Running Theological Thoughts: Habakkuk 2:2-5

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Habakkuk 2:2-5

And the Lord answered me:

“Write the vision;
    make it plain on tablets,
    so he may run who reads it.
For still the vision awaits its appointed time;
    it hastens to the end—it will not lie.
If it seems slow, wait for it;
    it will surely come; it will not delay.

“Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him,
    but the righteous shall live by his faith.

“Moreover, wine is a traitor,
an arrogant man who is never at rest.
His greed is as wide as Sheol;
like death he has never enough.
He gathers for himself all nations
and collects as his own all peoples.”

 

Observations:

After Habakkuk offers his second complaint to God, he stands on his watch-tower awaiting YHWH’s response, and YHWH answers. He answers Habakkuk by telling him to ‘write the vision’ in big letters on a tablet. YHWH tells Habakkuk that the vision is a future reality and that it will come to pass, though it may seem slow, the reader of the vision must wait for it (vs. 3).

In verse 4, the unrighteous and righteous person are contrasted. The unrighteous man lives in pride, which is cleverly portrayed as a puffed up soul that is crooked. Imagine a huge Thanksgiving Day parade balloon gone all upside down and blown over – that is the prideful person. In contrast, the righteous, who we’ve met twice now (1:4, 13), lives by his faith. In comparison to the prideful person, the righteous await the vision’s fulfillment in humility and trust.

In verse 5,  it seems the vision returns to the prideful person, perhaps as a personification of the Chaldeans who are about to be judged in the following verses. In this verse, the prideful man is portrayed as a ravenous consumer of the whole world, like death and Sheol itself. Unlike the Righteous who waits and trust the prideful consume in greed, frenetic arrogance, and gathers the world like death gathers his victims.

Theological Comments: 

God answers both of Habakkuk’s complaints, showing that all people, both unfaithful Israel, and the violent and arrogant Chaldeans are judged for their sins. God is just in his judgment and does not overlook sin. However, the judgment on the Chaldeans and the whole world will be coming at a future time. God tells Habakkuk to write the vision large, to signify that it will come to pass, but tells Habakkuk that the vision awaits its appointed time; it is coming, but the righteous must await it in faith.

In prophetic literature, there is often a telescoping of events, where the vision refers to something or several somethings in the future. As we read through the Woe’s on the Chaldeans, we will see three levels of telescoping: the judgment of the Chaldeans, the judgment of Sin and death in Christ on the Cross, and the final judgment that all the righteous await in faith.

The vision awaits its appointed time, the appointed time of judgment is the final day, the judgment of the world – the day of the Lord. The day of the Lord is a day of final judgment, which was brought into the present in the crucifixion of Christ. The eschatological judgment of God was transposed into the center of history at the appointed time. It has come in the judgment of the World in the cross of Christ, and yet it still is to come; when the one who took the sins of the world upon himself will judge the world (Matthew 25:31-46).

So the righteous continue to wait; they wait and live by their faith, as the prideful world stumbles on in its consumption and arrogance. The righteous wait and rest in contentment; as the prideful person consumes the world filling up his soul even as he collapses in on himself. What keeps the righteous man buoyant in the midst of the City of Man? What keeps him going as a member of the Pilgrim City of God? The alien righteousness of Christ whose faith the faithful live by.

Paul famously quotes Habakkuk 2:4 in Galatians 3:11, transfiguring the meaning of the text through a Christological reading. Rather than the righteous living by his faith, the righteous now live by faith in Christ. More than that, the righteous have their righteousness not through their works, or their allegiance to God, but through Christ’s righteous life and his faithfulness. The righteous wait in peace, and calm and contentment because they are united to the righteous and faithful one in trusting faith.

Because the righteous receive their righteousness from Christ, the truly righteous one they can rest. Unlike the arrogant, they can be generous and content. The righteous can live righteously because the Righteous One, who is infinite life, was consumed by the greedy jaws of death and Sheol and overcame death with his life. The righteous can rest in contentment and wait as they walk the pilgrim road to the City of God because Righteous one, Jesus Christ lived by faith in God and the righteous who are united to him in faith live in him through the Holy Spirit.

Running Theological Thoughts: Habakkuk 1:12-2:1

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Habakkuk’s Response/second complaint

1:12 Are you not from everlasting,
O Lord my God, my Holy One?
We shall not die.
O Lord, you have ordained them as a judgment,
and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof.
13 You who are of purer eyes than to see evil
and cannot look at wrong,
why do you idly look at traitors
and remain silent when the wicked swallows up
the man more righteous than he?
14 You make mankind like the fish of the sea,
like crawling things that have no ruler.
15 He brings all of them up with a hook;
he drags them out with his net;
he gathers them in his dragnet;
so he rejoices and is glad.
16 Therefore he sacrifices to his net
and makes offerings to his dragnet;
for by them he lives in luxury,
and his food is rich.
17 Is he then to keep on emptying his net
and mercilessly killing nations forever?

2:1 I will take my stand at my watchpost
and station myself on the tower,
and look out to see what he will say to me,
and what I will answer concerning my complaint.

Observations:

Following the Lord’s response to Habakkuk’s lament about the sin and injustice in Israel, Habakkuk responds to the judgment of Judah through the instrument of the Chaldeans. In verse 12 he begins by acknowledging the person and character of God: he is everlasting, the Lord God, the Holy One, in the form of a question. In response to this question, he says, “We shall not die.” Even in the rightful judgment coming from the Chaldeans, Habakkuk is convinced that God is faithful. He is the Lord and Rock who has established judgment and reproof. Yet, in verse 13, Habakkuk ask God, who cannot abide seeing evil, why he sits idly looking at the sin of the Chaldeans who oppress the righteous. Verses 13-17 describe the violence, injustice, idolatry, and extreme luxury of the wicked Chaldeans. Chapter 2 begins with Habakkuk standing, awaiting God’s response to his plea for justice for the righteous who are oppressed by the wicked Chaldeans.

Reflection on Chapter 1: It is worth noting that Habakkuk has now asked God to bring justice to the unjust and wicked in Judah who oppress the Righteous, and the unjust and wicked Gentiles who God uses to bring about the judgment of the wicked in Judah. As we approach chapter 2, we see that neither Jew or Gentile can be righteous or just in their own strength.

Theological Comments:

Habakkuk uses several significant descriptions of God in verses 12-13. In 12a he describes God as everlasting, the covenant LORD, and Holy. He follows this with the statement, “We shall not die.” How do these connect?

God is his eternal, self-sufficient, infinite life. He is totally different from humans, both ontologically, and morally – he is holy. He is the “I am who I am” who has created the world out of nothing, choose Israel out of nothing, and saved Israel out of death and slavery. He is the everlasting covenant God of Israel. Because God is eternal and everlasting because he is self-sufficient and holy, he is free to create and save humanity. Because he is God who is free and loves, “we shall not die.” Habakkuk trusts that the righteous will live because God is who he is.

In the face of God’s righteous judgment, it takes real faith, hope, and love to believe that we shall not die. Habakkuk trusts that even though the judgment, God will be just to the righteous; he will bring justice even as he uses the unjust Chaldeans to bring judgment. Habakkuk as the mediating prophet looks to who God is and sees the infinite and eternal one and puts his faith in him, finds hope in him, and loves for God and his people. How does he love God and God’s people? He loves God by confessing who he is and trusting in him, he loves his people by crying out for justice and salvation; by standing at his watch-post awaiting God’s response (2:1).

Habakkuk’s honest trust in God subverts how many people approach God. We often approach God either as a projection of our worst fears and self-hate, or a placid reflection of our own self-aggrandized prideful goodness. Habakkuk’s honest trust points to the reality that he is actually talking to and interacting with a personal reality: The infinite personal God. God reveals himself to Habakkuk and Habakkuk interacts with him in honest trust. Habakkuk’s honest trust looks to God to preserve his people even as his people deserve judgment. And God in his infinite life and love does just that.

Even in light of God ordaining evil men to bring about his just judgment, Habakkuk trusts that the Lord is the Rock; the steadfast one who brings judgment and mercy. Habakkuk’s declaration of God’s character and trust in him figures Jesus’s own faith in the Father. Jesus, the Rock of our salvation, received the judgment of our sin for our salvation. Jesus could do this because he was fully God – holy, self-sufficient, the covenant God of Israel who saves, sent from the Father as the eternal Son of God – and fully man – taking our sin and judgment through his death on the cross. Because Jesus is the Holy One, the everlasting God, the Lord who creates and Saves, “we shall not die.” In his death, the Triune God does not look idly on sin but deal with it. This brings us to our next topic.

Verse 13 offers us a bit of a puzzle. In 1:3 Habakkuk asks, “Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you look at wrong?” And yet, Habakkuk then says in vs. 13: “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” God is simultaneously too pure to see evil and look at wrong, yet he idly sees evil and remains silent at wrong.”

