Posts Tagged ‘Frederick Dale Bruner’

The angel at the empty tomb doesn’t say, “Take my word for it”

April 25, 2017

In my Easter sermon from this year, which I will post on my blog soon, I spend about half the sermon talking about evidence for the resurrection, based on clues from the sermon text, Matthew 28:1-20. The text itself invites us to look at the evidence. Frederick Dale Bruner, the theologian whose commentary on Matthew has proven so valuable for my sermon series in Matthew, certainly thinks so. He writes the following in relation to verse 6 and the angel’s words to the two Marys: “Come and take a look at the place where they put him.”

Among other things, this is the Gospel’s invitation to scientific research. The angel does not say, “Don’t look in here! Take it by faith! Don’t ask any questions!” Instead, the angel invites the women to check out his assertions with their senses. “Come, use your eyes and your mind, and see if what I say is true.” The scientific study of the biblical documents (called the historical-critical method) asks critical questions: “Did this happen? Is this historical? Is this parabolic? How does this fit with other and differing accounts? What is to be made of this in light of that?” These questions are not unbelief; rather, they are one form of obedience to the command to “come and take a loot the place where they put him” to “see if these things are so” (Acts 17:11)….

The Christian does not get a lobotomy when he or she makes the decision to be a disciple. Jesus wants his people to be honest, to think about their faith, and to be able to investigate its problems. The angel’s command to empirical investigation is wonderfully freeing, and rightly heard it can protect the church from anti-intellectualism.

I affirm this, with two caveats: First, no purely “scientific” investigation can begin to answer questions about the resurrection of Jesus Christ, such that it won’t also require faith to believe in it. Ultimately, we only come to this faith by revelation from the Holy Spirit. As Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44).

Even an apologist like William Lane Craig—who has been criticized by some Reformed Christians (or at least one that I’ve heard, James White) for being too rational in his approach to God and the resurrection—believes that saving faith comes only by a revelatory act of the Spirit. By contrast, on his Reasonable Faith podcast, he said that when he was an undergraduate at Wheaton, one of his professors said he was so committed to the reasonableness of Christianity that he would abandon the faith if it proved unreasonable to believe it.

Craig said he was shocked: “If one of my arguments for God or the truth of Christianity proved false, I would assume that a better argument existed—because I already know Christianity is true. And I know that by revelation.”

My second caveat is that the historical-critical method will never prove that all scripture is “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Inasmuch as it’s “scientific,” this method isn’t, by definition, equipped to offer a judgment on the question. For that we need faith. By all means, the inerrancy or infallibility of the Bible can become more reasonable when we consider Jesus’ own high view of scripture. As a rule of thumb, when deciding whether something is true or not, always go with the opinion of the guy who was raised from the dead!

But in my own experience over the past eight years—having gone from doubting the Bible’s authority to believing in it to the utmost—I will say this: most of the Bible’s “problems,” such as they are, can be resolved once we ask ourselves this question: “What should I expect to be true if God the Holy Spirit guided the author to write what he wrote?”

As an example, consider this debate between skeptic and New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman and Tim McGrew on the Unbelievable? podcast. McGrew was discussing “undesigned coincidences” in the New Testament: when one small part of the New Testament unintentionally corroborates another small part—such that the two parts fit together like interlocking jigsaw puzzle pieces. McGrew was right: undesigned coincidences are a powerful apologetic tool, but only if you’re willing to entertain the idea that the Spirit inspired the different authors of the New Testament.

Are you willing or not? If not, why not?

Over at Scot McKnight’s blog, a trolling progressive Christian whose name I won’t mention often comments on McKnight’s blog posts. In even the most innocuous post that affirms the authority of scripture, you can count on a skeptical comment from this reader. I want to say to him, “Yes, but suppose the evangelicals are right after all, and the Bible is reliable and true when it reports this or that. Why are you against that? What’s at stake for you in believing that the Bible isn’t historically reliable? Why do you prefer to believe that the Bible is, at best, only true in a metaphorical way?”

If I believed I could have a productive conversation I would ask him, but I know from experience I can’t.

Come to think of it, I could ask the same of my progressive Methodist clergy colleagues!

