Saturday, June 8, 2019

Drawing Lines: Our Inclusively Exclusive Faith

In a recent post entitled, Penny in the Air, Sarah Bessey tells her story of landing on the “affirming” side of the debate about Christian faith and practicing homosexuality.  She begins by recounting her wrestling over Jesus’ harsh response to the Syrophoenician or “Greek” woman in Mark 7:24-30, and its parallel account in Matthew 15:21-28.  She concludes:

I’ve thought of the Syro-Phoenician woman often since that first reading. It made me mad at Jesus the first time I encountered it but now I find it amazing and instructive, even convicting for us in the Church now: perhaps Jesus learned from this moment. A woman taught him and he responded. … Jesus isn’t the hero in that story even though he ultimately heals the child. Rather, the woman is the hero because she was persistent, she was unrelenting, she was clever, she turned insults into entreaties, she prevailed. She’s also an outsider who showed the insiders how it should be done in the Kingdom of God.

The implication for the question of homosexuality?  If an outsider could teach even Jesus about the inclusiveness of the kingdom, perhaps the outsiders of the contemporary church – in this case, the LGBTQ+ community – can teach us a similar lesson.  But there are two significant problems with Bessey’s argument. The first is the relatively novel reading of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman she employs. I do not think it is faithful to the Gospels, as I hope to demonstrate below.  The second is the troubling implication of such a reading.  Namely, if Jesus could err in his understanding of the scope of the kingdom he announced, then how much more so his clay-footed apostles – not to speak of the faithful but fallible church he built?  A question mark then hangs over the canonical writings of the New Testament, as well as the longstanding tradition of the church.  How then will the penny land?  

The penny is in the air. That’s okay. We meet our own version of Cornelius or the Syro-Phoenician woman or whomever. People, relationship, listening, love, this is what causes the penny to drop

Where the Word is unclear or even potentially questionable, relationships with others “is what causes the penny to drop.”  Sounds winsome and wise, but here’s the problem with that assertion.  The anecdote she shares regarding her pivotal encounter with the kind and perceptive lesbian pastor can be countered with a dozen other encounters with godly men and women who have forsaken homosexual relationships in obedience to Jesus.  I know more than a few such men personally who’ve not only impacted me as friends, but have discipled me as brothers.  They are among the countless faithful men and women who are elders, deacons, missionaries and otherwise mature followers of Christ who have turned away from practicing homosexuality to take up the self-denying cross of Christ.  For them, the teachings of Scripture on same-sex relationships could not be clearer, even if they are personally costly – as is the call of Jesus for all who have ears to hear it.  But if the Holy Spirit is using our varied, personal relationships as the decisive factor in landing our proverbial penny, then he is more aptly called the Spirit of confusion and contradiction than the Spirit of Truth.  He is leading us, it would seem, to clashing conclusions.  

In this case, as with all controversies, the scriptures speak clearly enough to the church, and authoritatively so, by the voice of the Spirit. In humbly submitting to biblical instruction, the penny falls in the right place.  Let’s listen.  

Was Jesus a Racist?

In his conversation with the Syrophoenician woman – not to mention the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-30) – there were clear lines dividing insiders from outsiders.  The truth is, there always have been such lines in God’s economy (e.g. Lev.18:1-5; 20:22-26).  And there always will be (e.g. 2Cor.6:14-18; Rev.21:8, 27). The question we should be asking is: Why are the lines drawn, and how do we cross them in the right direction? 

For a variety of reasons – some worse than others – the Syrophoenician woman was an outsider in first century Palestine.  Even for the enlightened Christ, as a Gentile, she was an outsider (cf. Mt.18:17). And Jesus’ response to her is jolting. Readers over the centuries have balked at Jesus’ apparent callousness toward the poor woman. First, he ignores her pleas on behalf of her oppressed daughter. Then, more insultingly, he refers to her as a “dog.” Was Jesus guilty of racism or operating from a racist bias here? Some insist he is.[1] Others wonder – most recently, Rachel Held Evans[2]and now, Sarah Bessey[3]  and ask whether this is perhaps an instance of Jesus’ all-too-human nature as a first century Jewish man. Maybe our Lord even learns an important lesson from an insistent minority? 

In her humble and faith-filled persistence, she demanded inclusion  at least as a family pet[4]– at the banquet table of the Jewish Messiah. Jesus commended this “dog”[5] as an exemplar of faith to Israel. How ironic this is! Unbelieving Jews would later be branded “dogs,” while believing Gentiles would be called true heirs of Israel’s promises (e.g. Phil.3:2-3; cf. Gal.4:28-31).[6]  

Is it any coincidence that this episode follows Jesus’ rigorous interrogation of the traditions surrounding ceremonial washings and kosher food laws (Mt.15:1-20; Mk.7:1-23; cf. Lev.20:22-26)? As Mark momentously concludes, “Thus he declared all foods clean,” (7:19). In fact, many of the church fathers read Jesus’ unusual treatment of the Syrophoenician woman as a pedagogical device aimed at his disciples, further unveiling Gentile inclusion in the messianic blessings. Along these lines, Michael Bird writes:

Yet if one examines the saying in its narrative context (assuming the saying and narrative historically go together), it reflects more of an ironic quip, in which Jesus’ harsh words may have been designed to invite the woman’s witty reply (e.g. Mk.7.29: ‘because you have said this’) … Jesus’ ironic remark towards the woman concerns the focus of Israel in his mission and deliberately attempts to elicit a shrewd comeback. He acknowledges the validity of the woman’s reply that Israel’s blessings can, even in limited ways, extend to Gentiles, a theme found elsewhere in the Jesus tradition (e.g. Lk.4.25-27).  But the key issue is that such a blessing is available for Gentiles in the present.  

Jesus draws out faith and sheds new light. He is the hero in this passage after all.  

However, it seems Peter didn’t learn this lesson the first-time round. He would require a second session (and a third, and a fourth) regarding kosher meats before preaching the gospel to the household of an uncircumcised centurion named Cornelius (Acts 10-11). After being invited in a vision to partake of heaven’s culinary spread – a bizarre cornucopia including unclean animals – the perplexed apostle responds:

“By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” This happened three times…

It isn’t until Peter walks into the Gentile’s house that, as Bessey aptly puts it, the penny drops.

Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.

Peter now understands the heavenly word given him earlier. God’s lines are drawn by His revelation and representatives not to exclude people, ultimately, but to include them. As Paul writes of the ancient gospel preached to the Semitic patriarch, singled out from among all peoples:

And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.”

But in order to fully include the nations, God must first offer salvation to beloved Jacob. As he himself testified, Jesus came for the lost sheep of Israel (Mt.15:24). Salvation is not only from the Jews (John 4:22), but it is for the Jew first (Mk.7:27). So, within Jesus’ program, Israel had a covenantal priority as the elect nation (Mt.10:5-6; cf. Rom.11:28-29).[7] Of course, Christ was not unaware of the coming Gentile mission (cf. Mt.10:16-18), which had been long prophesied in connection with the messianic age (Lk.24:45-47).[8] Still less was Jesus racially biased against Syrophoenicians or Greeks. He knew that, in his rejection by “his own,” he would draw all men to himself – including Greeks (John 12:20-36). He joyfully anticipated the full participation of the nations at the eschatological banquet. Prior to his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, he marveled at the astonishing faith of a Roman centurion in Capernaum:

Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (see Mt.8:5-13; cf. Lk.7:1-10)

But there was an order to this unfolding redemption. First, the Christ must be “lifted up," that is, condemned and crucified in Jerusalem. The message would then begin in the City of David, and extend to the very ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). To the Jew first, then the Gentile (Rom.1:16; e.g. Acts 13:46-38).  

The wonderful mystery of the gospel is the full inclusion of the Gentiles qua Gentiles (Eph.3:1-6; Rom.11:11-36). That is to say, they don’t need to become observant Jews in order to be saved. But they must repent and believe the good news of Jesus. Or in Peter’s words: in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. For God to include the Gentiles, their characteristically Gentile lifestyle must be excluded.[9] Hence the famous “quadrilateral” ruling of the Jerusalem council regarding Gentiles coming under the “tent of David” (Acts 15:16-17):  

For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.

Paul, the apostle of Gentile freedom (e.g. Gal.5:1-6), not only concurs with the ruling (see 1Cor.8-10), but is one of its official emissaries (Acts 15:22-27).   

Is Jesus' Church Homophobic?  

Among the bans against the brutal and corrupting practices of pagan worship stands the peculiarly Gentile sin – at least from the Jewish perspective of late antiquity (cf. 1Thess.4:2-5)[10]– of sexual immorality. This taboo entails both sacred (e.g. 1Cor.10:7-8; Rev.2:14?)[11] and secular practices (e.g. 1Cor.6:12-7:2?). In other words, the Jerusalem council wasn’t merely denouncing cultic sex acts. For instance, Paul writes to the Corinthians regarding a notorious case of incest within the congregation: 

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. (cf. Lev.18:7-8)

A line must be drawn, the apostle insists. And that line entails our sexual behavior. Paul continues:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world.  But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.  For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?  God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” 

As Jesus instructed his disciples, the church seeks and saves lost sheep, in part, by drawing a line, by maintaining an inside and an outside in calling wandering saints to repent – to cross the line (see Mt.18:10-20). Outside that line lies sexual immorality, among other sins. Such immorality includes adultery, incest, prostitution, pederasty and homosexual acts,[12] as Paul goes on to illustrate: 

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality,[13] nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. 

God draws these lines, not in order to narrow the scope of salvation, but to broaden it - in order to save as many as possible (see 1Cor.5:3-4)!  And such were some of you… That is one of my favorite lines in the New Testament. God’s salvation can reach anyone, no matter what their sexual orientation, identity or history.  

But if we fail to draw these lines in obedience to Christ, we are not acting more inclusively than if we didn’t, but less so. According to the apostle, by refusing to exclude such “Gentile behaviors,” we are excluding men and women from the kingdom of God.  

