Monday, March 7, 2011

The Sinfulness of the Patriarchs and Prophets

We must guard against being too zealous in trying to defend the honor the Patriarch, Prophets, and Apostles, for in the Scriptures we often see them err and fall into sin and vice. We can be tempted to whitewash their acts and deeds and say, "These are the holy men of God, surely it was for a good reason that they said and acted as they did."

The Scriptures are not concerned with the honor of the individual, they are not concerned with making Abraham or David or Jeremiah or Peter look good and righteous - they are concerned with teaching us that all honor, praise, and glory be given to Christ alone, and that the saints of God are not define by their own righteous and holy living, but rather they are defined by the fact that they are declared righteous through faith in Christ on His account. The over-praise or whitewashing of the men of God in the Scriptures undercuts this. We should never think of them as having moved beyond sin or petty temptations because they were men of God - indeed, as they were men of God, Satan was surely to be around them all time with his temptations and all the more vehement with his attacks.

We must not think that the men of God of old were above the attacks of the Devil, for then we too will think, "I too am a man of God - see how I have conquered and grown." We then can subtly be twisted by Satan to look more and more to our own righteousness.

In the Scriptures we see that no man is righteous, not one - except Christ Jesus, True God and True Man. If you reading of the Scriptures leans towards over-emphasizing the righteousness of anyone other than Christ, then you are in error.

(Conversely, don't rejoice in the errors you see committed in Scripture - rather, repent yourself, and pray that you do not fall into similar shame and vice.)


William Weedon said...

And yet we see the NT doing just that, no? 2 Pet 2:7; 1 Pet 3:6; James 5:11.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Well, no, that's not what we see in the New Testament. Your citation are not examples where a specific sin or error is said not to be sin. Rather, they are examples where the virtues of the Patriarchs are mentioned.

2 Peter 2:7 - yes, indeed, Lot was righteous and distressed by the wickedness of Sodom... yet that does not mean that his other sins were not sins.

1 Peter 3:6 - yes indeed, Sarah does obey Abraham and call him lord, but that does not mean there were not times when she scoffed - and indeed, those times are not thereby approved by Peter.

Or James 5:11 - yes, we see Job's steadfastness... as well as his grumbling for which the Lord chastizes him. We should not then assume that Job's grumbling is somehow holy and good.

Virtue, not vice, are mentioned in these examples. So no, we do not see the NT taking the errors in the Fathers and saying that they are good -- rather, we see a tendency in the NT to point to the virtues the Patriarchs demonstrated - using them as positive examples. That, indeed, is a good thing.

But when Scripture records for us the folly of those in the past, we are not to try to whitewash or smooth it over - rather it is to be a warning to us of how we too might fall. The fact that Paul opposed Cephas to his face does not mean that we try to justify Peter's error, but rather we should be warned away from such errors ourselves.

In general, if I am speaking about the Patriarchs, or David, or some such thing, I will speak highly and praise them. However, when reading in the Scriptures specific accounts of their failings, I will not praise them - rather, I will see them as a warning.

Mike Baker said...

You are probably right in many cases, but I think the exact opposite is more common. Transfiguration Sunday is a good example of what I call "baseless saint bashing":

Did St. Peter make mistakes over the years? Yes of course. Did St. Peter say some pig-headed things in the Gospels? Yes. How do we know they were wrong? …usually because the text unequivocally demonstrates that he was wrong. Does the Transfiguration text reveal that St. Peter's desire to build tents for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus was wrong, foolish, and perhaps sinful? ...I just don't see it. Sure, God obviously had other plans, but was Peter in the wrong for not instantly knowing the mind of God in this one-of-a-kind supernatural event? Hardly. At least no more than John the Baptist rightly pointing out that Jesus should be the one baptizing him.

I do not see any place where Peter receives a clear rebuke for his suggestion in this text (in contrast with what happens later when he “corrects” Jesus regarding the crucifixion). A lot is read into Peter’s intent here that is just no supported by what is actually written down. In the text, the focus is all on Jesus... and the words from God the Father are obviously intended to bring the focus on Christ alone and not draw attention to Peter's actions. By making the passage about Peter’s supposed bumbling (perhaps for no other reason than to evoke a chuckle or two or perhaps to take Rome’s poster child down another peg), we do the very thing that we accuse Peter of doing: making the Transfiguration about someone or something other than Christ.

