Gleaning from Richard Bauckham

Readers of my old blog may recall that around two years ago I was wrestling for several months with how to understand and apply the Old Testament economic laws–their relative moral and judicial significance, in particular.  Well, the conclusions that took me six months and research and writing to haltingly articulate, Richard Bauckham, with disarming surefootedness, manages to establish in five splendid sentences of his book The Bible in Politics (which, by the way, I cannot recommend highly enough, and hope to be blogging frequently about over the next week or two).  I here quote most of the fantastic paragraph in which these five sentences appear:

“The law, as we have seen, is concerned with broad principles of social morality and with illustrating their specific application.  The specific examples include both laws enforceable in the courts and moral exhortations.  Leviticus 19:9-10 [the law of gleaning] is not in the form of judicial lw and, we may guess, would not normally have been enforced in the courts.  But on the other hand, it would have been open to the elders in any particular local community to choose to enforce it with legal sanctions.  In any case it had the force of social custom, which in small, close-knit communities like those of ancient Israel can be very effective. In such a society, social disapproval, which itself is inseparable from shared religious beliefs, can be as important a sanction as legal punishment.  Thus to insist that these verses envisage private charity rather than state welfare–or vice versa–is to introduce anachronistic distinctions.  Morevoer, as this example illustrates, the distinction between moral and civl law scarcely helps us with the problem of modern relevance.  Whether we consider it a moral or civil law, Leviticus 19:9-10 is a culturally specific* law.  It was an effective means of provision for the poor in the economic circumstances of ancient Israel, but would not be in modern Britain, where, on the one hand, most people are not farmers, and, on the other hand, the majority of the poor, who live in the inner cities, will not be much helped by the food they could gather on country rambles.  The relevance of this law for us can be discovered only by discerning the principles at work in it.  How far these principles can or should be embodied in social legislation in our society, rather than being matters of purely voluntary social morality, is something we have to decide in the concrete circumstances of our own society.  No attempt to distinguish between moral law and civil law in ancient Israel will help us there.

 

*all italics, except this phrase, are mine.


Two Kingdoms in the Old Testament

(Continuing at last with my review of Living in God’s Two Kingdoms

One of the greatest weakness of the theological paradigm that VanDrunen advances as a basis for his Reformed two kingdoms theology, is that it leaves him ill-equipped to make sense of the Biblical narrative.  The dogmatic theology, as discussed in the previous post, is problematic enough, but at least there VanDrunen can tie it all together into a coherent, though perhaps not persuasive, package.  But when it comes to the Biblical theology, he is essentially forced to openly excise large portions of Scripture as having little or no meaning for us today, renouncing any aspiration to a unified Biblical narrative.  

Although the New Testament certainly provides plenty of narrative, and offers, I think, glimpses of a prospective narrative, whereby we may understand the Church age and the eschaton, the lion’s share of Biblical narrative of course falls in the Old Testament, and it is here that VanDrunen’s most obvious problems appear.  After all, 90% of the Old Testament narrative tells the story of Israel, a covenanted people who receive laws from God to regulate every area of their religious, social, economic, and civil life, who exist as a holy nation, a priestly kingdom, under their King Yahweh and those whom he appoints.  This is hardly a promising place to look for a two-kingdoms paradigm, in which divine law addresses only otherworldly matters, and affairs of this life are part of the “common kingdom,” ruled by natural law.  And so, VanDrunen sheepishly admits, this whole section of the story (90% of it) is just an interlude–a side-show–not something we should rest too much weight on.

 

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.  Let’s look back at how VanDrunen sets up the Old Testament narrative in terms of his two-kingdoms theology.  After his somewhat idiosyncratic account of Adam’s commission (covered in the previous post), he begins with the Noahic covenant, which, he tells us, establishes the “common kingdom”:

“Several important features characterise this common kingdom established by the Noahic covenant: it concerns ordinary cultural activities (rather than special acts of worship or religious devotion), it embraces the human race in common (rather than a holy people that are distinguished from the rest of the human race), it ensures the preservation of the natural and social order (rather than the redemption of this order), and it is established temporarily (rather than permanently)” (79).  