Maybe we're tempted to think that smudging the line might free us to be more generous.  But it inadvertently makes us more stingy in our offer of grace. Blurred lines create confusion for the church's mission. To whom do we preach the gospel of the kingdom? And what do we call them to repent of? If we lack clarity on our mission, we'll loiter about heaven's door in anxious hesitation, rather than throw it open wide to the world.  

To have gospel clarity and courage, the penny must drop.  But on what side of the kingdom's line will it fall? 

The Bible speaks plainly to this question. And for two thousand years the church's witness has been univocal regarding homosexuality and Christian obedience. In this sense, the penny landed long before we late modern Christians appeared on the scene. It’s we who’ve picked it back up again. And that’s OK ... provided we don’t carry it across lines Jesus drew.

There is always an inside and an outside to God's reign. And every outsider is welcome to come inside. All are invited! It could not be more inclusive (cf. Mt.13:47-49). Many are called ... but few are chosen. Outsiders, like the Syrophoenician woman or the Italian officer, Cornelius - or the Pharisee of Pharisees, Saul of Tarsus - must cross over through a self-denying repentance and supernatural faith. In Jesus' words, it is those who are dressed for the occasion who will finally be ushered into the party (Mt.22:1-14). The wedding of the Lamb is, after all, an exclusive affair. 

Thankfully, the loving Shepherd continues to lead his prone-to-wander sheep ever so patiently and graciously through the narrow gate (Mt.7:13-27).  

[1]Skeptic Steve Wells documents hundreds of cases of alleged prejudice in Scripture. Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician women is number 421 on his list. See more here:, (2006). 
[2]Evans later apologized for the implication that Jesus was racist in his remarks to the woman, though suggested that racial bias did motivate his initial response (see more here).
[3]Evidently following an argument made in a Christian undergraduate publication at Harvard University, The Harvard Icthus, penned by a third year law student.
[4]It’s long been observed that the word used in both Matthew and Mark’s account, κυνάριον, is a diminutive form for “dog,” κύων.  According to a standard lexicon, “in the NT the diminutive force may have become lost, though a component of emotive attachment or affection is no doubt retained and thus the reference is presumably to a house dog —‘house dog, little dog.’” (Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996), Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: based on semantic domains, New York: United Bible Societies).  
[5]As noted above, Jesus uses a different word than the typical term for “dog.” Nevertheless, his choice of words is arresting to later, Gentile readers.  Jesus appears to be using the language of his day regarding insiders and outsiders in Judaism, without the dehumanizing connotations found in its various, polemical contexts. As Allen Black writes: “The form of his statement is proverbial. And the basis of the proverb is not an antipathy for Gentiles, but the necessary Jewish focus of Jesus’ earthly ministry” (The Book of Mark, Joplin, MO: College Press, 1995; p. 137). If Jesus truly did consider the Gentile woman a “dog,” in a derogatory sense, he has broken his own rule: “Do not give dogs what is holy…” (Mt.7:6).  In any case, I wonder if Dean Breidenthal of Princeton University is correct when he says, “I suspect we would not be so bothered by Jesus’ unkind words to the Syrophoenician woman if they were not directed against the Gentile community. Those of us who are Gentile Christians have less trouble with Jesus’ invectives when they are directed against the Jewish leadership of his day.”
[6]As Jerome wrote, “Wonderful change of things! Once Israel the son, and we the dogs; the change in faith has led to a change in the order of our names. Concerning them is that said, ‘Many dogs have come about me’; [Ps 22:16] while to us is said, as to this woman, ‘Thy faith hath made thee whole,’” Catena Aurea: St. Matthew. 
[7]Anselm of Canterbury writes, “The Jews were born sons, and brought up by the Law in the worship of one God. The bread [offered] is the Gospel, its miracles and other things which pertain to our salvation. It is not then appropriate that these should be taken from the children and given to the Gentiles, who are dogs, till the Jews refuse them,” Catena Aurea: St. Matthew. 
[8]This in addition to the present benefits certain Gentiles enjoyed from the peripatetic ministry of the “light of men” wandering Israel’s countryside.  As Bird writes, “Jesus’ ironic aside is met with recognition from the woman not merely of the priority of Israel, but the significance that Israel’s salvation holds for Gentiles in the present. As the children of Israel are being fed, crumbs are now falling for the dogs. As Israel’s restoration becomes more and more of a reality, it becomes more and more possible for Gentiles to experience the blessing of its fulfillment. In this sense, interpreting the pericope in terms of ‘Jew first and then Gentile’ fails to grapple with the significance that a partially realized restoration has for Gentiles.  That is not to collapse the entire eschatological hope for the Gentiles into Jesus’ ministry since the full inclusion of Gentiles can only begin when Israel’s restoration is complete.  What is important is that the restoration of Israel, in nascent form, carries with it incipient eschatological benefits for the Gentiles who find themselves confronted with God’s anointed prophet. As the children of Israel are fed, it is possible for the dogs (i.e. Gentiles) to be fed as a consequence of Israel’s dawning restoration.”
[9]Jerome writes, “The Gentiles are called dogs because of their idolatry; who, given to the eating of blood, and dead bodies, turn to madness,” Catena Aurea: St. Matthew.
[10]The Letter of Aristides is typical here, underlining Jewish continence over against Gentile promiscuity: “The majority of other men defile themselves in their relationships, thereby committing a serious offense, and lands and whole cities take pride in it: they not only procure the males, they also defile mothers and daughters. We are quite separated from these practices.”  Regarding homosexuality specifically, in the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs we find the characteristic Jewish abhorrence of same-sex relations as found among the Gentiles (T. Levi 14:6; T. Naph. 4:1; T. Benj. 9:1; T. Naph. 3:4–5), depicted as disordered, unnatural and the result of a perverted understanding of God’s nature (T. Naph. 2:2 – 3:5) - among other sexual taboos ala Leviticus 18 and 20. Similar evaluations are made in 2 Enoch, Wisdom of SolomonSibylline OraclesPseudo-Phocylides, as well as the works of Philo and Josephus.  
[11]The current scholarly consensus questions the existence of sacred prostitution in the ancient world (e.g. see Stephanie Budin, S.M. Baugh). However, as Rosner and Ciampa demonstrate, temple prostitution, in which prostitution was involved in religious banquets held in Greco-Roman temples, evidently did exist in places like first century Corinth (see The First Letter to the Corinthianspp.247ff.).
[12]According to the previously cited lexicon, the Greek words porneuoporneia mean “to engage in sexual immorality of any kind, often with the implication of prostitution—‘to engage in illicit sex, to commit fornication, sexual immorality…’” This includes adultery, homosexuality, and other forms of illicit sex.  As Ciampa and Rosner write: “Fundamentally, in the Bible there are only two types of sex: sex within marriage [between male and female] and sexual immorality,” (ibid., p.277).  The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament summarizes: “The NT is characterized by an unconditional repudiation of all extra-marital and unnatural intercourse. In this respect it follows to a large degree the judgment of OT and Israelite preaching and transcends the legalistic practice of later Judaism, which is shown to be inadequate by the Word of Jesus. Jesus can and does effect this radicalizing because the Gospel as saving forgiveness manifests the divine dynamic in this age.
[13]The term “those who practice homosexuality” translates, οὔτε μαλακοὶ οὔτε ἀρσενοκοῖταιwhich, as most scholars conclude, refers to the passive and active participants of the male homosexual act, respectively.  The latter term, ἀρσενοκοῖταιappears to be a uniquely Pauline word, coined from the Septuagint - the Greek translation of the Old Testament - rendering of Leviticus 20:13, καὶ ὃς ἂν κοιμηθῇ μετὰ ἄρσενος κοίτην γυναικός (see also Lev.18:22). The term also appears in 1Timothy 1:9-10, Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient … the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality (ἀρσενοκοίταις), … and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

To Call A Thing What It Actually Is

At this point, my reflections on Nadia Bolz-Weber’s book, Shameless, are probably a day late and dollar short, as my father wouldve said.  Others have excellently reviewed her fiery call to “a sexual revolution,” but here I humbly add my two cents.

Shameless is a brilliant book.  It is expertly and lovingly crafted.  Her writing seems effortless, like an impromptu conversation over coffee, and irresistible, like the web spun by a master story-teller.  I’m utterly gripped as she rips open her chest over my blonde roast.  

It is also baffling.  An admixture of raw vulnerability and abrupt dishonesty.  Take chapter 6, The Rocking Chair.  I teared up imagining her laying on a thin mattress in the corner of her apartment after her abortion - stunned, disoriented, sad.  But then, jarringly, she writes: “…what is true, deeply true, is that even after I had children, even after I became a pastor, never once for a single minute did I regret my choice. It was the right one.”  

But is this true?  Does it ring true?  Or does the lady protest too much? 

Her revisions of history, both political[1] and ecclesiastical,[2] are perhaps unsurprising, considering the axe she’s grinding.  But I’m being cynical here.  They are disappointing coming from one who’s so fiercely championed Luther’s definition of true theology: to call a thing what it actually is.  I was perfectly aware that we disagreed on a number of important issues, but I confess I’ve had something of a pastor-crush on Nadia since I first heard her interviewed on NPR, talking frankly about forgiveness.  So it was jolting to me to see her not call something so big and beautiful as pregnancy what it actually was.  

And yet, confusingly and mercifully, she does.  During her second pregnancy, while in the throes of labor with her first born, she repeats to herself, “Every human.  Every human.” She explains: 

It was something I’d thought a lot about during my pregnancy.  Every human represents a pregnancy and a birth.  What was happening to me and to my body seemed to me alien, violent.  But women have been laboring and delivering their babies since the dawn of time, and on that night I joined them.  They were waiting for me on the other side of the emotional Red Rover.  My baby had been waiting, too.  The one I could keep.

I think immediately about the one she didn’t keep, waiting with fetal knees to chest in “the blood and oil of their mother’s womb.”  Could they have heard the birth pang chant: “Every human.  Every human”?  

(Her ferocious words in the previous chapter come back to me: This is not an issue.  It is a baby.)

