Following is a summary of a lecture given yesterday by my professor in Patristic and Medieval Theology.
To understand Origen of Alexandria – or Gregory of Nyssa or almost any other Greek-speaking early church father – you have to understand the concept of theoprepes. Plato introduced the concept of theoprepes when he went after Homer’s depictions of the gods. Because the gods/god are/is the ultimate Good, Plato has a big problem with the way Homer makes them act, but because Homer’s poetry is foundational for Greek culture, Plato can’t just dismiss it outright.
So he metaphorizes it. He maintains the truth of the moral lessons but rejects the historicity of the depiction, which he considered blasphemous because the gods did not act in a fitting manner. And that is theoprepes, the concept of what is fitting for the divine.
Origen is faced with a similar dilemma.
He believes in the inspiration of Scripture, which for him writing about 200 C.E. is still just the Old Testament, but he recoils at the anthropomorphism of God found there. And with good reason, from his perspective. When Celsus writes the criticism of Christianity to which Origen responds in Against Celsus, one of his prime concerns is the anthropomorphism of God – it’s just not fitting, in Greek thought, for God to act this way, and a literal reading of Scripture was a huge stumbling block to those educated Greeks to whom Origen was reaching out.
Not only that, he finds numerous places where the text contradicts itself or describes absurdities. So he argues for a metaphorical-allegorical reading of those pieces of scripture where theopedes is violated. Continue reading →
It doesn’t take much interaction with biblical criticism to understand that the New Testament writers do some crazy things with their Old Testament sources. Probably the most notorious of these is when Matthew 2:15 turns Hosea 11:1, which clearly is talking about the exodus, into a prophecy for Jesus’ flight to and return from Egypt.
We ended our class on Monday talking about that and one other particularly egregious “misuse” of the Old Testament, this one less well known. Hebrews 2:13 cites Isaiah 8:18, which says this:
Look! I and the children the Lord gave me are signs and wonders in Israel from the Lord of heavenly forces, who lives on Mount Zion.
Before we get to how Hebrews uses the verse, what does Isaiah mean when he says, “the children the Lord gave me”? Our professor, an Old Testament scholar, pointed us to four verses.
First, the context for this verse is the Syro-Ephremite War, in which Judah’s King Ahaz is unsure what he should do in the wake of a joint attack on Jerusalem by Syria (Arem) and Israel (Ephraim). Isaiah comes in chapter 7 to give him counsel and in the course of his prophecy, four children are mentioned.
The problem with a strictly literal approach to the Bible, as people from Christian Smith to Rachel Held Evans have argued, is that it sets up a false dichotomy in which the literalist gets to decide what is worth taking literally and what is not. It allows the literalist to set the rules of a complex game in which she can only win and anyone else must surely lose. By ignoring the assumptions implicit in all of our approaches to the ancient texts of the Bible, the literalist can claim superiority through a “truer” reading of the Bible than those who take more critical approaches.
This isn’t new, nor is it groundbreaking. We all believe the way we read the Bible is the right way to read it. That’s why we read it that way! The hard part is understanding that others who read it differently may not be reading it wrongly. Although this is tough for me – it means acknowledging that, yes, no matter how unlikely I think that is, biblical literalists may be reading scripture correctly – but it seems especially difficult for the literalists, whose reading of the text essentially forces them to consider all other approaches not just misguided but influenced by Satan and potentially damnable. Kind of makes a conversation difficult.
But we do all have assumptions, and no one takes the Bible literally. Our assumptions play a foundational role in how we approach that text. I mention this because I’ve posted my paper for this semester, and it looks at the assumptions underlying one of the most transformative doctrines developed by one of history’s greatest theologians. I wanted to see where the doctrine of original sin came from, and I found that it really comes from Galen – or, more accurate, the biological-sexual assumptions propagated by ancient Greek doctors and philosophers. Augustine didn’t know that, or at least he didn’t acknowledge it. He cited passages like Romans 5 and Psalm 50:7, but more often he cited, albeit indirectly and apparently unknowingly, Aristotle and Galen.
The final two days of Summit last week, I attended a class given by Barron Jones, whom I’ve mentioned before. The title of this post was the name of the class. Barron presented his material in a way that kept a serious subject light – lest it become too serious – and certainly made me want to study the issue more. He probably needed one more hour (he only had two), as he ran out of time both days, and as such, left me a touch unconvinced.
“This is about people,” he began. “This is not about theology. … It’s about people’s lives, and they get messy.”
The first day he devoted to simple defining the traditional teachings and poking logical holes in them.
“If I can get you to say, ‘I don’t know,’ then we’ve made progress,” he said. “We need to embrace that phrase and understand it does not mean weakness. It means humility. This topic is about pride and humility as much as it is about marriage and divorce.”
Today is the first day of class, which means I’ve now been in grad school for a full year. I have no idea how that happened.
It also means I’ve been blogging for more than a year – I started this thing in late July 2011, and here I am, somehow still trucking along. In celebration, here are the top 10 posts by pageviews this blog has had since its inception. If you’re newish, maybe you’ll find something you like; if you’ve been here from the beginning, thanks! Maybe you’ll find something you missed or forgot you liked. Or maybe the fact that these posts are the most viewed here will make you once again wonder why you’ve wasted so much time reading this blog.
Well, here we are. The end of the whole business. If you’re just tuning in, check out the last post for a recap of all the ground we’ve covered. The upshot of it all is that we need to reevaluate the virgin birth. It plays an outsize role in our churches and culture, yet Paul, Mark and John all leave it completely out of their writings. It simply isn’t necessary for the development of a robust christology or theology, and it’s possible we have overemphasized it to the extent that it’s actually weakening our view of who Jesus was and what God did through him.
