Monday, May 21, 2018

Finding the church

We believe in one holy catholic, and apostolic church.

That's a traditional definition of the church, from the Nicene creed. Catholic, Anglo-Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox use that as a frame of reference. The terms are ambiguous, and become ciphers in the hands of high-church partisans. They don't use those criteria to define the true church, but use their denomination to define the criteria. The criteria become mirror images of their denomination. 

Catholic converts and apologists like Bryan Cross harp on "the visible church". Where do you find the visible church? Protestants don't have a visible church. 

Here's another definition of the church:

They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and prayer (Acts 2:42).

That's a nifty compact definition. A functional definition.

i) What constitutes apostolic teaching is illustrated throughout the Book of Acts. The apostolic kerygma centered on the mission of Christ. Key events in the mission of Christ, interpreted through the lens of the OT. And Luke's Gospel supplies background information.

Nowadays, the teaching of the apostles is preserved in Scripture. 

ii) "Fellowship" is a broad concept for the communal life of the church. Pooling resources as well as a common faith (cf. 4:32). Alms. Corporate worship. 

iii) Does "breaking of bread" (cf. v46-47) allude to the eucharist or ordinary communal Christian meals? False dichotomy inasmuch as that formal distinction didn't exist at the time. The eucharist was incorporated into common meals (cf. 1 Cor 10-11).

iv) Private and corporate prayer have always been fixtures of Christian life, a carryover from Judaism. That's illustrated in the Book of Acts, as well as other NT documents. 

This is where you find "the church". You find the church whenever and whenever you find groups of Christians who exemplify Acts 2:42, both inside and outside of church. 

For further reading:

Darrell Bock, Acts (Baker 2007), 149-51.

Craig Keener, Acts 1:1-2:47 (Baker 2012), 1000-1011. 

David Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles (Eerdmans 2009), 159-62.  

Eckhard Schnable, Acts (Zondervan 2012), 177-80.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Anita Gregory's Enfield Poltergeist Doctoral Thesis Available Online For Free

To learn more about the significance of this, go to my article here and do a Ctrl F search for "thesis". Read, especially, from the second use of the term onward.

To get Gregory's thesis, go here and register with the site, which doesn't take long and is free. I haven't yet found anybody discussing the availability of her thesis online. I don't know if it just recently became available or has been available for a long time. I've followed the Enfield case closely. I've read many hundreds of pages of material on it, I've been in contact with eyewitnesses of the events and some members of the Society for Psychical Research who are significantly knowledgeable about the case, and I've listened to many hours of audio about it, including recent podcasts, radio programs, etc. I've never heard anybody refer to having read Gregory's thesis, much less have I ever heard anybody say that the general public could download it for free online. I don't know if this is a recent development. I'm emailing some people to try to find out.

As my article linked above discusses, Will Storr wrote about his unsuccessful efforts to get Gregory's thesis a little over a decade ago. Apparently, it had been kept from the public up to that point because Maurice Grosse and Guy Playfair threatened to take legal action over it. You can read more about that situation in my article linked above and in Storr's book. My impression had been that nothing significant had changed since Storr's book was published. If the availability of Gregory's thesis is widely known, why haven't skeptics been citing it? Why didn't it come up in discussions about The Conjuring 2? Will Storr has occasionally discussed the Enfield case in recent years, and I've never seen him say anything about getting a copy of Gregory's thesis. It never came up in any of Guy Playfair's last interviews, as far as I know, and I don't think I missed any. Perhaps his recent death is what made the thesis available.

Whether this is a recent development or not, it deserves far more attention than it's gotten so far. This is a major advance in the public's ability to study the Enfield case.

Defining the Trinity

Historically, there are different models of the Trinity and Incarnation. Since I so often defend the Trinity and the Incarnation, I'll outline my own position. This is what I think Scripture teaches, with a few philosophical elucidations to clarify what I mean. 

I'm not going to defend my position in this post because I've done that on many other occasions. I'm just stating my own understanding of the doctrines, to provide a frame of reference. 

In his classic article, Warfield has a compact, one-sentence definition of the Trinity:

There is one only and true God, but in the unity of the Godhead there are three coeternal and coequal Persons, the same in substance but distinct in subsistence.

