R.C. Sproul’s self-exalting “solidarity” with God’s holiness

R.C. Sproul’s self-exalting “solidarity” with God’s holiness January 9, 2014

I knew I was going to read something that would rankle me in RC Sproul’s The Holiness of God. Well sure enough I did. I wanted to articulate a rhetorical move that Sproul makes, because it’s common among writers and preachers who share his theology. Sproul talks in his book about Rudolph Otto’s term mysterium tremendum (fearful mystery), which he applies to the holiness of God. It describes a gap of incomprehensibility between us and God. But what Sproul does rhetorically is to put himself on God’s side of the mysterium tremendum gap. If I claim that God is incomprehensible on the one hand and then “defend” His incomprehensible actions as perfectly reasonable on the other, this “solidarity” with God has the result of exalting me and putting me on God’s side against the rest of humanity.

RC Sproul pulls this move in a chapter entitled “Holy Justice” where he begins with the goal of “look[ing] at the most difficult, most offensive passages we can find in the Old Testament [to] see if we can make any sense of them” (130). He deals with two accounts of God’s holiness resulting in the death of priests: Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu who die because they brought “unauthorized fire” to God’s altar and Uzzah who is struck dead after touching the Ark of the Covenant.

I. Nadab and Abihu

Leviticus 10 relates the story of Nadab and Abihu:

Now Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his censer, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered unholy fire before the Lord, such as he had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord meant when he said, ‘Through those who are near me I will show myself holy, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” And Aaron was silent. [Leviticus 10:1-3]

It makes me think of all the Boy Scout campouts I went on where we played with fire in a way that we probably shouldn’t have. Immediately preceding this story, Aaron and his sons had offered elaborate sacrifices to God successfully to inaugurate Aaron’s priesthood. But apparently Nadab and Abihu then jumped the gun. They didn’t wait for God to say, “Next.” They were like the kids in chemistry class who enjoy playing with the Bunsen burner so they race ahead of the teacher’s instructions. And the result was that they got burned up.

Part of the mysterium tremendum about God’s holiness being expressed here is that God is unpredictably dangerous so you must proceed very carefully and meticulously in going about the work of sacrifice. This story was basically the foundational violence establishing the temple cult and the whole kosher system of dividing the world into clean and unclean. God says to Aaron as a response to what happened: “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean” (v. 10).

So what does Sproul do? He moralizes the story:

The instructions had been clear. The altar of incense was declared by God to be most holy. When Nadab and Abihu offered strange or unauthorized fire upon it, they were acting in clear defiance of God. Theirs was an act of blatant rebellion, an inexcusable profaning of the holy place. They committed a sin of arrogance, an act of treason against God: they profaned a most holy place. [134]

Really? When Sproul tells us that “the instructions had been clear” and calls Nadab and Abihu’s deed an “act of blatant rebellion” and an “inexcusable profaning of the holy place,” he effectively guts the story of its mysterium tremendum. To try to turn what God did to Nadab and Abihu into something that “makes sense” is a greater affront to the mystery of God’s holiness than anything they ever did. By asserting that it is perfectly plain and clear why God scorched these two poor pyromaniacs, Sproul puts himself on God’s side of the mysterium tremendum that separates humanity and God. Nothing from the text says that God acted punitively in response to a moral transgression. That has all been presumed by Sproul. If we just read the story at face value, what we come away with is that God is not safe to be around, not that Nadab and Abihu are inexcusably arrogant traitors who deserve to burn in hell forever.

II. Uzzah and the Ark

The Ark of the Covenant was the most sacred holy object of the Israelite people. It got captured by the Philistines in battle and God caused all kinds of hell to break loose among the Philistines so they sent the Ark back to the Israelites. In 1 Chronicles 13, David is taking the recovered Ark to Jerusalem in a celebratory procession. A man named Uzzah is leading the Ark on an oxen-driven cart. Verses 9-10 say, “When they came to the threshing floor of Chidon, Uzzah put out his hand to hold the ark, for the oxen shook it.The anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; he struck him down because he put out his hand to the ark; and he died there before God.”

