Tuesday, July 14, 2020

The Father and the Son (Notes on John 5:19-30)

The background is that Jesus is in Jerusalem for a feast, perhaps Pentecost. He is speaking to "the Jews," who want to kill him for the two crimes of breaking the sabbath (healing a man on that day and then asking him to carry his bed) and of "making himself equal with God" by calling him his Father.

I have to say at the outset that I consider this whole section (John 5:19-47) to be of dubious authenticity. It does not seem plausible that Jesus would have responded to people who were trying to kill him with this long theological discourse, and by the time the discourse has ended, the author seems to have forgotten the whole setting of Jesus confronting his would-be murderers in Jerusalem. Nothing is said about how they responded, what happened next, how Jesus escaped death, or anything like that. Instead, the narrative jumps directly to "After these things Jesus went over the sea of Galilee, which is the sea of Tiberias" (John 6:1) -- a stage direction which is totally out of place, as the Sea of Galilee is nowhere near Jerusalem. Something is obviously amiss with the text as we have it, so we must proceed with caution.

I find this whole passage confusing and self-contradictory, and any interpretations and conclusions I present here are even more tentative than usual. (I thought seriously about just skipping this whole section but in the end decided I should soldier on.)

[19] Then answered Jesus and said unto them, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise.

When accused of breaking the Sabbath, Jesus said, "My Father worketh hitherto, and I work" -- in other words, God doesn't take a break on the seventh day, and so neither does Jesus. Here Jesus continues that thought: He only does what he sees the Father do.

Mormons make much of this verse, drawing from it the conclusion that God the Father once lived as a mortal man (because Jesus did, and he can only do what his Father has done) and even that he was the "savior" of his world, undergoing something analogous to Jesus' execution by the Romans as a sacrifice for sin. (This is not an official CJCLDS doctrine but is widely believed.)

To me this verse suggests almost a Homeric view of the world -- in which human beings can do nothing of themselves, and to explain something like the Trojan war in terms of humans and their motivations is to display a laughable naïveté as to what is really going on. While it would be hard to overstate the depth of my respect for Homer and his vision, I do not think that it is a Christian vision or that it can readily be reconciled with Jesus' larger message.

If Jesus were really just doing things that had already been done by the Father, there would have been no need for him. The necessity of Jesus' mission -- surely a sine qua non of Christianity -- implies that Jesus was doing something that God the Father did not, and could not, do.

[20] For the Father loveth the Son, and sheweth him all things that himself doeth: and he will shew him greater works than these, that ye may marvel. [21] For as the Father raiseth up the dead, and quickeneth them; even so the Son quickeneth whom he will.

This seems to be saying that even resurrection -- the centerpiece of Jesus' mission -- was not something new, but yet another instance of his copying something the Father had already done. I don't think this can possibly be right. "For as the Father raiseth up the dead" -- but when did the Father ever resurrect anybody before Jesus? And if he did -- if resurrections were already being carried out before the Resurrection -- then wherein lies the unique importance of Jesus?

The only somewhat coherent reading of this that I can come up with -- assuming that the text is not simply corrupt -- is that for the Father to show the Son what he (the Father) is doing, and for the Son to do that thing, are somehow the same thing. "He [the Father] will shew him [Jesus] greater works than these, that ye [the Jews] may marvel" -- why would the Father showing something to Jesus cause the Jews to marvel, unless that "showing" entailed Jesus' acting in some way that the Jews could observe? This implies that the Father acts through the agency of the Son in such a direct way that, for Jesus, "I healed a man" and "The Father showed me that he was healing a man" are two ways of saying the same thing. "For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me" (John 6:38).

This is metaphysically complex and conflicts somewhat with my current understanding of agency, individuality, and the relationship between God and man. I need to think about it more and decide whether it's something I can understand and agree with.

The referent of "he" is ambiguous in the last sentence, and I think this is also true in the original Greek (where the pronoun doesn't actually appear but is implied by the form of the verb). It could mean that the Son quickens (gives life to) whom the Father will, or whom he himself will. The next verse seems to imply that the latter is the proper reading.

[22] For the Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Son:

(This line always makes me think of John C. Wright's conversion story, which is worth a read.)

Coming right after "the Son quickeneth whom he will," this seems to be saying that Jesus, not the Father, decides who will be "quickened," or resurrected -- although it could of course also refer to judgment in a broader sense. This seems to conflict with the preceding statement that the Son can only do what he sees the Father do, since the Son judges but the Father does not.

There's also the question of why all judgment has been committed to the Son. There would be no point in the Father's deferring to the Son's judgment unless the Son would judge differently from -- and better than -- the Father. (Of course such a thing would be impossible if we assumed a strictly omniscient Supergod, but we don't.) I would guess that the Son's superior ability to judge men has to do with his direct experience of being a man and understanding the mortal condition from the inside (which in turn implies that the Mormons are wrong to assume that the Father also began his career as a man; this is something that distinguishes the Son from the Father).

[23] That all men should honour the Son, even as they honour the Father. He that honoureth not the Son honoureth not the Father which hath sent him.

The Son should be honored even as the Father. A deified man is not a "god with a small g" -- a formulation popular among those suffering from Residual Unresolved Monotheism -- but a God in the fullest sense, the same sort of being as the Father.

