By admin | April 8, 2008
A Definition of Benediction – Part I by Chuck Rennie
Usually when we think about the Reformed tradition, the solas, or the Confessions, or maybe something else comes to our mind. What does not usually come to our mind are the liturgical benedictions which, in past times, were utilized in the majority of Reformation churches. However, the Reformed tradition has more to say about this forgotten practice than we might first imagine. Over the next four entries I will explore our tradition’s theology of benedictions as well as its Scriptural underpinnings.
What is a benediction? The simplest definition might be: a blessing. However, the identity of the one pronouncing the blessing, as well as the precise nature of the blessing, inform our understanding of this practice. As we turn our attention to the Scriptures it would be good for us to remember the cardinal rule of biblical interpretation: context, context, context. We must always ask questions of the text, such as “who is bestowing the blessing” and “what is the nature of the blessing.” When we ask these questions we discover that the Scripture uses “to bless” in at least three different ways.
First, “to bless” may simply be used as a traditional way of greeting and parting. In Genesis 27:21-29 Jacob intentionally deceived his father Isaac in order to steal his brother’s blessing, a blessing which was ironically promised to Jacob before he was even born (25:23). Thinking that Jacob was his brother Esau, we read in 27:23, “And [Isaac] did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like his brother Esau’s hands; so he blessed him.” We are not told the content of this blessing. However, after eating supper with his father, still thinking that Jacob was his son Esau, Isaac “came near and kissed him; and he smelled the smell of his clothing, and blessed him and said…” (v.27). We are explicitly told that the substance of the second blessing was a pledge of God’s covenant-blessing upon the house of Jacob. Did Isaac bless him twice in exactly the same way? No, rather the context would suggest that the first “blessing” was merely the traditional way of greeting an individual. This is a manner of speaking which is still common, though less so, today. A pastor or a friend might warmly conclude a phone call by saying, “May God bless you richly.” What he is saying is something like this: “I pray and hope that God blesses you in the weeks to come.” We should be careful not to import our entire doctrine of benedictions into the text in every case.
Secondly, “to bless” may be used in a non-redemptive context. Genesis 47 is most illuminating in this regard. In spite of his brothers’ treachery, Joseph was exalted to a position in Egypt that was second only to Pharaoh. When the famine had become severe in the land of Canaan, Jacob and his sons journeyed to Egypt where Joseph had been. Pharaoh, on account of Joseph, blessed them with the best of the land in Egypt (v.6). With God’s covenant oath in mind, namely, “I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you,” Jacob blessed Pharaoh-someone clearly outside of the covenant community (vv.7, 10). Happily, we are not left to speculate as to what kind of blessing this was, for we are told in verses 13-26. The famine had become so severe that even Egypt began to suffer (v.13). However, in the Providence of God Joseph was able to preserve the lives of the Egyptians, as well as his father’s house (v.25). Jacob’s blessing upon Pharaoh did not concern deliverance from sin, but rather the provision of daily sustenance. Therefore, it may be concluded that God’s blessing upon Pharaoh, through Jacob, was a common grace benediction. We too should pray that our God would bless those who rule over us, that they may rule well (1 Tim 2:1-2).
Thirdly, “to bless” is most often used in the Scripture to denote the divine conferral of redemptive blessing. One such example is the Aaronic benediction in Numbers 6:22-27,
22 And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 23 “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, ‘This is the way you shall bless the children of Israel. Say to them:
24 The LORD bless you and keep you;
25 The LORD make His face shine upon you, And be gracious to you;
26 The LORD lift up His countenance upon you, And give you peace.’
27 “So they shall put My name on the children of Israel, and I will bless them.”
In this case, the blessing is clearly given within a redemptive context. Indeed, three times we read that “The LORD” will unilaterally bless his people. He will look upon them favorably and his face will shine upon them. One might picture the expression of delight and pleasure that a father has when his child does something perfectly. In a similar manner God pledges to turn toward his people and look favorably upon them with delight, unilaterally bestowing upon them grace and peace. Furthermore, by way of this pronouncement he confers upon them his covenant name. Herein is the gospel blessing proclaimed to all who receive it by faith, “I will be your God and you shall be my people.”
Therefore, there are at least three ways in which “to bless” is utilized in the Scripture. Moreover, there are occasions, such as the greeting given to Abraham by Melchizedek in Gen 14:19, when the first and last categories coordinate. Nonetheless, it is the last usage-the “efficacious testimony of God’s grace” (Calvin, Comm. on Num 6:22)-that I intend to consider in further detail. With this in mind, we may tentatively conclude with John Calvin’s definition of benediction: “a pledge of that divine benevolence which is the source of our salvation” (Corpus Reformatorum, LII, 461).
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