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What Do the Biblical Prophets Say About Justice? Dr. Peter Gentry

Home » What Do the Biblical Prophets Say About Justice? Dr. Peter Gentry

Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Gentry about the Biblical prophets and their role in understanding modern social justice.

Topics of conversation include:

  • How to define the terms justice and righteousness in the Old Testament
  • The role of covenants, and how they affect how we understand the differences between Old Testament Israel and the church today
  • Errors people make in applying the Old Testament to modern circumstances
  • Encouragement for pastors teaching on these issues
  • Resources for learning more about Biblical social justice

Dr. Peter Gentry is distinguished professor of Old Testament at Phoenix Seminary, having previously served for 22 years at Southern Seminary. Dr Gentry is the author of many books, including Kingdom Through Covenant (Crossway, 2018), and How to Read and Understand the Biblical Prophets (Crossway, 2017).

 


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Intro (00:00):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

 

Brian Arnold (00:16):

If there are two words that can spark a debate amongst Christians today, it is social justice. As Christians, we care deeply about justice, because it is inescapably at the heart of God for this world. Justice matters, and we should be concerned about it. But how the justice of God intersects with the world, and what the role of Christians is to bring about justice, is a hotly contested matter. Even to have this discussion, we must turn to Scripture to understand what justice is. Oftentimes, the Old Testament prophets are conscripted to make the case for modern day social justice. Think about Martin Luther King Jr’s famous “I have a dream” speech, where he invoked the prophet Amos, saying, “we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

 

Brian Arnold (00:56):

Any time social justice is mentioned today as a way to activate Christians to issues of justice, you can be sure that the biblical prophets will be used. But how do we understand them in their context? Were the prophets social justice warriors in the modern understanding? Or was their message particular to Israel? And how can we carefully retrieve the prophets in our day on this critical issue of justice? Well, to help us understand the prophets and what they say about justice, we have with us today, Dr. Peter Gentry. Dr. Gentry is distinguished professor of Old Testament at Phoenix Seminary, having previously served for 22 years at Southern Seminary. Dr. Gentry is known worldwide for his research on the Old Testament, and he’s written several books, including Kingdom Through Covenant, and How to Read and Understand the Biblical Prophets. Dr. Gentry, welcome back to the podcast.

 

Peter Gentry (01:43):

Thank you very much.

 

Brian Arnold (01:44):

Well, the big question we’re going to have today is—what do the biblical prophets say about justice? And if you recall as a listener, the last time we had Dr. Gentry on we were talking about the prophets and how we might read the prophets to our benefit, and we kind of glanced off the topic of justice and social justice in the prophets. And we just knew we had to have Dr. Gentry back on the show to really explain those ideas further. So maybe we can just dive in here, Dr. Gentry, on defining some of these terms like justice and righteousness in the Old Testament.

 

Peter Gentry (02:16):

Sure. Well, when we look at…people like to appeal to particular passages in the prophets of the Old Testament, especially where we see the powerful and the rich oppressing the poor and the powerless. And there are some very excellent and exciting examples of these in the prophets of the Old Testament, especially in the book of Amos and in the book of Isaiah. But when we look at these examples, there are two things that we have to keep in mind in particular. First of all, when the prophets give these examples—and one of the examples, for example, is Isaiah chapter five, where he says, “Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land. The Lord Almighty has declared in my hearing: Surely the great houses will become desolate, the fine mansions left without occupants. A 10-acre vineyard will produce only a bath of wine; a homer of seed only an ephah of grain.”

 

Peter Gentry (03:38):

So here’s an example where people who are powerful and rich are adding property to property and dispossessing the poor and the powerless in the process. The two things…first of all, we have to realize that these examples are always in the context of calling the people back to the covenant, the covenant that God made with Israel at Mount Sinai. So for example, in the book of Isaiah, as we discussed last time when we were talking about how to read and understand the Hebrew literature, they go around a topic over and over again, looking at it from different angles, different perspectives, different points of view.

