Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Does God Collude with Satan?

In Baptist Bible study we were pondering 2 Cor 12:1-10, where Paul claimed he was given [by God] a thorn in the flesh, an angel of Satan to harass him so that he would not be puffed up by the abundance of visions and revelations he had experienced in his trip to the “third heaven” (2 Cor 12:7). We will all no doubt agree that this strange passage tends to perplex the modern Christian mind. But there is an even more serious difficulty in the passage. It rather obviously implies that God colludes with satanic powers by using an angel (aggelos) of Satan to harass Paul. Is there other evidence suggesting that it could actually be the case that God colludes with Satan?

There is a similar statement in 1 Cor 5:1-7 where Paul directs the gathering at Corinth “to deliver” an immoral member of the gathering “to Satan for the destruction of his flesh” so that “his spirit may be saved” (1 Cor 5:5). To be sure this is also a difficult passage, but it is nevertheless clear that Paul encouraged the Christian gathering to collude with Satan for the salvation of the man’s spirit. Compare a similar statement in a text from the Pauline school: the author refers to two persons who “have made shipwreck of their faith”…“whom I have delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme” (1 Tim 1:20).

I checked at random a few commentaries in my last blog (see them here) to see how 2 Cor 12:7 was regarded in the academic community. They all agreed that the passive voice in 2 Cor 12:7 referenced God as the one initiating the action that brought Paul harassment by an angel of Satan to teach him humility. There is a similar incident in Job where God is described as allowing Satan to afflict Job’s body at the request of Satan (Job 2:10). That does not appear to be the case with 2 Cor 12:7, where God directed the harassment of Paul by using an angel of Satan.

In the Jewish Scriptures, dubbed by Christians the Old Testament, God has no evil opponent to challenge his authority. Satan does not make an appearance in Israelite history until after the fall of Judah to the Babylonians (read about it here). In the early years of Israelite history God was the source of divine justice, as well as “evil” acts. For example, God sends an evil spirit to torment King Saul (1 Sam 16:14-23; 18:10; 19:9); he also sends lying spirits into the mouths of prophets to deceive Ahab (1 Kgs 22:1-40) and prompted King David to sin (2 Sam 24).  When Job’s wife counseled him to “curse God and die,” his reply indicated that it was common knowledge that both good and evil came from God (Job 2:10, see also 42:11; compare also 2 Sam 12:11; Ps 78:43-51; Jdg 9:23).

There must be some mistake here! How can it be that God would have anything to do with facilitating evil deeds? A standard definition of God is “perfect in power, wisdom, and goodness, whom people worship as creator and ruler of the universe.” So what is good about colluding with the powers of darkness to bring harm to anyone? The very definition of a Christian concept of God precludes the idea that God would do evil against anyone or incite anyone to evil or that God would work in concert with the forces of evil either to the detriment or betterment of anyone. Is not this statement attributed to Jesus: God “makes his sun rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the just and the unjust” (Matt 5:45)? The thrust of the statement is that God provides the blessings of the considerable bounty of the earth to the Good, as well as the evil and unjust alike without discrimination.

So how should we explain the not inconsiderable clash between God as reflected in the Jewish Scriptures and New Testament? My own view is that through history and within the various world cultures and religions that have existed through time people have basically fashioned their own understandings of God in harmony with the culture in which they were raised and according to the ethical understandings they had at the time. In short, our Gods are, at least in part, a projection of how we understand (hopefully) what is best in ourselves, an idea in modern philosophy attributed to Ludwig Feuerbach.1 How else do we explain the diverse religions of the world?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1 Here is a quote from the article: According to Ludwig Feuerbach “God is an anthropomorphic projection of the human mind, and as such embodies man’s conception of his own nature. This [view] was originally conceived by Xenophanes and Lucretius, and by Spinoza.” Here are three brief quotes from Feuerbach’s writings (translated by Zwar Hanfi), The Fiery Brook: Selected Writings of Ludwig Feuerbach (Anchor Books; 1972):  “Man’s notion of himself is his notion of God, just as his notion of God is his notion of himself—the two are identical” (page 109); “There is nothing more, and nothing less, in God than what religion puts in him” (page 112); “To every religion, the gods of other religions are only conceptions of God; but its own conception of God is itself its God—God as it conceived him to be, God genuinely and truly so, God as he is in himself” (page 114).

