Friday, February 29, 2008

'Grace', a mistranslated word and misunderstood concept

The word charis, often translated 'grace' is quite heavily used in the New Testament. For many Christians and denominations, particular understandings of 'grace' shape their understanding of Christianity. Even though it means different things to different Christians, 'grace' (charis) is commonly heavily used and an important theological and emotional term. It is therefore, in my view, immensely important to accurately understand the meaning of the Greek word charis as it was understood by the original writers and readers of the New Testament. A multitude of sins, eisegesis, and bad theology, can be built on a misunderstanding of this word.

Amongst Classics scholars there is no debate as to what this word means. Surviving documents from the ancient world contain hundreds of passages that give us great clarity about their understanding of charis and the role this word and its concepts played in their society. Charis was the key-word in what scholars call "the reciprocity system". This system operated according to time-delay exchanges where goods were given and then at a later time goods of relatively equal value were returned to the giver. These goods could be tangible (money, material goods) or intangible (public acclaim, authority). An obligation existed to repay favors owed, they were not 'free' in the sense we would understand it - it is just like when a bank gives you a loan the money is not 'free'. (It is due to this reciprocal nature of the transactions that scholars label it the Reciprocity System.) Essentially the system was an informal system of economics. The word charis itself is best translated with the English "favor" in the sense of talking about favors given and favors repaid. Greek makes no linguistic distinction between the first favor given and the second favor to repay it, calling each a charis. Greek also uses charis to refer to a positive attitude toward someone - we would speak in English of this as "regarding them favorably" or "having their favor".

Of course, a century or more ago, such information simply wasn't available. People interpreting charis in the Bible had to use what information they had and try to make some sense of it. Reformation Christianity is famous for seeing charis as being "free grace" and being the opposite of human effort. These concepts have heavily influenced many Christians' understandings of 'grace' today, but have nothing to do with the actual meaning of charis in Greek. The translation 'grace' is not a good one, it is not 'free', and it isn't the opposite of human effort.

These historical misinterpretations of 'grace' have led to correspondingly incorrect interpretations of passages that use charis. Romans 4, for example, contrasts the Reciprocity System to a Contractual system (a rather subtle contrast) which has historically been exegeted as the difference between human effort and reliance on 'grace'. Similarly Ephesians 2:8, due to the ambiguity in Greek about givers and receivers of favors clarifies that God is the giver of the favor and we the receiver, and yet this has historically been exegeted as speaking about lack of human effort.

Unfortunately, nothing endures and propagates quite like bad theology. At certain points in history, theologians have constructed theologies based on certain incorrect understandings of 'grace' and these theologies remain influential today and taught as biblical even when scholarship regarding the meaning of these words has long moved on. Mistaken ideas about charis continue to influence many Christians who are convinced that 'grace' means salvation is in no way by human effort.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

A proper Bible translation

Dave Warnock introduced me to very recent NT translation by a scholar of Classics who is an expert in ancient Greek Lexigraphy. A Lexigrapher is a person who studies of the meanings of words and writes dictionaries. In my opinion, that is exactly the sort of person who should be writing Bible translations! The translation is (somewhat strangely) titled The Source by Ann Nyland. There is an interesting interview with her here from which I will quote the most interesting parts:
In the late 1880s and again in the mid 1970s, large amounts of papyri and inscriptions were discovered. These impacted our knowledge of word meaning in the New Testament dramatically. Why? Well, the papyri and inscriptions were written at the time of the New Testament. They were non-literary sources, that is, they touched upon all aspects of life - everyday private letters from ordinary people, contracts of marriage and divorce, tax papers, official decrees, birth and death notices, tombstones, and business documents.

Why is this important? Prior to these discoveries, people who made up New Testament dictionaries didn’t have a clue what many of the words meant, as I said. But now, these rare words appeared commonly in different contexts, and everyday contexts too. We would use formal language in a letter to a politician, but we use everyday language in letters to friends. It is this everyday language that appears in the New Testament, and up popped hundreds of examples of these words. Large numbers of previously uncommon words found in the New Testament now appeared commonly in everyday documents as well as on inscriptions. Many mysteries of word meaning were thus solved.