 

Peter Gentry (04:37):

So in chapter one of Isaiah, he charges the people with two things—with idolatry and with mistreating one another. And we know that we can summarize the covenant in two commands—to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. So with idolatry, they are violating the command to love God and with mistreating one another, they are not loving their neighbor as themselves. Then in chapter two, he has a vision of the future Zion. Then in chapter three and four, he goes over the topic again, mentioning some examples of social injustice, and ending with another vision of the future Zion in chapter four, verses two to six. And then in chapters five to 12, he goes around the topic a third time. And this time, since the people aren’t listening, he uses a parable to try to communicate with them.

 

Peter Gentry (05:41):

So what we see, when we read the passage in context, is that Isaiah is giving this example in the eighth century B.C., because it’s a particular example of violating the covenant that God made with Israel at Sinai. The second thing that we need to realize, is that there has always been an attempt to try and boil down the covenant into a single sound bite. So many of us are familiar with the expert in the Torah who came to Jesus and asked him what was the greatest commandment. And Jesus answered—love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength. And then he said the second is like it—to love your neighbor as yourself. Well, this effort to try and boil down the covenant relationship into a single sound bite has a long history.

 

Peter Gentry (06:53):

And we see that already in the Old Testament prophets—what does the Lord, your God require of you, but to love justice and seek mercy and walk humbly with your God? So there’s another example of where they’re trying to boil it down. And one of the most concentrated ways is to use what we call a word pair—two words…and the best way to think of it is that these two words are…one word is functioning as the left speaker in a stereo system, and the other word is functioning as the right speaker in a stereo system. So if we have the term justice and righteousness, which occurs over and over again in the narratives of the Hebrew Bible, this is a word pair. And the word pair is…we could translate it with the English expression social justice.

 

Peter Gentry (07:56):

But what we need to realize in the book of Isaiah is that this word pair is split over parallel lines of poetry, as a way of summarizing in a single soundbite the covenant relationship. And Paul does the same thing in the New Testament when he says in Ephesians four that we should be “truthful in love,” or “speak the truth in love.” He’s using the word pair hesed and emetloyal love and faithfulness. It’s another word pair that tries to summarize what it means to have a right relationship with God and to treat each other in truly human ways. And so we see that we can’t just use the term social justice willy-nilly to mean whatever we want it to mean, because the prophets are using this expression as a way of summarizing the requirements of the covenant relationship, which in turn is an expression of the character of who God is.

 

Brian Arnold (09:20):

So let’s kind of lay that out for the listener even a little bit more. So for those who are not even familiar, kind of with the covenants and kind of what God’s doing—these are promises that God is making with his people. And as you had mentioned, the Mosaic covenant at Sinai, Moses is going up, he’s receiving the Law from the Lord. And at the very end of the first five books of the Old Testament, the end of the Pentateuch, you have these blessings and curses that are laid out in Deuteronomy 28 through 30. And God’s people all say, “Yes and amen, we’re going to do these things.” And God says, “If you do these things, you’re going to be blessed. If you don’t do these things, you’re going to be cursed.” Well Israel, as fallen people in a sinful world, oftentimes are not keeping up their end of the covenant. And God is sending the biblical prophets to remind them of the covenant that God had given them, and to remind them that they had said, “yes, we will do all these things” and they’re failing to do it. And one of the ways they’re failing to do it is…well, I guess, in the two prongs, right? They’re not loving God, like you said, through idolatry, and they’re not loving their fellow man. And so they’re lacking in those areas of righteousness and justice. So is that a pretty good summation of what you’re saying?

 

Peter Gentry (10:30):

Yes. And I think when we as Christians want to apply that today, first of all, we have to think of ourselves in terms of the New Covenant. Our relationship with God is not defined by the Mosaic Covenant. America is not Israel. America is not a Christian nation. It’s not a nation in a covenant relationship with God. There’s an element of that that goes through American history, but it’s false. We’re…it’s the church of Jesus Christ that is now bound to God, through the New Covenant that was established by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And the content of that New Covenant is the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles. Now when we look at the righteousness of God that is expressed in the New Covenant, it’s the same righteousness that we see expressed in the Old Covenant. It’s still being truthful in love. It’s still justice and righteousness. It’s still loving God. Loving God has been replaced by loving Jesus Christ, and loving one another begins first and foremost in the church of Jesus Christ. So the first place where we have to practice this is in the church, and then in our relationships with those who are outside the church.

