cjbanning: (Palm Sunday)
Responding to Scot Miller's response to Robert Gagnon's The Bible and Homosexual Practice, Scott R. Paeth writes:
For someone like Gagnon, [the Bible] seems to center faith precisely in presenting commands and propositions that, even if one is not a fundamentalist, one must accept as normative without qualification. [ . . . F]or me, understanding it not as a set of divinely ordained commands and norms, but as the very human story of how the community of faith comes to understand itself as related to God, in a very fallible and evolving way, is much truer to what one can actually read from the text.
I would locate my own approach as actually somewhere in between these two approaches--ideally a via media, but possibly just muddled thinking. I do consider the Bible to, generally speaking, not only contain all that is necessary for salvation (whatever that means!), but also to be normative to Christian practice and doctrine in a fairly direct way. That said, when I say "the Bible" I am speaking of
  1. a text which, by virtue of being a text, permits a wide range of hermeneutical freedom
  2. not, e.g., the various intended meanings which may have been in the authors' minds as they composed the various works
I don't really doubt that St. Paul disapproved of homosexuality. But at the same time, I don't really care whether St. Paul would have disapproved of homosexuality or not. I'm sure there are many things St. Paul would have thought and I would disagree with today. Luckily, St. Paul's prejudices are not normative to Christian belief and practice; St. Paul's letters, however, are. (This is where I see myself as parting company with Paeth's description: I do not see St. Paul's letters as simply the usefully instructive record of one man's experience of God, but also as being generally binding on the Christian in one way or another.)

Now, of course it's possible we might come across a Biblical command that's just so plain wrong--Ephesians 5:22/Colossians 3:18 jumps to mind--that it can't possibly be plausibly rationalized or contextualized away, and we're left with no choice but to just abandon it with sorrow. And that's okay, I suppose; I do not require the Bible to be totally inerrant. But this must always, I think, be the move of absolutely last resort. (And I'm not totally convinced it's required even in the cases of Eph. 5:22 and Col. 3:18--language is infinitely flexible, after all.) But our default assumption must be, I think, that when Scripture makes a statement about faith or morals, then we must, if at all possible, treat that statement as authoritative in some sense. Our task then is to determine what sense, exploiting language's fundamental fluidity, by placing scripture into its proper dialectic with tradition and reason (and experience).

Luckily, of course, none of the NT references to homosexuality are anywhere as near as unambiguous as Eph. 5:22 and Col. 3:18 seem to be (although, again, even they are not totally without ambiguity to be exploited!).

Now, it's actually far from clear to me that Paeth would actually disagree with anything I've written here. Something like the hermeneutical process I've outlined here may well be what he has in mind when he writes of our need as Christians "to struggle to understand ourselves as related to God, in light of the experiences of those who have come before us, and in conversation with the world we find ourselves in the midst of." I suspect that ultimately my disagreement is not so much with Paeth's position as with how he chose to articulate it in this particular blog post. But I do think that focusing only on Scripture as being the recorded saga of a people's wrestling with the divine--although it certainly is that!--can problematically underplay the importance of its function as a normative authority for Christians, albeit one always in need of a certain amount of hermeneutical play.
cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
Putting aside for the moment the question of whether (and, if so, to what degree) it is condemned by scripture, what exactly is the problem with works-righteousness?

Some accounts I’ve read seem to imply that works-righteousness is implicitly Pelagian—that is, that it allows for righteousness (which can always also be translated as either “justice” or “justness”) to be earned either partially or totally independent of grace. (“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound. . . .”) Now, to be clear, let me be the first one to stand up against the heresy of Pelagius and to acknowledge that it is only by virtue of the freely-given and unearned grace of God that we are capable of achieving salvation, of being put right with God and with God’s Church. But if we more closely examine the elements underlying the faith/works distinction the question of Pelagianism quickly reveals itself to be a nonissue.

