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Archive for the ‘Scripture’ Category

Nearly five years ago, in the midst of a lot of argument over the public implications of Christian theology — about the demise of the Religious Right, the rise of Islamist terrorism, Christian signaling (often confused and distorted) by Republican politicians — I set myself a task: to write a series of essays on several New Testament passages that address how one goes about being a Christian in public. The purpose of the series would be to set forth the often startling angles from which the New Testament authors regarded political power, angles that would present some surprises for everyone.

After setting forth the idea, alas, two things happened. First, the arguments, provocations, and occasional atrocities piled up. Second, I became too busy following them, and occasionally responding to them on their own terms. After stating that serious Christian engagement with the world requires “reading, marking, and inwardly digesting” Holy Scripture, the troubles of the world distracted me from that very work. The results were frankly terrible for my soul.

The lesson I learned the hard way, of which I am now more persuaded than ever, is simple: deep reflection on the Bible is the key to remaining sane and hopeful in our decidedly interesting times. Not that following the events is unimportant. St. Luke (to take only one example) is a model of how to think with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. But ten minutes of perusing the Acts of the Apostles discloses that St. Luke didn’t forget Scripture for the news. And for that reason he neither drifted with his times nor overreacted to them. He could approach issues of his time from surprising angles, and regard them with critical hope.

Moving, then, from introduction to the first essay proper, we leave the pages of St. Luke and the apostolic age and rewind to a small-town scandal preceding Jesus’s birth, as recorded in first pages of St. Matthew:

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

S Matthew 1:18-21 (ESV).

One of the questions this brief passage raises is “in what did St. Joseph of Nazareth’s justice consist — that he had cause to divorce Mary, or the quiet manner in which he resolved to divorce her?”

The question actually presents a false dichotomy. Joseph’s righteousness consisted in both. For, in his time as in ours, there was no shortage of men willing to divorce their wives on the flimsiest of grounds: to seize upon trivial “causes” to justify themselves when their real motive may have been to marry a richer, more sexually attractive, or more complying wife. In Joseph’s time that was called “any cause” divorce; the contemporary equivalent (now practiced by both sexes) is “no-fault.” Joseph did not practice “any cause” divorce. His cause — Mary’s apparent fornication — was unquestionable. It was a ground for divorce recognized even by the strict disciples of Shammai, and by Jesus himself.

st joseph and gabrielThat said, in describing the nature of Joseph’s righteousness St. Matthew’s accent is on the quiet manner in which Joseph resolved to divorce Mary. He was “unwilling to put her to shame.” In legal terms, what that means is that while Joseph had the right to a for-cause divorce — involving a public trial and whatever shame followed for Mary — he would pursue only the remedy prescribed for “any cause” divorce: privately to procure and deliver a certificate of divorce. That would have meant also that Joseph waived his claim for any monetary compensation for Mary’s infidelity, and any recovery of the bride-price he had paid her family.

I start this series here because in the pages of the New Testament St. Joseph’s kind of forbearance — from pressing claims of righteousness, shame and honor — is not an isolated curiosity. It occurs so frequently as to mark a kind of paradigm shift between the Old Covenant and the New: that while the definitions of moral rights and offenses continued, the approach to remedies — penalties to wrongdoers, compensation to the wronged — changed substantially. The didactic passage most obviously on point here is St. Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians that it’s better to suffer wrong than to have lawsuits among church members (1 Cor. 6:1-8). But this little pinch of leaven leavens the whole of the New Testament, the whole of the Kingdom of God. And in its unemphatic way, this ethic stands as a quiet but powerful witness against the excesses of our rights culture, and the cultural, political, and legal brinkmanship to which those excesses so often lead.

Joseph needed no trumpet, no public assertion of his right, no open vindication. His justice, manifest in the remedies he would and would not pursue, was as regular and quiet as the intake of breath. Like alms given with the right hand and kept secret from the left, Joseph’s resolve is a paradigm of true righteousness. It creates, at the very beginning of the New Testament, a striking new atmosphere, in which we can form the kind of character that alone can sustain faithful Christian public engagement.