 

Brian Arnold (12:08):

All right. So much good stuff there. So one of the errors you would say people are making, is they are taking what God is saying to Old Testament Israel, specifically in their context of the prophets calling people back to what they said they would do in the covenant, and just kind of pulling that out and applying it directly to an era of the New Covenant, where God is not working through nation-states the way he was working before. So to say like, “America is the new Israel” or something would definitely be a false equivalency. And so then to take some of those issues of the Old Testament and apply them directly to the current circumstance isn’t right. So the parallel you’re making, which I think is really important for our listeners—and this is what gets missed a lot of the times—is what is happening in Old Testament Israel and those commands come within the defined people of God. And the defined people of God happen to be a nation-state called Israel. In the New Covenant and in our day, it is defined as the church. And because we’re in the Church Age, how do the Old Testament prescriptions of social justice apply? Well, first and foremost, they apply to the people of God. So it’s how we’re carrying out those acts of justice within the church. Is that what you’re saying?

 

Peter Gentry (13:27):

Yes. And, I mean, obviously there are instructions on how we’re to relate to those outside the church, and how we’re to treat our fellow humans. But first and foremost it begins within the church.

 

Brian Arnold (13:44):

So I think these are really important lines of demarcation. So how could we talk about the prophets? I think we’ve kind of laid out how they’re functioning within Old Testament Israel in calling people back to covenantal faithfulness. How are they important for us today, as we’re thinking about how to deal with those outside the church? So we’re in an American culture—I’m assuming most of our listeners are here—and we’re trying to figure out—how does the Bible apply, not just inside the church, because if you’re saying that that’s how…we’re taking the prophets primarily as an Inside-the-covenant kind of piece, and that’s the church now, but what are they saying in their original context to the world around them that we could use today, especially as it relates to issues of justice? I think that’s kind of the burning question that I think a lot of people have today.

 

Peter Gentry (14:29):

Yes. Well, another thing that’s extremely important to realize is since the social justice comes out of this context, it’s defined by the character of God, and by his instructions on what it means to treat him the right way and to treat each other in the creation the right way. And even to treat…there are instructions in the covenant on how we should relate to the creation, the environment. The reason why this is important is because many people today, they use the term social justice and they have their own idea, you know? Their idea of equity, or fairness, or majority rule, or cultural approval, or tolerance, or diversity, or even using a Marxist framework to try and define it. So the first thing that we have to realize is that we don’t get to define these things. They’re defined by who God is, and the standards that he has established.

 

Brian Arnold (15:52):

Well, I think you’re hitting some of the most important issues of our day today, is kind of some foreign models of understanding human relationship and superimposing them onto Scripture. And then what that’s saying about the character of God, if I’m hearing you, right. So let’s take one of those. You mentioned it—because it’s so prevalent today, I think it’s worth mentioning—and that’s Marxism, of reading all of humanity through a lens of oppressor and oppressed. And then, when people look at the Old Testament, they say—well look, it’s right here as well. And then kind of bring in a lot of Marxist-type of interpretation onto the text and say—see, this is what the biblical text is about. And this is what God cares about. How do you respond to those types of hermeneutics?

 

Peter Gentry (16:41):

Yes. Well, I mean, people have been…already, for example, 10 years ago, there was an article in Time Magazine by a famous professor of ethics. And he described how divided America had become and how this is especially seen because Americans are divided on how they define fair and just. For some Americans, fair means proportionality, which means that people are getting benefits in proportion to their contributions. For others, fairness means equality—everyone gets the same. And a third definition of fairness is procedural fairness, which means that honest, open, and impartial rules are used to determine who gets what. So already, even 10 years ago, there were greatly different rules, different ways of looking at these things. And Marxism comes with a metanarrative. It comes with a storyline. And the problem is, is that storyline is not the storyline of Scripture. And the term social justice, justice and righteousness in the Bible, and the examples that come from the prophets, are coming in that context. They’re not coming in the storyline of Marxism. And once we change the storyline, the concepts of social justice change quickly and radically,

 

Brian Arnold (18:18):

