Theology

Al Mohler and the Perils of Naive Biblicism

Author’s note: although this blog post is critical of some of Dr. Mohler’s statements (and the assumptions underlying them), I am grateful for his presence as a public Christian leader. Indeed, his efforts to maintain theological orthodoxy in the face of increasing cultural hostility, and to publicly witness to that orthodoxy, are both brave and deeply encouraging.  

Introduction

Dr. Al Mohler, “the reigning intellectual” of American evangelicalism, is a figure often wreathed in controversy. Of course, this is partly a consequence of being a leading conservative churchman in a country busily divesting itself of its Christian heritage. Proclaiming the exclusivity of Christ is bound to scandalize others, particularly when so many people are wedded to modern tropes concerning tolerance and diversity. But the venerable President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary occasionally exceeds the gospel’s intrinsic offence with a statement that is rather questionable, even within the sub-culture of conservative evangelicalism. Recent headlines, in which Dr. Mohler has been roundly criticised for past comments concerning the Bible and slavery, are illustrative.

Controversy arises

Why the commotion? Last month, religion reporter Jonathan Merritt wrote that a TV transcript had been unearthed, featuring a relatively young Dr. Mohler talking with two other guests on Larry King Live in 1998. While the discussion was originally concerned with what Scripture says about wives submitting to their husbands, it turned to the question of slaves and masters. Resting on Ephesians 6:5, Dr. Mohler claimed that although the Bible does not endorse slavery, it does enjoin slaves to remain obedient to their masters. When pressed on the matter, he reiterated his position, arguing that “if you’re a slave, there’s a way to behave”. Even as King tried to tease out the logical implications of what Dr. Mohler had said by raising the issue of runaway slaves in pre-civil war America, he appeared unmoved – arguing there “really” was no “loophole” to the command that slaves submit to their overlords. Dr. Mohler finished by implicitly contrasting this allegedly biblical view with what “popular culture” might say about owning human chattel. A stunned King quickly cut to a commercial break.

We should note, of course, that Dr. Mohler recently repudiated those earlier comments, condemning them as “stupid”. And one mustn’t forget that they were uttered over two decades ago, amidst the cut-and-thrust of live debate. But there seems to be little to account for his apparent interpretive shift; no principled reason why he now rejects his earlier understanding of the relevant texts. Moreover, while Dr. Mohler has written eloquently about the need for a sophisticated theological hermeneutic, a simplistic, literalist reading of Scripture is not, for him, an isolated incident. He has, for example, spent a good deal of energy arguing that Genesis straightforwardly teaches a young earth (presumably by adding up the genealogies in Chapters 5 and 11), and that the book’s first chapter speaks plainly of “days” as 24-hour units of time. In contrast with Dr. Mohler’s performance on Larry King Live, those efforts have come in the form, not of hurried, impromptu rejoinders, but of scripted remarks that reflect a mature, considered position.

There are multiple issues at play here. But I want to focus on what Dr. Mohler’s handling of Scripture reveals about some of the assumptions embedded in his approach to divine revelation. Both his slavery comments on Larry King Live and his premeditated statements on the age of the earth reflect several crucial interpretive and hermeneutical defects.

The problem of naïve biblicism

The crux of the problem is this. Dr. Mohler’s apparent view of Scripture too often verges on what one might call a naïve biblicism. It’s been described as the illusion of a “pure” understanding of biblical truth, shorn of all presuppositions and historical considerations. A naïvely biblicist approach to the text of Scripture tends towards the conviction – often unstated – that the Bible is a uniformly timeless document, communicating self-evident propositions with pristine clarity. The reader, armed with little more than good faith and common sense, is easily able to understand and appropriate those truths.

This basic view generates a cluster of interlocking practices, all of which can be harmful to good readings of Scripture: a belief that biblical statements do not require interpretation, but can be read off the page in unmediated fashion; a failure to properly grapple with the historic Christian tradition, and what it might say on questions of exegesis and theological method; and the assumption that the Bible’s prescriptions can be applied straightforwardly to modern contexts, quite apart from the issue of hermeneutical or cultural “gaps”. As some of Dr. Mohler’s public remarks seem to imply, he is at times guilty of succumbing to all these deficiencies. Sadly, he is not alone: his views are shared by a great swathe of people within (American) conservative evangelicalism.

Dr. Mohler’s comments suggest that the only prerequisite for the good faith reader is direct engagement with the relevant texts; understanding that exceeds the semantic or the syntactical is, on this view, largely unnecessary. Hence, Paul was handing down clear and exceptionless oracles about the relationship between slaves and masters. Hence, Genesis 1 is divided into seven solar days, each one of 24 hours’ duration.

This is Dr. Mohler’s first error. He neglects the need for anything more than a “thin” notion of interpretation, at least in these instances. But “thick” interpretation – that is, genuine, substantial elucidation of a text – is often necessary for two, mutually reinforcing reasons. Firstly, we must reckon with the fact that the text emerged out of a particular thought world, a particular socio-cultural matrix, which is very different from our own. What is foreign requires de-mystifying, and what may seem obvious can require nuancing. New Testament scholar N.T. Wright perceptively observes that all Scripture is “culturally conditioned” from beginning to end – having been produced, not only in, but in many respects by, a particular time and place. Even a simple reference to “day” may conceal an entire cosmology – a mental universe – that is radically different from our own (something Old Testament scholar John Walton has done much to emphasise). Of course, this doesn’t mean that the Bible is so opaque that it cannot be understood. I certainly don’t recommend one abandons the Reformation commitment to the broad clarity of Scripture. But deep cultural and intellectucal shifts over the past 2,000 years provide prima facie evidence that apparently simple biblical references may mask a good deal of ambiguity. Moreover, when both apostolic and denominational tradition suggest that Holy Writ might not always offer a clear window into the mind of the biblical author, we do well to exercise caution.

Any would-be exegete must contend with the fact that comprehending biblical texts requires both internal interpretation (i.e., understanding the internal logic of the passage, and its function within the narrative flow of the book), and external interpretation (recognizing the historical “situatedness” of the passage, its relationship to other biblical texts, etc.).

An analysis of Ephesians 6:5 makes this clear. Several points commend themselves. Far from embodying timeless, universal truth, Paul’s command to slaves in the congregation at Ephesus was intimately tied to his broader aims in the letter. He was not rendering judgment upon the institution writ large, but upon concrete situations as they arose in the church. Moreover, Timothy Gombis has persuasively argued that in Ephesians, Paul sought to articulate the lineaments of a “new humanity” – an alternative arrangement within the politeia of God, which counterposed the harsh, often capricious social order in which the early Christians found themselves. He addresses slaves directly (and before masters), thereby “granting them a place of dignity and honour”. His admonition to masters (v.9) is grounded in the fact that the same Lord presides over both parties. With a few swift strokes, Paul relativises the position of sovereignty a slaveholder might otherwise have adopted. Finally, the remarkable demand that masters treat their human holdings well (cf. Col 4:1) would have contrasted sharply with prevailing cultural wisdom (Aristotle, for one, characterised the master-slave relationship as one of tyranny).

Much of this corresponds to what biblical scholar William Webb has dubbed the “redemptive movement” of Scripture: an ethical dynamic established by the biblical texts, advancing God’s redemptive project (sometimes incrementally) in the face of countervailing forces. Indeed, the apostle’s indirect challenges to slavery’s harsh excesses in Ephesians and Colossians are exceeded by his letter to Philemon, where he speaks of Onesimus, Philemon’s slave, as a fellow “brother” (Phil 16). As N.T. Wright suggests, the note of radical equality resident in the term “brother” “set a time-bomb” beside the entire system. And while one looks in vain for explicit condemnation of slavery in Paul’s letters, it cannot be stressed too often that the early Christians were a persecuted minority, bereft of the kind of power needed to challenge head-on a “ubiquitous institution” (so William Klein). The upshot of all this is that to read a passage like Ephesians 6:5ff as if it were offering abstract commands of an exceptionless character is to miss the point entirely. It also substitutes a mechanical, isolative reading for one that is more sensitive to the text’s literary contours and historical milieu.

Secondly, all of us are ensconced within a certain way of understanding reality. That understanding inevitably acts as a lens through which we observe a text. No one approaching a biblical passage does so unencumbered; we all bring to it certain presuppositions, biases, and so forth. Some have been formed by the ambient culture (and are frequently imbibed unconsciously). Others involve the conditioning of a specific theological or denominational tradition. Thus, a Baptist and a Presbyterian can read the New Testament and derive very different ecclesiological models from it – the one opting for a style of congregationalism, the other for a governing body of elders. To say this is not to counsel interpretive despair: it is still possible to arrive at a robust understanding of scriptural truth, despite the ongoing influence of contemporary context. But the point is that having been catechized into certain patterns of thinking by the secular and religious worlds we inhabit, we may well be predisposed towards certain readings of the Bible – some of which will compel us to patiently engage in exegetical negotiation with the text.

Dr. Mohler has implicitly tried to circumvent these realities by invoking the “plain sense” of Scripture or “common sense” readings of a passage. I’ll say more about so-called “common sense” below. But for now, it’s worth noting that Dr. Mohler’s appeal simply re-locates the problem: what constitutes “common sense” in the first place is likely to vary depending on one’s historical location. Public consensus on all manner of questions inevitably changes. This is as true of scriptural interpretation as it is of slaveholding, or the earth’s relationship to the sun. An ordinary person living in the 21st century will approach these issues in a manner very different from that of a resident of the 1300s – or, for that matter, from someone living in first-century Palestine. Contrary to what Dr. Mohler may think, the unadorned individual, apprehending the message of the text apart from the mediation of cultural frameworks, is largely non-existent.

Put another way, Dr. Mohler’s claims embody an entirely ahistorical view of Scripture – as if it were a product of pure transcendence, unmoored from time, history, and culture. How else does one explain his publicly articulated positions on the contentious subjects under review? They evince little conscious recognition of the historical and contextual distinctives of either Genesis 1 or Paul’s admonitions regarding slavery. Tacitly treating the texts in free-floating fashion, Dr. Mohler has only succeeded in isolating them from the originating environments from which they emerged.

‘Solo’ Scriptura and the devaluing of tradition

This brings me to Dr. Mohler’s second major error. The current of ahistoricism running through some of his approaches to biblical interpretation also underlies his depreciation of tradition and its role in exegesis. This, too, is a consequence of biblicist naivety. As more than one theologian has argued, Christians – and the church at large – cannot avoid dependence on the growing body of critical reflection upon Scripture. Conducting an ongoing dialogue with past voices is an important part of deep biblical knowledge – relativizing one’s own perspective on the text, and exposing the historical contingency of so many “plain” readings. Attentively listening to those voices invariably shapes one’s views; at times, the exercise may even overturn previously untroubled interpretations of a passage. As N.T. Wright notes, if we fail to remember that exegetes of every period have left their “mark on subsequent readings of Scripture”, we will simply fail to realize “why we ‘naturally’ read the text” in the way that we do.

For Dr. Mohler, it seems that simply being in possession of a supposedly “timeless” Bible is enough; evolving historical interpretations of biblical passages are eschewed, or at least muted. Some may wish to call this sola scriptura, or the primacy of Scripture, in a misguided attempt to stave off the influence of tradition upon one’s reading of Scripture. But it’s a departure from the Reformation cry. At times, Dr. Mohler seems to drift towards what might be characterised as ‘solo’ scriptura: Scripture alone and isolated, detached from both its own socio-cultural matrix and the streams of subsequent interpretation that have come down to us through the ages. Of course, Dr. Mohler himself is a child of the Reformation, having been self-consciously shaped by the Reformers and what they achieved. But on certain questions, he reveals a limited horizon, failing to recognize the role tradition inevitably plays, even on putatively unmediated readings of Scripture.

Dr. Mohler’s apparent position is father to several problems, not least of which is a superficial engagement with historical interpretations. Witness his comments regarding Genesis 1. He has claimed that prior to Darwin, biblical interpreters were largely unanimous in their understanding of the oft-repeated reference to “day” (vv. 5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31). To be sure, he appeals generically to the history of exegesis on this question, but it’s one that appears to be heavily conditioned by the limits of his own biblicism. The reality is far more complex and ambiguous. Robert Letham, for one, has provided ample evidence from a variety of commentators – all of whom lived before the emergence of Darwin’s theory, or the development of modern geological dating – to show that there was hardly a consensus regarding the “days” of Genesis 1. While Reformation luminaries such as Martin Luther adopted a largely literal approach, others like Origen, Augustine, and Aquinas sought different ways of understanding the text. Commenting on the evident variety of exegetical options, Letham concluded that “claims that a literal reading of Genesis 1 is obvious fall down when the history of interpretation is taken into account” (emphasis original).

Is it “common sense” or Common Sense?

Irony abounds at this point. Although Dr. Mohler seems to appeal to the idea of “mere” readings of Scripture, his position actually represents the incursion of certain philosophical traditions into the American evangelical psyche. Chief among them is what has come to be known as Scottish Common-Sense Realism (CSR). A reaction against Humean scepticism, it rests upon the belief that one’s perceptual apparatus provides direct awareness of objects as they really are. Church historian Mark Noll has traced the influence of CSR throughout conservative evangelicalism in the United States. A “cluster of convictions” associated with CSR, he has argued, “furnished broader habits of mind” and consolidated certain intellectual conventions, especially as evangelical thought evolved in nineteenth-century America. Conservative evangelicals past and present have appropriated CSR’s epistemological naivety regarding perception of the external world, tacitly applying it to an understanding of Scripture and its teachings. The consequence has been an equally naïve understanding of the individual reader’s capacity to apprehend the meaning of biblical texts.

CSR predisposed many nineteenth-century conservative evangelicals to study the Bible in a strictly inductive manner, on the analogy of a scientist studying nature. Hence, Princeton theologian Charles Hodge could liken the Bible to a “great store-house of facts” that one just needed to apprehend and arrange. The biblical scholar or exegete was like a botanist, simply observing the scriptural “ecosystem” before him. CSR has persisted, and its legacy may be discerned in current readings of Scripture within large sections of conservative evangelicalism. Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, wherein the author advocates just such an approach, is perhaps the most well-known example of that legacy. As Noll writes of such readings:

“The most immediate result of this approach to theological construction was to eclipse systematic study of Scripture that relied self-consciously on the insights of theological tradition, or that sought to understand the fullness of the historical circumstances surrounding the actual writing of Scripture(emphasis mine).

In his apparent approach to biblical interpretation, the status of the individual reader, and even the role of theological tradition, Dr. Mohler is, in many ways, an epistemological heir to CSR. His exposition of the “days” of Genesis 1 as a straightforward reference to 24-hour periods of time is a case-in-point: he reads the chapter as it stands, without interrogating the cultural conditioning reflected in either the text or his interpretation of it. Dr. Mohler’s capacity to perceive the semantic content of the passage is, in good “Common Sense” fashion, sufficient for accurate apprehension. As much as he may wish to lay claim to a direct encounter with the supposedly plain meaning of Scripture, his interpretive decisions have seemingly been shaped by extra-biblical patterns of thought.

A window into a wider malaise

I haven’t time to examine Dr. Mohler’s neglect of the hermeneutical “gap” between our era and that of the biblical authors. Others have made sage observations in this direction, questioning his apparent assumption that some biblical strictures can be applied in the modern world without any need for cultural or historical “translation”. In any case, this isn’t simply about the President of SBTS and his interpretive failings. The simplistic readings into which Dr. Mohler has occasionally fallen reflect a wider malaise within conservative evangelicalism. That malaise is characterised by a flat, mechanical approach to scriptural exegesis, a strictly prescriptive appropriation of biblical texts, and ignorance (often wilful) of the church’s grand interpretive tradition. In its crudest forms, this stance issues in a “concordance” method to the study of scriptural truth (something that Dr. Mohler has, in fact, criticised); as the term suggests, it simply requires the unconditioned reader to collect all biblical passages bearing on a particular subject in order to discover what the Bible, construed as a straightforwardly unified document, has to say about it. Deep methodological flaws notwithstanding, the approach remains endemic to the conservative evangelical world.

As Dr. Mohler’s unfortunate comments on slavery demonstrate, an attitude of naïve biblicism may also yield implausible – as well as morally dubious – conclusions. Not only does this fall afoul of Augustine’s caution against provoking ridicule from unbelievers; it also saddles believers with a series of positions that may collapse under the weight of their own absurdities. Yes, Christian leaders are called to be faithful to the Word of God. However, zeal wedded to impoverished models of biblical truth is injurious to the credibility of the church’s witness. In an aggressively post-Christian society, such harm may prove fatal.

A Questionable Testimony: Giles Fraser, the Bible, and the Nuclear Family (Part Two)

This is the second piece in a two-part series, critically examining Giles Fraser’s recent essay on religious conservatives, sex, and the family. For Part One, see here

Introduction

For some time now, Giles Fraser has played the role of passionate sponsor for the full inclusion of LGBTI people within the Church of England. Whilst his unflagging advocacy provokes a certain admiration, it also leaves him prone to making rash, gratuitous statements – particularly when they concern his opponents. Previously, I examined Fraser’s attempts to celebrate the emergence and rise of “forged” family groupings by trivializing the concept of the modern nuclear family. Fraser’s claims were as fallacious as they were bold: issuing pronouncements regarding the supposed novelty and unimportance of this particular family type, despite there being almost no evidence to support such confident assertions (and a wealth of data to contradict them).

Being a man of the cloth, Fraser also tried to freight his argument with the imprimatur of Holy Writ, insisting on biblical ambivalence regarding the biological, two-parent family. He went so far as to claim that Jesus himself was vehemently opposed to the idea as (at best) a poor facsimile of the divinely-centred ideal, preferring a kind of “fictive kinship” grounded in shared allegiance to God. Having scrutinised the first half of his recent essay and found it wanting, I now turn to the essay’s second, “theological” stage. Unfortunately, it fares no better – suggesting that Fraser’s grasp of biblical interpretation is just as uncertain as his engagement with social science and history.

Fraser, the New Testament, and the nuclear family

We may begin by scrutinising Fraser’s major theological claim – namely, that Jesus and the New Testament authors were hostile to the idea of the nuclear family. To be sure, there are certain things he gets right. He observes that “membership of this new family [i.e., the family Jesus inaugurated] is not premised on biological kinship but on baptism” – that is, upon confessional faith in Christ as Lord. This is true, so far as it goes: Jesus repeatedly relativised the notion of the “natural” family through his teachings and actions (e.g., Luke 9:59-60). With his epoch-shifting ministry, he created a new kinship group around his own person. Membership within that family was not a token of genealogy or biological inheritance, but was secured through obedience to the Father. The chief expression of this obedience was, of course, devotion to Christ himself.

Matthew 12:46-50, which Fraser cites, captures this sentiment admirably. Jesus’ response to his own family’s entreaties points allusively to the fact that he intended to construct a familial community whose members shared a common commitment to performing the will of God. Other passages in the Gospels, such as Luke 8:59-60, also reveal a man convinced that wholehearted devotion to both him and his mission – exceeding the demands even of one’s biological family – was an individual’s principal obligation. So stringent was this requirement that Jesus employed a familiar form of Hebraic hyperbole to describe the “hatred” one should feel towards one’s family if authentic discipleship within the company of God was to become a reality (Luke 14:26).

At first glance, it would seem that Fraser’s argument is sound. But to relativise something is not to denigrate it, and relegating one’s biological family to a position of secondary importance hardly provides warrant for the dubious conclusions he reaches. Nor does the New Testament always present its readers with a simple binary choice between natural and spiritual families, as if the two were inherently antithetical.

Despite subordinating the natural family within the hierarchy of kingdom priorities, Jesus and his followers nevertheless held in high esteem several key ingredients composing modern “nuclear” kinship types. Take the notion of enduring heterosexual marriage, seen as the bedrock and mainspring of stable, biological families. Far from trivializing the marital bond between a man and a woman, the gospels regard a person’s ongoing fidelity to the “one-flesh” union with their spouse as an important manifestation of Christian discipleship. So clear is this teaching that Richard Hays confidently concluded: “permanent, monogamous marriage is [according to the NT] the norm; Christians are called upon to see their marriages as expressions of discipleship and to renounce divorce…”

A high view of marriage can be gleaned from Jesus’ own comments on the topic. Although the synoptics report Christ’s words with slight variations, they are united in recounting his near-absolute foreclosure on divorce, as well as his grounds for doing so (e.g., Mark 10:1-12). Matthew, Mark, and Luke all have Jesus root his view of lifelong, covenantal marriage in the creation mandate: man and woman were created for each other (Gen 2:23-24), “yoked together in a union so permanent and inviolable that only God has the right to dissolve it” (so Gerald Hawthorne). The depth of this bond was such that husband and wife were seen, not as two discrete parties to a contractual agreement, but as a new, composite entity (Mark 10:8).

