctly in terms of the utmost seriousness: charismatic worship is "counterfeit worship," akin to the "strange fire" offered by Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu who, according to Leviticus 10, were consumed by God's wrath for offering a sacrifice with unauthorized (and, hence, "strange") fire. And the matter, in MacArthur's mind, is eminently clear. What, then, explains its current burgeoning popularity worldwide? False teachers, of course, at the behest of Satan himself. As Melissa Barnhart reports:
I would like to say, in response to that, that if the issue is unclear – as some are claiming – it has only become unclear under the influence of false teachers. It was clear to the apostles. It was clear to the early church fathers. It was clear to the reformers. It was clear to the puritans. It is clear in creeds like the Westminster confession. It has been clear to reformed theologians like BB Warfield. It was clear to Spurgeon. It was clear, in the more modern times, to R.C. Sproul. Has it now become unclear, because of Aimee Semple McPherson, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker and Kenneth Copeland? That's a ludicrous idea.
Once again, let me reiterate that I am not charismatic. I have biblical, theological, and historical reasons for caution when it comes to this movement. So I don't criticize MacArthur for his rejection of it. Nor do I fault him for courage in opposing it openly (Trevin Wax makes this point as well). Rather, I find fault with two aspects of his critique, viz., its lack of nuance and its consequent over-generalization. The lack of nuance is manifested in the aforementioned lumping of the charismatic movement as a whole in with particular instantiations such as its Word of Faith and prosperity gospel manifestations.

Particularly egregious are MacArthur's comments on the so-called "clarity" of the issue. For such clarity is, in reality, phantasmic. The cessation of the "miraculous" or "sign" gifts was, according to MacArthur, "clear to the apostles." To what he is speaking I can only hazard a guess, for the fact of the matter is that there is no certain or unambiguous New Testament evidence that such gifts were limited, by design or otherwise, to the apostolic era. Scholars may dispute, and have done ad nauseum, the precise nature of the tongues, healings, and prophecy that St. Paul speaks about in 1 Corinthians. But—and this is the point that needs emphasizing—such matters are not amenable to simple, let alone simplistic, solutions. And the only temporal indicator provided by the apostle of when, if ever, such gifts would be rendered redundant is found in 1 Corinthians 13:10, where he states that such things as tongues, knowledge, and prophecy will be done away with (katargēthēsetai) when "the perfect" (to teleion) arrives, transparently an oblique reference in context to the state of affairs consequent upon Christ's return. This is a matter on which nearly all New Testament scholars agree, and is why the vast majority of even noncharismatic scholars see the text as allowing in principle for these gifts' continuance until the end of the age (e.g., N. T. Wright and D. A. Carson, neither of whom, one might add, are prone to spontaneous bursts of "enthusiasm").

The same goes for MacArthur's claim that the "early church fathers" clearly saw the cessation of these gifts. Yes, the church rejected enthusiastic Montanism in the late 2nd century. Yet Irenaeus knew of glossolalia in his churches in the mid-2nd century (Adversus Haereses 5.6.1), and Novation (de Trinitate 29) and Ambrose (On the Holy Spirit 2.150-52) may indicate their presence in the 3rd and 4th centuries, respectively. On the other hand, Chrysostom (d. 407), in his Homilies on 1 Corinthians (no. 29 [on 12:1-11]) explicitly states that these gifts had ceased. Thus it would be better to make claims to which the evidence actually leads, to wit, that such gifts gradually became marginalized in the second century and, more importantly, that the historical evidence suggests that it has not been God's purpose to distribute these gifts or charisms as normative or universal aspects of the Spirit's gifting work for the church. That, however, is not the same thing as to say that these gifts have definitively and principially been withdrawn. And such nuance makes all the difference, both in substance and in tone.

Most troubling (oops, there goes that faux piety again!) egregious, however, is MacArthur's contrast of such confident cessationist champions as the Reformers, Warfield, Spurgeon, and Sproul with such water-muddiers and agents of confusion as Aimee Semple McPherson, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, and Kenneth Copeland. On the one hand, no one denies the certainty projected by MacArthur's list of heroes. Certainty, however, is no virtue in and of itself. After all, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin likewise exudes absolute certainty in connection with all her political and social convictions. But only the most inveterate right-wing "true believer" would view her snide certainty as anything but the easy, unexamined certainty of the simpleton.