It is common to say that God is too holy to behold evil, but this is unhelpful because he obviously does see evil, he does behold the traitor. It would seem better to see this metaphor of not beholding evil as both a confirmation of God’s utter holiness and a call for him to act against evil. God’s holiness cannot abide evil, and yet he idly looks upon it. That is the problem; God’s seeming inaction against evil both in Judah and the Chaldeans. How could God abide the evil of the Chaldeans who worship idols, persecute the righteous, and murder by the thousands? Habakkuk is asking God to bring his holiness to bear on the evil in the world, to bring judgment and restoration. What will God do?

To see how God responds to this call, we will turn to Habakkuk chapter 2 in our next post.

Holy Scripture: What is it and what is it for?

 

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Introduction:

In the life of a Christian, there is an expectation that one read, study, and inwardly digest Holy Scripture. This is integral to the Christian life, as we can see in the collect for the Second Sunday in Advent:

BLESSED Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

When we read Scripture, a question arises, that is not so easily answered: what is Holy Scripture?

A few quick answers come to mind:

  1. 2 Timothy 3:16-17: All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. This verse names what Scripture is, “God-breathed” and communicates the purpose of Scripture, i.e., to complete and form the Christian into the likeness of Jesus. 
  2. Hebrews 4:12-13  For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. This verse is complex and significant because it seems to correlate the written word of God with Jesus Christ himself. It, like 2 Timothy 3 directs our attention to the formative and active nature of God’s Word. 
  3. 1 Corinthians 15:3-4: For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. Here Paul notes that he received what was delivered; that Christ died and rose again which was in accordance with Scripture, i.e., the Old Testament. Here we see Christ and his work as the content and goal of the Scripture (see my blog entry on the Gospel). 

From these verses, many of the shorthand answers of what Scripture are presented: it is God-breathed, it the Word of God written. And while these answers are well and good, more needs to be said. Why? Because these answers seem to separate what Scripture holds together: what Scripture is and what it is for. Any doctrine of Scripture must hold together these two questions, and the answer for the second must be derivative from the first. Further, these answers often seem to side-step critical scholarship and function in a rhetorical posture of defensiveness.

The answer to critical scholarship cannot be a blind turn to non-rational belief – “The Bible says it, I believe it.” At the same time, I do not think we need to concede grounds to scholars who read Holy Scripture like another book. Thus, we need a way to articulate what Scripture is and what it is for, in the context of faith seeking understanding.

What we are dealing with when we try to understand the nature of Scripture is how a human text can communicate who God is and what God does. Often, people fall on one of two sides: either emphasizing its supernatural revelation and downplaying the creaturely aspects of it, or emphasizing the creaturely elements of it and ignoring the possibility of divine revelation.

Many analogies are used for the relationship between the human and divine aspects of Holy Scripture, the Incarnation of Jesus is perhaps the most popular one these days. Jesus is fully God and fully human, but one person; similarly, Scripture is fully divine and fully human. The problem with this analogy is that it abstracts the utterly unique work of God in the incarnation into a principle. Further, the analogy falls apart because the two natures of Jesus are held together in the One person of the Son, there is no correlate point of union for the Scriptures. Where do we go for a better understanding of what Holy Scripture is and what it is for?

Let’s begin by considering Article 6 of the 39 Articles of Religion:

HOLY Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. In the name of the holy Scripture we do understand those Canonical Books of the Old and New Testament, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church.

Here we see the content and purpose of Scripture defined. the material is the Old and New Testament; the purpose is “Salvation.” Further, the article describes the Holy Scripture as authoritative for salvation. That said, the article leaves off specifying the way that Scripture is capable of containing all things necessary for salvation. In other words, how human written words are considered Holy. How can human words communicate all that is necessary for salvation? To answer this question, we need to consider how Scripture is situated in God’s work of salvation for humanity and the world, what is often called the economy of salvation.

In considering What Scripture is, I will turn to John Webster, who has written profoundly and extensively on the nature of Scripture. His reflection on the doctrine of Scripture began in earnest in 2003 when he published Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch. While I have not studied his writing in depth, there seems to have been some development and refinement between then and more recent essays. Thus, I am drawing on a later essay where he articulates the ontology of Scripture as a part of the economy of God’s outer works.

The Triune God’s Divine Economy

To articulate a theology of Scripture, we must start with the triune God, and see how Scripture relates to God. In Theology, we distinguish between God in himself (Theology proper), and the divine economy, God’s work in the world (from creation to consummation).  Webster distinguishes between these two aspects of theology in the following.