Here's my own statement:

I. The Trinity

1. There is one God

I'm using "God" in a categorical sense. In a class by itself.

"One" is a relative term. "One" implies a contrast with more than one of something. What's the point of contrast? In biblical theism, pagan polytheism is the point of contrast. There is "one God" compared to that. 

The concept of a heathen deity was the concept of a physical, humanoid being who comes into existence and may pass out of existence. Finite in knowledge and power. Often territorial gods (e.g. Hades, Poseidon).

2. The one God consists of three persons

By "person" I mean an individual with a mind or consciousness, and first-person viewpoint. Each member of the Godhead has a first-person viewpoint. An indexical property. 

3. Each person of the Godhead is fully and equally divine. 

By "divine" I mean having all the divine attributes

4. Each person of the Godhead is inderivative

5. Father, Son, and Spirit are eternally distinct from each other. 

That's why the Son can become Incarnate without Incarnating the Father or the Spirit. 

6. Does God have one mind or three minds? In a sense, both.

To take a weaker comparison, suppose you had three individuals with complete telepathic access to each other's minds. There'd be three minds, but in another respect there'd be a "hive mind" or group consciousness.

However, Trinitarian psychology is deeper than that. It's not one mind over and above three minds. Rather, each mind is contained in the other two. To take another comparison, suppose you have two mirrors facing each other and reflecting each other. The righthand mirror contains an image of the left-hand mirror while the lefthand mirror contains an image of the righthand mirror. You could reconstruct each mirror image from the opposing mirror image. 

In one respect that's two images, while in another respect that's the same image. Due to chirality, the mutual reflections are isometric, yet irreducibly distinct. 

7. Although the Trinity is inevitably and ineluctably mysterious to some degree, that's not unique to the Trinity, but has common parallels. As one philosopher observes:

The Trinity...poses a number of intriguing logical difficulties akin to those suggested by the identity of spatio-temporal objects through time and across worlds, puzzle cases of personal identity, and problems of identity and constitution. Philosophical discussions of the Trinity have suggested solutions to the Trinity puzzle comparable to solutions proposed to these classic identity puzzles. 

II. The Incarnation

i) In the person of the Son, God assumed a rational human soul and body. The Incarnation is a union between the timeless, incorporeal Son, a mind in time, and a body in space. A union between different individualized natures, analogous to Cartesian/substance dualism (although souls exist in time whereas the mind of the Son exists outside of time). 

The relation is asymmetrical. To paraphrase Aquinas, the Incarnation entailed no change in the Son, but only in the nature newly assumed into the preexistent Son. The eternal Son became Incarnate through union with a human soul and body. Now a union is a relation. And relations newly said of God with respect to creatures do not imply a change on God's side, but on the creature's side by relating in a new way to God.

ii) The union produced a complex person. In a sense, Jesus has a human mind and a divine mind, but the relation is asymmetrical. The divine mind knows everything the human mind knows, while the human mind, in addition to its natural human understanding, only knows what the divine mind shares with it. The divine mind controls the human mind. 

iii) Since human nature already has communicable divine attributes, divine and human natures are sufficiently compatible to make a divine Incarnation possible. Likewise, human minds originate in God's concept of human minds, so the idea of human minds is already contained in the Godhead. 

Saturday, May 19, 2018

A horse of another color

1. I recently listened to the debate between Lydia McGrew and Craig Evans. The debate concerns the reliability of John's Gospel in relation to the Synoptics, with special emphasis on the sayings of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel:

Friday, May 18, 2018

Marriage to a Praying Mantis

I'll comment on this post:

Protestant ethics was centered on biblical authority, they argued, while Roman Catholic ethics, because of its natural law tradition, was far too enamored with the powers of human reason. Protestants emphasized the consistency of the Bible’s moral teaching, summarized in the Ten Commandments, while Roman Catholics wrongly contrasted the new law of the gospel with the old law of Israel.

In some ways, to be sure, the reformers themselves paved the way for this contrast. While they upheld the traditional Christian teaching that God’s moral will is written on the human heart and in the creation order (i.e., natural law), they expressed fresh skepticism regarding the capabilities of human reason. While they insisted that Christians were to interpret the Ten Commandments in light of the law’s fulfillment in Christ, they downplayed any meaningful contrast between the ethical teaching of the old and new testaments.

1. It oversimplifies the issue to say Protestant ethics centered on the Decalogue. 

i) Does Lutheran ethics center on the Decalogue? Does Anabaptist ethics center on the Decalogue? What about Anglican theology a la Hooker? 

ii) Even in Presbyterianism, there's the general equity of the Mosaic law in addition to the Decalogue. 

2. A common problem with natural law appeals is how Catholic apologists gerrymander natural law to retroactively defend positions that were arrived at independently of natural law, based on ecclesiastical authority. Case in point is the Catholic position on contraception. 

Over time, however, many evangelical Protestants virtually abandoned the concept of natural law altogether, in favor of an emphasis on biblical authority. And because of their emphasis on the Ten Commandments as the perfect expression of God’s moral will, they largely ignored the distinctiveness of the New Testament’s virtue-oriented, Christocentric approach to ethics. Thus one could look far and wide for any meaningful Protestant study of Christian virtues akin to that of Aquinas.

1. I don't object to natural law in principle, but it's usually bedeviled by lack of specificity.

2. Did Aquinas have a Christocentric approach to ethics?

3. The virtue-orientated aspect of Protestant ethics is indexed to a pastoral theology of mortification and sanctification (e.g. John Owen, Richard Sibbes). 

4. The relation between OT and NT ethics is a matter of perennial theological debate. 

5. Does Tuininga think NT ethics is virtue-oriented in contrast to OT ethics? Of course, the Mosaic law is largely a civil and penal code, so it's focussed on behavior. But there's also a recurring theme about circumcision of the heart in OT ethics. 

6. What about classic examples of Protestant casuistry by William Perkins, William Ames, and Richard Baxter? 

Yet even here, as Protestants we have much to learn from our Catholic brothers and sisters. 

Bible scholars like Richard Bauckham, Gordon Wenham, and Christopher Wright have done yeoman work on OT ethics. Likewise, we have fine evangelical ethicists like John Frame, John Feinberg, and John Jefferson Davis. 

For example, the Catholic church has long promoted and protected Christian celibacy as an alternative to marriage, in line with the example and teaching of Jesus and the Apostle Paul. 

The Catholic church has long promoted and protected clerical pederasty as an alternative to marriage, in line with the example of bacha bazi in Islam. 

Likewise, the Catholic church has held faithfully to the sanctity of marriage, insisting that divorce is profoundly incompatible with the sacramental meaning of marriage as an analogy for the unity between Christ and the church. 

Likewise, the Catholic church has skirted the sanctity of marriage through the loophole of annulment. The "sanctity of marriage" in Catholicism is a sham. 

In Scripture, marriage is a covenant, not a sacrament. 

In stark contrast, Protestants have tended to overemphasize marriage as the only ideal life plan for all Christians, while at the same time tolerating and even defending the prevalence of divorce.

In stark contrast, Protestants agree with Scripture that there are justifiable grounds for divorce.  

Protestants also have much to learn from Catholic social teaching as it pertains to poverty and oppression. 

Like how the Roman Catholic church used to oppress theological dissidents, viz. the Inquisition, Exsurge Domine? Like how the Catholic church exploited the poor through the sale of indulgences? 

Classic Christian thought taught that God has given the world to human beings in common. It affirmed the legitimacy of property subject to the requirement that those who have what they need share with those who do not, in order that the poor might receive justice. This has evolved into the modern Catholic concept of solidarity, which calls Christians to bear the burdens of those who are poor and oppressed. 

Poverty isn't always the result of injustice. 

Protestants would do well to emulate the Catholic conviction that the sanctity of life requires vigorous protection at every stage and in every form, like a “seamless garment” from beginning to end.

That's a euphemism for opposition to capital punishment. 

The gospel of the kingdom and its righteousness remains the same as it did one thousand and two thousand years ago…

The NT Gospel remains the same. But that's hardly the Gospel preached by Rome a 1000 years ago, or 500 years ago, or today. Catholicism is a different religion from biblical theism. 