With this, he contrasts the redemptive Abrahamic covenant:

“it concerns religious faith and worship (rather than ordinary cultural activities), it embraces a holy people that is distinguished from the rest of the human race (rather than the human race in common), it bestows the benefits of salvation upon this holy people (rather than preserving the natural and social order), and it is established forever and ever” (82-3) 

Now this kind of distinction is nothing terribly novel, and thus far, I’m more or less fine with it.  But two covenants do not equal two kingdoms, in VanDrunen’s sense; rather, I would suggest that the Biblical picture is one in which the Abrahamic covenant is the means to the realisation of the Noahic covenant.  The Noahic covenant is, after all, a reaffirmation of the Adamic covenant–that much is clear (it begins with “Be fruitful and multiply”).  After Adam’s failure to carry out his God-ordained task, the world was plunged into the chaos of sin and required devastating divine judgment.  After this judgment, God confronts Noah as the new Adam, reaffirming his task, and pledging that this time, the world will not have to be destroyed again.  Now, why not?  How is the fallen earth and the fallen race to be prevented from requiring judgment again?  Already within two chapters, things seem to be going to pot again.  The Abrahamic covenant is the answer.  God covenants with Israel as the representative of the human race, called upon to be the bearers of his promises and the witnesses to him in a fallen world, so that through them, the earth might be preserved and the race redeemed.  In other words, redemption and preservation are not so separate as VanDrunen suggests, but are interdependent.  

Now, as VanDrunen continues, his categories begin to look increasingly strained: “Here [in the Abrahamic covenant] God sets apart a people who, because of their faith and obedience toward him, are radically distinguished from their neighbours and given a different eternal destiny (life with Christ in the world-to-come).  Genesis teaches these things about the Abrahamic covenant” (83)  What?  Genesis teaches that Abraham is going to be given life with Christ in the world-to-come?  Hardly.  Dogmatic theology might teach that on the basis of the whole Scriptural revelation, but Genesis says no such thing.  VanDrunen’s insistence on supplanting biblical theology with systematic theology (on the next page, VanDrunen says “Unlike the Noahic covenant, this covenant is not about preserving this present world but about opening up the gates of the world-to-come” and then goes on to read the imputation of Christ’s righteousness into the passage!) blinds him to the incongruities in the categories he is applying to the text.  The promise to Abraham is first and foremost for a people, and for a land–for this-worldly benefits.  Now, we might want to jump forward to the New Testament and spiritualize all this, but the very this-worldly nature of these promises means that, in the Old Testament at least, this “spiritual kingdom” seems to transgress a lot on the territory assigned to the “civil kingdom.”  

But there’s a more serious incongruity.  What does God say to Abraham about the purpose of the covenant? “And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  As VanDrunen has described it, the purpose of the covenant is to separate out a people for a different eternal destiny, to bracket them off from their neighbours and save them out of the world, giving them blessings in the world to come.  But as God describes it, the purpose is to commission a people to bless the whole rest of the world.  Needless to say, this difference has huge ramifications, since, as N.T. Wright never tires of pointing out, this is Paul’s whole point in Romans–Israel has failed to be the blessing to the world, and so God has fulfilled Israel’s task himself through the faithful Israel Christ, in whom we all are called to be the new Israel, bringing God’s blessing to the world.  

VanDrunen goes on to explain how Abraham, while covenanted to dwell in the spiritual kingdom by faith, simultaneously lived in the common kingdom: “As he sojourned in the land, Abraham did not set up his own cultural ghetto but freely participated in his neighbours’ cultural activities” (86).  There is a little problem with this picture, though–this land is the very thing that Abraham is going to acquire according to the terms of the redemptive covenant–this is the inheritance of his “spiritual kingdom”!  His “sojourning” in it is a temporary matter, as he patiently waits on God for the day when he and his descendants can take it over, at which time these “neighbours” will be killed, expelled, or converted.  This is hardly the kind of two-kingdoms mentality VanDrunen wants to recommend–one in which we inhabit the common kingdom only as long as we have to, waiting until we can take it over and make it into the spiritual kingdom–indeed, it sounds more like the theonomic mindset VanDrunen is keen to oppose.  

 

So how does VanDrunen get around this?  Apparently, by deftly inverting the narrative of the Old Testament so that the inheritance of the Promised Land is, ironically, not the fulfilment of the promise to Abraham, but a weird, 800-year-long hiatus in the Biblical narrative: “For present purposes it is also crucial to note that Israel’s experience under the law of Moses in the Promised Land of Canaan was not meant to exemplify life under the two kingdoms.  The cultural commonality among believers and unbelievers ordained in the Noahic covenant was suspended for Israel within the borders of the Promised Land” (90).  After describing the many ways in which the Mosaic law violates the two-kingdoms paradigm, he concludes, “Under the Mosaic covenant God evidently suspended the provisions of the Noahic covenant that ordained that ordinary cultural activities should be a common enterprise among believers and unbelievers alike.”  So in the Mosaic covenant–the covenant that dominates the Old Testament, we have a covenant that doesn’t really fit with either of the two previous covenants that are supposed to provide a blueprint for the life of God’s people.  In another strange inversion, it is not until things go horribly wrong, and God’s people are completely unfaithful, that they are again given the opportunity to live according to the original blueprint: “In Israel’s long history between the giving of the law to Moses and the coming of Christ, they nevertheless had one corporate experience which did exemplify the life of the two kingdoms: the Babylonian exile” (91).  But before moving on to the end of the narrative, let’s pause and look at a couple other remarks about the period in the Promised Land.