Pastoral words from Jesus about doubt

March 17, 2017

This Sunday I’m preaching on Matthew 11:1-15, which includes Jesus’ short “sermon” to a John the Baptist who now doubts that he is the Messiah. Jesus’ concludes his sermon with this beatitude: “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

I like this eloquence from Bruner:

Now for the end of his sermon to John, Jesus saves these words, tailor-made for John (and for all of us who are tempted to wonder if Jesus really is It): “And—blessings on the person who is not offended by me!” These are kind words. Jesus does not shame John by saying something like, “And blessed is the person who never doubts if I am the Messiah”—words like that would have hurt John because doubt was exactly John’s experience. Nor does Jesus here bless those who in discouraging situations glow with vital faith. All such triumphal words would have been the worst possible pastoral counsel for John in this state. Instead Jesus pitches his tune low, puts the cookies on a shelf John can reach, and promises, in so many words, “And God bless you, John, if you do not throw the whole thing over because I am a different kind of Messiah than you were expecting.”[†]

Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 509.

What are the “gate” and the “road” in Matthew 7:13-14?

March 8, 2017


I like Frederick Dale Bruner’s words about the meaning of the narrow gate and hard road in Matthew 7:13-14. The “gate” is, first and foremost, conversion. The “road” is sanctification. But he points out that Jesus uses the present-tense verb in verse 14: “and how few are finding this way.” This emphasizes what he calls the “daily decisions to find this gate and walk this way.”[1]

He continues:

In summary, the two great facts about Jesus are what we may call his “Gate” and his “Road”: (1) the theological Gate of his gracious substitutionary death and resurrection and (2) the ethical Road of his just as gracious commands to follow him in rugged daily discipleship. Paul majors in the former without neglecting the latter; Matthew majors in the latter without neglecting the former. These two great facts about Jesus have been faithfully preserved in the great liturgies of the church, for example, in the Book of Common Prayer (where I will highlight the saving “two facts”): “Almighty God, who has given your only Son to be unto us both a sacrifice for sin and all an example of his godly life: Give me grace that I may always [!] most thankfully receive his inestimable benefit [at the Gate] and also daily [!] endeavor myself to follow the blessed steps of his most holy life [on the Road]; through [which in the liturgy means, correctly, “by the power of”] the same your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.[2]

My own preaching over the past several years emphasizes “the Gate” because, first, I always want unsaved people to become saved people. The stakes are heaven or hell, eternal life or eternal damnation; they literally couldn’t be higher. Every time I preach, there are people who hear me who haven’t been converted and need to be.

Second, nothing inspires us on our journey of sanctification like being reminded, often, of what God has done for us, once and for all, through the cross of his Son Jesus. For this reason, I like the way the late Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde put it: “Sanctification is learning to live with our justification.”

A future post will talk about how the doctrine of assurance fits in with all of this.

1. Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 351.

2. Ibid.

Are there “false prophets” in the UMC?

March 6, 2017

In a podcast I listened to this morning, a Bible scholar and professor said that one of his students recently told him that the Old Testament portrays God as having “anger issues,” whereas the New Testament portrays God as loving, compassionate, and merciful.

This characterization of the Bible makes me want to facepalm—not simply because the so-called “God of the Old Testament” is loving, compassionate, and merciful, but also because the “God of the New Testament” (if you’ll allow a distinction for a moment) is a God of judgment and wrath. Indeed, he is a God who sends people to hell. Jesus says so. The epistles say so. Revelation says so.

The reason that many Christians believe that the “God of the New Testament” is different, I suspect, is because they believe that Jesus’ many frightening words about judgment, hell, and wrath don’t apply to them. In my sermon yesterday on Matthew 7:13-29, the series of warnings at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, I asked myself and my congregation to imagine that they did. (Because they do!)

And lo and behold: without even trying, I preached a pretty good Lenten sermon on the first Sunday of Lent!

Among other things, my sermon included some words about the LGBTQ issue, which threatens to split our denomination (literally) in the next two years: by 2019, a specially called General Conference will decide once and for all how to move forward—together or separately. I said the following:

Have you entered the narrow gate, are you traveling on the hard road that leads to life? If so, shouldn’t your life look noticeably different from the vast majority of people who are just “going with the flow” on their way to hell?

I mean, right now in our own denomination, bishops and church leaders are meeting—they’ve met this month and they’ll meet in the months ahead—and they are deciding whether or not to change our church’s doctrine concerning sex and marriage. And I completely agree with theological progressives in our church when they say that our doctrine is hopelessly out of step with our culture—that it’s offensive to most people; that it’s difficult to follow.

