Tuesday, December 04, 2007
Did Christ Come to Please Himself?
In the Advent season above all seasons, we need to know the character of our God and of his Christ well, so we can understand why God sent forth his only begotten Son-- namely because he loved the world and wanted to save it (John 3.16). Thus we must return once more to the discussion of God's motivations for what God does on this earth.
In our recent discussion of whether God is a self-centered being whose prime motivation for doing anything is self-glorification, too little time was given to the discussion of the Pauline view of Christ. Let us be clear that Paul most certainly views Christ as God. He says this very plainly in Rom. 9.5, where in a doxology only appropriate to God, he speaks of 'Messiah..., who is God over all, blessed forever, amen." This same view of Christ can be found in various other places including in the Christological hymns in Phil. 2.5-11 or in Col. 1, for example. This is not really a point of debate for Paul, but notice how especially the term Christ crops up in all such discussions about his being divine.
This brings us to an important, but often overlooked, verse in Rom. 15. Paul is discussing the other-directed character that Christians should manifest, and he says in verse two: "each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor. " Paul then points to Christ as the example to follow in this other directedness and says "for even Christ did not please himself, but as it is written 'the insults of those which insult you, have fallen on me." Now this is an important text in itself to show the other-regarding and other-directed character and nature of Christ and his ministry, and it could be reinforced by numerous other texts.
For example, Phil. 2.5-11 is clear enough that the Son of God stripped himself of his divine prerogatives, or perhaps better said, did not take advantage of them (a more literal rendering) when he took on the form of a human being, indeed a servant amongst human beings. This is of course the direct opposite of self-glorification on any normal reading of this text. We could as well point to 2 Cor.8.9-- "for you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, who being rich, for you impoverished himself, so that, being poor, you might become rich." What is this text really about? The context does not suggest it is about actual money, as if this verse could be used to support a perverse prosperity Gospel. What riches did Christ set aside? Presumably this is referring to the same thing we find in Phil. 2.5-11. Christ set aside his glory, humbled himself, took on the inglorious state of being a servant of human beings, and so redeemed us.
Let me be clear here. I do indeed think that what Christ did redounded to his glory, and we should praise him for it. These texts have nothing to do with an anthropologically centered religion of human self-worship.
My concern is what these texts tell us about the divine Son of God's motivations and character in becoming human, becoming a servant of humans, dying for the sake of redeeming humans and the like. If Christ is the very exegesis of the Father and the Father's character, what these sorts of stories make clear is that not only does God not want us to be self-centered beings, God is also relational, other directed and loving and not a self-centered being.
Were this not the case, we might well expect odes in the Bible explaining how the Father loves himself, and the Son loves himself, and the Spirit loves himself, and so on. In fact, we find nothing really like this in the Bible. Not only is the Trinity in itself other-directed (so we hear about the Father's love for the Son and so on), so the Trinity as a whole is other-directed in its love for humankind. Furthermore, the motivation for loving the world of human beings is not, in the first instance so God may praise himself in a bolder way. Rather it is our job to praise and glorify God for what he does for us.
When we hear in the Bible that God is love we should pay close attention (1 John 4). Notice the use of the noun-- when we say God is righteous, God is holy, God is just, God is glorious, these are adjectives and attributes, but something more fundamental is being claimed when a noun like agape is used. Notice the text of 1 John 4 does not merely say God is loving, (though that is true as well), but by saying God is love the author is saying that God is by very nature other directed. Notice the way the exhortation works there-- "he who says he loves God and hates his brother/sister is a liar" Why? Because the lack of other directed love means the very love which God has and expresses is not in such a person, for God is [this very sort of other-directed] love. This is why the author of 1 John 4 is able to say that when you are loving in this other directed way you are 'born of God' which is to say reflecting the very image and character of God.
What then are texts like Isaiah 48.9-11 all about? On a superficial reading of a English translation of this marvelous Hebrew poetry, and in a modern individualistic setting, it is easy to misunderstand this material. My suggestion would be that you should never read a text like this without reading it in its own immediate context. And what the context of Isaiah 40-48 tells us is that God is all about redeeming his people, rescuing them from exile, and so on, because he loves his people, and has made promises to them.
But here is where the matter becomes complex. Precisely because God has made promises to redeem his people, God's reputation, or as Isaiah calls it, God's very name or name sake, is at stake in the way God relates to Israel. Is. 48.9-11 comes precisely at a juncture when God says that he must act in the way he does to vindicate his own name, which is to say to vindicate the promises he has made. Notice especially the rhetorical question in 48.11-- "for why should my name be profaned?" And of course God is especially concerned with his name not being profaned by his own people! Thus we hear about how stubborn and stiff necked Israel has been (vs. 4), and so he says he restrains his anger, so that his people will not curse, but rather praise him "for the sake of my praise'). By rights, God's people should praise him, but in fact when God chastens them this often leads to curses rather than praising.
Why then does Is. 48.9 say 'for my own sake, for my own sake, I do it'? This sounds quite self-referential doesn't it? But in fact this is another way of God saying-- 'for my name's sake' which is to say 'for my reputation's sake'. Why is that reputation on the line in how God treats Israel? Because of course God has made promises to Israel, even when it behaves badly, so if God chastens them like a silversmith burning up tainted silver, there will be no one to praise God left if his people are all incinerated by God's wrath. And God will have appeared to renege on his promises.
Finally God says "for my glory I will not give to another." Now this has nothing whatsoever to do with some metaphysical issue (i.e. God is glory personified, we are not). It has to do with God not giving his praise to someone else, or better said, God not extracting praise from some other people.
This is the very reason why Jacob/Israel is addressed in the tones it is in Is. 48.10ff. They need to get back to praising God and glorifying God as they did when they were behaving appropriately. Otherwise God's reputation is profaned 'amongst the heathen' where they are in exile.
This entire discourse will be totally misconstrued if it is taken out of the honor and shame context in which it operates. By this I mean God must defend his honor, or else his name is shamed. Part of that is that God's people should and indeed must praise their God and so uphold the honor of their Maker. The language in Is. 48 is almost entirely honor shame language. Why does God not simply eliminate his stiff-necked people? Because not only is that against the loving character of God, he promised to do otherwise. The primary issue here is the integrity of God's character and reputation, it is not a discussion about God's propensity to glorify himself, praise himself, or love himself, much less about how God does everything he does for his own benefit and pleasure and adulation.
I don't ask those out there in the blogosphere to take my word on this. Go and read some good commentaries on Isaiah by legitimate scholars who know the honor and shame cultures of the Ancient Near East, and know how this sort of language functions in such cultures. It is not sufficient to rely on old texts or textbooks on systematic theology whether by the Spurgeons or Owens or the like of this world, or by John Wesley for that matter. These men were not experts in ancient near-eastern culture, and they did not know how the language of honor and glory functioned in such cultures.
A good place to start would be to read two recent more conservative but well informed commentaries on Isaiah--- say Brevard Childs' on the one hand and John Oswalt's on the other. When you do that, you will discover that 'a text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to mean', and always there is the every present danger of reading one's own theology into the text, especially if the only commentaries one reads on the matter are those of ancient systematic theologians, or even worse, you read no sources other than an ancient English translation of the Bible.