15 volumes of new papyri were published in 1976. This meant that the meanings of a large number of words previously unattested were discovered. In the last 20 yrs, 4,000 inscriptions have been found at Ephesus alone. These discoveries have been largely overlooked by Bible translators. The problem is that laypersons and a significant number of Bible translators alike are unaware of all this as it is tucked away in technical journals. Available Bible dictionaries do not have this scholarship to any useful degree. BDAG has a little of it, but not much at all. In other words, Bible translators rely on dictionaries. The dictionaries are wrong, for many words.

Nearly every recent New Testament dictionary is based on this outdated work while older ones are based on work prior even to that of Moulton and Milligan.

the resources for translation have not been available to the Bible translator. Translators need decent dictionaries, and the current New Testament lexicon project (going on in my town, although work has stalled) won’t be in print for many, many years. As a lexicographer, I had to do my own dictionary work.

every New Testament translation of today, apart from The Source, follows the traditional translations of the earlier versions, which were published centuries before the evidence from the papyri and inscriptions revealed to us the actual meanings of numerous New Testament words!

The disregard of this evidence for word meaning has had a terrible impact on Bible translation. Many words suffer, but technical terms and idioms suffer particularly. For example, the term mistranslated “husband of one wife” is actually “faithful to their partner” and has been found on the tombstones of women. It is also clear that many modern translators have followed the KJV, whether directly or through the lexicons (dictionaries).

The translations of most New Testament versions are based on a lack of understanding of Greek word meaning. Available translations do not sufficiently regard the abundant evidence from the papyri and inscriptions and thus in many cases present a far from accurate translation of the New Testament ... because the tools are not available to the translator – the tools being published lexicons

In many cases, the trouble is that religion based on mistranslation has laid down certain things in the Christian community on the whole and tradition is a very powerful thing.

The Source is different because: The meanings of many words in other available Bibles are, quite bluntly, wrong. These meanings were discovered only recently but have been published only in technical academic journals related to the classics discipline in secular universities. The lexicon to replace Moulton and Milligan will not be published in fascicles [=multiple pieces over time], and is years away from publication. The Source is the only translation to date to take account of these word meanings. My field of research is lexicography.

“Believe in (someone)” is an appalling mistranslation and I would happily mark a student wrong for such a translation.
That's an interesting explanation which explains why I'm so often upset at the poorness of Bible lexicons and translations which seem to ignore evidence. I intend to buy a copy of her translation - which comes in a normal form or as a study bible with extensive notes on Greek word meanings. Apparently her study bible has been vetoed by some Christian groups because she performs the 'unbiblical' acts of explaining why Greek words traditionally translated "homosexual" in our bibles do not in fact mean that and why gender neutral terms are the correct English rendering of Greek words.

Of course, even with the best lexigraphy there's still plenty of translation decisions that have to be made that can be right, wrong or just matters of taste. So I'm not under any illusions that this translation will be 100% right for me, but it should at least be a breath of fresh air.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Homosexuals shall not inherit the kingdom of God?

1 Corinthians 6:9-10 gives a list of those who shall not inherit the kingdom of God. There are two different Greek words in this sentence sometimes translated "homosexual", but there are translation difficulties with both these words.

Various ancient Greek writers discuss homosexual behavior quite a bit, and so we have a good knowledge of what the culture of the time thought about homosexuality and what words they used to describe it. The words Paul uses are not the normal words used to speak of homosexuality.

The first of Paul's two difficult words is "malakos" which literally means "soft" and is a fairly common Greek word that depending on context can mean virtually anything: (1) "soft" grassy meadows, (2) "gentle" or "mild", (3) "cowardly", "lacking self-control", (4) low pitched music, (5) poor logic or reasoning (6) "weak", "sickly". The context of Paul's list is moral vices and so meanings from definition 3 above are appropriate ones and thus "lack of self control" seems best. Some people appear to have decided that the word can mean 'soft' in a sexual sense and thus mean 'effeminate' or 'passive homosexual partner', which I suppose is possible. There seems no reason to think the context here merits such a translation though.

The second of Paul's difficult words is "arsenokoites" (literally "man-bed") which has the opposite problem - this word does not occur enough times in surviving documents for us to tell clearly what it means. The evidence provided by these occurrences is confusing. It appears in some listings of economic sins. