Saturday, April 07, 2012

The Potter's Precedent

In Romans 9, in response to the most frequent objection to Calvinism, Paul provides an answer from a potter analogy:

Romans 9:19-23
Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will?

Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour? What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: and that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory ... .
This theme and argument were not original to the Epistle to the Romans, or even to Paul more generally. In fact, this theme is not merely a New Testament theme. It is firmly rooted in the Old Testament.

The outlines for the theme are found first in Job.

Job 4:17-19
Shall mortal man be more just than God? shall a man be more pure than his maker? Behold, he put no trust in his servants; and his angels he charged with folly: how much less in them that dwell in houses of clay, whose foundation is in the dust, which are crushed before the moth?
Here we see the basic point emphasized. Man is not in a position to judge his maker. It is not necessarily crystal clear that the "houses of clay" refers to the body as opposed to mud huts, but it becomes clear soon:

Job 10:9
Remember, I beseech thee, that thou hast made me as the clay; and wilt thou bring me into dust again?
The reference in Job harkens back to the Creation:

Genesis 2:7
And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.
Man is like pottery in this way - that God made us from the dust of the ground.

Against the backdrop of Job and Genesis (we know Genesis was written by Moses, but we don't know exactly when Job was written), Isaiah provides similar and further elaborated variations on the theme:

Isaiah 29:15-16
Woe unto them that seek deep to hide their counsel from the LORD, and their works are in the dark, and they say, Who seeth us? and who knoweth us? Surely your turning of things upside down shall be esteemed as the potter's clay: for shall the work say of him that made it, He made me not? or shall the thing framed say of him that framed it, He had no understanding?
Here the rebellion of the people against God is answered with the potter's clay analogy. They are just his clay - are they really going to deny his existence/power or his wisdom?

And it gets stronger:

Isaiah 45:7-12
I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things. Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness: let the earth open, and let them bring forth salvation, and let righteousness spring up together; I the LORD have created it. Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker! Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth. Shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, What makest thou? or thy work, He hath no hands? Woe unto him that saith unto his father, What begettest thou? or to the woman, What hast thou brought forth? Thus saith the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, and his Maker, Ask me of things to come concerning my sons, and concerning the work of my hands command ye me. I have made the earth, and created man upon it: I, even my hands, have stretched out the heavens, and all their host have I commanded.
In this passage, God takes ultimate responsibility for everything. He even says "I ... create evil," not that he is morally culpable for it, but that he decrees it. The potsherds can debate each other, but none of them can stand in judgment over God or demand that God account for his actions toward them. It's as absurd as if a child was to question the authority of his parents to procreate him. God says he is not accountable to man for what he has made.

Moreover, the righteous (like Job) acknowledge their relationship to God as the potter:

Isaiah 64:8
But now, O LORD, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand.
When we see these precedents for Romans 9, the point in Romans 9 becomes clear.  Paul is arguing that the question is impudent.  Man cannot question God's holding man responsible, even though no one can resist the will of God.  That's like a pot saying, "why did you make me this way?" to the potter. Paul affirms that God, like a potter, does have a purpose for his different pots.  Moreover, for Paul that is enough to vindicate the potter.

Occasionally, we are told that some other passage is the precedent for Romans 9.  I would refer to these as faux precedent passages. The most popular of these is in Jeremiah:

Jeremiah 18:1-13
The word which came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying, Arise, and go down to the potter's house, and there I will cause thee to hear my words. Then I went down to the potter's house, and, behold, he wrought a work on the wheels. And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter: so he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it. Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying, O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? saith the LORD. Behold, as the clay is in the potter's hand, so are ye in mine hand, O house of Israel. At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; if that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them. And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; if it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them. Now therefore go to, speak to the men of Judah, and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, saying, Thus saith the LORD; Behold, I frame evil against you, and devise a device against you: return ye now every one from his evil way, and make your ways and your doings good. And they said, There is no hope: but we will walk after our own devices, and we will every one do the imagination of his evil heart. Therefore thus saith the LORD; Ask ye now among the heathen, who hath heard such things: the virgin of Israel hath done a very horrible thing.
The point of the passage in this case is to emphasize God's mercy in judgment. God is saying that he is free to change the way that Israel is treated, and he offers to do so if they will repent.  There is an aspect of sovereignty here, but this aspect of sovereignty has to do with God's ability to accept repentance.  Such a point does not fit with the objection about why God finds fault despite having an irresistible will.

We see a similar theme in some of the non-canonical inter-testamental books.

For example, in Sirach we find the following expression, which seems to be drawn from Jeremiah:

Sirach 33:13
As the clay is in the potter's hand, to fashion it at his pleasure: so man is in the hand of him that made him, to render to them as liketh him best.
There is also an interesting passage in Wisdom.  This passage, on its own, has some nice linguistic similarities to the Romans passage.  However, in context the point being made is totally different, namely about the absurdity of idolatry.  Don't worship a statue: it could just as easily have been a chamberpot.

Wisdom 15:7
For the potter, tempering soft earth, fashioneth every vessel with much labour for our service: yea, of the same clay he maketh both the vessels that serve for clean uses, and likewise also all such as serve to the contrary: but what is the use of either sort, the potter himself is the judge.
Still it provides the intuition behind the apostle's argument: the potter is sovereign over the clay the same way that God is sovereign over mankind.  Just as it would be absurd for a chamberpot to complain about its duties, seeing as it wasn't consulted regarding what it was going to be, so it is absurd for men to complain that God's showing mercy on whom He will, and hardening others is somehow unfair.


Thursday, April 05, 2012

Finally, I can Agree with Peter Enns about Something

"You and I Have a Different God, I think," is the title of Enns' post, and he goes on to state that "I think we have a different God." In that much, I think he's right.

He claims:
And the Gospel certainly does not teach me that God is up there, at a distance, guiding the production of a diverse and rich biblical canon that nevertheless contains a single finely-tuned system of theology that he expects his people to be obsessed with “getting right” (and lash out at those who don’t agree).
But my God declares, by the mouth of Jude: "Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints." (Jude 3)

I don't adopts Enns' caricature of our position, but even his caricature highlights the difference between us.  Enns does not think that the history of Genesis 1 is true history.  He does not believe that God created the world in six days.  If he does not believe what is plainly stated, should we be surprised that he doesn't appreciate debate over fine points of theology?


The Little Problem for the Shroud of Turin

John 20:4-8
So they ran both together: and the other disciple did outrun Peter, and came first to the sepulchre. And he stooping down, and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in. Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulchre, and seeth the linen clothes lie, and the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself. Then went in also that other disciple, which came first to the sepulchre, and he saw, and believed.

Steve Ray is promoting yet another attempt to bolster the Shroud of Turin as well as a poem in its honor. I'm sure that the Shroud is good for Steve Ray's pilgrimage business, but the inconvenient truth is that the shroud cannot possibly be real. Christ's head was wrapped separately from the rest of his body.

It was a little disappointing to see that Greg Koukl and Gary Habermas were promoting the Shroud as well (link to mp3 courtesy of Jason Engwer). I note that Jason seems to think that Haberbmas addressed John 20, but if you listen to the podcast, I think you won't find it addressed.

There are plenty of other objections. C-14 dating places the shroud in the middle ages. Jesus was wrapped with spices.

John 19:39-42
And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight. Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury. Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid. There laid they Jesus therefore because of the Jews' preparation day; for the sepulchre was nigh at hand.
The shroud is about 14 ft long. The way it appears to have been arranged around a body is by being placed one full body length under and then over the feet and back up to the head. This is a very odd way of wrapping a body, particularly if the body is being bound together with a significant amount of spices. One would expect a wrapping more like that of a mummy, rather than a simple sandwich. Indeed, ὀθονίοις is plural, suggesting that multiple sheets of linen were used for wrapping the body, rather than a single sheet.

So, we can be sure that the shroud is a hoax, whether that hoax is a medieval forgery or something else.