Tuesday, June 29, 2021

What Does Your Proof Text Prove? (15)

In our early twenties, my cousin and I would get together once a week or so to study the Bible and debate theology. Our discussions were mostly amiable but a little frustrating for both of us. Because we attended churches that held very different views about the meaning of Bible prophecy and the future prospects of God’s earthly people, our underlying assumptions about the meaning of the texts we studied together were sharply at odds far too frequently for comfort.

One regular bone of contention was the meaning of the word “Israel”. My cuz used it figuratively, I used it literally, and back and forth we went. We never did resolve our debate. Funnily enough, I am still thrashing this out on a regular basis, just with different people.

And ... here it is again.

Who is Israel?

In a post entitled “Who is Israel?”, an unnamed writer for Ligonier Ministries lists four ways he believes the word is used in the writings of the apostle Paul. I have no issue with the first three, which are: (1) all ethnic Jews (national Israel); (2) pious, unsaved Jews (“Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness”); and (3) a subset of Jews possessed of genuine faith (the Israelite remnant). All three uses can be found in Romans 9-11. The first and third are contrasted in the phrase “not all who are descended from Israel (ethnic Jews) belong to Israel (the remnant)”.

My difficulty is with the fourth alleged usage, which the writer self-admittedly cannot find in Romans and must therefore seek elsewhere in Paul’s writings:

“Finally, the term Israel can also designate all of those who believe in Jesus, including both ethnic Jews and ethnic Gentiles. In Galatians 6:16, the Apostle applies the name Israel to the entire believing community — the invisible church — that follows Christ.”

Okay then.

A Blessing Pronounced

First, let’s see for ourselves what Paul says about Israel in Galatians 6:

“For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.”

This is the culmination of Paul’s teaching on the subject of circumcision, that it is absolutely unnecessary for Christians and should not be imposed on Gentiles. Finally, the apostle pronounces a blessing on what appear to be two groups of people: (1) “all who walk by this rule”; and (2) the “Israel of God”. Because both are euphemisms, we must first identify who the apostle is writing about.

I cannot see how either group constitutes the “entire believing community”, let alone both. There are no compelling linguistic or contextual reasons to make such a connection. The only reason to make it is that your theology requires Israel to be synonymous with the church and the church with Israel. It is wish fulfillment masquerading as exegesis.

Getting ‘Even’

Nevertheless, covenant theologian Anthony Hoekema writes:

“The word και, therefore, should here be rendered even, as the New International Version has done. When the passage is so understood, ‘the Israel of God’ is a further description of ‘all who follow this rule’ — that is, all true believers, including both Jews and Gentiles, who constitute the New Testament Church. Here, in other words, Paul clearly identifies the church as the true Israel.”

What Hoekema is doing here is identifying the first group as the church, then following a then-contemporary edition of the NIV in rendering the Greek word kai in English as “even”, meaning, in his view, “which is to say”.* He concludes that the phrase “the Israel of God” is supplied as a clarification or explication of the identity of the first group to which the apostle refers. As a consequence, national Israel disappears, and the church inherits its blessings. A large number of evangelicals today believe this, though not every adherent to covenant theology writes off the nation of Israel entirely. John Piper, for example, conflates Israel and the church while simultaneously insisting that national Israel still figures in God’s future plans for this world, though he (understandably) cannot point to a “when and how”.

Two Major Problems

I have often heard Hoekema’s explanation cited by Christians from the Reformed tradition but until today I had never done the spadework to check it for myself. As is so often the case, I really should have, instead of simply accepting what I was being told. Not very Berean of me.

Problem #1: The first group Paul is blessing (“all who walk by this rule”) is not the church as a whole, but rather a subset of the church. (In scripture, “walk” invariably connotes lived experience, not some divine act of grace accomplished on our behalf.) Thus, it should be evident that not all Christians live out in every respect the reality that the new creation is what counts. In my experience, even today some groups of Christians are legalistic almost to the point of superstition. I would never presume to question their salvation on that basis, only their full enjoyment of it. The book of Galatians was not written to unsaved men and women, but rather to those who were saved and had become confused by others about the role of law-keeping in the life of the believer. Paul was urging them to take a view of the law that would bring clarity and blessing into their Christian experience. Nevertheless, their salvation did not turn on the issue of whether they fully comprehended and always acted consistently with the implications of the freedom they now possessed in Christ. In any case, if “all who walk by this rule” is not synonymous with “all true believers”, Hoekema’s thesis has already keeled over and expired before its first major hurdle.

Problem #2: First, in order to understand what “the Israel of God” means, we need to determine whether kai may legitimately bear the meaning “which is to say”. Second, if so, how likely is it that it does so in this particular instance?