While admitting that the two-kingdoms principle seems basically suspended during this time, VanDrunen argues that it did still apply “outside the borders of the Promised Land”–here, Israelites were still supposed to live as citizens of a common kingdom, free to “make alliances and trade in common with the world.”  This claim is problematic because, in fact, Israel is condemned by God for pretty much every alliance they make with another kingdom, and the Solomonic period, to which VanDrunen appeals for his proof-texts, is the time when Israel is shown to have be violating God’s commands not to be like other kingdoms–the multiplying wives, horses, chariots, etc.  The trading alliance with Hiram is not explicitly condemned, but in context, it is hardly warmly affirmed.  In any case, again, this paradigm would underwrite a kind of two-kingdoms relationship that VanDrunen eschews–one in which Christians hang out in their “spiritual kingdom” ghetto of the Church, living isolated lives and only venturing out to mingle with unbelievers when pragmatic necessity calls for it.  

 

Now what about the Babylonian captivity?  Sure.  Here we do have a “two-kingdoms” relationship, in which faithful Jews are supposed to serve God as he requires, while also serving Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon.  But without delving into the details of how VanDrunen explicates this phase, we must note, as VanDrunen himself is forced to, that this is a temporary anomaly.  The Israelites are waiting for Babylon’s destruction; they are longing to get back to the Promised Land.  And as soon as they can, they do.  

 

VanDrunen’s entire retelling of the Old Testament, then, inverts its own self-presentation.  The state of affairs it envisions as proper for God’s people, which all of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are dedicated to laying the groundwork for, is one that he considers an anomaly, not to be followed, not to be used as an example.  But whenever things are not as they should be in the Old Testament, whenever they are out of whack, then, on VanDrunen’s reading, they are just as they should be–because they’re exhibiting a two-kingdoms paradigm.

Now of course, VanDrunen will retort that we are not living in a state of fulfilment, but we’re living in a time out of joint.  We have not received our Promised Land, and so the state of Abrahamic sojourn or of exile is the fitting image.  Unsurprisingly, he lays great stress on the New Testament language of “sojourners” and “exiles.”  However, obviously, this is not the only New Testament language.  The Church is the New Israel, the New Jerusalem.  We have already “come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God” (Heb. 13:22).  Redemption is already taking hold.  The New Testament church is in a state of already/not yet, of partial fulfilment, but also expectation, of being sojourners but also citizens.  This means that we must hold in balance both Old Testament paradigms as offering a valuable hermeneutic for our own situation.  We cannot simply choose the one and chuck the other.  Especially, we cannot choose the one that is minimised in the Old Testament and chuck the one that is at the centre of the Old Testament vision.  Otherwise, Marcionism is lurking at the door, as I’m afraid it is in VanDrunen’s wholesale dismissal of the Mosaic covenant.



The Privation of Creation (Good of Affluence #4)

In chapters 2-4 of The Good of Affluence, Schneider launches into an Old Testament theology of affluence.  The main burden of his narrative is to show that God has created the material world good, and intends for his people to delight in its bounty.  The Garden of Eden, with its rich provision of fruits for Adam and Eve to enjoy, serves as a paradigm of the blessings to which God calls his people throughout the Old Testament, blessing Abraham and the patriarchs with great wealth and then inviting his people into a land flowing with milk and honey.  In short, God calls his people to an excessive material delight, not merely to the bare necessities, and so we must not, like Ron Sider, decry affluence as ungodly, something to be repented of or guiltily given away. 

Along the way, Schneider displays an actually quite impressive willingness to grapple with Biblical material that would seem to contradict his case.  He acknowledges that concern for the environment is an important part of a Christian doctrine of creation.  He does not pretend that Exodus and Deuteronomy prescribe some kind of unrestrained capitalism, but acknowledges that concern for the poor, and a legal system that institutionalises that concern, is Biblical.  He does not pretend that Amos and other prophets do not decry wealth and luxury in the strongest of terms. He says that all these things must be taken on board, that “concern for the poor and powerless (including the earth and animals)…is essential to the whole biblical vision of delight [Schneider’s shorthand term for the enjoyment of materiality that he is arguing for].”  This is all greatly to be appreciated; and indeed, in discussing these points, Schneider offers some thoughtful exegesis and some helpful rebukes of more careless uses of some of these texts by social justice advocates.  The problem is simply that in the end, Schneider does not think these concerns alter the basic picture he is advocating.  To be sure, they must be kept in mind, they must be taken on board, they cannot be ignored, he tells us, but it is not clear to me just how they are to be kept in mind or taken on board in the lifestyle that Schneider wants to recommend to us.  

I’m going to engage this material in four posts.  First, this post will survey Schneider’s general Old Testament argument, and a couple of large-scale objections to it.  Then, I will have three posts (which I may sprinkle in later, since I am eager to move on in covering the broad sweep of the book) addressing a particularly interesting discussion from each chapter–environmental ethics, the Jubilee law, and the application of Amos’s rebuke to luxury.  The latter two will raise key ethical principles that Schneider is concerned about: the issue of “moral proximity” in discussing the Jubilee law, and the concern over legalism in addressing Amos.  

 

 So, what about the big picture?  Well, truth be told, the core message that Schneider is trying to get across here, particularly in the opening chapter, is not all that different from that of N.T. Wright in Surprised by Hope.  Which is to say, an anti-Gnostic argument for the fundamental materiality, and gloriousness of that materiality, that characterises redemption, and God’s blessing of his people.  We were placed into a bounteous creation in Eden and invited to enrich it still further by our labors.  Although we lost Eden, God’s plan is to restore us to it, first by leading Israel into the new Eden of the promised land, to make the whole world into a new Eden, flowing with milk and honey.  This provides a basis for rejoicing in and glorying in creation.  All of this is thus far quite salutary, especially when one compares it to something like David VanDrunen’s Living in Two Kingdoms, which I’ve also been reading.  Whereas Schneider can treat Israel’s sojourn in the Promised Land as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham, and a paradigm for our own redemption, VanDrunen is forced to treat this as some weird anomaly, an 800-year interruption in God’s normal pattern of redemption.  But let that pass for now–VanDrunen will have his own blog post (or several).  

But of course, the problem with this lovely picture is that, if it really is at core much the same point that N.T. Wright is making in Surprised by Hope, it should be readily apparent that this does not get us, in and of itself, to where Schneider wants to get us–a materialistic embrace of modern capitalist hedonism.  After all, Wright uses the same basic starting point to arrive by the end of Surprised by Hope at an urgent call for Third World debt relief, to my mind a much more plausible conclusion.  Whence this difference?  Well, so as not to sidetrack into the details of Surprised by Hope, which is an extraordinarily rich piece of theology, let me just say that the key question, which Schneider doesn’t really appear to face, is “Who is all this bounty for?”  If the answer is “for everyone,” as it seems it surely must be, then this bounty must be enjoyed by everyone.  There is, it seems, a hidden premise in Schneider’s argument–the assumption of primordial private property.  

But of course, all through the first sixteen centuries of the Church, theologians assumed that the bounty of the Garden of Eden was common property, and the main question of economic ethics was how close we could or couldn’t get to realizing this primordial condition of shared bounty.  To get from Eden to an endorsement of Bill Gates, you have to assume that the privateness of property is in no way a privation, that each individual is encouraged to enjoy his own personal Eden of billions of dollars even while billions of people perish outside its lush borders.  This is why I have been convinced for some time that an intelligent theology of property is essential to these kinds of discussions.  It may not be possible for everyone to have equal access to the world’s bounty, but if you accept the principle of common use as the original condition of creation, then you have to say that it should be our goal to realize common use and equal access as much as possible (though this of course need not entail anything like precise equality).  But it’s not that Schneider says, “Yes, this should be our goal and our aspiration, but in this fallen world that’s simply not achievable, and so we need private property, and should accept that sadly, this created intention will simply not be realized until the new creation.”  That would be a defensible position.  But Schneider does not show any awareness that there is a problem, or that the massive affluence of a minority of private individuals is anything other than the fulfillment of God’s created purpose.  

 

At least one other serious blind spot afflicts this narrative, appearing at one of the frequent but ultimately inconsequential concessions about how wealth is potentially dangerous: 

“the root of evil in responding to material affluence is also primarily spiritual.  The text expresses it in those fall-like terms of autonomy, the attitude that ‘by my own hand’ I have got this wealth.  This is not the spirit of blessing, dominion, and delight.  It is the spirit of self-serving arrogance and pride of the worst sort.”