…and faithful Protestants and Catholics of all denominations will increasingly find that, as pilgrims on the same journey, serving one Lord with one faith, they will come much nearer to their goal if they walk together than if they walk separately.

Oh, Gosh, all we need is a picture of a cowboy riding off into the sunset with an angel choir in the background. Catholic theology and Protestant theology represent divergent theological visions. A road sign pointing in different directions. 

Questions on the Trinity

An anonymous author asked me to comment on his post:

Before I ask my questions, allow me to clarify my position: I hold to what you refer to as “Nicene subordinationism,” which you call both “inherently unstable” and “a gateway drug to unitarianism.” As is probably quite clear, I subscribe to the Nicene Creed as adopted in 325. I’ve included Philip Schaff’s version of this creed in the sidebar of this site. My position is that of both Bp. George Bull and Samuel Clarke, though more-so that of Bp. Bull. 

Since Clarke was unitarian, I don't see how that's consistent with Nicene theology. 

Concerning your position, I would maintain that it is at times semi-modalistic, at times polytheistic, and (when considered as a whole)...

i) Since the author doesn't explain in what respect he finds my position to be by turns polytheistic and semi-modalistic, there's nothing for me to respond to on that front. In fairness, he didn't ask me about that. If he had, he might have provided more context.

ii) As I've often noted, discussions of the Trinity routinely suffer from a bias or prejudice by treating unity (the one God) as more fundamental than plurality (the three persons). However, I don't consider tritheism to be worse than unitarianism (or modalism). Both are equally erroneous. 

…at all times contrary to the understanding of the primitive body of believers. 

Is that code language for Nicene fathers/bishops? If so, my position is contrary to their position inasmuch as I reject the paradigm of eternal generation/procession. 

Out of a desire to have a proper dialogue, I will refer to your position as simply “trinitarian” rather than “neo-trinitarian,” which I think is a more proper description of your view.

I understand that most trinitarians (eg. B. B. Warfield, John Frame, John Feinberg, and Paul Helm) would assert that, in objection to their doctrine of the Trinity being polytheistic, that there is but one “essence” or “being” of God. Or, as James White says, “God is one what, and three whos.”

1. In Cyril of Alexandria’s letter to John of Antioch, he states that Christ is “of the same substance with his Father according to His Divinity, and of the same substance with us according to his humanity.” If Christ being of the same substance or essence with us does not necessitate that there is but one human, how does His being of the same substance or essence with the Father necessitate that there is but one God?1

i) Actually, I agree that consubstantiality is a necessary but insufficient condition for divine unicity. That amounts to generic unity rather than numerical identity.

ii) It isn't necessary for me to philosophically refute the charge that my view of the Trinity is tritheistic. The primary criterion is exegetical rather than philosophical. Even if my position had a tritheistic appearance, that's not a defeater or heretical if the NT theism has a tritheistic appearance. We must stay faithful to the revelatory witness whether or not we can tie up the loose ends into a nice little bow. 

iii) Moreover, the objection rebounds against Nicene theology. Grounding the unity of the Godhead in the Father as the fons deitas falls short of numerical identity. A shared essence is consistent with multiple instances or separate beings. So the Nicene alternative is subject to a similar objection. 

iv) Finally, on occasions when I do use models and analogies to illustrate how one God can be three persons, I don't rely on consubstantiality. 

2. When trinitarians use the word “God,” it often signifies the Trinity (all three persons) or the “essence/being” of God. Can you point me to one passage of scripture where the word “God” signifies a complex notion of more than one person at once. Put more succinctly, can you provide any place in the scripture where the word “God” signifies all three persons (the Trinity) in one singular usage of the word? And, if you say that this is not your predominate usage, that you prefer to use the term “God” to refer to the essence or being of God, can you provide me anywhere in scripture where the word “God” is used to signify such a concept?