Jesus endorsed and re-affirmed this ideal in his confrontation with his opponents; indeed, rooting marriage in God’s founding vision for creation only served to underscore its sacral importance. His appeal to Genesis 1-2 and its evocative “one-flesh” image reveals a belief in the permanency, complementarity, and monogamous character of marriage. It also needs to be stressed that by pointing to those texts, Jesus implicitly affirmed one of the central purposes of marriage, namely, the generation of children. God’s creation of man and woman for each other is viewed as a crucial manifestation of their status as his image-bearers. And as those fashioned in his likeness, they, too, possess the capacity for creation – seen chiefly in their ability to generate new life. Pace Fraser, this is all a far cry from being an “enemy” of the nuclear or natural family. Moreover, one of the more common precursors to the new family types he tends to laud – i.e., the dissolution of an existing marriage – is prohibited as a violation, not simply of the marital bond, but of one’s pledge to follow Christ.

What the evangelists chose to include of Jesus’ teachings in their own works is, of course, indicative of their own theological and ethical concerns. For all the ambivalence they evince regarding natural families within the new covenant community, they seem to adhere to positions that many modern advocates of the nuclear family would warmly endorse. Whilst Mark’s critical depiction of Jesus’ family (3:31-34) is consistent with his sketch of discipleship as a journey requiring sacrifice of even the most intimate associations, he is far from anti-family. As New Testament scholar Stephen Barton has shown, Mark, like the other evangelists, upholds the creational ideal concerning marriage, whilst also affirming the Old Testament commandment that children honour their parents (7:9-13) – indication that the ongoing integrity of the biological family was of signal importance to both Jesus himself and the Second Evangelist.

Context matters. The note of scepticism that runs through parts of the New Testament is often directed at what the family had become symbolically within the belief structure of a major strand of Judaism at the time. N.T. Wright observes that the nation (and within that, the family unit) “stood alongside other symbols, sustaining the entire Jewish worldview”. Within the fractious, besieged environment of first-century Judaism, family, food laws, and Sabbath-keeping acquired near-talismanic significance; at least for some sects, the overriding aim was to police the boundaries of the community as stringently as possible, in order to guard against the dilution of its ethno-religious identity. The early Christians didn’t object to the biological family per se, as something inherently “bad” to be discarded, but to the idolatrous importance with which some had imbued it. Whilst Jesus never saw the natural family as ultimate, we have reason to think he viewed it as good and necessary.

What about the Old Testament?

It goes without saying that much of what the New Testament teaches in regards to marriage and the family is, like so much else, deeply rooted in the soil of the Old Testament. That much is obvious from the brief survey of Jesus’ attitude towards divorce and his appeal to Genesis 1-2. But rather than engage with the formative influence of such texts, Fraser seems to prefer the rather facile claim that the Old Testament offers a muddied view of matrimony and the family. Thus, his confidence that the Hebrew Bible is quite “relaxed” about many of its heroes having multiple wives. Whether a series of discrete vignettes about different individuals amounts to a unified attitude is questionable. A much surer case can be made that multiple marriages are, broadly speaking, viewed as a perilous departure from what the Creator instituted at the beginning (Gen 2:24) – one that arises from, and indeed precipitates, moral decline.

It is no coincidence that Lamech, whose sinful arrogance outweighed that of his murderous ancestor, Cain, is also the first recorded person in the Old Testament to marry more than one woman (Gen 4:19-23); as Old Testament scholar Victor Hamilton suggests, the association of these two elements – moral cruelty and polygamy – is rather telling. And what of Solomon, to whom Fraser himself refers? One can only conclude that 1 Kings 11:1-13 has been excised from his Bible, for it is there that the biblical narrator forges a fairly clear connection between the king’s voracious appetite for wedded bliss and his eventual apostasy. True, part of the problem lay in the fact that Solomon married women from the surrounding nations (as opposed to Israelite women), but the association with such a prodigious “collection” of wives and spiritual corruption is surely implicit in the text: if one’s priorities are carved up with the addition of a single spouse (cf. 1 Cor 7:32-35), imagine how diluted devotion to one’s Sovereign might be with 700 of them. The upshot of all this is that the Hebrew Bible is, to say the least, far more cautious about polygamy than Fraser assumes. Grudging concession to the mores of the day? Probably. “Perfectly relaxed”? Probably not.

It’s true that the concept of family has changed significantly since the documents of the Old Testament were produced. Levirate marriage, patriarchalism, concubinage, and clan structures: practices such as these, which were simply part of the warp and woof of Israelite culture, have vanished; they are boundary markers between different historical eras, and thus different understandings of family formation. Even so, certain crucial features persist, which genetically links past and present iterations of the family. OT scholar Joel Drinkard has written of the foundational role Genesis 1:27-28 and 2:24 can play in developing an Old Testament conception of family. According to Drinkard, some of the attributes composing contemporary nuclear families – including biological-sexual differentiation, or the establishment of distinct family units (“leaves his father and mother…”) – find strong analogues in those texts. He wisely concludes that despite the many stages of evolution the family has undergone since the era of ancient Israel, “much remains remarkably unchanged over that same span”.

Leaping over logical gaps: an unreliable evangelist for “modern” families

Fraser doesn’t merely use scriptural teachings to argue against the nuclear family; he also seeks to press them into service to argue for modern or bespoke family types, including same-sex kinship arrangements. This is another significant leap in logic. There is no essential connection between a covenant “family” grounded in common faith and one framed by same-sex eroticism; their claimed equality as biblically-viable kinship structures is little more than an instance of free association. We may agree with Fraser that acts of solidarity and mutual care within the gay community during the early-AIDS crisis were expressions of noble human impulses. Who would want to say otherwise? But it’s difficult to take seriously his subsequent conclusion that those relationships and kinship structures are more firmly rooted in Scripture than the natural family – especially when one considers what many of its key passages actually say about family formation, marriage, and sexual relationships.

If anything, the biblical evidence points in the other direction. The Jesus who de-centred the biological family in favour of an eschatological community unmoored from genealogy is also the Jesus whose radicalisation of marriage and divorce would make even many modern conservatives blush. That he did so on the basis of Genesis 1 and 2 would seem to automatically rule out the very relationships Fraser celebrates. The Paul who counselled virgins to remain unmarried, thereby cutting across accepted cultural norms (1 Cor 7:8), is also the Paul who condemned homosexual relationships, not merely as an offence against traditional sensibilities, but as an affront to the cosmic order God has instituted (Rom 1:24-27).

These are only the most explicit corollaries to what is implicit elsewhere in the Bible. Yes, Fraser attempts to link Scripture’s proscriptions against homosexuality with a lack of patriotism, but they remain unconvincing. Even if one accepts this as a rationale for the Old Testament’s sanctions (for to engage in sexual acts that deny the possibility of children is to frustrate the survival of the nation), it makes no sense of Pauline prohibitions against same-sex erotic activity – precisely because the Apostle wasn’t writing to ethnic communities that relied for their persistence on procreation. Fraser, it seems, has simply tried to smuggle in his favoured versions of family formation with the entirely unobjectionable claim that the New Testament recognizes certain forms of extended or fictive kinship structure.

Some concluding thoughts

In no way does my critique invalidate the general notion of “forged” family groups. Many of them remain legitimate – indeed, honourable – manifestations of gospel-leavened kinship arrangements. One of the New Testament’s controlling narratives has God graciously adopting those whom he has called, thus grafting them into the covenant community (Rom 8:15-17, 23; 11:17). Or what about John 19:26-27, and the crucified Messiah’s pronouncement of a new kinship arrangement between Mary and the one whom he loved? A more poignant example of “blended” family formation would, I submit, be difficult to find.

Galvanized by the moral power of this vision, many traditionalist believers have resisted the urgings of modern culture to atomise or isolate family units. At their best, some have even sought to imitate God’s boundless generosity via their own acts of adoption. Meanwhile, the malign suggestion that religious conservatives are predisposed to idolize the nuclear family fares quite badly: traditionalist Christians who daily imbibe the wisdom of Scripture are more likely to warn against the family’s potential to usurp God’s position as the ultimate object of one’s allegiance. This hardly resembles the kind of fetishizing insularity Fraser attributes to those whom he opposes, and reveals a greater depth of insight than charges of “blindness” would suggest.

A final word. One of the themes of Fraser’s essay seemingly implies that the views he criticises have more to do with (right-wing) political calculus than with genuine attempts to grasp reality. Although there is some truth to this, his effort to deconstruct religiously conservative claims en masse as ideologically-driven power plays yields meagre results. The biblical data indicates that however much political machinations may have adulterated these claims, they’re not ultimately grounded in conservative revanchism. Nor are they driven in the main by wistful nostalgia for a bygone era. Rather, they are rooted in something far deeper – namely, an (imperfect) effort to “live rightly in the world” according to principles embedded in the created order and revealed in Holy Writ. Fraser’s dismissals notwithstanding, religiously conservative views concerning sex, marriage, and the family embody patterns of thinking whose origins lie at the very core of that sacred testimony.

Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?

In my last post, I explored the rather vexing issue of Christians, Muslims, and the reference to God. The question lying at its heart was whether members of these two great religions refer to the same being. My tentative conclusion was that despite the many theological differences separating Islam and Christianity, and despite the errors Christians believe Muslims commit in their conception of the deity, the followers of Christ and Muhammed ultimately refer to one and the same God. I also concluded that the Trinity, for all its apparent significance, doesn’t prevent commonality of reference.

A further batch of questions presented themselves as a result of my enquiry: what might all this mean for worship? If Christians and Muslims denote the same God in their basic acts of expression, do they thereby worship him successfully? It’s important to recall, of course, that reference and worship are two distinct acts: one can refer to something (a ball, say, or a piece of wood) without thereby venerating it. The latter act is far richer in its significance, although it necessarily requires — and indeed, builds upon — the success of the former. That is why the issue cannot be decided simply by gesturing in the direction of my previous post.

What I will say at the outset is that because I think Christians and Muslims refer to the same God, they have satisfied the minimum conditions that would be required if someone is to direct their acts of reverence to the appropriate object. It’s possible, in other words, to claim that both the followers of Christ and the followers of Muhammed “aim” their worship towards the same God. If worshiping God is a subset of reference, and if Christians and Muslims both engage in successful denotation (as I have argued), then one ought to allow for the strong possibility that veneration is at least being directed to the same being. On a very basic level, both sets of religious believers seek to worship the one true God, grounding their solemn offerings in successful acts of reference.

This is an extremely “thin” sense of worship, however; whether God accepts all such forms, and whether Muslims do so in a completely legitimate way, are separate issues. And it is here that Christian doctrines like the Trinity and Christ’s nature become germane.

As I read the New Testament, I am persuaded that to worship God rightly requires veneration of Christ: not simply a Christ of one’s own making, but Christ as he is presented by authors like the Fourth Evangelist. John 4:23-24 functions as a convenient entry-point, focusing as it does on the contours of authentic worship. True, the passage doesn’t explicitly refer to those doctrines that might be said to divide Christians and Muslims. But when Jesus’ statements are viewed within the context of John’s broader theological — and indeed, Christological — schema, it seems clear that worship of God cannot be achieved apart from faithful confession of Christ’s identity.

Many of us are likely to know the story well. Jesus, tired from a journey, sits down by a well where a Samaritan woman is drawing water (4:1-6). His request for a drink triggers an impromptu theological discussion that sees him proclaim to the woman that the kind of worshipers God seeks are those who worship him in “Spirit and in truth” (vv.7-24). Veneration of the deity is no longer tied to sacred locales, whether Mount Gerizim (Samaritans), or Jerusalem (Jews); rather, Jesus insists that whatever authentic worship looks like, it cannot fail to be Spirit-imbued and grounded in the truth.

For present purposes, it is Jesus’ reference to “truth” that remains most relevant. This is no vague and nebulous idea in John’s Gospel; nor should it be imagined as an abstract notion, occupying some rarefied, ethereal plane. It is reasonably clear that the Johannine concept of truth, when set within the theological framework established by the Fourth Evangelist, takes on a definite profile. For John, it is indelibly tied to, and comes to full expression in, Jesus Christ himself. His prologue (1:1-18), which acts as a kind of overture for the rest of the Gospel, sets the ball rolling. That John would call Jesus the “Word” (vv.1-2) suggests that he is trading on a key idea that links the logos with divine mind or reason. This was true of much ancient Greek thought, which cradled the notion that the logos represented the thought or reason of God, imbuing disparate matter with structure and form. But it is also the case that elements of pre-Christian Judaism identified the Word with divine wisdom, through which the transcendent God involved himself within creation (e.g., Prov 8:22-31). The point is that with such language, John decisively included Christ within the ambit of God’s identity.

Moreover, the pre-incarnate Word is said to have created all things, bearing the source of life that is “light” for human beings (1:4, 9). The image of light is commonly used as a metaphor for truth, or at least the medium by which truth might be seen (one finds vestiges of this idea in simple phrases like “I see”, where one’s sense of sight is used metaphorically to connote comprehension of some truth). And of course, Jesus himself claimed to be “the truth” (not merely a messenger or conduit of truth) in John 14:6. In making so stupendous a claim, Christ was resting on his own sure conviction that he is the unique channel of God’s revelation — indeed, that he is the very embodiment of that gracious self-disclosure.

Jesus’ declaration in John 4:23-24 must be set within this wider context. In saying to the Samaritan woman that acceptable worship of God is undertaken “in…truth”, Jesus was directing her to the vital importance of grounding one’s acts of veneration in the divine truth that had, remarkably, become incarnate in him. What this means is that successful worship cannot but include confession as to who Jesus really is. For John, he is many things: Messiah, Israel’s king, true liberator, the inaugurator of the new covenant, and so forth. But behind this patchwork of roles lies the Fourth Evangelist’s basic conviction, namely, that Jesus is nothing less than divine wisdom — the very mind of God, clothed in flesh (1:14), who has made visible the unseen Creator. To declare this is to leaven one’s monotheism with a clear streak of plurality. Indeed, someone who speaks the way the Fourth Evangelist does in 1:1-2 means to signal a monumental shift in traditional conceptions of divine unity.

Although Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman doesn’t directly touch on God’s nature (aside from a fleeting reference to the fact that God is spirit), it’s also the case that John 4:23-24 raises crucial questions concerning Jesus’ identity; these in turn force the reader to ask herself what his relationship to the Father is, and what that might mean for one’s understanding of the divine. Similarly, the passage compels her to interrogate the connection between one’s grasp of Christ’s exalted status and worship that is acceptable to God. Given that the Johannine conception of divine truth is refracted through a Christological lens, professing Jesus as God’s incarnate Word is constitutive of true worship. A person cannot claim to successfully venerate the one true God if their sacrificial acts aren’t based on faithful confession of Jesus’ identity; the one demands the other. As NT scholar, D.A. Carson, helpfully observes, authentic worship of God “is…in personal knowledge of, and conformity to, God’s Word-made-flesh, the one who is God’s ‘truth’ (cf. 14:6), the faithful exposition of God and his saving purposes” (emphasis mine).

What are the implications of this way of thinking about worship? For a start, it means that in professing Jesus as the enfleshment of divine truth, one is tacitly committed to a pluralistic conception of God. John 4:23-24, when seen in the light of the evangelist’s broader theological program, inevitably requires the putative worshiper to move towards a richly manifold picture of the deity’s inner life if she is to properly reverence him. That picture is, of course, consistent with the Fourth Evangelist’s opening gambit (1:1-2), which could justifiably be called proto-trinitarian. It mightn’t have the systematic character of subsequent trinitarian reflection, but it does mean that the lofty Christology undergirding John’s characterization of worship is genetically linked to a key doctrine separating Christian and Muslim models of God. At the very least, it acts as a kind of channel, guiding a person towards confession of the perichoretic relationships that exist within the godhead (to borrow the language of later theological analysis [cf. John 14:20a; 17:21b, 23a]). Austere, unitarian conceptions of God — such as those found in Islam — are automatically ruled out, for they implicitly repudiate the sort of Christological confession that is, according to the Johannine definition of worship, non-negotiable.

Devout Muslims are, of course, sincere in their attempts to venerate the transcendent Creator. No one of clear sense and good will should deny that. But if my analysis of John 4 is correct, then their rejection of Jesus’ status as the embodied disclosure of divine truth — a disclosure that expands the boundaries of God’s identity — means they fall afoul of Christ’s pivotal declaration concerning the shape of true reverence. For all their success in referring to the same God as Christians, Muslims do not ultimately succeed in worshiping him. This is so, despite the fact that they also direct their oblations to the same being.

It’s a little like two people, Bob and Bill, both of whom attempt to call a third person, Barry. But whereas Bob has Barry’s correct number and a decent line, Bill does not. In a sense, they are both calling — or intending to call — the same recipient, just as in a sense, Christians and Muslims are both offering worship to the same God. But just as Bill is not able to make contact with Barry due to erroneous contact details and poor infrastructure, so the Muslim is unable to successfully direct her worshipful acts towards God due to rejection of Jesus’ — and therefore the Creator’s — true identity; there is a “disruption” in the line of communication as a consequence of the Muslim’s gravely erroneous beliefs, severely inhibiting any connection she may wish to make with the deity. So whilst the followers of Islam may “worship” the same God as Christians in one sense, there is a far more important sense in which they fail to do so — not because they direct their worshipful acts towards another being entirely, but because what they offer is unacceptably deficient.

Christians, Muslims, and the Reference to God

Introduction

Do Christians and Muslims refer to the same God? Are they citing the same being? Or are the followers of Muhammed – as some Christians hold – rallying behind nothing more than an idol of their own making?

These are questions that arise (better: erupt) from time to time, often cohabiting with a raft of political issues concerning the contested place of Muslims in modern Western societies. Their intermingling means that one’s answers tend to be governed, not by considered analysis of the relevant data, but by tribal affiliation. The subservience of open enquiry doesn’t augur well for the successful pursuit of truth; as previous debates have demonstrated, such efforts are often hamstrung when pre-fabricated narratives or partisan scripts are substituted for genuine, critical reflection.

If truth exists at all in this debate, then it is likely to lie in the relatively austere domains of philosophy and theology. This doesn’t mean the questions are thereby rendered straightforward; even shorn of their inevitable political accretions, they remain far more vexing than many people recognize. Had I myself been asked these questions several years ago, I would have considered the answers absurdly self-evident: Christians and Muslims are most certainly not in contact with the same God, whether referentially or by means of (attempted) worship; above all, I would have argued that the doctrine of the Trinity presents an insuperable theological barrier to harmonisation.

The passage of time, however, has led to a certain mellowing. Whilst I hesitate to reject my earlier position entirely, I think the subject demands a response that navigates the relevant issues in a more discrete, nuanced – even tentative – manner. It is precisely this kind of approach that I shall adopt in the following post, as I engage in a somewhat recursive conversation with those who have applied themselves to the matter. Where partisan loyalties have frustrated past debates, philosophical and theological reflection can encourage precisely the kind of intellectual sobriety that is so often lacking.

One quick caveat before moving on. Throughout this essay, I will be focusing primarily on the concept of reference, as opposed to the richer, more layered activity associated with worship. I regard those as distinct (yet deeply related and overlapping) acts: simply referring to something is not necessarily the same, of course, as venerating it. Even so, worship logically requires the success of denotation, and is in fact a subset of that broader intentional category. Many people in these debates have simply jumped to the question of worship without first considering the prior question of reference. I think it important to prise them apart, in order to avoid unnecessary conflation and confusion. As such, I shall focus on the fundamental issue of reference; time permitting, I will reserve further comments on worship and veneration for a separate post.

Sense and reference

Let’s begin with a common point of discussion. In the course of past debates, people of a more philosophical bent have often reached for the semantic distinction between sense and reference as a way of understanding how Christians and Muslims might well be referring to the same God. First enunciated by the German philosopher, Gottlob Frege, it’s the idea that two or more people can refer to the same object, even if they do so in contrasting ways; the referent or entity in question may be the same, but the expressions used to “present” it linguistically may differ. A stock example is the way the planet Venus is described as “the morning star” and “the evening star”, depending on the time at which it is viewed. Or, to borrow an analogy from the world of comic books, Superman, Clark Kent, and Kal-El all refer to the same individual, despite differences in designation. Simply using contrasting expressions, therefore, doesn’t automatically entail that the subject of such expressions isn’t one and the same thing.

Proponents of the view that Christians and Muslims refer to the same God would say that something similar obtains here. Even if the followers of Christ and Muhammed describe God differently – “God” and “Allah”, respectively – it doesn’t necessarily follow that they aren’t at least referring to the same deity. As the Superman example demonstrates, it’s possible for descriptions of an object to differ in sense, without demanding a corresponding distinction in reference. A difference in linguistic expression is, in other words, logically compatible with sameness of referent. As the yea-sayers might argue, Muslims and Christians are talking fundamentally about the same being, despite certain terminological differences; “Allah” and “God” (or “Yahweh”) are, on this view, different designations for what is the one entity.