And why wouldn’t it be? “The gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” Beware of false prophets who tell us that the gate is much wider and the way is much easier than Jesus says! And I’m afraid that too many of our bishops and church leaders are doing just that!

But even as I say this, I risk coming under judgment for my own self-righteousness, for my own anger, for my own pride. Because this “narrow gate” and “difficult road” also demands that our lives bear fruit—which isn’t simply adhering to all the right doctrines, but rather, being inwardly transformed by the Holy Spirit. In other words, the “fruit” Jesus refers to in verses 15 to 20 is what Paul calls the “fruit of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Is our life showing evidence of this fruit? If not, we may be entering through the broad gate, and traveling on the easy road that leads to destruction.

As has been the case throughout my present sermon series in Matthew, Frederick Dale Bruner’s commentary inspired and convicted me. Concerning the “false prophets” of vv. 15-20, he writes the following:

If we are not to enter the Broad Way to destruction we will need to be continually liberated from those who beckon us to it. Moreover, “[t]he difficulty that there is even in finding this [Narrow Gate], requires that right guides should point it out to us” (Tholuck, 417). Jesus now tells us how to defend ourselves from false prophets. First of all, recognize their traits. False prophets almost always wear sheep’s clothing, that is, they have seemingly Christian ways. “Sheep” in Matthew are symbols of present or future believers… This presents us with a difficulty: what is the difference between a Christian appearance (sheep’s clothing) and a Christian effect (good fruit)?

It is the first subtlety of false prophets that they appear Christian. False prophets rarely wear wolves’ clothing. They are often (though not always) sheep-like, Christian-seeming, in earnest, and apparently the real item. This is why Jesus has to warn us about them at all.

Betz, 527, notices that the greatest danger facing disciples is not persecution but false prophets, luring us on to the easy road. His observation is corroborated by the multiple appearances of false prophets (from within the church) in Jesus’ warnings in the Sermon on the End of the World (see 24:4-5, 11, 24). Henry, 94, observes that “Every ‘hypocrite’ is a ‘goat’ in sheep’s clothing; but a ‘false prophet’ is a ‘wolf’ in sheep’s clothing, not only not a sheep, but the worst enemy the sheep has.”[1]

Many people, including colleagues and even friends in ministry, would strongly disagree with me (and Bruner, I’m guessing) that the effort to revise the United Methodist Church’s stance on sexuality and marriage represents the work of “false prophets.” But if Bruner is right that false prophets are people in the church—our church, any church—who seek to “lure us on to the easy road,” shouldn’t we consider the possibility? To ignore it, after all, is to put our souls at risk—again, if Bruner’s interpretation of Jesus is correct.

For my progressive colleagues who tend to give extra weight to the red-letter words of Jesus, please consider his words here, too. Please heed these warnings!

As always, I write this as a fellow sinner in need of God’s grace at every moment.

1. Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 352-3.

Loving our enemies means liking them, too

February 16, 2017

brunerAs I said in my sermon on Sunday (which I’ll post soon), when Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, talks about loving our enemies, he isn’t mostly talking about the Russians, the Chinese, or Islamic terrorists; he’s talking about the “enemy” who passes you on the street (or in the church hallway). As he implies in Matthew 5:47, our enemy is the one whom we “greet” (or fail to do so). Our enemy is someone we know personally, someone with whom we interact.

With this in mind, theologian Frederick Dale Bruner objects to a distinction that we Christians often make: that we can love enemies without liking them.

A frequent dodge must be noted. It is sometimes said that the agapē love commanded by Jesus is not erōs love; that agapē means “to wish well to” but it does not mean (as erōs does) “to feel affection for.” By this distinction some disciples allow themselves to continue heartily to dislike their enemies, to feel no affection for them at all, and yet by a kind of steel-cool Stoicism to believe that they are keeping Jesus’ Command.

While agapē is more than erōs, it is nothing less. For it is not true that erōs is a hot thing and agapē cold. We are not to be satisfied that we have kept Jesus agapē Command when we treat our enemies with semi-civility. We are to pray, and to pray some more, until we feel something of God’s love for problem people. (And before the holiness of God, are not all of us, even the best disciples, really problem people?) Granted, a miracle is required for agapē to happen, but God is good at miracles. Therefore, we must even beware of the sometimes good counsel that “you can love without liking,” if this should mean that we should block any liking or any natural affection at all. Disciples will permit God’s own powerful agapē so to forgive and affect them that they will actually find themselves with warm feelings, and not just steel wills, when they deal with enemies.[1]

Bruner goes on to say that agapē doesn’t mean we love “the enemies’ character or deeds or teachings or anything else about them; we are asked only to love the enemies themselves.[2]

But I like this a lot: We should have “warm feelings, and not just steel wills.” Notice also he refers to “feeling God’s love” for problem people.