3. If when you say “God” you mean three persons, how is it right to refer to them as a “he”? If when you say “God” you mean the essence or being of God, how is it right to refer to it as a “he”? Are either of these ways of using the term “God” supported in scripture?

i) I reject how that frames the issue. It's not primarily a question of how a particular word is used, but the concept of God in Scripture, which has a much broader database than occurrences of the word “God”. Not beginning with a word to map onto a concept but beginning with a concept to map onto one or more words–that's my methodology. 

ii) When speaking popularly, I can use "God" both collectively (the Trinity) and individually (the Father as God, the son as God, the Spirit as God). When speaking with greater technical or philosophical precision, I say the persons are "divine"–as well as the nature or essence. 

iii) As I've also noted, there are different kinds of nouns: proper, common, abstract, concrete. The same noun can have four different connotations in that respect. 

iv) I don't use “he” for the divine essence because that's confusing. As a general matter, we don't customarily use singular masculine pronouns to denote a nature, substance, essence. To take a comparison, we don't refer to the attribute of omniscience as “he”, or the attribute of omnipotence as “he”.

v) As a matter of linguistic convention, I might refer to the Trinity as “it” rather than “he” since that's a common way (in standard English usage) of denoting collectives, even in the case of personal collectives. Conversely, I might refer to the “Godhead” as “they”. But this concerns surface grammar. It doesn't carry a lot of theological freight (or ontological commitment).

vi) I usually avoid “being” in Trinitarian discussions because that's ambiguous. 

The Billy Graham rule

i) Vice President Pence revived debate over the Billy Graham rule. According to that rule, a man shouldn't be alone with a woman other than his wife. Presumably, the Graham rule has an implicit codicil for female relatives. 

I think the rule is extreme. In a way it's similar to Muslim sensibilities. According to Muslim mores, men and women are sexual animals with no more impulse control than an animal in heat. A woman is a seductress simply by virtue of being a woman. As such, it's necessity to protect men from women by putting women in burkas. Protect the roving eyes of men from moth-like attraction to the candle. By the same token, it's necessary to subject adolescent girls to cliorectomies, according to the savage logic that if they don't find sexual intercourse physically enjoyable, they won't be tempted to commit premarital or extramarital sex. It says something about Islam that Muslim men want sex with women who don't want sex with them. But that's one of the many cultural pathologies of Islam. 

ii) That said, while I don't defend the rule, I respect the motivation. The only thing that deters most men and women from promiscuity is religious restraint or fear of repercussions. Indeed, a major reason many people commit apostasy or never consider Christianity in the first place is due to Christian sexual ethics (i.e. monogamy). 

iii) Although the rule is an overreaction, it is prudent to avoid gratuitous sexual temptation.  

iv) Ironically, the people who mock Pence for following the Billy Graham rule are apt to be the very same people mocking Trump's Hollywood sexual lifestyle. No attempt to be logically or morally consistent. 

v) Finally, it's my impression that the Billy Graham rule had a specific background. When you consider the experience that gave rise to the rule, it's not so easy to ridicule. According to Templeton's memoir:

Billy and I had taken two days off in Copenhagen and were scheduled to join the others in Paris. We arrived a day early and wandered the streets, grateful that the city had not been pulverized as London had. Paris was thronging with Allied soldiers on leave and seemed a city of prostitutes. They paraded the main thoroughfares, soliciting openly. In civilian clothes, we were particular targets. On a daylight walk down the Champs Elysees from the Arc de Triomphe to our hotel we were accosted at least fifty times. The girls stood in front of us, impeding our progress, whispering. One threw open her fur coat to reveal that she was wearing nothing but a garter belt and stocking. Billy's face was grim. "Chuck," he said, "we've got to get out of here." We set off at a half trot, literally shoving the girls aside.

Inside the hotel lobby, laughing and breathless, I turned to Billy and said, saying it for both of us, "My Lord!"

That evening we went looking for a restaurant. We chanced  upon an attractive and "very French" place. It had a fairly large room with a bar to one side, the tables arranged around a postage-stamp-size dance floor. A trio of blacks were playing American blues. We ordered Cokes and looked about. I'd told Billy not to worry about the menu; my high-school French would suffice. In fact, I was immediately at a loss when the waitress began to respond to my questions.

Two girls stopped at our table, and before we were quite aware of what was happening, joined us and ordered drinks. They were very young, not yet in their twenties, and quite beautiful. Neither spoke English. I tried to carry on a conversation but was soon at sea. Attempting a compliment, I said to one of them, "Vous avez tres beaux chevaux rouge." When they burst into laughter I realized that I had told her she had beautiful red horses, rather than beautiful red cheveux, hair.