A common allegorical treatment of this text is to portray Peter as a bumbling dolt so that we can be bumbling along with him. I have even heard pastors portray Peter in this passage as relegating Christ Jesus to little more than an after-thought in the presence of Moses and Elijah even going so far as to put words in Peter's mouth by having him say "...oh! And we'll set a tent up for you too, Jesus" as if he had almost forgot about the brilliantly shining Jesus that was standing next to him. This is not the Peter that the Gospels show us, but is a myth of our own imagination. The textually accurate Peter would not say “Oh, Transfigured Jesus! I almost forgot about you with Moses and Elijah here!” as he would be far more likely to say things like, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life!”

Why isn’t Peter’s intent here just assumed to be well-intentioned since the text does not reveal his state of mind and no textual commentary is given to suggest anything foolish or bad? Using the text, tell me what is so wrong with wanting to sit at the feet of the Messiah, the law-giver who guided Peter’s ancestors out of Egypt, and the prophet to whom both Jesus and John the Baptist were compared? I hardly fault Peter for not getting the mysterious and hidden will of God on the first try in this supernatural situation… especially when we all would have behaved far worse.

…just my rant. :P

Rev. Eric J Brown said...


I do agree that there can be a lot of trendy bashing of the Apostles (although I think the Father jumping in an cutting Peter off while Peter is still speaking is a sign that Peter is barking up the wrong tree... not that's it's horrid or mock worthy, he's just thinking to much about doing when he should just be listening... I'm not going to mock Martha, but Mary chooses the better thing, just sitting and listening).

Of course, I think what upsets me the most is when there is egoism attached to the critique of Scriptural figures - oh, how could they EVER do that? These are examples for us to see in humility, to remember that we too are sinners.

Although I think I am responding to what may be a backlash - instead of calling too many things sins too harshly, there are some who won't criticize anything.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

And towards Mike again,

Thinking more on this, the two examples you give - Peter at the Transfiguration and John the Baptist at our Lord's Baptism - they both DO have correctives in them.

At the Transfiguration, the Father proclaims that Jesus is His Son... Listen to Him. That's the corrective - Peter was trying to be pious and proper, he makes what is a very laudable suggestion (anyone who says it is foolish simply doesn't get the festival of booths) -- but it is off base. The point of piety and worship is not our action or even the reliving of the exodus, but rather to hear the words of Christ, which bring with them the life and salvation He wins. A corrective.

Likewise with John - when he says that he should be baptized by Jesus, that is a very humble, pious thing. I won't knock him for that - but it misses the larger picture, and Jesus corrects him by saying, "Let it be so now for thus it is fitting to fulfill all righteousness." This is more than just your sin, John, but this is about taking up the sins of the whole world. That's a corrective.

So, I agree with you in this - a definite distinction ought to be be made between the well intentioned error that doesn't quite see the fullness of what is going on (this should be treated one way) and between the bald faced error that is of poor intent.

When Jonah hops on the boat and tries to run away, there is nothing pious or well intentioned about that. Ditto things like Judah visiting the prostitute who turns out to be Tamar.

While we should not import a bad intention to things that are well intentioned, neither should we construct an artificial good intention for the things that are clearly not intended for good.

Mike Baker said...

Agreed. In all things allow the text rule our opinions and let the chips fall where they may. :)

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Agreed - whether those chips are flakes of precious metal... or from the Buffalo.

Mike Baker said...

In thinking about your original point (before I highjacked it :P), would you say that Samson is a good example of this?

His greed-enduced, rage-filled murder and refusal to obey many portions of the Isrealite Law are often ignored, glossed over, or even justified to make him an American-approved Alpha Male example of manly heroics in the face of oppression: The Christian Hercules.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

I'm not sure directly to what you are referring - there are points where Samson is very heroic -- and there are points where he shows great folly.

I'm not worried so much about glossing over errors - I'm more annoyed when someone would say, "Oh, it really was for good reasons that Samson does _____."