Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Jubilee and justice

“You shall count seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the time of the seven weeks of years shall give you forty-nine years. Then you shall sound the loud trumpet on the tenth day of the seventh month. On the Day of Atonement you shall sound the trumpet throughout all your land. And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his clan. That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; in it you shall neither sow nor reap what grows of itself nor gather the grapes from the undressed vines. For it is a jubilee. It shall be holy to you. You may eat the produce of the field.

“In this year of jubilee each of you shall return to his property. And if you make a sale to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another. You shall pay your neighbor according to the number of years after the jubilee, and he shall sell to you according to the number of years for crops. If the years are many, you shall increase the price, and if the years are few, you shall reduce the price, for it is the number of the crops that he is selling to you. You shall not wrong one another, but you shall fear your God, for I am the Lord your God. (Lev. 25:8-17)

“The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me. And in all the country you possess, you shall allow a redemption of the land. (Lev. 25:23-4)

“If a man sells a dwelling house in a walled city, he may redeem it within a year of its sale. For a full year he shall have the right of redemption. If it is not redeemed within a full year, then the house in the walled city shall belong in perpetuity to the buyer, throughout his generations; it shall not be released in the jubilee. But the houses of the villages that have no wall around them shall be classified with the fields of the land. They may be redeemed, and they shall be released in the jubilee. As for the cities of the Levites, the Levites may redeem at any time the houses in the cities they possess. (Lev. 25:29-32)

What is justice? The current notion in vogue, "social justice," has been used in the sense of restorative justice, which is the notion that justice is all about restoring the offender to right relation to society. Whatever the merits of understanding justice in a restorative sense, the key point we want to notice is that such is not the biblical notion of justice. "Justice" in the biblical sense is God-ward in nature. The only "restorative" element is to restore a person's relationship to God. In a horizontal sense, "justice" in the Bible is about punishing evildoers because they violate God's law and God's commands, His statutes and decrees. Those who do good will have life, while those who do evil will face justice (c.f. Deut. 28, 6:1-3). "Justice" in Old Testament Israel encompasses both what we would call "civil" as well as "religious" aspects, and those those who violate Israel's ceremonial code were to be severely punished as well (c.f. Lev. 18:5, 19:7-8). The law as given to Israel did not differentiate between civil and religious infractions (as we understand them), and therefore those who wish to claim biblical support for supposed welfare programs should do well to note that, as if one could adopt unquestionably the supposed welfare programs of ancient Israel without simultaneously adopting Israel's religious laws as well.

Understanding Israel's law as a single whole in the context of ancient Israel should inform us of how we are to make sense of its supposed welfare aspects. To put it bluntly, to claim that Israel had elements of a modern welfare state is anachronistic. Ancient Israel was not just a nation but a theocratic nation, a fusion of Church and State. As such, laws concerning the taking care of the least in society were made in the context of Israel as the Old Testament church, where people were to take care of the disadvantaged in the Church.

As a Church-State, Israel's religious laws were also civil laws. Thus, the mere establishing of such laws for that entire nation tells us nothing about whether any other country ought to implement such or similar laws. But once this law of Israel was established, any infraction of that law is injustice in the sense of a violation of what God had commanded, and therefore any punishment is retributive in nature, not "restorative."

But just as the nature of the law (positive religious) has nothing to do with the civil enforcement of that law (retributive), so likewise those who would claim the mantle of "social justice" fail to adequately understand what this law is and what it is not. The law concerning Jubilee (a religious not civil concept) is not a law calling for the redistribution of wealth. It is rather a law given to protect people from becoming destitute. But just as it prevents a person from becoming destitute by calling for the return of ancestral land to its original owners at the next Jubilee, likewise it prohibits those desperate for money to fully leverage on what they own. In verses 15-16, we note that the price of the land to be sold is to be pegged to the number of years remaining until the next Jubilee. Thus, what is actually being sold is a leasehold, not freehold. The owner of that ancestral land is prohibited by law from selling his entire right to his ancestral land, but is only to sell a leasehold to that land. Therefore, if there is only one year left until the Jubilee, the seller is NOT to ask for a high price for a one-year leasehold to that land.

Likewise, the Jubilee does not prevent anyone from becoming rich and owning lots of properties. In verses 29-30, we see that properties that are not ancestral plots of land, but are within cities, will be permanently transferred to the buyer if the seller does not redeem the property within a year of sale. Thus, any property that is not an ancestral plot of land could be permanently sold and the buyer could become very wealthy, without any "reset" of society after every 50 years. The Jubilee is therefore not a blueprint for a socialist redistribution program, but rather a law regulating the sale of property, both protecting and limiting the extent to which property can be sold and bought. If the potential seller is desperate for cash, he is prohibited by law from selling away the right to his ancestral home, just as the buyer is prohibited by law from buying that right to that ancestral home.

The point of looking at the Jubilee in the context of discussion of "justice" is to note that any appeal to the Old Testament for calls for a more "holistic" idea of "justice" is sorely mistaken. As stated, the Jubilee does not teach wealth distribution or even debt forgiveness, but rather it is a law regulating the sale of property. Therefore, arguing from the major to the minor, any Old Testament laws concerning the call to justice has nothing to do with what many today would put under the umbrella of "social justice." Biblical justice is concerned with retribution for wrongs done, not restoration. Restoration in the Bible is a matter of grace, not law, and thus restoration comes through Israel's sacrificial system, not Israel's courts.

The Jubilee in its civil implementation is legal, and regulates the sale of properties. The Jubilee in its place in Israel's religion however is gracious, and it points towards the forgiveness of debts that Christ brings to us. But we know that it is only in Christ that forgiveness comes, not through the law. And therefore, using the Jubilee as an example for "social justice" is to confuse Law and Gospel. The lesson for Christians today from the Jubilee is to point out to us the grace of Christ in forgiving our sins, as portrayed in the return of the ancestral land to its original owner. That is the goal of the Jubilee for us who believe, and may we never misuse this great religious event in Old Testament Israel in any other way as support for the world's misguided social programs.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Sermon: Kingdom Contentment

Here is the sermon I had preached on March 11th 2018, on 1 Corinthians 7:17-40, entitled Kingdom Contentment.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

On Reformed Piety: Defining Evangelicalism (part 1)

As we move towards comparing and contrasting Reformed piety with Evangelical piety, we must first define these two sides. After all, both the terms "Reformed" and "Evangelical" have been used and understood in many different ways by many different people. Some have used the term "Reformed" to refer to the followers of Karl Barth, but for those who are actually Reformed, such an association with the founder of Neo-Orthdoxy is extremely repugnant, to say the least. And others have used the term "Evangelical" to refer to those who anyone who claim that their faith is very important in their lives. Or, in a very misleading and offensive move, it is used to refer to the subset of white Christian Americans who voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 US elections. Suffice is it to show that if these two sides are not clearly defined, comparing and contrasting their respective pieties is next to impossible.

Defining Evangelicalism

What is an "Evangelical," and thus what is "Evangelicalism"? Historically, a claim can be made that "evangelical" refers to all Protestant Christians who believe, like Luther, that justification is by faith alone (Sola Fide), since Lutherans were first called "evangelicals" (German evangelische) as they focus on the Gospel of free grace. However, words and the connotation of words change over time. At least in the English-speaking world, Lutherans are called "Lutherans." The term "evangelical" in English parlance came to denote a trans-denominational movement that begun during the time of the 18th century First Great Awakening. Prior to the First Great Awakening, each denomination and church body does its own thing and they do not generally work together. During and after the First Great Awakening, many Christians who believe in the Gospel had decided that denominational differences were not worth fighting over to the point of non-cooperation in ministry, and therefore there is a need to join together to proclaim the Gospel. We must recognize that, prior to the First Great Awakening, the state of Protestant Christianity lies in its various confessional traditions (e.g. Presbyterian, Anglican, Congregationalist, Dutch Reformed, Swiss Reformed, Lutheran etc.), with each tradition proclaiming itself to be the visible representation of the true church in its particularly locality, and all other local churches are to join her or be guilty of schism.

Evangelicalism therefore must be seen as both a creature and a creation of the First Great Awakening. Evangelicalism must likewise partake of some elements of the trans-denominational perspective of the leaders of the First Great Awakening, and all subsequent evangelical revivals. Evangelicalism therefore cannot be reduced to merely a doctrinal standpoint, but it is rather a social and religious phenomenon. It is not enough to ask what are the doctrines all Evangelicals hold to, but rather to ask what are the practices also of the leaders of historical Evangelicalism.