But here Nadia takes a strange turn, and appeals to conceptions of ensoulment in Jewish antiquity.  “Rabbis have long written that the soul enters the body at birth, with the first breath.”  That is true. It is also true that some rabbis argued that life began on the 40th day of the pregnancy, or when “bones and arteries started to form,” or even at conception.  And it is irrelevant.  What she doesn’t tell us is that the entire rabbinic tradition uniformly denounces abortion of a viable pregnancy as a violation of God’s law and handiwork, even constituting outright bloodshed (Sanhedrin 57b; Mishna, mOholot 7:8).

 “And if they are to live,” she tenderly but ominously writes, “they must pull breath into their tiny lungs, those sacks of delicate wings feathered with blood vessels.”  This is poetically put, but hopelessly archaic in a world where NICUs are filled with preemies breathing, not by the power of their own lungs, but through machines.  To cite an ancient Jewish belief regarding life’s inception here, as if it were decisive, smacks of subterfuge.  Who is she trying to persuade? 

Even so, isn’t it true that in utero the baby takes in oxygen?  Just as the newborn Nadia needed others blood to survive, so too does every unborn child.  Through the channel of the umbilical cord, the mother literally breathes in oxygen and exhales out carbon dioxide for the child.  Breath is indeed the gift of life, and in those early days, we receive it incredibly through our mothers.  We are fearfully and wonderfully made, scripture tells us, knit together in her womb by the hand of God.  

       Wonderful are your works; 
  my soul knows it very well. 
       My frame was not hidden from you, 
         when I was being made in secret, 
  intricately woven in the depths of the earth. 
       Your eyes saw my unformed substance; 
         in your book were written, every one of them, 
the days that were formed for me, 
  when as yet there was none of them. 

Every human.  Every human.  

So is Nadia being honest with us?  Is she calling the thing what it actually is? She concludes her chapter on abortion with these puzzling words: “There are many ways to read scripture and remain faithful.  There are many ways to remain faithful.”  Yes, but when two students of scripture come to diametrically opposed conclusions on the same question, can both be deemed faithful - without dissolving any possible coherence of the sacred text or the Christian tradition? How can we both call the thing what it actually is, if we contradict each other?[3] 

I wonder further if, in the most painful moments that she has so vulnerably shared with her readers - and it is a holy thing to behold - she is being honest with herself.  Because, as she has modeled so well elsewhere, honesty is elemental to grace.  If we don’t call sin “sin,” or death “death,” then how can we know forgiveness and freedom from shame … the resurrection life that comes through the cross of Christ?  Shamelessness isn’t the happy result of denying the sinfulness of our sin, or that of others.  It is the fruit of coming to terms with sin before the Crucified and Risen One - broken by our own and vulnerable to those committed against us - and there, before Jesus, receiving grace upon grace upon grace.  She says it even better:

In order to really speak of grace, we must speak of why grace is needed. Which means we simply must speak of sin—even if liberals tend to think that speaking about sin is the same as celebrating low self-esteem. But friends, how can we ever understand why grace is amazing if we think we don't need it?

… Feel free to name your sins.  It's how we scoot over and make room for God. I like to think of grace not as when God is a good enough guy to forgive me for my failings, but as when God is a source of wholeness, redemption, and healing which makes up for my failings, which is more powerful than my failings.

... And confession of sins or completing a moral inventory and speaking it to another person isn't the way we earn forgiveness—it's just the way to force our egos into a posture where we can receive forgiveness.

The goal here in naming the sin of abortion isnt to shame those whove had them.  On the contrary, it is in order to receive grace.  And this grace removes guilt and shame through forgiveness. More than that, this grace heals and restores, in order that we might live, as Stanley Hauerwas writes, a way of life which recognizes God as Lord of life [and] makes abortion unthinkable.

[1]For instance, her charge that evangelicalism’s opposition to Roe vs. Wade was racially motivated is far more hype than history.  Though a segregationist agenda likely explains the sudden interest in political activism among certain evangelical/fundamentalist leaders at the time, the chronology Bolz-Weber outlines simply doesn’t add up.  Many prominent evangelicals – including the National Association of Evangelicals - voiced strong opposition to abortion on demand before the Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973, as well as immediatley after.  The key players of the early evangelical pro-life movement (e.g., Francis Schaeffer, Harold O.J. Brown, C. Everett Koop) are also totally overlooked here. Her account (ala Randall Balmer) makes for a provocative “origin story,” especially for the despisers of evangelicalism, but it isn’t honest history.  For a more nuanced handling, see Andrew Lewis’ The Rights Turn in Conservative Christian Politics: How Abortion Transformed the Culture Wars (Cambridge Studies in Social Theory, Religion and Politics).  For more details on the timeline of the church’s stance toward abortion, see

[2]For instance, consider her rebuke of the hapless, elderly gentlemen who awkwardly voiced his concern about abortion to a room full of mainline ministers (which, as Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson quipped in Either/Or, is the contemporary equivalent of cutting a loud fart at a cocktail party).  Nadia scolds, “Sir, the fact is, many of us hold a view that Christians and Jews have held for a very, very long time – that based on the creation story in Genesis life begins with breath.  So do not lob your accusations of murder at those whose premise is very different from yours.”  But this isn’t honest.  The univocal witness of the church for 2,000 years – from the Didache to Vatican II – is a vigorous opposition to abortion-as-birth-control as directly contravening the way of Christ.  