More important is MacArthur's transparent use of shameless guilt-by-association rhetoric. In MacArthur's hands, Such rhetoric is designed to sway the listener/reader by contrasting the intelligent, accomplished, and virtuous cessationists with a number of cherry-picked charlatans who are paraded, like subdued provincials in Caesar's train, as continuationist champions. But such an argument is as invalid as it is disingenuous. It is a basic rule of argument to cite the best representatives of a given position against which one is arguing, not cartoon-character bad guys whose presumed representative character can hardly be taken for granted. Indeed, MacArthur's listeners/readers would hardly know, unless they had come by the knowledge antecedently, that there are a number of world-class New Testament scholars who not only are continuationists, but full-blown charismatics as well. Two such scholars are Gordon Fee, former Professor at Gordon-Conwell Seminary and Regent College, who affiliates with the Assemblies of God and has written one of the standard critical commentaries on Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, and Craig Keener, Professor of New Testament at Asbury Seminary and a prolific author, who is in the midst of raising the bar of Lukan scholarship with his ongoing, already two-volume commentary on Acts. Neither of these men could be accused of 'promot[ing] a “Christianity” without Christ, a Holy Spirit without holiness', or advocating 'chaotic fits of mindless ecstasy' as a substitute for true worship (from the book's cover). Indeed, charismatics could, if they followed MacArthur's practice, turn the tables by comparing such men as Fee and Keener to Reformed/Calvinist "leaders" or teachers such as Reconstructionist hero Rousas Rushdoony or, even worse, Westboro Baptist Church "pastor" Fred Phelps. Reformed Christians such as myself would rightly take offense at such a comparison, rightly noting that such men are hardly characteristic of the broader movement as a whole. If so, we Reformed Christians who are not charismatic should show the same courtesy to our charismatic brothers and sisters that we expect from them. Not to do so is at best uncharitable. At worst it is slanderous.

This brings us to MacArthur's main point, viz., that charismatic worship is a false, inauthentic worship prompted by the great deceiver Satan himself, and hence is a grave offense to the Holy Spirit. Now I would be the first to admit that I find the charismatic worship format shallow and distracting. Likewise, I agree with MacArthur that today's regnant "seeker-sensitive" Protestant services are in large measure charismatic services without the tongues, playing as they do on emotion and the desire for entertainment while eclipsing the role of the worshipper's mind. And I would likewise agree with his assessment of the worst sort of Pentecostal services where disorder is the real order of the day, thereby ignoring St. Paul's admonition to the tongues-crazy Corinthians that everything in their church assemblies should be done "decently and in order" (1 Cor 14:40). Indeed, many, if not most, charismatic and Pentecostal churches of which I am acquainted largely fail to abide by the apostle's strict guidelines in 1 Corinthians 14 for regulating and prioritizing the exercise of the Spirit's gifts in the assembly.

But reference to 1 Corinthians 14 is a double-edged sword, and wielders better beware lest they be hoisted with their own petard. What I mean is this: public worship on the Lord's Day in more "traditionalist" Western Protestant churches—and this includes both the aesthetically beautiful liturgical/sacramental services of the Anglicans and Lutherans and the more "Word-centered" approaches of Baptists and Presbyterians in their "preacher box" houses of worship—rarely if ever looks like the type of worship gathering described by Paul in this chapter. And that in itself gives the lie to those who pride themselves on adhering to the so-called "Regulative Principle of Worship," according to which the church dare only to worship in the way commanded in Scripture. Such a principle certainly sounds pious, but in reality it is both anachronistic and unsympathetic to the fragmentary and descriptive (as opposed to prescriptive) character of the New Testament texts relevant to the discussion.

The point is this: all traditions, including my own, have their blind spots. All traditions, including my own, have theological elements that, at minimum, need some fine-tuning. I certainly have both major and minor quibbles with charismatic theology even as I prefer the Anglicanism of the 39 Articles and the Presbyterianism of the Westminster Confession. Neither of these two venerable confessions is infallible, however, as even their subscribers would (or should) attest. Indeed, as a New Testament student I have quibbles with bits of both, particularly in the realm of their theologies of baptism, which in any tradition must be considered a rather important aspect of worship. Yet deeming Anglican or Presbyterian worship (let alone Lutheran worship with its peculiar view of the Eucharist) to be "strange fire" is out of the question. Mutatis mutandis, the same should be one's stance with regard to the charismatic movement, especially when such worship is Christ-centered and sensitive to Paul's guidelines in 1 Corinthians 14. Of course, it is quite easy to dredge up examples where such strictures are not in evidence. But such examples are no more necessary to such an orientation than burning heretics at the stake and avoidance of evangelism are endemic to the Calvinism which I hold dear.