Systematic Theology has a single but not simple object: God and all things relative to God…The one complex matter may therefore be divided into (1) God absolutely considered, that is, considered in himself in his inner life as Father, Son, and Spirit (theology), and (2) God relatively considered, that is, considered in his outer works and in relation to his creatures (economy) (God without Measure, I.45-46).

Webster describes in more detail what the divine economy is in four points: 1) The divine economy is grounded in the immanent perfection of the Holy Trinity. 2) The divine economy unfolds as the history of fellowship in which creatures are summoned to know and love God.  3) The divine economy includes the history of redemption. 4) In all this, the divine economy is revelatory (The Dominion of the Word, 117-118). This final point grounds Webster’s next move: The divine economy, the mission of the Son and Spirit reveal God, and this revelation is mediated in a particular form:

The work of Word and Spirit, through which God gives creatures a share in his knowledge of himself, is mediated through creaturely auxiliaries. of these, Holy Scripture is the chief; through its ministry of the divine Word in the Spirit’s power, God makes himself known and loved (ibid., 120).

Webster started with God’s infinite being, which is the source and end of the God’s outer works of creation and redemption, which reveal who God is. This economic work is the mission of the Son and Spirit. The Son and Spirit make God known through the creaturely auxiliaries of the Scriptures. What is the nature of these Scriptures?

Scripture

Webster describes Scripture “as prophetic and apostolic testimony” (ibid., 120). It functions as “a unified set of creaturely communicative acts having their origin in God’s calling and authorizing certain persons in the communion of the saints” (ibid., 120). In other words, God calls, forms and sends  prophets and apostles (the Old and New Testament writers) as special ambassadors of God’s own Word. So we have specific people who God chooses as creaturely instruments to communicate God’s self-revelation. How do these writing become Holy Scripture?

“Holy Scripture is the textual settlement of this embassy. In it, prophetic and apostolic speech is extended to into the church’s present… Scripture is a creaturely reality ordered to divine communication” (ibid., 120).  So God providentially commisions, forms, and orders the life and writings of the prophets and apostles to communicate who God is and what God is doing. Thus the Scriptures are a human text, but human texts ordered by God with the distinct purpose of communicating and revealing God.

In his book, Holy Scripture,  Webster describes this reality in terms of the creaturely text being ‘sanctified’ by which he means: “the biblical texts are creaturely realities set apart by the triune God to serve his self-presence” (21).

To expand on this notion of creaturely realities being used by God to communicate himself, Webster offers the Lord’s Supper as a parallel example:

Bread and wine are signs in the economy of salvation; by them, the ascended Christ distributes the benefits of his saving achievement, comforting, and nourishing his people by his presence. These functions do not detract from the created materiality of the elements, but indicate, rather, that such created realities are taken up into the divine service. So also Holy Scripture: prophetic and apostolic words are no less creaturely for being servants of the divine Word; indeed, their creaturely nature is therein fulfilled. (The Dominion of the Word, 121).

This analogy is stronger than the Analogy of the incarnation because it simultaneously holds the creaturely reality of the writings of the Old and New Testament, while confessing that through God’s providential and sanctifying work, i.e., the mission of the Son and Spirit these words are ordered and used to communicate divine revelation.

How, precisely, do these prophetic and apostolic words in the Scripture exist as creaturely servants to the divine Word? Webster responds: “Scripture is ‘inspired’ in the sense that its entire course (from pretextual tradition to canonization, including supremely the work of textual production) is superintended by the Spirit” (Ibid., 121).

This is profoundly significant for dismantling the dualism we talked about earlier: either fully divine texts (humans merely writing what they hear from God verbally) or fully human texts. The Holy Scriptures are human texts written by divinely commission Prophets and Apostles, which communicate the Divine Revelation of the Triune God while remaining creaturely in nature. The whole process of the writing of these texts is understood to be inspired by the Holy Spirit who is the proper author of the texts; though he never supersedes or overrides the creature in the inspiring process. The Holy Spirit’s work of superintending the creation and writing of Scripture is what it means for Scripture to be inspired.

Conclusion

Scripture is God-breathed, it is the Word of God written, but it is this by means of God’s providentially ordering, sanctifying and inspiring commissioned prophets and apostles by the Holy Spirit to communicate the Word of God through in and with the words of Scripture.

When we see how Scripture fits into the greater economy of God’s work, the purpose of Scripture is made more explicit by its nature. God uses human creaturely realities to bring about his purpose and will; just as the Lord’s Supper communicate grace and life to Christians, so the Holy Scriptures communicate to believers the truth of who God is, who we are and what God has done and is doing to save us.