I actually preached on this passage at the Durham VA hospital when I was a chaplain there in seminary. It was one of my earliest sermons. It was the weekend after the Fourth of July in 2009, and I was preaching to wounded and sick veterans. What I said was that Uzzah’s death was like a veteran keeling over and dying in the middle of a Fourth of July parade. King David got mad at God and called off the parade, basically saying if you’re gonna be like that, then the hell with your stupid Ark. That was an appropriate response. Things happen in life that are incomprehensible and it’s not wrong for us to shake our fists at God and yell, “Why?” God can handle it. That was the message of my sermon.

But it’s not incomprehensible to R.C. Sproul. He’s got it all figured out:

Not only was Uzzah forbidden to touch the ark, he was forbidden even to look at it. He touched it anyway… An act of holy heroism? No! It was an act of arrogance, a sin of presumption. Uzzah assumed that his hand was less polluted than the earth. But  it wasn’t the ground or the mud that would desecrate the ark; it was the touch of man. The earth is an obedient creature. It does what God tells it to do… God did not want his holy throne touched by that which was contaminated by evil, that which was in rebellion to him. [141]

None of Sproul’s moralistic speculation about the reason why people were forbidden to touch the ark has any explicit Biblical foundation. He’s extrapolating based upon an exaggerated account of original sin that the Old Testament writers would not have recognized. In my sermon before the wounded and sick veterans at the VA, I made “catching the ark” a metaphor for trying to explain away incomprehensible suffering in a presumptuous, insulting way. Sometimes you’ve got to just let the ark fall in all its awkwardness and say, “I don’t know why you have cancer; it sucks; and I don’t understand God.” By turning God’s mysteriously cruel lashing out against Uzzah into a perfectly reasonable response to sin, Sproul himself becomes the one who “catches the ark” and prevents it from crashing to the ground.

In reflecting on the two troubling stories that he’s just shared, Sproul says, “There is a reason why we are offended, indeed angered, by the story of Uzzah and the story of Nadab and Abihu. We find these things difficult to stomach because we do not understand four vitally important biblical concepts: holiness, justice, sin, and grace.” This quote is the epitome of smarm, a term I recently learned about from Gawker magazine. The “we” that Sproul uses in these sentences is completely disingenuous, because Sproul doesn’t really consider himself part of the “we.” How do I know that? Because Sproul then goes on to explain the four vitally important biblical concepts that “we” supposedly don’t understand. Again, there’s a mysterium tremendum that separates God from us the readers or the people who aren’t walking around on the stage with the invisible wireless mic, but Sproul is safely on the other side of it.

III. The Cross

As might be expected, Sproul holds to a “wrath satisfaction” model of Christ’s atonement on the cross (which I distinguish from “penal substitution”). After having shared these difficult Old Testament stories, he assures us that “there is no real conflict between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament” (157) and then offers the cross as “proof” of this lack of conflict:

If ever a person had room to complain of injustice, it was Jesus. He was the only innocent man ever to be punished by God. If we stagger at the wrath of God, let us stagger at the cross… God would have been more than unjust, He would have been diabolical to punish Jesus if Jesus had not first willingly taken upon Himself the sins of the world. Once Christ had done that… then He became the most grotesque and vile thing on this planet. With the concentrated load of sin He carried, He became utterly repugnant to the Father. God poured out His wrath on this obscene thing. God made Christ accursed for the sin He bore. [158]

None of these claims about what Jesus looks like to His Father on the cross have any Biblical basis whatsoeverIt is pure speculation to say that Jesus became grotesque and vile to God on the cross. The holiness of the cross is not the Father’s repugnance towards His sin-bearing Son; it’s the Son’s willingness to have the sins of humanity sinned into Him with their savage theocide. Certainly Jesus died for our sins. You can even say that He died to pay for our sins, because that is one of the dimensions of the cross. But there is no Biblical basis for saying that Jesus died to satisfy God’s wrath for our sins (according to the grammar of Romans 5:9-10, we are justified and reconciled by the blood of Jesus’ sacrifice and saved from “the wrath” by Jesus’ life, which I interpret Eucharistically).

The way you arrive at Sproul’s conclusions is to give the interpretive priority for explaining God’s “holiness” to strange, troubling Biblical stories like the deaths of Nadab, Abihu, and Uzzah, and then superimpose the God you’ve extrapolated from these stories on the rest of the Bible. They’re in the Bible; we have to face them; but that doesn’t make them the primary basis for understanding God’s character. By claiming the monstrous God you’ve created by prioritizing these stories to be perfectly reasonable, the fire of God’s wrath effectively becomes a lightsaber in your hands. It’s an abominably lopsided view of God to define His “holy justice” as His zeal for killing people who touch His holy things inappropriately.

If people believe God to be this scary and you present His scariness to be perfectly reasonable, that gives you power because you’re the one who stands on the other side with God apart from the rest of humanity who are on the business end of your lightsaber. God doesn’t give us lightsabers to carry; He gives us crosses. Because they’re holy. The cross is not the receptacle for what is “utterly repugnant” to God; it is where Jesus shows us in His deeds exactly what God’s holiness looks like. In the opening chapter of his book, Sproul says that he was a “Unitarian” when he was first a Christian because he was so Jesus-focused and that he had to “converted to the Father.” Jesus says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Any conversation about God’s holiness for a Christian must always start with Jesus.

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  • Robert Reppert

    Excellent article. So much in life is less troublesome when willing to admit “I don’t know why or if there is even a why at all.” One thing that drives me batty is when someone claims god saved them or someone from problem x. It makes me think “OK so he didn’t give a rat about the 3k+ on 9/11?” Or the almost half a MILLION from the tsunami? I guess if they need a supernatural explanation while ignoring the times of NOT being saved instead of being thankful that surgeons and rescue workers care more about studying than who is winning American Idol so be it.

  • David Pitchford

    Awesome post. I realized that I have a tendency to do the same kind of (unknowingly to me) self-exalting theologizing that Sproul does. Your takes on these Biblical accounts are much simpler and more Biblically defensible, but also more troubling and hard to swallow. They make God seem randomly cruel or capricious, getting angry and lashing out at people for inexplicable reasons, and though it’s easier to fear such a God, it’s harder for me to love or trust Him. And so, at least to me, accounts like these cry out to be explained, if only to tell us how we can stay away from God’s bad side. Thoughts?

    Your comments on the cross remind me of how I’ve been thinking and wondering about the mystery of the cross lately. I held to a penal substitution theology for a while, and having moved on from it now I can’t find any other way of explaining the atonement that is nearly as convincing. Or are we supposed to apprehend the atonement in some way other than by “explaining” it? If you have written any posts that I missed/forgot on this subject, I would love to be directed to them. I’m also very curious about what you mean when you say that you distinguish “wrath satisfaction” from “penal substitution”.

    Also, best quote I’ve heard from this blog: “God doesn’t give us lightsabers to carry; He gives us crosses.”

    • maguyton@gmail.com

      I would say that Jesus is the reason we can trust God and He is the most reliable witness of God’s character. I almost think you have to say that whatever the OT seems to say about the character of God that contradicts Christ must be “useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness” in some way but it is not reliable testimony about God’s character. Otherwise we bifurcate God into an OT Father and NT Son which is what most evangelicals unwittingly do. The 1st century Pharisees have the most faithful interpretation of how to serve the OT God without the clarifying witness of Christ.

      Regarding the atonement, I distinguish wrath satisfaction from penal substitution in this: wrath satisfaction says that the cross serves God’s emotional needs. Penal substitution says that in some sense the cross is a punishment for our sins which I can accept as one dimension of what’s going on. I think the loudest accent of the cross for me is its Eucharistic element. When the animals were sacrificed in OT sacrifice their flesh was always eaten afterwards. I think a Hebrew priest would scratch his head if you asked him whether the animal were being “punished” for something the people did. It doesn’t matter whether you call it propitiation or expiation, the end of sacrifice is to clear the air. With Jesus for the first time instead of the people offering their livestock to God to be consumed, God offers His own enfleshed Word to the people to be consumed. By eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood, we are accepting the peace God makes with us on behalf of the sinners whom He loves.

  • jwlung

    Morgan: At one point in my life, I was determined at every point to demonstrate the error and even destructiveness of a certain theological point of view. I was quite good at it. I left a church because its then pastor was committed to the most extreme positions of that point of view.
    I eventually saw that reaction against a view, however wrong-headed, is destructive, especially when one makes a career of it. It opens one up to the sin of pride. Its unfortunate that you spend so much time critiquing a particular imbalance persisted in by free church evangelicaldom.
    Reaction quenches love. At least that’s my experience. Further, I eventually realized that in my zeal to demonstrate the errors of protestant liberalism, I was beating a dead horse and in the process carrying with me the stench.
    Imbalance eventually evens out. Look for the good, the true, the beautiful, and set your mind on those things. Your obvious giftedness will then really flourish.