One final matter, almost as an afterthought: MacArthur boldly accuses the charismatic movement of "offending" the Holy Spirit by its false worship. No doubt he is correct in a large number of instances. But his assertion is notably uncoupled to an awareness of the delicious irony that unavoidably attaches to it. For, you see, Jesus was accused by Jerusalem's venerable teachers of the Torah of being possessed by an unclean spirit because of his striking success in casting out demons (Mark 3:22). In response, Jesus accuses them of "blasphemy against the Spirit" (Mark 3:29) for their attribution of the Spirit's work to Satan, a rather serious matter in that such is a sin Jesus says will never be forgiven. Consider me skeptical of charismatic claims to genuine possession of the gifts spoken of in 1 Corinthians 12-14. This is a considered view, with my innate temperamental reticence fully taken into account. But, I must ask myself, am I confident in the correctness of my judgment? No. Therein lies the rub. I don't believe I am, but what if I (and, a fortiori, MacArthur) am wrong? To what, then, would we be attributing that which in at least some instances would be a genuine work of God's Spirit? And even if cessationists like I are right, that begs yet another question: Is it impossible that God could be working to build his people through the instrumentality of a theologically-muddled movement? After all, that has been his modus operandi throughout church history, cocksure pronouncements of Roman Catholics and Protestants notwithstanding.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Forty Greatest Philadelphia Phillies of All Time, Part 6: ##1-5

The 2008 World Champion Phillies

We have finally reached the pinnacle: numbers one through five of the greatest Philadelphia Phillies of all time. For previous posts in this series, see here, here, herehere, and here.

5. Robin Roberts (SP, 1948-61)


Robin Roberts is the winningest right-handed pitcher in Phillies history, with 234, and was the National League's premier right-handed starting pitcher in the decade of the 1950s (199 wins, second only to Braves' southpaw Warren Spahn's 202). For decades he was the face of the franchise, and a humble guy to go along with it. The possessor of a fine fastball and curve, and even finer stamina and heart, Roberts emerged in 1949 as a 22 year-old when he won 15 games and posted a 3.69 ERA for the 3rd-place Phils. That was but an appetizer for the next six seasons, during which he won 20 or more games each year, a feat accomplished by only three other pitchers in National League history, viz., Christy Mathewson, Three Fingers Brown, and Ferguson Jenkins. [And that means Pete Alexander, Carl Hubbell, Warren Spahn, Juan Marichal, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, and Steve Carlton never did it, not to mention anyone from more recent generations who appear allergic to pitching on less than 4 days' rest.]. He began his streak with the Whiz Kids in 1950 when, holding a one game lead over Brooklyn on the season's final day, he went the distance in a pennant-clinching, 10-inning 4-1 victory over the Dodgers at Ebbets Field. Over those six years, he posted a record of 138-78, starting 232 games and completing an amazing 161 of them. His best season came in '52, when he posted a 28-7 record and career-best 2.59 ERA (141 ERA+). He ended up leading the league in complete games 5 times, innings pitched 5 times, wins 4 times, strikeouts twice, and WHIP once. His career 69.7 WAR leads all Phillies pitchers. He was traded by the Phils to the Orioles after an abysmal 1961 season when, at the age of 34, he posted a 1-10 record and 5.85 ERA. But he rebounded nicely playing in the American League, posting three consecutive winning seasons. For his career, he posted a 286-245 record and 3.41 ERA. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1976.

