Monday, March 31, 2008

Reconciliation and Liturgical Time

The current Christian Reconciliation Carnival's topic, proposed by our kindly host, is:
How are divergent or competing understandings of the liturgical year an obstacle to reconciliation? Conversely, how does the idea of liturgical time open up possibilities for greater unity? In any event, how do we live out our Christian discipleship among fellow believers who approach liturgical time differently?
There is a sense of unity from celebrating the same thing at the same time. It’s unfortunate that the shared date of celebration of Lent and the Resurrection has been lost -- and after the efforts gone through to obtain a shared date in the beginning! I wonder whether it would be possible to use the calendar as a low-key way to inch back towards unity: when the theological issues cannot be resolved at this time, to at least resolve the calendar issues. I know there are some die-hards who take the calendar issues more seriously than I would. But as Mark suggested, there remains for us in the West a chance to go celebrate Holy Week with our friends to the East this year.

The differences between the Western calendar and the Eastern calendar seems more like awkward timing but less of a serious division. I have more difficulty feeling kinship with those Christians who of the low church/free church variety who do not recognize a Church Year at all. An acquaintance of mine once went to visit another church when her church would have been celebrating the resurrection, only to find they were in the middle of a sermon series on marriage and were not going to interrupt it to preach on the resurrection. I feel far more kinship with those who recognize any of the Christian calendars than those who recognize none.

I suppose some of the newer-minted churches see pagan influence under everything not mandated in Scripture. However, a liturgical year is rooted in Scripture all the way back to the Exodus and the commands to observe certain celebrations at the same time every year. From there, according to the Talmud, even beginning with Moses during the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness there came the tradition of reading the portions of Scripture corresponding to the current celebration, such as Passover or Pentecost, and so the liturgical year and the lectionary were born. The connections between Passover and the Passion of Christ are probably known to most Christians, and Pentecost has been so thoroughly absorbed that a few Christians are unaware it was one of the yearly pilgrimage feasts commanded in the Torah (the Feast of Weeks was one of its names, and Pentecost the name in the Greek-speaking Jewish community). Most years (though not this one), the Western calendar and the Jewish calendar coincide, giving me subtle chances to witness to the Jewish roots of Christianity -- or the fulfillment of Jewish hope among the nations through the Messiah -- among my Jewish in-laws. There is a view to reconciliation on a large scale: for Israel to receive her Messiah.

I wish the Eastern Churches and Western Churches would take this step when our Festivals of the Resurrection do not fall on the same date: I wish we would have sister churches, so that we invited them to celebrate with us and sent our people to celebrate with them during such times. We would have a foot in each others' doors, and that could only be a good thing.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

The timing of Christ's return

Every now and then, someone will ask questions about the timing of Christ's return. Reading the New Testament accounts, there is some question whether Jesus' predictions of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. became mixed in with the predictions of his return and of the Last Judgment. After making a series of prophecies, Jesus states, "All this will come upon this generation" (Matthew 23:36), and likewise "this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened" (Matthew 24:34). Some of these prophecies are clearly about the destruction of Jerusalem, which did in fact take place in that generation. Others are often taken to be of the end of the world.

My concern for the moment is not to get to the bottom of that particular question -- whether the other prophecies were about the end of the world -- since I'm not sure it can be definitively answered before the end of the world, by which time the question will be moot. My only point here is to show why I do not think that Jesus taught the Last Judgment would take place during that generation.

In Matthew 23 and Matthew 24, there are a series of predictions bound to that generation. Next, starting at the end of Matthew 24 and through the majority of Matthew 25, there are three parables in a row that point out a long absence waiting for Christ's return: "My master is staying away a long time" (24:48), "The bridegroom was a long time in coming" (25:5), "After a long time the master of those servants returned" (25:19). In fact, the main point of the parable of the ten virgins is that the length of the wait for the bridegroom is so long as to cause trouble among those waiting.

It is only after the three Parables of the Long Absence that we have the teaching of the Last Judgment. That is why I am convinced that Christ did not teach the Last Judgment would take place "in this generation": the records of the prophecies anchored to that generation are separated from the description of the Last Judgment by the Parables of the Long Absence.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Fine-tuning the doctrine of the Trinity?