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Was Paul, the Apostle, a Mystic?

Mysticism is defined as "the experience of mystical union or direct communion with ultimate reality." See more on mysticism here. In other words, it is an experience in which an individual becomes one with God; that is to say, God is me and I am God. Such a concept carries such a great deal of baggage so that most modern folk will likely find the idea difficult to accept as logical or reasonable. That appears not to be true of the first-century human being Paul.

A few weeks ago in Baptist Bible study, the class was pondering 2 Cor 4:7-12 and we encountered a perplexing statement by the great apostle. Paul writes: We are "always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies" (2 Cor 4:10). How does one make sense of this statement? How can Christians carry in their physical bodies the literal death of Jesus? Nevertheless, that is what Paul said! Had he said something like "always retaining in our memories the death of Jesus, so that the new life given us through belief in Jesus' resurrection might be evident in our living," there would be little difficulty with understanding it. But how can living persons bear in the body the actual death of another person? And how can the life of the resurrected Christ be evident in believers' bodies, which are always in some state of aging and mortification?

Here are a few explanations by some biblical commentators chosen at random. J. H. Bernard1 claims that the statement is interpreted by 4:11: "we are always being given up to death, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh." But this interpretation creates further problems: how is the life of Jesus evident in a believer's mortal flesh? M. E. Thrall2 argues that Paul is possibly thinking that his own sufferings are like "a replica or image of Christ's death." In order for this explanation to work, however, one must assume that Paul thinks of his sufferings as being like Jesus' death, although experiencing suffering and being dead are quite different things. James Thompson3 explains 4:10 as indicating "that Paul…on his missionary journeys is following in his Lord's footsteps," which means that Paul suffered as Jesus suffered. But of course Paul could have said exactly that without creating such perplexity over what he did say. F. J. Matera. says, "By being afflicted, bewildered, persecuted, and struck down, [Paul] reflects in his person (his body) the kinds of sufferings that Jesus endured in his passion." This idea regards Paul's sufferings as similar to the sufferings of Jesus, but Paul did not refer to the "kinds of sufferings" Jesus endured, but rather he asserted that believers carry about in their bodies the dying of Jesus. Paul Barnett says: "The 'dying of Jesus' that takes place 'in [Paul's] body' is the bewilderment, persecution, and humiliation mentioned in 4:8-9." In other words the apostle's sufferings image the sufferings of Jesus. But that seems to be different from what Paul claimed. Paul said he was always carrying in his body Jesus' death (nekrōsis), which is something different than suffering in a similar way to Jesus. In fact all of these explanations seem to take Paul's suffering experiences as being something similar to what Jesus suffered.

Thrall provides a summary of views as to how the statement has been understood.5 In my view one explanation, rejected by Thrall, seems to make better sense of Paul's statement in 2 Cor 4:10; the statement seems easiest to understand from the perspective of Paul's mystical union with Christ in baptism: "Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life" (Rom 6:3-4). Paul seems to hold that in baptism the believer is mystically united with Jesus in his death and as a result the believer comes to share his resurrection. In other words baptism is not a symbolical act but a mystical union, a direct communion with ultimate reality—in this case the death and resurrection of Jesus.6 Reading 2 Cor 4:10 in the light of Paul's statement about baptism gives the reader a context for understanding his statement as a mystical experience: believers carry in their bodies the dying of Jesus because they have shared his dying in baptism.

And that raises the following question: if Paul understands religious faith mystically, was early Pauline Christianity a type of mystery religion?

How do you read 2 Cor 4:10?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Expositors Greek Testament (1956), vol. 3: 62-63.
2Commentary on Second Corinthians (ICC, 1994), 334.
3Second Letter to the Corinthians (1970), 66.
4II Corinthians. A Commentary (2003), 110.
5Thrall, II Corinthians, 332-35.
6Webster's Ninth Collegiate Dictionary (1990), s. v. "mysticism."