Did you catch that? God feels love for problem people—including sinners like you and me. Are we sometimes tempted to imagine that God’s love for us is a matter of “steel will” rather than affection? What does it mean that God not only loves us (as if that’s what God were supposed to do, however reluctantly), but that God also likes us?

I could benefit from telling myself, “God likes you, Brent, in spite of your sin, in spite of your failures, in spite of your weaknesses.”

What about you?

As for loving our enemies, here’s a possible rule of thumb: we are not loving our enemies sufficiently until we have warm feelings for them. These warm feelings may take a miracle on God’s part, but as Bruner says, God is good at miracles. Start with prayer.

1. Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 271-2.

2. Ibid., 272.

Bruner on infant baptism

January 14, 2017

brunerIn his masterful theological commentary on Matthew, Frederick Dale Bruner reflects on infant baptism, as part of his discussion of Jesus’ baptism by John in Matthew 3:13-17 (my text for this Sunday). As a Presbyterian, he, like me and my fellow Methodists, is part of a tradition that practices infant baptism. And like me, he was “converted” to the practice later in life: he didn’t grow up believing in it.

Was he Baptist? He doesn’t say. But I was. As I tell former Baptists who join my church: “Like you, I was baptized by immersion. So at least we’re saved!”

To Bruner’s credit, he gives good arguments on both sides and admits that he is “of two minds” on the subject. Truthfully, I am as well. But it’s not as if I’m more evangelical or evangelistic than my Reformation ancestors Luther, Calvin, Cranmer, and Wesley; I’m not more of a champion of “justification by faith alone” than they were. Yet each of them still believed in infant baptism. (It was those darn Anabaptists who were the weirdos!) For that reason alone, I’m willing to set aside my doubts and accept the consensual teaching of the universal church, which—as far as we can tell—practiced infant baptism (without controversy) from nearly the beginning.

Bruner marshals plenty of scripture from Old and New Testaments to support the practice (I might blog about this later), even as he acknowledges that the explicit order in the Book of Acts shows repentance and faith preceding baptism. (Like me, however, he believes that we can infer that infants—or at least children too young to “comprehend” the gospel—are baptized, for example, in Acts 16:14-15, 31-33.)

Regardless, he believes, along with me, that our view of baptism is a secondary matter; it need not affect our essential unity. And I’m not aware that it does—except among some “restorationists” of the Stone-Campbell tradition. (Some within the Churches of Christ, for example, wouldn’t recognize most Protestants, evangelical or otherwise, as authentically Christian—not to mention Catholics!)

For those of us who practice infant baptism, however, let’s face facts: It often seems to make no difference in the lives of people who were so baptized. There’s often little evidence of conversion in the person’s life, aside from the most nominal kind of faith. And plenty of people who were baptized as infants later reject the faith. What do we make of this?

I find these words of Bruner helpful (emphasis his):

Where faith is not sustained in the hearts of baptized children, the gifts really given by God in baptism are left unused in an unopened section of the human heart. The gifts can even be rejected, and apparently they are by most (see the important discussion of this sad fact of “most” in 1 Cor 10). And then there is only judgment, as John’s Fire Sermon makes clear—and makes clear to believers. But when the faith given in baptism is maintained and confirmed, when baptized persons turn to Christ in fresh decisions of faith, they find that Christ has always turned earlier to them, as early as their baptism.

The earliest delivery of the passion in our own lives occurs ordinarily in baptism. And for all we know (and Luther liked this view…; cf. Calvin’s only slightly different understanding…) a divinely given infant faith can receive the gifts given then and there in baptism. (Therefore infant baptism can be believer baptism.) No one should laugh (Gen 17-18). “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Gen 18:14 RSV). Then the weekly invitations to re-receive the gifts previously given to the people of God at baptism happens again and again in the preached Word and Supper with their fresh gospel messages of faith and repentance.