I waited until now, after Lent was over, to discuss the controversial parts of my submission to the recent 2008 Trinity Blogging Summit. Emotions can run high around questions of dogma, and a few of the things I said were not conventional.

My general view of the Trinity on a charitable day is that it is close enough for government work: it does the job of explaining how Father, Son, and Spirit can be distinct but still One God. On an uncharitable day, I'll still acknowledge that it is better and closer to the truth than the alternatives that have been put forward by, say, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christadelphians, or Oneness Pentecostals, to mention some of the better known alternative views there. Keep in mind that I do not write from the "free church" rejection of tradition but from within the tradition, belonging (with no apology) to the kind of church that recites one or the other of the historic creeds each time we worship. So my aim in discussing the Trinity is to determine what it would take to fine-tune the existing view for accuracy based on views that are deliberately native to Scripture. Here are the specific challenges I set out:
  • Seeking to know "God in Himself" may be misguided. Do we know anything definitive about God in Himself? Did God choose to be known in that way or remain that way?
  • Speaking of "God in Himself", do we actually know whether the Son and the Spirit, apart from creation, were meaningfully distinct from the Father?
  • The phrase "God in three persons" has at least the potential to be misleading, even given the changes in language and meaning over time. To what extent is it possible to complete the phrase "God in three ______" (insert noun) without obscuring the unity of God or obscuring the origins of Son and Spirit from the Father or obscuring the differences between Father, Son, and Spirit? To be sure, additional explanations have been added and the phrase does not stand alone. But have the additional explanations been adequate? If not, then filling in that blank is not a helpful move and may be an unhelpful move.
  • When we call the Holy Spirit a "person" (even granted the shifts in the meaning of words over the different times and languages involved), does considering the Spirit as Person prevent us from considering the Spirit as Spirit? Is Spirit in a different category than Person, so that a Spirit belongs to a Person (in the more modern sense at this point) and is rightly known as the Spirit of that Person? When we consider the Holy Spirit as Person do we lose sight of the Spirit as the Spirit of God?
  • I consider it likely that the Son (the Word of God, the Christ) is an intermediary not only in his role but also in his essential nature.

So with all those points of tension, I would not have been surprised to have been asked to discuss some of those points in more detail by people who see it differently.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Resurrection with Moltmann

Jesus’ resurrection from the dead by God was never regarded as a private and isolated miracle for his authentication, but as the beginning of the general resurrection of the dead, i.e. as the beginning of the end of history in the midst of history. His resurrection was not regarded as a fortuitous miracle in an unchangeable world, but as the beginning of the eschatological transformation of the world by its creator. ...

For the Easter hope shines not only forwards into the unknown newness of the history which it opens up, but also backwards over the graveyards of history, and in their midst first on the grave of a crucified man who appeared in that prelude. (Jurgen Moltmann in The Crucified God. Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1993, pp. 162-163)

This is the end of the Moltmann series, for those keeping track of such things.

Christ is risen!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Holy Week with Moltmann

Every theology which claims to be Christian must come to terms with Jesus’ cry on the cross. Basically, every Christian theology is consciously or unconsciously answering the question, ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?’, when their doctrines of salvation say ‘for this reason’ or ‘for that reason’. In the face of Jesus’ death-cry to God, theology either becomes impossible or becomes possible only as specifically Christian theology. … By the standards of the cry of the dying Jesus for God, theological systems collapse at once in their inadequacy. How can Christian theology speak of God at all in the face of Jesus’ abandonment by God? How can Christian theology not speak of God in the face of the cry of Jesus for God on the cross? (Jurgen Moltmann in The Crucified God. Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1993, p. 153)

Sunday, March 16, 2008

A different view of Scripture

The Torah
The Torah has been studied as the word of God for thousands of years. At some point during that long history, someone noticed:
R. Simlai expounded: Torah begins with an act of benevolence and ends with an act of benevolence. It begins with an act of benevolence, for it is written: And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife coats of skin (Genesis 3:21), and clothed them; and it ends with an act of benevolence, for it is written: ‘And He buried him in the valley’ (Deuteronomy 34:6). (Talmud Sotah 14a)
I know it's easy to pick nits; it's easy enough to see that Torah actually begins a couple of chapters earlier with creation, and ends a few verses after Moses' burial. For all that, the observation is basically correct: at the beginning of the Torah God acts with loving kindness towards people, and at the end of the Torah God acts the same way.