All this is true, so far as it goes. But as the philosopher, Bill Vallicella, observes, whilst a difference in sense is logically consistent with sameness of reference, it’s also consistent with substantial difference: Cassius Clay and Muhammed Ali are the same person; Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau, by contrast, are not. Vallicella also notes, by way of his own example, that sufficiently large differences in sense can create a cumulative difference in reference. Say two people use “God” to describe their respective conceptualisations of the deity. The first person uses his chosen label to denote a transcendent, necessary being who created everything distinct from himself, and preserves the entire panoply of existent reality at every moment. The second person, by contrast, uses his preferred designation to refer to a contingent being who exists within the space-time universe, and who fashioned our world out of pre-existing matter – a kind of Platonic demiurge, as it were. As Vallicella rightly avers, a being cannot be both contingent and necessary; as such, the people in this analogy cannot be said to be referring to the same entity.

This wouldn’t, by itself, provide warrant for the sceptic (although I’m not suggesting that Vallicella is necessarily arguing in this direction). It leaves unsaid just what differences are required for a distinction in linguistic presentation to lead to a corresponding divergence of referents. In the example cited above, the differences are so great and so obvious – i.e., the respective natures of the entities in question are fundamentally incompatible – that one can be justified in saying that the two interlocutors part ways in their objects of reference. By contrast, whilst Christians and Muslims differ on some important aspects of their respective understandings of God/Allah, adherents to these religions espouse a basic monotheism that is similar in key respects (transcendence, sovereignty, eternality, immateriality, etc.). The analogy, therefore, may not have quite the same force if applied to the question at hand, precisely because the contingent-necessary/transcendent-immanent distinctions alluded to earlier do not obtain here (I’ll return to the issue of shared monotheism simpliciter, and whether it provides warrant for saying Christians and Muslims refer to the same God).

Nevertheless, I think Vallicella’s essential point is valid: the sense-reference distinction doesn’t actually get one very far. At best, it might compel someone to migrate from occupying a negative position on the question, to a form of agnosticism.

Assessing some common analogies

As the last analogy above demonstrates, it’s sometimes the case that two (or more) individuals can refer to what is putatively the same object, only to find that their respective beliefs diverge so widely that sameness of referent is simply impossible. But some argue that even where one person’s understanding conflicts with another’s, both parties may nonetheless enjoy a shared object of reference. The philosopher, Francis Beckwith, has argued in just such a fashion. He offers as an example a scenario in which two women, Lois Lane and Lana Lang, are both infatuated with Superman. Lois correctly believes Superman to be a native Kryptonian, whilst Lana erroneously thinks he is a native Kansan, born to his human parents, Martha and Jonathan Kent. Beckwith goes on to assert that even though Lois’ and Lana’s beliefs about Superman are incompatible, and even though Lana holds incorrect beliefs about the object of her affections, they nonetheless refer to one and the same individual.

A similar example (deployed by the philosopher, Edward Feser) concerns a sharply-dressed man drinking from a Martini glass at a soiree. One person, spying the man from across the room, incorrectly thinks he is drinking a Martini. A second person, however, rightly believes him to be drinking only water. However, it is still the case that both people are referring to the same gentleman, despite holding incompatible beliefs about him (i.e., the contents of his drink), and despite one person being wrong about certain of the man’s properties. Proponents go on to say that although Muslims hold what Christians regard as erroneous beliefs about God, they – like the person who thinks the dapper gent is drinking a Martini – are successfully referring to the same entity.

What to make of these analogies? Do they successfully establish the point that claimants wish to make? I have my doubts. I agree with Lydia McGrew that they are question-begging, for they assume what they are meant to prove. That is, the analogies rest on the presumption that Christians and Muslims are referring to the same God, and reason from there. Take Beckwith’s example first: without the prior supposition that Lana and Lois are both referring to the same man, the analogy loses its force. Within the context of the fictional world created by DC, both women are in touch with Superman, having become acquainted with him personally. We can therefore say that despite incompatible – and indeed, erroneous – beliefs, they are connected to the same person.  But the question as to whether Christians and Muslims are somehow in touch with the same deity is precisely what is at issue, being the axis upon which the entire debate turns.

Moreover, as readers, we occupy a privileged vantage point, which allows us to say that Lana and Lois are indeed referring to the same man. But the same does not apply in the case of God’s identity, for we are all ensconced within the epistemological limits of finite existence – such that the “bird’s-eye” view possible in Beckwith’s Superman analogy is entirely precluded here. The same kind of shared perceptual certainty doesn’t obtain in the case of Christians, Muslims, and God, largely because the ontological status of Superman (again, within the confines of the fictional narrative) is quite different from that of the transcendent Creator. As McGrew rightly notes, the analogy only shows that there are certain times when two people can have diametrically opposing views about an object, and yet still refer successfully to one and the same thing. It establishes nothing more than that.

The same problem afflicts Feser’s “dapper man” analogy. If you and I are looking at the same person at a party, then our external senses allow us to detect, or “lock onto”, a common physical object. This would be so, despite our conflicting beliefs regarding the contents of his Martini glass. Moreover, because of our shared perceptual “grasp” of the man in question, we are able to confirm that conclusion through other forms of publicly-available sense data (e.g., that he’s speaking to a woman in a red dress, that he has a white flower attached to his lapel, that he has a pencil moustache, and so on). But how, I ask, can we do this of God? He is not an object of the senses like the smartly-dressed man, just as he isn’t an object of the senses like Superman is in relation to Lois and Lana. As I observed a moment earlier, his ontological status means that he is not susceptible to perceptual detection; there are no shared sense data to which people can appeal in order to determine whether or not they are successfully referring to him. On the assumption that God exists, his nature is such that he utterly eludes our ability to perceive him with the senses. Whereas men of a certain sartorial cut are denizens of the material order, God is the very foundation of that order. Cognate with this status is his complete transcendence over physical reality, and thus his essential immateriality – qualities that explain why he is not susceptible to detection using one’s normal perceptual apparatus.

As Bill Vallicella observes, “we are not acquainted with God” (where knowledge by acquaintance is being used in a technical sense, to distinguish it from knowledge by description). In the absence of other forms of knowing – e.g., mystical experience of some kind – “we are”, he says, “thrown back upon our concepts of God”. And those concepts cannot be anchored in the same way that shared sense data can, particularly as some of the core aspects of this debate – the most prominent being God’s supposedly triune nature – are believed to be revealed truths. This isn’t to say that Muslims and Christians aren’t successfully referring to the same God; that would represent a certain hastiness in one’s logic. But it is to say that analogies like Feser’s fall short of establishing his case, precisely because of crucial disanalogies between well-dressed men and God.

Allusion to the Christian belief in God’s triunity brings me to another important difference between Feser’s analogy and the issue at hand. Whether a certain man at a party is drinking a Martini or water is of little importance where his essential nature is concerned. Feser himself would likely say that this remains an accidental property of the gentleman. As such, incompatible beliefs over the contents of his glass do not significantly impinge (if at all) on questions concerning his nature or identity. If the same man were drinking something else, or even nothing at all, he would still be the same man, and his nature – according to an Aristotelian like Feser – would be that of a rational animal.[1]

But the elements of Feser’s analogy seem to be unlike those of the current debate. For Christians, God’s triunity isn’t some kind of secondary or accidental property, like a Martini glass nursed at a party. Nor it is a metaphysical adjunct or addition to an already-existent monotheism – as if the divine nature could persist apart from its instantiation as a triunity of divine hypostases. On a Christian view, the Trinity is utterly essential to who God is, such that he does not exist separately from it. Remove his triunity (were that even possible), and you’re not simply left with a radically unitarian deity; metaphysically-speaking, you’re left instead with nothing at all.

In other words, the dispute isn’t over comparatively minor or non-essential properties; they have no bearing on who someone is (even if, under certain circumstances, they may aid identification). Rather, the question hangs on differences that go to the very heart of the divine nature. This might appear to raise the distinct possibility that Christians and Muslims aren’t merely quibbling over theological details; rather, they may well be referring to different things entirely when they use the linguistic token “God”. Of course, I am not quite saying that members of these religions certainly aren’t referring to the same God. But I am led to roughly the same conclusion that I was before: Feser’s analogy provides insufficient grounds to argue that they are.

The Trinity: an insurmountable obstacle?

I want to linger on the Trinity a little longer, for whether the doctrine prevents Muslims and Christians from referring to the same God invariably underlies competing positions. Driven by their uncompromising belief in Tawhid, or God’s unitary nature, Muslims utterly reject the idea of the Trinity as a lapse into polytheism. On the other side of the divide, a number of (usually conservative) Christian commentators are convinced that anyone who denies God’s triune being cannot legitimately be denoting the same deity as orthodox followers of Christ. Talk of sense and reference, or of analogies intended to suggest identity of denotation (despite diverging beliefs about the object in question) is ultimately irrelevant: God’s triunity, according to some, makes it obvious that Christians and Muslims are treading completely unrelated paths in their conceptions of God.

Commenting on the issue, Bruce McCormack, a theologian at Yale, sketched a possible case for why Christians and Muslims do not worship – or indeed, refer to – the same God, building that case on the bedrock of Trinitarian conceptions of God’s nature (note well that this isn’t McCormack’s personal opinion). In his essay,[2] McCormack rightly observes that on a Christian view, God is essentially triune. The concept of the Trinity cannot be arrived at simply by adding “three-ness” to a prior commitment to divine oneness. For the follower of Christ, triunity is woven into his very being. It isn’t a kind of “fourth” quality in which the members of the godhead participate (as three human beings might be said to “participate” in a common human nature distinct from any one of them). Again, the Christian God is constituted by his tri-personal nature. All of this is to say that anyone breezily claiming that Christians and Muslims do indeed refer to the same God needs to reckon with the possible implications of what Christians regard as God’s radical, thoroughgoing trinitarian character.

It might seem, then, that Muslims – who adhere to God’s absolute oneness – and Christians do not refer to the same God, given they hold antithetical doctrines about him. McCormack’s comments on what exactly it means for God to be triune appear simply to deepen that divide. Similarly, Bill Vallicella has objected that one being cannot satisfy both triunity and non-triunity – meaning that a Christian and a Muslim cannot, in his view, be directing their beliefs and intentional states towards the same entity. Whilst Vallicella may be more circumspect than others, he appears to be fairly settled in his view that Muslims fail to refer to any extralinguistic entity.

However, there are three reasons why I am not quite satisfied. In fact, they may even provide grounds for saying that Christians and Muslims, for all their key differences, ultimately do refer to the same God.

Metaphysics, logic, and God’s triunity

First, whilst God’s triune nature is for Christians an inescapable part of who he is, it’s also the case that one can make a logical (as opposed to metaphysical) distinction between this and his basic unity.[3] Indeed, the fact that many of the early Christians held to monarchical views of God suggests as much (to say nothing of contemporary Christians, who are likely to adhere to a de facto Monarchianism. Are they, too, referring to a different God?). What I mean is that despite the importance of the doctrine – and behind that, God’s essentially trinitarian being – it remains possible to logically distinguish God’s “three-ness” and his oneness. To put the point in a slightly different way, monotheism is logically prior to trinitarianism; one must first have a concept of God’s fundamental unity, uniqueness, transcendence, etc., before one can then conceive of the Trinity. If one can logically differentiate these two dimensions of God’s nature; and if his unity is the logical predicate for anything else that might be true of him; then it seems possible to be able to refer successfully to him simply by acknowledging the fundamentals of monotheism.

As such, it may be sufficient for Muslims to hold to basic monotheistic beliefs (God as a unity, transcendent, eternal, the creator of everything distinct from himself, etc.), since they alone might allow one to say that both the followers of Muhammed and Christ refer to the same deity. The former may deny the Trinity, to be sure; but because triune depictions of God are logically “contained” within broader, more general conceptions of monotheism – conceptions that are common to both religious systems – successful reference is perhaps possible, even if crucial Christian distinctives are rejected.

This is where Vallicella’s “contradiction” argument, alluded to above, perhaps falls short. Although it is true that no being can be both triune and non-triune, triunity and monotheism are not exhaustively opposed in the same way that other polarities are. A number cannot be both odd and even, for oddness logically banishes its opposite. Similarly, contingency and necessity, to which I referred earlier, are mutually exclusive. But whilst contingency excludes necessity (and visa-versa), triunity and monotheism don’t cancel each other out in the relevant way. Once again, trinitarian conceptions of God build on basic monotheism; they may be woefully incomplete on a Christian reading, but they don’t thereby preclude the possibility of additional theological constructions along trinitarian lines. On the other hand, there is simply no sense to be made of the notions that (e.g.) an odd number is built upon the basic idea of evenness, or that a being’s contingency might be grounded in necessity.

Distinguishing God in himself and our knowledge of him

The second observation bleeds into the first, having been suggested by the fact that one can logically distinguish between God’s unity (part of basic monotheism) and his trinitarian nature. Such distinctions allow a person to develop concepts regarding the former without determining the plausibility of the latter. There seems to be a logical difference, then, between God as he is and the way we might conceptualize him. Edward Feser asks us to consider a scenario whereby God is essentially triune, but never undertook any of the actions that Christians attribute to him (the election of Israel, the incarnation of Christ, the founding of the church, revealing himself as a trinity of divine persons, etc.). Feser rightly argues that all of this is metaphysically possible even though God would remain a trinity. People would only know God in a bare monotheistic sense, but the de-coupling of religious epistemology from God’s nature ad intra implies that this would not prevent them from successfully referring to him. It shows that whilst God is, of metaphysical necessity, triune (at least according to Christians), one can still conceive of him apart from that triunity; the Trinity may entail something vital about God’s being, but it does not entail that “we cannot conceptualize” him in non-trinitarian terms. To think otherwise, Feser notes, is to confuse epistemology and metaphysics.

The Jewish experience

My third and final point acts as something of a real-world proving ground for the above theoretical observations. It concerns the key question of Jewish understandings of God. As several commentators have observed, the experience of the Jewish people tends to undercut the claim that the Trinity ultimately separates Muslims and Christians in their references to God. For Jews, just as much as Muslims, deny that God is a trinity of persons. Those who are quick to say that Muslims refer to a different “God” as a result of their rejection of the doctrine are also likely to insist that this doesn’t present a barrier to successful reference in the case of Jews. But if both sets of religious believers adhere to a radically unitarian view of God, why is it only Muslims that are said to fail in their attempted references? Some have argued the “genetic” link between the Jewish religion and the sect that eventually became Christianity is enough to ensure identity of reference: because observant Jews follow Yahweh as depicted in the Old Testament, then they are referring to the God whom Christians believe revealed himself climactically in the person of Jesus Christ. Lydia McGrew makes this observation, and suggests that there is a fundamental “asymmetry” between Judaism and Islam at precisely this point: whilst the God in whom Jews believe chose the children of Abraham and established a covenant relationship with them, no such relationship exists between him and Muslims.

This is certainly true, but I’m not sure how germane it is to the debate. If it’s the case that a rejection of the Trinity means that one fails to refer to the same God as Christians, then I don’t know why Jews and Muslims ought to be considered differently – Abrahamic covenants notwithstanding. As far as I can see, either the Trinity is essential for reference, or it isn’t. If a Jewish person denies the Trinity, and acceptance of that doctrine is (as proponents hold) necessary for successful denotation, how does Yahweh’s historic pact with Abraham change such a state of affairs? Rejection of the Trinity, on this view, surely entails failure of reference, regardless of other considerations. I myself can’t help but think that the limiting principle of God’s triunity is being inconsistently applied.

Of course, McGrew does admit that in a sense, Jews and Christians “worship” (her word) different gods,[4] precisely because of differences concerning the Trinity. But she maintains that the historic link between Judaism and Christianity entails a certain commonality of reference. Now, Muslims traditionally believe that God acted in the way the Old Testament describes, just as Jews and Christians do. They also believe, of course, that God revealed himself climactically to Muhammed, which both Christians and Jews deny. McGrew says that this, along with a categorical rejection of the Trinity, is enough to sever any lingering connection they might have with the one, true God.

I am inclined to think that McGrew over-extends herself at this point. Again, if modern-day Jews can still successfully refer to God, despite denying what Christians see as his essential nature, why not Muslims? A more proportionate view of the situation might acknowledge the grave deficiencies contained in Muslim conceptions of God (in regards to both his actions and his nature), without thereby taking the further step of suggesting that followers of Muhammed fail to stand in referential relationship with the same God as Christians. Although the Trinity is, from a Christian point of view, essential to God’s being, there is still a distinction between mistaken – even “deeply mistaken” – beliefs about the one true God, and referring to another deity altogether.

Are overlapping beliefs relevant?

It’s true that some have argued that the kind of position I have just sketched inevitably leads to a diluted or “generic” form of monotheism. Bill Vallicella seems to suggest that the overlap between Christians and Muslims – something he cheerfully admits – is a mere abstraction, and doesn’t actually refer to the concrete, determinate deity in question. An analogy might help to flesh this idea out a little more. It’s possible for two people to refer to the abstract idea of the President of the United States via a description of his powers and constitutional responsibilities, all while failing to denote the same, concrete individual. There may be some generic overlap between their respective descriptions, even if the first person is actually referring to Abraham Lincoln, whilst the second person is referring to, say, Richard Nixon. In similar fashion, Christians and Muslims may well share some common assumptions regarding God’s nature, but divergences concerning his triunity (so the argument might go) entail nothing more than reference to an attenuated concept.

I don’t want to dismiss Vallicella’s objection entirely, but once again, I am drawn to the notion that the logical distinction between monotheism simpliciter and its trinitarian sub-species implies that one can successfully refer to God, even if he should fall short of a complete account of the deity. The analogy I have used draws on something of which there have been multiple instantiations, for there have been many presidents since the founding of the United States. Christians and Muslims, however, coincide in their belief that only one God exists to whom they both claim to refer.[5] In the case of American commanders-in-chief, it’s possible to distinguish between an abstracted notion of “President of the United States” and the particular men who have fulfilled that role. I don’t think the same is true here: unlike the office of the President and the distinct individuals who have occupied it, God’s “whatness” is, on a monotheistic view, identical with who he is. In fact, given the radical uniqueness Christians and Muslims (as well as Jews) ascribe to God – which means he cannot be a “member” of a genus, or an instantiation of a general type – I think it well-nigh impossible to find a comparable analogy.

Despite significant differences concerning aspects of God’s nature, Christians and Muslims still maintain a series of shared beliefs: that the deity is utterly distinct from all else; that he is the transcendent, self-sustaining creator of everything; that he is the ultimate source for all things; and so forth. Whilst for Christians, such a depiction is in need of further refinement (given our trinitarianism), it’s accurate as far as it goes. And if it’s true that there is only one deity – i.e., only one metaphysically ultimate being underlying and sustaining all else – then it’s hard to see how Muslims could refer to an abstracted concept that fails to coincide with the concrete particular represented by the appellation “God”. Vallicella writes that the “overlap” between Christ followers and Muslims “is but an abstraction insufficient to determine an identifying reference to a concrete, wholly determinate, particular”. But I would argue that in the case of God, the common ground they occupy is sufficient – precisely because of the monotheistic base to which both religions hold. As Feser has argued, “if someone affirms” the key elements of a (classically) theistic view of God, “then there is at least a strong presumption in favour of the conclusion that he is referring to…the true God”.

Some concluding thoughts

Where does all of this leave me on the question of Muslims, Christians, and the reference to God? It’s perhaps clear that I have moved, ever so tentatively, to the conclusion that adherents from both religions ultimately refer to the same God – and this, despite wide disagreement on some important aspects of his nature and being. As a Christian, I regard the Islamic rejection of the Trinity as deeply erroneous; but notwithstanding the possible significance of God’s essential triunity – a point to which I am not unsympathetic – I think the followers of Muhammed hold to a theological conception that in many crucial respects coincides with a Christian understanding. I don’t think proponents of this view have always mounted the strongest of arguments, and the most common analogies offered fall well short of demonstrating commonality of reference. But on balance, I think that the arguments I have pursued here are probably sufficient to establish the claim that Christians and Muslims are referring to one and the same deity. I would therefore largely agree with the conclusion reached by Reformed theologians, Jeroen de Ridder and Rene van Wondenberg, in their Faith and Philosophy essay:

[The question] doesn’t allow a univocal answer. On the one hand, since belief in the same God requires roughly a certain commitment to the same characterization of God, Jews, Christians, and Muslims do not believe in the same God…On the other hand…the Reformed view can be taken to entail that the word “God” as used in the three religions refers to the same God and, differences notwithstanding, there is certainly striking partial overlap in their characterization of God and his nature.

I should also say that whilst I don’t ultimately share Bill Vallicella’s conclusion on the matter, I agree with him that an obvious answer either way is extremely difficult; apart from anything else, the fact that God is not an object of sense perception means that assessing claims of shared reference are far from straightforward. Moreover, Vallicella is surely correct when he says that people who think otherwise simply haven’t engaged in the arduous process of intellectual and philosophical reflection. It is largely a matter of weighing probabilities, as opposed to tight, logical certainty; of cautiously rendering judgment, based on sincere and genuine engagement with views both consistent and discordant. All participants would do well to bear such advice in mind.