Why did the Reformers, and especially Luther and Calvin, the great champions of justification by faith alone, so stubbornly fight for the retention of infant baptism for believers’ children? The Reformers knew that infant baptism celebrated and communicated the one reality that is more important than anything we do—the prevenient grace of God, of a God who does saving things for people before they can do saving things for themselves, even when they are very young. If appearances do not deceive, we seem as infants to be rather bewildered by what is going on when we are baptized. But God is superior to all appearances; inwardly God gives faith (or, in Calvin’s expression, “the seed of future faith and repentance”). This ambience in infant baptism is so much like the rest of the gospel that it helps us to believe that this seemingly common event is God’s way in the church of arriving in human lives. Infant baptism looks very much like the lowly feed-bin manger in which Jesus arrived. Infant baptism has been cherished in the historic church, I suspect, because it is shaped like the gospel.[†]

In this view, saving faith is really given to a child through baptism. God makes it possible for even an infant to receive it (“a divinely given infant faith can receive the gifts given then and there in baptism”). Therefore, we can be confident a baptized child will go to heaven, for example, if he or she dies before professing faith for himself or herself. But this same person can also later reject this same faith—and it’s hard to argue with Bruner that “most” will. (Wesley certainly wouldn’t!)

Bruner’s view, please note, is more congruent with the Wesleyan tradition, which doesn’t hold to eternal security; which believes that backsliding is possible.

Thoughts? Are Bruner’s words persuasive?

Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 112-3.

“Shape up! God can make evangelicals out of rocks”

January 10, 2017

brunerIn his commentary on last Sunday’s scripture, Matthew 3:1-12, Frederick Dale Bruner, a Presbyterian, argues that John the Baptist’s “Fire Sermon” is a “sustained attack on a false eternal security (‘once saved, always saved’), an attack my own Calvinist tradition needs to hear.” One scholar he quotes puts it this way: “The Christian equivalent of ‘We have Abraham as our father’ is ‘We have Christ as our Savior.'”

Is that true? While my Protestant tradition doesn’t hold to the doctrine of eternal security, I’ve at least been inching in that direction for many years now (as my friend and blog reader Tom, who himself holds loosely to the doctrine, and I have discussed). So Bruner’s words are a challenge to me, too.

But maybe they should challenge us all. While I laughed out loud at this recent Babylon Bee article (headline: “Arminian Feeling Pretty Saved Today”), I’m not sure it reflects reality. After all, I’ve known few Methodists who’ve worried about the state of their soul. Why? What is the source of their confidence? Perhaps all of us need to reevaluate our security in Christ—be it “eternal” or, for many of us Wesleyan-Arminians, a shade or two more provisional.

Bruner continues:

Whenever I teach this verse and the sense of privilege that Israel felt in belonging to Abraham, I think of my own relation to the Reformation and my heritage in the theologies of the Lutheran and Reformed churches. And I squirm. Do I stand in an advanced relationship with God because I stand in this heritage? John the Baptist wants to disabuse me of this conviction for a moment. My relationship with God does not depend on the heritage to which I belong, but on something deeper. It is a great privilege to be an heir of Luther, Calvin, and the Protestant Reformation. I believe that to imbibe Luther is to imbibe catholic theology at its best. And yet if I advance my Lutheran, Calvinist, or Reformation heritage before God as a kind of shield behind which to hide the reality (or unreality) of my faith in Christ, then the Baptist point his long, bony finger in my face and says, “Shape up! God can make evangelicals out of rocks!”[†]

In my current situation in the United Methodist Church, I know the spiritual pride of identifying as a “theologically conservative evangelical.” It can easily become my way of saying, “God, I thank thee that I am not as other Methodists are—progressives, open theists, ‘red-letter Christians,’ or even those United Methodist ‘centrists.'”

Not too many years ago, God rescued me from the precipice of hell by convicting me of my sin and pointing me once again to the cross of his Son. While the theological liberalism of the Candler School of Theology played a harmful role, the main problem was in my heart, not my head. In other words, plenty of evangelicals whose hearts are in the right place make it through Candler just fine.

So if I’m going to be proud of anything, let me be proud of what Christ did to save me, not the theological camp in which I now stand as a result.

Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 93-4.

The ministry of the law as a “sin-damning institution”

January 9, 2017

brunerI’ve said this before, but Frederick Dale Bruner’s commentary on Matthew, The Christbook, is a masterpiece. In fact, I wanted to preach a new series on the Gospel of Matthew in part because I wanted to explore Bruner’s commentary more deeply. One angle of my new series will be to explore the relationship between God’s law and the gospel. I had an intuition that Bruner could help me with this—and so far so good.