And I think that’s what’s unfolding in front of us. And I see it being infiltrated into the church as well, with even kind of that postmodern shift and the decentralizing of that metanarrative, right? François Léotard saying that postmodernism is the “incredulity of the metanarrative.” That means there is no one story that explains all these stories. And so then truth becomes something that’s not absolute. It becomes localized, so that we need people from each of these different places to provide truth, and that the oppressed have more access to truth than anybody else. And then that begins to change the way that we read Scripture. And I see this as a mistake being made quite often in the church today, where this kind of foreign understanding is read into the text without the two things you’ve laid out—the covenantal framework of the prophets and what they’re speaking into as a specific nation-state under the covenant of God, and secondarily, the character of God, who absolutely cares for the poor, who absolutely cares for the oppressed. It’s just that the solutions being offered today come from a foreign framework instead of out of the Biblical storyline.

 

Peter Gentry (19:26):

And what’s deceptive is that Marxism is coming with a metanarrative. So that’s totally contrary to post-modernism at the same time.

 

Brian Arnold (19:40):

It’s always the irony, isn’t it, Dr. Gentry?

 

Peter Gentry (19:42):

Yeah. <laugh>

 

Brian Arnold (19:43):

That in the rejection of the metanarrative, another metanarrative is offered in its place, and everything becomes subservient to that. So how would you encourage pastors today who are dealing with these issues constantly—about justice, about righteousness, about Old Testament prophets, you know? Encourage them in how to think through this, but also in ways that they could teach this to the church.

 

Peter Gentry (20:08):

Well, you know, it comes out of the character of God. The wonderful thing about the Christian view is that God is a Trinity, and there are three Persons in the one being of God. And that shows us that social justice is not simply something that is determined by the relationship of God to his world or our relationship to each other, but it’s also part of who God is in himself. You can’t have social justice unless you have more than one person. And we have that in the being of God. So I think we need to start with our Trinitarian theology. And we need to also carefully go through each issue and show from the Bible, and from the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles and the New Covenant, what the standards of social justice actually look like, issue by issue.

 

Brian Arnold (21:26):

That’s right. Each of them require that kind of biblical, theological approach, that systematic theological approach, to say—how does this flesh out the character of God? In loving God and loving our neighbor, and letting those be the beginning points of this. I know pastors are just inundated with these issues right now, and it’s a bit of a crisis in the church. And so I’m hoping that people will see the prophets, especially in their context. And from that, be able to build out that biblical theology that you’ve done such a good job of modeling.

 

Peter Gentry (21:57):

Thank you.

 

Brian Arnold (21:58):

So maybe what are some other resources that people could be looking at to really help them think through these issues? Because let’s be honest, we’re inundated in our day and age with lots of this kind of talk about social justice, and it pretty much seems to be coming from one side. So what are some things that are helpful resources to put into the hands of our listeners?

 

Peter Gentry (22:20):

Well, as something that’s general, I wrote this little book How to Read and Understand the Biblical Prophets. And I have an entire chapter there on Isaiah and social justice. There’s also an article published in the Journal of the Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. But other people are addressing particular issues. So for example, let’s say that you had…one of the big topics today is, you know, all the gender issues. Well, I would recommend…there’s a little book by Sharon James called Gender Ideology: What Do Christians Need to Know? She describes what biblical social justice is going to look like in this area, and how we help those who are disturbed and hurting in these areas.

 

Brian Arnold (23:42):

Well, I think those are really helpful resources to put in their hands. I think it’s important what you’ve said about—it’s having kind of that framework, and then applying it, issue by issue. And something that I’d want to say, too, for our listeners is—this is not denying that there’s important issues of justice, both within the church and in culture today that we need to be thoughtful about. But first and foremost, we need to understand the Bible in its context, before these things are just kind of plucked from their context and used in a less-than-careful way. Well, Dr. Gentry, it’s really helpful always to have your perspective on these things. I think you’re one of the best voices on the biblical narrative and on the prophets. So thank you for helping set that stage of their covenantal place in the canon, but then also pointing us back to the character of God. And if we have the character of God right, these issues will fall into place. So thanks for joining us today.

 

Peter Gentry (24:35):

Thank you.

 

Outro (24:36):

Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we’ve been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you’re called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can’t join us on campus, I’d like you to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you’ve heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at ps.edu/online.

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