Reframing Race Discussions, part 2

Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail has had a huge impact on me in thinking through race. It really should be mandatory reading. Here I want to highlight one salient point:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

These white moderates agreed with King about his goals. They thought that black people did not have equal rights. They condemned racism and bigotry. They were for all of the right things. But not quite. There is a certain danger where we convince ourselves we are part of the moral group because we have the head knowledge. Actually acting on that knowledge, however, tends to be more tricky.

There is, though, another point worth thinking through that is more directly relevant. If we think about the society at the time, we can break it down into groups. First, there were the overt racists and segregationists. This was clearly a large number of people at the time. We should not downplay this fact. I do not know statistics, but this might be the largest group.

Second, there are the white moderates. They agreed with the goals, but actually bringing those goals about was less urgent. “Wait; be patient; let time work.” This was their mantra. There were probably a good number of white moderates too. Some of these white moderates spoke out in favor of MLK while others were merely silent. Again, I do not have statistics, but those who were silent were probably the larger portion, maybe by far (as this is how it tends to be). Then there were those who spoke out in favor of MLK’s goals.

Finally, there were the white people that were actually fully involved with King’s movement. They not only agreed with the goals; they also got on board and acted on that knowledge. They joined the protests. They marched in the streets. They bled with their black brothers. This, clearly, was a very small percentage of the populace.

So, how does this help us think through race discussions? I suppose my point is that statistically, we are not in the last group. We love to think of ourselves as the hero, morally enlightened, and as the right actors if we were in that cultural moment. We aren’t. We would probably be the silent white moderate, if not worse. If that is the case, then we are probably the silent white moderate today, if not worse.

This should lead us to rethink our starting point. We look back now and know what the right thing to do was. Hindsight is always 20/20. Unless we learn from the past, though, we will repeat it. Looking to the past, the statistics, and how it all looks in hindsight should make us rethink our starting point.

Reframing Race Discussions, part 1

I had two thoughts on race discussions from talking about the matter with someone the other night. These will be pretty brief, but I think they are suggestive.

What should our stance going into race discussions be? Here I am concerned primarily with white people within the United States. Mostly this is because I am one, so I have more knowledge of the matter. So how should we approach these discussions?

Often, there is this visceral reaction. So when the history of white people toward black people is brought up, often our responses fall along similar lines. We are quick to distance ourselves. We are quick to say that other people have suffered historically. We emphasize that we were not slave owners and they were not slaves. We might even wonder why the past matters; let’s simply live in the present.

This came to a head when talking about wanting proof that there is systemic inequality on how black people are treated. Are they really pulled over more often? Do police really treat them differently? And so on. But I think this framing is probably the wrong starting point.

If we look at history, our stance has largely been one of needing proof. We needed proof that the slaves were fully human. We needed proof that slaves should be freed. We needed proof that black people did not have equal rights. We needed proof that Martin Luther King Jr. was not moving too quickly. And on and on it goes.

Now we look back and see that there was proof there all along. The people back then were simply blind to the proof. So if we look at the past, this testimony was right all along. So unless we think everything is fixed now, we should probably trust their testimony on this matter. After all, history shows a pattern of needing proof and not accepting said proof when it was there all along.

So I think reframing race discussions includes trusting testimony when we often don’t. If we demand proof, it should be that the testimony is wrong. Of course, since we can be so inclined that way, we will accept more readily accept that proof, whether it is actually grounded or not. So we must be careful even here. Nonetheless, beginning by trusting seems like a good start.

Review: The Priesthood of the Plebs (Leithart)

I have wanted to read Leithart’s The Priesthood of the Plebs for a good bit of time now. I have been trying to focus on books that have stood the test of time or contemporary stimulating books. I figured that Leithart’s Priesthood fell into the latter category. I was not disappointed. I learned so much from this book. I will be thinking through it for awhile.

In 1 Peter 3:21, Peter writes that “baptism now saves you.” He qualifies his statement, but exegetes and theologians have been busy qualifying it in even more ways. Leithart’s goal was to produce a baptismal theology that would make it natural to speak about baptism being salvific. Baptism is at the beginning of the gospel, as Leithart points out with John’s baptism in the Gospel of Mark. Leithart believes that baptism has been infected by a semi-Marcionite attitude that fails to read baptism against the Old Testament background. This has lead to a severing of baptism’s implications and an impetus for secularization. Taking his cue from Augustine, he wants to see baptism as a conjugation of priestly ordination. Baptism thus fulfills and replaces the ordination rite.