Our meal came and we proceeded to eat it, two simultaneous conversations going on; Billy and I in English and the girls in French. As we paid the check, it became clear that they were planning to leave with us. I tired to make excuses but each had taken an arm and, as we emerged into the street, clutched tightly. My girl was pointing toward a massive apartment block across the street, Billy's was pulling him away. Over a shoulder, he gave me a despairing look. I grimaced and said, "Guess we'll have to walk  them home." In truth, we didn't know how to extricate ourselves. 

Inside the apartment building, a broad staircase led to the second floor. As we mounted the stairs- wanting to get out of my predicament but not sure how to-I spied a W.C. on the landing. I pointed and said, "Excusez." It occurred to me that I had wandered into danger and was at risk of being mugged. In the W.C. I looked for a place to hide my wallet; in it was all my money and identification. I stood on the toilet bowl, reached up and stashed it on top of the water chamber. As I emerged the girl was talking to a rough-looking man who turned and went quickly down the hall. She called out to me, "Viens ici." I shook my head, said, "Non, Non" and went down the stairs three at a time. Outside, I watched until I saw her come out and cross the street to the restaurant. I went back up the stairs, retrieved my wallet and returned to our hotel.

At the hotel, no Billy. An hour passed. When two hours had gone, I began to worry. I considered calling the police but realized that there was little I could tell them; I had no idea where he might be. Close to midnight, he burst through the door, panting, his face shining with perspiration, his hair dishevelled, his tie in a pocket, the collar of his shirt open. 

He threw himself on the bed breathing heavily. "Chuck, you have no idea what's happened to me. I thought I was going to walk the girl home and the leave her, but she hailed a cab. We drove and drove and drove. Somewhere outside the city in a dark little suburb, the cabby stopped. He didn't speak any English, neither did she, and I couldn't understand what he was saying about the fare. I took the money from my wallet and held it out, expecting him to do what the London cabbies do- take what was his and leave the rest. He took it all. 

"The girl had me by the arm and she led me toward this place where she lived. It was a dump. We got inside and she closed the door. I was trying to think of something I could say or do to let her know I was leaving. She went over to the bed, and without a word, unbuttoned her dress, tossed it aside and fell back on the bed. And Chuck, she was stark naked! 

"I turned, opened the door and got out of there. In the street, I started to run. I don't know how far I ran; it could have been a mile or two. When finally I stopped, I looked around. I had no idea where I was. I was going to hail a cab, and then realized I didn't have any money. I asked some people the way to the downtown area but they just looked at me or rattled on in French. So I started to walk. I walked and walked and walked until I saw the Eiffel Tower in the distance. Then I knew where I was..."

The gods of open theism

There are roughly two different kinds of open theism based on two different starting-points or epistemological orientations. On the one hand there's philosophical open theism; on the other hand there's exegetical open theism.

Some people ground open theism primarily in philosophical considerations like the nature of the future and/or the nature of human freedom. These can be interrelated.

Other people ground open theism primarily in a kind of face-value hermeneutic that minimizes anthropomorphic readings of Scripture.

However, this generates a point of tension in open theism. In my experience, philosophical open theists posit that God knows all possibilities. Hence, God can't be surprised by anything. 

But that collides with exegetical open theism, which appeals to prooftexts in which God expresses surprise, regret, disappointment, even furious frustration at how things turned out. 

If we take open theist hermeneutics as our starting-point, then there's no justification to posit that God knows all possibilities. For the God who emerges from Scripture on open theist hermeneutics is psychologically humanoid. A figure like Zeus or Odin. A God who's not only in the dark regarding the future, but has to make things up as he goes along because he didn't even have contingency plans at the ready. Depending on their starting-point or epistemological orientation, open theism presents two different Gods. Divergent concepts of God. One is more recognizably pagan while the other is more abstract. 

This is ironic because one of the selling-points for atheism is the claim that classical theism is an artificial overlay on Scripture that filters Scripture through an alien interpretive grid. Yet there's a parallel clash between exegetical open theism and philosophical open theism. Philosophical open theism has its own extrinsic screen.

