The Trouble with Unity

D&A.B.CoverChristian unity is a big deal. It was Jesus’ closing prayer before going to the cross, as recorded in John 17:

I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me. I’ve given them the glory that you gave me so that they can be one just as we are one. I’m in them and you are in me so that they will be made perfectly one. Then the world will know that you sent me and that you have loved them just as you loved me.

Yet unity has perhaps been the hardest thing for Christians to achieve.

I’m in Restoration History this semester, a class studying the history of the Restoration Movement, also known as the Stone-Campbell Movement. Its beginnings are as remarkable as its story is tragically ironic.

Two separate movements on the American frontier – one founded by Barton W. Stone and the other by Thomas Campbell and his son, Alexander – spontaneously decided to unify in the 1830s. They had some similarities, specifically they both had seceded (or been kicked out) of other denominations because of their commitment to seeking unity around only the items found in the “plain text” of the New Testament. Hurt by the excesses of their former denominations and suspicious of councils, creeds and enforced doctrine from appointed human leaders, they sought to restore the simplicity of the apostolic church, and though they didn’t agree on everything, they saw as paramount the New Testament call for unity.

They called themselves by different names – Disciples of Christ, Churches of Christ, Christian Churches – but they considered themselves part of one movement, a movement not incidentally that would usher in Jesus’ millennial reign within the political borders of America.

Continue reading

Advertisements

Why Genesis 2:24 Is Not Trying To Defend a Certain God-Ordained Picture of Marriage

9780802827562_p0_v1_s260x420Everyone knows Genesis 2:24 –

This is the reason that a man leaves his father and mother and embraces his wife, and they become one flesh.

It’s cited widely elsewhere in the Bible – in all three of the synoptic gospel’s portrayals of Jesus’ divorce teachings, in 1 Corinthians 6 and in Ephesians 5. And it’s lately become the crux in what I call the template argument, in which this verse provides the proof that God designed marriage to be between one man and one woman.

This verse came back to my attention while reading the short – though quite dense – book The Septuagint, Sexuality and the New Testament by William Loader, professor of New Testament at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia. Loader is looking for ways in which the Septuagint translators changed the Hebrew text of certain Old Testament passages dealing with sexuality, and how those changes influenced the arguments of Greco-Roman Jews relying on the Septuagint, particularly Philo of Alexandria and Paul of Tarsus.

Continue reading

That Business about Women Keeping Silent in Church – What if Someone Else Added It In?

0800637712hI’m reading through Eldon Jay Epp’s book Junia: The First Woman Apostle, which has succeeded in blowing my mind, and we haven’t even gotten to Junia yet.

Epp starts the book by talking about textual criticism, the means by which scholars look at the oldest texts we have and study their language and variations, and the problems such criticism poses for exegetical certainty. For example, everyone here is familiar with 1 Corinthians 14:34-35:

34 the women should be quiet during the meeting. They are not allowed to talk. Instead, they need to get under control, just as the Law says. 35 If they want to learn something, they should ask their husbands at home. It is disgraceful for a woman to talk during the meeting.

Pretty clear, right? But let’s zoom out a little and see what we find when we include it in context:

31 You can all prophesy one at a time so that everyone can learn and be encouraged. 32 The spirits of prophets are under the control of the prophets. 33 God isn’t a God of disorder but of peace.

(Like in all the churches of God’s people, 34 the women should be quiet during the meeting. They are not allowed to talk. Instead, they need to get under control, just as the Law says. 35 If they want to learn something, they should ask their husbands at home. It is disgraceful for a woman to talk during the meeting. 36 Did the word of God originate with you? Has it come only to you?)

37 If anyone thinks that they are prophets or “spiritual people,” then let them recognize that what I’m writing to you is the Lord’s command. 38 If someone doesn’t recognize this, they aren’t recognized. 39 So then, brothers and sisters, use your ambition to try to get the gift of prophecy, but don’t prevent speaking in tongues. 40 Everything should be done with dignity and in proper order.

The parentheses, which Epp includes in his treatment of these paragraphs, kind of give it away: One of these paragraphs is not like the other two. You could read from verse 33a to verse 37 without any trouble, as if verses 33b-36 didn’t exist. That’s interesting enough, but by itself doesn’t prove that verses 33b-35 or 36 are later additions to the text.

But Epp goes on to point out that not every text of 1 Corinthians place verses 34-35 between 33 and 36; some place it after verse 40. So this text is a little more mobile than your typical Pauline text. Also, though every text of 1 Corinthians 14 we have includes this passage, at least two of our earliest versions (Codex Fuldensis, dated to 547, and Codex Vaticanus, dated to the 300s) include scribal notations also found with such passages as John’s story of the woman caught in adultery, a well known case of textual variation. As Epp puts it:

This combination of literary analysis and text-critical assessment has moved a sizable group of scholars to view the passage on “silent women” as a later intrusion into 1 Corinthians and most likely one never written by Paul. (19)

So what does this mean? What do we do if one of the key passages governing gender roles in conservative and fundamentalist churches turns out to be a later, non-Pauline addition? After all, it’s still in our Bibles, and – at least theoretically – Paul is not of greater importance than any other biblical writer (though we Protestants certainly seem to prefer him to, say, James).