[3]Her final words here would not surprise me were they to come from a liberal author such as Jennifer Wright Knust, for whom the Bible is a massive wax nose to be turned and twisted toward whatever ethic seems “valuable” to us at the moment (see Knust’s conclusions in Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire).  But I am scratching my head, reading this from the preacher who wonderfully writes of scripture’s treasury: “I have found that if meditated on, wrestled with, and questioned properly, the Bible hands over the goods.”  The text has its own integrity, and Nadia honors it by meditating on it, wrestling with it, and questioning it properly.  

Thursday, January 31, 2019

A Letter to a Dying Man

One patent fact of life is the inevitability of consequences.  It’s a universal principle.  Science assumes it.  Every effect has a cause, every action a reaction.  Religion moralizes it.  Some call it karma; others, divine providence.  Although we’re familiar with the principle, consequences are always somehow unexpected. The dream long hoped-for and tirelessly pursued, when finally realized, seems almost miraculous.  The fear we’ve forestalled for years suddenly jolts us, like a late night knock at the door, though the visitor’s been expected.

Our lives are a vast spider web of cause and effect.  Slim lines attach all our decisions, all our behaviors, and even our temperaments to an entire galaxy of events - good, bad and ugly.  A whole lifetimes’ worth.  It’s amazing that such delicate threads should be attached to such weighty things, isn’t it? 

Are you familiar with the Butterfly Effect?  It’s a scientific concept that small causes can have enormous effects.  The name is drawn from the idea that the flapping of butterfly wings in South America can alter the course of a hurricane in the northeastern Atlantic basin two weeks later.  I wonder what hurricanes have been stirred by one, small tremor on our line?  What distant tidal-wives crash from even so light a decision? 

This is terrifying because we see the ripples of our actions (or inactions) radiating far beyond us.  The countless cords of cause and effect spun out from us intersect with a mesh of others’, entangling us together – for better or worse – like knotted strands of Christmas lights.

How do we live under such an unbearable weight – the weight of our own actions, of our inescapable impact on others?

One way is to ignore it, or at least to try to.  We can do this with unthinking shortsightedness - like a teenager.  Or we can do this under the pretense of philosophical or religious sophistication, short circuiting consequence in the name of Christ (“Isn’t all forgiven in the end?”), or in the name of Buddha ("The whole jumbled mess is an illusion after all”), or in the ancient logic of hedonism (“Eat, drink and be merry now, because when you’re dead, what will it matter?”).  But denial, as they say, isn’t just a river in Egypt.   

The other way to live under it is to actually feel its terrible weight, at least in part, and then, heroically, respond with all our hearts.  I read in a philosophy book that every great intellectual, artistic and spiritual work in history issues us with Rilke's demand: “You must change your life!”  We all know a radical change in us is to be made.  We cannot escape the sense that our lives are of immeasurable and lasting significance, that the network of relationships we’re a part of are real, and truly matter.  So, refusing to give in to denial and fear, we stare the awful and awesome truth in the face.  

But such courage doesn’t require that we then become arrogant – determining that we’ll valiantly pull ourselves out of our own tangled webs by our bootstraps.  We can also courageously stare that reality in the face, and then humbly ask for mercy.  We can plead for grace, not to throw off our responsibility, but to own it and be forgiven.

The message of Christianity is unique here in that it enables a man to do both: to face the music, acknowledging the reality of his failures (as well as his successes), and at the same time to hear “forgiven,” in response, even “my beloved son.”  To feel the weight lifted and our hearts alive with hope.    

As you reflect on the galaxy of events that make up your life, consider also the galaxies above.  The One who flung the stars into space is not indifferent toward us (tiny spiders that we are).  Just as he knows each star by name, having made them, so he knows us.  As the Psalmist sang,
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, 
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, 
what is man that you are mindful of him, 
and the son of man that you care for him? 
Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings 
and crowned him with glory and honor. 
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; 
you have put all things under his feet...
What a wonderful burden!  Our thin webs were designed for such weighty things – divine things.  It is the Almighty who has set us spinning at such great heights, to weave our lives together in good and beautiful ways.  Of course, so many times we’ve made a rat’s nest of it.  But Jesus of Nazareth comes, looks at the cosmic snarl of all our bewildering knots and kinks, and – without missing a beat — offers us himself. 

He even throws himself into the gargantuan web.  He hangs there motionless in the dark, dying.  He's facing our music – our inevitable consequences.  But death isn’t the last word for Jesus.  If he was who he claimed to be, how could it have been?  On a Sunday morning two thousand years ago, life had the final word.  That word declares, first, “You must change your life!”  On this, all great philosophies and religions agree.  But only in the gospel word do I then hear this invitation: “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.”   

This is the best, and only word I know to say.  

May you find rest in your Maker and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Descended Into Hell?

Should we include the “descended into hell” clause in our modern versions of the Apostles’ Creed?