[1] Of course, not all accidental properties are so unimportant where the question of successful reference is concerned. For example, skin colour could be seen as an accidental property, in that the amount of melanin a person possesses has no bearing on his essential humanity. But imagine if we were talking about a certain individual, someone I believed was white and you believed was black. In that instance, it’s harder to see how we could be referring to the same person.

[2] Unfortunately, McCormack’s essay no longer appears to be available online. My references in this blog post are taken from handwritten notes I made before his piece vanished. You’ll have to trust me that I have faithfully rendered his views! For excerpts and a summary of McCormack’s piece, see this entry at the Faith and Theology blogsite (now defunct).

[3] Drawing such distinctions between various aspects of God’s nature is, of course, different from saying that those aspects are metaphysically distinct (and therefore theoretically separable). This means that there is no conflict between what I said before, concerning the constitutional nature of God’s triunity, and what I argue in the present paragraph.

[4] Although McGrew discusses the issue in terms of worship, her TGC essay seems to imply that Christians and Muslims do not even refer to the same deity.

[5] This is different from Michael Rea’s “one God” argument that Christians and Muslims refer to, and even worship, the same being. If I understand Rea correctly, he suggests that because Christians and Muslims both maintain that there is one God, they are logically referring to the same entity. He writes: “Christians and Muslims have very different beliefs about God; but they agree on this much: there is exactly one God. This common point of agreement is logically equivalent to thesis that all Gods are the same God. In other words, everyone who worships a God worships the same God, no matter how different their views about God might be.”

This seems to me to be incorrect. Surely there are some views about God that should make us think that two people have failed to refer to the same being. For example, how can it be that a devotee of Baruch Spinoza (who essentially held to a form of pantheism) and a conservative Muslim are referring to one and the same entity when their beliefs are so radically different? Or, to use a slightly silly example, we might imagine someone who says that there is only one God and that he is Al Pacino. How is it the case, then, that the Pacino worshiper and an orthodox Christian are in touch with the same deity? One believes that a person of flesh and blood, who is material, in time, and subject to change is God; the other, however, believes in a God who is the creator of everything distinct from himself, the unsourced cause of all there is, timeless, self-sufficient, etc. These two conceptions of deity are fundamentally at odds, yet on Rea’s view, we’d have to say that both adherents are in referential relationship with the same God. I submit that Rea’s minimalist criterion is simply insufficient for what he wants to claim – and, moreover, an example of logical haste.

By contrast, my argument rests on the understanding that because Muslims and Christians affirm key, overlapping beliefs about God, and because they also insist that this God is one, unique, etc., then it’s difficult to see how they could be referring to different instantiations of the same category (i.e., “god-ness” or divinity). This is much more specific than Rea’s rather elastic argument, resting as it does on those distinguishing convictions that Muslims and Christians share.

Rugby Stars, Religious Schools, and the Charge of Hypocrisy

I wasn’t going to write about the Israel Folau saga: given that oceans of ink have already been spilled on the topic, I wondered what else I might be able to contribute. Surely everything that could be said has been said?

Well, not quite. There are some commentators who think that criticising Rugby Australia’s decision to sack Folau bars a person from also supporting a faith-based school’s right to employ staff on the basis of sexual conduct (or the promotion thereof). For Peter Van Onselen, this is an egregious case of religiously-tinged hypocrisy. For David Marr, holding both views simultaneously not only manifests cognitive dissonance; it also reveals the inherent arrogance of conservative religion. So far as I can tell, no one has tried to rebut these assertions.

***

To be sure, the alleged equation between Israel Folau’s firing and the hiring policies of religious schools – issues that have intensified the confused debate concerning religious liberty in Australia – is superficially compelling. RA’s CEO, Raelene Castle, insisted recently that the sporting body was well within its rights to sack Folau, since he had violated some of its key values. She implied that by posting his now-infamous tweet, the former rugby star had fallen afoul of RA’s commitment to “inclusion”. Castle also added that it was “important” the code “defend [its] values”, which presumably meant firing one of the Wallabies’ most important players.

In what appears to be a similar principle at work, the leaders of religious schools and their supporters argue that a faith-based institution ought to be able to employ and dismiss staff according to its grounding principles. To condemn the former whilst applauding the latter might indeed seem duplicitous – a form of religious privilege masquerading as high ideals, which critics like Marr regularly flay.

To reach such a conclusion, however, would be hasty. For whatever similarities hold between the two cases, they are outweighed by key differences. Though not as apparent, those differences are far more consequential.

***

There are several crucial issues concerning the two cases in question: differences in the respective values at play, the nature of the institutions articulating those values, and the subsequent demands placed upon employees. The principles inhering within a faith-based school are essential to its institutional identity – marking it out as a distinct religio-educational entity, and leading naturally to an understanding of staff duties that includes adherence to those principles. As I shall suggest below, the absence of any real parallel in a sporting body like RA means that cries of hypocrisy simply do not apply. This requires a degree of stage-setting, so bear with me.

Consider the relationship between a religious school and one of its teachers. In addition to undertaking discipline-specific responsibilities (teaching maths, for example), the employee is in most cases expected to uphold that institution’s foundational values. As I have written before, the raison d’etre of a faith-based school is the transmission of those values to students. Not only are students educated in the various subjects one commonly associates with school; they are also enjoined to engage in a broader process of intellectual, moral, and spiritual formation, set within the religious matrix that informs the school’s ethos. This is part of the institution’s core aim of propagating a particular vision of reality. Staff members are not only expected to conform to that vision; where appropriate, they are to reinforce it (gracefully and winsomely, of course) with students. Such expectations are neither arbitrary nor tangential. Rather, they naturally flow from, and are rooted in, the school’s overriding mission and identity.

None of this is unique to faith-based schools: all bodies predicated upon the articulation of a certain set of beliefs – philosophical, political, or religious – require members to reflect and promote that institutional identity. This is grounded in the recognition that such beliefs are constitutive of the body’s distinctiveness – something without which it would simply fail to exist as it is. To borrow an example from a previous post, it would be quite odd if the Australian Greens remained sanguine about an employee who thought that anthropogenic global warming was a hoax, and was unflagging in his support for fossil fuels. This is for the obvious reason that the Greens’ entire purpose is constituted by a “deep-green” environmentalist philosophy at odds with so-called climate “denialism”. Indeed, to retain such an individual would be self-defeating in the context of the Greens’ overall aims. We can therefore say that there exists a rational connection between the values of an institution of this kind, and the subsequent demands made upon individual employees.

***

For orthodox Christian schools, staff requirements are likely to include adherence to a conservative view of sex and sexuality. It’s important to elaborate this point, for proscriptions against certain types of sexual conduct aren’t simply a set of arbitrary rules, which can be discarded at will. They are integral to the wider body of Christian beliefs – beliefs which claim to say something crucial about reality – and cannot be easily amputated.

According to most Christians (including most Christian educators), beliefs concerning sexual and gender expression are rooted in what orthodox believers take to be the authoritative word of Scripture, behind which stands an understanding of God’s designs for the flourishing of his creation. Indeed, there is good reason to think that woven into the fabric of biblical revelation is an understanding of sexual relations as grounded in gendered/biological complementarity. Sexual distinctiveness is central to the originating vision for human beings, as set forth at the very beginning of the Bible’s master narrative (Gen 1:27-28; 2:20b-25). That harmony-in-difference is consistent with the integration of created polarities – land and sea, night and day (Gen 1:1-25) – while its most obvious sequel, procreation, reflects the native creativity of the God in whose image humans are made.

The NT clearly reinforces this vision. Jesus cited the creation mandate in a debate with some Pharisees over the legitimacy of divorce (Matt 19:5; cf. Gen 2:24). For him, marriage is a one-flesh union between male and female specifically, which should be sundered only under the most extreme conditions. To defer to the authority of such a passage is to implicitly affirm what it says about the gendered nature of sexual congress. Finally, we shouldn’t forget that Paul selected same-sex erotic relationships to illustrate humanity’s debasement in Romans 1 (vv.26-27). This wasn’t because sexual intimacy between, say, two men was seen as more egregious than other types of wrongdoing. Rather, homosexual conduct provided for the apostle a clear and ready manifestation of the thoroughgoing corruption of human beings, and the universal misdirection of their divinely-ordained telos. Behind his denunciation lay the belief that same-sex eroticism signalled humanity’s collective failure to live within the sacred structures of reality, as portrayed in (amongst other places) Genesis 1-2.

All this is to say that how one expresses oneself sexually is hardly peripheral within the ambit of classical Christianity. Given the cosmic implications involved – i.e., the boundaries of the created moral order, and its role in framing human behaviour – these convictions are of central importance. Indeed, they are indelibly tied to the nature of scriptural revelation and its purchase on theological, ontological, and ethical truth. As the Roman historian, Kyle Harper, has observed:

“Sexual morality [for early, as for most modern, Christians] was woven inseparably into their whole effort to live rightly in the world. Sex, by its essence, is entangled in the most fundamental questions about the nature of the self and its relation to God”.

Upholding certain standards of sexual conduct reflects their significance as key constituents of the very worldview animating an orthodox religious school. Likewise the obligation that every staff member observes such standards, stemming as it does from the school’s overriding mission.

Let me summarise what I have been arguing for thus far. Conservative Christian schools (or Jewish, or Muslim) can be said to be characterised by two defining features: the inherent requirements pertaining to staff responsibilities, enjoining them to embody and articulate a certain set of religio-ethical values (including those pertaining to sexuality); and behind this, the constitutive nature of the values they espouse.

***

Contrast this with RA and its stated commitment to a culture of “inclusion”. Whatever one says about the concept, it is implausible to claim that: a) “inclusion” is a constitutive part of RA’s mission or identity; and b) that there exists a clear, rational relationship between a rugby player’s role and conformity to that particular value. RA was established for the express purpose of administering the game of rugby union in Australia. As a body charged with governing a professional sporting code, RA’s founding had little to do with the promotion of a certain set of ethical values. Excise all reference to “inclusion” from RA’s communications and official statements, and its fundamental aims remain largely unaffected. Moreover, the concept itself is one of near-limitless elasticity, the meaning of which is deeply unstable; trying to divine the function of so vague an idea within the institutional architecture of RA is fraught with difficulty. It simply isn’t an inherent component of a sport’s core business in the way that certain views of (e.g.) sexual conduct are for the identity and purpose of orthodox religious schools. At best, “inclusion” is a non-essential (though non-conflicting) adjunct to an institution created long before the concept’s emergence within late-modern culture.

Similarly, while the specific purpose of a faith-based school rationally grounds an employee’s obligation to act as a conduit for her employer’s tradition, the requirements of an Australian rugby union player like Israel Folau are largely limited to competent execution of his on-field responsibilities – not deference to an ill-defined concept only tangentially related to his normal professional duties. While he may have been required to refrain from behaviour deemed manifestly disreputable (e.g., criminal acts), his chief role was to play his chosen sport to as high a standard as possible. Folau’s function within the enterprise of Australian rugby union was therefore qualitatively different from that played by an educator in, say, a Christian high school – precisely because the two institutions are qualitatively different in nature, constitution, and goals.

***

The upshot of all this is that glib denunciations, such as those slung by the likes of David Marr and Peter Van Onselen, simply ignore the crucial distinctions I have tried to outline. The charge of hypocrisy – whatever its rhetorical power – is of no substantive use, being little more than a category error. What I have raised here means that one can, without a whit of hypocrisy or privilege, hold simultaneously the views in question. If critics weren’t so willing to allow their anti-conservative animus to trump logical acumen, they’d be able to recognize this.

Religious Schools and LGBTI Rights: a Delicate Balance

Note: a slightly different version of this article recently appeared in Engage.mailthe monthly online newsletter administered by the Evangelical Alliance’s Ethos think-tank. 

Introduction

The rancorous debate concerning religious freedom and the rights of the LGBTI community has produced several troubling side-effects, not least of which has been a tug-of-war over language. Take the word “discrimination”, which is now contested linguistic and conceptual territory. While all sides acknowledge that invidious discrimination can occur in the public sphere, many LGBTI activists are convinced that to make distinctions on the basis of sexual expression or gender identity – even those grounded in a wider system of religious beliefs – constitutes action that is, by its very nature, unfair.

I have been reminded of this repeatedly over the past year or so, as a series of disputes concerning LGBTI students and teachers in religious schools continues to smoulder. On one side stand religious liberty advocates, who argue that a faith-based school should be permitted to hire or dismiss staff according to its guiding system of values. On the other side are LGBTI activists and their allies, all of whom are equally convinced that such practices are intrinsically unjust and stall the liberationist enterprise. I don’t doubt the sincerity of many of those fighting for what they view as the fundamental rights of gays, lesbians, transgender people and so forth. Moreover, on the question of LGBTI students in faith-based schools, I’d suggest we’re largely in agreement. Even in the case of teachers, the issue is not, for example, sexual orientation per se, but competing lifestyles and value systems. But having said all that, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that there exist many activists who cynically weaponise the language of discrimination to subjugate their ideological opponents.

Demands that anti-discrimination laws be broadly applied to religious schools – institutions that have traditionally enjoyed exemptions from this legal architecture – have grown more strident. Brandishing placards and shouting their slogans, advocates decry religious schools choosing not to employ LGBTI teachers as an illegitimate expression of religious freedom. For them, all further discussion is foreclosed. Advocates passionately insist that, if a teacher’s primary role is to educate students according her specialty, then other attributes (e.g., homosexuality and any resultant conduct) should be seen as immaterial to the inherent requirements of the position. Any attempt to deny employment on such grounds is a manifest example of invidious discrimination and religious bigotry. This fervent activism is buttressed by the more sober reflections of advocates for reform in the legal profession, who attempt to argue upon jurisprudential grounds that faith-based schools should enjoy only the narrowest of exemptions in this domain.

The marriage of white-hot ardour and cool rationality forms a potent mix. And to be fair, the debate is not helped by current legal uses of the word ‘discrimination’ and its scope. Mischievous though some activists may be, their position is inadvertently reinforced by the way religious exemptions to such laws are currently articulated. As at least one commentator has observed, saying that religious institutions ought to sit outside the bounds of relevant anti-discrimination legislation invites the idea that the religious have been grudgingly given a reprieve from what is otherwise deemed to be objectionable conduct. This likely gives succour to some people calling for such exemptions to be repealed. But even if one concedes that the framing of current legislation is inadequate, it’s still true that, in prosecuting their case, many LGBTI advocates – whether sincere or cynical – who denounce religious schools appear to elide the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate instances of discrimination.

The purpose of faith-based schools

The real question, then, is not whether religious freedom entails freedom of discrimination per se, but what kinds of discrimination are appropriate or fair. Should a faith-based school be permitted to distinguish between staff on the basis of particular types of sexual conduct (or the promotion thereof)? Or does such permission implicitly endorse decisions that are manifestly cruel and bigoted?

It is here that an account of what religious schools are, and what they seek to achieve, is germane. For a religious school to hire teachers according to their adherence to the school’s guiding ethos is, I would argue, neither unfair nor invidious. Rather, it represents the natural sequel to the foundational principles supplying the institution with its raison d’etre in the first place. Such practices are critical if a religious educational institution is to maintain its specific identity. It is difficult to see how one could disagree with the proposition, considered generically, that a faith-based school should be given some autonomy to employ staff that will, in both confession and conduct, uphold the institution’s governing philosophy.

On this view, pedagogy is about far more than the transmission of discretely-packaged information to students. Religious educational institutions exist in part to convey such information within the context of a religiously-grounded worldview, and to engage students in a process of moral formation according to the tenets of the traditions they represent. Obviously, such a project will not always succeed: many students leave such schools unchanged, or may even repudiate the institution’s teachings entirely. But this oft-repeated reality has nothing to do with the principle at issue. For those schools that have been self-consciously established to communicate the ethos of a particular religion (apart from the task of instructing students in the various subjects common to all schools), it would seem self-defeating not to try and employ educators who can successfully embody them.

In the case of, say, conservative Christian institutions, this will likely mean upholding certain standards concerning sexuality and sexual identity. Faith-based schools seeking to imbue the life of their community with the values of their grounding tradition will normally do so through the conduits of teachers’ lives (among other means). Thus, if their goal is to uphold the particulars of their religious worldview, and doing so is partly achieved through the modelling behaviour of staff, then whether or not a person’s life reflects those values is deeply relevant. None of this is unique to faith-based schools, either. A moment’s thought will reveal that institutions of all types make certain demands on prospective members and stakeholders as way of maintaining their identity. Take political parties, for example. Would it be illegitimate for, say, the Liberal Party to continue formal association with a member who suddenly began espousing Marxist ideology? Similarly, would the Greens be wrong to expel someone – or refuse to hire them in the first place – if that individual were a so-called climate ‘denier’ and an enthusiast for fossil fuels? If these are legitimate forms of discrimination (owing to the character of certain beliefs and behavioural traits), what makes religious institutions any different?

Just how important is the issue of sexuality, really?

So far, so good. However, while some LGBTI advocates accept certain forms of differentiation, they are likely to maintain that one’s sexuality should be largely immune to discriminatory action. The Human Rights Law Commission offered an example of this distinction, seen in their submission to the relevant senate inquiry last year. Lying behind the claim seems to be the notion that sexual orientation and gender identity aren’t relevant to education at a faith-based school in the way, say, that creedal differences are, for they allegedly lack the defining importance of belief in Christ’s divinity or Muhammed’s supreme prophethood. But this assumes precisely what is at issue. To contend or imply that a person’s sexual mores are immaterial to their job as an educator in a religious context presumes without warrant that such conduct lies outside a given religion’s central doctrines – a minor piece of adiaphora, as it were.

I can’t speak for Jews, Muslims and other religionists who may bristle at the thought of faith-based schools being compelled to hire people whose lives fail to embody their traditions. But orthodox Christianity would regard such a view as deeply unsatisfactory. Even if the expression of one’s sexuality does not sit at the heart of the Christian faith – a privileged locale reserved for such distinguishing claims as God’s triune nature, or the atoning sacrifice of the God-man, Jesus Christ – it is far from trivial. After all, the book of Genesis has God create man and woman, who are called to bind themselves to each other in a union of sexual complements (Genesis 1:26-28). That this passage lies at the very head of the biblical narrative, prior to the catastrophic irruption of sin within creation, implies that it is a special part of the Creator’s originating vision for those bearing his likeness. Indeed, the creative endowments of human beings – seen most uniquely in the intrinsic capacity to generate new life – crucially reflect God’s far superior creativity. A glance at the New Testament reinforces the significance of this design. Its pages reveal both a renewed endorsement of that vision, as proclaimed by Jesus himself (Matthew 19:4-6), and a denunciation of same-sex erotic relationships as a particularly clear manifestation of humanity’s disordered nature and conduct (Romans 1:26-27).

Obviously, these points would need to be fleshed out in greater detail, and I don’t expect everyone to agree with their underlying assumptions. However, on a Christian analysis, sexuality and sexual expression are indelibly tied to our status as God’s image-bearers and the divinely sanctioned order we are meant to inhabit. For those reasons, questions of sex take on heightened significance, concerning as they do the degree to which one’s life reflects that order. Indeed, an orthodox Christian view of sex recognises it as a key manifestation of a particular anthropology (i.e., what humans are) and a particular cosmology (i.e., the created framework within which humans must conduct their lives). Gendered complementarity in human sexual relationships is, in other words, something that has been woven into the fabric of creation by God. As the Eastern Orthodox writer and cultural commentator, Rod Dreher, notes in his book, The Benedict Option, to live contrary to the divine will in this regard doesn’t simply break a set of ancient taboos. Rather, it constitutes one’s failure ‘to live in accord with the structure of [created] reality itself’.

All this is to say that, in the context of a Christian educational institution, the sexual relationships of its teachers cannot be dismissed as of little importance. Nor can it be condemned as a rationalisation of the basest kind of bigotry. We do well to return to my earlier, general comments concerning the goals of such schools. Efforts to permeate their corporate lives with the religious principles on which they were founded must logically include the ethical and behavioural demands that flow from them; anything else simply drives an artificial wedge between the cognitive and practical dimensions of the faith. And given that one of the key means of transmitting this ethos to students is via their embodiment in staff, adherence to the standards of orthodox Christianity is hardly irrelevant. Quite the opposite, in fact: conformity to a Christian ethic is inseparable from maintenance of a religious school’s peculiar identity, such that the inherent requirements of teaching roles extend beyond mere pedagogy and discipline-specific knowledge, and into the domain of Christian praxis.

The imposition of state-sanctioned beliefs: an intolerable outcome

To be sure, we have lately witnessed the splintering of the Western church on the issue of sexuality. Consensus on this question is rapidly eroding. But even if there exists internal dispute over the importance of sexual conduct to Christian faith, there is no compelling reason why the state should arrogate to itself the task of determining the proper contours of a particular religion. Writing his dissenting opinion in Christian Youth Camps v Cobaw Community Health Service some years ago, Redlich JA trenchantly noted that the Victorian Supreme Court was not properly trained to assess whether opposition to homosexuality was a key doctrine of the faith-based group concerned (p.13):

Neither human rights law nor the terms of the exemption required a secular tribunal to attempt to assess theological propriety. The tribunal was neither equipped nor required to evaluate the applicants’ moral calculus.

