Posts Tagged ‘Frederick Dale Bruner’

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.

Follow-up on last Sunday’s sermon… more on “forgive us our debts”

February 13, 2015

Last Sunday, in my series on the Lord’s Prayer, I preached about the petition, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” This is the only petition in the Lord’s Prayer that makes reference to something that we’re supposed to do—forgive the debts (or sins) of others. And this has caused distress among some interpreters over the centuries.

Is God’s grace conditional? Does God’s forgiveness of us depend on our forgiveness of others? If we don’t or can’t forgive someone, are we therefore unforgiven—excluded from God’s kingdom, bound for hell?

I hope not! 

These are important questions, made even sharper by Jesus’ postscript to the prayer, in verses 14-15:

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

I confess that I am extremely Reformed in my outlook on these words: In my mind, Jesus can’t be saying that we have to forgive first in order to be forgiven. For one thing, that would make forgiveness a kind of meritorious work, a contribution that we make to our salvation, which cuts against the grain of so much else in the New Testament (e.g., Ephesians 2:8-9). Rather, our forgiveness of others is a response to God’s prior forgiveness (or justification) of us.

As Bruner writes in his commentary, Jesus already assumes that within the lives of his disciples—the ones to whom he’s addressing these words—a “prior massive forgiveness” has already taken place, as seen in their answering his call to discipleship and being baptized. This prior forgiveness “precedes and makes possible disciples’ praying the Lord’s Prayer at all.”

We would not even be able to address God as Father if we had not first been given the Father through Jesus and then authorized to ask the Father for the several gifts of this prayer. Only the Father’s forgiveness mediated here through his Son makes it possible to pray the Lord’s Prayer at all.[†]

He then quotes Augustine: “For what will He not give to His sons when they ask of Him, who has given them that first that they should be sons?”

Nevertheless, as in the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:21-35), if we have an unforgiving spirit, such that we’re chronically unable or unwilling to forgive others, then it proves that we haven’t understood the enormity of our own sin, and God’s costly forgiveness of it. In which case, our inability or unwillingness to forgive may be a symptom of the fact that we remain unregenerate, that we still need to receive God’s justifying grace.

Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 310-11.

What does “as it is in heaven” mean?

January 28, 2015

brunerWhile I didn’t have the opportunity to work it into last Sunday’s sermon, the following insight of Frederick Dale Bruner about the phrase “on earth as it is in heaven” was helpful to me:

The expression “as in the heavens” teaches us that God has some kind of lively enterprise going on with angels and spirits and that the earth is not all there is to history (cf. 2 Kings 6). There is some kind of exciting invisible world at work in perfect obedience to God, where God’s name, kingdom, and will are treated with the respect they deserve. Moreover, this phrase asks us to believe that something like heavenly worship and obedience can also touch earth—the bold “as” permits us to think so. We are not to inquire too curiously about the nature of the heavenly activities; we are simply to pray that the name, kingdom, and will of the Father shall come to rights here on earth.

Do you believe in this “lively enterprise” of an angelic realm as he describes here? I do (although I confess to my shame a time in my life when I didn’t)! And I believe in the flip side of this realm—one in which angelic beings who, like human beings, rebelled against God are exerting a destructive influence in our world. (I don’t see how it’s possible to believe in one and not the other.)

In my sermon on Sunday, I dealt briefly with the age-old question, “Why does an all-good God allow evil and suffering?” In the interview I cited in my sermon, physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson seems to grant that God’s desire for human beings to have free will answers the question of human-made evil (which, indeed, accounts for most suffering in the world). But what about so-called “natural evil”—like natural disasters, pestilence, and disease—which seems to have little to do with human freedom?

I say “little” because in a world free of sin, in which human beings are living in perfect harmony with God, with others, and with their own bodies, who knows how differently we could respond to these threats, granting that, in a pre-fallen world, they existed at all. Remember that humanity in the Garden of Evil wasn’t inherently immortal—at least according to most scholars. There was, rather, a tree of life of which they could avail themselves to enable them to live. Could it heal them of disease and injury? It seems likely.

(In saying this, I’m not insisting that we treat the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2-3 strictly literally. But even if you say the tree of life is figurative, it still has a literal, concrete meaning in the physical world with which we must contend, right?)

All that to say, given that spiritual warfare is our gravest threat in the world, I believe that the demonic realm can and does play an important and underappreciated (as in, hardly appreciated at all) role in creating or fostering natural evil. Even when Christian apologists tackle the question, I’ve rarely seen them resort to the devil as one explanation for evil. But why not? If we believe in Satan, evil, both human and natural, makes so much more sense!

Michael Green, in his magisterial book I Believe in Satan’s Downfall, makes this point emphatically.

I believe the Christian doctrines of God of man and of salvation are utterly untenable without the existence of Satan. You simply cannot write him out of the human story and then imagine that the story is basically unchanged. At the beginning, at the mid-point of time and at the end, the devil has an indelible place in Christian theology. The fallen nature of man and of everything he does, the self-destructive tendencies of every civilization history has known, the prevalence of disease and natural disasters, together with “nature, red in tooth and claw” unite to point to a great outside Enemy. I would like to ask theologians who are sceptical about the devil how they can give a satisfactory account of God if Satan is a figment of the imagination. Without the devil’s existence, the doctrine of God, a God who could have made such a world and allowed such horrors as take place daily within it, is utterly monstrous. Such a God would be no loving Father. He would be a pitiless tyrant.[†]

Michael Green, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981), 20-1