In this light, British historian David W. Bebbington, in his seminal work Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London, UK: Unwin Hyman, 1989) gave us four points to describe Evangelicalism (both Old and New). Known as the "Bebbington Quadrilateral," these four points are: Conversionism (a focus on the necessity of each person to individually turn to Christ in faith for salvation), Activism (a commitment to participate with God in his saving mission in the world), Biblicism (a devotion to the Bible as the Word of God written for all of faith), and Crucicentrism (a focus on Jesus Christ and the substitutionary atonement of Christ for sins) [Bebbington, 5-17]. Academia by and large has agreed with Bebbington's four pillars of Evangelicalism, even though Bebbington's insights have for the most part yet to filter down to the churches.

The Bebbington Quadrilateral however has to be modified in light of the differences between the churches before and after the First Great Awakening. The first pillar, Conversionism, has to be modified to "a focus on the necessity of each person to individually turn to Christ in faith for salvation, with the necessity of a recollection of a personal conscious experience in doing so." The reason for this modification is that Evangelicalism has always rejected the notion of regenerate covenant children being raised in the faith, but who have not felt a single day apart from Christ, and whose lives are not filled with great spiritual experiences. That was why the congregationalists in Puritan New England had trouble with the spiritual lives of the second and third generation puritans to the extent that Solomon Stoddard (Jonathan Edwards' grandfather) instituted the Halfway Covenant. The New England Puritans had developed an imbalanced experimental Christianity whereby believers are to recount some spiritual experience whereby they have trusted Christ for their salvation. Now, this was not yet the emotional decisionism of Charles Finney and his part in the Second Great Awakening, for believers were not asked to produce a specific conversion experience. However, evidence of spiritual life was to be sought in having some form of crisis resulting in spiritual conversion to God. The half-way covenant came about because so many second and third generation Puritans did not possess that crisis-faith experience and therefore were not admitted into church membership and the Lord's Supper, despite how orthodox they were in their profession of faith. What happens when these non-communicant members desire to present their children for baptism? The half-way covenant was Stoddard's way of promoting a "half-way" whereby these second and third generation Puritans could be admitted to the Lord's Supper and have their children baptized if they were orthodox in doctrine and not scandalous in behavior, even though they were not considered full members of the church (officially non-communicant members who partake of Holy Communion!)

Jonathan Edwards, as one of the major leaders of the First Great Awakening, ultimately chose to reject the Halfway covenant which his grandfather had instituted. Edwards rejected the Halfway Covenant not by accepting that covenant children might not have a radical faith experience, but rather by biting the bullet and insisting that covenant children without a faith experience should be regarded as unbelievers. Thus, one can be orthodox in doctrine and godly in life, but if a conversion experience cannot be shown, he is to be regarded as a heathen! It is only a matter of time before the conversion experience become a conversion decision experience, which Charles Finney popularized in his anxious bench, and Billy Graham with his altar call.

The first pillar of Evangelicalism, Conversionism, is thus to be modified to a necessity of a conversion experience. The Old Evangelicalism, the Evangelicalism of the First Great Awakening, only insisted on some intense spiritual experience sometime in one's life, and is therefore more orthodox than the experience called for in Finney's anxious bench and Graham's alter call. Yet for both Old and New Evangelicalism, conversion experience, and spiritual experiences in general are considered vital for a genuine Christian life, apart from which a person no matter how orthodox and godly is considered dead.

[to be continued]

Sunday, March 18, 2018

On Reformed Piety

What is Reformed piety? Or is there such a thing as Reformed piety, as distinct from Evangelical piety? For those of us who do not identify as "Evangelicals," and that even before the term has become politicized during and after the election of US President Donald Trump, we do see a difference between Reformed piety and Evangelical piety. We do this, not out of a blind following of tradition, but because of what we see as being taught in Scripture and in light of the implications of Scripture.

It might be charged that such a statement in itself is schismatic in nature. In response, it must be said that we do not seek to break fellowship, but rather we seek to be truthful, and not pretend that there is fellowship and unity where none actually exist. Is it truthful to claim unity when in reality unity of praxis does not exist? Are we to be like the crowd marveling at the Emperor's (non-existent) new clothes? So likewise, the charge of division and schism presupposes what I explicitly deny, and thus the charge is vacuous.

Where then do I see Reformed piety as being distinct from Evangelical piety? I see Reformed piety as distinct from Evangelical piety in the following areas:

  1. The priority aspects in Christianity
  2. Views on Bible and Tradition
  3. Views on the Means of Grace
  4. Views on the Church
  5. Views on the Moral Law and especially the Fourth Commandment
  6. Views on worship

In subsequent posts, as I have the free time to do so, I will elaborate on these points and compare and contrast Reformed piety to Evangelical piety on these matters.