Thus, priestly ordination in the Old Testament must be grasped. He goes through a number of suggestions as to what a priest is, but ultimately argues that priests are attendants of Yahweh’s household. This means that baptism has the same role in the church as ordination had for Israel: consecrating priests for God’s house. This does not mean they are exactly the same because the gospel transforms preexisting forms. What one must do, then, is see how the grammar is changed by the New Testament. One must attend to both the continuities and discontinuities.

But does the New Testament support seeing baptism in light of the ordination rite. Leithart highlights Augustine’s Christological typology. All who are in Christ are anointed like Christ. But being in Christ comes through Christian initiation, baptism. The liturgy of baptism also suggests a connection. Just as baptism is a one time event and done by someone else, so it is with the ordination rite in the Old Testament.

Leithart wants to support this linking along even stronger lines. Thus, he looks at multiple New Testament texts to argue that this linking is made. He turns to Hebrews 10:19-22. Most commentators take this as a baptismal text. Here Leithart notes that in order to draw near, one must come under blood and water, a rare combination in the Levitical law but found in the ordination rite (Ex. 29:4, 21; Lev. 8:6, 30). So, Hebrews describes baptism with imagery borrowed from ordination. Similarly, baptism replaces ordination because the believer enters through the veil, like the high priest. While the High Priest washed before entering the Holy of Holies, he was sprinkled with blood only at his ordination. So, “All those baptized and sprinkled with the blood of Christ have privileges of access beyond those of Israel’s High Priests.” (loc. 1494; I converted a pdf to kindle, so these locations might not match the kindle edition) Since baptism is now the rite that makes priests, baptism is seen against the backdrop of priestly ordination.

Next he turns to Galatians 3:27. Here Leithart picks up the putting on terminology. Where does Paul draw from for this clothing imagery? As he says, “Faced with the crossword puzzle clue, ‘official with special religious vestments,’ the first-century Jew would have immediately answered, ‘the High Priest.'” (loc. 1544) Moreover, since all of them wear the same clothes, this is to say that they all have the same religious status, they all stand in the same place. This is a notion within the orbit of priestly concerns.

Similarly, the language of sonship, inheritance, and the Spirit that is found throughout this section is priestly language. To quote Leithart, “When Paul calls the baptized ‘sons’ who inherit the promised Spirit, he employs language associated with the priestly tribe. As the Levites became ‘heirs of Yahweh’ through a rite that began with an aspersion and included a clothing change (Num. 8:7), so the Galatians become heirs of the Spirit through baptismal investiture. ‘Heir of God the Spirit’ is the Christian conjugation of ‘priest’ and ‘Levite.'” (loc. 1558) So, to be clothed with Christ is to be clothed with garments of glory, like the priests (Ex. 28:2). Galatians 3:27 means that baptism fulfills and replaces ordination.

1 Corinthians 6:11 is also highlighted. The sanctifying wash is soon linked with the temple of the Spirit. Thus, the sanctified priesthood is the temple of the Spirit. Baptism thus accomplishes what ordination once accomplished. Baptism fulfills ordination.

Leithart also makes an intriguing argument based on Luke 3:21-23. Just as Jesus’ baptism inaugurates his priestly ministry, so does Christian baptism. He picks up on this theme through Luke’s priestly Messiah. The focus on the temple, John’s descent from a son and daughter of Aaron, and Gabriel’s commission of John all point in this direction. Jesus is clearly linked to John. John, as a priest of Levi pays homage to Jesus, as Levi did to Melchizedek. The echoes of the early chapters of 1 Samuel also make this priestly link.

Further, you find this link in the baptism itself. Jesus undergoes baptism for the forgiveness of sins because he is identifying with Israel as the sin-bearing substitute. “Aaron wore a crown on his turban to bear the iniquity of Israel (Ex. 28:36-38).” (loc. 1685) Thus, “[l]ike Aaron, Jesus was ‘baptized’ into substitutionary ministry, not only to offer but to be a sacrifice, His baptism at Jordan climaxing in His baptism in blood at Calvary (Luke 12:50).” (loc. 1687) Jesus beginning his ministry at thirty years of age links with the Levites (and perhaps the priests).

Leithart also highlights Luke’s genealogy. Jesus is a priest after the order of Aaron. So, when “Son of God” is applied to both Adam and Jesus in Luke 3, this is a priestly title. What about the presentation scene in Luke 2? Luke speaks of their purification, when only Mary was unclean. Moreover, the law talks about redemption from service, not presentation for service. Perhaps Numbers 8:14-19 is in the background, which would be a priestly link. The transfiguration resonates with the baptismal scene, but this is also an event on the eighth day (cf. Lev. 9:1), Jesus’ clothing is glorious, glory surrounds Jesus, Peter wants to make tabernacles, and a cloud overshadows the mountain (cf. Ex. 40:34-38). “The transfiguration publishes the truth of the baptism: Jesus has been, and will be, glorified as High Priest over the house.” (loc. 1738) So, Christian baptism patterned on Jesus’ baptism means that baptism is an induction into priestly service.