I simply do not see any reason why we should be required to understand works-righteousness as either implicitly or explicitly Pelagian (or at least no more so than already inherent in a theological system under which grace is resistable, e.g. Wesleyanism)—unless we are working with some strange definitions of “works” and “faith” such that works are established a priori to be capable of being performed by a human agent independent of God’s grace, and faith as being something over which the person of faith has no control over or participation in. But I cannot for the life of me understand what would lead us to accept such strange and idiosyncratic definitions in the first place, and see several strong reasons, grounded in experience and scripture, as to why we should reject them.

In his letter to the churches of Galatia, St. Paul asks:
Does God give you the Spirit so freely and works miracles among you because practice the Law, or because you believe what was preached to you?
Here the choice seems to be between two actions capable of being performed by a human agent (that is, essentially between two types of “works”), not between an action and an unearned state of being. In his first letter to the church in Thessalonica, St. Paul actually refers to “the work of faith” (unsusprisingly, the NIV opts to translate this as “your work produced by faith”) of the Thessalonians.

Indeed, even under a strictly Calvinist account of sola gratia—in which atonement is limited, election unconditional, and grace irresistible—there doesn’t seem to be any inherent link necessitating sola fide or faith-righteousness. Instead, the two doctrines seem to function completely independently from each other, such that irresistible grace provided to God’s elect would manifest itself (without any cooperating effort on the part of the elected humans) as justifying works rather than (or in addition to) justifying faith.

Of course, I don’t actually agree with the Calvinist that anti-Pelagianism requires grace to be irresistible. But even if we are to stipulate that point, there is still nothing inherently Pelagian about works-righteousness, nor anything inherently anti-Pelagianism about justification by faith.
cjbanning: (Default)
The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so much for nothing?—if it really was for nothing. Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? (Gal. 3:2-5, NRSV)
I want, of course, to respond to Saint Paul’s query with a simple negative, rejecting both horns of the apparent dilemma. It is neither because of my practice of the Mosaic Law (which, of course, I don’t make any claims to keep), nor by my believing any set of truth-claims which may have been preached to the church in Galatia, that God supplies me with the Spirit. Instead, it is a freely-given gift which I have done nothing to earn besides simply being one of God’s children created in the divine image. It is only incumbent upon me to not reject God’s love, as do the fallen angels in the Enochian-Miltonic Satan myth.

I note however, that what both the NRSV and NIV translates as “believing what you heard” the KJV translates as “the hearing of faith,” and this seems to actually be the more literal translation. That which was preached to the churches of Galatia and consequently needs to be received (Greek akoe, hearing) is pistis, faithfulness.

Wikipedia tells me that
many recent studies of the Greek word pistis have concluded that its primary and most common meaning was faithfulness, meaning firm commitment in an interpersonal relationship. As such, the word could be almost synomymous with "obedience" when the people in the relationship held different status levels (e.g. a slave being faithful to [their] master). Far from being equivalent to 'lack of human effort', the word seems to imply and require human effort. The interpretation of Paul's writings that we need to "faithfully" obey God's commands is quite different to one which sees him saying that we need to have "faith" that [God] will do everything for us.
Saint Paul continues:
Just as Abraham "believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness," so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham.

And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, "All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you." For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed. (Gal. 3:6-9, NRSV)
Since Saint Paul quotes the Hebrew scriptures, it makes sense for us to consider the context of the account of Abraham’s “belief” which is being put forth as a model for us so that we may become blessed with Abraham.
The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”

But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.”

But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” [God] brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then [God] said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”

And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. (Gen. 15:1-6, NRSV)
It is clear from this passage what exactly Abram did that earned him blessedness, and it wasn't hold a specific set of beliefs in God. Instead, Abram simply trusted in God to keep those promises made by God--and God reckoned that trust to be a right and just work.
Similarly, God demonstrates the justice of the Gentiles (that is, God "justifies" them) through their faithfulness and their relationship with God (but not their beliefs about God) rather than their keeping of the Mosaic Code. Galatians 3:11 asserts that the justice of no persons is demonstrated before God by the Mosaic Code; Saint Paul quotes Habakkuk which says,
Then the Lord answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith. (2:2-4, NRSV)
The word translated by "faith" in the NRSV is the Hebrew emunah which, like the Greek pistis, means "faithfulness" or "fidelity." NRSV notes also an ambiguity in the way Saint Paul quotes Habakkuh; the Greek translation used by Paul can be translated into English either as "the one who is righteous will live by faith" or as "the one who is righteous through faith will live." While it makes sense that Saint Paul, a learned Jew, would be faithful to the sense found in the original Hebrew source, the added plurality of meaning made possible by the ambiguity is nonetheless interesting.
cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
In my experience, progressive Christians generally have--at best--an ambivalent relationship with St. Paul. Admittedly, often it seems as if the apostle is the source of much which, from the perspective of 21st-century progressive Christiaity, seems to be problematic about soi-disant "traditional" Christianity: oppressive gender roles, prudishness about sexuality, resistance towards secular reason, and so forth.

One way some Christians (including "Jesus followers" and others who might resist the term) have navigated the issue is to try and make a distinction between the religion of Jesus and that of Paul. N.T. Wright summarizes this "old argument," en passant to refuting it, thusly: "Paul was the real founder of Christianity, misrepresenting Jesus and inventing a theology in which a 'Christ' figure, nothing really to do with the Jesus of history, becomes central." Since St. Paul thus represents in this account a corruption of the true Christian message, the Christian is thus free to ignore him to a greater or lesser degree.

There are a number of problems with this train of thought. Firstly, it is historically uninformed insofar as it assumes that the Gospel accounts of Jesus, which postdate the Pauline epistles, provide a more reliable record of the actual ministry and teachings of the historical Jesus, largely because we like the Gospel version better (assuming there is indeed a disparity between the Gospel and Pauline understandings of Christ). Secondly, insofar as we assume (instead of or in addition to the previous assumption) that the true message of the historical Jesus, when liberated from its Pauline filter, would automatically look like 21st-century liberal progressivism (or 1960's/1970's-era hippiedom), we fairly clearly open ourselves to accusations of intellectual dishonesty.

Depending on one's Christology, the notion that the historical Jesus would have thought and acted like a 21st-century progressive isn't exactly incoherent, of course; insofar as 21st-century progressives have gotten their general account of life, the universe, and everything more right than have those who have come before us (and as a 21st-century progressive, there is certainly a sense in which I think it is true), then it would make sense that it more perfectly align with a God's-eye view of the universe. The problem is that this reasoning is that it's bad Christology, bad metaphysics, and simply isn't informed by our secular understanding of history (which requires us to assume that the historical Jesus would have thought and acted like--surprise!--a first-century Jew) and thus has to be accepted on the basis of blind, unmotivated belief (not faith, which is fundamentally experiential rather than cogitational).

Most fundamentally, I think the sort of fetishization of the historical Jesus one often sees in liberal or progressive circles ultimately falls prey to what my friend Ruth Ellen, in her sermon "the cancer sermon (no snazzy title)" places under the category of "angel worship." She's responding to St. Paul's urging in Col. 2:18-19 to
not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.
Ruth Ellen reminds us that
there's a deeper kind of angel worship that arises when we begin worshiping the messenger instead of living the message. When we start worshiping the Bible instead of the living Word that is Christ, when we devote our energy to preserving the edifice of the church instead of living as Christ's Body -- then we are worshiping angels instead of sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the angel worship has become cancerous.

I'm 100% agreed with her that Bibliolatry is cancerous in this type of way. However, I think the "quest for the historical Jesus" also becomes the type of angelogical project that Ruth Ellen talks about, a type of "worshiping the messenger," when it represents (as I think it usually does) an attempt to avoid having to engage in Spirit-driven dialectical conversation with the Risen Christ in the context of our contemporary world and culture, here and now. By trying to determine what we would or would not hear if we were able to travel via TARDIS to the times and places at which Yeshua bar Yosef would have taught, I think we "empty out" Christianity and the empty shell which is left is little more than a cult of personality. The attempt to recover some type of uncorrupted pre-Pauline Gospel message can quickly develop into its own type of fundamentalism when it becomes little more than a search for rules and principles to follow handed down by a millenia-old source.

My bias is to think that properly understood (where "properly understood" of course means "understood the way Cole wants it to be understood") Chalcedonian Christology presents us with the antidotes to both types of fundamentalism. Worship of the Word-Made-Flesh, eternally begotten from God the Mother, both fully human AND fully divine, two natures in one person: this, I think, is about as far removed from a cult of personality as it is possible to get.

Of course, there are those who would argue that my account of "Word made flesh" is implicitly docetist. I'd argue that the fact that "made flesh" is in the title automatically negates any possibility of a fall into the docetist heresy (not that I'm any advocate for orthodoxy for orthodoxy's sake, exactly), but I understand the argument that the "made flesh" is meaningless without an emphasis on the particularity of the incarnated human being within history. I understand it--but I still think it's wrong.

Following a Chalcedonian-Christological Jesus means more than simply following the ethical principles the historical Jesus would have exemplified in his life, then (even if we did have a reliable mechanism for extrapolating those principles apart from the post-Pauline Christian tradition, which we don't). We don't just follow Jesus. We worship Christ. More importantly, we are part of Christ's Body--"Christ has no hands on Earth but ours" (St. Teresa de Avilla)--and it falls to us, the Church, with the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, to build God's Kingdom--a kingdom which is marked primarily by sexual, economic, and political liberation, because Christ IS liberation; that's the essence of the Sacred Heart.

So where does this leave St. Paul?

I've already written about my view of the role of Scripture, both in the essay History and Christ and in my Our Lenten Collage post Going Deep with Scripture. I'll briefly quote from the latter:
[T]he Bible is [. . . ] a gift from God, a tool for understanding God and seeing God and discerning God's will. As Christians, the Bible is part of our inheritance, the lens through which we understand the transcendent. It is a shared language and history which binds us together as sisters and brothers in Christ. It's the core of the basis for our entire religious symbology (with additions made here and there, sure). Its stories inform who we are, both culturally and spiritually. These are the documents which we as a Church look to as foundational.
This understanding of Scripture does not require St. Paul to be a completely reliable witness. Instead, it recognizes that within his writing there exists the potentiality for inspiration.

I adhere to the faitly common tenet of contemporary literary criticism that meaning does not inhere within a text, but rather within the dialectical engagement which exists between a reader and a text. When we engage with St. Paul, we enter into a process which opens us up for inspiration--whether or not we agree with what St. Paul has written.

As a series of Catholic (in the non-Roman sense) councils and synods presided over by the Holy Spirit, their eventual consensus as to which works are the canonical books of the Bible, eventually codified in the Vulgate version of St. Jerome and accepted at large by the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, is binding. And it includes Saint Paul.

Returning to "Going Deep with Scripture," I find that I wrote:
When I read Scripture [. . .] I can know that I am turning to the same book that billions (yes, billions) of Christians have turned to over nearly two thousand years, since befoire Scripture was even Scripture. I'm walking in the footprints of the Saints.

Our challenge today is not fundamentally different than theirs was: to use Scripture constructively, to find within it ethical solutions to the unique challenges which face us in our lives, and not to use it as an instrument of hate or war. (Obviously, at various moments in history the Church has fallen short of this challenge.) This is not a passive processs of God telling us what to do and us doing it, and to treat it that way is (I believe) a cop-out, an abdication of moral responsibility. The paradigm for our encounters with Scripture should be not Sinai, but Penuel.

I don't believe there is a "pure" or interpretation-free reading of the Bible. Our task is to, guided by the Holy Spirit and the evolving teaching of Mother Church, choose those interpretations which are most ethical, loving, and empowering to all human beings, drawing on in our discernment all the resources God has given us.
Now, the actual process of finding these "best readings" is a time-consuming process, and one I haven't really approached in any systematic way when it comes to the epistles. But that's not because I don't think the process is worthwhile.
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"This is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best."
-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

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