What Herod Means to Me

Eric Casteel
Thursday, August 30th 2007
Nov/Dec 1994

We are all Herod. We would-every one of us-snuff out the cries of the Babe in its mother's arms rather than have to hear His words from the cross, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Forgive us, indeed. We will have none of that.

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'" Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." When they had heard the king, they set out….And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road….

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more." (Matt. 2:1-9a, 12, 16-18, NRSV)

We are all Herod, not because we seek to slaughter innocent children, but because we seek, by killing the truth of words, to kill the Word. Herod did not want the words of the prophets concerning the coming King to be true, so he sought by his own measures to see to it that they were rendered meaningless by destroying truth. Today, not having the Christ child around, we have other methods of ridding ourselves of truth. Rather than attempting to kill the Christ child, we try to kill the words about Him. We do this either by substituting our feelings for the facts of Scripture, or we subject those words to endless reinterpretation: "What Jesus means to me…" We, like Herod who chose not to heed the inevitability of Micah's words, do not choose to heed the plain statement of the Baptist: "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world"(John 1:29). We have this thing about reinventing truth. And it is a very deadly disease.

Part and parcel of a new Reformation will be the return to letting the words of scripture’indeed, of any writing’speak for themselves. This was true of the sixteenth century Reformation. Luther's many introductions to books of the Bible deal as much with interpretation as they do with translation. The value, in either case, was placed on the words of scripture, both as simply words and as the words of God. It was not unusual for this shift to occur in Luther's time, because it had been happening in other fields whose primary sources were ancient texts which had long been ignored in favor of later commentaries, such as the works of Aristotle, Plato, Cicero and Hermogenes. The emphasis, the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth century humanists said, was to be on the originals, not on later translations or commentaries. And so with Biblical studies. It was time to turn away from the scholastic commentaries, and the stifling work of the theologians of the Sorbonne, and back to the basic message of scripture. It was the return to original words that led to the Renaissance. It was the return to the words of the Word that resulted in the Reformation. Today, we are far from the words, and far from the Word.

We have, in our day, a Jesus who is a great marketing manager, (1) our great moral example, (2) or a Buddha of Buddhas or some such new age nonsense. He can be a god who wants us to be wealthy, or a sort of marionette deity who we order around telling him to "heal this, destroy that, fix this dent in my car and’while you're at it’raise my chicken from the dead, will you?" He can be anything but the "Word made flesh." The reason for this is really quite simple. We don't want anything which we cannot revise, edit, rewrite, paint over, or reconceptualize whenever we come up with a new metaphysical theory. Herod just wanted to King. But we have bigger plans. We want to be the controllers of truth: we want to be God.

The greatest revolts against God occur in the areas of language. Language is, after all, the primary tool of cognition. That is, we think in words. (3) And since Christianity is primarily a religion centered around the acts of God in Christ which were witnessed by those around Him and subsequently passed on in words to the next generation (rather than being centered around our actions, behavior, or morality), (4) it should come as no surprise to us that this is the case: God has always been most concerned with facts that can be conveyed with words, not with emotions transmitted by who knows what kind of celestial ooze. (Certainly someone will object here: "Christianity is a religion of the heart, not the intellect." The only response to this is that this is a false dichotomy. The Bible does not put the heart in opposition to the intellect. Indeed, in the Bible and all of classical literature, the heart was seen as the seat of the intellect, while the seat of the emotions was the stomach or bowels. So, inviting Jesus into one's heart is correct if one means by this that Jesus comes into the person's intellectual life. If, however, what is meant is the liberal, romantic or gnostic notion of some type of emotionally-experienced "intimacy with God," then it is entirely false. On the other hand, this is not to say that Christianity is entirely unemotional. Genuine Christian piety is very emotional. But I will deal with this later.)

It is when we start playing with words that God gets really angry. Think for instance of the serpent in the garden who twisted God's words (Gen. 3). Think of Christ's words to the Pharisees when they corrupted the Law (Matt. 23). Consider the warnings in Deuteronomy (4:2) and Revelation (22:18) concerning adding to or taking away from the scriptures. And consider whence comes revival in the nation of Israel? When Ezra returns to the words of God and reads the Torah to the people (Neh. 7-8). God will not have his words twisted or ignored. The Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde suggests that it is when we start inventing new language about God that we are exposed as sinners: "Developing speech that seeks to make a god amenable to our projected hopes and dreams is no different from making a god of wood or stone or bronze: it is simply idolatry, and it is born of unbelief." (5) First, we talk about a god as if we believe in one, but then we start fashioning our own language about Him, as if we could create God in our own image. How on earth can we believe in a God that we can rewrite? Have we not, in such a case, simply redefined the word "god"? Whatever He is (we tell ourselves), he certainly is not the creator, sustainer or redeemer. He is not what he calls himself. He/She/It is what we call him/her/it. Unfortunately, having given Christianity over to being a "relationship" or a "way of life" instead of the belief in the historical fact that Christ died for the sins of the world and that those who believe this will be saved form the wrath of God and eternal punishment, we have put our feelings before God's words. At this point, we are going to have to question which god is which, and wonder how we are to differentiate between them. And if we can't decide whose feelings are more important, we are going to be forced either to ignore the differences, or we're going to have find out what God has to say for himself.

Language is a divinely sanctioned thing. Consider the biblical emphasis’

"And God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light" (Gen. 1:3).

"No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe" (Deut. 30:14).

"By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth" (Psalm 33:6).

"Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path." (Psalm 119:5)

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." (John 1:1)

"And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, and the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth." (John 1:14)

"By faith we understand the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not seen." (Hebrews 11:3)

The clear correlation in scripture between God's word and the person and work of Christ can never be overemphasized (see esp. Col. 1:15-17). In fact, without this connection, scripture means nothing. Creation, the old Lutheran dogmaticians held, was per verbum‘through or by means of the word. Creation was accomplished through the word of God. And this means that creation was both through the spoken word that God uttered’"And God said…"’and through Christ, the hypostatic Word through whom God the father speaks. (6)

How can we then, as beings created by an act of spoken words, turn our backs on the medium by which we were made? It is here where our rebellion goes deepest. We turn our backs on words by going to feelings and emotions. "The Lord told me…." Really? How? Did you hear an actual voice? Were these just impressions? God gets pretty serious about using actual words, you know. And the proof of this is in the incarnation. God is so concerned about being concrete, clear and fully understood that he became flesh. The creator stepped into his creation for the express purposes of making himself known, ("Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us," Luke 2:15) and "to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross" (Col. 1:20).

Emotions do not make the facts. But the fact that Christ said to the Father, "Forgive them…," will stir the emotions of the Christian who knows his or her sin. David said to God, "Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit" (Psalm 51:12). There's nothing cold and unemotional about that. Consider, too, the words to these two songs, one a contemporary "Praise" ditty, the other an eighteenth century hymn:

I can hear rain, it's falling on my rooftop
Sending those shivers down my spine
Ooh it makes me feel good
So near to you
And I remember . . . the first time (7)


Let us love, and sing and wonder,
Let us praise the Saviour's Name !
He has hushed the Law's loud thunder,
He has quenched Mt. Sinai's flame:
He has washed us with His blood,
He presents our souls to God. (8)

The latter indeed stirs the heart of grateful sinners, for it displays an understanding of the Grace of God which the writer of the hymn’the same who penned Amazing Grace‘had experienced deeply. It can and frequently does bring tears to many a singer's eyes. The former is probably not fit to be sung in a single's bar, but it's passed off as worship music.

God's creative act guarantees our speech. That is, we can trust language because it is something invented, not by us, but by God and given to us. Personally, and I won't put too much emphasis on this as it is mere supposition on my part, I believe that the ability to use language is part of the imago dei‘the image of God’which scripture says that we as his creatures bear (Gen. 1:26,27). And, as it stands, it is something which is on loan to us. Or, as the line from the great hymn O Sacred Head, Now Wounded says, "What language can I borrow to thank you…?" Language is not ours to do with as we please. Words belong to God, just as the Word is God. We must be extremely careful then in creating new names for God, as feminist theology seeks to do. We must be careful in offering our own interpretations of God's words, "What Jesus/this passage means to me is…" as too many church-goers do. And we must take exceeding care not to lose our respect for language, as many textual critics and literary theorists have done, saying that words can have no inherent meaning because language is an arbitrary human invention. We must be careful of all these things because, as George Steiner says, "Language seeks vengeance on those who cripple it." (9) Forde says that the hidden God’in Lutheran theology, the God of wrath’hides behind words ready to strike when we start messing around with them. (10) Often I think His vengeance takes the shape of Romans 1, where God simply turns people over to their lusts. God will allow the critic to believe that language has no real meaning, which will in turn throw that person into an ugly and consuming abyss. (11)

It is when we encounter this in our daily lives that we, as followers of the Word, must intervene on behalf of others. And when I say intervene, I am speaking of our tasks as apologists and evangelists. When we encounter this kind of relativism, we must be quick to ask that person, "WHY?" "If language is meaningless, why do you use it? Why do you expect me to understand you? And, if language really is meaningless, then you are absolutely alone in this world, because you have no guarantee that I'm understanding you at all." Words mean something because God created the world with words through the Word, that same Word which became flesh.

Now someone might notice a little bit of circularity in my argument, here. After all, I've said that language is meaningful because God says (in written words) that words mean something. But I'm assuming that those written words (scripture) are meaningful. This part of my argument is covered, however, by John Warwick Montgomery's resurrection apologetic, which can be found in Human Rights and Human Dignity or The Shape of the Past. But I will summarize it here’however ungracefully’for those not familiar with it.