Secular state officials are manifestly ill-equipped to judge theological and doctrinal matters. Moreover, they lack the requisite ‘insider’ knowledge to be able to weigh the relative importance of creedal claims. But heeding calls to end exemptions to anti-discrimination legislation would lead to precisely this kind of judicial oversight. Anyone who values the institutional separation of church and state (where ‘church’ is defined somewhat more broadly) should be alarmed by this proposal. Such advocacy, if successful, means inhibiting a religious entity from articulating and embodying its governing ethos. In other words, it entails the encroachment of government institutions upon sacred territory traditionally regarded as verboten, that is, fundamentally impermissible. I don’t know how else to describe this but as an assault on religious liberty and a subversion of our modern pluralistic culture. If, as a society, we’re willing to permit religious educational institutions to make employment decisions based on their grounding principles, then this surely includes some latitude in regard to which principles are to be used as a framework to guide those decisions. The alternative simply invites interference by external authorities in what ought to be the free expression of a religious worldview.

Tackling another illegitimate distinction

The argument I have tried to delineate also has a deflationary effect on another distinction some advocates attempt to make – namely, between positions in a religious school that are connected with ritual observance or doctrinal teaching, and those that aren’t. This could be called a form of meta-discrimination, with only one type of role being susceptible to a process of discriminatory action. Again, the HRLC provides a ready example of this cast of mind (p.18): it recommends rescinding exemptions to the Sex Discrimination Act in most instances, whilst permitting ongoing differentiation/discrimination when it comes to conventional ‘religious’ roles. Behind these respective suggestions lies the apparent assumption that there exists a fundamental difference between positions involving pastoral care, religious observance and the like, and those that don’t (pp.16-17).

Unfortunately, the suggestion introduces an artificial disjunction into the understanding of religion generally, and faith-based schools specifically. For serious adherents of any religion, manifestations of spirituality are not confined to particular acts of ritual or devotion. Such activity, while central, is only one component in the complex web of faith. For Christians, say, one’s allegiance to Christ is not simply a case of verbal confession or cognitive belief. Nor is it exhausted by overt expressions of religious observance. Rather, it is meant to be worked out in the mosaic of everyday life, shaping the believer’s approach to everything from work and friendships to time and political participation. And, as I have already indicated, a religious school seeks to inculcate just this comprehensive understanding of faith – a task that is, once again, partly achieved through the embodiment of that faith in school staff. Their comprehensive approach to education means that positions within such institutions cannot be distinguished so simplistically.

It’s true, of course, that some roles might be more directly identified with the architecture of the school’s governing religion. Chaplaincy comes to mind as one obvious example. But it does not follow from this that other staff members may not be called upon to exhibit the virtues of the faith, provide (informal) pastoral care to students, offer general vocational advice within the context of Christian faithfulness, answer a student’s awkward questions, or attempt to situate various domains of knowledge within a Christian worldview. What I have argued concerning faith-based schools and their constitutive goals indicates that any attempt to starkly divide ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’ roles is forced to rely on a false dichotomy – one recognised by most serious adherents as unfaithful to a holistic, integrated expression of religion.

Conclusion

Earlier, I noted that the language of discrimination is often used in cynical fashion by some LGBTI activists. Notwithstanding the presence of genuine, good-faith differences between advocates on either side of the issue, brandishing the word “discrimination” has the (often intended) effect of de-legitimising the views of religious liberty advocates before they have been properly aired. But this isn’t the only unwelcome consequence. LGBTI activists also succeed in corrupting portions of our language by using words like “discrimination” so cavelierly. History has repetedly shown that when words become the handmaidens of nakedly political projects, the prospects for open, rational discourse — discourse committed to the pursuit of truth — rapidly recede. That is something no one should want, even those who are prepared to conscript language for their own ends.

Where do we go from here? The victory of the Coalition during Australia’s recent Federal election seems to have had a retarding effect on the activist tide. Indeed, several analyses have already appeared, partly attributing the Australian Labor Party’s loss to the party’s alienation of large swathes of religious people. This may force the party to re-assess its attitude to matters of religious liberty and to adopt a more nuanced understanding of the issues involved – rejecting barely-concealed disdain (see 7:11-7:50 in this Q & A segment) for people of conservative faith, and recognising the electoral value in taking them seriously. I hope this is the case, and that such concerns will now receive bi-partisan support. If Australia is to maintain its status as an authentically pluralist society – in which mutually irreconcilable views and practices nonetheless exist in relative harmony – then I think a robust re-commitment to such freedoms is the most sensible path forward.

Re-thinking the Virgin Birth

Introduction

The birth of a new child truly is extraordinary, being perhaps the closest thing that our secular, materialistic world has to a miracle: a small cluster of cells, endowed with an innate propensity towards life, is mysteriously transformed by nature’s unseen hand into a living, breathing human being. Witnessing the emergence of an infant – writhing and crying and seeking comfort – out of what was once inert matter is something to behold.

If people of all stripes are prone to seeing faint reflections of the transcendent in such an occurrence, then Christians should surely celebrate the true miracle of the one birth (or more precisely, conception) that could genuinely be called “unique”. Of course, I am referring to the birth of Christ himself, an event that his followers will soon have the privilege of commemorating. Its annual recurrence means that Christians are accorded at least one opportunity each year to formally mark an event of epochal significance. Alongside nativity plays and Christmas hymns will be dramatic readings of Matthew and Luke, as the story of the Christ-child coming into this world is rehearsed through song and word and sign. For many, it is still a time of sober reflection and humble gratitude.

But amidst the yuletide pageantry, it’s easy to forget just how momentous the birth of Christ was. Indeed, the very regularity of the tradition can induce a conventional, almost unthinking, approach to it: we hurriedly attend our Christmas services, sing (or more likely, mumble) the relevant songs, and laugh good-naturedly at stilted acting or forgotten lines. Meanwhile, our minds are straining ahead, occupied with what many of us perceive (perhaps subconsciously) to be the real purpose of Christmas – presents and feasting and games of backyard cricket. None of these things are wrong in themselves, to be sure. Far from it. Nevertheless, it can mean that recalling God’s gracious inbreaking via the person of his Son is inadvertently relegated to a mere step along the way, rather than being cherished as the very reason we celebrate Christmas in the first place. To the extent that this is true – and in all honesty, I think each of us has been guilty of it – then it should not be. Perhaps if we were to examine Jesus’ birth afresh, we might then be in a better position to celebrate it with renewed fulsomeness.

Three Key Categories

There are a number of categories that can help us think more clearly about the birth of Christ – conceptual aids, if you like, that allow us to grasp more surely its manifold significance. A few such aids immediately spring to mind. We might refer to them as the union of humanity and divinity, a signpost of new creation, and a revelation of true kingship. These don’t exhaust the event’s meaning, by any means, although they do offer three convenient avenues towards greater understanding. I’ll examine each category in turn.

The Union of Humanity and Divinity

The ministry of Jesus Christ can be interpreted in a dizzying variety of ways. But one of the broad purposes of his appearing was to set in motion the (re-)union of humanity and God. More than that, it was by his own person that this cosmic reconciliation was to be accomplished. The pages of the New Testament are replete with references to what Christ achieved in this regard. In his second letter to the Corinthian church, for example, the apostle Paul waxes lyrical about the fact that in Christ, God was reconciling himself to the world (i.e., humanity; cf. 2 Cor 5:19). In a similar vein, 1 Timothy 2:5 refers to Jesus as the “one God and the one mediator between God and mankind”. These are just two of a multitude of texts that could be cited.

Reconciliation within a Christian schema, however, far exceeds the resumption of cordial relations between previously-estranged parties. For the writers of the NT, it means nothing less than the transformative union of God with his people. A battery of images is deployed, which try and convey the substantial nature of this divine-human concord. Paul compares the joining together of Christ with his church (and thus, with each individual Christian) to the “one-flesh” union between husband and wife. So profoundly intimate is the relationship between the Messiah and his people – one that is secured, of course, via the operation of the Spirit – that the apostle can use, as an analogy, the deep and comprehensive unity of the spousal bond (Eph 5:31-32). Or what about the Fourth Evangelist? In a stunning development of “new temple” theology, the Johannine Jesus speaks of making his “home” in the one who believes in him and does his will (John 15:23). This, too, surpasses mere unity of purpose or direction, and veers into the province of ontology [1]. It is why the author of 2 Peter could write that part of the goal of the Christian life is, remarkably, participation in the “divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). This isn’t to say that Christians somehow become divine. But the consistent witness of the NT is that those who are “in Christ” are consequently joined to the Triune God, in a process that entails the fundamental re-ordering of their beings.

I say all this by way of context. Jesus’ birth represents this union, this “marriage”, in his own person. And whilst the incarnation (i.e., the act by which the eternal logos took on human flesh) was possible without a miraculous birth, his spirit-generated conception dramatizes the joining together of those two natures – divinity and humanity – thereby foreshadowing the salvific reality his people will enjoy as they become temples for his presence. This is no arbitrary point. We shouldn’t forget that just as the NT is adamant that God’s people will experience immersion in the unsearchable depths of divine reality, it is equally convinced that Jesus Christ exemplifies (and indeed, enables) this kind of life. He is the pristine model for a truly human existence – human, because it is joined to, grounded in, and pervaded by, God’s nature and life. What is true of him will, in a sense, be true of his people as well (e.g., 1 Cor 15:47-49).

Of course, Jesus was (and is) unique, in that he is truly God and truly man; as I have already noted, the telos of the Christian life is reformation and renewal via a mystical bond with the divine, not divinization in a literal sense. Still, we can look to Jesus’ conception and birth – where God graciously imparted his own life into the womb of a young Jewess (Luke 1:34-35) – as an embodied reminder that it was always the Creator’s intention to forge a people who would live in perfect and constant communion with him. It was there, in the darkness of that womb, that the Creator “stitched together” (as it were) two, apparently irreconcilable categories of being [2]. The manner of Jesus’ first advent was at once authentically human and entirely the product of divine grace – signalling, in concrete form, a believer’s transfiguration as he or she is drawn into the divine nature.

Earlier parts of Scripture bear faint witness to this glorious prospect. Genesis 1-2, with its positioning of God’s image-bearers as the capstone of his creative work, is one of the more familiar texts in this regard. But the Nativity signals something far more substantive for those who are found to be in Christ. Again, what it does is provide us with a vivid picture of the goal that lies at the end of God’s redemptive enterprise: the establishment of a body of individuals who have not only conformed themselves to his will, but who are united to him in an act of spiritual betrothal.

A Signpost for New Creation

The prospective “marriage” between God and each believer (such that those who are being saved might enjoy the life-giving permeation of divine energy) is one element in the wider goal of liberating creation from its “bondage to decay” (cf. Rom 8:21). Here, too, the miraculous nature of Jesus’ birth is instructive. In addition to providing us with a picture of that perfect union between the human and the divine, the Nativity also acts as a signpost of new creation. To be sure, the Bible’s salvific narrative climaxes with Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. It was there, and not at the point of his birth, that sin and death were broken; moreover, with the raising of Jesus from the dead, new creation truly began, breaking into the present, decaying world. One might even say that from a Christian perspective, history pivots on the resurrection, for in that event, we discover the commencement of the new age in microcosm – i.e., in the resurrected body of one man. Christ’s birth did not change the course of history per se, so to that extent, it differs structurally from the event of his resurrection. Nonetheless, it points (however unobtrusively) to the dawning of that greater reality. The birth of Jesus represented a fresh act of the Creator God, who imbued life into a willing Mary. With it, something unprecedented happened, as the fecundity of the divine took root in a broken, earthen world. This wasn’t simply the product of the created order’s internal drives and forces. Rather, it was the result of an apocalyptic work of God, who pierced the veil of death shrouding the old world with the shear of fresh life. His was an incursion into creation, achieving what no natural process could. In this way, then, the virgin birth continues to offer Christians an incarnate symbol that directs them to creation’s renewal – something that includes, of course, God’s reclaimed image-bearers, who experience their own supernatural birth.

This brings me back to the Nativity’s significance as it applies specifically to the people of God. If Jesus’ birth unveils the goal for redeemed human beings (whose lives are being conformed to his), then it also offers up a symbolic parallel for the spiritual “new birth” that every Christian enjoys. Latent in that term is an idea drawn from the third chapter of John’s Gospel. During a night-time rendezvous, the Johannine Jesus declares to an uncomprehending Nicodemus that anyone seeking entry into God’s kingdom “must be born again” (John 3:3, 5). With the assured finality of God’s incarnate logos, he claims that this is the only way a person can enter salvation. What Jesus seems to be saying is that the believer must undergo such a radical change of one’s being, one’s nature, that it can only be described as being “born again”. It is a deep-rooted transformation that God alone can accomplish (which explains why the phrase is sometimes rendered as “born from above”).

The beginning of one’s life in God is indeed akin to a new birth, for it represents a comprehensive break with the old world of sin and death. Jesus’ birth – and behind that, his conception – offers a concrete sign of this reality. Commenting on John’s theological perspective in the first few chapters of his gospel, the theologian, A.N.S. Lane, wrote that the evangelist may have even drawn a deliberate correlation between the believer’s regeneration and Christ’s virginal birth (cf. John 1:13) [3]. In any case, it is both a signal that new life had been unleashed upon creation, and, within that process of renewal, a witness to the Christian’s own “transfer” from one realm to another. The virgin birth reminds us that what is required is nothing less than the commencement of a new form of existence – a “supernatural begetting” (C.K. Barrett) – wrought by God’s (re)generative power. At this point, I can do no better than quote from N.T. Wright, who wrote about the miraculous nature of Christ’s birth thus:

“And if we believe that the God we’re talking about is the creator of the world, who longs to rescue the world from its corruption and decay, then an act of real new creation, anticipating in fact the great moment of Easter itself, might just be what we should expect…it is the notion that a new world really might be starting up within the midst of the old…”

A Revelation of the True King

So far, I have examined the birth of Jesus using the categories of biblical and systematic theology. Its function as a revelation of Christ’s kingship, on the other hand, is tied more closely to the biblical narratives themselves. Matthew, for instance, has Magi from the East visit Jesus, who worship him and present gifts as a form of tribute (Matt 2:1-12). The royal overtones of those acts are difficult to miss. The First Evangelist also quotes from Micah 5:2, applying that messianic (read: kingly) prophecy to the remarkable baby born to Mary and Joseph. Luke, for his part, sets his infancy narrative within the context of Roman history. His reference to an imperial decree, ordering all subjects of the Roman Empire to return to their ancestral lands for a census (Luke 2:1-3), subtly establishes a contrast between the earthly power of Caesar and the cosmic power – then hidden – of the world’s true Lord.

Strictly speaking, a miraculous birth was not necessary to ground an acclamation of Jesus’ kingship. However, it witnesses to the unique form that kingship took. Not only was Christ Israel’s king and a rightful heir to the throne of David; not only was he the nation’s messianic saviour; he was also her (and the world’s) transcendent king, having come in the flesh – a remarkable fulfilment of Yahweh’s promise to return to his wayward, exiled people (note the use of Isaiah 40:3ff, not only in Matthew in Luke, but in Mark and John as well). As I have already suggested, the virgin birth reveals the perfect union of humanity with divinity in the person of Jesus. But in so doing, it testifies to the fact of Jesus’ cosmic lordship.

Luke’s retelling of the event is illuminating in this regard. In his account, an angel appears to Mary and declares to her that she will bear a son. The language used to describe the still-future child is of a clearly regal nature: “Son of the Most High”, a descendant of David, and king over an eternal dynasty (Luke 1:30-33). When Mary asks how all this can be (given the fact of her virginity) the angel states that God’s own spirit and presence will “overshadow” her (v.35), enabling the young Jewess to conceive. The second half of verse 35 is crucial. Application of the title “Son of God” to Jesus is somehow linked to his spiritual conception, as if the latter is reason for the former being given (cf. v.35b: “So…”). Now, “Son of God” was a term familiar within Jewish culture, given its traditional connection to royal/Davidic figures. This is seen, for instance, in a passage like Psalm 2:7, which bears some affinity with 2 Samuel 7:14. By the time of Jesus’ advent, it had come to be associated with hopes for a messianic deliverer. However, the title was also used of the emperor at the time, Caesar Augustus – the adopted son of Julius Caesar, who himself had been formally deified after his assassination in 44BC. It is no accident, then, that Luke lodges his birth story within the context of a manifestation of imperial power; the fact that the emperor appropriated the status of God’s son only serves to sharpen the implied contrast I have already noted.

Paired with the promise of a miraculous, spirit-impelled birth, Luke’s use of “Son of God” functions as an important titular signpost, not merely to Jesus’ status as Israel’s anointed liberator, but to something far loftier. Like the other evangelists, Luke often employs the phrase in an elevated sense; as his own gospel unfolds, it’s apparent that Jesus conceives of his relationship with God in a way that only a son would with his father. It was a relationship that stretched back to the very beginning of his earthly life (and beyond); an intimate reality, in other words, to which the virgin birth testified. The NT scholar, Darrel Bock, observesd that “the presence of a divine element in [the Lukan] Jesus’ birth” suggests that for the Third Evangelist, “Jesus is from God in a unique way” (emphasis mine). It provided evidence that Christ was not merely sent by God, as an emissary might be commissioned by his master, but that he proceeded from the eternal Godhead as someone who, remarkably, shared the same nature.

The Lukan rendition of the virgin birth vividly shows that Jesus’ sonship was not exhausted by the prerogatives associated with mundane royalty. To be sure, it encompassed such notions, such that it was co-extensive with the belief that he was the promised Davidic heir. But that status – and the title through which it came to be expressed – exceeded all previous understandings of the concept, touching upon the very being of the transcendent Creator. Although Luke does not greatly emphasise the ontological overtones of Jesus’ sonship in his birth narrative (and is certainly not as explicit as, say, the Gospel of John), the basic contours of his theological convictions can still be detected. Whatever declarations others might have made regarding a unique, filial relationship with the Deity (particularly Caesar), they remained mere charlatans – parodies of the reality to which they aspired. Eclipsing them all was the world’s true sovereign, who alone could claim divine “parentage”: singularly conceived by God’s own creative power, and born to a poor Jewish couple on the margins of imperial society.

Conclusion

Hopefully, this little essay has revealed new insights into the significance of Jesus’ birth. Much more could be said, of course. But in it, I have tried to set down some markers for how to think about this momentous event. This is important amidst ongoing scepticism, even among Christians. In some quarters, the virgin birth is relegated to the status of mere myth or legend (where the term “myth” is synonymous with what is historically dubious). Aside from a philosophical prejudice against miracles, such a conclusion seems to be driven by the unstated assumption that Jesus’ birth constitutes an act of arbitrary wonderworking – and as such, is unworthy of God. But as I have sought to demonstrate, the virgin birth pulsates with theological meaning. It was not the work of a capricious deity, keen only to advertise his supernatural “bag of tricks”. Rather, it offered, and continues to offer, a window into the nature of the One who even now presides over creation. In his birth, Jesus was revealed as the true Son of God, who proceeded from the Father to assume his rightful role as saviour and regent. Moreover, the Nativity brims with the promise that those who are “in” him – who yield to his loving authority – will shed their old lives and enjoy life in union with their redeemer. These are things we can, and should, joyfully celebrate this Christmas.

[1] Using a term like “ontology” in relation to a believer’s relationship with God is always fraught with danger. Let me emphasise that I do not want to suggest that as Christians are conformed to the likeness of the Son, or participate in the divine nature, they thereby become gods (“quasi-divine”) themselves. This is idolatry. However, one gets the sense when reading the NT that what is envisioned is a substantial transformation of the redeemed individual, down to the very roots of his or her nature. Indeed, when Paul spoke of those in Christ being “new creations” (2 Cor 5:17), I think he intended his words to be read as more than mere metaphor or hyperbole.

[2] Again, care is required, lest one takes the birth of Christ to be an instance of two natures being brought together in such a way that the resultant individual is half-human, half-God: a tertium quid, but neither wholly human, nor wholly divine. This is not what I am aiming at with my (admittedly) metaphorical use of language. I merely mean to suggest that the virgin birth, in witnessing to the union of divinity and humanity in the person of Christ, functions as something of a symbol and pattern for Christians’ own lives.

[3] It’s quite possible that John was aware of a tradition concerning the unusual circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth. See John 8:41b.

“They Will Come and See My Glory”: An Exegesis of Isaiah 66:18-24

Note: I originally penned this piece for my theological studies at Ridley College. It is a short, exegetical essay on Isaiah’s ultimate passage, Isa 66:18-24. I also don’t mind saying that I did pretty well on it! The essay certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but for the exegetically-minded, it may well provide some food for thought. 

