Friday, October 14, 2022

It's all about the Exegesis - Matthew 24:36 (Mark 13:32)

Too much digital ink has been spilled over the recent call by my friend, James White, to people to learn and apply the skills of exegesis to the text of Scripture, instead of rushing to glib answers without carefully studying the text.  James is right - adherence to Scripture is of the first importance.  Our answers to the outsiders claiming that Christ is not fully divine must be answered from the text, not simply from the creeds.

This is not to say that the creeds are wrong.  This is not to say that the creeds are unhelpful.  This is not to say that we must sit under a tree with our Bible and wear noise-cancelling headphones to ignore the work of our fellow believers.

Rather, this is to say that our answer must be rooted in God's Word.  Look at the exegetical work of several Reformed exegetes on the challenging text of Matthew 24:36.

1. Calvin (link to commentary)

Calvin argues that the day referred to is the final judgment.  Amongst the lessons Calvin draws from the text, here is one that seems very fitting today: "We ought therefore to be on our guard, lest our anxiety about the time be carried farther than the Lord allows; for the chief part of our wisdom lies in confining ourselves soberly within the limits of God’s word."  This is something that my friend, James, has been promoting for decades.

Calvin starts out rather provocatively: "Mark adds, nor the Son himself. And surely that man must be singularly mad, who would hesitate to submit to the ignorance which even the Son of God himself did not hesitate to endure on our account."  You can only imagine the flurry of tweets this line might cause today.

After addressing various objections, Calvin settles on this explanation with reference to the text of Matthew and Mark:

I have no doubt that he refers to the office appointed to him by the Father as in a former instance, when he said that it did not belong to him to place this or that person at his right or left hand, (Matthew 20:23; Mark 5:40.) For (as I explained under that passage (159)) he did not absolutely say that this was not in his power, but the meaning was, that he had not been sent by the Father with this commission, so long as he lived among mortals. So now I understand that, so far as he had come down to us to be Mediator, until he had fully discharged his office that information was not given to him which he received after his resurrection; for then he expressly declared that power over all things had been given to him, (Matthew 28:18.)

Calvin does make reference to Christ's human nature, and does so in a way that could probably be improved:

As to the first objection, that nothing is unknown to God, the answer is easy. For we know that in Christ the two natures were united into one person in such a manner that each retained its own properties; and more especially the Divine nature was in a state of repose, and did not at all exert itself, (158) whenever it was necessary that the human nature should act separately, according to what was peculiar to itself, in discharging the office of Mediator. 

(158:  “La Divinité s’est tenue comme cachee; c’est à dire, n’a point demonstré sa vertu;” — “the Divine nature was kept, as it were, concealed; that is, did not display its power.”)

2. John Gill (link to commentary)

Gill argues that the day referred to is the destruction of Jerusalem. Gill makes an interesting connection to Isaiah 63:4, where it is written: "For the day of vengeance is in mine heart ... " which Gill explains means that God had kept this day to himself, not even revealing it to the angels.

Gill wraps up his explanation of the text this way:

The Ethiopic version adds here, "nor the son", and so the Cambridge copy of Beza's; which seems to be transcribed from Mark 13:32 where that phrase stands; and must be understood of Christ as the son of man, and not as the Son of God; for as such, he lay in the bosom of the Father, and knew all his purposes and designs; for these were purposed in him: he knew from the beginning who would betray him, and who would believe in him; he knew what would befall the rejecters of him, and when that would come to pass; as he must know also the day of the last judgment, since it is appointed by God, and he is ordained to execute it: but the sense is, that as he, as man and mediator, came not to destroy, but to save; so it was not any part of his work, as such, to know, nor had he it in commission to make known the time of Jerusalem's ruin:

but my Father only; to the exclusion of all creatures, angels and men; but not to the exclusion of Christ as God, who, as such, is omniscient; nor of the Holy Spirit, who is acquainted with the deep things of God, the secrets of his heart, and this among others,

Notice that Gill does not have to explicitly discuss the text in terms of the "two natures one person" distinction, but Gill instead relies on the Matthean category of "Son of Man."  Nevertheless, Gill ultimately, and correctly affirms that Christ as God and the Holy Spirit also know.  The "two natures in one person" understanding fits with and flows from this kind of exegesis, but an explanation of the text is more than just a glib appeal to the two natures.

