27 March 2014

The Gates of Hades

morgul

In Homer’s Iliad at 8.13 we find the following, on the lips of Zeus:

Or seizing him I will hurl him into misty Tartarus, very far, where is the deepest gulf below earth; there are iron gates and brazen threshold, as far beneath Hades as sky is from earth.

Zeus speaks of the gates of Tartarus, far below Hades. The idea seems to be that there can be no escape from Tartarus – there is no way back to Hades, let alone the heavens (for it is other gods that Zeus threatens to cast down). Tartarus was part of a specifically Greek conception of the underworld. As an interesting aside, Tartarus is mentioned in 2 Peter 2:4, not as the destination for troublesome gods as in the Iliad, but as the destination for fallen angels. However, that must remain an aside.

Homer has Zeus speaking of gates in the underworld. We find the same theme in the words of Jesus, spoken to Peter:

And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it. Matthew 16:18

Jesus speaks of the ‘gates of Hades’. The expression is found in the Old Testament and in other Jewish literature (e.g. Job 38:17; Ps 9:13; 107:18; Is 38:10; Wis 16:13; 3 Macc 5:51; Ps Sol 16:2). However, in these cases the ‘gates of Hades’ is the threshold of the realm of the dead (associated with crossing that threshold in death, or in almost crossing it in a near-death experience). In the saying of Jesus in Matthew 16:18, we find the idea of gates overpowering or prevailing. Interpreters tend to find this puzzling, since in the ancient Near East city gates were a defensive, rather than an offensive, feature. However, in the Sibylline Oracles we find imagery that seems to reflect both Homer and the words of Jesus. The context is the resurrection of the dead:

But when the immortal God's eternal angels Arakiel, Ramiel, Uriel, Samiel, and Azael…will from dark gloom then lead to judgment all the souls of men before the judgment-seat of the great God…then the heavenly One give souls and spirit and voice, to them that dwell beneath and also bones fitted with joints unto all kinds of flesh, And both the flesh and sinews, veins and skin about the body, and hair as before; divinely fashioned and with breathing moved will bodies of those on earth one day be raised. Sib Or 2:214-226

The Oracle goes on,

And then will Uriel, mighty angel, break the bolts of stern and lasting adamant which, monstrous, hold the brazen gates of Hades, straight cast them down, and unto judgment lead all forms that have endured much suffering. Sib Or 2:227-230

In the Iliad, the gates of Tartarus prevent escape. In the Sibylline Oracles above, the gates of Hades are broken down in order to release the dead for judgement. The emphasis in the Oracle is clearly on the raising of the bodies of the dead. Those who are raised include Old Testament saints such as Moses, those killed in the flood, as well as Titans and giants (2.231-248)! Although the late date of the Sibylline Oracles places them after Jesus’s words, the emphasis on gates preventing the dead from being raised reflects the much earlier Homeric portrait in the Iliad of gates preventing the cast-down gods from returning to Olympus.

So, it seems to me that Matthew 16:18 is not really about evil powers frustrating the work of the church in the here and now (the most common interpretation of the verse), but about the victory of God’s people over death through resurrection. Jesus is building God’s new humanity, the church, as a people who will live human lives as human beings, body and soul. The church is a people destined for new life in a new earth. The reality of death will not defeat this purpose. Jesus, when he speaks these words to Peter, voices his mission: he has come to defeat death and to raise the dead – to save people body and soul. He rises from the dead to eternal life – and God’s people too will rise from the dead to eternal life. The fact that no-one has returned from Hades when Jesus speaks these words is about to be over-turned on the first Easter Sunday!

14 March 2014

John Murray on Subscription to the Confession

MurrayJohn Murray writes very helpfully on ‘The Theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith’ (Collected Writings 4.241-63). Murray doesn’t just provide a description of the content, but an assessment of it. And it’s also an appraisal of the place of the Confession in the Presbyterian church. So, it’s important reading on a number of fronts.  Murray reserves high praise for the Confession: no other creedal confession ‘attains to the same level of excellence’ and ‘no other is its peer’. However, he also identifies the dangers of assessing the Confession too positively.
To appraise it as perfect and not susceptible to improvement or correction would be to accord it an estimate and veneration that belong only to the Word of God. This would be idolatry, and would amount to the denial of that progressive understanding which the presence of the Holy Spirit in the church guarantees (p260, emphasis added).
Murray judges the 350 year old Confession as requiring little in the way of revision. However, he judges amendments as possible, and indeed necessary. But, he makes the point that the ‘system of truth’ of the Confession remains the same.
When the Confession is examined carefully in the light of Scripture and in relation to the demands of confessional witness in the church today, the amazing fact is that there is so little need for emendation, revision, or supplementation. And of greater importance is the fact that justifiable or necessary amendments do not affect the system of truth set forth in the Confession. In other words, the doctrine of the Confession is the doctrine which the church needs to confess and hold aloft today as much as in the l7th century (p261).
Here we find some background to the idea of ‘system subscription’. After describing several areas where the Confession is in his view inaccurate in designation or statement, or unsatisfactory in other ways, Murray again refers to the ‘system of truth’.
It is with something of an apology that attention is drawn to these blemishes. But they serve to point up and confirm the observation made earlier that any amendment necessary does not affect the system of truth set forth in the Confession, and they remind us of the imperfection that must attach itself to human composition so that we may never place human documents or pronouncements on a par with the one supreme standard of faith (p263).
Verily Murray speaketh sense.

6 March 2014

John Murray on the Westminster Confession

John MurrayIn my previous post, I wrote about tensions in confessional Reformed Christianity. John Murray (‘The Theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith’ in Collected Writings 4.242-3) highlights three aspects of the nature of the Westminster Confession and its use within the Reformed church (emphasis added):
  • ‘[I]t should be borne in mind that the creeds of the church have been framed in a particular historical situation to meet the need of the church in that context, and have been oriented to a considerable extent in both their negative and positive declarations to the refutation of the errors confronting the church at that time. The creeds are, therefore, historically complexioned in language and content and do not  reflect the particular and  distinguishing  needs  of subsequent generations.’
  • ‘[T]here is the progressive understanding of the faith delivered to the saints. There is in the church the ceaseless activity of the Holy Spirit so that the church organically and corporately increases in knowledge unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ. The progressive correction and enrichment that the promise and presence of the Holy Spirit insure should find embodiment in a confession that is the precipitate of the church's faith. No Confession in the history of the  church exemplifies  this   more  patently  than  the  Westminster Confession. It is the epitome of the most mature thought to which the church of Christ had been led up to the year 1646. But are we to suppose that this progression ceased with that date? To ask the question is to answer it. An affirmative is to impugn the continued grace to which the Westminster Confession is itself an example at the time of its writing. There is more light to break forth from the living and abiding Word of God.’
  • ‘Finally, it must be borne in mind that all human composition is fallible and is, therefore, subject to correction and improvement.’
The tensions and issues surrounding subscription to the Confession cannot be adequately understood and resolved unless all three of the above are recognised, especially the second one.