Monday, July 23, 2007

Without the shedding of blood

I am often surprised when people fail to distinguish properly between descriptive and normative statements, or between contingency and necessity. For those unfamiliar with philosophical terminology:
  • Descriptive statement - a statement that simply describes how things are. It doesn't make any value judgments about whether things ought to be that way, it just observes the facts.
  • Normative statement - a statement about how things ought to be. Rather than describing the facts of any given instance, it makes claims about what is ideal, correct, normal, or best.
  • Contingent - something is contingently true if it happens to be true but didn't have to be true. ie if things could have happened differently, if something could have been done another way, then the fact that things happened in the way they did is called contingent.
  • Necessity - this is where something that is true could never have been different.
The verse I observe people regularly making mistakes about is:
Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. (Hebrews 9:22)
Many people read or quote this verse and assume that it is speaking of something normative or necessary. The assumed idea is that either "without the shedding of blood there can't be forgiveness of sins", or that the law is basically correct in its ideas about purification through blood. They implicitly assume the phrase is not a descriptive one describing a contingent truth.

Yet the phrase seems to me to be obviously descriptive. The writer is observing that "under the law" things are purified with blood and sins aren't forgiven apart from blood sacrifice. In this sentence he makes no value judgment about this fact, he simply makes an observational statement. Elsewhere he does make value judgments and those value judgments are negative, not positive! (Heb 10:4, "it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.") Far from describing a necessary truth or a normative method of sin-removal in Heb 9:22, the writer is making a descriptive comment about how the law does things that elsewhere he makes clear he disapproves of. In his view, the law's method is neither the only method nor the best method - neither necessary nor normative.

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6 Comments:

Blogger Bryan L said...

So are you saying that the context doesn't demand reading Christ's deaths as a sacrifice that provided purification and forgiveness of sin? Am I understanding you correctly or have I misread you?

You said, "The assumed idea is that either "without the shedding of blood there can't be forgiveness of sins", or that the law is basically correct in its ideas about purification through blood. They implicitly assume the phrase is not a descriptive one describing a contingent truth."

If the author of Hebrews in 10:4 is making a negative statement concerning the ineffectiveness of the blood of animals to take away sin (meaning that the sacrifice was more of a reminder of the sin), it seems he only does this to contrast it with the total effectiveness of Jesus sacrifice/blood to take away sin (10:10). So that even if the law was not able to provide forgiveness of sin through the sacrifice of animals, it seems like Hebrews is making the point that the law was pointing to Christ who's sacrifice would be able to. And if so then it still seems like in effect it is saying that there needs to be shedding of blood for forgiveness of sin or purification.

I just find it hard to see how the context of Hebrews can be describing anything but the need for the sacrifice of Jesus to remove sin. If you are indeed arguing against this I would be interested in seeing you elaborate on this a bit and see what you instead think it is saying.

Blessings,
Bryan L

23/7/07  
Blogger Scott said...

Context, yes, that's surely more important in determining the nature of that particular statement.

A few verses earlier he quote Moses saying "This is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you". It's this blood which goes hand-in-hand with the forgiveness of sins in the old covanent. To me it seems the author of Hebrews believes this was a God-ordained state-of-affairs. More than that though, it was a state-of-affairs that Christ's blood achieves in a much greater measure.

"He entered once for all into the holy places... by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption" (9:12)

And there's the 'how much more' argument of verse 14. If this was the function of the OT sacrifices, then "how much more will the blood of Christ... purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God".

It's pretty hard to read Hebrews 8-10 and not come away with an impression that the author thinking Jesus' death was the means that God fulfilled his promise through Jeremiah to "be merciful towards their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more".

The foundation of his exhortation in 10:19 onwards is the whole argument that Christ's death was somehow instrumental in 'putting away sin' 'once for all', and 'being offered to bear the sin of many'. If Jesus' death didn't acheieve something objective in this regard then surely his exhortation is empty?

23/7/07  
Blogger Andrew said...

So are you saying that the context doesn't demand reading Christ's deaths as a sacrifice that provided purification and forgiveness of sin?

Well actually I was trying to comment on the fact that humans in general seem poor at differentiating descriptive and normative statements during reading comprehension. The Hebrews reference was just an example picked at random to illustrate this. I wasn't intending to say anything at all about what the author of Hebrews thinks about Christ.

But since you asked...
Hebrews engages in an extended comparison of the old covenant with the new, with the general purpose of trying to show the superiority of the new covenant. In the course of this extended allegory, Christ ends up paralleled with priests, sacrifices, mediators etc as required. The allegorical genre means great care needs to be taken in drawing out any literal propositional theological facts from this part of the work.