[24] Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life. [25] Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live.

[26] For as the Father hath life in himself; so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself;

The Father hath life. God is alive -- an organism, not an abstraction -- or at least more like the former than like the latter.

That the Father has life in himself presumably means that, unlike a biological organism, he is able to stay "alive" without requiring anything outside himself. He is an uncaused cause, who exists because he wills himself to exist.

What, then, can it mean to say that the Father has given to the Son to have life in himself? If the Son has truly has life in himself -- owes his life to himself alone -- how can he also owe it to the Father? How can the Father give the Son what he (the Son) has of himself? I don't have an answer to this; I simply raise the question.

[27] And hath given him authority to execute judgment also, because he is the Son of man.

Son of man has two possible meanings. Its primary meaning is simply "man" -- the singular form of the familiar biblical expression "children of men." The more restricted sense, referring to a Messiah-like figure, comes from the apocalyptic dream recorded in Daniel 7. In his dream, Daniel sees four successive beasts -- a lion, a bear, a four-headed leopard, and a monster with ten horns -- representing pagan kingdoms. (The beast of Revelation with its seven heads and ten horns, is a combination of these four.) The Ancient of Days appears and destroys these kingdoms, after which Daniel sees "one like the son of man" -- meaning a human being, in contrast to the beasts he had seen before -- descending from heaven. This son of man is given a kingdom which shall never be destroyed. While the text of Daniel itself seems to identify this son of man as a symbol of "the saints of the Most High," later Judaism sometimes saw him as an individual -- either the Messiah, or a separate figure who would come after the Messiah.

So, why has Jesus been given authority to execute judgment? Is it because he is the figure foreseen by Daniel, or simply because he is a man? I lean toward the latter interpretation for two reasons. First, the definite article is not present in the Greek; it literally reads "because he is a son of man." Second, v. 22 emphasizes that judgment belongs to the Son rather than to the Father. We should therefore be looking not at what distinguishes Jesus from other men (e.g. his role as the apocalyptic Son of Man) but at what distinguishes him from the Father (namely, his being a man, a son of Adam).

The implication is, again, that God as such is not fully qualified to judge men, never having walked a mile in our moccasins. Jesus can judge us because, in addition to being divine, he is one of us. (How do you square this with God's omniscience? Well, you can't, and I don't. I don't believe in Supergod.)

Alma 7:12-13 in the Book of Mormon seems relevant here.

[12] And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.

[13] Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance; and now behold, this is the testimony which is in me.

While there is a nod to the traditional doctrine of omniscience, Alma nevertheless insists on the necessity of Son's experiencing human life and death firsthand "that he may know according to the flesh." This is a deeper, truer sort of knowing, above and beyond the abstract sense in which it may be said that "the Spirit knoweth all things."

Even Jesus, though, hasn't lived every human life -- only his own, very specific life -- and so even his "knowing according to the flesh" is not absolute. He has firsthand knowledge of "the human condition" in general, but not of every individual human condition. Your experience is your own, and through it you come to know things that even the Gods themselves don't really know, not "according to the flesh." We are, each of us, genuine unknown quantities, exploring uncharted waters, and "it doth not yet appear what we shall be" (1 John 3:2). Some may find this frightening -- the whole "existential angst" thing -- but it is what makes a meaningful life possible.

From this I must conclude that even Jesus' role as judge is limited. Ultimately, we can only judge ourselves.

[28] Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, [29] And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.

This is the first and only mention of a "resurrection of damnation" (or, as it may also be translated, "of judgment"). It is also the first reference in this Gospel to the idea that dead will be judged according to whether they have "done good" or "done evil" -- rather than, as in vv. 24-25 and elsewhere, according to whether they have heard and believed Jesus.

What is the point if this "resurrection of damnation"? Why raise someone from the dead only to damn him? Why not just leave him as a shade in Hades? A few possibilities come to mind:
  1. Even the resurrection of damnation is preferable to Hades. These people are being given the best they are able or willing to receive.
  2. The resurrection of damnation is worse than Hades, but God respects the free will of those who choose it anyway.
  3. The damnation spoken of is not final, and those who are resurrected to it are resurrected because they are still salvable.
  4. The resurrection of damnation is reincarnation.
  5. The text is corrupt. There is no resurrection of damnation.
I have no idea which, if any, of these possibilities reflects the real situation. I'm just throwing out ideas.

[30] I can of mine own self do nothing: as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is just; because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me.

The word because implies that Jesus' judgment would not be just if he sought his own will -- that he himself does not will justice in the same way that the Father does. But at the same time, Jesus' judgment must be more just than the Father's own, or else the Father would not have delegated the task of judgment to him. Each of them must contribute something to the judgment process. In keeping with my speculations above, I would say that the best judgment occurs when the Father's will (which is more impersonally just, because he is not a man) is informed by Jesus' "knowledge according to the flesh" (which is truer and deeper, because he is a man).

I repeat again that everything I have written here is highly speculative, and that in the last analysis I don't trust this part of the Gospel. Nevertheless, I don't feel that I can dismiss it without doing the hard work of trying to understand what it is saying.

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