I’ve been reading quite a few Jewish authors lately. Among other delightful insights I’ve been gleaning, one of the things that has jumped out at me is their willingness – in fact, eagerness – to place God in a position of greater dependence on humankind than Christians seem willing to allow.
I don’t think this is a coincidence. The modern Christian is on the wrong end of 2500 years of dependence on Plato, Augustine, and Calvin. These three, each one progressively building on the one before, has presented a God whose chiefly characterized by immutability, sovereignty, and complete independence. God is the “unmoved Mover” who cannot ultimately be affected by anyone other than Himself. What’s more, to say that God has chosen to be dependent on others implies that there is a deficiency or weakness in His character.
Though there are certainly plenty of Jewish expositors – reaching all the way back to Philo – who haven’t escaped the tentacles of Greek philosophical thinking, the ones I am reading seem to have avoided its pitfalls in this arena, allowing the worldview of Israel to have a greater impact on their thinking than the worldview of Greece; indeed, Jerusalem holds greater sway than Athens. Thus, Abraham Heschel provocatively offers, “For the accomplishment of His grand design, the Lord waits for the help of man” (The Prophets, p. 198). He echoes this sentiment frequently throughout his book on the prophets. Similarly, writing in Man Is Not Alone, he shares this: “Man can rely on God, if God can rely on man. We may trust in Him because He trusts in us. To have faith means to justify God’s faith in man. It is as essential that God believe in man as that man should believe in God” (p. 174).
Just let that sink in for a minute!
For his part, Harvard professor Jon D. Levenson, in his book Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence, writes about how we are involved in a “cosmogonic-soteriological drama” in which we are not merely “passive beneficiaries” of God’s favor, but also called to be “junior partners” in God’s ordering of the universe. Perhaps most stunning of all, however, Levenson posits that “the actualization of the full potential of God requires the testimony of his special people” (pp. xxvi, 139).
These Jews know their own Scriptures. They know how God lamented through Ezekiel, for example, that His name had been “profaned among the nations” (36:21) because of the house of Israel. Yet they also know that God would ultimately “vindicate the holiness of my great name . . . when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes” (v. 23, RSV).
They also know how Moses reminded God, in Numbers 14, that He couldn’t simply start over with a new people, instead of bringing Israel into the Promised Land, because “the nations which have heard of Your fame will speak, saying, ‘Because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land which He swore to give them, therefore He killed them in the wilderness” (vv. 15-16).
Just think: God’s reputation was tied into Israel’s ability – through God’s grace, of course – to get into the Promised Land. His destiny was tied into theirs!
These are largely foreign concepts to the average Christian. That’s because we are under the impression that this whole thing is largely about getting us into heaven. As N.T. Wright puts it, “It may look, from our point of view, as though ‘me and my salvation’ are the be-all and end-all of Christianity” (Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision, p. 23).
What’s more, most Christians think that if God faces any problems at all, those problems are solved exclusively by Himself, without any cooperation from us. As the sovereign and omnipotent God of the universe, He doesn’t need help from anyone else – and any hint of Him relying on others is borderline blasphemy.
Indeed, not only is the idea that we have a work of cooperation to do in “ordering the universe,” or vindicating God, considered blasphemy by some, it’s also legalism in their eyes.
And yet, to say that we have a part to play in vindicating God has no more to do with legalism than saying we still need to keep the Sabbath – which is to say, they can both be legalistic if framed improperly. If God’s acceptance of and love for me is contingent upon my vindicating Him, or my Sabbath-keeping; or if my salvation is dependent on either – then, yes, it is legalism. Yet, if either are placed within the context of a response to Calvary’s love, as the natural response of faith, then they are anything but legalistic.
What may surprise many, from a Seventh-day Adventist perspective, is that Ellen White fully understood this Jewish idea. Though she certainly placed great emphasis on Christ vindicating God, there was also a place in her thinking for us to have a part in that. “If there was ever a people in need of constantly increasing light from heaven,” she wrote, “it is the people that, in this time of peril, God has called to be the depositories of His holy law and to vindicate His character before the world. Those to whom has been committed a trust so sacred must be spiritualized, elevated, vitalized, by the truths they profess to believe” (Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 746).
Again, writing of Job, she said that “by his patient endurance he vindicated his own character, and thus the character of Him whose representative he was” (Education, p. 156).
Indeed, Ellen White wrote like a good Jew!
So let us embrace this awesome thought – not as a legalistic prison-sentence, or an idea to be feared. Let us view it for the privilege it is: an opportunity to glorify the Person who’s supposed to be the object of our deepest affections, praise, and love.
Though not himself a Jew, N.T. Wright is certainly steeped in the worldview of Hebraic thinking far more than most other contemporary Christian thinkers. So let’s allow him to have the final word: “God made humans for a purpose,” he writes, “not simply for themselves, not simply so that they could be in relationship with [God], but so that through them, as his image-bearers, he could bring his wise, glad, fruitful, order to the world” (Justification, p. 24).