Tuesday, August 26, 2014

An exercise in spiritualizing interpretation

Consider this prophecy from Jer 33:

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: "The LORD is our righteousness."

For thus says the LORD: David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel, and the levitical priests shall never lack a man in my presence to offer burnt offerings, to make grain offerings, and to make sacrifices for all time (Jer 33.14-18).

Now I want to offer what may not be too controversial a proposal (at least in some circles): this prophecy finds its fulfillment in the priestly work of our king Jesus Christ. He is the son of David who will sit forever on David's throne (cf. Jer 33:21), and he is the high priest par excellence who offered himself for our sins in the ultimate sacrifice ἐφάπαξ, once for all. But notice that this would be, at least in part, a spiritualizing interpretation: Jesus' offering is once for all, not again and again; and his offering was the offering of his own body, not a burnt offering or a grain offering or the offering of an animal. We would have to understand these phrases as they appear in Jeremiah's prophecy as referring in some spiritual sense to a different sort of sacrifice which Jesus actually did offer.

This is not a literal interpretation of Jeremiah's prophecy but an appropriately spiritualized one, the spiritualization of which was not a matter of our own invention but rather informed by the actual revelation of Christ. We saw and we learned how Christ offered himself for us, once for all, and how he is the Davidic king of Israel forever. After learning these things, we then found in these events the fulfillment of the Jeremiah prophecy in a spiritualized -- or perhaps better, a nonliteral way.

Now if we grant the possibility of such spiritualized or nonliteral interpretation of the scripture, I want to propose a resolution to the problematic debate on universalism along the same lines. For many people, the doctrine of universal reconciliation remains untenable because of the conviction that human persons have freedom of the will, which God does not coerce in salvation: so long as the will remains free, a person may say No to God, even ad infinitum and so remaining eternally damned. The universalist response may be an appeal to God's omnipotence: God is all-powerful, and consequently is capable of saving everyone while preserving their free will.

In support of a notion such as this, we might appeal to this fantastic line from 1 Sam 14: . . . for nothing can hinder the LORD from saving by many or by few (1 Sam 14:6). Now in the context of 1 Sam, this salvific act has to do with the defeat of the Philistines; the salvation here described is a material one, the preservation of the body in battle. But we may understand this text in a nonliteral or spiritual way to refer to the omnipotence of God in salvation. When considered from the light of the Christ event, we might understand the text as affirming: nothing can hinder the LORD from saving by the One, Jesus Christ. God, in his omnipotence, is capable of saving all even while preserving their freedom of the will.

Or consider this passage from Jeremiah: See, I am the LORD, the God of all flesh; is anything too hard for me? (Jer 32:27). Here God, by appealing to his own omnipotence and his sovereignty over all, affirms that nothing can stand in his way, nothing can obstacle him from achieving his plan. He immediately refers to the capture of the city of Jerusalem by the Chaldeans (32:28), but later even speaks of transforming the spiritual life of his people. He says: They shall be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me for all time, for their own goo and the good of their children after them. I will make an everlasting covenant with them, never to draw back from doing good to them; and I will put the fear of me in their hearts, so that they may not turn from me (32:38-40).

Here we find that the omnipotence of God extends even to the transformation of the heart and spirit of the human person. If we insist that human beings have free will that God does not violate, then evidently God's omnipotence is not limited to the manipulation of the earth and the material stuff of the universe, or of defeating armies; no, he may also transform the human person.