The Gospels
Do you know what happens when you apply the same perspective to the Gospels? At the beginning of the Gospels, the Lord blesses us, ("Blessed are the poor in spirit ..", Matthew 5:3). At the end of the Gospels, the Lord gives us peace, ("Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you," John 14:27). That works out to the Gospels beginning and ending in the same way as the priestly blessing (Numbers 6:24-26):
The LORD bless you and keep you;
The LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you;
The LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
Coincidence or providence? God's perpetual blessing over his people is fulfilled in Jesus.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Lent 6 with Moltmann

“Without Jesus I would be an atheist,” remarked the Ritschlian J. Gottschick. If God’s being is manifest in the passion and the death of Jesus, through Jesus’ suffering and death “for us” and for our salvation, he is known by that faith which is called freedom. The God of freedom, the true God, is therefore not recognized by his power and glory in the world and in the history of the world, but through his helplessness and his death on the scandal of the cross of Jesus. The gods of the power and riches of the world and world history then belong on the other side of the cross, for it was in their name that Jesus was crucified. (Jurgen Moltmann in The Crucified God. Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1993, p.95)

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Scholarship: Objectivity or Passion?

Rejoicing before Him at all times, Rejoicing in His inhabited world, Finding delight with mankind. (the voice of Wisdom from Proverbs 8:30-31 NJPS)
Sometimes I wonder whether, in our drive to be taken seriously in an academic world that is frequently hostile towards Christianity, we have sold out: whether we have made compromises we cannot afford to make. I don't mean backpedaling over specific issues such as the Virgin Birth or the reality of miracles, though these certainly play a part, or again over such particulars as the authorship of the gospels. I think we have made a mistake on a far more basic level: the choice of playing fields. If we are to take our own studies seriously, then we need to re-examine the nature of scholarship itself.

The Wisdom literature of the Scriptures does not consider wisdom to be emotionless or detached. If we are to do justice to God of whom we think, we must reconsider whether detachment is appropriate. In much of contemporary scholarship, objectivity’s detachment is considered to be not only the accepted method and approach, but also the only acceptable tone for any conclusion. This required detachment does not govern whether someone holds a particular view, but limits the allowable attitudes towards the views we hold and towards the material we are discussing. Anything too far from analytical detachment is considered bad practice, evidence of clouded judgment.

Two things are often confused when talking about objectivity. On the one hand, objectivity has meant a clear-headed, sober, unprejudiced view of the facts; on the other hand, objectivity has meant personal detachment at any and all stages of consideration. But what if there are facts that, when viewed with a clear-headed, sober, unprejudiced view, lead to the conclusion that detachment is inadequate and indifference is unacceptable? What if the facts involve us so that detachment becomes a denial of either our humanity or of the meaning of what we are considering? What if there are times when a clear-headed, sober, unprejudiced view of the facts might lead us to celebrate? If no clear-headed view could ever lead to that type of joy, then all our joy in life is without a clear-headed basis. When we apply detachment to the starting point and the method, we avoid prejudice. But when we pre-determine that we will also apply detachment to the conclusion, that is begging the question whether detachment is an acceptable stance in light of the material being considered.

A prior intellectual commitment to detachment precludes the finding that there is something worth celebrating, someone worth praising, that there is such a thing as good news in the sense meant by our faith. This prior commitment to a certain outcome is a form of prejudice – in this case, a prejudice against meaning, passion, and attachment (not to say devotion). The scholarly process as currently conceived establishes in advance only one thing: that we must not claim that our findings matter beyond a certain threshold. The remnants are reduced to intellectual curiosities and denied life-changing force regardless of their content. If we decide in advance that anything even remotely visceral is out of bounds for scholars, then what remains is by definition eviscerated.

There is additional ground I wish to reclaim within the legitimate domain of Christian scholarship. The Christian’s study of God is inseparably bound to meditation, so that a detached analysis of God is not the highest pinnacle of thought about God, but is actually misguided and misleading. Likewise the Christian’s pronouncement of the knowledge of God is inseparably bound to praise, to blessing, and to proclamation of good news. We need to re-envision scholarship to reclaim respectability for this: that good judgment might lead someone to be devoted and passionate without any loss of good judgment.

