Blasphemy

Not in Christ’s name

Channel_Markers‘The name of Christ should not be misused as a “carrot and stick” to motivate people to do what ordinary self-interest and a few altruistic genes can accomplish just as well … The business of the church is to be faithful to the word and wisdom of the revealed God (deus revelatus), one who does not meet us anonymously within the ambiguities of the world process. The church is not called to minister in [sic] behalf of some anonymous Christ, or some unfleshed deity immanently directing the course of history incognito. The biblical line of promise is a thin line, and the church must learn once again to walk it faithfully, rather than take the easy road of popular trends and fashionable movements’. – Carl E. Braaten, ‘The Mission of the Gospel to the Nations’, Dialog 30, no. 2 (1991), 129.

[Image: ‘Channel Markers’, by Melbourne photographer Andrew Sanigorski]

Thinking blasphemy

While it is most usually true that in the Scriptures the object of mocking profanation and blasphemy is God’s name, rather than God’s self, the two cannot be separated. To blaspheme God’s name is to blaspheme God (Isa 37:23; Ezek 13:19; 22:26; Rom. 2:24 [quoting Isa 52:5; 1 Tim 6: Rev. 13:6; 16:9). Twice in Nehemiah 9, the Levites remind the returned exiles of their blasphemous past. The God who had ‘made a name for himself’ in the liberation of an enslaved people from an arrogant Egypt (9:10), had to in turn deal with an ‘arrogant’ people who refused to listen and obey. The epitome of their rebellion is illustrated ‘when they had made for themselves a golden calf’ and attributed to it their rescue (9:18). This and other great blasphemies’ were met by God’s forgiveness, grace, compassion and mercy which refused to ‘abandon them in the desert’ (9:17-19). Later on during this same time of the worship, the eight Levites recalled how Israel ‘captured fortified cities and a rich land, and took possession of houses full of all good things, cisterns already hewn, vineyards, olive orchards and fruit trees in abundance’ eating their fill, becoming fat and delighting in God’s goodness (9:25). Yet they were disobedient and rebelled against God, casting God’s law behind their backs and killing the prophets who had warned them with a view to turning them back to God. And, the Levites said ‘they committed great blasphemies (9:26b). This time their ‘great blasphemies were met by divine judgement expressed via the giving up of Israel ‘into the hand of their enemies, who made them suffer’ (9:27a), out of which they cried out again to the Lord who heard them, had compassion on them and, again rescued them from their enemies’ hand (9:27b). It would seem that it is not without significance that the Levites begin their praise in v. 5 with the words, ‘Blessed be your glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise’ (9:5b). Furthermore, because God has attached his name to Israel, to mock Israel is to blaspheme God’s name. ‘”Their rulers wail,” declares the LORD, “and continually all the day my name is despised” (Isa 52:5; cf. Mal 1:11-14). The LXX adds the phrase εν τοις εθνεσιν, an addition that Paul adopts in Romans 2:24, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles (εν τοις εθνεσιν) because of you’ (cf. Rom 1:5). Clearly, there is a link between God’s name and God’s self-witness to the nations. Blank notes, ‘Divorced from its context, the assertion that God’s name suffers profanation because of his people can mean either of two things, either a) that God is defamed by the shameful conduct of his people, or b) that God is disgraced because of the shameful condition of his people’. Sheldon H. Blank, ‘Isaiah 52:5 and the Profanation of the Name’, HUCA 25 (1954), 6. Blank contends that the context of Isaiah 52:2 ‘proves’ that the author intended the latter meaning, whereas Paul misquotes the text in order to critique the Jews’ behaviour.

It seems to me that both readings are not only possible, but intricately related and implied in both texts. However, even if Blank is correct, the significant thing is that God’s has so attached his name to his people that God is shamed by Israel’s conduct and so sends them into exile. But their being in exile also defames God’s name among the nations for in their defeat, the nations see the defeat of their God whose reputation, fame, prestige and recognition is concerned. As Blank asserts, ‘To profane the name of God is to do damage to God’s reputation, to defame him, to lessen his prestige, to retard the process by which he receives recognition, to put off the day on which it shall be known that he is God’. Blank, ‘Profanation’, 8. Likewise in Romans 2, Israel is again in exile (not only is Paul’s audience presumably in Rome, but even those Jews in Palestine strive under foreign occupation which is a sign of their being under judgement) and called in exile to be ‘a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness’ (2:19), that is to the nations, a calling that is apparently being undermined by their breaking of God’s law and so of dishonoring God’s name (as in Lev 18:21; 19:12; 20:3; 21:6; 22:2, 32; Jer 34:16; Ezek 20:39; Amos 2:7; Mal 1:12; cf. Ezek 13:19, 22:26).

