Apologetics Thursday – Hellenistic or Hebrew

In a paper entitled “Hellenistic Or Hebrew”, Michael Horton attempts to discuss the contrasting interpretations between Open Theism and Calvinism. In contrast to the paper’s title, throughout the paper the one thing that Horton forgets to address is the Hebrew method of interpretation. Horton seems to be under the impression that the Jewish method of understanding the Bible should be assumed to be his own.

This lies in stark contrast to what actual Jews have said on this matter. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks comments in his The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning (pp. 64-65):

‘Who are you?’ asks Moses. God replies, cryptically, Ehyeh asher ehyeh. This was translated into Greek as ego eimi ho on, and into Latin as ego sum qui sum, meaning ‘I am who I am’, or ‘I am he who is’. The early and medieval Christian theologians all understood the phrase to be speaking about ontology, the metaphysical nature of God’s existence. It meant that he was ‘Being-itself, timeless, immutable, incorporeal, understood as the subsisting act of all existing’. Augustine defines God as that which does not change and cannot change. Aquinas, continuing the same tradition, reads the Exodus formula as saying that God is ‘true being, that is being that is eternal, immutable, simple, self-sufficient, and the cause and principal of every creature’.

But this is the God of Aristotle and the philosophers, not the God of Abraham and the prophets. Ehyeh asher ehyeh means none of these things. It means ‘I will be what, where, or how I will be’. The essential element of the phrase is the dimension omitted by all the early Christian translations, namely the future tense. God is defining himself as the Lord of history who is about to intervene in an unprecedented way to liberate a group of slaves from the mightiest empire of the ancient world and lead them on a journey towards liberty.

Rabbi Sack goes on to describe exactly who is the character Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible:

Far from being timeless and immutable, God in the Hebrew Bible is active, engaged, in constant dialogue with his people, calling, urging, warning, challenging and forgiving. When Malachi says in the name of God, ‘I the Lord do not change’ (Malachi 3: 6), he is not speaking about his essence as pure being, the unmoved mover, but about his moral commitments. God keeps his promises even when his children break theirs.

From one of the most prominent Jews in the world, it would be hard to dismiss his understanding as flawed. The Hebrew idea of God is not one of the Greek philosophers. The Hebrew position starts with the face value testimony found in the Bible. This is echoed by Christian Old Testament Scholar Walter Brueggemann and Secular Harvard Professor Christine Hayes. Both these individuals recognize that the Hebrew religion is in essence relational. Yahweh is not the timeless, immutable, and omniscient god of Plotinus, be relentlessly modifying His actions in response to human beings. This is the language of the Bible.

Yahweh began in earnest curiosity as mankind first budded onto the scene. This curiosity quickly morphed to regret as mankind fell into utter depravity. After a near universal destruction, God’s resignation towards a sinful creation allowed mankind to again replenish the Earth. Through dedication, God sought to reconcile the world to Him, choosing a man and a nation to act as His people. Through fierce anger, God punishes their oppressors. Through hope and mercy, God liberates them and brings them to their own land. In jealousy, God wants to destroy them time and time again for their rebellion. But through reason, God spares His wayward people.

This nation continually disappoints God. God grows frustrated and exasperated. God tries all types of blessings and curses to sway them, but they do not listen. God cycles through stages of sorrow, depression, anger, vindictiveness, and downright indifference. The world has at one time collectively failed God, and now God is suffering by fault of His own people.

Lastly, God sends His son to liberate His people once again. But once again this is met with rejection. A promise of a Kingdom on Earth is met with widespread disbelief. This results in a previously unseen mission to the Gentiles. Paul declares that God has made this people equal to the surrounding nations in a last ditch effort to provoke them to jealousy. After all these things are done, Yahweh will return to Earth and establish an everlasting Kingdom of God. Yahweh will rule from Jerusalem and all the nations will be subject to God.

Horton and his Calvinist kin (Ware, Piper, Sproul, Geisler) offer an alternative model. In this model, basically everything that is written in the Bible must be rejected because it does not fit their notions of God. Where do they get these notions if they are discounting the Biblical reference? They do not say. What makes their ideas about God true and others false? They do not say.

Instead, they start with the assumption that human beings cannot relate to the text of the Bible. Horton states:

All of God’s self revelation is analogical, not just some of it. This is why Calvin speaks, for instance, of God’s “lisping” or speaking “baby-talk” in his condescending mercy. Just as God comes down to us in the incarnation in order to save us who could not ascend to him, he meets us in Scripture by descending to our weakness. Thus, not only is God’s transcendence affirmed, but his radical immanence as well. Transcendence and immanence become inextricably bound up with the divine drama of redemption. Revelation no less than redemption is an act of condescension and grace.

In other words, the Bible must not be taken seriously except for in light of “transcendent” and “immanent” attributes that are presupposed. Why it is rational to believe that the authors of the Bible had this in mind at the time of writing is not explained. Why the authors would not use more accurate language and less language that contradicts Calvinist ideas of God is not explained. Why Calvinists condemn those who take the language seriously is also not explained.

Most importantly, how this is the “Biblical” interpretation technique is not at all touched upon. The fleeting verses that are referenced are referenced out of context to make points not being made by the authors. Besides, if the language of the Bible is not accurate, then how can a Calvinist claim to know the meaning of any single prooftext. This is not explained.

One very bad example of prooftexting is the use of Malachi 3:6. This verse is the same referenced by Rabbi Sacks as relating to God’s unilateral promise to Israel. Horton changes the meaning to cover all promises everywhere and to cover God’s nature:

The same is true in Mal 3:6: “For I am the LORD, I do not change; therefore you are not consumed, O sons of Jacob.” Neither God’s nature nor his secret plan changes, and this is why believers can be confident that “if we are faithless, he remains faithful; he cannot deny himself ” (2 Tim 2:13).

This is not how Malachi 3:6 is being used by the author. This is only referring to the Abrahamic covenant, and this covenant will stand. When God wishes to kill all of Israel in Exodus 32, He plans to fulfill the covenant through the lineage of Moses. Moses convinces God otherwise on multiple occasions. John the Baptist states that God can rise up sons of Israel through the rocks (Mat 3:9). John is literally claiming that God can kill all of Israel due to their rebellion and still find a way to fulfill His promise. Paul claims that God can fulfill His promise to Israel although all of Israel is cut off. Paul states in Romans 9 this is because Israel can adopt Gentile believers. In other words, Malachi is about God being determined to fulfill one particular unilateral covenant and has built contingency plans in order to see it to fruition. This is not a text about immutability, but just the opposite. Malachi is about God changing and reacting to people’s decisions:

Mal 3:7 … Return to me, and I will return to you…

And then God challenges the people to test Him to see if what He says is true:

Mal 3:10 Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.

For Horton to take Malachi 3 as a prooftext shows with what little regard Calvinists show the text of the Bible. In short, the paper Hellenistic or Hebrew is filled with unfounded assumptions and faulty logic.

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