Sunday, September 28, 2008

Did Jesus testify as to his identity?

'Where did Jesus say, "I am God"?' is a common argument of Muslims arguing against Christians (though it reflects a half-truth or half-understanding about what Christ said and what Christians teach about Jesus).

'Where did Jesus say, "I am the Messiah"? is a common argument of those who argue against Jesus being the Messiah (Christ) in reality rather than merely in the veneration of the church.

While we're on the subject, Jesus did not even say "I am a prophet". Why not?

The Gospel of John: Extended discourse on testimony to Jesus

Actually, the question "Why not?" was covered at some length in the fourth gospel.
If I testify about myself, my testimony is not valid. (John 5:31)
Jesus was citing the common legal practice of the people among whom he lived: testifying on your own behalf was considered meaningless. The Talmud records this legal principle:
No one may testify concerning himself. (Kethuboth 27b, Mishnah)
This is even today considered somewhat common sense: it is foolish to believe everything that a man may say about himself. If Jesus had said "I am the Messiah" or "I am God" or even "I am a prophet" or "I am the messenger of God", it would provide no real reason for believing it. What someone says about himself may be merely self-serving to glorify himself. Jesus, continuing the earlier conversation, provides several lines of witnesses that testify about him:
  1. John the Baptist (John 5:33-35)
  2. The works Jesus is doing (John 5:36)
  3. The Father's own testimony (John 5:37-38)
  4. Scripture (John 5:39-40);
  5. Moses (John 5:45-47).
In fact, when Jesus proclaimed his role in the world, he was challenged on exactly the point of whether he was then testifying on his own behalf. When Jesus proclaimed, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life" (John 8:12), the immediate challenge back from the Pharisees was this:
Here you are, appearing as your own witness. Your testimony is not valid. (John 8:13)
Jesus' reply covered reasons why his self-testimony is valid, beginning with how they were judging by human standards and how his Father's witness adds to his own to establish matters on the testimony of two witnesses according to rules set forth by the Torah. He continues with the point that he is speaking only what the Father has taught him to speak. This thread continues for some length on the topic as Jesus rebuts the charge that he is a glory-seeker and that his testimony would be dismissed by a judge.
I am not seeking glory for myself, but there is one who seeks it, and he is the judge. (John 8:50)
The series of exchanges comes to a climax when Jesus is asked whether he is the Messiah and ups the stakes, saying words that the hearers understand as a claim to equality with God. Again, follow the thread of where the testimony comes from and what witnesses speak on his behalf:
The Jews gathered around him, saying, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly."

Jesus answered, "I did tell you, but you do not believe. The miracles I do in my Father's name speak for me, but you do not believe me because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand. I and the Father are one."

Again the Jews picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to him, "I have shown you many great miracles from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?"

"We are not stoning you for any of these," replied the Jews, "but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God."

Jesus answered them, "Is it not written in your Law, 'I have said you are gods'? If he called them 'gods' to whom the Word of God came -- and the Scripture cannot be broken -- what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, 'I am God's Son'? Do not believe me unless I do what my Father does. But if I do it, even though you do not believe me, believe the miracles, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father." (John 10:24-38, emphasis added)

Sign as testimony: Is Jesus the one, or should we expect another?

The Gospel of John is not the only gospel to show Jesus using this same logic. John the Baptist, in prison, sought confirmation beyond what he had from seeing God's sign at Jesus' Baptism. He sent messengers to Jesus:
"Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?" Jesus replied: Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me." (Matthew 11:3-6; see also Luke 7:18-35)
Again Jesus lets his signs testify for him: we should not expect another to come after him; the prophecies are fulfilled in him.

Sign as testimony: Who can forgive sins but God alone?

Jesus uses the same line of argument when he is challenged for claiming authority reserved for God when he forgave the sins of a paralytic man, an account which is recorded in Matthew, Mark, and Luke:

He said to the paralytic, "Son, your sins are forgiven."

Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, "Why does this fellow talk like that? He's blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?"

Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, "Why are you thinking these things? Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, "your sins are forgiven', or to say, 'Get up, take your mat and walk'? But that you may know that the Sonof Man has authority on earth to forgive sins ..." He said to the paralytic, "I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home." He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying "We have never seen anything like this." (Mark 2:5-12, see also Matt 9 and Luke 5).

Witnesses and credibility

When it comes to credibility, what do we think? Is it possible for a human to serve as a second witness to corroborate a claim as to whether another person is a prophet, or the Messiah, or the Son of God? How would they know? Jesus performed miracles to testify for him. His miracles were blessings for the people who received them and signs for the world proclaiming God's goodness, foretastes of the blessings God has promised in the world to come. Many have proclaimed a role for themselves in the world. As for Jesus being the one who was to come, it is hard to imagine a more credible or powerful testimony to Jesus' place in the kingdom of heaven than when God raised him from the dead. For those who do not believe that miracles are possible, belief in Jesus will always be a mystery. For those who do believe that God performs miracles, the miracles are testifying and are the witnesses Jesus called as to the truthfulness of his words.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Anniversary offering for the dead in Augustine's Confessions

I have some interest in tracking the history of the practice of anniversary offerings for the dead in the early Christian church. In re-reading St Augustine's Confessions recently, I came across a passage that bears on the subject. In fact, Book VI Chapter 2 deals largely with this subject. Here are some relevant excerpts, though the passage is lengthier than I will quote and is worth reading in full:
There was an occasion when my mother had brought, as was her custom in Africa, cakes and bread and wine to some of the chapels built in memory of the saints and was forbidden to do this by the doorkeeper. When she found that it was the bishop (note: St Ambrose) who had forbidden the practice, she accepted his ban ...

But when she found that that famous preacher and that great example of piety (still St Ambrose) had forbidden the practice even to those who used it soberly -- so that drunkards should not be given an occasion for excess and also because this kind of anniversary funeral feast is very like the superstitious ceremony of the pagans -- she most willingly gave up her old habit. Instead of a basket filled with the fruits of the earth, she had learned to bring to the chapels of the Martyrs a breast full of something much purer, her prayers.
It is interesting to note that the annual offerings of the dead (also seen in Tertullian) were practiced apparently without opposition in Africa, but received a flat prohibition under St Ambrose. The practice of the church in that day was not uniform on the matter of offerings for the dead. It is also interesting to note Ambrose's reason for prohibiting the annual offerings even when done with sobriety: these offerings resembled pagan practices. They may have been a continuation of pagan practices carried over into Christianity by converts from pagan religions. At any rate, while Ambrose's ban was by no means church-wide, it is an interesting episode in the history of offerings for the dead within Christianity.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Comparing Liturgies

This is in response to Jeff's call for posts for the Christian Reconciliation Carnival. For those considering entering, please submit your favorite liturgy or reconciliation-themed post.

I was curious what we would find if we compared liturgies amongst ourselves. However, the orders of service tend to be longer than we might have the patience to compare in our spare time as bloggers. With that in mind, I am here posting the general outline of the Common Service from our current worship book. There are several other orders of service as well; I haven't even compared and contrasted the different orders of service within my own book of worship. But here is a question for all you other liturgical worshipers out there from other Christian groups: how close is this to your own order of service? Are there differences? Are differences in the service used to highlight differences in theology?

Common Service
  1. Invocation (“In the name of the Father …”)
  2. Confession
  3. Song: Kyrie eleison (“Lord have mercy on us ...”)
  4. Absolution
  5. Song: Gloria in Excelsis (“Glory be to God on High …”)
  6. Prayer of the day
  7. Old Testament Scripture reading
  8. Psalm of the day
  9. Epistle Scripture reading
  10. Verse of the day and Alleluias
  11. Gospel Scripture reading
  12. Nicene Creed (communion) or Apostles Creed (matins)
  13. Sermon
  14. Song: "Create in me ..."
  15. Offering
  16. Prayer of the church
  17. The Lord's prayer (with the Glorias at the end)
  18. (Matins: skip forward to Nunc Dimittis; Eucharist continues)
  19. Prayers: Seasonal prefaces to the Eucharist
  20. Song: Sanctus (“Holy, holy, holy …”)
  21. Words of institution (“Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night he was betrayed …”)
  22. Song: Agnus Dei (“O Christ, Lamb of God …”)
  23. Distribution (“The body of Christ, given for you. The blood of Christ, shed for you for the remission of sins.”)
  24. Song: Nunc dimittis aka Song of Simeon (“Lord, now you let your servant depart in peace …”)
  25. Prayer of thanksgiving
  26. Aaron’s Blessing (“The Lord bless you and keep you …”)
I've skipped mentioning the various places where we have a hymn. So what do you say? How close is this to your own liturgy? How close have we stayed over the years of the divide, and how far have we drifted apart even in our worship?

Is it fair to portray Creationists as abusing the Bible?

Note: I am not writing this with an eye to the Creation / Evolution or Young Earth / Old Earth debates. My eye in this is towards the topic of whether we are treating our brothers and sisters in Christ fairly, regardless of our differences.
I recently came across this article by one John Polkinghorne (h/t: Chris, who I suspect really enjoyed the article) in which the sub-headline boldly states the article’s intention to explain “why literal creationists are abusing and misinterpreting scripture”. I’m not a young earth creationist; I have no quibbles with the current consensus that the earth is far older than that. But I think it is patently unjust to young earthers to accuse them of abusing the Bible merely for holding a view of the Biblical creation account that was, historically, the mainstream view of the Christian church for many centuries.

Polkinghorne draws from the stock argument against young earth creationists: their inability to recognize or interpret figures of speech and their inability to determine or take into account the genre of what they are reading. This supposedly accounts for their untenable, textually unsound reading of the opening chapters of Genesis. Odd thing is that the consensus of Christians who wrote on that subject came to the same conclusions as the young earth creationists until, say, the 1800's A.D. In church history, Eusebius and many of his contemporaries seemed to think the text could be read roughly the same way that modern young earthers read it. For centuries, careful Biblical students and respected scholars calculated the age of the earth based on various texts in the Bible and consistently found ages less than 10,000 years. Was there no skilled reader in the house? Does the mainstream of centuries of historical Christian interpretation “actually abuse scripture by the mistaken interpretation that they impose upon it”, as Polkinghorne says of the young earthers who are sticking to the same historical consensus?

This particular line of argument – that creationists are actually abusing the Bible or are even unskilled exegetes – seems at best an uninformed argument, one that turns a blind eye to the prevalence of the creationist view throughout church history. Unless we are willing to retroactively say that the majority of mainstream Christian scholars for many centuries were likewise unskilled readers and biased interpreters, it might do better to drop that charge against modern creationists. The theory of evolution was a shock to the church precisely because the consensus for many centuries had been roughly what the young earth creationists still believe. The difference in interpretation from the older traditional view does not come from the creationists’ lack of reading skills, but from the evolutionists’ acceptance of modern theories that invalidate the traditional reading and therefore require the evolutionist (not the creationist) to develop a new interpretation. I am not here arguing against developing a new interpretation; I am simply stating that it is unfair to pretend that the difference between the evolutionist view and the creationist view of Genesis is a result of the creationist "abusing" the book rather than the evolutionist reinterpreting it. It would be far more honest and charitable for old earthers to simply acknowledge that they have made a break with the historical interpretation – and what was, in its day, respected scholarship – in light of modern discoveries.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

My neighborhood: Scenes from Ike

Those plants all horizontal there are what's left of my little banana grove, picture taken a few hours after Ike cleared off. Fortunately, that's about the worst of it for my own home; little real damage. We filled about 12 large trash bags full of leaves and other downed foliage. It's not that my yard is that large, either, but that kind of weather is rough on trees.

My next-door neighbors on both sides lost fencing and some larger parts of trees; the picture of downed fencing is from one of my next-door neighbors. Most of the homes in our neighborhood (a half-hour drive from the beach) have nothing worse than downed trees or fences, maybe a few missing shingles. I noticed that the poorly-maintained homes didn't fare as well; mental note: make sure to re-check home maintenance each year before hurricane season.
The third picture shows the most damaged house I've seen in our neighborhood. You can't see the whole tree in the picture, but the whole tree was plucked up like a weed with its roots hanging. This particular home is on the outer edge of our neighborhood in the direction from which the wind was coming.

What I'm not showing, I suppose, is all the uninteresting stuff: house after house without any damage, the trees (80% or better) that are still in the ground and some that even kept all their branches, that kind of thing. The neighborhoods closer to the water had more damage. There's still plenty of work to do.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Paul's message based on Christ's: the primacy of love

Whenever people claim that Paul taught something different than Jesus, I find myself wondering how closely they have read Paul's letters. Of all Jesus' moral teachings, probably the most unique is this: that the most important of all God's laws is the command that we love. The most important of all the laws and command God ever gave, Jesus taught us, is to love the LORD our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength; and the second most important is like it: to love our neighbor as ourselves. The main moral teaching of Jesus is developed better and more fully by Paul than by anyone else in the whole of the Bible.

Consider 1 Corinthians chapter 13. Here Paul devotes an entire chapter to love: how love is better than knowledge and wisdom and understanding; how even acts of charity are empty and meaningless without love, how even martyrdom itself is meaningless without love, that if we are martyred but do not love then "we gain nothing". Here Paul reminds us that if we speak even the most beautiful words of the most beautiful language with the most beautiful meanings -- but do not love, those who listen to us only hear an unpleasant noise like a gong or a cymbal.

Consider Paul's letter to the Romans, again chapter 13. Here Paul reviews from the standpoint of the law code of the Torah: that the law is fulfilled when we love each other. "Love does no harm to its neighbor, therefore love is the fulfillment of the law."

Again in Galatians 5:13-14, Paul expounds on love as the fulfillment of the law, and shows that the Christian fulfills the law by serving each other in love. "For all the Law is fulfilled in one saying: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"

As much as I find Peter's and John's writings to be admirable in their own right, and as much as they also proclaim Jesus Christ both in what he did and what he taught, still Paul is the one who proclaims Jesus' teaching of love the most.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A Question of Ethics: The Media and Disaster Preparation

This past Friday evening as I was putting the finishing touches on my hurricane preparations, I made one last check of my email before packing up my computer and moving it to a safer spot. With Ike a mere few hours away, I found this lead article on AOL (see picture). Is it sensationalist? Definitely. Is it misleading to place the picture of the fellow standing in the spray of the Galveston seawall adjacent to a caption about a wall of water hitting Texas? Probably. You could tell the man was on the seawall if you know the Galveston seawall like most of us on the coast, or if you moused-over the picture and then it mentioned that it was a man on the seawall with the pre-storm waves splashing up, and not exactly a wall of water as referenced in the accompanying headline ... if you moused over the picture instead of, say, reading the headline.

I do not want to single out this AOL article as if it were the only sensationalist piece of hype I'd seen during my preparations for the hurricane. For the record, even the vast majority of those who rode out Ike on Galveston Island survived so they did not, after all, face certain death. Ike was repeatedly referred to in media reports as enormous, monstrous, and a variety of other adjectives playing up its impressive size and strength. Honestly, folks, it was a Category 2 storm in a zone where most things are rated Category 3 (though obviously not our power infrastructure). I do not mean to minimize the menace that was Ike, or the long night we all spent Friday night and into Saturday as the storm barreled through, or the hardships of days without power or any way to replace supplies of water or food or fuel -- which is still the situation in some places though in increasingly isolated pockets as the days go by. There were even a number of deaths, a few from the storm and possibly as many or more from misuse of generators / candles / power tools etc. afterwards. The deaths from the actual strike of Ike are still less than the deaths from the mass evacuation (note: not the storm but the evacuation) three years ago for Rita.

My point is this: panic, desperation, lack of information and poor planning have been responsible for more hurricane deaths around here than the actual hurricanes. To what extent is the media responsible for fueling that most deadly part of a disaster, namely panic, with its hysterical headlines? If someone went into a crowded movie house and yelled "Fire" hysterically rather than with rational instructions about proceeding calmly to the nearest exit, would that announcer be morally responsible if there were a trampling death during the panic?

My concern is this: the media have a theoretical job of passing along information. However, this is often eclipsed by the desire for ratings. Hype creates ratings, therefore the media creates hype. At what point do they (did they) cross the line to generating fear to rake in a bigger profit? In a dangerous situation, is the fearmongering-for-profit dynamic ethical?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

After Ike ... my power is back on

Hi there

So it was a long weekend and into the week. I rode out the storm at home, and we did get hit pretty directly. No real damage unless you count tree branches and such. We got power back last night. Yes! And it was a nice surprise to find my internet service is also up.

My favorite things about our neighborhood having power back:
  1. Hot food
  2. Cold drinks
  3. Working lights
  4. Air conditioning
  5. Refrigerator
  6. Clothes washer/dryer
  7. Traffic signals
  8. Grocery stores with food
  9. Gas stations with gas
  10. Hot running water
I hope to get back into blogging soon. Missed y'all!

Take care & God bless

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Remembering 9/11: Let's teach the terrorists a lesson

"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God." -- Jesus

"Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'" -- Jesus

"Pray like this: ... 'Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.' ... For unless you forgive those who sin against you, your Father in heaven will not forgive you." -- Jesus

The first command of the Law [in importance] is this: 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength'; the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" -- Jesus

"All things whatsoever that you wish men would do for you, do this for them. For this is the Law and the Prophets." -- Jesus

"Be merciful, as your Father in heaven is merciful. Judge not, and you shall not be judged; condemn not, and you shall not be condemned; forgive, and you shall be forgiven. ... With the same measure you use, it will be measured back to you." -- Jesus

"Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your father in heaven. For he makes the sun to rise on the evil and on the good; he makes the rain to fall on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even the worst sinners do that. If you greet only your brothers, what credit is that to you? Don't even the idolaters do that much? Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect." -- Jesus

If we live this, then we'll have actually taught the terrorists a lesson.

Yes, I know, the sayings are paraphrased, and at places I have combined Luke's account and Matthew's account. What's the point of having more than one person's account of the same teachings unless we benefit from the knowledge of both?

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

If I were a 2nd century Christian ... and since I'm a 21st century Christian

Phil has posted the current patristic's carnival, and in it I found several interesting posts. I wanted to respond to one from Ecumenicity: If I were a 2nd century Christian. It is a thought experiment which begins:
Where would I have looked to know what to believe about the faith and the Gospel if I were alive as a Christian in the 2nd century of the Church?
It leads the reader through the author's thoughts:
Since properly ordained bishops held the truth, I would have believed about the faith and the Gospel what my local bishop taught me.
The author draws this conclusion:
In the 2nd century, I would have believed that our God loves us enough to give us shepherds on earth, easily identifiable, that we can follow with trust and confidence. I would have followed the local bishop's explication of the Gospel, and submitted myself to his God-given authority.

I start somewhere near where the author does, though I think by the time he has reached his conclusion, he and I have gone down different road. I hope to use this post to point out where we share the same road and where we take different roads.

I think, if I were a second-century Christian, I would learn from those who had been taught by the apostles, or their next-generation successors as available. The refrain from the early church is that the faithful could distinguish the right teachers of Christ from the wrong teachers of Christ by their knowledge of the apostles, especially those who had known Christ in person. Now it happened at times that someone taught something different; but the consensus of the churches founded by the apostles was enough to reliably distinguish teachings which were not in agreement with the apostles.

What made possible this second-century reliance on the consensus of the apostolic church? It was the fact that a consensus existed: there was unity among the apostolic churches. The great apostolic sees of Constantinople, Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem all spoke with one voice and one witness to Christ and his apostles. In those days when the apostolic churches throughout the world were in agreement, it was an easy thing to distinguish what the apostles had taught us of Christ, and what Christ had taught us of God.

The gold standard of the second century was this: what did the apostles teach? And the guarantor was the united consensus of the apostolic churches -- and a fair chance that the bishop had first-hand knowledge of one of the apostles in person in the earliest days of the church, or second-hand knowledge. As time passed, first the bishop's fairly direct and close knowledge of the apostles was lost. And unfortunately, over time the consensus among the apostolic churches fell apart as well. The apostolic churches maintained unity until Chalcedon where the first serious rift was introduced. They drifted apart further as the centuries progressed, so that by the year 1100 A.D. no more than one or two of those five ancient sees stood together, as it is to this day. I do wish I could look through the lens of the ancient united "one holy catholic and apostolic church" from the 2nd century, but that fellowship was broken before the year 500 A.D. That is one reason why I cannot take my answer "if I were a 2nd century Christian" and apply it to "since I am a 21st century Christian": the terrain has changed much since then, and changed in exactly the points that matter.

Fortunately, before the knowledge of the apostles faded and the consensus of the church fell apart, the church did recognize the writings left behind by the apostles, their companions, and their chroniclers. They set aside these books in a single volume and designated them as uniquely authoritative. They recognized these teachings as the teachings which had been their foundation. All the writings of the apostles, their companions, and their chroniclers were included -- even though a few writings may have been admitted under "benefit of the doubt" clauses of various types. That is another -- and likely the most important -- reason why I cannot take my answer "if I were a 2nd century Christian" and apply it to "since I am a 21st century Christian": when all these writings were collected, the united church recognized them as an authoritative means to know what Christ and the apostles taught.

The gold standard in the 2nd century was: what did the apostles -- the first witnesses to Christ -- teach? The gold standard in the 21st century is still the same: what did the apostles -- the first witnesses to Christ -- teach? But there have been significant changes since the second century, and a method which presumes a second-century environment will not get the best answer in an environment where precisely the relevant points in that environment have changed so substantially.

In the second century, meeting someone who had known an apostle was the most reliable way to answer that question: what did the apostles -- the first witnesses to Christ -- teach? In the twenty-first century, the New Testament is the most reliable way we have to answer that question: what did the apostles -- the first witnesses to Christ -- teach?

Friday, September 05, 2008

Call for Submissions: Christian Reconciliation Carnival #13

Jeff at Cross-Reference is graciously hosting the next Christian Reconciliation Carnival. His call for submissions is posted. For the topic of the month, he suggests the following:
I guess I'd be interested in hearing perspectives on what obstacles are presented by the varying liturgies (high/low, sacramental/non-sacramental, rubrical/freeform) and how they might be possible to overcome. I don't necessarily want to get too doctrinal (although the law of prayer and the law of belief go hand-in-hand, as far as Catholics are concerned). And the issue of liturgical reform would be open for discussion as well.

... since different groups of Christians believe different things, it is no small wonder that they also have different conceptions of liturgy, ranging from intensely liturgical (e.g. Orthodox, Catholic (esp. among those who adhere to the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite), and "high-church" Anglican) to the absolutely non-liturgical (e.g. the "organic" church described by Frank Viola and George Barna). I am also interested in the similarities found between certain elements of liturgies of certain Christian groups despite their theological differences surrounding those very elements.
Great topic! Let us know what you think.

Entries on subjects of general interest to Christian Reconciliation are accepted as always. Send in your submissions by 09/30/2008 to the dedicated email address. If you go to Jeff's announcement he also has a direct link to his own email, if you'd rather send it to him directly. Mark your calendars for the Carnival and send in your thoughts on Christian reconciliation.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

What is the sin of "adultery in the heart"?

Dr. P. linked to an interesting article by a former student of his, written on the topic of understanding Matthew 5:28. He makes a case that the better translation is not "whoever looks on a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart", but "whoever looks on a woman to lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart". The point of this exegetical move is first of all its intended accuracy to what Jesus said, and second to remove the burden (if it can be legitimately removed) of what Jimmy Carter once called the "almost impossible standards" set there, that we can stumble into sin but not deliberately. The post also discusses whether being tempted is, in itself, a sin.

I am not here taking exception with the translation issue, but I do take issue with the exegesis and theology. I do not think we can say that, in "looking on someone to lust", that the lust is blameless so long as it was not in the original intention when we looked. No doubt that having the original intention of lust and that driving the looking -- as in pornography -- is a deliberate sin. But Scripture has never limited sins to deliberate sins. The post makes the point that being tempted cannot be inherently sinful since Jesus was tempted. But this skips over the nature of temptation: that a temptation in this fallen world is a situation-specific pressure that leads to sin when it meets with an internal corruption in our nature or character and successfully rouses desire for what is wrong. Jesus did not have the corruption of nature or character, and being tempted was not sinful because the external pressure to sin is not sinful. However, when we are tempted it simply demonstrates that we already have the tendency to sin. As one of the ancient Christian writers has said, "How well I know: temptation came because I wanted it."

I think we have to acknowledge that Jesus teaches that not only should we not set out to lust and that the intention is wrong, but also that lust itself is wrong whether we intended it or not. Lust is a form of coveting, which is wrong in and of itself; lack of intent does not remove the sinfulness of the wrong desires in our hearts.

Some people are pained that Jesus set some "almost impossible standards" for us. I think this is entirely understated. Jesus has set some impossible standards for us, and told us: "With man, this is impossible; with God all things are possible." If someone has an instinct to justify himself by keeping the law, he will be driven to despair by commands like loving our enemies, not lusting, and not coveting. This is a healthy thing, and the healthy response is not to blunt the force of the law, but to use that force of the law to accuse and convict the evil inside us, condemning our wrong desires and nailing them to the cross.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

From Monty Python to Mother Theresa ...

I enjoyed the spin which Ben Myers put on Rowan Williams' performance as Archbishop of Canterbury. The Anglican communion has had a few internal conflicts lately, in case anyone hasn't been tracking the news. I'm not sure of Ben's sense of humor but I expect that Ben didn't mean this piece as satire. But all the while reading it, the pro-Williams passages struck me as very much what the opponents of the Archbishop would say, but with a tone of dry irony in their voices. Here's an example:
Williams’ role as Archbishop of Canterbury in recent years illustrates precisely this dialectic of kenosis and apocalypse. As a churchman, he combines an uncompromisingly rigorous commitment to the truth of doctrinal orthodoxy with an absolute refusal to grasp the truth as a possession or to wield it as an instrument of power. Indeed, the most striking thing about Williams’ conduct as Archbishop of Canterbury is his willingness to fail, his refusal to pursue any ideal of ecclesial ‘success’ in abstraction from the church’s spiritual identity as a community defined by weakness, fragility and self-dispossession.

This rejection of the idolatrous notion of a ‘successful’ church, this willingness to fail, is at the same time a profoundly apocalyptic gesture ...

I could nearly hear Monty Python whispering in my ear as I read. What Ben says is only an inch or two away from what some of Williams' opponents say: that he has the truth but refuses to do anything with it, that the church could hardly be more fragile if he were pursuing fragility as a conscious goal, and that the result has been a broad failure which bothers the Archbishop not at all, though it may have apocalpytic results, at least for the future of that communion.

So perhaps the two sides of the Anglican communion aren't as far apart as they appear at first glance. Ben Myers nearly persuades me that the Anglican communion has an essentially unified vision of their leadership; they merely diverge in their assessments of that vision.

I have to say I speak as an outsider: the only knowledge I have of the internal conflicts of the Anglican communion are those by partisans on either side of the current debates. So my thoughts here cannot be about Williams himself so much as the Williams I see reflected from others' portrayals. In Ben Myers' portrayal of Williams, I see a church leader who does in fact have a view of a "successful" church: it is a church that is fragile, and this is the ideal of success that is pursued.

Which just puts me in modern parable mode: Two men each had a sack lunch. They both decided to deny themselves (starting with their lunches), take up their crosses, and follow Jesus. One threw his lunch in the trash. The other gave his lunch to a homeless fellow. They both succeeded in denying themselves; they both succeeded in having no lunch. One measured success by the failure to have lunch; the other measured success by blessing someone else along the way. Which was more Christlike?

All that is just a way of asking: is the church's spiritual identity really a community defined by weakness, fragility, and self-dispossession, or is it defined by following Christ? If we desire weakness, fragility, and self-dispossession, even these ascetic-nouveau achievements are useless to us without Christ. "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you."

Which is to say, I have no problem with a church being willing to fail if they have a concrete plan of blessing someone else, if sacrifice is the way to achieve that blessing as an act of love. I have no problem with a church "failing" through persecution if she holds her eyes on Jesus and is killed by the hateful. However, being willing to fail because failure is seen as a higher sort of success does not seem an improvement over -- or even a removal from -- the idolatry of "successful church". Instead, it redefines success by the simple expedient of setting different goals. Wasn't it Mother Theresa who said that we're not called to be successful, but we're called to be faithful? We are called to take up our cross following Jesus; but lots of people took up crosses without following Jesus, and gained nothing by their weakness, fragility, and self-dispossesion. If we're not following Christ, then lack of success is no more sign of faithfulness than success. Regardless of whether Williams is rightly seen as failing at success or succeeding at failure, it remains for the Anglican communion to figure out where Christ is in their view of things and how to follow him faithfully.

All my best to Ben Myers, Rowan Williams, and the Anglican communion.

Christ and the Law

"You have heard that it was said ... but I say to you." -- Jesus, on the ancient law of Israel; Sermon on the Mount.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus time and again starts with the ancient law of Israel, and goes beyond it. He calls us to righteousness that "surpasses that of the Scribes and the Pharisees", who kept the ancient law meticulously. "But their hearts are far from me," he says of us when we keep the letter of the law in cold hearts.

Some have looked at Jesus' comments on the ancient law and have said, "he is following the ancient Jewish tradition of putting a hedge around the law." In that strain of Jewish thought, if the Law said not to eat an animal cooked in the milk of its own mother, they would not even eat meat and dairy in the same meal to avoid any chance of breaking that law. A hedge would be built of laws of men forbidding things that might be innocent, and these innocent things were forbidden to keep people even further away from what the law opposed.

This, I think, is exactly what Jesus was not doing. "Their heart is far from me," he took up the prophet's refrain. "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not kill', but I say to you that whosoever is angry with his brother without cause is in danger. You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery', but I say to you that whoever looks on a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart." Here Jesus does not follow the human precept of creating a hedge around the law and forbidding innocent things. Instead, here he brings the law of God to bear even on our hearts, not forbidding innocent actions but forbidding guilty desires. He writes the commandments of God on our hearts.

Matthew shows Jesus summing up the entirety of the law twice: first as doing unto others what we would have them do unto us; next as loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and loving our neighbor as ourselves. The prophecy of Jeremiah shows that in the days of the Messiah, the law of the new covenant is to be written on our hearts. "Create in me a clean heart, O God" has always been the prayer of the faithful.