That doesn’t mean, however, that we need to discard it completely. Two texts, Matthew and Luke, do in fact describe a virgin birth, though they do so in much different ways. And we should treat those differences seriously because they teach us something about what Matthew and Luke were doing when they told the Jesus story. Forcing them into the straightjacket of harmonized literalism does them a great disservice. Let’s accept the texts for what they are, not what we want them to be.
In that spirit, I’d like to offer two scenarios I think are equally plausible based on our studies thus far:
We’ve had some birthdays in the Disoriented household this month; I have now been a father for four of my 30 years of life. I was not prepared for the numerous ways in which fatherhood changes a person. It’s not the same for everyone, I’m sure, but having children, especially daughters, changed the way I look at everything from movies and advertising to the Bible and God.
The latter is especially significant. The Bible describes God as a parent numerous times, ascribing to him the characteristics of both mother and father (we tend only to focus on the latter, to our discredit). Certainly, we have picked up that mantle. We often address God as “Father,” we talk about divine correction, we often analogize God’s actions with the actions of a parent.
But I don’t think you can really get a handle on God’s love until you experience what it’s like to love unconditionally as a parent – at least I couldn’t. My view of God has been radically reshaped by finally understanding the parental perspective on the actions of my children.
Perhaps one of the most damaging doctrines with which I was raised is the notion that God does not hear/listen to the prayers of those who have sinned. This notion is taken, as far as I can tell, from a single verse, Isaiah 59:2: “Your misdeeds have separated you from God. Your sins have hidden his face from you, so that you aren’t heard.”
Adam and Mr. Lunt apparently had something in common.
I enjoyed Robert Gromacki’s The Virgin Birth, despite my many disagreements with his approach and assumptions about the inerrancy of scripture and Jesus’ sinlessness. But there was one line on Page 125 that, had I been drinking something when I read it, would have produced an epic spit take.
In a chapter entitled, “Jesus Was Truly Human,” Gromacki endeavors to describe, shockingly enough, Jesus’ humanity. Unfortunately, Gromacki doesn’t actually view Jesus as truly human in two rather large ways – first in the way Jesus was conceived and second, and more important, in the notion that Jesus could not have sinned even if he’d wanted to. Nevertheless, at the end of the chapter, Gromacki compares Adam to Jesus and comes up with quite the notion:
Contrasted with Adam, Christ’s humanity had a different expression. Adam was created and began an adult existence on the very first day he lived. The human nature of Jesus was conceived within a mother’s womb just like any other human being, but apart from human fertilization. Jesus experienced a fetal state, a real birth and normal development, but Adam did not. Christ had a navel; Adam had none.
The question might seem to have an obvious answer, but I’m not so sure.
I was having a little Facebook discussion about homosexuality and, typically for me, pushing back against some folks’ notion of a completely inerrant, universally applicable Bible that unequivocally condemns homosexuality as we know it today. If by now you haven’t figured out I don’t think the Bible is inerrant as evangelicals use the term, nor do I think all parts of it are universally applicable (and neither does anyone else, even if they say they do), nor do I think we can so easily draw a straight line from “homosexuality” as used in the Bible and the kind practiced and debated today.
Nevertheless, over the course of the discussion, someone threw out the template argument. I would call it the third leg of the stool used to support Christian opposition to same-sex intimacy (I try to avoid using the “h-word” in this context because some Christians, after all, have moderated on scientific grounds to allow for people being gay and celibate, which means they are not opposed to homosexuality as an orientation, just acting on those same-sex attractions).
These are the three legs:
Leviticus – Yes, this is still used as an argument despite its obvious weaknesses.
Romans – A much stronger argument, though in my opinion the passage is heavily culturally conditioned, evidenced by Paul’s Stoic-influenced appeal to the “natural” and “unnatural” and the fact that homosexual behavior is not the sin he’s condemning but rather the consequence of the true sin of idolatry.
The Template – This is the argument that the creation story of Genesis 2:4b-3 serves as a template for God’s ideal relationship. Its arguers then use Jesus’ citation of it in a completely different context to counter the notion that he never said anything about same-sex relationships.
You could add the vice lists to these arguments, but they seem to fall in the same area as No. 2, only with less detail or certainty as to what Paul is actually discussing.
Here’s the thing, though. As weak as they are regard, none of these arguments even applies to polygamy. Continue reading →
… make it this Q&A with Dianna Anderson on Rachel Held Evans’ blog as part of Rachel’s “Ask a …” series. Dianna answered questions as a feminist. Allow me to pull an excerpt, from her answer about the compatibility of feminism with opposition to abortion:
I believe it is possible to be a feminist and pro-life, as long as that pro-life ethic does not come with rhetoric that shames, ignores, or vilifies women for the choices that they may make about a legal procedure. Don’t use your pro-life stance to treat women like morons. Don’t use it to shame women for their sexual choices, because, honestly, you don’t know what led to those choices. Instead, use your pro-life stance to attempt to make a difference in the lives of the women surrounding you by supporting them, by letting them know that you will be there for them if they do have an unwanted pregnancy (and then actually being there for them!), and by working to lower the occurrence of unwanted pregnancies in the first place – which means better sexual health education in schools, funding for birth control measures and education about using that birth control, promoting research into methods of safe male birth control, and creating an environment where the women in your life can come to you to discuss safe sexual choices.
Nothing will turn you into a feminist faster than having daughters. The more I think about what I want them to know about the world and about themselves, the less tenable I find anything but true equality in all aspects of life – including the church. We’ve discussed here before the radical femininity of Christ in response to the erroneous notion that Christianity has “a masculine feel” and shape. Go there if you want an example or two of how Jesus subtly subverted the patriarchal gender norms of his day. Anderson adds another one: