Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sexually abusive priests; how can we have forgiveness and accountability?

This article was originally written in 2004, but seems timely again. A few of the references (e.g. the John Jay study) are years old, but not much else has changed. I'm not Roman Catholic, but I think it's too easy for us Protestants to cast the first stone; the issue of standing firm on both forgiveness and accountability is always a challenge in a religion that insists on God's forgiveness.

"Why," you may ask, "should we discuss sexually abusive priests again? Isn't the secular media just hashing over old news? Aren't we just dwelling needlessly on something that is past? And this is a delicate subject. Some reactions to the scandals in the priesthood have crossed the line to Catholic-bashing. But more to the point, isn't the matter resolved? Isn't the church hierarchy taking steps to towards resolving the problem? Isn't it right that we should move on now?"

The problem is that we have not really resolved it. We have become embarrassed or taken sides, and may have seriously wished that the whole thing had never happened. But we have not resolved it. Here I will not discuss whether we should forgive the priests. For one, I was not wronged personally. For another, the offenders' ultimate redemption or condemnation is in God's hands. The question I wish to discuss is what we should do here and now. The church has taken steps all along, from investigating the allegations to treating the offenders to reassigning them, but those were not the solution. How do we know the current solution is any better? Have we actually discussed what an appropriate response would be?

This is where the history lesson of David and Bathsheba comes into our discussion (see 2 Samuel chapters 11 and 12). The Biblical narrative of David's fall into sin is very much to the point here because it deals with another sinner who was in a position of authority, one who abused his authority in order to commit his crime. After committing indecency with the wife of Uriah, David used his God-appointed position as king to arrange for the battlefield death of Uriah to try to cover up his crime. Uriah died, Bathsheba became the wife of David, and a son, conceived in David's treachery and deceit, was born.

In David's day, these were capital offenses. By law, he could have been executed. The king was not above the law of God. But looking at the Biblical history of David, we see that he confessed, he repented, and he was forgiven. He would not die for his crimes. "The LORD has taken away your sin. You are not going to die," the prophet Nathan announced to David.

Still, more came of David's sin.
1) The power of wars and battles, which he had abused, was turned back against his house;
2) The son he had as a result of his indecency was also taken from him by death.

In our own day, we seem to have confused forgiveness with the trust to continue with the same power and authority. Consider this example: A man hired his friend to work as a cashier in his store. After a time, the friend was found to have stolen a substantial amount of money from the store. This man could go to prison if convicted of the crime. The store owner forgives him: the offender will not be prosecuted and will not go to prison. But that hardly means that he gets to keep the stolen money or the position as cashier.

This was much the situation with David. He abused his authority, committed adultery, murdered Uriah, and received the blessing of a son by an adulterous union. Adultery and murder bore the death penalty. David was forgiven; he was not executed. But he did not enjoy the blessing of his son, who died. God also turned the power that David had abused -- the power of the sword -- back on David's own house.

In the case of the offending priests, we seem to have made the grave mistake of imagining that forgiveness of sins is the only issue to address. It is not. While reports like the one commissioned of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice may speak of a "misguided willingness to forgive," it is not the willingness to forgive -- or even the forgiveness itself -- that is misguided. The priests and their supervisors will stand or fall before God based on his own justice and mercy. The part that was misguided was this: not to recognize that continuing in a position of trust and authority is a separate issue. We should not confuse the full forgiveness of an offense with a supposed entitlement to keep a position of power. In Scripture, we see that the power which God had granted King David was turned back against him. His effective authority was lessened forever. Looking further back before David, we see that Saul was removed from his God-given position. Likewise, an abusive priest should not expect to continue in any position that allows the possibility of continued abuses, nor should be he be allowed to continue.

Some will say, "Isn't the abuse of power a sin like any other? As such, shouldn't it also be forgiven?" Of course, it is a sin that can be forgiven like any other. This is like the thief who abused his job to get money. In the case of the thief, the sin may be forgiven and the offender may not go to prison, but that does not mean he is entitled to keep the money or the cashier's job. The store owner may possibly decide to allow him to stay in another position, but as he values his cash drawer, he will keep the man who is tempted to steal far away from it. In the case of the abusive priest, the sin may be forgiven. The offender may not go to hell. Because of God's great mercy and power, even the most severely twisted soul can be re-created in the image of Christ. But that does not mean the abuser is entitled to keep his position of authority. As we value the children, we will keep those who abuse them far away from them. It has long been recognized that even with full forgiveness, there may be necessary consequences of a sin.

We have also made the mistake of confusing repentance with rehabilitation. Of course rehabilitation is impossible without repentance -- but that misses the point. Many people who repent are nevertheless plagued continually by sins they abhor and regret, never being cured fully of their evil inclination or their weakness to that temptation. Opportunities for evil are constantly around us. These only seem appealing when there is an answering character flaw in a person which makes that evil seem desirable. That is the nature of being tempted within ourselves: a desire for evil. We carry our character flaws with us always, even while striving to diminish them. They are not entirely gone until the day when we are fully re-created in the image of Christ. Simply because a person has repented does not mean that person is safe or beyond temptation. If we know that a particularly destructive sin tempts a person, we should not place him in a situation which lends opportunity to commit that sin. If a priest has committed sexual abuse, then we know that there is a character flaw in him which makes that evil seem appealing. We also know that the flaw is serious enough to overcome him. That priest should never again hold a position that provides opportunity for abuse. "Flee from temptation" is good advice for all of us, clergy and laity alike (see I Cor 6:18, I Cor 10:14, 1 Tim 6:11, 2 Tim 2:22). Forgiveness does not make it acceptable to place a weak brother in temptation or another person in danger because of it.

Of all types of sinners, why single out sexually abusive priests to be removed from office? After all, all priests are human therefore all priests commit sins. But not all sins tend to devastate the victims' souls, and not all sins involve abuse of the position of priesthood. A sin which does either -- devastate others' souls or abuse authority -- may be sufficient grounds to remove a priest from such a position. For a sin that does both, simple responsibility requires that the person be removed immediately from the position, even if the sin itself may be forgiven. We may declare God's forgiveness to the penitent, but a position of trust is only rightly given to a trustworthy character. Trust based on penitence alone is wishful thinking. Our decisions to prevent abuse must acknowledge the reality of temptation and human weakness even among the forgiven and penitent.

Finally, we must look at the ultimate reason why this issue is not resolved and for decades has not been resolved. There has been complacency, and even complicity, of far too many in the church hierarchy. Everybody agrees in principle that a supervisor is accountable for those he supervises. In the case of those who supervise abusive priests, the conduct of many in the church hierarchy seems more than simply negligent. It needs its own repentance. The signs of genuine repentance include a plain admission of wrongdoing and anguish over the harm that has been done. For the most part, these have been lacking. The official response has smacked more of embarrassment than repentance. Embarrassment is more concerned with the loss of self-image and the bad publicity than with the evil of the offense itself. The John Jay study cited an "overemphasis on the avoidance of scandal"; there was more concern at times for whether the church would be embarrassed than whether the children of the parish were being violated.

There seems to be an underlying assumption that we all should forgive the hierarchy. While this is a legitimate issue, it must not deflect from the present discussion. We must hold the hierarchy responsible for their actions. Forgiveness must never be a license to irresponsibility. And is it so unreasonable to try to find out whether the repentance is genuine? Would God have accepted any lesser sacrifice of David than a broken spirit and a contrite heart? Wouldn't God have despised any offering from hearts that were far from Him? Would David be a hero to us today if he had not finally become more pained by his wrongdoing than by the subsequent embarrassment that it caused him? The church's response has lacked credibility. We know that God's healing comes after confession and repentance. A plain admission of wrongdoing, unsullied by excuses, needs to resound. Every voice in the church, from top to bottom, needs to call out genuine outrage and anguish that such a thing ever happened and vow that it must never be allowed to happen again. Is anything less than this really repentance?

After we have established that there is genuine repentance, that leaves the necessary matter of repairing the wrong as far as we are able. Those who have been abused must never again be swept under the rug simply to avoid embarrassment. Any healing we can give them is long overdue. And let each member of the church be called by genuine repentance to work as hard as they are able, the rest of their lives, to earn back the respect and to restore the honor which has been lost to the name of Christ.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Because Jesus' death was "For us, and for our salvation" ...

Especially during Lent and in the commemoration of Jesus' death, it is common to hear charges of anti-Semitism leveled against Christians. The general assumption is that the Christians blame the Jews for Jesus' death.

My own experience goes against this -- I've never once, in my decades of being a Christian, heard a Christian suggest that Jesus' death was the fault of the Jews. But there's more than only my experience to go by, and Christians know and may want to reassure people by proclaiming: someone blaming the Jews for Jesus' death could only be a lone person or an outlandish fringe group not part of mainstream Christianity.

Why could only a fringe group say that? Because Jesus' death was "For us, and for our salvation," as proclaimed by the ancient creeds of the Christian church that have been proclaimed since the 300's A.D. and are still proclaimed in our worship services to this day. There's one thing we know for sure: that if someone proclaimed that Jesus' death was for something other than us and our salvation, that person is heretical by the historical mainstream standards of the Christian church. It is impossible for someone to own the standard Christian confession of faith, that Jesus' death was for us and for our salvation, and still have any blame left for anyone but ourselves. And we have seen that when we looked at devotions written across many lands and across the centuries -- that the standard of Christian devotion is to consider our own sins as the cause of Jesus' death.

Again, only a group which cared very little for Jesus could possibly lay the blame for Jesus' death on the Jews or even on the Romans. A well known and well-loved saying of Jesus during the process of his execution is:
"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." (Luke 23:34)
Those who take account of Jesus' words cannot hold onto blame when Jesus has called for pardon. This is in keeping what what the apostles taught, "If they had known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory." (I Cor 2:8). Jesus made a plea for the forgiveness of those involved, and those who call him Lord cannot go against his words. As surely as he pleads for the forgiveness of those involved in his execution, he also pleads for our forgiveness there for all our sins.

The words of Jesus from the canonical gospels make plain time and again that his death was not rightly understood as merely a violent act of religious or political partisanship and oppression (regardless of what those who wanted his death might have thought), but rightly understood as God making peace with the world. The New Testament, time and again, cites the prophecy of Isaiah about the suffering servant, the prophecy that promises that he was wounded for our transgressions, with his stripes we are healed, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

Again, the ancient practice of celebrating the Lord's Supper takes Jesus' words from the Last Supper and proclaims that his blood was shed for the forgiveness of sins (Matt 26:28). This has been the way in which Christians have proclaimed Jesus' death until he comes throughout the ages because it is the way in which Jesus said we should remember him and think of him. Again, for those who take account of Jesus' words, there is not an option for understanding the reasons for Christ's death other than recognizing our own sins and God's graciousness.

So we can proclaim Jesus' death until he comes boldly. If someone accuses us of anti-Semitism, we can answer plainly in the words that every confessing Christian has spoken for centuries on end: Jesus died for us, and for our salvation.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

For us, and for our salvation

For us, and for our salvation, he came down and was incarnate and was made man. He suffered, and the third day he rose again ... (from the Nicene Creed, 325 A.D.)

For us, and for our salvation, he came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and was made man. He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, and the third day rose again ... (from the Nicene creed as expanded at Constantinople, 381 A.D.)

These have been the words in which Christians the world over have declared our faith since the 300's A.D., and the words in which the majority of Christians confess our faith to this day. This united proclamation of faith has been part of the common ground of Christian thought and devotion through the ages. Even those recent Protestant groups which do not accept or confess the historic Christian proclamation of faith still typically share the beliefs which are proclaimed here: the basic facts of Jesus' life and death, and that these were for us, and for our salvation.

Today I am looking through the first hymnal I used in my first church. Most of the hymns are still in use in our newer hymnals. The hymns for Lent, and particularly for Good Friday, take up that proclamation, that meditation:

Glory be to Jesus, Who, in bitter pains
Poured for me the lifeblood from his sacred veins. (1700's, Italy)

There is a green hill far away without a city wall
Where our dear Lord was crucified, who died to save us all. (1800's, Britain/Ireland)

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.
'Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee:
I crucified thee.
(From "Ah Holy Jesus", early 1600's, Germany)

Thy grief and bitter passion were all for sinners' gain.
Mine, mine was the transgression -- but thine the deadly pain.
(From O Sacred Head Now Wounded, Attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux, though questionably. Seems to predate the Reformation solidly; European.)

It's difficult for me to wrap my mind around the thought: what Jesus did was for us. Of all the truths we proclaim about Jesus, that may be the most humbling, and the most uplifting.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

"How much more" -- logic, religion, and the big picture

How Jewish is it?

Jewish culture is not unique in developing standard formats for logical argument. Other cultures have also developed conventions about valid ways to reach a conclusion. For the format of argument we have been reviewing, the "how much more" (a fortiori) argument, we have seen that it was part of Jewish culture in Biblical times, part of the heritage of the early Christian church, and part of the standard way of reasoning about Scriptures during the writing of the Talmud. But it was not entirely unique to Jewish culture.

A form of that argument can be seen in Aristotle's Metaphysics, with the translation I have citing "all the more" reason (where our examples from the Bible and Talmud would say "how much more"). Plotinus' Enneads uses this form of reasoning regularly, again with the translation I have citing "all the more" reason. It was an accepted method of establishing a point in Greek schools of thought as well.

How is it used in the canonical and "alternative canon" documents?

With that as background, let's look at how often this logical argument is used in some particular types of writings:

In the Old Testament translation that I searched, the "how much more" style of logic appears in 6 of the 39 books, so that roughly 15% of the writings in the Old Testament have at least one occurrence. The New Testament documents also use this style of logic in 6 of the 27 books, so that roughly 22% of the writings in the New Testament have at least one occurrence. In the canonical gospels we see it more often, with 2 of the 4 gospels using it (50%, for those keeping track). It is worth noting that Matthew and Luke, the two gospels with the highest score on Jewish context, are the ones that use this method of reasoning. Each time they use this form of argument it is in the "red letter" sections quoting Jesus. If we take as given that Jesus spoke and taught and interpreted Scripture as a Jew of his era, it is not surprising to find that he would use the Jewish conventions of his day in his teachings.

What about the "alternative canon" gospels? What about the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of the Savior, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Truth, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Proto-Gospel of James, and the Gospel of Peter? Of these eight "alternative canon" gospels commonly cited by critics of apostolic Christianity, only one -- the Gospel of Philip -- displays an argument of that style (12.5% of these commonly cited non-canonicals, for those keeping track). Interestingly again, this particular "alternative canon" gospel has more Jewish context than others (though still lower than any of the four canonical gospels).

This format of logic is not unique to Judaism, but is so thoroughly accepted by Judaism that its use in a gospel correlates to other traces of Jewish influence and background.

The big picture

Logic -- the desire to reason -- is something close to a human universal. For present purposes, it does not matter how styles of argument in different cultures may have influenced each other, even though that question may be interesting in itself. My current point is that it was typical of Jewish culture to apply logic and reason to the area of religious belief and practice, and to expect religious belief and practice to be logically derived from what had gone before in such a way that the whole of religion rested on either revelation from God or what could be logically known from that. On this basis, the whole of religion was then considered logically sound and trustworthy insofar as it stayed within these boundaries.

In our present culture the call to "reason and logic" is often a call to exclude thoughts about religion, faith, or miracles; to deny them a place in our thought. In their culture, it was simply meant to allow for trustworthy conclusions to be drawn based on what was given at the outset. In Judaism the premises, the "givens", included miracles; the Jewish religion's list of premises had a number of prominent acts of God, revelations from God, or promises of God. Based on this foundation, conclusions were to be derived by logical and rational means. While the Jewish outlook on religion allowed room for speculation, there was seen to be an area of solid ground which consisted largely of these givens -- viewed as revelation from God -- and things that could be derived logically from them.

The use of this form of logical argument in matters of religion -- the acceptance of it -- tells us something about the outlook on religion common to that culture. Logical tools used by philosophers like Aristotle were employed in matters of belief. Religion was not seen by the founders of our faith as a matter of "faith instead of reason." Jesus himself used logical argument to drive home his teachings. Faith was seen as just one of many areas in which reason applied, where reason could help us understand more.

In Christianity all the way back to the root religion Judaism, there were certain "givens." In Christianity the new "givens" are fairly limited: they are things the earliest followers of Jesus had seen and heard first-hand. As with Judaism so with Christianity, the solid areas of our faith are seen to be those known through revelation from God in certain culturally well-known events, and in what can be reasonably concluded based on those events. This was considered the firm basis for belief; anything that built directly on that foundation with solid and reasonable interpretation could (and should) be believed with confidence by a reasonable person. On the other hand, anything that was not built directly on that foundation, or was not derived from it with sound methods, was considered to have no firm basis for belief. Things without a firm basis could not (and should not) be believed with confidence by a reasonable person.

That leaves a world of conversation still about what exactly constitutes a firm basis, and what exactly is a sound method for understanding what has gone before. My points, at the moment, are these:
  • Within Judaism and Christianity, there is an ancient religious tradition of starting with certain cultural events as "givens" and from there applying logical methods to establish what can be believed with confidence as true and real;
  • Not all religious movements have recognized a need to establish a solid basis that can be believed with confidence as true and real;
  • Those who acknowledge the need to establish a solid basis are likely to have a more solid basis than those who do not;
  • Those who acknowledge the need for truth and reality are likely to be much closer to it than those who believe it is irrelevant.
  • If the idea of a solid basis is recognized, then any religious belief must be able to answer the question, "On what basis do you believe that?", and it must be able to answer fully in terms of things that are known on a solid basis.
  • Apostolic Christianity has always recognized the validity of the question, "On what basis do you believe that?" and has from its beginnings set out to plainly account for the basis of its beliefs and to provide an answer for those with questions both within Christianity and without.
  • If any religious view does not recognize the validity of the question, "On what basis do you believe that?", then it has parted company with logic and rationality; something that has no basis -- and denies the need for a basis -- can only be baseless.
  • If a Christian religious view does not recognize the validity of the question, "On what basis do you believe that?", then it has parted company with Christianity as the apostles taught it and religion as Jesus knew it, and with Christianity's culturally Jewish roots.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Back from Spring Break

Hi there

I hope nobody minded too much an out-of-series piece for Spring Break; how we form our moral compasses is an interest of mine. I had that auto-post while I was on vacation. Next post up should be the conclusion to my current series on the a fortiori format of reasoning; I've got the research done & am writing up what I found.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Moral compasses don't point North

I loved the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. I loved it because it was a great and fun story. But the compass -- the compass really was an intriguing thing. The compass points towards whatever a person desires the most.

That is exactly how our moral compasses work. Whatever our hearts desire most is what we steer by. If we have ever watched ourselves justify something that we know (objectively) is harmful, watch how skillfully our arguments change so we are again pointing to our own "true north."

(I know, I know, the Pirates story was full of morally questionable characters doing morally questionable things. But anyone getting their sense of morality from Disney pirate flicks has far larger problems than whether Disney is willing to turn their rogues into role-models. They did get one important thing right: the joy of living.)

Friday, March 12, 2010

"How much more" as an indicator of Jewish convention

When I started this series, we began by looking at the roots of the a fortiori ("how much more") style of argument in Jewish culture. We looked at instances in the Torah and other Old Testament writings, in Jesus' teachings, and in other New Testament writings. Then for a few posts we looked at how it can help shed new light on Biblical interpretation. It is especially useful when we remember that it's likely that the people who wrote the New Testament (excepting probably Luke) intended for their writings to be interpreted using this method and were accustomed to this style of interpretation being the norm.

I'm on my way to a larger point, but the smaller supporting point of this post is that particular form of logic was common, authoritative, and well-accepted in Jewish culture. The case in point here is the Talmud.

I searched the Talmud for the phrase "how much more" and found 481 instances of that phrase. Roughly 50 of those were in footnotes which don't count, but that still leaves well over 400 instances of this style of argument in the Talmud. By any measure, that's a substantive reason to believe that this logical technique was held in high regard.

How far back was it used? Well, of the results in the Talmud, 18 of them were in the more ancient Mishnah section. (I was surprised -- pleasantly -- to see that "If God is so grieved over the blood of the wicked that is shed, how much more so over the blood of the righteous!" was already in use back as far as the days of the Mishnah, Sanhedrin 46a.) The Mishnah is after the ministry of Christ, but not greatly.

The prevalence of this argument style in the Talmud -- and in the Mishnah -- show that this argument style was well-accepted in Jewish culture during the early centuries of the Christian era.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

"How much more" -- the death of the Suffering Servant

Here, for Lent, I want to consider what Isaiah says of the Suffering Servant:
Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he has put him to grief. (Isaiah 53:10)
There are some people who interpret Jesus' death according to a theory which supposes that God demanded an object for his wrath to satisfy his rage. I have heard this verse just quoted here -- that the LORD was pleased with the sufferings of his Servant -- presented as if God took delight in the suffering as suffering, as satisfaction, as payment for the debt owed, that the suffering was enjoyed for its own sake (that is, precisely because it was suffering). Is this how we understand God?
"As I live," says the Lord GOD, "I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live." (Ezekiel 33:11).
If God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, how much more does he have no pleasure in the death of the righteous. His pleasure is that the wicked turns from his way and lives. God's rejoicing is over the sinner who repents, not over the death of the Righteous One. The context of Isaiah bears out this understanding, that God's pleasure over the death of his Servant is not the questionable pleasure of having his wrath satisfied, but the pleasure of taking away our sins. "Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he has put him to grief. When you shall make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. He shall see the travail of his soul and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many, for he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great ..." (Isaiah 53:10-12)For if God does not delight in the death of the sinner, then how much more does he not delight in the death of the Righteous. He delights that the wicked turn from his way and live.

Monday, March 08, 2010

"How much more" -- going the extra mile

And if someone compels you to go one mile, go with him for two miles. (Matt 5:41)
I think this verse already receives too little attention among us. We hear the background: the ancient Roman soldiers could force someone to carry their packs for a mile. And we think, from knowing what the ancient Romans were doing, that we have learned something. We have learned historical details. But that was not Jesus' point.

If a follower of Christ is ever compelled to do good, we are called to insist on doing more than we were forced to do. We make it plain that we act in kindness willingly, that it is not the compulsion which makes us do good but that it is our calling to do good, our own purpose to do good. We show it by doing more than was asked, more than we were compelled to do by law or by circumstances.

Any time that we are compelled to do good, what Christ said about the extra mile applies in our lives. One example is if we are taxed for a thing which is, by most definitions, charity. If we find that the government has set a quota for charity and made it obligatory by deduction from our paychecks, we find ourselves in a similar situation. If we are taxed for the welfare of the poor, we are going one mile, helping another person in a way that the law requires and compels us to do. It is often a heavy load. But to go the extra mile, the next step is to help more than what is required of us, to still help the poor willingly and not only under compulsion. In this way, we demonstrate that it is not compulsion which drives us to care for the poor, but the love of God which drives us to care for the poor.

If those who do not love God or neighbor help when compelled, how much more should those who love God and neighbor help.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

"How much more" -- loving your enemies

What if we apply the same reasoning to Jesus' teaching on loving our enemies?

I have met people who act as though we are to treat our enemies better than our friends. (This does not actually have the effect of making it so that nobody is our enemies; it merely reverses who are the enemies and who are the friends.) I have met people who bend over backwards to treat their enemies well, but do not do the same for their friends or family. I have met people who go out of the way to include outsiders, but at the cost of excluding people who share common bonds with them. I have even met people who I suspect would say, "But Jesus never said to love our friends and family. But he did say to love our enemies." So what are the implications?

If we are to love our those who hate us, how much more should we love those who love us. If we are to bless those who curse us, how much more should we bless those who bless us. If we return good to those who do us evil, how much more should we return good to those who do us good. If we pray for those who persecute us, how much more should we pray for those who help us.

The method of reasoning gives solid results, and the implications are, I think, more in line with what Jesus intended: not to switch which group of people receives our love, but to include all, even our enemies.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

"How much more" -- introduction

This is the foundational piece of a short series on how much more we should be able to understand about Jesus, about the mind of God, and about his teachings based on the Scriptures we already have in front of us. The starting point here is literally the phrase "How much more."

The ancient Jewish rabbinic schools had rules on how you could interpret Scripture, basically logical and rhetorical rules about making a valid conclusion from what was given. One of the key forms of argument is marked by the use of the phrase, "How much more". It's known in Latin by the name a fortiori or a minori ad majus (or ad majore ad minus, if the logic runs the opposite direction). This form of reasoning, applied to Scripture, is said to trace back at least to the school of Hillel, so it was likely accepted and in place as a rule of Scriptural interpretation before Jesus' birth. As a rule of reasoning, it goes back further still.

In Scripture, we see that not only Moses and Paul but also Jesus himself accepted and used this form of reasoning. (How much more, then, should we!) Here are a few examples of this form of reasoning applied within Scripture through the ages:
  • While I am yet alive with you this day, you have been rebellious against the LORD, and how much more after my death? (Deut 31:27)
  • The son of my own body seeks my life: how much more may this Benjamite? (2 Sa 16:11)
  • He puts no trust in his saints; even the heavens are not clean in his sight. How much more filthy is man, who drinks iniquity like water? (Job 15:15-16)
  • The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination; how much more when he brings it with a wicked mind? (Proverbs 21:27)
  • If you, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him? (Matt 7:11)
  • If God so clothes the grass which is today in the field and tomorrow cast into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith? (Luke 12:28)
  • Do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more things that pertain to this life? (1 Corinthians 6:3)
  • If the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on the unclean sanctifies it to the purification of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ? (Hebrews 9:13-14)
In this form of argument, the reasoning follows an accepted pattern that was considered valid: if a certain rule applies in one circumstance with a lesser reason for it to apply, then we should be confident that it applies when there is a greater reason for it to apply.

At times it is implicit, as when Jesus teaches us that the sparrows are watched over and cared for by God, and we are worth more than many sparrows. He invites us to conclude with the same type of logic: how much more are we watched over and cared for by God.

There are more examples in Scripture than I have shown here. A search for "how much more" in your favorite Scripture search engine will show that this was a widely used approach to drawing conclusions. It was well-accepted by those who founded our faith. We see Jesus applying it and have reason to believe he expected us to be able to apply it as well. Next I'll show some of the implications of using it to help us understand his teachings.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The Ephesians Road: Last words

I consider my own real point on Ephesians to have been made in the previous posts. Still, what do we make of the "Ephesians Road" way of viewing the gospel?

