When The Thing That Kills Offers Healing And Salvation

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The_Bronze_Serpent-342x260Let me say that I love the Lutheran lectionary. For a poor miserable Bible reader like me, the lectionary insists upon continual reexamination of familiar and unfamiliar texts. Today I had one such reflection session with the Old Testament reading, Numbers 21:4-9. The narrative involves Moses, divine herpetology, and healing. My reflections are twofold. First, it provides insight into a common misconception about apologetics—decision theology. Second, it provides a wonderful example of God choosing to work within an environment, turning vice into virtue.

Is Apologetics Necessarily A Decision Theology?

First, the misconception. Evidential apologetics has a bad reputation, particularly within confessional Lutheranism and Reformed circles. The claim is that evidential apologetics is committed to decision theology. You see, evidence demands action, a cognitive affirmation, denial, or agnosticism. But, and here is the rub, if I accept the evidence, then I’ve ostensibly made a decision for Jesus. And, that is impossible given my sinful nature.

The key here is in my use of the word ‘ostensibly.’ The word means, “apparently or purportedly, but perhaps not actually” (OED). Thus, when a positive case is accepted for the death and resurrection of Jesus, it ostensibly looks and perhaps even feels like a choice was made. However, let’s return to the OT passage. When reading it in translation, LORD is capitalized throughout. This is a convention that translators use to signal translation of the word Yahweh. Yahweh, at least across Christendom, is trinitarian in nature suggesting that the snake episode was a Divinely joint effort.

The take home of this for apologetics is that the LORD rarely works unilaterally. When I am conversing with an unbeliever, the message of Christ is not singularly the Son, but the whole trinitarian package. The Spirit works through the Word. John 1 tells me that the Word is Christ and John 14:7 informs me that if I have known Jesus, I have seen the Father. Scripture doesn’t seem too concerned with formal division of the godhead as found in dogmatics texts. Sure, different roles are emphasized by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but discussion of any part of the package seems to implement the whole package.

Thus, the ostensible decision for Christ involved in apologetics finds a firmer theological backdrop, and nothing precludes the Father and Spirit from doing their work. The decision, within a context of arguments concerning Christ is one accepted either through the work of the trinity or one’s denial according to the flesh. Numbers 21:4-9 helps us see that any emphasis on a particular aspect of the trinity brings the others in its wake.

Working From Vice To Virtue

Second, from vice to virtue. I’ve blogged on the need to develop a conversational approach to apologetics. A rejection of rigid argumentative theory for a more flexible “classical naturalist” approach. (See my posts on beavers, Part 1 and Part 2.) My thesis: one must work with the environment given when crafting a presentation of the Gospel directed at specific individuals.

Return then to the ebb and flow of the Number’s text. First, God’s people complain. The Israelites are seeking craft brew, while being offered Coors Light. This is a problem of environment; the landscape within which God has placed them to work. Apologetically, the narrative would replace complaints about physical food with intellectual or cultural food. We desire a certain intellectual/cultural habitat not on offer for our generation. So, we spend copious amounts of time, present party INCLUDED, instructing God as to how the environment ought to look.

Examples abound. I’ve listened to complaints about public school science curriculum (Evil-u-shun), the stripping of religious artifacts from public spaces, and the general liberal agenda dominant in contemporary life. Oh, the outrage and the unjustness of it all, and we join voices with the Israelites desiring one way tickets back to Egypt.

What should cause pause to all our complaining is the trinitarian reaction to such complaining, a setting of serpents upon God’s people. “You don’t like the environment I’ve graciously granted you,” God listens, “then watch how I enact my justice. The environment itself will rise against you.” Thus, despite our efforts, our intellectual climate is one of an ever increasing secular educational curriculum, not only are public spaces divesting of religious imagery, but sacred spaces as well, and an ever increasing freedom of speech for everyone except the conservative Christian. The snake bites hard.

But, there is hope. As is always the case with our good LORD, he provides the perfect escape clause. “Oh,” he tells the Israelites, “you don’t like being killed by snakes, then focus your gaze away from the terrestrial and survey the cross for healing and life.”

But, notice that salvation comes from within the environment itself; a bronze serpent. The very thing that was killing the people becomes refocused, offering healing and salvation.

What of our intellectual environments? How often do we prefer complaining about the environment instead of working with the environment. The LORD didn’t tell Moses to hang a bronze image of a fish or even a man on his staff. No, he instructed Moses to hang the very thing afflicting them upon the cross. What if we took that to heart in our intellectual landscapes? What if I took to heart what my conversation partner believes and knows, his snakes? What if I used his or her snakes to drive the conversation to the bronze image of the serpent nailed to a tree? How much more effective would we be in our personal interactions and in our global initiatives if we truly worked from the perspective of the serpent?

The environment is dangerous, it can maim and kill, but all things work toward the glory of Christ. It may take a bit of courage, but even intellectual snakes are avenues to the cross. Instead of complaining about it, embrace the intellectual/cultural struggles of our environment. It all may be used as a vehicle for redemption.