 This sort of statement appears repeatedly in these pages, without any sense of the crushing irony.  After all, how did Schneider begin his book?  By declaring how God has poured out, by free and inexplicable grace, bounteous wealth on America and the West, and we should be overwhelmed with gratitude?  Well, no.  By declaring how the brilliant ingenuity of this new human idea–capitalism–has given us bounteous wealth, liberated whole nations, restored us almost to Eden.  (Although as I said, this rhetoric was comparatively restrained in this book, it was still bad enough, and Schneider has said much worse elsewhere.)  How is his attitude, how is our attitude in the modern West, not “by my own hand I have got this wealth”?  (Not, I should add, that I am very comfortable with the attitude that insists we simply attribute all our Western prosperity in gratitude to God, since this encourages us to ask no moral questions about how we came by this wealth and others didn’t.)  In short, even if Schneider’s broader argument about the good of affluence were solid, we would still seem to be left with the sense that the modern Western attitude toward our affluence (and Schneider’s own) is one of extreme moral peril, warranting all the warnings of the Christian writers that Schneider is opposing in this volume.  

And I would argue that this not a simple matter of attitude adjustment, but intrinsically so.  We live, to an unprecedented extent, in a human-engineered world.  The products we consume are mostly not the fruits of the Garden or wine from the vineyards of Israel, but are products created largely by human artifice.  This is true now even of the food we eat–even if it is completely free-range and organic and all the rest, it still most likely comes to our table with the aid of all kinds of modern technology.  This is not intrinsically bad (although I think there is much to be said, and I will say something below, for regaining a more natural lifestyle in some areas), but it is clearly perilous.  If Israelite farmers had a good year and were able to feast on the new wine and oil, it was easy enough for them to attribute it to divine grace (although still easy not to, so wicked is man’s heart).  But if I made my fortune investing in Apple, or worse, by inventing Apple, the temptation to see this wealth as self-created, and hence (tying back to the first point above) to treat it as essentially private, rather than a shared blessing, is enormous.  This doesn’t mean we have to all become Diggers and Levellers, but I’d like to see a little more awareness of these perils on Schneider’s part.

 

This consideration suggests a possible answer to what Schneider calls “the hermeneutics of affluence.”  Is it possible that Abraham’s affluence, for instance, could be good affluence, and ours be bad affluence?  Perhaps Abraham was very affluent by the standards of his own day, but not remotely like Bill Gates or even a mediocre modern millionaire.  Perhaps then the former wealth is great, and should be received with gratitude toward God, but the latter is problematic.  Schneider spends a couple pages (pp. 74-76) addressing this objection, although he considers it essentially vacuous.  This would mean that the Bible’s ethical guidance becomes obsolete as soon as its social circumstances are transcended, so that, for instance, one could Biblically justify the technology of metallurgy, but not that of microchips.  Having made this counter-argument, Schneider moves on, satisfied that he has silenced the objection.  But I am not so sure. 

Aside from the quantitative issue, which I have touched on before and will again (is there really no point at which superfluity becomes absurd?  What reasonable use could someone possibly find for $100 million?), there is a qualitative angle worth considering.  For the affluence of an Abraham consisted in having the full capacity to enjoy natural goods.  Abraham was perhaps able to eat as much as he wanted, including some delicacies, no doubt.  He could clothe himself as much as he needed, and perhaps in some level of finery.  He was housed comfortably.  He had the means to travel when he wanted.  He was, in short, equipped to enjoy the normal bounties of God’s creation.  And this is the vision of the promised land, as well.  Up to a certain point, modern affluence enables us to do that as well–enough to buy all kinds of excellent food and drink, to have some land to enjoy, clothes for all kinds of weather, a car to take me to see the Grand Canyon, etc.  But beyond that, much of this wealth is spent on increasing artificial and unnatural pleasures (again, the jacuzzi with the built-in sound system).  This is not to condemn technology, or to say that artificial=bad and natural=good.  However, it does suggest that something may be distorted in Schneider’s vision.  For if the point is delight in the bounty of creation, then not the most, but the best kind, of wealth is best.  