So consistent open theists need to pick one version and stick with it, since the two versions don't mesh. Preferably, they should just ditch open theism altogether. 

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Richard Dawkins comes to call

Hostile testimony

An irony in the Gospels is that sometimes the disciples misunderstand Jesus, and sometimes his enemies misunderstand Jesus, but sometimes his enemies are quicker to pick up on what he means than his disciples. 

There's a sense in which it's possible to agree with Jesus too soon. Where premature agreement is a way of keeping Jesus at a safe distance. 

The enemies of Jesus took him more seriously than some of his followers. They were quicker to discern that he posed a threat to what they represented. Sometimes, if a reader reflexively agrees with a statement in the Gospels, that means he didn't let the message get in. He simply greets it at the door. Shakes hands. Then shuts the door–with the message standing outside on the porch. That's why hostile testimony can have a particular value. 

Sweating in the vineyard

20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ 5 So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ 8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first last” (Mt 20:1-16).

i) This is similar to the parable of the prodigal son in Luke. In a way it's similar to Mary and Martha in Lk 10:38-42. How many readers have a sneaking sympathy for Martha? 

ii) I think commentators generally let us down on passages like this. They adopt blandly pious interpretations. But surely there are Christians who feel sympathetic to Martha's complaint, the complaint of the older son in the parable of the prodigal son, as well as the complaint of the disgruntled workers in this parable. Out of piety, they suppress their reaction, yet that leaves the cognitive dissonance unresolved. 

Too often, commentators, when remarking on this parable, take the easy way out. But that sabotages the parable. Jesus is banking on the fact that listeners will naturally side with the disgruntled workers. When the reader is too quick to acquiesce to the position of the employer, we short-circuit the parable. 

iii) The reason for piously bland interpretations is that we want to be on the right side. In the parable, the employer is what's called a normative character. He represents the viewpoint of the storyteller. A reader can sense that the employer stands for Jesus. 

In many parables, Jesus is an explicit or implicit character in his own parables. Sometimes there's a parabolic character who's a stand-in or mouthpiece for Jesus. In the parable of the prodigal son, that's the Father. Once we identify the normative character, we feel compelled to agree with him since he represents God or Jesus (same thing) in the parable. And surely it's important to be on the same side as Jesus.

In this parable, the disgruntled workers stand on one side while the employer and latecomers occupy the other side. Which side will you take? Even if you secretly sympathize with the disgruntled workers, you feel that you ought to side with the employer and the latecomers since the employer is a spokesman for Jesus. 

iv) And there's a grain of truth to that. You don't want to be on the wrong side of Jesus. You're supposed to agree with Jesus, right? 

But it's a more complex than that. When he tells a parable like this, Jesus is adopting the role of a provocative storyteller. He expects the listener to bristle. In a parable like this, he's daring the listener to protest. That's a rhetorical strategy.

Yet when Christians let that roll off their back, it eliminates a necessary phase in grappling with the message. I think we're meant to wrestle with parables like this. The parable is meant to be aggravating. The parable is meant to be a bit galling. If, for pious reasons, you don't allow yourself to be aggravated; if, for pious reasons, you don't allow yourself to identify with the disgruntled workers, then you're not allowing yourself to be challenged by the message. 

Jesus knows the listener will have instinctive sympathy for the disgruntled workers. He knows we're thinking that if we were in the same position, we'd naturally be resentful, too, and so the effectiveness of the parable depends on some pushback by the reader or listener. If we roll over right at the outset, we've failed to take the barbed message to heart. We didn't let the message sink in. We didn't let it rub us the wrong way. 

And a problem with that reaction is that it leaves Christians ill-prepared for when we feel that we've been shafted. Because we didn't resolve that tension in our minds. We just shelved it. And that can come back to hurt us. 

The danger in reading a parable like this is to instantly agree with the employer, then pat ourselves on the back for taking the right side. But at a certain level that's insincere. Deep down we may not be persuaded. Thin piety buckles under pressure. Sitting in the pew, you can nod your head at all the right places, but when life rubs your face in the dirt, thin piety may fail you. Cheap piety is no match for costly discipleship.

iv) Jesus often tells parables that leave unanswered questions. That leave some issues hanging in midair. I think that's deliberate. We're meant to keep reflecting on the story. We're meant to keep churning that over. That's why some parables leave some issues unresolved. 

In this parable, I think the reader's unspoken misgiving is not so much that employer was unfair. Rather, the question a parable like this leaves dangling is, Why be good? Why resist temptation, why deny yourself, if you can do whatever you want, then repent on your deathbed? Why patiently wait in line, defer to others, when you can cut in line at the late minute? 

When someone goes to the front of the line and gets in first, it's not just a question of fairness. It makes people who were waiting in line feeling like fools. There's a sense of betrayal. If people who break the rules get away with it, it's stupid to play by the rules. Why not live for instant gratification, then have a deathbed conversion? 

In the parable of the prodigal son, the father tells the resentful son, "all that is mine is yours". But isn't the obvious comeback, "No, dad, what's left over–after you gave my layabout brother his share of the estate–is mine!" 

And this isn't just an issue that's hovering in the background of two parables. Rather, this is a complaint that cycles through the Bible. So often the faithful get the short end of the stick. That's a recurring complaint in Scripture. 

v) One interpretive issue to keep in mind that Jesus is fond of hyperbole. He often overstates the case to make a point. I'm surprised by how many commentators take the explanation of the employer at face value. But that's tone-deaf to Christ's rhetorical modus operandi. He frequently creates unrealistic scenarios to dramatize certain issues.

vi) When we watch a movie we tend to subconsciously identify with certain characters. We root for the good guys.

One issue is which group the reader relates to in the parable. Western Christians may naturally see themselves as the early birds in the parable. We've been laboring faithfully from the crack of dawn. However, a Third-World Christian might see the western Christian as the latecomer who has it easy. Many Third-World Christians lead wretched lives. Compared to them, many of us have far less to complain about. 

Mind you, just to observe that some other people are far worse off than you isn't much of a theodicy. But that's an argument for another day.

vii) So who do the latecomers in the parable represent? That's intentionally ambiguous and open-ended. It would be wrong to equate them with deathbed converts, although that may be included. 

On the one hand there are cradle Christians who've been exposed to the Gospel under very favorable terms. Who've benefited from a Christian upbringing. 

Conversely, there are unbelievers who had a godless childhood, with clueless, aimless parents. Neglected children. For instance, Francis Chan lost both parents as a child. He lived with an aunt and uncle, until the uncle murdered his wife right in front of young Francis Chan. 

Some of them are latecomers to the faith, but one can hardly begrudge them since they didn't have the spiritual advantages some of us enjoyed. While it's advantageous to cut in line, sometimes that offsets a prior disadvantage. So there are situations in which the spiritually privileged and underprivileged balance out at different times of life. Both sides can feel cheated or slighted if they fail to take everything into account. Cutting in line may compensate for spiritual deprivation early on. 

viii) Then there's the question of what makes this life worthwhile. Ironically, so many hedonists are miserable. They deny themselves nothing, yet they're chronically dissatisfied. Often resort to drugs and alcohol to fill the void. Hedonism is not a recipe for happiness.  

ix) Then there's the question of what makes the afterlife fulfilling. What's the nature of heavenly rewards? What rewards are we seeking? Is our eternal bliss based on comparing our situation to another saint? Should we be looking at others? Should we care?

For many Christians, the hope of heaven includes a family reunion. Spending eternity with those we love. Those we like to be around. If that's in part our notion of a heavenly reward, why should we care how someone else was rewarded? We got what was important to us, didn't we? 

Likewise, some ailing Christians look forward to rejuvenation. Restoration of health. Not to mention Christians who were born disabled. For them, a normal body will be a first-time experience. Why should they be concerned with how someone else is rewarded?

It's like brothers comparing Christmas presents. Even if one got a more expensive gift than the other, that doesn't make it a better gift if it's not what you want. 

Heaven isn't competitive. Having your deepest needs met is independent of how someone else's deepest needs are met. Presumably, it's not a question of getting a bonus, over and above what you need to be happy. Is it not enough to be happy? Happy at long last? Is it not enough to have your unrequited yearnings ultimately fulfilled? What does it matter how someone else is rewarded so long as your belated longings are finally met?