Introduction

The book of Isaiah contains some of the loftiest language in all Scripture, its pages replete with remarkable visions of divine majesty. Isaiah 66:18-24 is no different: there, the prophet’s audience is treated to an eschatological vista, as the nations stream into a restored Jerusalem to worship the one, true God. The revelation of Yahweh’s glory, the universal reach of his salvation, the triumph over idolatry and false worship, and the final distribution of rewards and punishments – these and other Isaianic themes are dramatically drawn together in 66:18-24, which sets them within an ultimate frame of reference.[1]

Such will form the backdrop for my examination of 66:18-24, as I argue that it provides a fitting coda to Isaiah. Indeed, its structurally significant position at the close of the Isaianic corpus is manifested in the multifarious connections it bears with the rest of the book. Depicting God’s universal revelation within a renewed creation, the passage reflects an eschatological longing[2] that also resolves the book’s basic tension between judgment and salvation. Finally, I’ll briefly sketch some of the text’s important hermeneutical points, showing that whilst salvation is offered to all, persistent rebellion exacts a sure and terrible price.

Contextualizing Isaiah 66:18-24

Questions concerning the context of Isaiah 66:18-24 – both historical and literary – have yielded multiple positions. Scholars have made numerous, sometimes speculative, suggestions regarding the passage’s historical background,[3] with many thinking it dimly reflects a post-exilic setting.[4] Gardener, for example, argues the international convocation and dispersal of emissaries (vv.18-19) suggests just such a period, when Jerusalem was still populated by foreigners. Though not unreasonable, one should be cautious about reducing the elements of the passage to “mundane” occurrences.[5] Trying to “establish an absolute dating” for the text is fraught with difficulties, given it lacks the expected historical anchors tying it to a particular period.[6] Ultimately, 66:18-24 is “eschatologically oriented” – inviting the audience to cast its collective vision forward to an as-yet unrealized era of creational and corporate renewal.[7] Not that the passage is completely severed from the general historical process (e.g., 66:20; cf. 64:10-11; 65:18-19); however, it does suggest a period that exceeds the limits of purely historical or temporized events.[8]

The literary context of Isaiah 66:18-24 can be discerned with greater confidence, for it bears multiple, overlapping links with the surrounding textual neighbourhood. Although the text constitutes a distinct unit, a clear connection exists between it and the preceding passage: a universal missionary effort succeeds universal judgment (vv.15-17), even as the consequences for the rebellious are severely felt (vv.16,24).[9] Concluding ongoing tensions between Yahweh’s servants and the apostates (cf. 65:13-15), 66:18-24 envisions the finality of deliverance and reprobation – part of a broader relationship between Isaiah 65-66.[10] Moving further afield, 66:18-24 picks up several prophetic threads in Trito-Isaiah,[11] (e.g., the interchange between judgment and salvation,[12] the inclusion of Gentiles into the redeemed community [56:1-8; cf. 66:18-21]). Indeed, commentators have noted numerous verbal links between the prophet’s final vision and the rest of Trito-Isaiah – particularly 56:1-8, with which 66:18-24 constitutes an inclusio around the book’s last major division.[13] Finally, the text constitutes a counterpoint to the opening indictment of Isaiah 1 in another inclusio, framing the book with contrasting pictures of false and true worship.[14] I shall explore these points further as I proceed.

Exegeting Isaiah 66:18-24

Isaiah 66:18-24 can be divided further into two sub-sections: vv.18-21, in which Yahweh draws together people from all nations, Jew and Gentile; and the resulting convocation of vv.22ff, where the pilgrims engage in ceaseless worship of the one, true God.

Much of the passage is rather elliptical, making interpretation difficult. Those challenges begin with v.18, which apparently details God’s response to the iniquity of the irreligious.[15] We may draw some tentative conclusions, however. The most likely antecedent of “they” (v.18a) are the rebellious of vv.16b-17, who exposed their obstinacy through corrupt and idolatrous worship[16] (cf. 57:12; 59:6-7; 65:2).[17] Their iniquitous actions somehow “trigger” Yahweh’s decision to call people from the nations – i.e, a foil for his determination to unveil his glory (v.19).[18] Verse 18b is the first of several references that give 66:18-24 a decidedly universalistic hue, thus taking up themes broached earlier in Trito-Isaiah (e.g., 56:1-8) and Isaiah 40-55 (45:22-25).[19] The consequent international assembly will “see” God’s “glory” (thrice-underscored in vv.18-19; cf. 42:8), which in context could refer to the revelation of his unique splendour, associated with his status as the world’s only Lord.[20]

In concert with this great ingathering, Yahweh will establish a “sign” among “them” (v.19a). Some argue that where v.18 summarises God’s plan in this passage, vv.19-21 detail its unfurling.[21] However, the construction of v.19 suggests a sequential relationship with the previous verse (otherwise, “them” in v.19a lacks context). Identifying the sign has also generated debate, given its ambiguity (cf. 11:10-11). A number of suggestions have been made: e.g., the restoration of Jerusalem (cf. 62:1-2,11-12), or the sending of the emissaries themselves (v.19b).[22] The first option ties 66:18-24 to earlier portions of Trito-Isaiah, but lacks positive warrant from within the passage; the second alternative also seems unlikely, for the act of disseminating heralds appears to be distinct from the sign itself. It’s entirely possible the author has been deliberately non-specific, in keeping with the eschatological, visionary complexion of the passage.[23]

“Survivors” will be sent to declare Yahweh’s glorious fame (v.19b). The term evokes images of people enduring a great catastrophe; some commentators reason that this reference ultimately finds inspiration in the experiences of post-exilic Jews.[24] This cannot be ruled out, although like the rest of 66:18-24, v.19 lacks historical markers. Again, it’s perhaps best to interpret this clause in association with vv.15-17, where Yahweh poured out his fury upon “all flesh”. If vv.18-24 follows in sequence, then the “survivors” are probably those who underwent the universal execution of Yahweh’s judgment. A related issue is whether the survivors-cum-heralds are Jews or Gentiles. Some argue for the former position, given earlier references to survivors from the Judahite community (4:2).[25] But the natural antecedent of “those who survive” are the members of the international gathering (v.18b) – i.e., non-Jews who endured the conflagration of vv.15-17 (cf. 45:20)[26] – obviating the need to look beyond the passage’s literary environs to determine their identity. Of course, this raises the question: if the envoys are Gentiles, how should they be distinguished from those foreigners who have not heard of Yahweh’s “fame” (v.19b)? The most reasonable interpretive course is to argue that the distinction is based on proximity to Jerusalem.[27] Those from Israel’s near-neighbours – who would themselves be adherents of Yahwism – will travel to the farthest reaches of the earth (cf. the impressionistic list of countries in v.19b) to announce Yahweh’s splendour.[28]

Verse 20 sees those from the far-flung nations convey “[your] brothers” to the holy mountain in a restored Jerusalem (see 64:10-11; 65:18-19; cf. 1:26-27; 36:1-37:37).[29] This image shouldn’t be taken too literally – as if so many millions could fit into such a small parcel of land – and is more intelligible on a visionary interpretation.[30] Jerusalem’s presence here coheres with the Isaianic commitment to the city as the centre from which Yahweh’s glory will be revealed.[31] Similarly, “holy mountain” features in other texts envisioning eschatological renewal (2:2-4; 65:25c; cf. 56:7).[32] Its present inclusion offers an implicit contrast with 65:11, which has the disobedient abandoning God’s sacred mountain. Here, however, his servants venture towards it. Some argue that “your brothers” are ingrafted Yahweh-fearers from among the Gentiles.[33] But v.20 seems to distinguish between this group, and those who ferry them. If indeed both cohorts are composed of non-Jews, we may ask what differentiates them – i.e., why only one group is explicitly said to enjoy fraternal standing with God’s covenant people (“your”). Conversely, understanding the term as referring to Jews comports with passages alluding to the hope that Abraham’s scattered descendants will be re-gathered (11:11-12; 49:8-12).[34]

Gentiles will therefore transport members of the diaspora on a variety of vehicles and domesticated animals – an image evoking urgency and alacrity, as this great multitude descends on Jerusalem. Their actions are compared with the “pure” offerings of Jews before Yahweh (v.20b), which suggests acceptable worship and thanksgiving.[35] This represents a “striking reversal of” attitudes concerning “unclean” foreigners.[36] Remarkably, these same Gentiles will even be elected to cultic office as priests and Levites (“some of them” – v.21). Although some exegetes contend that the verse refers to diaspora Jews,[37] such a claim is unlikely: to say that would hardly be remarkable, and indeed, rather anti-climactic.[38] Verse 21 not only corresponds to, but also “escalates”, the vision of 56:1-8, where foreigners were permitted to enter the sanctuary.[39] Further emphasising the text’s universalism, 66:21 affirms the role of Gentiles as ministers and facilitators of pure worship in the New Jerusalem, further dismantling distinctions between Jew and non-Jew in the redeemed community (cf. 56:8).[40]

Verses 22-23 unveil the final goal of this multi-national congress: worship of Yahweh as the world’s true sovereign, set within a renewed creation. Together with vv.18-21, these verses counterpose the perversity of religious formalism in the physical Jerusalem (Isa 1:1ff) – part of that wider inclusio at work in Isaiah[41] – by envisioning true worship in a New Jerusalem. They also constitute a capstone to the book’s polemic against idolatry, supplanting false worship with global recognition of Yahweh (“all flesh”; cf. Isa 40-48 and Yahweh’s cosmic “lawsuit” against idols).[42] The term, “New heavens and new earth” corresponds closely to 65:17-25;[43] although some contend that it’s merely a poetic description of the new order or restored city (65:17ff),[44] the language evokes the totality of creation (Gen 1:1). In addition, the verb “make” may well correspond to the thought behind a text like Genesis 2:4, whilst 65:17-25 contains its own references (long life, the fruitfulness of toil and child-bearing) which represent an undoing of the primordial curse (cf. Gen 3:15-19).[45] The new creation’s endurance – free from death and despoliation – is analogous to the persistence of Yahweh’s servants, who will enjoy permanence of posterity (cf. 56:5).[46] This may ultimately reflect the incipient universalism in Abraham’s originating call (“seed”; cf. Gen 12:1-3).[47]

Jewish and Gentile pilgrims will engage in purified worship of the one, true God (v.23b: “…bow down before me…”).[48] The clause, “From one New Moon…” implies that it will also be perpetual (v.23a).[49] We may discern another contrastive link – anchored in the dual references to Sabbaths and New Moon festivals – between this uncorrupted activity and the religious formalism within the Judahite community (1:13ff).[50] The faithful worshipers are, of course, sharply distinguished from the corpses of the rebellious, which lie outside the city walls (v.24).[51] The Isaianic interchange of salvation and judgment thus reaches a climax in the final consignment of the obedient and the obstinate. Yahweh’s servants will exit Jerusalem to “observe the grim fate” of those who stubbornly persisted in their rebellion. Verse 24 implies that the corpses are exposed (hence, the worshipers being able to view them). Their lack of proper burial is a fitting testimony to their own shamefulness: indeed, such a state represented the ultimate indignity for a Jew.[52] The makeshift graveyard may have been inspired by the Hinnom Valley, located just south of Jerusalem; as a place of child sacrifice in OT times, it would have supplied a suitably gruesome image for the appalling destiny of the wicked.[53] That the author speaks of “their worm” and “their fire” only serves to underscore the responsibility the unrighteous have for their own judgment, which here continues into the eschaton.[54] Less clear is whether this can be taken as a picture of conscious, post-mortem anguish (as per later depictions of Hell). The punishment seems permanent, but the clear reference to “dead bodies” indicates literal death. Meanwhile, “worm” and “fire” signal the permanent state of dissolution and judgment, respectively (cf. 1:31)[55] – a terrible fate, and a sobering reminder of rebellion’s consequences.[56]

Conclusion

Isaiah 66:18-24 concludes the overarching trajectory of the book, weaving many of its themes together in a most astounding eschatological vision.[57] It remains now to uncover some of the passage’s primary hermeneutical implications. The passage’s deep-rooted universalism immediately springs to mind, which is of a piece with the NT’s insistence that the message of salvation through Christ is, in principle, for all (John 12:32). God’s children are so, not because of ethnic lineage, but because they are born of him (John 1:13; Acts 8:26-38). A narrow, ethno-centric cast of mind may have been scandalized by such texts. But the church is also guilty of trying to restrict the gospel’s reach, often on the basis of cultural and social mores masquerading as the fundamentals of orthodoxy. Isaiah 66:18-24 reminds us that the gospel stands as God’s promise to welcome “[every]one who fears him and does what is right” (Acts 10:34). The passage confirms what much of Isaiah has already indicated – namely, that the primary metric of membership within the covenant community is not ethnicity (or any external trait), but humility before his word (Isa 66:2). Of course, this is not the whole word, for the offer of salvation does not remain open in perpetuity; judgment is still a reality. Isaiah 66:18-24 strongly implies that actions have moral consequences, even beyond this present life. Apart from humble adoration before Yahweh, one can only expect wrath and loss.[58] Difficult though it may be, this, too, cannot be ignored.

[1] See the summative statement concerning Isa 66:18-24 in Joel S. Kaminsky and Anne Stewart, “God of All the World: Universalism and Developing Monotheism in Isaiah 40-66”, HTR 99 (2006): 160. Cf. Brevard Childs, Isaiah (OTL; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 542: “A succinct summary of the eschatological themes that occur throughout the entire book…”

[2] Andrew T. Abernethy, The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom: A Thematic-Theological Approach (NSBT 40; Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 2016), 193.

[3] See R. Reed Lessing, Concordia Commentary: Isaiah 56-66 (CC; St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2014), 29-30, for a brief survey of the various hypotheses that have been put forward. Lessing’s conclusion – that in many cases, such reconstructions illegitimately attempt to historicise what appears to be an eschatological text – is a wise one.

[4] See Michael J. Chan, “Isaiah 56-66 and the Genesis of Re-orienting Speech”, CBQ 72 (2010): 449-450, who says that some scholars date the pericope to the Persian period, subsequent to the building of the Second Temple. Chan acknowledges that the material in this entire section “eludes precision of dating or exactitude of allusion” (451).

[5] Anne E. Gardner, “The Nature of the New Heavens and the New Earth in Isaiah 66:22”, ABR 50 (2002): 15, n.18. This isn’t to disparage the view that certain elements in Isa 66:18-24 may have been inspired by historical events – merely to suggest that such occurrences do not exhaust the significance of the pericope.

[6] E.g., Childs, Isaiah, 444.

[7] Gary V. Smith, Isaiah 40-66 (NAC; Nasville: B&H Publishing, 2009), 65, 69, 519.

[8] William J. Dumbrell, “The Purpose of the Book of Isaiah”, TynB 36 (1985): 128.

[9] Pace Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 56-66: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB 19B; New York: Doubleday, 2003), 312, who argues there is no relationship between these passages whatsoever. Cf. Lessing, Isaiah 56-66, 492.

[10] Smith (Isaiah 40-66, 521) argues that Isa 66:18-24 is part of a larger literary unit stretching back to 63:7. This is true, although it should also be noted that whilst 63:7-64:13 are a lament in the face of corruption and devastation, chapters 65-66 seem to constitute Yahweh’s response.

[11] I am using the term “Trito-Isaiah” in a purely heuristic sense.

[12] John N. Oswalt, “Judgment and Hope: The Full-orbed Gospel”, TrinJ 17 (1996): 197.

[13] See Edwin C. Webster, “A Rhetorical Study of Isaiah 66”, JSOT 11 (1986): 103.

[14] Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 56-66, 38.

[15] Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993), 541; John Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66: A Critical and Exegetical Commentary (ICC; London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 512.

[16] See Motyer, The Prophecy, 541. Conrad argues that the identity of those referred to in v.18 is especially hard to uncover if, as some maintain, the verse is unrelated to what precedes it. See Edgard W. Conrad, Reading Isaiah (OBT; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 92.

[17] Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 512. References to deeds and actions in those passages are all cast in a negative light.

[18] Oswalt, Isaiah – Chapters 40-66 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 687. Cf. Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 512.

[19] Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 513.

[20] Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 513. Whybray reasons that the reference to glory has a “restrictive and intensive sense” associated with the temple (cf. Ezek 11:22-23). See R.N. Whybray, Isaiah 40-66 (NCBC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 289. Abernethy plausibly suggests that Yahweh’s glory should be seen in conjunction with the restoration of Zion (Isa 60). See Abernethy, The Book, 193-194.

[21] Jan L. Koole, Isaiah III: 56-66 (HCOT; Leuven: Peeters, 2001), 522.

[22] Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66: A Commentary (OTL; London: SCM Press, 1976), 425.

[23] Oswalt, Isaiah, 687. Whybray, Isaiah 40-66, 290.

[24] Whybray, Isaiah 40-66, 290.

[25] E.g., Oswalt, Isaiah, 688-689, who argues there is nothing explicit in this passage about Gentiles experiencing judgment (but see 66:16 and “all flesh”). Moreover, the textual links between vv.15-17 and vv.18-19 favour the position I take. Cf. Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 514.

[26] John D.W. Watts, Isaiah 34-66 – Revised (WBC 25; Waco: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 940. Cf. Emmanuel Uchenna Dim, The Eschatological Implications of Isaiah 65 and 66 as the Conclusion to the Book of Isaiah (Bern: Peter Lang, 2005), 176, 182. Cf. Willem A.M. Beuken, “Yhwh’s Sovereign Rule and His Adoration on Mount Zion: A Comparison of Poetic Visions in Isaiah 24-27, 52, and 66”, in The Desert Will Bloom: Poetic Visions in Isaiah, eds. Joseph A. Everson and Hyun Chul Paul Kim (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009), 105.

[27] Whybray Isaiah 40-66, 290; cf. Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 56-66, 314.

[28] Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 56-66, 314; cf. Koole, Isaiah III, 520; Dim, The Eschatological, 183.

[29] Dim, The Eschatological, 187. See also Shalom M. Paul, Isaiah 40-66: Translation and Commentary (ECC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 626, 628.

[30] Oswalt, Isaiah, 692.

[31] Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 56-66, 314.

[32] Dim, The Eschatological, 186-187.

[33] E.g., Motyer, The Prophecy, 542, who partly bases his argument on the assumption that “your brothers” and those being made priests and Levites (v.21) should be identified.

[34] Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 516.

[35] See Paul, Isaiah 40-66, 628-629 for comparable practices of tribute levied before potentates in Mesopotamia.

[36] Whybray, Isaiah 40-66, 291.

[37] E.g., Jose Severino Croatto, “The ‘Nations’ in the Salvific Oracles of Isaiah”, VT 55 (2005): 157. Croatto also claims that the nations in 66:18-24 play a purely servile role (hence, his interpretation of v.21). This seems clearly to run against the grain of the text.

[38] Blenkinsopp, “Second Isaiah – Prophet of Universalism”, JSOT 13 (1998): 103, n.51; Oswalt, The Holy One of Israel: Studies in the Book of Isaiah (London: James Clarke & Co., 2014), 104.

[39] See Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 520, who refers to a “suggestive sequence” of expansion in Isa 56-66, climaxing with the “globalization” of the priesthood in 66:21.

[40] Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, 426. See, too, Mark T. Long, “The Inclusion of the Nations in Isaiah 40-66”, TE 44 (1991): 91; Gary Stansell, “The Nations’ Journey to Zion: Pilgrimage and Tribute as Metaphor in the Book of Isaiah”, in The Desert Will Bloom: Poetic Visions in Isaiah, eds. Joseph A. Everson and Hyun Chul Paul Kim (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009), 246.

[41] Dumbrell, “The Purpose”, 128; Motyer, The Prophecy, 543; cf. Dim, The Eschatological, 183.

[42] On the universal implications of “all flesh”, see Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 521. Cf. Childs, Isaiah, 542; Paul, Isaiah 40-66, 632; Koole, Isaiah III, 528; Kaminsky and Stewart, “God of All the World”, 160-161; Gardner, “The Nature”, 15, 26.

[43] Koole, Isaiah III, 526; Oswalt, Isaiah 40-66, 691.

[44] E.g., Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 527. Calvin argues that the reference to a renewed heavens and earth refers to the “inward renewal of man”. This represents an unwarranted spiritualisation of the text. See John Calvin, Commentary on the Prophet Isaiah – 33-66 (trans. William Pringle; Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009), 437.

[45] Koole, Isaiah III, 526.

[46] Childs, Isaiah, 542; Dim, The Eschatological, 193.

[47] Motyer, The Prophecy, 543. See Gardner, “The Nature”, 26, and Isaianic references there to “seed” as a reference to the descendants of the patriarchs.

[48] Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 521.

[49] Calvin, Commentary, 437.

[50] Motyer, The Prophecy, 543; Dim, The Eschatological, 195; Koole, Isaiah III, 528.

[51] Lessing, Isaiah 56-66, 29.

[52] Dim, The Eschatological, 197.

[53] Oswalt, Isaiah 40-66, 692.

[54] Childs, Isaiah, 542.

[55] Calvin, Commentary, 439, correctly judges “fire” to be a metaphor for judgment. Whether “worm” symbolizes a troubled conscience, as he contends, is less certain. For the connections between v.24 and Isa 1:29-31, see Smith, Isaiah 40-66, 744; cf. Oswalt, The Holy One, 70, n.41.