3. Matthew Henry (link to commentary)(link to Mark commentary)

Henry, who also takes this as a reference to the final judgment, does not address the objection about "nor the Son" in the Matthew commentary, following the TR text.  However, in his commentary on the synoptic account in Mark (which has the phrase), Henry offers multiple explanations, without clearly settling on one:

II. "As to the end of the world, do not enquire when it will come, for it is not a question fit to be asked, for of that day, and that hour, knoweth no man; it is a thing at a great distance; the exact time is fixed in the counsel of God, but is not revealed by any word of God, either to men on earth, or to angels in heaven; the angels shall have timely notice to prepare to attend in that day, and it shall be published, when it comes to the children of men, with sound of trumpet; but, at present, men and angels are kept in the dark concerning the precise time of it, that they may both attend to their proper services in the present day." But it follows, neither the Son; but is there any thing which the Son is ignorant of? We read indeed of a book which was sealed, till the Lamb opened the seals; but did not he know what was in it, before the seals were opened? Was not he privy to the writing of it? There were those in the primitive times, who taught from this text, that there were some things that Christ, as man, was ignorant of; and from these were called Agnoetae; they said, "It was no more absurd to say so, than to say that his human soul suffered grief and fear;" and many of the orthodox fathers approved of this. Some would evade it, by saying that Christ spoke this in a way of prudential economy, to divert the disciples from further enquiry: but to this one of the ancients answers, It is not fit to speak too nicely in this matter—ou dei pany akribologein, so Leontius in Dr. Hammond, "It is certain (says Archbishop Tillotson) that Christ, as God, could not be ignorant of any thing; but the divine wisdom which dwelt in our Saviour, did communicate itself to his human soul, according to the divine pleasure, so that his human nature might sometimes not know some things; therefore Christ is said to grow in wisdom (Lu. 2:52), which he could not be said to do, if the human nature of Christ did necessarily know all things by virtue of its union with the divinity." Dr. Lightfoot explains it thus; Christ calls himself the Son, as Messiah. Now the Messiah, as such, was the father's servant (Isa. 42:1), sent and deputed by him, and as such a one he refers himself often to his Father's will and command, and owns he did nothing of himself (Jn. 5:19); in like manner he might be said to know nothing of himself. The revelation of Jesus Christ was what God gave unto him, Rev. 1:1. He thinks, therefore, that we are to distinguish between those excellencies and perfections of his, which resulted from the personal union between the divine and human nature, and those which flowed from the anointing of the Spirit; from the former flowed the infinite dignity of his perfect freedom from all sin; but from the latter flowed his power of working miracles, and his foreknowledge of things to come. What therefore (saith he) was to be revealed by him to his church, he was pleased to take, not from the union of the human nature with the divine, but from the revelation of the Spirit, by which he yet knew not this, but the Father only knows it; that is, God only, the Deity; for (as Archbishop Tillotson explains it) it is not used here personally, in distinction from the Son and the Holy Ghost, but as the Father is, Fons et Principium Deitatis—The Fountain of Deity.

While this is not the most satisfying example of exegesis, it certainly does illustrate something more than just offering a glib response.  Moreover, Henry's list of explanations show the diversity of explanations that have been offered.  Finally, the reference to Luke 2:52 helps point us to a more general explanation.

4. Matthew Poole (link to commentary)

Poole, in his concise commentary, offers this:

Mark addeth, Mark 13:32, neither the Son, but the Father. Of that day and hour, that is, the particular time when the heavens and the earth shall pass away, as he had before said, or when the end of the world shall be, which was one of the questions propounded to him by his disciples, Matthew 24:3.

Knoweth no man, no mere man, nor have men any reason to be troubled at it; for it is a piece of knowledge which the Father hath reserved in his own power, and his own pleasure, from the angels, who continually behold his face. Nay, I myself, as man, know it not. Nor is it more absurd, or derogating from the perfection of Christ, than for to say, that Christ, as man, was not omnipotent, or omniscient, &c. By the way, this gives a great check to the curiosity of men’s inquiries after the particular time or year when the world shall have an end, or the day of judgment begin, or be.

Unfortunately, I don't currently have access to Poole's more detailed work on this, but you can see that Poole concludes that Jesus is speaking "as man." 

Ultimately, the lesson we can learn from this exercise of reviewing some older commentaries on the text is that there are exegetical answers to the questions that people raise.  In this case, if one simply goes to the creedal formulations and applies them to the text, one will get the right result (of course), but without understanding how it is that the text teaches it, one is left without an answer to the next question.

Note how the different expositors bring out different facets of understanding.  Henry (following Tilllotson) mentions that the "Father" can be referenced not as the person of the Trinity distinct from the Son, but as the fountain of deity.  Recall the use in the Old Testament of Father in this way both about God as Creator and even about the person of Jesus Christ: 

Malachi 2:10 Have we not all one father? hath not one God created us? why do we deal treacherously every man against his brother, by profaning the covenant of our fathers? 

Psalm 103:13 Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear him.

Isaiah 9:6 For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. 

Isaiah 63:16 Doubtless thou art our father, though Abraham be ignorant of us, and Israel acknowledge us not: thou, O LORD, art our father, our redeemer; thy name is from everlasting.

It is without doubt that Isaiah 9:6 refers to Jesus, not as the first person of the Trinity, but nevertheless as having that same title of deity.  Furthermore, it is right to speak of Christ as our redeemer.

So also we see the Jewish understanding God as father, presumably formed by Malachi 2 and Isaiah 63:

John 8:41 Ye do the deeds of your father. Then said they to him, We be not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God.

Obviously, the Jews did not mean that as a reference to the person of the Father as distinct from the Son, since they did not have a proper understanding of the Trinity.  

Likewise, it is right to speak of Jesus in his economic relationship to the Father in the economy of redemption, because Matthew had previously quoted Jesus thus: 

Matthew 11:25-27

At that time Jesus answered and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father: for so it seemed good in thy sight. All things are delivered unto me of my Father: and no man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him.

I don't want to belabor the point, but the bottom line is that Jesus, in Matthew (and Mark) is speaking of the Father in contradistinction to the created order.  So, whether Jesus means the person of the Father or the Triune Godhead (through something akin to federal headship or synecdoche or simply by reference to the relation of all three persons to us), the bottom line is that this statement is not a denial that Jesus according to his divine nature knew it nor is it a denial that the Holy Spirit knew it.

As to the latter point, the text is not speaking of the Holy Spirit, as a distinct person from the Father and the Son.  As to the former point, Jesus is speaking of himself as the Son of Man.  Jesus uses that description of himself numerous times in Matthew and most relevant to our consideration in the immediate context of the text:

Matthew 24:27 For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.

Matthew 24:30 And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.

(our text)

Matthew 24:37 But as the days of Noe were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.

Matthew 24:39 And knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.

Matthew 24:44 Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh.

Matthew 25:13 Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.

Matthew 25:31 When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory:

The same is true, though to a lesser extent, in the context in Mark 13:

Mark 13:26 And then shall they see the Son of man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.

So, Jesus is not speaking of the Son as the Son of God, but as the Son of Man.  He is speaking of the Son in the role given to him by the Father, not in absolute terms.

Ultimately, I find Gill's explanation the best, but I will admit that I'm drawn to it because it seems to me to be the one that is most exegetically grounded in the text of Scripture.

Likewise, while I agree with Calvin that Jesus' deity was "covered" ("veiled" to use the term my friend James has used a few times recently), such that Jesus did not always exercise the powers that he has as God (particularly during his humiliation), such an explanation should not stand alone, but should be connected to the Scripture from which it is derived.

Thus, Paul writes:

Philippians  2:7-8

But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

This was the condition of Jesus when he spoke the words of Matthew 24:36/Mark 13:32.  So, we should not come to any wrong conclusions regarding the Son, nor regarding the Holy Spirit from this text.  Furthermore, while the creeds and confessions are right, we do not have to appeal to their authority to establish the right understanding of this text.

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

James White and Matthew 24:36

My friend, James White, has been consistently defending the Trinity for decades.  I'm truly mystified by the fact that some folks are seriously worried about his view of the two natures of Christ and of his interpretation of Matthew 24:36.  Here's an example of White's discussion from the Forgotten Trinity.

People respond that this seems at odds with his comments on Matthew 24:36.

He explained Matthew 24:36 on the DL in 2006, starting around 47 minutes in.  1st, James explicitly affirms that the text doesn't apply to the Holy Spirit. 2nd, James briefly mentions to two natures (not in detail, though):

(link to DL)

Again in 2012, James 1st) explains textual variant issues.  2nd) addresses inconsistent Muslim use 3rd) sets aside economic Trinity explanations as possible but weak 4th) explains that these limitations apply to Christ as incarnate using the same "veil" metaphor James is using now (link to video):

About one hour, five minutes into a recent presentation (Link) James again holds to his "veil" metaphor, which apparently is now so objectionable.