Next, Leithart discusses 2 Corinthians 1:21-22. Whether this is a baptismal passage is debated amongst scholars. Here he interweaves a discussion of chapters 4 and 5. There Paul hopes to wear a permanent temple garment rather than continuing int he earthen, tabernacle existence. This heavenly house is equivalent to the glory into which believers are being transformed. Thus, although Paul now had a tent-like glory as a priest, his suffering ministry will transform it into a house-like glory. So, if 2 Corinthians 1:21-22 is a baptismal text, then the gift of the Spirit in baptism is an investiture of priestly garments that will be transformed through suffering into an eschatological house-glory. If it is not a baptismal text, baptism signifies the anointing of the Spirit, thereby pointing to the priestly tent and future house.

All in all, then, the New Testament does support this linking of baptism and ordination. How are they to be linked and understood? Baptism is understood through ordination, but they are not the exact same. Instead, there are continuities and discontinuities. Priestly ordination should elucidate our theology of baptism, but it should not be the final say if the New Testament speaks in other ways. So, Leithart goes on to expound a theology of baptism.

Ordination in the Old Testament included filling the hands with food. Therefore, for those baptized, their hands must be filled with food by partaking of the Lord’s Table. In this way, if infants are baptized, then they should partake of the Table. Here he even argues for baptism of infants. Since all of the members of the priestly family could eat of the sacred food, then the same should be said of the priestly families in Christ. By combining this with the historic view that only the baptized can partake of the Table, one arrives at infant baptism.

But how are infants priests? Priests were attendants in Yahweh’s household. Can infants perform these tasks? Leithart sees the New Testament conjugation of housekeeping as building up the body. Can infants contribute to the edification of the church? Certainly, argues Leithart, as anyone who has had a newborn in the congregation can recognize.

This brings Leithart to more contentious issues about baptismal efficacy. The ordination texts are certainly objectively efficacious. If this is the case, then by the typology between ordination and baptism, baptism should likewise be construed. Baptism therefore makes priests ex opere operato. Baptism causes what it symbolizes. Baptism therefore makes priests.

Here Leithart stretches further into baptismal regeneration. Through the ordination ceremony, Aaron became a new man. Leithart highlights this by looking at the eighth day and the way the tabernacle symbolizes new creation. The ordination depicts Adam as a new Adam in the tabernacle garden. This pushes us to baptismal regeneration.

This is neither reductionistic nor does it make the waters into magic. Instead, “[o]perative ceremonies, thus, by placing us in new roles, vesting us with new clothes, and imposing new sets of obligations and rules, effect an ‘ontological’ transformation, a change in who we are, who we think we are, and who others think we are.” (loc. 2386) Social and theological levels cannot be pried apart. Baptism is a gift of God’s grace through which He adopts us as sons.

What does this mean about salvation? Here Leithart emphasizes that salvation is adjectival. A saved person is someone who lives as God created him to live. A saved community is a community conformed to the New Covenant. Thus, baptism is salvific. “Living the life of salvation is ministering in God’s house; as baptism authorizes and deputizes to such ministry, it grants a share in the life of salvation.” (loc. 2417) Baptism thus inducts us into ministry in God’s house. The way of salvation is continuing this ministry. Leithart, therefore, sees the importance of works in perseverance and believes that some truly do fall away.

Further, baptism is therefore necessary to salvation in a roundabout way. Since the church only exists where the divinely authorized sacraments are practiced, baptism is necessary to the church’s existence. Since the church is the site where salvation has and is occurring, baptism is necessary for salvation. Baptism is therefore a participation in God’s construction of a new world and His consecration of new men. Through this human act, Christ in the Spirit produces new creations.

Here it is helpful to string together a number of texts from Leithart. “On this theory, the causality of the sacraments is like that of cultural institutions and social customs, which depend on value ascribed by an authority within a contingent semiotic economy…Covenantal causality locates the divine role more at the level of institution than at the moment of administration…Baptism is efficacious because Jesus assigned this rite value as the entry token for the feast, as the induction ceremony into His Spirit-filled house, as ordination into priesthood…Because it was the creative word that was performed, the human performance was also creative, producing a new world and new men. Likewise, baptism is efficacious not only because it is authorized, but because it enacts the word of the Incarnate Word by whom the world was made, through whom the world was renewed.” (loc. 2518ff.; emphasis original)

Baptism therefore forms a priesthood for all. It therefore reconstructs the religious landscape by tearing down various social barriers between the priests and the laypeople. Since the gospel is a social proclamation about eschatological restoration in Christ, baptism effects this global regeneration and is therefore the beginning of the gospel of the new creation. Leithart picks up on Hebrews and Galatians to flesh out this theme of priesthood for all. Baptism breaks through both Hebrew and Gentile orders. It forms a new community, a new social order. “The font is the womb not only of the church but of the world.” (loc. 2954)

I hold to believers’ baptism, so the conjugation of ordination looks different for me than it does for Leithart. I still have to work through how this typology should inform my own views of baptism. Leithart’s text is one I will continue to return to. It is wonderful in so many ways. I am not sure the last time I have read a book that has been this intriguing and stimulating.