The ministry of the law is being restored to our preaching—not as a people-saving institution but, first of all, as a sin-damning institution. There has been too much “accept ourselves” (or “God-loves-us-as-we-are”)  preaching that ignores the tough notes of God’s law and even of Jesus’ gospel. We need John; we need the law of God. “For through the law,” writes the great preacher of the gospel to the Gentiles, “comes the knowledge of sin” (Rom 3:20). Consequently, if Christians, too, are to experience salvation from sin, then we Christians must again and again allow ourselves to be addressed by the stinging indictment of God’s law. This law has the cheek to tell us that we are the enemy, that the enemy is not primarily other people. The law warns us; it condemns both the spiritually serious and the socially sophisticated in the people of God, the religious right and the religious left.[†]

Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 91-2.

“Only Scripture brings us to Bethlehem”

December 15, 2016

brunerI’ve made this point before, but never so eloquently. Frederick Dale Bruner’s commentary on Matthew is a treasure (so far)!

The Magi story can also teach a little doctrine of revelation. (1) The star (“revelation by creation”) leads the Magi to (2) Israel’s Scripture in Jerusalem (“revelation by Scripture”), which in turn leads them to (3) the Child in Bethlehem (“revelation by Christ”). It is interesting that the star (of creation) does not lead the Magi directly to Christ. There is an intermediate stop in Jerusalem in the Israelite church where Scripture is opened; and only then is focus finally given to the star’s light and so direction to the Magi’s search. The star brings us to Jerusalem; only Scripture brings us to Bethlehem. Creation can bring us to the church; the church’s Bible bring us to Christ. To be sure, the star reappears, but, significantly, only after the Scriptures say “Bethlehem!” (2:4-9). God’s revelation in creation raises the questions and begins the quest; God’s revelation in Scripture gives a preliminary answer and directs the quest toward the goal. Finally, God’s revelation in Christ satisfies the quest. Creation’s revelation can bring human beings only halfway; scriptural revelations has the power to bring us home—to Christ. God in his goodness is the author of both revelations and uses both.[†]

1. Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 59.

If the one who sins against us is “possessed,” then can we find compassion?

February 17, 2015

brunerLast Sunday, I preached a sermon on the last petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” Nearly all modern translations rightly understand that, contrary to the traditional language of the King James, Jesus is referring not to evil in general, but to “the evil one,” the devil. The ESV follows the KJV but indicates in a footnote the alternate interpretation.

The expression in Greek (tō ponērō) appears in two other places in the Sermon on the Mount. In the first (Matthew 5:37), everyone agrees that it refers to the devil. In the second, just two verses later (Matthew 5:39: “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”), all translations assume tō ponērō refers to an “evil person.”

In his commentary on Matthew, Frederick Dale Bruner disagrees that Jesus is only talking about evil people, offering the following insight:

I hear in the words “the evil one” [in Matthew 5:39] both (1) the human evil one and (2) the spiritual Evil One, in that order; both the possessed and the possessor, the enemy person and the enemy power. The significance of the double meaning is this: the evil ones whom we encounter in daily life are “possessed” by the Evil One; so, while we are rightly agitated by their wrong, have a heart—they are not entirely “themselves.” There is an Evil One behind every evil. In interpersonal relations we rightly “get even with” the devil by not trying to get even with evil people—that is the greatest paradox of our Command.

After citing Church Father Chrysostom, who also endorses his interpretation, Bruner writes:

While the Evil One works in the evil one, “possesses,” as we say, nevertheless the possession does not absolve the possessed of responsibility. But the possession does reconfigure one’s perception of the other person (and of oneself!). For our profoundest war, as the apostle reminds us, is not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers and so ultimately against the cosmic Evil One himself.[†]

So when someone sins against you, can it rightly be said that that person is under the influence of the Evil One (“possessed” seems a bit strong)? If so, then we have to also accept that when we sin against someone, we are under Satan’s influence. Paul himself hints at this when he describes the plight of unredeemed human nature in Romans 7: “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”

Again, as Bruner says, this doesn’t absolve us of responsibility for our sins, but reminding ourselves of Satan’s influence over us helps us summon the pity or compassion that we need to forgive others (and ourselves).

Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 250.