It becomes the place of the scholar who wants to know God to ponder deeply on the things of God, to see how far clear thought of God leads, and to follow with honesty wherever those thoughts lead. This may lead to breaking scholarly taboos against lament, repentance, praise, or adoration. It should also improve the quality of material generally considered “devotional” as rigorous scholarship enters conversation with popular devotion. I believe it is important that we make this shift to expand the territory allowed to scholars, and that we make it with no apologies. Knowledge of God and proclamation of God are intrinsically blessings; considering them as either academic curiosities or as outside the realm of serious scholarship does them an injustice.

This is a portion of my entry to the recent 2008 Trinity Blogging Summit, slightly reworked to help it better stand on its own.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Lent 5 with Moltmann

Moltmann on the ideas of God held with and without the cross by the person who has either been humbled by the cross or is a proud wannabe-divinity:
A God who is conceived of in his omnipotence, perfection and infinity at man’s expense cannot be the God who is love in the cross of Jesus, who makes a human encounter in order to restore their lost humanity to unhappy and proud divinities, who ‘became poor to make many rich’. God conceived of at man’s expense cannot be the Father of Jesus Christ. … It is indispensable for the liberated believer to dispense with the inhuman God, a God without Jesus, for the sake of the cross. (Jurgen Moltmann in The Crucified God. Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1993, pp.250-251)

Monday, March 03, 2008

2008 Trinity Blogging Summit

Nick Norelli had a bold idea: to call for and host an annual Trinity Blogging Summit. The 2008 Trinity Blogging Summit has now been posted at his blog. Because it was so deserving an idea, I was rash enough to submit a piece on Trinity / the doctrine of God with Father, Son, and Spirit from a Jewish (including New Testament) perspective. I had to cut back the final piece substantially to fit the length guidelines, so I may yet be posting individual sections here at their original, intended length (additional material included). I'm not sure if I maxed out anyone's heresiometer, but we'll find out.

May this be the first of many more summits to come!

Sunday, March 02, 2008

One thing God has spoken ...

One thing God has spoken, two things I have heard …. Psalm 62:12 (NJPS; in NIV Psalm 62:11).
When we discuss passages of the Bible, there is a drive to find out as best we can what any given passage originally meant. That is certainly a good thing to know. It keeps us close to the original thoughts conveyed and the plain sense of the words. But it can prevent us from noticing -- or taking seriously -- the very real phenomenon of passages with layers of meaning.

The verse "One thing God has spoken, two things I have heard" is accompanied by these comments in a Jewish study Bible:
This parallelism is one of the classic texts expounded in rabbinic culture to mean that God’s word is multivalent and needs to be interpreted in a variety of special ways (see, e.g. b. Sanh. 34a). (The Jewish Study Bible, Oxford University Press, 1999)
The example referenced in the Talmud:
For Scripture saith, "God hath spoken once, twice have I heard this, that strength belongeth unto God." One Biblical verse may convey several teachings, but a single teaching cannot be deduced from different Scriptural verses. In R. Ishmael's School it was taught: "And like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces" (Jeremiah 23:29) i.e., just as the rock is split into many splinters, so also may one Biblical verse convey many teachings. (Sanhedrin 34a)(Sanhedrin 34a)
The study Bible's notes on the passage in Jeremiah state,
"In rabbinic tradition, however, this is a central phrase suggesting that God's words may be interpreted in a wide variety of legitimate ways (b. Sanh 34a)."
The ancient rabbinic schools established various safeguards for keeping the different interpretations from running wild or giving too much exegetical license. Interpretive principles were devised for deriving other legitimate meanings from a text while screening out ones that had no basis.

The drive to return to original meaning was probably a needed corrective in returning to the source after some of the fanciful allegorical interpretations which did not follow any particular interpretive principles, but rather followed the fancy of the interpreter. There had been a history of intpreters taking license to read things into the text that were not there; it was a predictable counter-reaction that people sought the original meaning. But a rigid focus on one meaning had a regrettable effect: it took away the license to read other layers of meaning that were already latent in the text. If we acknowledge that in any literature with depth, there are layers of meaning, then our interpretive principles need to allow for that. Otherwise we allow more depth in Shakespeare and Dickens than in the Bible. It remains to us to consider what interpretive principles will allow us to see all facets of a text without either opening the door to the reader's fancy or closing the door on a more complete understanding and appreciation of what was written.