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Some time ago a good friend of mine wrote a note, in the midst of a set of truly appalling circumstances, about the importance of non-judgment. For, she said, we don’t really know what anyone is up against. We do not know the history of the one whose action we judge. And, if we were given the history and circumstances of those we judge, would we have done better? 

Nothing in the note, especially given the circumstances it addressed, was wrong. Quite the contrary, in its place it was exactly right. And yet, after reading it through twice, I had a nagging thought that it was incomplete. Yet that’s about all that anyone is willing to say publicly about judgment these days: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” There is more that needs to be said, though, and hardly anyone is saying it.

Hi Ed Nathan Jr.

Thus saith the kidnappers of Nathan Arizona, Jr.: “Now y’all without sin can cast the first stone.”

 

The thing more that needs saying has to do with the distinction between appraising and condemning. The connotations attached to these two words are quite different, though both can be used as synonyms for judging. Appraising and condemning may sometimes be distinguished in their effects, but more often in their respective intentions and underlying assumptions. The condemning man, when pointing a finger at a wrongdoer, doesn’t stop to think whether he’d have done any better — but probably assumes he would have. The appraising man also does not stop to think whether he’d have done better, but for a very different reason: what he would have done isn’t the standard.

There’s a reason the demanding teacher — the relentlessly critical appraiser of thoughts and words — is an archetypal character. And it’s no accident that under that archetype’s crusty exterior is a heart of gold. The exacting teacher is the one who cares. It is precisely because he does care that he will push his students to and just beyond the point they think of as “the limit” — but not so far beyond them that the students will break. The teacher knows the standard for all is wisdom, virtue, and high beauty, and that only great exertion will get us there.

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This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.

The New Testament is full of sentences that are the gospel in shorthand. I have always found this one from John (1 S John 1:5) the most striking. Not only because it directly confronts the heart of both open unbelief and Christian crankiness and fear — the suspicion that God has a sadistic and miserly side — but because this message really does run through all of Jesus’s conversation. The way of life and renovation of the heart prescribed in the gospels are amazingly difficult. And yet very often Jesus’s portrait of his happy, lavishly generous Father might make one forget the difficulty: “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

When the world slanders Jesus, or remakes him after one of its own patterns, the Christian’s impulse is often to defend his elder brother, to “set the record straight.” Commendable impulse, but wrong: the “Christ’s defender” ethos is misleading. He needs no defense, unless it be the defense of our example — that we delight in listening to our Elder Brother and learning of him.

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Everybody knows that a few weeks ago, Jerry Falwell, Jr. made some rather controversial statements about gun ownership and self-defense to the students of Liberty University. A few people know that yesterday, John Piper responded with a lengthy nine-point rejoinder that comes within a hair’s breadth of absolute pacifism — although Dr. Piper did stop short of such a position by noting that the State at least bears the power of the sword, and by conceding the existence of (unspecified) “situational ambiguities.”

I have been thinking a lot about the phrase “they’ll know we are Christians by our means” lately. Are American Christians formed foremost by Americanism, or by the Way of Christ?

There is a caricature afoot of the history of how Islam spread: i.e. by the sword and nothing but the sword. That is a woefully incomplete picture. Islam spread by a combination of eloquent proclamation of the gospel according to Muhammad, shrewd diplomacy, and the sword — the three means used variously, as expedient.

You could say that the gospel of Liberty, United States Version (USV), has spread by a similarly expedient combination of means: proseletyzing (America as the “city on a hill,” anyone?); shrewdness (e.g. the purchases of Louisiana and Florida); and the sword (the armed displacement of First Nations at the beginning, numerous overseas interventions lately, in between and more controversially, the Civil War).

So even though Piper exceeds reason in a few places (especially the section about defense of family), I find it totally refreshing to see an American evangelical Christian carefully untangling American means of gospel-spreading from the Scriptural ones.

The early Church seems really to have been marked uniquely by its particular reliance on testimony — the testimony of words, mercies, and lives laid down literally and figuratively — occasionally on shrewd diplomacy; never the sword. The apostles spent much of the book of Acts in want and danger, and as targets of persecution, and they didn’t once get out the sword.

What clear, startling testimony that is. That is a kingdom not from the world.