[56] Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 524; Calvin, Commentary, 440; See also Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66 (Int; Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995), 252. I regard Goldingay’s contention that the passage has nothing to do with individual eschatology (or cosmic eschatology) as somewhat reductive.

[57] Stansell, “The Nations’ Journey”, 244.

[58] Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 525.

True Religion According to Isaiah 58

Note to non-Ridley College readers: I have produced this piece as part of an exercise for my study of the book of Isaiah. The intention is to try and contextualize a portion of that book for a particular audience, drawing out the passage’s significance for people today. After posting their work, students taking the subject have to examine and comment on their classmates’ efforts.

This is a blog post-cum-article, such as you might find in an online publication like The Gospel Coalition, or a print publication like The Melbourne Anglican.

***

I didn’t agree on all that much with the late biblical scholar, Marcus Borg. His Jesus seemed more like a 1960s radical than a first-century Palestinian Jew; his doctrine of Scripture was a little too low for my taste (Borg probably would have said that the Bible is the product of various communities that were confronted by the ineffable power of the numinous); and his understanding of biblical politics – such as they are – bore an uncanny resemblance to modern-day progressivism.

But one area in which I found Borg to be quite insightful was his insistence on the deep, abiding connection between one’s relationship with God (or “the holy”, as Borg might have termed it) and a commitment to justice in the world. For him, the two went hand-in-hand; anything less was a betrayal of true religion. Reading Marcus Borg at this point was to be reminded afresh of a fundamental truth that had become lost amidst hurly-burly of everyday life.

***

Isaiah 58:1-14 perfectly distils this theme, one that is found repeatedly throughout Scripture. In the space of a few verses, the prophet denounces a narrow, restrictive kind of religion, concerned mainly with empty ritual and ceremony. In its stead, he places a full-bodied spirituality front-and-centre, one that is focused on both God and neighbour – a religion that is both “vertical” (in relation to the Creator) and “horizontal” (in relation to one’s fellow image-bearers).

For Isaiah, labouring for justice is not an adjunct or an add-on; rather, it is a manifestation of true religion. In response to the complaints of God’s people – who petulantly ask why they have bothered fasting and humbling themselves, for no apparent gain (v.3) – the prophet exposes their hypocrisy. They might have prided themselves on their holiness, but as the succeeding verses demonstrate, their vaunted religiosity was hollow, a sham. Their fasts ended in conflict (v.4), whilst the fleeting moments they gave to God (v.5a) paled into insignificance next to the large swathes of time spent living for themselves and ignoring the plight of the poor (vv.6-7). I like the way Paul Hanson, an OT scholar, summed up the predicament of Israel at this time:

“[They were a] community where those who regarded themselves as the most religious had converted religion into private acts of study and ritual, thereby leaving the entire realm of social relations and commerce under the dominion of ruthless, self-serving exploitation”.

Quite so. The Israelites of Isaiah 58 had allowed a corrupt form of their religion to colonize the far loftier requirements of devotion to Yahweh, confining their obligations to discrete acts of piety. Meanwhile, those weightier matters of justice and liberation were forgotten about, left to wither away like the poor wanderers among them.

What God commands for his people in Isaiah 58 is a “fast” that conforms to, and reveals, his deeper intentions for those who call themselves his disciples. It is a “fast” from injustice, oppression and exploitation, and studied neglect of the downtrodden. It is, indeed, a “fast” that aims to satisfy the painful longings of the empty and broken. If the people do these things, Isaiah says, their light will break forth like the noonday sun (vv.8-10), and God shall truly be their delight. They will, in other words, reveal the light (=truth) of God (cf. 2:5), all the while being genuinely reconciled to their Creator and King.

***

This isn’t simply an OT concern – part of that dreaded law that Christians can now do away with. Jesus and the writers of the NT (most of whom were Jews) were deeply committed to the ongoing relevance of the OT Scriptures for the spiritual and moral formation of disciples in the early church. Indeed, the NT is suffused with this ethos, for both it and its predecessor are grounded in the fundamental belief that every single person is a precious image-bearing being, deserving of justice and respite from exploitation.

Examples are too numerous to list, but a few will make things clear. Just think about the way Jesus excoriates the “selective righteousness” of the religious leaders, who assiduously tithe their spices, but neglect the foundational matters of justice and compassion (Luke 11:42). Or what about his announcement in Luke 4:16-21, where he quotes from Isaiah 61, proclaiming himself to be the fulfilment of the anointed one, who would liberate the captives and loose the chains of injustice? In what could be seen as a programmatic statement, Jesus stands in the synagogue, and describes his mission as one marked by the coming of deliverance in a great act of Jubilee. And let’s not forget a NT writer like James, who says in 1:27 that one of the characteristics of “pure religion” is to look after orphans and widows (read: the vulnerable and weak). If one is to be a genuine worshiper of God, devotion to those who have fallen prey to the harsh vagaries of this world is non-negotiable.

For Christians, then, the values and principles enshrined in a passage like Isaiah 58 aren’t irrelevant, or a part of some by-gone era superseded by the coming of grace; they are part of the warp and woof of holy living, now fulfilled in the person and ministry of Jesus himself. The “light” of Isaiah 58, which he said would dawn with renewed commitment to justice, is seen in Jesus’ light, which pushes back the darkness (John 8:12). But it’s also not dissimilar to the light that Jesus’ disciples are meant to shine, by which they reveal in their good works the greatness and holiness of God (Matt 5:16).

***

The words of Isaiah 58 are bracing indeed. I’m not suggesting, of course, that anyone reading this is guilty of exploiting the poor, or of actively perpetuating oppression. But we need to take these words, echoed in the voices of Jesus and the first disciples, with a great deal of gravity. Moreover, we need to allow the God who inspired this passage then to use it now – searching our hearts for signs that we, too, may have slipped into conventional, narrow, or formal religion. I know that as I read these verses, I stand exposed as someone who all too easily falls into the trap of empty ceremony – thinking that my church attendance, for example, or my Bible reading is enough. And I cannot help but recognize that like the Israelites of this text, I am also guilty of “turning away” from other human beings (Isa 58:7c), of shutting my eyes to the misery and the brokenness around me. We may not be responsible for another’s exploitation; but how often do we ignore the plight of that person, or determine to remain uninformed about the travails of the oppressed?

How does one respond? It’s true that we live in a culture of self-interest, marked by materialism and a spirit of acquisitiveness. Such is the culture’s strength that it can be difficult to fully embrace the vision of Isaiah 58. But there is hope. Although each of us may have fallen short of these ideals, let us also remember that God is able to do exceedingly more than we can imagine. He is more than capable of re-making us; indeed, that is the whole point of being welcomed into his redeemed community. Moreover, he knows we are dust and ashes, and prone to following that which is merely convenient or comfortable. His grace is all-abounding, and is more than sufficient to forgive us our failings, and equip us for a life spent in service of others.

This is God’s promise. But what else should we do to live as people who manifest the spirit of Isaiah 58? Well, it is important to remain consistent in prayer. It’s unlikely God will change us without some openness on our behalf. Prayer avails much, and if we think we are lacking when it comes to a commitment to the poor and vulnerable, then it’s incumbent upon us to petition God for transformation. He will do much for us – and within us – but that comes with a receptive heart, made all the more so through prayer. Next, we might think about our posture: how do we position ourselves in this world? Do we open ourselves up to opportunities to assist and support those who broken or downtrodden? Or do we confine ourselves to acts of devotion and piety that allow us to remain walled-off from the discord around us? Along with prayer, then, a re-orientation of our goals, attitudes and way of life may well be necessary. It requires a conscious, intentional change – at least at some level – of one’s habits and daily rhythm. Such a posture means being alive to the possibility that God might use us in even the mundane moments of life. It entails deliberation about how we can reach out beyond the merely conventional or socially acceptable to those who are suffering. I think we’d be surprised by the opportunities that present themselves, right before our eyes.

Finally, there are practices, which are closely allied to our basic stance towards the broken. I’m not suggesting that we all need to abandon our current lives, move to a developing nation, and minister to people living in a slum. Practicing justice and loving-kindness could be as simple as reaching out to a neighbour you know facing financial hardship; or befriending someone at church who (as it were) comes from the “wrong side of the tracks”; or writing letters to your local MP on a raft of justice issues (asylum seekers languishing on Manus Island, abortion, or what have you). These are but a few examples.

We all face the cacophony of modern-day life, and we may often be distracted by all it has to offer. However, even in the midst such a dazzling array of amusements and consumer delights, there exist opportunities – even in the most “ordinary” of circumstances – to put the ethos of Isaiah 58 into action. In that way, we shall show ourselves to be God’s true people, following in the footsteps of his Son.

***

One final point before rounding off. I have focused mainly on what Isaiah 58 says about one’s commitment to justice. But remember what I said in reference to Marcus Borg: he talked of the indivisible bond between that commitment and devotion to God. If it’s easy to restrict one’s piety so that it has absolutely no effect on the world around us, then it’s also easy to think that social concern and a thirst for justice are enough. However, Isaiah 58 doesn’t promote a secular political programme. Rather (and as Marcus Borg recognised), it offers a distillation of the two halves of true religion, both of which are necessary for it to remain genuine. Here, I cannot help but end with another quote from Paul Hanson:

“Acts of loving kindness toward the neighbour do not exhaust the life of faith. They culminate in worship. The life of compassionate justice comes to its most sublime expression in the delight one finds in the Lord (v.14)…Isaiah 58 states God’s will with a clarity that wins the assent of all that is true within us…[evoking] our deepest sense of joy with the invitation to delight in the Lord through worship purified by loving-kindness”.

Amen.

Isaiah’s David and Conservative Scholarship

This is an expanded version of a college essay I wrote recently for my theological studies. It concerns the conservative claim that the book of Isaiah anticipates a divine Davidic king. 

Introduction

It has long been a mainstay of classical and conservative Christianity that the book of Isaiah explicitly anticipates a divine-human king who would take his rightful place on David’s throne. Resting their case on key “royal” texts, commentators in this tradition have argued for the Isaianic expectation of an idealized Davidic heir sharing the everlasting glory – the “ontological status” – of Yahweh himself. Invariably, he is identified with Jesus Christ.

I will examine the merits of this claim in what follows, pursuing it in conversation with traditionalist interpreters. In particular, I will argue that whilst Isaiah clearly envisions a superlative Davidic king – that much is uncontroversial – this object of prophetic longing remains an exclusively human figure. Even if the key redemptive individuals populating the book can all be interpreted within a Davidic-messianic framework, they, too, are pictured as essentially human. Ultimately, the expected Davidide occupies a subordinate position within the broader Isaianic portrait of Yahweh’s unmatched sovereignty. Arguments to the contrary either exceed or misconstrue the evidence.

I shall divide my essay into three, unequal parts, focusing primarily on the more contentious question of the Davidic king’s alleged divinity. First, I’ll critically explore relevant passages in Isaiah 1-39, demonstrating that even where they do expect a royal Davidide, they do not envision him as divine. Second, I shall survey Isaiah 40-55, concentrating on the infamous “servant” passages with which some scholars buttress their claims.[1] I’ll argue that whether or not these commonly-cited texts anticipate a Davidic-messianic figure, they also fail to show that he bears godhood. Finally, I shall briefly sketch a positive case for understanding the expected Davidide as a human agent within the book’s theology of divine kingship.

Isaiah 1-39

Since Isaiah 1-39 provides most of the putative data for a divine Davidide, I shall devote a larger share of my critical attention to this section. Here, we must contend with four main passages when discussing the Davidic king’s ontological status: 4:2; 7:14-18; 9:1-7; and 11:1-10.

Isaiah 4:2

Isaiah 4:2 is sometimes seen as the first Isaianic glimpse of a future, divine Davidic figure. Motyer argues that references to the “Lord’s Branch” and “the fruit of the land” reflect the coming king’s dual nature, bearing both a divine origin and human parentage.[2] “Branch” may well have messianic overtones (cf. Jer 23:5; Zech 3:8), but the point of its/his being “of” the Lord is to emphasis God’s gift of fruitfulness; the “Branch” would therefore be Yahweh’s instrument of redemption.[3] Interpreting “fruit of the land” as a veiled indication of the apparent Davidide’s human/earthly ancestry seems manufactured: a natural reading of the text doesn’t warrant such recondite interpretations, but rather suggests the joy of survivors returning to a newly bountiful landscape. Claims that mere earthen terrain would never be described with terms such as “pride” and “glory” also ignore biblical references to the contrary (e.g., Jer 3:19; Dan 11:16,41).[4]

Isaiah 7:14-18

Those who think Isaiah anticipates a divine Davidide tend to interpret Isaiah 7:14-18 in a straightforwardly predictive way – i.e., as a promise fulfilled with Christ’s miraculous birth, in whose person divinity and humanity were embodied (Matt 1:23). Advocates argue that this connection, along with the child’s name (“God-with-us”),[5] constitute strong indications of both Davidic lineage and divine origin.

Admittedly, “Immanuel’s” identity (v.14) is difficult to determine, and interpretations are legion.[6] Whether a Davidic-messianic understanding of the passage is possible,[7] contextual factors favour a certain immediacy regarding the prophecy’s ambit: the demise of the Syro-Ephraimite kings, whom Ahaz “dread[ed]”, would occur before the child reached the age of conscious moral choice (v.16; cf. vv.2,7-9). This implies the sign would come to pass within the lifetime of Isaiah’s audience.[8] Traditionalist interpretations, hewing to a disputable model of prophetic fulfilment that not even the NT consistently follows,[9] are constrained to mute the clear historical markers anchoring Isaiah’s oracle.[10] Claiming Isaiah adopts a “concertina” approach to history[11] – essentially bypassing the intervening seven centuries – represents an exercise in special pleading, and would have rendered the prophetic sign meaningless to his contemporaries.[12] Nothing explicit in the text warrants such exegetical contrivances.[13] The apparent force of the child’s virginal mother is thus negated; assuming v.14 denotes a specific woman,[14] it’s equally possible that her maidenhood was something she possessed at the time, without entailing supernatural conception. Finally, “Immanuel” is better understood as a theophoric name: less a reflection of one’s divinity than of his status as a sign of God’s enduring presence in the midst of historical crisis.[15] I shall further discuss claims concerning theophoric names below.

Some argue for the Immanuel-child’s divinity by joining Isaiah 7:14ff with 9:1-7 and 11:1-10 via subsequent references to “Immanuel” (8:8,10). However, this assumes two things: (a) that 9:1-7 and 11:1-10 contain hints of divinity in their portraits of the coming Davidide; and (b) that these texts speak of the same individual as 7:14ff, linked as they allegedly are by way of “Immanuel”. I will critically examine (a) below. As for (b), there is reason to question the identification of the variously-mentioned figures. True, 7:14ff and 9:1-7 both speak of the birth of significant children. But attempts to link these passages – where “Immanuel” apparently refers to an exalted figure, whose identity becomes progressively clearer – fail to reckon with probable changes in the term’s usage; whereas “Immanuel” clearly refers to an individual in 7:14, it might better be seen as a cry of hope (or grief) in 8:8,10.[16]

Isaiah 9:1-7

Unlike Isaiah 4:2 and 7:14ff, 9:1-7 and 11:1-10 unambiguously expect a Davidic king: references to David’s throne (9:7) and Jesse’s “Branch/stump” (11:1,10) bear sufficient witness to this fact.[17] However, the contentious – and thus, crucial – question remains the nature of this longed-for potentate.

Numerous commentators have looked to Isaiah 9:1-7 for evidence of a future divine king, so apparently crystalline are the references to his glorified, transcendent status. Set against the background of a coming era of deliverance (vv.1-5), some argue the passage is a prophetic word concerning a divine-human saviour who will sit on David’s throne, even as he is identified with God himself. His alleged role as universal redeemer testifies to his lofty status, and commentators use vv.1-5 to buttress the broader claim that Isaiah 9:1-7 anticipates an exalted figure of cosmic scope. Verses 6-7, which speak of a remarkable infant and his accession to David’s throne, are the lynch-pin. On this view, the child’s “givenness” means that in addition to having human parentage (“born”), he is also of divine stock.[18] The complex of honorific names in v.6 apparently bears this out, for their application to the Davidic king is titular evidence of his divinity. “Wonderful [Counsellor]” (v.6a) may mean something like “supernatural”, reflecting the unique abilities of this supposedly more-than-human figure.[19] “Mighty God” (v.6a) is likewise said to denote godhood, since elsewhere, it is clearly applied to Yahweh (10:21).[20] Furthermore, proponents have suggested that “Everlasting Father” (v.6b) represents the king’s eternality and divine paternity, of which the passage’s reference to his kingdom’s endless duration (v.7) is a corollary.[21]

At first glance, the evidence marshalled from Isaiah 9:1-7 appears compelling. But several cogent objections can be levelled against it. First, interpreting references to “born” and “given” (v.5) as implying the divine-human nature of the coming king represents an artificial demarcation (cf. 4:2). The child’s “givenness” denotes the divine mercy that stands behind his birth, with the one acting as sign to the other.[22] Second, the titles of v.6 – said to be overt references to the king’s divinity – are better understood as theophoric names: ceremonial titles borne by a ruler, describing the God in whose name he reigned and on whose behalf he acted.[23] This didn’t mean the person in question was divine. Other OT texts show the (e.g.) relationship between Yahweh and Israel’s kings could be described in filial terms (God’s “son” [Ps 2:7]), without this indicating ontological likeness.[24] Hence, vv.6-7 don’t imply the Davidic ruler will bear godhood; rather, his actions and status point beyond themselves to the ultimate reality undergirding his rule.[25] Deferrals to 10:21, then, are moot: although that verse does refer to Yahweh, the application of “Mighty God” in 9:6 is a sign of God’s salvific power.[26] These titles serve to underscore his greatness, wisdom, and paternal concern – not the ruler’s per se – in redemption (v.7d).[27]

Third, references to an everlasting kingdom do not, by themselves, imply the eternality of the Davidic leader. More likely is the argument that they echo 2 Samuel 7:14ff, which speaks of the endless duration of David’s kingdom (cf. Ps 72:17).[28] Nothing in that passage suggests the equation of everlasting kingship and divinity.[29] Finally, there is reason to think the general tenor of 9:1-7 implies a ruler of a more limited (though nonetheless idealized) stature, counterposing the “manifest failures of the Ahaz regime”.[30] Some persuasively argue that God is consistently pictured as exclusive redeemer here, thereby challenging traditional readings that “inflate” the Davidic figure’s role.[31] The passage concentrates on Yahweh’s accomplishments (v.7d), denoting God as deliverer – not the subsequently-identified Davidide. “He” (v.1) refers to Yahweh, logically implying that Israel’s God is also the primary subject of vv.2-5 (cf. Isa 2:5). This strikes a better balance between the “gloom” of divine abandonment (8:22) and the “light” of divinely-ordained redemption.[32] Moreover, 9:1-7 doesn’t apply the term “king” to the wonder-child, possibly as a way of training attention on Yahweh’s kingship.[33] The Davidide is honoured, not in himself, but as an obedient agent within God’s redemptive programme.[34] If sound, this re-appraisal weakens a key plank in the classical-conservative case for a transcendent, uniquely glorified Davidic individual.

Isaiah 11:1-10

What of Isaiah 1:1-10? Does it anticipate a divine Davidide? Again, an affirmative answer exceeds the evidence. Motyer suggests the construction of v.10 denotes the origin of Jesse’s genealogical line: the Davidic “Root” is also the “root” from which Jesse and his progeny sprang, such that he is both Messiah and Creator (i.e., divine).[35] But the verse reads simply enough, especially when viewed in light of the preceding context (10:33-34): a “root” from Jesse’s line will grow and bud, despite the apparently lifeless stump that exists.[36] The passage does envision a lofty, idealized figure, whose advent is associated with the return of exiles and a new era of shalom-like harmony (vv.6-10). However, this needn’t be interpreted in “superhuman” terms.[37] Verses 1-2 depict someone acting as Yahweh’s deputy, discharging his unique duties only with the liberal assistance of divine endowment.[38] Meanwhile, 11:11ff affirm God’s superintendence over Israel’s deliverance/restoration. The Davidic figure may be God’s faithful vice-regent – offering another contrast to the corruption of contemporary elites (cf. 1:10) – but the basic thrust of this passage is one of deference and subordination, not (ontological) equality (cf. vv.2a-3b – “…will delight in the fear of the Lord”).