Schneider throughout suggests that his opponents, calling for Christians to live simpler lives, are ascetics and world-deniers.  He, unlike them, is calling for us to enjoy the goodness of creation.  But this reminds me of the people who insist that the organic, natural food people are ascetically refusing to enjoy the bounty of creation in the form of fast food and processed foods.  (Unfortunately, I am not joking—I have heard this argument repeatedly.)  What if living more simply actually means positioning ourselves so as better to enjoy God’s creation, instead of merely our own creations?  This gets back to the second point above.  Human inventions can be great, and can be a means of enhancing our appreciation and use of God’s creations.  But what about the kind of affluence that buys a big suburban house with a swimming pool, jacuzzi, and well-manicured yard, that climbs into an air-conditioned Lexus listening to satellite radio to drive to the mall, walks across the parking lot while checking Facebook and listening to music on his smartphone, shops for DVDs and computer games, and returns home to try them out on the flat-screen HDTV that drops from the ceiling?  Is it possible that at some point, we are using our wealth in ways that actually decreases our delight in God’s creation and leaves us feeling increasingly empty as we try to entertain ourselves with more and more creations of our own?  In short, without saying that we all need to try to be like Wendell Berry, I would bet you that he experiences far more Biblical “delight” in the material world than Bill Gates does.  

 

And of course, this leads back to my first point as well.  For what if the best way to have true “delight” in the world is by experiencing and celebrating it communally?  What if ever more private wealth actually makes it harder and harder for us to experience Edenic delight?  Schneider, alas, is too oblivious to such questions to even ask them, much less answer them.



O’Donovan on the Fifth Commandment

In his incredible little book, Common Objects of Love, Oliver O’Donovan offers a fascinating re-interpretation of the fifth commandment.  It’s one of those re-readings of a Biblical passage that seems so blindingly obvious that you wonder how you never saw it there before…particularly as it helps make sense of what otherwise has always seemed like an oddly arbitrary relationship between the command and the attached promise.

“The paradigm command of tradition is, ‘Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which hte Lord your God gives you.’  It appears to our eyes to be concerned with the duties of children, but this is a mistake.  The duties of children are purely responsive to the duty of parents to be to their children what their parents were to them.  This is a command addressed to adults, whose existence in the world is not self-posited but the fruit of an act of cultural transmission, which they have a duty to sustain.  The act of transmission puts us all in the place of receiver and communicator at once.  The household is envisaged as the primary unit of cultural transmission, the ‘father and the mother’ as representing every existing social practice which it is important to carry on.  Only so can community sustain itself within its environment, ‘the land which the Lord your God gives you.’  No social survival in any land can be imagined without a stable cultural environment across generations.  By tradition society identifies itself from one historical moment to the next, and so continues to act as itself.”

If this is accurate, that does not of course mean that the more familiar meaning–the duty of children to obey their parents–is thereby invalid, as the Apostle Paul’s use of the passage in Ephesians 6 demonstrates.  However, it may mean that the widespread Reformation tendency to broaden the passage into a directive to obey all authorities, particularly political ones, is quite a stretch.  Or rather, that the passage’s relevance to political authority (something O’Donovan is definitely interested in in Common Objects of Love) is somewhat different, meaning something like, “Value the heritage of your society and do your utmost to ensure its stability and continuity, which may well mean loyalty to existing political authorities, but may not.”


My Song is Love Unknown

For the past several years on Good Friday, I have posted the text of Peter Leithart’s incredible Good Friday homily of 2006–“Christ and Him Crucified.”  There may finally be a homily to surpass it, however, Toby Sumpter’s Good Friday homily of last year, “My Song is Love Unknown.”  And as Leithart’s homily has now found a home at a rather bigger and better blog, I thought I would share Toby’s this year (or you can hear him preach it here).

God is love. The Father, the Son, and the Spirit are eternally Love. This God of love, this God who is love has overflowed. This Triune God does not cease to love but eternally overflows. He is the surplus of love, the excess of love, the triumph of love.

God is the Lover par excellence. And His love is fierce, undaunted, jealous, comprehensive, and unabashed.

We say, “I love you.” And we don’t understand what we are saying. I say, I love you, honey. I love you, son. I love you, dear. And I am quite literally out of my mind. What am I am saying? What do I mean?

How does our God love? How does the Father love the Son, love the Spirit; Son love the Father, love the Spirit; Spirit love the Father, love the Son.  How? And how do we take that glory upon our lips? How do we sing that? How do we imitate that? How have we been embraced by that?

Let there be light. Let there be heaven. Let there be earth. Let there be stars. Let there be fish and birds. Let there be beasts. And then God said something more. And then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image.’ It’s all plural and wonderful, all love. Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness. Let us love, and let us overflow in love, and let us make man to love and to overflow in love.

And let us make them male and female. Let us give them noses and fingers. Let us give her breasts and let us give him a beard. Let their love join our love. Let the world be our marriage feast, our wedding night. Let man eat and love, rule and love, name and love.