If you watched any of the Olympics recently, you may have noticed one thing about the figure skating routines: each routine looks much like the next routine because there are so many compulsory elements. The judges have their score cards and are waiting to see that combination jump, waiting to see the spins and check that all the mandatory parts of the routine have been completed, so that they can evaluate the question: "How does this person rate as a skater?" The score card contains all the assumptions about how to recognize a really good skater and what constitutes excellence in skating.

I got the impression, reading those summaries of Ephesians, that there was the same type of score card in hand, a score card that someone was using to evaluate: "How does this summary rate as a presentation of the good news?" That score card seemed to have its own compulsory elements, complete with assumptions about what the gospel is and what makes one gospel presentation better than another. That score card assumed that the gospel is rightly understood as a plan to deal with God's wrath and/or the punishment we have earned. Look at the sketch-style summary of the "Romans Road" that was given as the starting point:
  • You are a sinner and guilty before God (Romans 3:23).
  • Your guilt has earned you death (Romans 6:23).
  • God has a plan to save you freely through faith (Romans 5:8).
  • All you need to do is call on God (pray) and your faith will save you (Romans 10:9).
Notice how it has a place for your guilt and sin and how you deserve death. Notice how it has a place for your faith and God's plan. Did you also notice that there is not one explicit mention of Jesus? In this "gospel," Jesus is assumed as a background detail that makes the plan work, but he doesn't rank high enough to be mentioned explicitly, much less to be recognized as the cornerstone of our salvation. This summary is, in short, a blasphemous and offensive presentation of the "gospel." Then again, it was meant as the "bad old thing we're replacing", so it is possible that the author meant this as an example of a bad way to explain the gospel.

On to the summary that Dr. P. linked, written by Derek:
  • Salvation is about God’s plan for the world (Ephesians 1), including the election of Israel, the adoption of Israel as the people of God, the inclusion of Gentiles in salvation, and the uniting of all things in Messiah symbolized by the new unity of Jew and Gentile in Messiah.
  • Salvation is only by unearned favor (Ephesians 2:1-9), raising us from the dead and saving us from God’s wrath.
  • Salvation comes with a calling that must be fulfilled in the community of faith (Ephesians 2:10-22), including good works, kingdom community of mutual blessing between Jew and Gentile, and imaging God to the world.
Look at the compulsory elements being checked off on the score card: God's wrath? Check. God's plan? Check. Salvation is unearned? Check. And each camp in Christianity has its own compulsory elements on the score card. But to what extent does that score card interfere with recognizing: Ephesians ranks right up there with Romans as one of the great early presentations of the good news in its own right. Is it right to set a score card for Ephesians based on (our understanding of) Romans? Or does it get full and perfect marks on its own score card, and our job is not to grade it or even to reformat it to fit some other set of expectations, but instead to figure out what was on Paul's own mental checklist?

Do you remember the word frequency study we looked at before? We can use that as a guide to test how well any summary sticks with the author's point. Paul's letter to the Ephesians gives "love" a far more prominent place than "wrath", so that "love" is the most commonly used word after the "God" words. This summary gives explicit mention to wrath, but has no explicit mention of love. Paul's letter to the Ephesians mentions Christ more than any other key word; in this summary, the prominence of Christ (Messiah) has been reduced so that Christ is no more prominent than, say, Israel. In Paul's letter to the Ephesians, there is one explicit mention of Israel; in the short few lines of the summary, there are two.

It is easy for us to read our own assumptions about what is important into the text and miss what the author is emphasizing. We easily assign "background / filler" status to whatever doesn't meet our expectations, and may not even notice that what we skip as "background" may be something the author considers vital. That is because our score card does not have a check box for everything the author had in mind. If we want to look at Ephesians as a way to broaden our understanding of how to present the good news, we'll have to stop looking at a score card that was made for something else, and read it on its own terms.

As for Ephesians: To follow Paul's own emphasis by how often he mentions each thing, Christ is the key point. Christ is the good news.