But the point is not to simply dismiss pieces of the Bible we don’t like; the point is to recognize that the Bible itself – not any particular passage but the very nature of the texts we have – rejects our attempts to flatten it into a cut-and-paste set of rules for 21st century life and worship.

Continue reading

Class, Day 1 – Origen: Your God Is Absurd

origenFollowing 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

The Toxic Assumption of the ‘Biblical Worldview’

Kinnaman_Lyons_Unchristian_smI’m working my way through unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity … and Why It Matters, the groundbreaking book from David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons of the Barna Group. It’s taking a little longer than I expected because, surprise!, it’s tough to get through a book based primarily on survey results and data.

It’s also a tough read because I find myself disagreeing with it more than I thought I would. The data is the data, of course, but the conclusions Kinnaman and Lyons reach seem a little off to me. It reminds me of hearing Republican Party leaders talk about how they need to change their “message” and “tone” after getting shellacked in the 2012 elections without seeming to understand that voters have decisively rejected their policies.

Likewise, Kinnaman and Lyons have compelling evidence that traditional theology and practice have failed yet seem to argue that what traditional evangelical Christianity needs is a different message and tone. It seems they can’t quite face the fact that their own data calls into question their own doctrines.

A key example of this is their presentation of the results when they asked if a respondent has a “biblical worldview.” Here’s how Kinnaman sets it up:

Of course, this [fact that the about 70 percent of Americans claim to have made a personal decision to follow Christ] raises the question of the depth of their faith. If that many Americans have made decisions to follow Jesus, our culture and our world would be revolutionized if they simply lived that faith. It is easy to embrace a costless form of Christianity in America today, and we have probably contributed to that by giving people a superficial understanding of the gospel and focusing only on their decision to convert.

I have no problems with this paragraph at all. But note that he’s talking about needing a deeper “understanding of the gospel,” which is interesting, given what comes next:

At Barna we employ dozens of tools to assess the depth of a person’s faith. Let me suggest one for our discussion: a biblical worldview. A person with a biblical worldview experiences, interprets and responds to reality in light of the Bible’s principles. What Scripture teaches is the primary grid for making decisions and interacting with the world. (75)

What happened here? In traditional evangelicalism, “biblical worldview” is something of a code for “conservative doctrine” that treats the Bible as a fully applicable roadmap for life in the 21st century, notwithstanding its final authorship no later than the 2nd century. By linking “deeper understanding of the gospel” and “biblical worldview,” Kinnaman has forced together two different arguments. Certainly a deep understanding of the gospel requires reliance on the Bible; no one disputes that, I hope. But Kinnaman is implying a deep understanding of the gospel requires reliance on a specific method of reading and applying what the Bible says, which is problematic. I would argue it’s one of the reasons why Kinnaman’s own data show young people  abandoning the church.

Continue reading

Not a Tame Lion – but a Good One

the-last-battle-1When looking at the question of God’s sovereignty vs. what we understand to be good and loving, we could do worse than looking to C.S. Lewis, who addressed the question briefly in The Last Battle, the final book in his Chronicles of Narnia series.

The argument advanced by the neo-Calvinist wing of the evangelical movement is that God being sovereign can act how he wants, and that those actions by default, regardless of how they are perceived by us mere mortals, are good and loving.

My response – and that of Rachel Held Evans and others – is that such an argument allows the subversion and redefinition of the very concepts of love and goodness. If God cannot be trusted to act in a way that comports to commonly understood definitions of love an goodness, those terms have no meaning. That doesn’t mean we should always be able to understand what God is doing, and I don’t doubt we may somehow misinterpret actions that really are loving and good if we knew the whole picture as God does. But it does mean we can and should question portrayals of God, in the Bible and elsewhere, that turn him into a genocidal monster or a bloodthirsty maniac or a capricious wielder of natural disasters.

In The Last Battle, the crafty ape Shift has coerced the confused donkey Puzzle into wearing an old lion’s skin and telling the other animals the donkey is really Aslan, Narnia’s creator and the Christ figure of the series. Shift then sells the animals into slavery to Narnia’s old archenemy Calormen, forcing the free talking animals to work for Calormene soldiers as they cut down the talking trees and float them downriver to the sea for trade.

When Narnian King Tirian and his old friend, a unicorn named Jewel, stumble upon two Calormene soldiers mistreating a talking horse, they lose their cool and kill the soldiers. After fleeing, they reassess the situation:

Continue reading

Isaiah’s Four Sons

220px-IsaiahIt 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.

Continue reading