And when we sinned, when we had defiled the marriage bed, God made us clothes. He intended glorious robes of nobility, but when we rejected those, He made us skins to show some honor, to cover us with His love. Remember that I love you, He seemed to say, handing us those clothes he fashioned for us, as we left home on our own, looking for pigs to farm.

But He followed us; His loved followed us. His love carved a boat to save us and many animals from the furious flood. He sent us a dove with an olive branch in its mouth, and then in a glorious understatement, He painted the sky with a rainbow to remind us of His love, all purple and orange and lovely. It’s for you, He said, so I’ll never forget, so I will always remember you.

And His love followed us away from Babel into Ur and called our father Abraham to walk before Him. He visited Abraham at night in those days, pointing out stars, passing through pieces of butchered animals. See how I love you, He said, and sometimes we caught glimpses of what that might mean. See how I love you, He said, and provided a ram for Isaac, a substitute for the sacrifice. The Lord will provide. See how I love you?

But we quarreled and fought and turned the world ugly. With bent hearts, we sold brothers and killed brothers until we were starving for food in the famine, our garden obliterated, our feast turned to fast. But God in His love, God full of love raised up a little brother to deliver us from ourselves. The love of God prepared the best land, and a little brother as elder brother, a little brother with bread for the world, from God with love.

His love burst into flames on a bush a few years later. He couldn’t help himself when our groans and cries came up to heaven. We had deserted His love, and despised His bread. But His love burned for us, and He came for us. He came with magic to woo us. He came with snakes and frogs and flies and hail. He came like a Tom Sawyer, giving the bully a black eye and hoping we’d notice. He loaded us with gifts and treasures and showed us a secret way out of the cave, through the sea, and remember how He turned around when Pharaoh and his legions were coming? Remember how He flicked His wrist and pushed the sea back together?

And He sang to us at the Mountain, but we didn’t like His voice. It was terrible we said. He had written poetry for us on the top of the Mountain. But when Moses brought it down, we had gotten bored waiting and we were kissing a golden calf. And He sent us bread again, every day, but we got tired of that. And when we asked for meat, he gave that too, but we got tired of that as well. We forgot about the magic; we didn’t care about the gifts. And when He offered to marry us, we shrugged our shoulders and agreed. He built a house and showed us how we could meet, how we could come close, how we could draw near.

He invited us into His presence. Our priest wore beautiful clothes, and God put stones on his shoulders and wrote our names six on one and six on the other. He wrote our names in the order of our birth. And he put precious stones on his chest, a stone for every tribe, precious stones for his precious bride. And He wrote our names on the stones on the high priests shoulders, so he could see our names in His presence when He called us into His presence in glory and beauty. So He would always remember us.

And He arranged our tents all around His tent. He gathered us all around him and held us close to Him, three in the north, three in the south, three to the east, and three to the west. And when He offered to give us a land flowing with milk and honey, we said He couldn’t give it to us. His love was not big enough for the giants in the land, and then we changed our minds. But he thought it would better to wait, wait until we knew His love. But we didn’t listen, and we died trying to take the land without His love.

But He said He would make us young again, and when we had become like children then we would know His love, and when we were children, His love would give us the land. And sure enough, we were born again in the wilderness. And we watched Him walk out into the Jordan River. He rolled up the water into a heap on one side and reminded us of our escape by night from Egypt. The priests stood there in the middle while we crossed, and He piled up twelve stones in the Jordan and twelve precious stones on the shore. He said He didn’t want to ever forget that moment. He would always remember how He carried us over the threshold into our new home together.

He tried to sing for us again, and this time we hummed along a little. We were still reluctant, but He gave us our first city that way. Our first city fell down when we sang with Him and blew our trumpets. The walls came tumbling down. It was nice how He did that for us, how He danced with us and shook the earth and gave us that city. He said that He loved us then. But we saw the gold and the earrings and the other plunder and got distracted. We hid some in our tent, and didn’t listen as He talked to us. He was saying something about love, I think, but we weren’t listening.

God tried to teach us His song, how to sing and dance like Him, how the rest of the cities would fall down too if we sang His song and danced with Him. And we shrugged and took a turn or two. But we were so easily distracted. There were many golden calves, many beds, many others. Remember how he would come for us again and again? Remember how he picked us up when we were strung out, when we were hung over, when we had traded all His gifts for slavery? Seems like it was all the time in those days. And He came for us in His love. He came for us like a knight, like a hero. Always with His eyes fixed on us, always like a faithful bridegroom.

He told us that He would always come for us, always defend us, always protect us. And then we asked if He would mind if we married another husband. Would it be OK with you, if we had another King besides you, we asked, one day while looking out the window. You know, like the other nations? You aren’t like the other lords, the other kings, the other husbands in the world. We can’t see you, and the other nations, they can’t see you either.

He said that would be OK. He said He would teach us about His love through this other man, this other lord. I’ll choose a man to teach you how I love you, He said. He’ll build a house for you, a house for my name, and I’ll still meet you there. We’ll still make love beneath the cedars of Lebanon. And we shrugged our shoulders, but God wouldn’t let this occasion pass without gifts. He walked with our new king, and called him a man after His own heart. He taught him His dance and His song, and He filled our land with gold and treasures, because I love you, He said.

Fairly quickly we moved out on our own. We invited other men into the house and paid them to sleep with us with the dowry our God had given us. We paid our lovers with the tokens of His love. We spent our inheritance on riotous living. God began sending us letters around then, since we weren’t around much. And when we didn’t respond, He eventually sued for divorce. He was mad of course, but He was mad with love. He called us a whore and a prostitute. He said we were unfaithful, but kept on staring at us, staring with those same eyes of angry love.

We walked out with curses on our lips, screaming obscenities at Him. We hated Him. He did this to us, we told ourselves, we lied to ourselves. He said He would never leave us, we cried, with mascara running down our cheeks by the rivers of Babylon. And when our captors saw us, they asked us to sing one of the songs of Zion. Sing us the song He taught you, they mocked. But how could we sing His song? How could we sing His song after all of that?

He didn’t let us go alone of course. He came with us; He followed us. His love came with us, like always. He said He would come for us again. He said He would make us young again. He said that when we became children again He would show us His love. Then we would know how He loved us. Somehow we were born again in the wilderness of exile. Somehow, we woke up one morning and He was carrying us home. He sang us His song again. And He repaired the walls of our city and sent gifts from the nations to begin repairing the house.

We didn’t hear much from Him in those days, and others came around. And the others had money and power. They promised to protect us, keep us safe. But they never really turned out like they said. They used our house, the house God had rebuilt for us, for their own things, their own parties.

And then one day a man showed up at our door. He was a wild, mangy man with a leather belt and clothes made of camel’s hair. His name was John, and he told us that our Husband was coming and to prepare for Him. We were confused, we were excited, we were angry. Where had He been? The house was crowded with our other friends and lovers then, but maybe we could try again. Maybe we could start over.

When the knock came, we were nervous. But when we opened the door, we were surprised. We had never seen Him before, but He wasn’t how we had expected Him, how we imagined Him. He looked too young for starters, barely grown. He wasn’t handsome like we thought. And when we asked Him who He was, He ran out into the Jordan River and stood in the middle of the stream and smiled. John piled the water up over him, and a dove came down and for a moment we heard His song, like a low rumble. Remember? He called to us. The other men inside laughed at Him, but then He went on. Watch, He said, as He made His magic. He played with a brood of vipers, and He turned water into blood-red wine. Remember? He asked. And He went walking across the sea like it was nothing, like it was dry ground, and later, with a flick of His wrist, He pushed a legion of demons into the sea. He sang us His song on a mountain, and gave us bread in the wilderness, bread for thousands. Remember? He asked. Remember, how I love you?

But we didn’t remember. He wasn’t what we hoped for. He wanted to throw all the others out of the house. He said they weren’t good for us. They were thieves, He said. They were snakes and wolves. But we didn’t believe Him. We told Him that we didn’t love Him. We did not receive Him. He said that He still loved us, and there were tears in His eyes as He looked at our home. He said He wished He could gather us up into His arms. And we spit in His face and told Him to go to hell. And when the men got angry with the commotion, we offered them thirty pieces of silver. And they said that would be enough.

And do you remember that day when our God stood in our place? Do you remember that day when our husband received their taunts and blows? Do you remember when He stood there for us? Do you remember when they lifted Him up, when they drove stakes into His hands and feet, when then crowned our King with thorns? When He hung there looking at us like a knight, like a hero, like a bridegroom watching His bride come down the aisle?

And we beheld Him, despised and rejected, and we hid our faces, hating Him. Surely He carried our sorrows. He was wounded for us. He was afflicted for us. And He did not open His mouth. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter.

This is God our Lover: the God who is Love, the God who ever loves: the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. He is the overflow of love, the excess of love, the triumph of love. How do we say that? How do we say that love? How do we sing it? How does His song go?

It’s something like this:

My song is love unknown
My Savior’s love to me
Love to the loveless shown
That we might lovely be.