Friday, August 23, 2013

Two Mountains, One Range

The second lesson for Sunday, Hebrews 12:18-29, is worth looking at.  So is Erik Heen's brief commentary at the Working Preacher website.  Heen's remarks are thoughtful and well-informed; nonethless, we regret very much to say, they manage to offer a sharp demonstration of what happens when Lutherans go wrong.

The Hebrews passage is the last in a four-week series, and it is probably the most difficult of the four selections.  We have already heard the familiar definition of fath as the confidence in things unseen, as well as some praise for the faith displayed by that 'great cloud of winesses," beginning with Abel and Abraham.

Now comes a description of what we are promised by faith:  an unshakeable kingdom.  Unlike the kingdoms we know on earth, this one cannot be shaken because it is not "created."  God has removed created things; our new kingdom "cannot be touched."  This is a striking and challenging idea, particularly for those of us who envision God's work as a hallowing of material things -- a pool of water, a bite of bread and a sip of wine; above all, human flesh in the person of the Christ.  It sounds hyperspiritual, docetic, overly Greek at the expense of Hebrew, or whatever else have you.  But there it is in black and white, and we need to deal with it.

Hebrews identifies this unshakeable kingdom with Mt Zion, and contrasts it with Mt Sinai.  When God appeared on Sina and gave the Law to Moses, the affair was heavy with danger.  The earth was shaken.  The people were wanred not to approach, on threat of death; Moses himself was afraid.  Now, though, here at Zion, things are different.  We are all invited, surrounded by saints and angels, in the presence of Jesus.  This time, both heaven and earth will be shaken -- but only once, eschatologically, as the new kingdom comes.

Lutherans will instantly seize upon a Law/Gospel dialectic here, and not wrongly so.  Sinai/Zion could not be much clearer.  There is even a nervous-making subordination of Law to Gospel:  Under the old covenant, Abel's blood cries out for justice; under the new covenant, the blood of Jesus cries out for reconciliation -- "a better word."

Despite this, the author of Hebrews seems to lack our well-cultivated contempt for God's Law.  The Gospel is a better and even a more enduring word, to be sure.  But both words, both mountains, are accompanied by danger and must be encountered with fear and trembling.  Sinai was a frightening place, but Zion is even more frightening, because, when the final shaking of earth and heaven takes place, those who refuse the gifts of God have even less chance of escaping punishment (death?  Hell?  alienation from God?  The details are left to the imagination).  Therefore our proper thanksgiving is "worship with reverence and awe."

And this is where Heen goes off the rails.  He correctly identifies the rhetorical device at work, which is called minore ad maius, an argument from lesser to greater.  (That is:  If Sinai was awesome, then how much more awesome is Zion?)  But he simply cannot stand this reading.  Instrad, he goes off on a final tangent:
What if God’s revelation on Zion is not so simply to be compared with that on Sinai as interpreted through the mechanism of a minore ad maius? What if God’s “way” of speaking in Christ actually bridges the terrifying gap between the all-powerful, transcendent God of fire (and darkness and gloom) and does not widen it? 
What if God’s way of speaking in Christ crucified and risen does not lead to the stoning of animals (and people) who are a threat to God holy purity, but is rather “proof” (11:1) of the legitimate faith [in a God of justice, compassion, hospitality, and favor]? .... 
What if the Word that God speaks from the cross is such that it is truly heard only when it responds to human need? What if God’s Word simply falls silent when all it is perceived to contain is the threat of holy, transcendent judgment upon all that is impure, unholy, and profane?
This is an attractive proposition, even to us.  But it is simply not what the text says here.  It is, in fact, something close to the opposite of the text.  God's Word does not fall silent (cg. Is. 55:11); it is "strong and active," it "stands forever."  And there is, very clearly in this passage, a grave danger for those who reject that Word.

Heen is not just dividing the Law from the Gospel; he is hinting that the Law is wrong.  Or rather, he is hinting that all that Old Testament "fear and trembling" stuff is a lot of hooey, and that the real Word of God, the one we are called to hear and enact, is a matter of love toward our neighbors.

Some of our friends (notably Fr. Nedward and Fr. Tuck, to the latter of whom we wish a speedy recovery btw) can go on at glorious length about "American Lutheran Antinomianism," a deeply ingrained tendency to declare the Law null and void.  Perversely, this tendency actually grows from our obsessive cultic parsing of the two.  As Leonard Klein used to observe, back when he was a Lutheran, our theology at its best does look a little antinomian.

But it's not.  Lutheran theology, when it parses correctly, always steps back from the brink.  The word on Sinai was a true word; it was, in fact, the same Word that became incarnate in Jesus, albeit then still unfulfilled.  The Law and the Gospel may be separable as a theological exercise, but God's will is indivisible, immutable and eternal.

In any case, Heen's mistake isn't even good antinomianism.  It is legalism of the hippy-love variety. He turns (or almost turns) the Word that saves our souls into a matter of human good works, inspired by God. "Forget Sinai, but remember that Jesus said to be nice." This is the old Pietist deathrap, of course.  Good Pietism knows perfectly well that our impurity is subject to judgment, from which we are saved only by a gift for which we must be ever thankful; degenerate Pietism starts to suggest that our thankfulness is a sign and guarantor of the gift.

In fairness, Heen never quite says the things of which we are accusing him.  His key phrase -- "when all it is perceived to contain" -- is redeemed by the word "all."  He leaves the hospitality and compassion as God's work, merely hinting that we should do likewise.  We couldn't make a case in court, and it may well be that he is purposely playing as close to the line as he can go, without quite transgressing.  But the implications seem pretty clear to us, and they are wrong.

There are many historic strands within Lutheranism (and without) which seek to make Jesus cuddly and unthreatening.  Antinomians, Pietists, Rationalists, Victorian sentimentalists and straight-up liberals all prefer their Lord  a little less lordly.  They want a domesticated Jesus, the kindly face of that scary Yahweh fellow.  But it is passages like this one in Hebrews that give them all the lie.  God shakes the foundations of earth and heaven; God's Word is not only comfort and balm, but also danger and warning.  Sinai and Zion may be two different mountains, but they are part of the same range.


Matthew Frost said...

This seems like a problem we constantly have in reading Hebrews—a text in which we must start reading the patriarchs as ours rather than theirs from the very first verse in order to avoid a long tradition of Christian supersessionist misreading of a priestly Judean text.

Perhaps it wouldn't be enough, but I often think that if we could rid ourselves of that habit of deprecating the Jews in favor of Christians, we would be less inclined to read comparisons like this as deprecations of the old in favor of the new thing. It ruins our law-gospel dialectics time and time again.

Father Anonymous said...

'Sfunny, I was just making a similar point to one of the faithful yesterday, but about Matthew, not Hebrews. When you imagine (as commentators do these days) a rabbi talking to his flock of Messianic Jews, a lot of the language about "the [other] Jews" makes more sense.

As for your second graf -- that's really an interesting idea, and worth pursuing. Even aside from the law/Gospel thing, which our Lutheran cultic obsession, you raise the huge question of how Christian discourse about Judaism relates to what is sometimes called "neophilia," I never would have made that connection.