4. Ed Delahanty (OF-2B-1B, 1888-89, 1891-1901)

"Big Ed" Delahanty is not merely the greatest hitter to play in a Phillies uniform, he is one of the preeminent hitters the game has ever known. In his first stint in Philadelphia, no one could have guessed this, as he hit .228 and .293 and slugged .293 and .370 in 536 at bats in 1888-89. After defecting to his hometown Cleveland Infants (!) of the new Players League in 1890, he returned to Philadelphia in '91, but again showed little potential, batting only .243 with a .339 slugging percentage and 85 OPS+. But the following year, 1892, marked a sea change from Delahanty's former mediocrity. That year, he batted .306, drove in 91 runs, and led the league in both triples (21) and slugging (.495), with a stellar OPS+ of 156. Over the next ten years, nine of them at the Baker Bowl, he would prove himself to be baseball's best hitter. In '93, Big Ed scored 145 runs, drove in a league-leading 146, hit 35 doubles, 18 triples, a league-leading 19 homers, batted .368, and led the league in slugging with a .583 mark (164 OPS+). In each of the next two years he hit .404, "slipping" to a mere .397 in 1896, a year in which he led the National League in doubles (44), homers (13), RBIs (126), slugging (.631), and OPS+ (190). Furthermore, on July 13 that summer, he became only the second player to hit 4 home runs in a game, this time in a losing cause against the Chicago Colts. Delahanty had perhaps his best year in 1899, when he led the league with 238 hits, 55 doubles, 137 RBIs, a .410 batting average, a .582 slugging percentage, and a 189 OPS+. After two more seasons in which he batted .323 and .354, Delahanty once again defected, this time to the Washington Senators of the fledgling American League, for who he would hit a league-leading .376 in 1902. But it was Big Ed's last hurrah. On July 2 the following season, he was kicked off a train for drunk and disorderly conduct and took off after the train on the International Bridge connecting Buffalo with Fort Erie, Canada. What happened next is murky, but the outcome is clear: Delahanty found himself in the Niagara River and ultimately met his demise going over Niagara Falls. Thus ended the career of a .346 lifetime hitter, the fifth-highest mark in Major League history. In his years for the Phillies, Delahanty had 2212 hits, 442 doubles, 158 triples, 87 home runs, 1368 runs, 1288 RBIs, 411 stolen bases, a .348 batting average, a .508 slugging percentage, and a cumulative 153 OPS+. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1945.

3. Steve Carlton (SP, 1972-86)

"Lefty" is the single greatest pitcher I have ever seen in a Phillies uniform, and it is not even close. Combining a healthy fastball with a slow curve and devastating slider which, when working, came as close to being unhittable as any pitch I have ever seen, Carlton was as effective on the mound as he was inscrutable off it. He came to the Phillies in 1972 in a trade with the St. Louis Cardinals for Rick Wise. Even though Carlton had won 20 games in '71 and posted a 2.17 ERA along with 17 wins in '69, Phillies fans (including yours truly) were somewhat upset with the trade initially, considering the fact that Wise had won 17 games, posted a 2.88 ERA, and had no-hit the Cincinnati Reds on June 23, 1971, a game in which he also blasted two home runs. On May 30 of that season, our attitude appeared somewhat justified, as Carlton lost for the second time in ten days to the New York Mets, dropping his record to 5-6. But he would not lose again until he lost an 11-inning complete game, 2-1, to the Atlanta Braves on August 21—a span of 18 games, during which he won 15 consecutive decisions, climaxing with his 20th victory on August 17 against the Reds at Veterans Stadium, a game I vividly remember listening to on a small bedroom radio while on holiday in Wildwood, New Jersey. Carlton was particularly dominating in a 5-game stretch between July 23 and August 9, during which he pitched 5 complete games and allowed zero earned runs (were it not for an unearned run scored on August 1 by virtue of a John Bateman passed ball, Carlton would have pitched 5 consecutive shutouts). In those 45 innings, Lefty allowed a mere 22 hits, walked only 5, and struck out 37. At season's end, Carlton's record stood at 27-10—for a team that finished 59-97—with a 1.97 ERA (182 ERA+), 30 complete games, and 310 strikeouts in 346.1 innings. For that he was awarded the first of his then-record 4 Cy Young Awards (he also won in '77, '80, and '82). In my lifetime I consider this season to rank with Bob Gibson's 1968 and Pedro Martinez's 1999 and 2000 as among the greatest seasonal pitching performances in Major League Baseball. Carlton, of course, was not done. He would go on to win 20 or more games 4 more times, lead the league in complete games two more times, innings 4 more times, and strikeouts four times. The best of his remaining seasons was 1980, the Phils' first World Series championship team. That year he pitched 304 innings, had 13 complete games, struck out 286, had a record of 24-9, an ERA of 2.34 (ERA+ of 162), and a WAR of 10.2. In the postseason, he was 1-0 with a 2.19 ERA against Houston in the NLCS, and was 2-0 with a 2.40 ERA against Kansas City in the World Series, including a victory in the decisive game 6. 