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In my last post I took exception to Miroslav Volf’s unsupported accusation that Wheaton College’s action in placing Larycia Hawkins on administrative leave was “not about theology and orthodoxy,” but “enmity toward Muslims.”

Comes now Mr. Brian McLaren, who takes that accusation and gives it another run through the spin cycle:

The hostile rhetoric of presidential candidates – much of it spewed out to impress the “Evangelical base” of the Republican Party – seems to have swayed college administrators from their professed theology, which at Christmas should remind us all that God is in solidarity with all humanity, all creation …

Dr. Volf had set forth — with no evidence — an alleged motive for Wheaton’s action: enmity toward Muslims. Now Mr. McLaren sets forth the source of that enmity: the college administrators were “swayed . . . from their professed theology” by “the hostile rhetoric of presidential candidates.” I’m not holding my breath to see Mr. McLaren present actual evidence for that claim.

Is it so impossible to suppose that the Wheaton College administrators placed Dr. Hawkins on leave for saying “Christians and Muslims worship the same God,” not because they were “swayed from . . . their professed theology,” but because — I dunno — they believed it? 

If Wheaton affirms the Incarnation — a mystery that Muslims flatly deny, and Christians adore — and then also affirms that “Christians and Muslims worship the same God,” Wheaton is equivocating about whether it believes in God’s supreme act of “solidarity with all humanity, all creation.”

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Recently Larycia Hawkins, a professor of political science at Wheaton College, claimed that “Muslims and Christians worship the same God” — a statement which, in the estimation of Wheaton’s administration, contradicted the college’s statement of faith. Dr. Hawkins, in defending the orthodoxy of her claim, cited Yale theology professor Miroslav Volf as authority. The Wheaton administration was unconvinced: it placed Dr. Hawkins on administrative leave.

This morning, Miroslav Volf himself waded into this controversy by publishing the following indictment of the Wheaton administrators:

There isn’t any theological justification for Hawkins’s forced administrative leave. Her suspension is not about theology and orthodoxy. It is about enmity toward Muslims. More precisely, her suspension reflects enmity toward Muslims, taking on a theological guise of concern for Christian orthodoxy.

And what, exactly, is the evidence for the charge? Volf’s essay gives none. For example, Volf provides no evidence that other Wheaton professors had claimed that “Mormons and Christians worship the same God” or “Jews and Christians worship the same God” without consequence. Nor does Volf provide direct evidence of actual enmity — e.g. inflammatory statements about Islam made by Wheaton administrators. Volf’s general statement that “[m]any Christians today see themselves at war . . . with Islam,” and his allusion to Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s recent asinine comments about “ending” certain Muslims, do not count as evidence against Wheaton.

Which means that Volf is mind-reading the Wheaton administrators — and interpreting their minds by a hermeneutic of suspicion — unless the claim that Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God is plainly flimsy and pretextual.

But is it? Let’s play a game of identify-that-character: Say Jack is married to a dark-eyed brunette named Jane, whose nature is reserved, and whose conversation is plain, precise and rationalist. Then say that one day, Jack bumps into his old friend Jim, and Jim congratulates Jack on marrying someone as lovely as Jane — commenting on Jane’s strawberry blond hair, bright blue eyes, gregarious nature, and expansive, vivid conversation, full of jests, half-meanings and double entendres. Would Jack be inclined to accept the man’s congratulations? Would he think, “how interesting that two perspectives on the same woman can be so different”? I doubt it. More likely, Jack would tell Jim, simply, “there must be some mistake.”

Now let’s play another round: Say there’s a another man named John, for whom the testimony “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God; the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only son from the Father, full of grace and truth” is the thing that moves him to wonder and worship. Say the story of Christ being slain and raised and made alive evermore, and having the keys of Death and Hades, is the story that keeps John afloat amidst all the troubles of the world. And then say John’s friend Amaar comes along and said, “we worship the same God! But all that stuff about the Trinity and Incarnation is incoherent, polytheistic and vulgar.” Why would John’s response to Amaar be any different than Jack’s response to Jim?

If the homeliness, grittiness and fleshliness of the Incarnation, Nativity, Passion and Resurrection are essential parts of the Christian story of God and the world, and if Christians adore these mysteries and hold that they reveal the essential character of God, then Christians cannot “worship the same God” as people who flatly deny that God ever did any such things.