Doing the Spadework

The word kai is extremely common in Greek, so much so that the frequency with which the New Testament writers employ it has probably discouraged the careful investigation of Hoekema’s claim about its intended meaning in Galatians 6:16. The vast majority of the time (8,678 times, to be precise), kai serves as a simple conjunction and is translated “and” or “also”. There are a mere 108 occasions where kai is translated as “even”. Thus, even if kai could possibly bear the meaning Hoekema wants us to read into it, odds are (at very least) 86:1 that it doesn’t.

But it gets worse for Mr. Hoekema. Here’s a link to the 108 instances in which the KJV does translate kai as “even”. (The numbers are padded to 228 because a search for the combination of “even” and kai turns up over 100 “false positives” — references to “even” that are not translations of kai, and are therefore irrelevant to our study.) The moment you begin to scan down this list, you can hardly help noticing that while there are indeed instances where kai has been translated as “even”, none is explanatory. Not a single one fits Hoekema’s postulated model of an “even” that really means “which is to say”. For example, Matthew 8:27 reads as follows:

“And the men marveled, saying, ‘What sort of man is this, that even [kai] winds and sea obey him?’ ”

Matthew is not using “even” in the sense Hoekema alleges. In Matthew, the word “even” compares rather than explains. Matthew is contrasting the abilities of men generally with the unique abilities of the Lord. In short, you could not replace “even” with the words “which is to say” and have the verse make sense.

In fact, using “even” to mean “which is to say” is an archaic English convention for which there is no documented Greek equivalent. While there are several words that mean something like “which is to say” in Greek, kai is not one of them. I won’t bore you with a recitation of all the other 107 instances of kai being translated “even” in the NT, but you can see for yourself that the meaning Hoekema is eager to find in our verse is simply not there to be found.**

So then, on careful investigation, Hoekema’s explanation of the meaning of Galatians 6:16 does not hold water.

What IS Paul Saying Then?

Now, if Paul is not identifying “the Israel of God” with a subset of the church, then who is this second group that he is pronouncing a blessing on?

I believe he is referring to the faithful remnant within ethnic Israel, and I think the larger context may suggest why that is. The letter to the Galatians is pretty rough sledding for Jews who, perhaps with good intentions in some cases, were urging circumcision on the Gentiles in the churches of Galatia. At one point, the apostle famously writes, “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!” At another, he points out the hypocrisy of the apostle Peter, a fellow Jew. In still another instance, he refers to the law as “a yoke of slavery”, and warns those who were leaning in the direction of law, “If you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.”

This is strong language, and might lead the Galatians to conclude that Paul had utterly rejected his Jewish background. This is not the case, as he would later make clear in the aforementioned chapters of Romans concerning the future of God’s earthly people, where he expresses his deep and profound personal identification with his nation.

So then, it seems likely to me that in addition to pronouncing a blessing on believers who live consistently with their status as a new creation, Paul is also pronouncing his blessing on the true Israel, Jews who would receive or had received Jesus as their Messiah.

The Remnant of Israel

The remnant of Israel has a past, present and future. God has always marked out those who are his. Paul quotes from the story of Elijah to prove there was a historical remnant (“I have kept for myself seven thousand men”) in Israel, that there existed a present remnant (“So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace”), taking us from the first century through the church age to today. And the book of Revelation reveals there is a future remnant to come in the post-church age. These remnants are the true Israel, the faithful Israel, the set-apart Israel, the “Israel of God”. The remnant is the through-line of God’s blessing and calling of his earthly nation.

It doesn’t matter a great deal if Paul is only blessing the Jewish remnant of his present day, recently incorporated into the church, or thinking forward through the next twenty centuries to those Jews who would later believe in Jesus as Messiah during the church age, or even further forward to the Israelite remnant of the post-church era. True Israel has always been true Israel. In our era, “the Israel of God” is a subset of the church, not another way of referring to the whole of it.

In scripture, the word “Israel” is always used ethnically or nationally, whether we are speaking of saved Jews or unsaved. There is no valid reason to invent an otherwise-unsupportable fourth meaning for “Israel” when the word’s existing and well-attested third meaning serves to explain Galatians 6:16 to the satisfaction of anyone who isn’t trying to squeeze a stack of theological baggage into it.

  * The NIV translators did us no favor here, and their latest revision is no improvement. This is the rare exception where translators stoop to promoting a specific theological agenda rather than simply doing their job. The most recent revision of the world’s most popular translation simply declines to translate kai at all, instead substituting an em dash. (Small wonder Reform Theology is booming!) All the less paraphrastic translations (KJV, NKJV, ESV, NASB, Literal Standard and Darby) translate kai as “and”, by far the likeliest and least intrusive option.

** I am not the only one to notice this. Marv at the Asphaleia blog has an excellent but very technical post on the subject in which he goes through the same data and makes the same claim I am making here, except that Marv has a bigger spade and orders of magnitude more authority with the Greek language.

No comments :

Post a Comment