Carlton is first on the Phillies' all-time list with 241 victories, 499 games started, and 3031 strikeouts; second in WAR with 64.6, in innings pitched with 3697.1, and in shutouts with 39; and third with 135 complete games. For his major league career he ranks 11th all-time with 329 victories, 9th in innings pitched with 5217.2, 14th in shutouts with 55, and 4th in strikeouts with 4136. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1994. Of all the left-handed pitchers who have played in my lifetime, Carlton is better than all but three: Warren Spahn, Sandy Koufax, and Randy Johnson. But only Carlton will forever be known as "Lefty."

2. Grover Cleveland Alexander (SP, 1911-17, 30)



When I began I fully intended to ensconce Steve Carlton in the second position on my list. But in the end, I just couldn't do it. Grover Cleveland "Old Pete" Alexander was simply too good—staggeringly good, as any who delve deeply into his years for the Phillies in the 1910s will quickly learn. As a kid I was well-taught by my father about the great players of the first half of the 20th century. From a child I knew that Alexander had won 373 games, third behind Cy Young and Walter Johnson on the all-time list. But until I actually studied his career, that big 373 was just a number—a big one, to be sure, but a bland statistic nonetheless. Old Pete came up to the Phillies at the relatively late (for that era; would that earlier call-ups were still the rule today in Philadelphia) age of 24. In his rookie year, 1911, Alexander promptly led the league with 28 wins, 367 innings, 31 complete games, and 7 shutouts, while posting a fine 2.57 ERA. The next year he regressed slightly, but still went 19-17 with a 2.81 ERA, and led the league in both innings (310.1) and strikeouts (195). Amazingly, this would prove to be the only year Pete failed to win as many as 20 games in his first 7 years in Philadelphia. In 1913 and 1914 he went 22-8 and 27-15, leading the league in wins the latter season. But it was his final 3 years in Philly that stand among the most remarkable stretches of pitching in the history of the game. In the Phils' pennant-winning 1915 campaign, Alexander went 31-10 with a staggeringly low, league-leading ERA of 1.22 (ERA+ of 228!). He also led the league that season in innings (376.1), complete games (36), shutouts (12), and strikeouts (241). In '16 he went 33-12 with a league-leading 1.55 ERA (172 ERA+), 389 innings, 38 complete games, 16 (!) shutouts, and a league-leading 167 strikeouts. Finally, in 1917, he won 30 games for the 3rd successive campaign (30-13) and once again led the league in ERA (1.83), innings (388), complete games (34), shutouts (8), and strikeouts (200). For three consecutive years he had won the league's unofficial triple crown of pitching. In his 7 years in Philly, he had posted a 190-91 record and a 2.18 ERA, leading the league in wins 4 times, ERA 3 times, complete games 5 times, shutouts 5 times, and strikeouts 5 times. Yet in 1918, in a move all too historically characteristic of Philadelphia's sports owners, the Phils shipped Alexander to the Cubs because, as owner William Baker confessed, he "needed the money." In '18, Alexander was sent to France to serve in the Army during WWI. When he returned in '19, he continued to excel, leading the NL in ERA his first two seasons in the Windy City and leading the league with 27 wins in 1920. Yet age (he was already 33 in 1920) and drink began to catch up with him, and though he remained an above-average pitcher through 1929, he never again regained the dominance he had while in the City of Brotherly Love. Alexander's career numbers (373-208, 2.56 ERA [131 ERA+], 437 complete games, 90 shutouts, 2198 strikeouts) continue to boggle the mind. One wonders what numbers he could have posted had he started his career earlier and taken better care of himself. Old Pete was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1938.

1. Mike Schmidt (3B, 1972-89)


Not many balls got between
these two guys

The question isn't whether or not Michael Jack Schmidt is the greatest player ever to play for the Phillies. The question is how high in the pantheon of greatest all-time Major League players Schmidt should be placed. Well, he was certainly no Ruth, Mays, Cobb, Gehrig, Williams, or Mantle. However, what he was, beyond all doubt, was the greatest 3rd baseman the game has ever seen. His offensive capabilities set him apart from Brooks Robinson; his speed and defensive prowess (10 Gold Glove awards on his resume) set him apart from Eddie Mathews; his lethal power set him apart from George Brett. The only thing that held him back, at least temporarily, was his reserved and somewhat prickly temperament which, at least early in his career, was the occasion of some conflict with the demanding and discerning Philly fan base. As he himself admitted in his memorable Hall of Fame induction speech—I can still hear it with the ears of my mind like it were yesterday—it was the acquisition of Pete Rose in 1979 that changed all that and set the table for both Schmitty's best seasons and the team's first World Series title in 1980, for which Schmidt and Steve Carlton were almost entirely responsible. Schmidt's career started inauspiciously. As a 23 year-old rookie on a miserable last-place Phillies' team in 1973, he hit a measly .196, striking out a ghastly 136 times in a mere 367 at bats. But the 18 home runs he hit provided a glimpse of things to come (a glimpse few of us in the stands saw at the time). 1974, however was a revelation, as the Phils dramatically improved—they stayed above .500 into late August—powered by newly acquired Dave Cash, a resurgent Willie Montanez and, above all, Schmidt's MVP-caliber play. Schmidt hit .282, scored 108 runs, drove in 116, walked 106 times (the first of 7 times he would walk more than 100 times), and led the league with 36 homers and a .546 slugging percentage. 1974 proved to be the first of Schmidt's National League-record 8 home run titles, second only to Babe Ruth's 12 titles in baseball history. [To put it into perspective, Schmidt's 8 titles are equal to the total titles won by Willie Mays and Henry Aaron combined.] He hit 38 homers in each of his next three seasons, showing the admirable virtue of consistency. And on 17 April 1976 he had his best game, becoming the 10th player, and the first since Mays in 1961, to hit 4 homers in a single game, in an 18-16 victory over the Cubs in the appropriately called Windy City. After a sub-par 1978 season, in which he hit a mere 21 homers and batted .251, the Phils acquired Rose, and Schmidt was never the same. In '79 he rebounded to hit 45 homers and drive in 114 runs, his highest total in 5 years. But it was in 1980 that Schmidt finally reached his potential,as he hit a league-leading 48 homers and 121 RBIs, batted .286 and led the league with a .624 slugging percentage and a 171 OPS+ (the first of 5 consecutive seasons he would lead the league in this barometer of offensive effectiveness). And it was his game-winning, 11th inning homer off Stan Bahnsen on 4 October at Olympic Stadium in Montreal in the season's 161st game that secured the Phillies' divisional title over the upstart Expos. [I can still hear the late Andy Musser's call, "He buried it."] Not surprisingly, Schmidt batted .381 with 2 homers and 7 RBIs against the Royals in the World Series to earn the MVP award for the series. After the season, Michael Jack was awarded, to no one's surprise, the first of his 3 National League MVP awards, an honor he would receive again in '81, in which he had his finest season. In that odd, strike-divided 107 game season, Schmidt led the league with 78 runs, 31 homers, 91 RBIs, 73 walks, a .435 OBP, a .644 slugging percentage, and a 198 OPS+, while batting a career-high .316. 

(image courtesy of the National Hall of Fame Library)
Indeed, while he never again would have such a monumental season, Schmidt continued to play at a high level through 1987, leading the league 3 more times in homers, 2 times in RBIs, walks, slugging and OBP, and 4 more times in OPS+, winning his third and final MVP in 1986 at the advanced age of 36. After a final top-notch season in '87, during which he hit his 500th career home run, Schmidt tore his rotator cuff and was never the same. After a little more than a year of subpar production, Schmidt retired tearfully in May of 1989 on the road in California, having gone 5-57 with no extra base hits in his previous 18 games. He finished his career with 1506 runs, 2234 hits, 548 home runs (15th on the all-time list, though 9th among those not tainted with the steroid scandal), 1507 RBIs, a .267 batting average, .380 OBP, .527 slugging percentage, 147 OPS+, and a team record 106.5 WAR (19th all time in Major League history for position players). Fittingly, he was elected into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibilty in 1995, to be inducted along with his good friend Rich Ashburn in front of a 28,000-strong sea of tens of thousands of red-clad, teary-eyed Philadelphians who made the trek to the storybook village of Cooperstown for the induction ceremony that took place on 30 July that summer. I was one of those fans, and it is a day I will never forget.