Isaiah 40-66

Whereas Isaiah 1-39 contains clear references to a Davidic ruler, there is scant mention of David in Isaiah 40-55 (cf. the heavily contested 55:3-5).[39] This should come as no surprise, since so-called Deutero-Isaiah focuses so closely on Yahweh’s kingship. Nevertheless, by concentrating on the “servant” texts punctuating Chapters 40-55, some maintain that Isaiah continues to envision a royal Davidide.[40] Interesting parallels obtain between the servant and (e.g.) Isaiah 11:1-10,[41] but citation of claimed textual evidence for the view fails to appreciate that much of the data parallel references in non-Davidic contexts (and are therefore insufficient to establish the traditionalist’s position), or remain ambiguous in their import.[42] It’s questionable whether the servant is consistently portrayed as an individual, much less a Davidic one (e.g., Isa 41:8; 43:10; 44:1; 49:3, implying a servant-Israel nexus).[43] Even where an individual appears to be envisaged, the passages in question lack unambiguous references to his Davidic heritage, akin to those one finds in Isaiah 9 and 11. The prospective exegete should therefore be cautious in eliding these two figures.[44]

Isaiah 49 and 53

But suppose the servant of Isaiah 40-55 is an ideal Davidic king; is there evidence to suggest this section contains an expectation of his divinity? Some scholars have argued so, leaning on a clutch of key verses from Chapters 49 and 52-53. I shall examine them in reverse order, starting with the latter text first. According to several commentators, Isaiah 52:13-53:12 contains several allusions to that figure’s deity: the servant will be exalted to a position of honour on par with God (52:13); the Lord’s “bared arm” constitutes a kind of incarnation (53:1);[45] and the servant’s agential role suggests a “perichoretic” relationship between him and Yahweh, with even incipient Trinitarian overtones.[46] These references are rather opaque, to say the least, and are better understood in more prosaic terms. That the servant is Yahweh’s instrument – his “bared arm” – can be explained as yet another instance of the master-servant/king-agent relationship (cf. 9:1-7; 11:1-10).[47] On this view, the servant is likely a human figure doing his Lord’s bidding. And “high and lifted up” (52:13) likely denotes a reversal of status from shame to honour (cf. 53:10b-12a), not “ontological identity”.[48] As for the assertion that we have here a statement of proto-Trinitarian thought, the most one can say about it is that it is entirely gratuitous.

Traditionalist interpretations of Isaiah 49:1-7 also over-egg the exegetical pudding. Motyer, for example, asserts that “strength” (v.5c) implies the servant uniquely embodies divine power[49] – despite plain readings of the text which suggest that he “merely” benefits from Yahweh’s preservation amidst his arduous mission. Likewise, although others have argued that the servant actually incarnates divine salvation (v.6d), this, too, can be understood in instrumental terms – i.e., the servant acting on behalf of his God, functioning as a “tool” (cf. v.2, where the servant is likened to a weapon in Yahweh’s hand). Finally, the servant may well act as God’s “salvation” (v.7), but a more straightforward interpretation lies close to hand – namely, that he is an agent prosecuting the redemptive agenda of the One who sent and empowered him. To be sure, an agential role is logically consistent with the possession of deity. However, it certainly does not demand deity, and one is firmer textual grounds by eschewing that understanding.

[ADDITIONAL OBSERVATIONS: Complementing these rejoinders are certain features which suggest that if the servant is an individual, then he is an “ordinary”[50] human one. Although it is true that Isaiah 49 depicts him in exalted terms (cf. 11:1-10), it is also clear that he relies upon the generating and sustaining power of God. That in itself may reflect a (metaphysical) distinction between the servant and the One he obeys. He is formed, we are told, by Yahweh in the womb (49:5), which suggests a beginning in time. Eternality, however, is one of the hallmarks of true deity (cf. 43:13), and is a quality that separates Yahweh from his creation. Of course, it might be possible to argue that this doesn’t necessarily preclude pre-existence; Christians, after all, believe that Christ is both the eternal logos (cf. John 1:1) and the son born to a first-century Jewess. But the author of Isaiah was no Christian. Moreover, the traditionalist will find no comfort in (e.g.) Isaiah 7:14ff: as I have already suggested, that text does not predict the miraculous birth of some kind of divine-child, but instead denotes the impending advent of an infant who will constitute a sign of God’s presence. The present passage says nothing beyond the fact that the servant was, like every other human individual, fashioned by the One who is the ultimate source of all life. This speaks of a mundane being, who is constrained by the limits of materiality.

One may also cite Isaiah 49:4, which refers to the servant vainly exhausting himself – yet another indication of finitude, and thus, of humanity without divinity (cf. 40:28c). Although he is called to be a light for the Gentiles (v.6b) – a statement that could be construed as a claim to share in the divine light (cf. 2:5) – it is telling that he does not possess this intrinsically; that Yahweh will “make” him so implies that whilst he carries divine truth, he does not embody it by nature (cf. 58:8,10, where light is clearly associated with members of Yahweh’s covenant community). None of the above points is decisive in isolation, and one cannot definitively rule out some articulation of the servant’s deity. However, they constitute a cumulative case that is relatively strong. Isaiah 49:1-7 seems, then, to offer a picture of someone who remains deeply dependant on, and humbly committed to, the God who has commissioned him. Everything in the passage suggests, once more, ontological difference – not identity – between Yahweh and the servant. Traditionalist arguments, like those associated with previous passages, go beyond the data.]

Isaiah and Kingship: Yahweh’s Matchless Rule

The foregoing analysis has suggested that claims concerning Isaiah’s anticipation of a divine Davidide outstrip the evidence. But can a constructive case be made for understanding the Davidic king as a solely human figure? I believe so, and its possibility lies in the implications of one of the book’s key themes: Yahweh’s unmatched supremacy – his “isolated sovereignty” – against all other claimants.[51]

Isaiah is suffused with references to this basic belief, so crisply distilled in the oft-repeated phrase, “Holy One of Israel” (e.g., 41:14,16; 43:3; 54:4; 60:14). Captured in that term is the notion that Yahweh is both metaphysically “other” and morally spotless. The prophet discovers this when he is confronted with a vision of God. There, Isaiah is overwhelmed by a transcendent monarch of unparalleled majesty (6:1; cf. 63:15); the thrice-declared fact of his holiness simply underscores this reality. That experience is the starting-point for “so-called Isaianic ideology”,[52] buttressing the book’s unrelenting critique of attempts to exalt oneself as Yahweh’s equal.[53] Isaiah’s fundamental outlook explains the denunciation of the Babylonian king in Isaiah 14:12-15, whose actions represent the unlawful arrogation of Yahweh’s unique position of glory. The general tenor of Isaiah 13-23 is one of God’s sovereignty in judgment, climaxing with a re-assertion of this king’s universal lordship via the execution of his devastating wrath upon the earth. Even the bridging narrative of Isaiah 36-37 is underpinned by the conviction of Yahweh’s sole deity; Hezekiah’s prayer, for example, affirms Yahweh as Lord – in contrast to mute, impotent idols – and the only one who may be called the “living God” (37:14-20).[54] That contrast, of course, is demonstrated in dramatic fashion, as the Assyrian army is completely vanquished (37:36-38).

The theme of Yahweh’s reign culminates with the book’s extended “lawsuit” against the great pantheon of idols in Chapters 40-55, a section that has been noted for its lofty, uncompromising monotheism.[55] Much of this polemical output serves to establish Yahweh’s status as unrivalled potentate and Israel’s only redeemer (e.g., 42:5-9). Yahweh repeatedly contrasts his royal glory with the lifeless “gods” of pagan devotion (40:18-25; 46:1-12). He alone commands the otherwise unchecked forces of nature; he alone foretells the future and ensures his plans prevail. Not only is he Israel’s king (43:15); he is God eternal, supreme over creation – including those elements used to create the idols he so resolutely opposes.[56] As Yahweh himself emphatically insists, he “will not yield” his “glory to another”, or his “praise to idols” (42:8) – precisely because no one else can be positioned as his equal (cf. 64:5). The final, eschatological picture of “all flesh” engaging in pure worship of the one, true God (66:18-22) perfectly complements – and indeed, fulfils – the lines of thought found in Deutero-Isaiah. Tellingly, there is no mention in that text of a supposedly divine-human Davidide (as we might expect if Isaiah consciously anticipated such a figure); he seems to have faded from the scene entirely. At the conclusion of history, the prophet implies, Yahweh alone will stand supreme.

In view of these proposals, it would seem that no matter how revered the coming Davidic king is, one shouldn’t claim more for him than Isaiah’s theological predilections will allow. Given the book’s unyielding emphasis on Yahweh’s matchless sovereignty (cf. 63:15) – and the consequent gulf that exists between him and all other things – it makes more sense to understand the Davidide as an honoured (though non-divine) individual, acting as Yahweh’s subordinate. Several of the passages surveyed bear this out. Isaiah 9:1-7 has shown that the (human) Davidide operates as an agent within, and as a result of, the cosmic Lord’s redemptive enterprise. His stature and titles signal God’s sovereign power, even if he himself remains a mundane figure. Isaiah’s broader theological horizons make the distinction between these two actors thoroughly intelligible. Yahweh’s glory is a unique and intrinsic possession (cf. 42:8); by implication, the Davidide simply does not have it. And on the assumption that the subject of Isaiah 49:1-7 is a Davidic figure, the aforementioned features of that oracle – features that seemingly imply an ordinary human being – would become doubly comprehensible. Not only do inner textual considerations invite the reasonable conclusion that the servant is non-divine; Isaiah’s basic theological foundations appear to rule out anything more. Conversely, we may ask whether a prophetic work so committed to God’s singular deity would then obscure its message by introducing a being who, as it were, “blurs” the relevant metaphysical categories of divinity and humanity (cf. 2:22). If my analysis is correct, there is not only reason to doubt traditionalist interpretations of the longed-for Davidide; a positive framework also exists that strongly encourages an affirmation of his exclusive humanity.

Conclusion

We must conclude. As I have sought to demonstrate, both intra-exegetical considerations and broader theological concerns suggest that Isaiah anticipates a human Davidic king, and nothing more. Even the book’s unambiguous references to an expected Davidide fail to yield compelling evidence for his divinity. Instead, the passages examined here indicate someone who occupies an inferior – though still important – position within the sovereign God’s salvific economy. The honour accorded him is reflective of the ubiquitous pattern of veneration that ancient kings enjoyed. On the other hand, it’s difficult to resist the conclusion that traditionalist/conservative claims in this field sometimes stem, not from a dispassionate exegesis of the text, but from scholarly ingenuity in service of particular theological aims. As I have sought to demonstrate, those who argue that Isaiah expects the coming Davidide to bear divinity are frequently compelled to resort to some rather tenuous interpretive strategies. This isn’t to say that those living this side of the Incarnation shouldn’t read these texts through a Christological lens. That remains a legitimate hermeneutical move. However, Isaiah reveals to us an undimmed belief in Yahweh’s ontological uniqueness, such that expectations of a divine-human king – a transcendent son of David – are questionable at best.

[1] The attentive reader will notice that I have not included Isaiah 56-66 in my analysis. This is so for two reasons: putative references (e.g., to a royal Davidide/divine figure) are extremely rare and/or ambiguous; and, where a relevant text may be found, it is significant only to the extent that it echoes language already found in earlier sections of Isaiah (e.g., 53:1//63:5).

[2] Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993), 65, 67. For an ancient rendition of this argument, see Bede, “Homilies on the Gospels 1.4”, cited in Stephen A. McKinion (ed.), Ancient Commentary on Scripture: Isaiah 1-39 (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004), 36.

[3] Childs argues that because “Branch” is pegged to “the Lord” – not David or Jesse – the reference should not be seen as messianic-Davidic, but rather as a denotation (along with 4:2b) of Yahweh’s work in bestowing upon the land “abundance and fecundity”. See Brevard Childs, Isaiah (OTL; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 36.

[4] John D.W. Watts, Isaiah 1-33 (Revised) (WBC 24; Waco: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 75.

[5] Calvin argues that “Immanuel” is a sure indication that Isaiah was predicting the coming of the (divine) Christ. See John Calvin, Commentary on the Prophet Isaiah, Vol. 1; trans. William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009), 248-249.

[6] Childs, Isaiah, 68-69. See Andy Abernethy, The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom: A Thematic-Theological Approach (NSBT; Downers Grove: IVP, 2016), 122, who cites some scholars arguing for Immanuel’s identification with Hezekiah. Other candidates include Isaiah’s son, or a collective interpretation (i.e., mothers calling their sons “Immanuel” as a profession of faith). Abernethy himself argues that the identity of the child is unimportant.

[7] Goldingay, like many others, notes that there is nothing explicit about the Immanuel child being of Davidic origin. See John Goldingay, The Theology of the Book of Isaiah (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2014), 140. Watts (Isaiah 1-33, 140) suggests that “no record exists of special attention being given to Isa 7:14 in pre-Christian Judaism”.

[8] Watts, Isaiah 1-33, 136, 141. Laato argues for an immediate historical fulfilment. See Antti Laato, Who is Immanuel? The Rise and the Foundering of Isaiah’s Messianic Expectations (Abo: Abo Academy Press, 1988), 172-173.

[9] E.g., Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1 (Matt 2:18). See James M. Hamilton, Jr., “‘The Virgin Will Conceive’: Typology in Isaiah and Fulfillment in Matthew 1:23”, in Built Upon the Rock: Studies in the Gospel of Matthew, eds. Daniel M. Gurtner and John Nolland (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 233-236, 242-247, for a summary and defence of a typological (rather than predictive) approach to the NT’s understanding of prophetic fulfilment.

[10] Herbert M. Wolf, Interpreting Isaiah: The Suffering and Glory of the Messiah (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), 91.

[11] As Motyer (Isaiah, [TOTC; Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1999], 78) does; idem, The Prophecy, 87.

[12] As even John N. Oswalt (The Book of Isaiah – Chapters 1-39 [NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986], 206-207) admits, despite his adherence to the conservative position; cf. Marvin E. Tate, “King and Messiah in Isaiah of Jerusalem”, R & E 65 (1968): 412.

[13] Other exegetes (e.g., John Calvin and Gary Smith) have posited that the child of v.14 is different from that of v.16. I can only say that this seems terribly forced, and undermines the integrity of the passage. See Calvin, Commentary on Isaiah, 250; Gary V. Smith, Isaiah 1-39 (NAC 15A; Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2007), 215.

[14] Note the definite article preceding “virgin” in v.14, which could imply a specific, concrete individual (cf. Smith, Isaiah 1-39, 200).

[15] Abernethy, The Book, 122-123; Greg Goswell, “Royal Names: Naming and Wordplay in Isaiah 7”, WTJ 75 (2013): 106.

[16] See Wolf, Interpreting, 94; idem, “Solution to the Immanuel Prophecy in Isaiah 7:14-8:22”, JBL 91 (1972): 455; Watts, Isaiah 1-33, 154. Cf. G.C.I Wong, “Is ‘God with Us’ in Isaiah VIII 8?”, VT [no number] (1999): 430, who interprets the cries of “Immanuel” negatively. This does not affect my broader point. Smith admits that Isa 7:1-17 lacks the messianic “flavour” of 9:1-7. See Smith, Isaiah 1-39, 215. Porter notes a number of other differences between these figures. See Frank Chamberlain Porter, “A Suggestion Regarding Isaiah’s Immanuel”, JBL 14 (1985): 20.

[17] See Goswell, “The Shape of Messianism in Isaiah 9”, WTJ 9 (2015): 108.

[18] This interpretation has a venerable history. See Motyer, Isaiah, 89; idem, The Prophecy, 102. See also Carl Umhan Wolf, “Luther on the Christian Prophecy, Isaiah 9”, Lutheran Quarterly 5 (1953): 390, for a summary of Luther’s views on this point; Augustine, “Sermon 187.4” in McKinion, Ancient, 70.

[19] Motyer, Isaiah, 89.

[20] Motyer, Isaiah, 89; Smith, Isaiah 1-39, 240; Wolf, Interpreting, 97-98.

[21] Interpreting the names in Isa 9:6 as connoting the Davidide’s deity has a long and venerable history. A quick glance at McKinion, Ancient, 70-76 reveals that many of the luminaries of the ancient church – from Justin Martyr, to Ambrose, and Augustine – held this view. Although I depart from such an august array of witnesses, I do not do so lightly. For a modern parallel, see Motyer, The Prophecy, 102.

[22] H.G.M. Williamson, Isaiah 6-12: A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Isaiah 1-27 (Volume 2) (ICC; London: Bloomsbury, 2018), 395.

[23] Goswell, “The Shape”, 107. Cf. Tate, “King and Messiah”, 418, who argues that these were throne names bestowed upon a king at his coronation; Watts, Isaiah 1-33, 175; Williamson, Variations on a Theme: King, Messiah, and Servant in the Book of Isaiah (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1998), 43, who argues this was a common ancient practice; idem, Isaiah 6-12, 397-398.

[24] Abernethy, The Book, 127; Tate, “King and Messiah”, 418; Paul D. Wegner, “A Re-examination of Isaiah IX 1-6”, VT 1 (1992): 107-108.

[25] Childs, Isaiah, 81.

[26] Goldingay, The Theology, 140; Wegner, “A Re-examination”, 110.

[27] Abernethy, The Book, 127-128; Wegner, “A Re-examination”, 111.

[28] Smith, Isaiah 1-39, 241; cf. Laato, Who is Immanuel?, 194, 303.

[29] Williamson, Variations, 36; idem, Isaiah 6-12, 403.

[30] Goswell, “The Shape”, 101.

[31] See Goswell, “The Shape”, 101-110, esp. 102. See also Tate, “King and Messiah”, 418.

[32] Cf. Wegner, “What’s New in Isaiah 9:1-7?”, in Interpreting Isaiah: Issues and Approaches, eds. David G. Firth and H.G.M. Williamson (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity, 2009), 240.

[33] Wegner, “What’s New”, 244.

[34] Goswell, “The Shape”, 102; Williamson, Variations, 32-34.

[35] Motyer, The Prophecy, 14, 121.

[36] Goldingay, The Theology, 141; Watts, Isaiah 1-33, 209.

[37] Contra Oswalt, Isaiah 1-39, 278.

[38] Goswell, “Messianic Expectation in Isaiah 11”, WTJ 79 (2017): 126-127, 129.

[39] See Goswell, “The Shape”, who argues that Isaiah 40-55 has no place for a Davidic king; cf. Childs, Isaiah, 437, and Christopher R. North, The Suffering Servant in Deutero-Isaiah: An Historical and Critical Study (London: OUP, 1956), 218, who argue likewise. As for Isa 55:3-5, many scholars argue that it refers to the “democratization” of promises originally made to David – now applied to the entire community. Oswalt (The Book of Isaiah – Chapters 40-66 [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998], 439-440) argues that the use of the third-person singular in v.4, combined with the Davidic reference, suggests that we are dealing with an individual Davidide, and that he ought to be identified with the Isaianic servant of Isaiah 40-53. However, he concedes that this line of evidence is not decisive.

[40] E.g., Motyer, The Prophecy, 344-345.

[41] See Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66 (Int; Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995), 44, for an exploration of some of those parallels, with a focus on Isa 11:1-2 and 42:1-2; cf. Wolf, Interpreting, 191.

[42] See, for example, the arguments marshalled by Daniel I. Block, “My Servant David: Ancient Israel’s Vision of the Messiah”, in Israel’s Messiah in the Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls, eds. Richard S. Hess and M. Daniel Carroll R. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 47. Cf. Abernethy, The Book, 148, n.83, who persuasively refutes such claims.

[43] Oswalt, Isaiah 1-39, 50. Cf. Abernethy, The Book, 138-144.

[44] See North, The Suffering Servant, 142: “We are not at liberty to assume that the picture of the servant is homogenous throughout the Songs [of Isa 40-55]”; Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 166. It should be noted, however, that later “servant” passages seem to bear an individualist stamp (although the identification of the subject of Isa 49:1-7 remains disputed).

[45] Motyer, The Prophecy, 333.

[46] For a summary of such arguments (as well as cogent rejoinders), see Abernethy, The Book, 146.

[47] Abernethy, The Book, 146.

[48] Abernethy, The Book, 146.

[49] Motyer, The Prophecy, 387.

[50] “Ordinary” in the sense that he is not divine or transcendent. The servant (like the Davidic king of Isaiah 1-39) is clearly an extraordinary figure.

[51] Williamson, Variations, 12.

[52] Williamson, Variations, 18. See Watts, Isaiah 34-66 (Revised) (WBC 25; Waco: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 574. who says Isaiah’s vision is an integral part of his “religious consciousness”; Nathan MacDonald, “Monotheism in Isaiah” in Firth and Williamson, Interpreting Isaiah, 58.

[53] Williamson, Variations, 12.

[54] Watts, Isaiah 34-66, 574; MacDonald, “Monotheism”, 56.

[55] William Sanford La Sor, David Allan Hubbard and Frederic William Bush, Old Testament Survey: The Message, Form and Background of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 386. See also MacDonald, “Monotheism”, 45.

[56] R. Reed Lessing, “Yahweh Versus Marduk: Creation Theology in Isaiah 40-55”, Concordia Journal 36 (2010): 237-238. See also Goswell, “Isaiah 1:26 – A Neglected Text on Kingship”, Tyndale Bulletin 62 (2011): 235, who notes an almost exclusive emphasis on Yahweh as king in Isaiah 40-55; MacDonald, “Monotheism”, 48.