It isn’t hateful to say so. No daggers need be drawn over it — and the Christian story supplies plenty of reasons why the Christian should leave his dagger sheathed, or at home. Dr. Volf himself states the chief reasons at the conclusion of his article: that God “justifies the ungodly” and commands us to love our enemies.

“Enmity demands exclusivity.” But does it follow — especially in a world where God commands love to enemies — that exclusivity demands enmity?

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In Socrates’s last weeks, questions of piety and impiety were not the window-dressing of life. They were, on the contrary, quite literally a matter of life and death. He had been indicted on a charge of impiety, corrupting Athenian youths by teaching novel doctrines — he was a “god-maker” and did not give the old gods their due. He would shortly be tried and convicted on that charge, and then executed.

BookOfKellsEagle

The Eagle, the symbol of St. John, as shown in the Four Gospels plate of the Book of Kells.

It is against that background that one must read the dilemma Socrates put to Euthyphro: Is piety loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?[1] It is easy for us to dismiss Socrates’s question as philosophical play — fitting for a boy, deserving of a whipping for a man (as Callicles put it elsewhere)[2]. But a man about to stand trial for impiety needs some idea of what piety means for a very practical reason: to defend himself. So we may suppose Socrates to have been completely in earnest. And his question is an important one. It would be a strange thing to worship a god who didn’t come into existence until after “the good,” and was subservient to “the good.” It would be terrible, however, to worship a god who could alter “good” arbitrarily — say, to make hate “good” and “love” bad.

St John the Evangelist lived a few centuries after Socrates, in a different part of the Mediterranean region. He was a Jew, not a Greek, though he wrote in Greek and his writings show some familiarity with Greek thought. So we should not be surprised that the prologue of John’s gospel, though its primary purpose is to place the life of Jesus of Nazareth within the life of the one God of Israel — God the Creator who spoke creation and life into being, God the Redeemer who dwelt in the Tabernacle and led the Israelites out of Egypt — also addresses the Greek world by John’s use of the word logos. The prologue’s opening phrases also happen to address (probably unintentionally) the dilemma Socrates put to Euthyphro.

The first character to appear in St John’s prologue is the “Word”that is, the divine logos. In the beginning, the logos was. While “word” is a good translation for logos in John — connecting John’s prologue with God’s act of creation by speech in Genesis 1 — it isn’t a comprehensive translation. If you hear the echoes of our word logic, and the suffix -ology, in logos, you’re not hearing things. While logos conveys the sense of word as speech-act, it also conveys rationality. And John says that, no matter how far back in time one might travel, or if it were possible to go back to before the dawn of time, the Word, the logos, would still be there. And it would not be subject to change upon the whim of any deity.

But no matter how far back in time one might travel — even if one went back to before the dawn of time — the logos would not be there alone. He would be with Someone. He would not just be sitting alongside that Someone in a passive Aristotelian kind of way, nor at war with Him in a Zeus-versus-Kronos kind of way, but facing Him, engaging with Him with a quality of attention and affection that we can hardly begin to imagine. Or, as John puts it: “And the Word was with God.”

John’s first two phrases, without more, almost solve Socrates’s dilemma. For if goodness and sound logic are comprehended within the word logos, then goodness — Socrates’s piety — has always existed, and is not subject to change. Moreover, that logos has always existed with God, neither apart from God nor in competition with Him. So one might say, without proceeding beyond John’s first two phrases, that if God and the pious logos are co-eternal, always together, fully engaged with one another and of one mind, then we have a set of conditions that cuts the horns off Socrates’s dilemma. But John isn’t done, and his third phrase resolves the dilemma beyond all doubt:

“And what God was, the Word was.”

The three statements, taken together, read like this: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and what God was, the Word was.” John calls the Word eternal, eternally in relationship with the God who called himself, simply, “I am,” and eternally in full possession and enjoyment of the character, nature and identity of that God, whose nature encompasses, indeed actively embraces, the Word’s piety. John solves Socrates’s old mystery by the plain statement of the eternal Mystery.

[1] Plato, Euthyphro 10a.

[2] Plato, Gorgias 485d-e.

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