Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Response to John Nugent: Part 3 - The Biblical Narrative

Here I will be responding to the part of Nugent's third post contained under the heading "Service and the Biblical Mission". There are ten sections which are labeled so I'll briefly respond to each one and then post my thoughts on the whole thing in general.

(1) Nugent is probably quite right when he says that a state possessing the use of force would never have been necessary were it not for the Fall. A lot of other things would not have been necessary either, such as the practice of medicine. This is the sort of thing I mean when I say people like Nugent are primarily in the business of making emotional arguments rather than rational ones. Government is supposedly bad because it's an artifact of living in a sinful world. Are doctors also bad for the same reason? But Nugent is also setting us up for something else: God's plan for eliminating the "sword-backed state" which suddenly becomes necessary only because of sin. If the introduction of sin in the world makes the "sword-backed state" necessary, then why does Nugent think it is no longer necessary for a world in which sin has not been eliminated?

(2) God destroys all humans with the Flood, etc., etc...Wait what? "God reaffirms his commitment to life by placing all bloodshed under his jurisdiction..." Uh...That's interesting, because I thought this was the correct translation of Genesis 9:6 "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed." In what universe does this mean that God has placed all bloodshed under His jurisdiction? A universe created from anti-matter? A universe where Opposite Day is every day? If anything, God has assumed His jurisdiction over everything, which was never in question, and delegated a very specific responsibility, that of punishing murderers, to man. God doesn't do this for theft, adultery or anything else. Only murder is mentioned here, and yet Nugent decides that's exactly the point at which he disagrees with God, so he's just going to say the complete opposite of what the Bible says and hope we don't read it. I have no other explanation. The Christian pacifists I know have accepted this but say the coming of Christ changed the Old Testament equation. Nugent just decides to take the easy way out and mangle the Old Testament instead.

I was almost finished with this section when I realized I had completely passed over something significant the first time I read it. I'm just going to quote Nugent here, and then I'm going to quote the Bible.

John Nugent: "God reaffirms his commitment to covenanting with his creation never to destroy it again." [Emphasis added]

God: "I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.” [Emphasis added]

How does he get from "no more earth-destroying floods" to "no more earth destroying at all"? Especially considering what Peter has to say: "By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men...That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat."

I guess 1 Peter is cool, since he cites the entire book later, but 2 Peter isn't. This man teaches undergrads about the Bible after having failed third grade Sunday school class? Where are emoticons when you really need them? /facepalm. Nugent makes his conclusion upon two false premises: "In so doing, [God] places the burden upon himself to find some way to guide creation and deal with sin other than to destroy it." Yeah, and I've got beachfront property in Lower Manhattan to sell you for a one-time low price offer special today just for you. At least Nugent isn't contradicting the story this time since there's literally nothing in Genesis 9 even remotely related to this conclusion. But don't give him to much credit. I wasn't even responding to this conclusion and I have already quoted a passage above which contradicts it. NEWSFLASH: God's plan is to save people from sin, not to save sin from destruction. For crying out loud.

I have to say this. I have been critical of Christian academia to many of my friends before. But this is the worst misrepresentation of what the Bible says I have ever personally seen from a professor at a Bible college. I never went to a Bible college, so I don't have a lot of experience in that department. I'm kind of glad I didn't go to one. If this is the normal quality of the teaching there, I would have been frothing at the mouth the entire time. At least at a public university I knew where they all stood. This is basic stuff people! I probably missed it the first time I read the post because it never entered my mind that anyone with a Ph.D. in Bible anything would be unaware it says God will destroy the earth by fire, and this does not contradict His promise not to destroy it by flood. There is simply no excuse for this. None.

At this point I have become so discouraged I really don't feel like continuing, but I suppose I'll just have to muddle through.

(3) Nothing to say here, other than Nugent finally gets some things right, including the reason for Abraham's descendants to leave Canaan.

(4) "[Egypt] proves an unfit place for Abraham’s descendants to order their lives according to God’s intentions." Oh really? It has nothing to do with God's promise that Abraham's descendants will inherit the land of Canaan? Nugent is making this up. The only thing that needs explaining is why God had them leave the promised land in the first place. Going back needs no explanation, other than the promise God gave to Abraham in Genesis 15. I don't know why God promised them such a specific plot of land, but nobody does. But remember these passages. They will become important in my next post.

"Notice that God does not use the Israelites to take over Egypt and to use vast imperially [sic] resources to do good." Absolutely right in this specific case, and Nugent implies that because Christians are God's chosen people we should not believe that God will use us to "take over" "imperial resources". But doesn't Nugent also argue that Christians are not God's chosen people and that we shouldn't be comparing ourselves to ancient Israel? It seems Nugent has determined to switch sides on this question whenever it suits him. At times it's merely difficult to untangle his argument. At other times it's impossible. Like this time. Moving on.

"God is making them an exemplary people whose specific way of life may be used to bless all nations." Once again Nugent takes a small but significant liberty with the Bible. Is God making Israel an "exemplary people"? Sure. Will God use them to "bless all nations"? Absolutely. Does this blessing have anything to do with their "specific way of life"? We don't know yet how Abram's desdendants will bless all nations, at least not at this point in the Biblical narrative. The promise of the blessing in Genesis 12 and Genesis 17 has three parts:

1. God will make Abram's descendants, through Isaac, into a nation with a very large number of people. (By the way, the English translations all use the word "nation" here. I'll return to this in subsequent posts.)
2. All peoples on earth will blessed through Abram.
3. Abram's descendants will inherit the land of Canaan.

Now for those of us who know the end of the story, it seems obvious that the way in which God blesses all nations through the Hebrews is Jesus Christ. It has nothing to do with their "specific way of life". Nugent is making that up. I'm assuming he's trying to set up his next argument from the Levitical priesthood, but I'm saving that little gem for Part Four.

(5) "God leads them into the land of Canaan—a land where no truly great empire has ever thrived..." Thus having established himself as the judge of what makes a "truly great empire", with no apologies to the Phoenicians (not that it matters), Nugent reads the tea leaves of God's intentions, emphasizing a point which is nowhere emphasized in the text. Oh right, since the promised land of Israel had never, ever contained a "truly great empire" this must mean that God is telling us it's wrong to be a "truly great empire"! Right.

He then gives an excellent outline of the conservative vision of government.  More on that in Part Five. It is worth noting that there is not a complete lack of structure or centralized leadership with the Israelites, as Moses directly hands the reins of leadership to Joshua, who leads them in "Yahweh war", an interesting phenomenon bearing a distinct resemblance to other types of war where, you know, people kill other people with various weaponry. God exacts his long awaited divine judgment on the Canaanites by finding a way to deal with sin other than destroying it. Er, no sorry. God exacts judgment on the Canaanites by using the Israelites to wipe them out, with swords if necessary. Nugent ignores most of this. I'm assuming at this point he is once again back to stressing that Christians are not God's chosen people, hiding behind the term "Yahweh war" to differentiate it.

(6) Nugent launches into the period of the judges, again ignoring the violence of these times as well as the indication that Israel did in fact have some centralized leadership. He references, unfortunately without quoting or citing, a great passage that should be near and dear to the heart of any American conservative, 1 Samuel 8. I really must resist the temptation to elaborate. Part Five is coming.

(7) All very good.

(8) Ok whatever. More breathless verbiage but the essence is correct.

(9) Yes, Ezra and Nehemiah rebuilt Jerusalem without "political independence", but they did have the favor of their Gentile political leaders to do so. In fact Nehemiah used his position as cupbearer to convince the king to endorse his efforts to rebuild the temple. Obviously Nehemiah never should have used his political position for religious purposes. Doesn't he know about the wall of separation between church and state? They also had the Second Amendment, that is, the right to bear arms. In Nehemiah chapter four, the people rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem are under threat from armed men, and so complete the work "with half the men holding spears, from the first light of dawn till the stars came out" and "each had his weapon, even when he went for water." A ringing endorsement of the use of weapons to deter violent criminals if there ever was one.

(10) Nugent quotes an interesting passage here, 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul is arguing that Christ's resurrection was real. Apparently some in the Corinthian church were arguing that there is no resurrection of the dead, like the Sadducees believed. Paul argues that without Christ's resurrection our faith is "futile" and we are still in our sins. The part Nugent quotes, verses 24-26, says this: "Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death." I suppose Nugent considers it beyond dispute that Paul is here talking about governments. I disagree. The only clear example of what sort of thing Paul is talking about is "death," which makes sense because of the context. What is "death"? Well, death is what was brought upon the earth when Adam sinned. It is a punishment for sin. It is the influence of hell on earth. If Paul is talking about human governments here I wish he would have made it more clear. As it is, it seems to me a discussion of God's conquering of spiritual forces that have set themselves against Him and his children, namely, the devil, who was the inspiration behind the first sin, and whom God predicted in Genesis 3 would be crushed by the offspring of the woman. Paul is talking about death and sin, he even mentions Adam, and in the context of the Biblical story I think it's much more likely he's referring to Jesus Christ's final victory over the serpent. Indeed, this is the way Christians have always interpreted the end of the story. It is Christ's victory over death and sin that is important, not any victory over earthly governments. Read to the end of 1 Corinthians 15 and this becomes crystal clear.

The Biblical narrative according to Nugent is not precisely laid out, but let's see if I can understand his meaning. First sin comes into the world, at which point God destroys everything, over and over again, but his real plan is to develop a method to deal with sin without destroying it or the world which contains it. That plan is Jesus Christ's alternative kingdom to the "kingdoms of the world" with their "top-down" authority being defeated by "bottom-up" authority. There is no end of the world, after which God creates a new heaven and a new earth, because according to Nugent God promised never to destroy it again. So apparently the earth in its present form will continue forever. Nugent says that God's plan is to "find some way to guide creation and deal with sin other than to destroy it". What's God's plan then? Nugent writes:

"God’s strategy has always been to place among the various kingdoms of this world a people who live uniquely and fully under his dominion. The rationale behind this is not selfish. It is in the best interests of all nations that God place in their midst an alternative, independent political community that orders its life exclusively on kingdom principles...That unique life is God’s offer to the world. It is God’s pilot project or demonstration plot of the future of all creation. It is the evidence that God in Jesus has changed the course of world history."

Sooooooo, Christian communities with political independence (is this the same sort of political independence that Ezra and Nehemiah did not have?) are God's "demonstration" of "the future of all creation" which is to come, eventually, without the world being destroyed. After this Nugent moves on to his argument about the Levitical priesthood, so I'm assuming that the "future of all creation" is nothing more or less than politically independent Christian communities living among non-believers and performing various services for them but not other services like holding public office. Sin is not destroyed or defeated, rather it is lived with forever, while Christians ascend to a higher plane of existence whilst still living on earth. And that's the Bible according to John Nugent. He completely skips the cross and Christ's resurrection. I guess that's not an important part of the Biblical narrative for him.

Whether these ascended Christians still sin doesn't come up, but I'm assuming they do since God's plan isn't to destroy sin. Neither does it seem important to Nugent if everyone on earth eventually joins these communities or if non-Christians will continue to abound upon the earth pursuing their old fallen ways of voting and other sinful behavior. I'm assuming the latter, in which case it sort of becomes necessary to define the structure of the relationship between these "politically independent" communities of Christians and the rest of the world, something Nugent promised would be the subject of this post. I guess he expects us to take this answer from the Levitical priesthood, which I will look at next time.

Suffice to say, I have some very strong disagreements with this presentation of the Biblical narrative. I have mentioned some particulars, but of what significance should I take from the fact that Nugent nowhere finds room for Christ's death and resurrection, or for that matter, the resurrection of believers? How can I reconcile the obvious Biblical answer to the problem of sin with Nugent's utopian vision? Nugent says God will never destroy the world again; the Bible says He most certainly will. Nugent says God's plan isn't to destroy sin; the Bible says He will defeat both sin and death. Nugent says our future consists of Christian communities on this earth living in service to non-Christians. The Bible says the world will end, the devil thrown into the abyss, sin and death defeated, a new heaven and a new earth where there will be no more tears, death, crying, mourning or pain, and nothing impure will ever enter it. That only believers will be there.  It all sounds much like a Christian version of the progressive utopian vision, something many American Christians have attempted in the past, including the Puritans Nugent disparages, all to no avail. I find it difficult to believe that such a place could exist on earth, particularly the whole death thing, but I wish Nugent well on his next acid trip. I only care about what the Bible says.