As has often been pointed out, the article in question is a “late addition” to the Creed.*   It was not until AD 750 that the language became standardized in Western churches.  And its origins are, as Wayne Grudem puts it, murky One of the earliest appearances of the article is in the heretical “Dated Creed” of the synod held at Nice in Thrace AD 359 (Socrates, Ecclesiastical History 2. 37) - in the wake of which Jerome wrote, “The whole world groaned in astonishment to find itself Arian.”  Rufinus, in the first known commentary of the venerated symbol (~ AD 400), wrote

But it should be known that the clause, He descended into Hell, is not added in the Creed of the Roman Church, neither is it in that of the Oriental Churches. It seems to be implied, however, when it is said that He was buried

We don't see another creedal version of the article until AD 650.  

On this point, I think Calvin is generally both charitable and correct: appears from the ancient writers that this phrase which we read in the Creed was once not so much used in the churches. …From this we may conjecture that it was inserted after a time, and did not become customary in the churches at once, but gradually. This much is certain: that it reflected the common belief of all the godly; for there is no one of the fathers who does not mention in his writings Christ’s descent into hell, though their interpretations vary.

For instance, though Rufinus reads the descent into Hades/Hell doctrine as implied by the previous line about Christ’s burial, he still appears to maintain a literal descent into Hades/Hell (ala Peter’s language in Acts 2:24, 31):

That He descended into hell is also evidently foretold in the Psalms, where it is said, You have brought Me also into the dust of the death. And again, What profit is there in my blood, when I shall have descended into corruption? And again, I descended into the deep mire, where there is no bottom. Moreover, John says, Are You He that shall come (into hell, without doubt), or do we look for another? Whence also Peter says that Christ being put to death in the flesh, but quickened in the Spirit which dwells in Him, descended to the spirits who were shut up in prison, who in the days of Noah believed not, to preach unto them; where also what He did in hell is declared. Moreover, the Lord says by the Prophet, as though speaking of the future, You will not leave my soul in hell, neither will You suffer Your Holy One to see corruption. Which again, in prophetic language he speaks of as actually fulfilled, O Lord, You have brought my soul out of hell: You have saved me from them that go down into the pit.

Augustine is remarkably ambivalent on the matter.  He omits any exposition of the clause in his sermon to catechumens on the Creed (De symbolo ad catechumenos), and elsewhere critically questions the oft-cited 1Peter 3:18-19 as a “proof text” of Christ’s supposed postmortem descent.  Nevertheless, he does affirm the “plain sense” of descendit ad inferna:

It is established beyond question that the Lord, after He had been put to death in the flesh, descended into hell; for it is impossible to gainsay either that utterance of prophecy, You will not leave my soul in hell, — an utterance which Peter himself expounds in the Acts of the Apostles, lest any one should venture to put upon it another interpretation—or the words of the same apostle, in which he affirms that the Lord loosed the pains of hell, in which it was not possible for Him to be holden. Who, therefore, except an infidel, will deny that Christ was in hell? (Letter 164.2)

This basic understanding of Christ’s abysmal descent in death is reflected by nearly all the fathers before Augustine (e.g., Ignatius, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus).  But, as Calvin noted, the precise meaning of Christ’s descent was variously understood.  Part of the confusion surrounded the ambiguity of the term “hell” or inferna in Latin, sometimes conflated with inferos, and hades or ta katotata in Greek.  Charles Hill speaks for most students of church history (Protestant and Catholic) when he writes:

The word “hell” in the Creed does not mean the place of eternal punishment, Gehenna of the New Testament, the lake of fire that burns forever. It is rather Hades, or the Old Testament Sheol. This word is used often as a synonym for death, or the grave, and is associated with the depths of the earth, or the depths of the sea. But usually it has the sense of the place of the dead, where there is some consciousness of the disembodied soul, and thus is not identical merely with “the grave”, the physical place where dead body is laid. 

Similarly, Catherine Ella Laufer’s Hell’s Destruction: An Exploration of Christ’s Descent to the Dead traces out the historical development of the phrase, and links the “hell” language more to the Old Testament concept of Sheol or Hades as the shadowy realm of the dead (both righteous and wicked).  She concludes: “The recent English translation ‘he descended to the dead’ is a more accurate rendering of the sense of the Latin text and its Greek precursor,” (p. 30).  If the text were to be maintained in modern versions of the Creed, this would be the preferred translation.  

Nevertheless, confusion has seemingly always surrounded this article.  Even where there was some agreement on the subterranean abode of Christ’s descent, the extent and scope of His “harrowing of hell” varied widely (from the early fathers’ conception of Christ’s comforting deceased saints to Origen’s universalistic “emptying of hell”).

Unsurprisingly, then, the import of the clause has been long debated.  This includes the question of its place in the Apostles’ Creed - at least since the eve of the Reformation (e.g., Bishop Reginald Pecock, the so-called “only great English theologian of the 15th century,” published a revision of the Creed in 1440 without the controversial article), much more so during (e.g., Calvin’s successor, Theodore of Beza deleted it also, as did other contemporaries) and continues unabated to this day (e.g., among American Evangelicals, John Piper is perhaps the most well-known proponent of removing the article, following Grudem’s argumentation).  By and large, however, it was retained by the Reformers for the sake of confessional uniformity.  Yet this came at the cost of re-defining the article’s historic sense - at least among the Reformed branches.  While Lutherans maintained a traditional interpretation of the article (i.e., a literal “harrowing of hell”), Calvin rejected this as “childish,” and offered the novel if not “entirely original” (cf. Nicolas of Cusa and Pico della Mirandola) metaphorical interpretation of the descensus as Christ's redemptive agonies in His state of humiliation, particularly at the cross.  This was followed by the Heidelberg Catechism (Q/A 44), and continues to be the predominant interpretation of the article among the continental Reformed churches.  

The Westminster Confession (and the Puritans in general) went in a slightly different direction, perhaps influenced by Olevianus’ exposition of the Creed (which is worth quoting: [Christ’s descent entails] “not only the pains of death but also his utter disgrace-- the seeming victory of those pains-- while he was held down in the grave until the third day, lying as it were, under the oppression of death”), interpreting the descent clause as referencing Christ’s remaining “under the power of death” for three days (Westminster Larger Catechism Q/A 50). 

In both cases, it seems to me somewhat disingenuous to promulgate (metaphorical) interpretations that markedly differ from the original and historic (literal) sense of the Creed.  

Calvin’s explanation of the article is beautiful theology (as Tim Keller helpfully reflects), but not compelling as an exposition.  First, it appears to be a novelty as it stands (note: Aquinas does state of Christ’s descent into hell that, “by the power of his Passion he delivered the saints from this penalty whereby they were excluded from the life of glory...,” but also maintains a literal release of righteous souls from limbus patrum).  Secondly, it is an unnatural reading of the Creed - Calvin’s protests notwithstanding.  Understood as the agony of Christ in His earthly humiliation, culminating in the “cry of dereliction,” it makes little sense to place “he descended into hell” after “and was buried.” By the time of His burial, His redemptive agonies had ended (as texts like Luke 23:43, 46 and John 19:30 would indicate).  

We might do better to lean toward the Westminster Catechism here.  But then the article is confusing, to say the least, in its traditional rendering.  And if we opt instead for Laufer’s translation, “he descended to the dead” (minus its classical, mythological dimensions of course), then it appears redundant. I find Calvin persuasive here:

I grant that what they [Martin Bucer, et al.] put forward concerning the meaning of the word is true: "hell" is frequently to be understood as "grave." But two reasons militate against their opinion, and readily persuade me to disagree with them. How careless it would have been, when something not at all difficult in itself has been stated with clear and easy words, to indicate it again in words that obscure rather than clarify it! Whenever two expressions for the same thing are used in the same context, the latter ought to be an explanation of the former. But what sort of explanation will it be if one says that "Christ was buried" means that "he descended into hell"? Secondly, it is not likely that a useless repetition of this sort could have crept into this summary, which the chief points of our faith are aptly noted in the fewest possible words. I have no doubt that all who have weighed this matter with some care will readily agree with me.

Perhaps we might follow Charles Hill (and Joe Rigney) then, and argue for a literal “harrowing of hell/hades,” though understood in more biblically grounded terms.  As he writes about it:

...what brings them [the OT saints] to heaven is their union with the one who is now in heaven. He has “tasted death for everyone” (Heb.2.9) and then passed through the heavens (4.14), to the heavenly Mt. Zion, into the heavenly temple, and through the greater and more perfect tent, not made with hands (9.11), entering once for all into the holy of holies by means of his own blood. The saints of old have now received what was promised! They are in the heavenly city, and now surround the throne. … Yes, in Christ, they have inherited the promises – the presence of God in his heavenly city, with Christ! This is the victory Christ has achieved for us.

The idea is both beautiful and biblical (though of course these “saints of old” still await some promises, e.g., the resurrection body).  But is it the meaning of the article in question - assuming, as is most likely, that the patristic doctrine of Christ’s intermediate visit to the realm of the dead served as the primary rationale for its original inclusion?  Did the Lord actually descend into Sheol Hades after His death in order to comfort and even “liberate” the righteous souls of patriarchs and prophets?  It isn’t clear from the texts cited above (to say nothing of 1Pe.3:18ff.).  On the contrary, such “harrowing” is associated in these texts with Christ’s glorious exaltation and session, rather than His shrouded three days in the grave.  Scripture just isn’t explicit here ... unlike every other point of the Creed.  

All things considered, then, I would just assume follow Beza’s example here and excise the clause.   The much-debated article seems to create more trouble than it's worth.  We are children of the Reformation after all and are not absolutely beholden to the creeds as they’ve been handed down to us, but must continually and faithfully evaluate their truth and efficacy as tools for edifying the saints in light of God’s Word.  Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda secundum verbum dei.  But of course we don’t “move ancient boundary stones” lightly (or often).  In this case, we need to be shown the value of keeping this rather moot point.  

The article also appears in the Athanasian Creed, which was probably compiled in the late 5th or early 6th century (see J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds).  The oldest manuscripts of this creed that we posses date from the late 8th century.