[Image: Emil Nolde, ‘Dance Around the Golden Calf’, 1910. Oil on canvas. 88 x 105.5 cm. Staatsgalerie moderner Kunst, Munich]

Rowan Williams and Ricky Gervais on God

Names and the Name – 19

On Blasphemy 4

Revelation 13:1–8 describes a beast ‘rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads’ who is given power and authority from the great dragon of the previous chapter, a dragon intent on destroying the women and her offspring. The whole earth worships both the dragon and the beast not unlike Israel worshipped the golden calf, saying, ‘Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?’ (13:4). John goes on:

And the beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. And authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation, and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slain. (13:6–8)

In light of this reality that John describes – a current reality for both God and for God’s people – Forsyth’s words are worth chewing on long and hard. Forsyth reminds us that the righteousness of God is not in a requirement, system, book, or Church, but in a Person, and sin is defined by relation to him. He came to reveal not only God but sin. The essence of sin is exposed by the touchstone of his presence, by our attitude to him. He makes explicit what the sinfulness of sin is; he even aggravates it. He rouses the worst as well as the best of human nature. There is nothing that human nature hates like a holy God. All the world’s sin receives its sharpest expression when in contact with Christ; when, in face of his moral beauty, goodness, power, and claim, he is first ignored, then discarded, denounced, called the agent of Beelzebub, and hustled out of the world in the name of God. The great sin against God was done in the name of God by genuine believers, by a Church. The sin against the Holy Ghost is real enough; but it is the sin of an age, rather than of an individual; and it is the sin of an age’s religion; not of its indifference or paganism, but its religion, its Church. It is the sin of those who believe in Satan enough to call satanic the very action of God. It is the sin of a religion. It is the sin of certain Churches in their treatment of others today. And it is preparing for certain Churches a great shock and awakening. The power of the Spirit acts by confounding and humbling the world (especially that part of it in the Church) with this discovery, that there is but one sin, the sin of touching the Son of God in his spiritual effects, and yet practically calling him the child of the devil, as the pre-Christian Church did. The Spirit’s judgement is not on the intellectual sceptic; that person is not a dangerous character in the Bible. It is the moral sceptic that is to be confounded, the Church worldling, the religious Pharisee, the breed of those who tried Christ the Trier of the reins, the living Conscience, and found him wanting. They knew the law as he did not, but they knew no better than to judge their Judge.

Whilst it may begin as indifference, the effect of sin upon God is so severe that it threatens God’s sovereignty, God’s righteousness, even his very being. ‘Sin is the death of God. Die sin must or God’, writes Forsyth. But this does not mean God’s annihilation, but ‘an encroachment upon his harmony’. ‘Sin … cost Godhead not Its existence but Its bliss. It cost the Son of God not His soul but all that makes life a conscious fullness and joy. It cost Him the Cross, and all that that meant for such a life as His.’ Forsyth insists that humanity’s sin has not destroyed or ‘in the least weakened’ God’s power and God’s resources to deal with humanity’s revolt. ‘It has only refused it’; but in refusing it, it has changed God’s mode of action on humanity. God is no less King because of humanity’s sin but that kingship takes another shape.

Forsyth goes on in another place to note how there are churches that seem to live in an atmosphere of affable bustle, where all is heart and nothing is soul, where people decay and worship dies. There is an activity which is an index of more vigour than faith, more haste than speed, more work than power. It is sometimes more inspired by the business passion of efficiency than the Christian passion of fidelity or adoration. Its aim is to make the concern go rather than to compass the Righteousness of God. We want to advance faster than faith can, faster than is compatible with the moral genius of the Cross, and the law of its permanent progress. We occupy more than we can hold. If we take in new ground we have to resort to such devices to accomplish it that the tone of religion suffers and the love or care for Christian truth. And the preacher, as he or she is often the chief of sinners in this respect, is also the chief of sufferers. And so we may lose more in spiritual quality than we gain in Church extension. In God’s name we may thwart God’s will. Faith, ceasing to be communion, becomes mere occupation, and the Church a scene of beneficent bustle, from which the Spirit flees. Religious progress outruns moral, and thus it ceases to be spiritual in the Christian sense, in any but a vague pious sense. Before long the going power flags, the petrol gives out on a desert.

A note: After 19 posts in this series on the Name (and with few more to come) I plan to take a break from this series for a bit. Still to come in the series includes posts on: God as witness, YHWH and Jesus, the hallowing of the Name, God’s name is ‘Father’. I will return to these in a wee while. For my next series of posts, I want to invite readers to develop a theological reading list with me. Until the next post …

Another note: Brevard Childs died at 2 p.m. on Saturday. Until his retirement in 1999, Childs was Sterling Professor of Divinity and Fellow of Davenport College, The Divinity School, Yale University, and author of Biblical Theology in Crisis, and great commentaries on The Book of Exodus and Isaiah (OTL). My friend here at St Andrews, Daniel Driver (not related to S R or G R Driver) is doing research on Childs and maintans a Child’s-related website here. Kevin has also posted an In Memorium here. (HT’s: Jim and Ben).

Also, Jim is currently revising and updating his fine book, Evangelical Spirituality: From the Wesleys to John Stott, and is considering adding a new chapter. As it stands the final chapter compares Martyn Lloyd Jones and John Stott. He asks, ‘If I were to write a further chapter, comparing and contrasting two contemporary leading Evangelicals, who should they be?’ A tough question. Jim is keen to hear suggestions. Got any? You can read (and respond to) his full post here.

Also, for those who haven’t seen it, there’s a video of Bill Hybels interviewing Bono on YouTube, beginning here.

Names and the Name – 18

On Blasphemy 3

The Scriptures regularly identify God’s name with the cultus – God’s name was both blessed and blasphemed in cultic activity, depending on whether the worship took place according to the divinely given pattern or not. Not only do various psalms (7:17; 8:1, 9; 9:10; 18:49; 20:1, 5, 7; 29:2; 30:4; 34:3; 54:6; 68:4; 86:9, 11-12; 92:1; 96:2, 8; 97:12; 99:6; 102:21; 103:1; 105:1, 3; 106:47; 113:1-3; 115:1; 116:4, 13, 17; 118:26; 122:4; 124:8; 129:8; 135:1, 3, 13; 145:21; 148:5, 13) testify that worship happens in the name of the Lord, but Malachi 1:6–8, Ezekiel 20:27–28, and 22:26 reveal how Israel blasphemed God’s name when they abused the cultus. Although far less frequent, the NT (Rom 15:9 [quoting 2 Sam 22:50 and Ps 18:49]; Heb 2:12 [quoting Ps 22:22] and Heb 13:15) also identifies positively worship with God’s name. The NT episode of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 was fundamentally one of blasphemy, as was possibly the disgrace of the wife who prayed or prophesied with her head uncovered (1 Cor 11). Jesus also warned his disciples against those who would put them out of the synagogues under the ironic understanding that they were ‘offering service to God’ (John 16:2).

Blasphemy is taken with the utmost seriousness in the NT. Indeed, and ironically, part of Saul’s blasphemous tirade against the early church was with a view to trying to get Christians to blaspheme God’s name (Acts 26:11; 1 Tim 1:13). Paul tells Timothy that via the rejection of faith and a good conscience, Hymenaeus and Alexander shipwrecked their faith and were subsequently ‘handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme’ (1 Tim 1:20). James teaches that the dishonoring of the poor is to ‘blaspheme (NIV: ‘slander’) the honorable name by which you were called?’ (Jas 2:67).

Jude speaks of ungodly people have crept in into the Christian community unnoticed and who ‘pervert the grace of our God into sensuality’ and deny Jesus Christ. They rely on dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and ‘blaspheme the glorious ones’ and ‘all that they do not understand’ (Jude 1:4–10). It seems that blasphemy is shunned so severely by the apostolic band for three related reasons: (i) their love of God, and so of his name; (ii) their concern that God’s name not be ‘blasphemed among the Gentiles’ because of their lawbreaking and immoral behaviour (Rom 2:24, citing Isa 52:5); and (iii) their love for God’s truth (2 Pet 2:2; cf. 2:1112).

Jesus’ claim to forgive sins (a claim made manifest in his proclamation but hidden in the heart of the Father) led to the charge of blasphemy, and rightly so if he were not God (Matt 9:3; Mark 2:7; Luke 5:21; cf. Matt 26:65; Mark 14:64). But that he is God is precisely the point. Indeed, ‘unless Christ is God, his word of forgiveness is empty of any divine substance’. Brueggemann notes, following Hannah Arendt, that forgiveness was Jesus’ ‘most endangering action because if a society does not have the apparatus for forgiveness, then its members are fated to live forever with the consequences of any violation’.

Jesus’ response to the Jewish leaders’ charge of blasphemy in John 10:33 (a charge that if true he should rightly have been stoned to death for, according to Leviticus 24:10–16) is noted in John 10:3538: ‘If he called them gods to whom the word of God came … do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’? If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father’.

Names and the Name – 17

On Blasphemy 2

Because God’s has attached his name to Israel, to mock Israel is to blaspheme God’s name. ‘“Their rulers wail,” declares the LORD, “and continually all the day my name is despised” (Isa 52:5; cf. Mal 1:11–14). The LXX adds the phrase evn toi/j e;qnesin, an addition that Paul adopts in Romans 2:24, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles (evn toi/j e;qnesin) because of you.’ Clearly, as we shall see in further posts, there is a link between God’s name and his self-witness to the nations.

Blank notes that divorced from its context, the assertion that God’s name suffers profanation because of his people can mean either of two things: either a) that God is defamed by the shameful conduct of his people, or b) that God is disgraced because of the shameful condition of his people. He contends that the context of Isaiah 52:2 ‘proves’ that the author intended the latter meaning, whereas Paul misquotes the text in order to critique the Jews’ behaviour.

It seems clear to me that both readings are not only possible, but intricately related and implied in both texts. However, even if Blank is correct, the significant thing is that God has so attached his name to Israel that he is both shamed by Israel’s conduct and so sends them into exile. But their being in exile also defames his name among the nations for in their defeat, the nations see the defeat of their God whose reputation, fame, prestige and recognition is concerned. As Blank asserts, ‘To profane the name of God is to do damage to God’s reputation, to defame him, to lessen his prestige, to retard the process by which he receives recognition, to put off the day on which it shall be known that he is God.’ Likewise in Romans 2, Israel is again in exile (not only is Paul’s audience presumably in Rome, but even those Jews in Palestine strive under foreign occupation which is sign of their being under judgement) and called in exile to be ‘a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness’ (2:19), that is to the nations, a calling that is apparently being undermined by their breaking of God’s law and so of dishonoring his name.

Names and the Name – 16

‘You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain’. (Exod 20:7). With this post we return back to our series on the Name, the next few posts of which will focus on the issue of blasphemy.

Of course God need not protect himself, but he does protect His name, and so seriously that he adds to this simple commandment a special threat. This is done because within the name that which bears the name is present.

So writes Paul Tillich. Whilst it is true that in the Scriptures the object of mocking profanation and blasphemy is God’s name, rather than God himself, the two cannot be separated. To blaspheme God’s name is to blaspheme God (Isa 37:23; Ezek 13:19; 22:26; Rom. 2:24 [quoting Isa 52:5; 1 Tim 6: Rev. 13:6; 16:9). And as Leviticus 24:10–16 shows, blasphemy was not treated lightly. The offender, whether sojourner or native, was brought out of the camp and justly accused by those who heard him before being stoned to death by ‘all the congregation’. The nation itself was to take responsibility for blasphemy in their midst for their own integrity and glory depended upon God’s name being holy.

Twice in Nehemiah 9, the Levites remind the returned exiles of their blasphemous past. The God who had ‘made a name for himself’ in the liberation of an enslaved people from an arrogant Egypt (9:10), himself had to in turn deal with an ‘arrogant’ people who refused to listen and obey him. The epitome of their rebellion is illustrated ‘when they had made for themselves a golden calf’ and attributed to it their rescue (9:18). This and other great blasphemies’ were met by God’s forgiveness, grace, compassion and mercy which refused to ‘abandon them in the desert’ (9:17–19). Later on during this same time of the worship, the eight Levites recalled how Israel ‘captured fortified cities and a rich land, and took possession of houses full of all good things, cisterns already hewn, vineyards, olive orchards and fruit trees in abundance’ eating their fill, becoming fat and delighting in God’s goodness (9:25). Yet they were disobedient and rebelled against God, casting his law behind their backs and killing the prophets who had warned them with a view to turning them back to God. And, the Levites said ‘they committed great blasphemies (9:26b). This time their ‘great blasphemies were met by God’s act of judgement expressed via the giving of them ‘into the hand of their enemies, who made them suffer’ (9:27a), out of which they cried out again to the Lord who heard them, had compassion on them and, again rescued them from their enemies’ hand (9:27b). It would seem that it is not without significance that the Levites begin their praise in v. 5 with the words, ‘Blessed be your glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise’ (9:5b).


PS. There’s at least 2 articles in the latest edition of Time that are worth reading: This one on The Psychology of Fatherhood and this one on Rowan Williams (who features on the front cover of the Aussie edition) (HT: Aaron). From the Williams article:

Anglicanism matters, and not just because it is one of the largest Protestant denominations. It matters because, like Roman Catholicism, it is global, uniting varied ethnicities, economic levels and social attitudes in an overarching understanding of faith. But Anglicans have foregone Catholicism’s useful authoritarianism, staking their unity on a seemingly more attractive continual conversation, based on mutual respect. The sharp debate over homosexuality threatens that unity, and crystallizes a challenge facing everyone in an uneasy, newly wired world: can the North — rich and imbued with an ethos of individual rights — and the poorer South find a constructive interdependence?