There is a collection of historical documents which speak of a man named Jesus, a Jewish rabbi who seemed to be preaching things which were in conflict with Jewish beliefs. He was brought to trial by Jewish leaders in a Roman court, was crucified in brutal Roman fashion, and was killed. Three days later, a group of his friends began to claim that he was again alive. In fact, at least four of the nine writers of these documents claim that they themselves saw the risen Jesus. One of the other writers says that at the time he was writing, at least 251 people were still alive who had seen Jesus alive again. This group of people’these Christians, as they were called’quickly became very troublesome to Jewish religious leaders. This man who was touted as the long-awaited Messiah’the promised redeemer of Israel’was said to be alive again. So, these leaders naturally did what anyone would do in the face of such ridiculous claims: they brought out the body of the crucified rabbi to disprove the claims.

History records all of these events except for the very last one. No one ever did produce a body. No one ever disproved the resurrection of Christ, even though it would have been the easiest thing in the world to disprove. No, his disciples could not have stolen the body, because there was a Roman guard at the tomb. And besides, eleven guys who have just seen their leader brutally executed are not likely to have the wits or energy to try and overcome or outsmart a Roman guard. So, something must be special about this Jesus guy.

When we examine these documents further, we see that this man clearly claimed to be God. Coupled with all of the eyewitness testimony regarding the resurrection of Jesus, we can reasonably come to the conclusion that this man Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, just as the Roman soldier at the cross confessed. Jesus was God. At this point we look at what he said regarding the words of God and the scriptures. Christ affirms all of the history of the Old Testament, including the fantastic stuff like Jonah and the Whale. All of the words are vindicated. All of the words are trustworthy.

I fear for the next generation that distrusts words, a generation which George Steiner believes is already upon us. (12) It sounds absurd and impractical, but what if we do decide that words don't mean anything? Will we stop speaking with one another? Will we become rebelliously silent against words which we are told mean nothing? Closing our ears to one another presupposes that our ears are already closed to God. The truth is, however, that we are trying desperately to kill words, so that we won't have to listen. If we can ignore words, then we can ignore what is written on our hearts. And we can ignore Christ's words from the cross. Forde is right. Messing around with the words exposes us as sinners.

We must be careful to defend facts over feelings, and the primacy of the speaker over the hearer, else the "Word became flesh" for no reason. Why flesh if emotional experience could have done the job? The reason for our being forgiven had flesh and blood, and he cried. Our infant saviour cried. Our grown saviour cried (out of real, emotional grief). All of the human senses could perceive Him. Also, he told us the meaning of his coming using a tool which all of humanity shares: language. The reality, necessity and importance of these can never be over-emphasized. To deny them is to deny the Incarnation, even if only accidentally. (13) But the Word really did become flesh. Physical. Empirical. Sensible. The prostitute really heard the words, "Neither do I condemn you," and she really knew what they meant. The babe in the manger whom we call Emmanuel, God with us, is meant not to be erased or ignored, but worshipped and adored.

1 [ Back ] George Barna, Marketing the Church: What They Never Taught You about Church Growth (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1988), p. 50.
2 [ Back ] Charles Finney, Systematic Theology (Bethany House).
3 [ Back ] Of course, we think in all sorts of other ways, too. But language is one of the few ways in which we can concretely reproduce our thought processes into something outside of us which others can experience. I can not always reproduce on paper a picture which I see in my mind's eye, but I can always say the words that I am thinking. For a related discussion, see Max Black, "The Labyrinth of Language," Reclaiming the Imagination ed. by Ann E. Berthoff, (Portsmouth, N.H.: Boynton/Cook, 1984), pp. 72-83.
4 [ Back ] Ironically, secular historians can see that this is the core of Christianity better than some professing Christians: "From the very beginning, Christianity was a 'historical' religion, seeing the world as a stage for divine action, and the life of Christ as God's supreme intervention in its affairs." Stephen Toulmin and June Goodfield, The Discovery of Time, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956), p. 56.
5 [ Back ] Gerhard Forde, "Naming the One Who is Above Us," Speaking the Christian God'The Holy Trinity and the Challenge of Feminism, ed. by Alvin F. Kimel, Jr., (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1992), p. 114.
6 [ Back ] Robert D. Preus, The Theology of Post-Reformation Lutheranism, V2, God and His Creation (St. Louis: Concordia, 1972), pp. 171-172.
7 [ Back ] Chris Falson, "The First Time," Standing on the Rock, Copyright 1994, Maranatha! Music, 38597-1020-2.
8 [ Back ] John Newton, "Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder," From Book III of the Olney Hymnbook.
9 [ Back ] George Steiner, "The Retreat from the World," A Reader (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 301.
10 [ Back ] Forde, op. cit.
11 [ Back ] For a brilliant reaction to the current state of literacy studies in American universities, see the essay in Lionel Trilliing in Gertrude Himmelfarb's On Looking Into the Abyss'Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), pp. 3-26.
12 [ Back ] George Steiner, Real Presences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).
13 [ Back ] In the Spirit-Filled Life Bible, ed. by Jack Hayford (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991), a study note on Genesis 3:15, written by Mr. Hayford, says of the promised Messiah, "He will be completely human, yet divinely begotten" (p. 9). One hopes that Mr. Hayford is advocating the ancient heresy of adoptionism only by accident and a very careless use of words. But he has, nevertheless, denied the historical idea of the Incarnation: God became Man, fully man yet fully God.
Thursday, August 30th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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