Can an Action Invalidate a Life’s Work?

Yesterday, UPS dropped a heavy box on my front porch. Inside, I found something I’ve wanted to own for quite some time: the ten-volume Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. This incredibly dense publication goes into excruciating depth on virtually every word used in the New Testament. As an example, the entry on logos (and all the related words) from John 1:1 (“In the beginning was the logos or word”) runs to more than 60 pages. Yes, I’m a nerd.

Rather than reading some random entry in it this afternoon, I decided to find out a little bit about the scholar who produced this thing. Frankly, I should have spent my time reading that random entry.

53817dc4d487b6fbb1b57529cd095eb0Gerhard Kittel, it seems, despite being an amazingly brilliant and productive scholar, had this slight issue. He was a Nazi. And this guy apparently wasn’t just a join-the-party-to-advance-the-career Nazi. He served the party in the creation of propaganda, including materials dealing with the “Jewish Question.” In his defense, Kittel wasn’t ushering Jews into gas chambers, but he was, pretty much without question, part of the problem rather than being neutral or part of the solution.

So my question is this: Does Kittel’s bad action invalidate his good scholarly work? Before you answer, keep in mind that the Old Testament work that Kittel performed serves as the foundation for every modern Bible translation. If you want to reject all his fruits, then you most likely have to put your Bible away.

If the answer is that Kittel’s Nazi sins do not invalidate his scholarship, then how far must a person go before they are rejected totally? We’ve all noticed that Bill Cosby has pretty much disappeared from public display. Are his shows no longer funny? Do they not, despite his misdeeds, still portray positive images?

This question might seem a bit abstract. After all, I don’t get to decide whether Bill Cosby’s or Roseanne’s shows remain in syndication, and the Nazi background of Kittel could remain hidden if I didn’t Google inconveniently. But of course this question is quite essential as it asks us if anyone is truly innocent enough to be taken seriously or, looked at from the other end of things, if anyone makes it through life without transgressions that render them persona non grata.

The Christian response, I would insist, is that no one is beyond the redemption of God, whether their sin comes at the beginning or the end of life’s path. Moses killed a man early and David killed a man in the middle of life. Neither was rendered useless by this heinous action. And as for Professor Kittel? I’ll use his work and let God deal with the “Jewish Question.”

To Be Acceptable (Psalm 19:14)

May these words of my mouth
and this meditation of my heart
be pleasing in your sight,
LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)

We have come to the end of Psalm 19, time to look back for a moment over the preceding verses and consider what we might learn from them.

At first glance, verse 14 seems to be an add-on, the sort of thing you throw in at the close of prayer when you have no idea of how to get out of the thing gracefully: “And bless all the missionaries. In Jesus’ name, Amen.” I’d like to suggest, however, that this isn’t the case with the end of Psalm 19.

Let’s remember that the Psalm began with the image of the largest, the most distant element of Creation praising God. It ends in this verse, after a prayer to be kept from sins, intended and unintended, with a humble contemplation of the smallest and nearest element of creation, the Psalmist himself.

The heavens, being unfallen, have no problem singing God’s praise and declaring His glory. The individual, on the other hand, a fallen creature living in a fallen world, can only sing and declare these things with great effort and difficulty. How natural is it, then, that he concludes this hymn and request with the prayer that his words and thoughts will be pleasing to the God for whom they were intended.

How opposite is this prayer from the way that people too often approach the presence of God. You’ve seen them on Sunday at church. Perhaps you’ve even been one of them now and again. They come into the building with the air that they’ve done God some great favor by showing up. They sit smugly through worship, confident that God truly appreciates them for blessing the other benighted souls in the room with their presence.

And lest you think this is a caricature that couldn’t possibly apply to somebody as spiritual as you or me, let me point out that David himself felt the need to close his Psalm with this prayer of humility. David knew to do this because of his closeness to God and because he began his contemplation by noting the glorious heavens proclaiming the grandeur of the Lord. Can we do less?

Truly, may the words of our lips and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in God’s eyes.