I received a complimentary copy from Wipf and Stock. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review.

Origen on the Sun, Moon, and Stars

I have long wondered if we can really know whether ancient people thought the sun, moon, and stars were living beings. This is often said, and certainly some language points in that direction. But did they really believe it or is it merely poetic language? I have wondered how we could even tell. I am reading Origen’s On the First Principles. What he says is interesting.

Speaking of the sun, moon, and stars, he says that they are living beings. He discusses this in book 1, chapter 7, sections 3 and 4. He thinks they are living beings because they receive commands, which is typically only the case for rational beings (he cites Isa. 45:12, “I made the earth // and created man on it; // it was my hands that stretched out the heavens, // and I commanded all their host.). Further, because they move with regularity and order, they must be rational beings. As proof, he mentions Jeremiah referring to the moon as the queen of heaven (Jer. 7:18). This also entails there will be an advancing and falling back as Job indicates when it says the stars are not clean in His sight (Job 25:5). He goes on to say the the sun, moon, and stars have spirit from without too.

Thus, Origen seems to have believed that the sun, moon, and stars were living, rational beings that could sin or not. Obviously this is only a snippet of Origen’s thought so possibly I am reading too much into it, but the discussion is suggestive nonetheless.

In Memoriam: Eugene Peterson

If you have not heard, Eugene Peterson died the other day. He is most well-known for The Message Bible, a modern paraphrase. I remember it was somewhat fun to gently mock how absurd the paraphrase was. Here is Psalm 1

How well God must like you—
  you don’t hang out at Sin Saloon,
  you don’t slink along Dead-End Road,
  you don’t go to Smart-Mouth College.

Instead you thrill to God’s Word,
  you chew on Scripture day and night.
You’re a tree replanted in Eden,
  bearing fresh fruit every month,
Never dropping a leaf,
  always in blossom.

You’re not at all like the wicked,
  who are mere windblown dust—
Without defense in court,
  unfit company for innocent people.

God charts the road you take.
The road they take is Skid Row.

It’s a little silly we thought: Sin Saloon, Dead-End Row, Smart-Mouth College, and so on. This tendency was especially prominent amongst biblical studies students at college. The Message was a foil of sorts.

Then I taught and preached on Psalm 1. I noticed this connection to Jeremiah 17, the tree symbolism, and connections to Eden. Lo and behold,The Message made the connection. Maybe he got lucky.

I continued to grow up a bit, so I soon learned that he was a pretty well-known pastor. In fact, he had some highly-regarded books on pastoring. I received quite a few of them this past Christmas. I have only gone through a couple, but they have been helpful.

I wonder (probably more than I should) how well certain pastors know Hebrew and Greek. They will talk about the original languages, but do they really have a deep knowledge of them? Can they read in those languages? What about Eugene Peterson? How did he paraphrase The Message? Based on an English translation with a smattering of biblical languages? I was not sure.

Probably the most interesting Peterson book I have read is The Pastor: A Memoir. It is about his life, with a focus on pastoring and some of his thoughts on that along the way. It is here that I learned the answer to my questions about his knowledge of the biblical languages.

It turns out that Eugene Peterson used to be in a Ph.D. on the Ancient Near East and the Old Testament. He did not complete the degree, however. He felt called to the pastorate, so he gave it all up. He ended his doctoral studies and no longer pursued a life in academia for an obscure pastorate. Presumably, he was getting a Ph.D. from some seminary instead of a prestigious institution. But that was not the case either. He went to John Hopkins University. More than that, he studied under a scholar that stood head and shoulders above the rest, William Albright.

I learned that this man whose Bible paraphrase I not so gently mocked knew more about the Bible than I did. He loved God’s word so much that he wanted it to be accessible and readable for others. He wanted others to love God’s word too. You can disagree with The Message and think it does not help biblical literacy. That is fine. But for me, when I learned he really knew his stuff, was studying under the world-class scholar, and gave it all up to plant a church, well, I have not stopped thinking about that since.

So to Eugene Peterson, may he rest in peace and rise in glory. Yes and amen.