The author certainly sees Christ's death as allegorically parallel to a sacrifice. However, I can't see any reason to think that he thinks it was necessary for purification or the removal of sin. As much as he parallels Christ and sacrifices, it can hardly be said he thinks Christ's death worked like a sacrifice, since he seems to be of the view that the sacrifices didn't actually work. He definitely sees Christ's death as appropriately fulfilling the sacrificial archetype. But he never seems to see it as necessary to fulfill that archetype - he never says anything like "God couldn't have done it any other way, the New Covenant could never have been established differently".

23/7/07  
Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Andrew, you seem to assume that "under the law" (better, "according to the law" - this is the phrase in John 19:7, not the one in Romans 6:14,15 etc) applies to both halves of this verse, and indeed the translation you quote seems to suggest this. But I am not sure that this is what the Greek text really means; in this "under the law" comes at the end of the first sentence, which suggests that it applies only to that sentence. And if "under the law" does not apply to the second half, it can surely be understood as a general statement and so probably a necessary one.

An alternative might be to note that the whole of 9:1-23a is about the regulations of the first covenant, and so verse 22b is also to be understood in this way, as a contingent statement about what was true only under the old covenant.

It seems to me that many interpreters are reading this verse with an implicit "because" in the middle, i.e. "Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood [contingent statement], because without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins [necessary statement]." And that is certainly a plausible way of reading it. Whether it is the only one is another matter.

23/7/07  
Blogger Bryan L said...

I appreciate your clarification Andrew. A few thoughts...

You said, "Hebrews engages in an extended comparison of the old covenant with the new, with the general purpose of trying to show the superiority of the new covenant."

It seems like the comparison being made though and what the primary superiority Hebrews is trying to point out is in the total the effectiveness of the Jesus's death to do what God wanted it to do; not necessarily the method (sacrifice or death), but the object (animals or Jesus) to accomplish that purpose.

You said, "In the course of this extended allegory, Christ ends up paralleled with priests, sacrifices, mediators etc as required. The allegorical genre means great care needs to be taken in drawing out any literal propositional theological facts from this part of the work."

I think it's important to ask though how the allegory corresponds to reality. In an allegory, the comparison usually goes a particular direction. One of the pictures in the allegory is deficient, it alone doesn’t show it’s true significance. It’s pointing forward to a clearer image, and the clearer picture is what gives the deficient picture its true meaning. So for example, in the allegory that the early church gave using the story of the good Samaritan, the beast represented Christ who bears our burden/sin. Christ wasn’t being compared to the beast as much as the beast was being compared to Christ. Christ is what gives the beast its true meaning. (I don’t believe this allegory was the intention of Jesus, I’m just using it as example). In the allegory of Hagar and Sinai that Paul gives, Hagar who gives birth to Ishmael points to Mt Sinai who gives birth to slaves, Mt Sinai doesn’t point to Hagar. It’s only though Mt. Sinai that we see the true significance of Hagar (and Sarah).
Now in Hebrews the sacrificial system points to Christ. Christ doesn’t point to the sacrificial system. The sacrificial system was a deficient picture that pointed forward to Christ and only through Christ’s death do we see the true significance of the sacrificial system. So then I think it’s important to ask what about Christ’s death gives true meaning to the sacrificial system and makes it clearer. Why does God institute the sacrificial system to point forward to Christ’s death? How closely do the two images of sacrifice and Christ’s death correspond? In what ways are they alike and in what ways are they different?

You said, “As much as he parallels Christ and sacrifices, it can hardly be said he thinks Christ's death worked like a sacrifice, since he seems to be of the view that the sacrifices didn't actually work.”

I think he’s showing (in 10:4) that the sacrificial system didn’t truly or totally work, whereas Christ’s sacrifice does. I think it can definitely be said that he think Christ’s death worked like a sacrifice. If not then what does he think Christ’s death works as?

He definitely sees Christ's death as appropriately fulfilling the sacrificial archetype. But he never seems to see it as necessary to fulfill that archetype - he never says anything like "God couldn't have done it any other way, the New Covenant could never have been established differently".

That seems like an argument that depends mostly on what is not said (even though it’s not shown that he would have felt the need to say more or clarify himself in that way) and largely ignores what is clearly said.
Plus I think it begs the question, if God could have done it another way (without Jesus' death) and he chose not to then what does that say about God? If Jesus cries in Gethsemane, Father if possible take this cup from me or if there is any other way please do it, and God says well there are a bunch of other ways but I like this one (you dying on the cross) most, then what does that tell us about God? It's more horrifying for me to think of a God that allows Jesus to be crucified when there was other ways.

Please don’t take any of this as confrontational. I am merely interested in discussing this. I don’t have a particular axe to grind and am open to being convinced otherwise. Sorry this is so long. Thanks.

Blessings,
Bryan L

24/7/07  
Blogger Andrew said...

Bryan,
I have given my answer to some of your questions in a new post since they were quite long.

24/7/07  

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