    • maguyton@gmail.com

      I appreciate your thoughts. I certainly need to refine the tone with which I talk to avoid distractions. But I do see my vocation as being partly to get into the intricacies of why theological systems function or malfunction the way they do. If I engage Sproul in my book, I hope to be able to use him constructively in addition to saying this is where I think he’s off-base. The Protestant Reformation was founded on caricature, uncharitable character assassination, and snark. That’s not to say it isn’t something to rise above. But you can be charitable to a point where you’re not able to say anything. I will try to distinguish without demonizing. Thanks for your feedback and testimony.

  • Paul Hansen

    Interesting post and exposé of the way Sproul “dissolves” the mysterium. Decades ago, I did an informal cataloging of all the instances in the Bible where God is said to kill some individual or group or army. What I discovered is that many of those instances seemed either arbitrary or unwarranted, or both—an “overreaction” on the part of God, so to speak. (I did this study partly in response to the evangelical obsession in the 1970s with “pro-life” or “right-to-life” concerns.) The only “conclusion” I could surmise (which is not really a conclusion) was that, contrary to our natural moral responses, these “problem texts” portraying a “lethal God” in the Old Testament perhaps indicate that the loss of life is not really as TRAGIC as humans erroneously think it is. (Footnote: according to the “age of accountability” notion held by one soteriology, abortion or miscarriage should not be regarded so tragically, because—allegedly—babies and fetuses “go to heaven anyway”!)

    This surmised answer may not satisfy many of us, nor make much “sense” when we contemplate a just and living God, but it deserves a little discussion. Anyone care to comment on whether our notion of tragic death is appropriate?

    • MorganGuyton

      Ah that’s very interesting. The Old Testament God really isn’t all that pro-life. He’s pro-honor.

      • Kathleen Margaret Schwab

        This would make sense given the world of the OT. Honor was the important thing.

        • maguyton@gmail.com

          The question is whether that’s prescriptive for us today.

  • Paul Hansen

    Postcript: I always get a little perturbed when Christians respond to calamities (like cancer or tsunamis) by asking “I wonder what God is trying to teach us in this?” Not everything in life can be blamed on God (think of the bumper sticker “S.H.”). To attribute divine rationality to everything in our experience (including stubbing your toe) is to subscribe tacitly to theistic determinism.

    • MorganGuyton

      I agree. It made sense for the Israelites to explain every tragedy that happened in terms of God’s displeasure with their sin. I don’t think that it’s somehow a betrayal of God to say actually hurricanes happen because of the way that God set up our weather and not because God is mad about this issue or that issue.

  • tsgIII

    David Pitchford:
    I think Dr. Scot McKnight has been clearly(for me) giving a convincing view of the atonement. Search around a bit on his blog called “Jesus Creed”. Also, maybe a little harder to find on his blog, but Dr. Roger Olson also has clear response.

    • maguyton@gmail.com

      Good call! McKnight’s A community called Atonement is a great book.

  • tsgIII

    Way back in 2007 Neal Livingston published a book called “Picturing the Gospel”. I think he has expanded the way we see the “problem” and how we see the “results” . He uses Biblical imagery for a more spectral approach Three central images:
    1. Images of New Life: life- born from above; adoption- chosen in love; kingdom- a good world order
    2. Images of Mercy and Restoration: justification- being right with God; forgiveness- picking up the bill; atonement- taking away the shame
    3. Images of Deliverance: salvation- the mighty work of God; ransom and redemption- love pays; freedom- free for life
    Now that is an outline that is accessible to seekers and followers of today.

    • maguyton@gmail.com

      Nice that’s a helpful breakdown!

  • Brilliant piece, Morgan. You soooo need to write that book…

    FWIW, I don’t see this kind of critique as “reactionary” – I see it as necessary corrective to much of the distorted, toxic theology that goes largely unquestioned by many. My takeaway from your post is not “How awful R. C. Sproul is”, but “How wonderful beyond description is the love and perfection of God expressed in Jesus”!

    • maguyton@gmail.com

      Good. Thanks for that. I know I still have work to do to be more of the latter and less of the former.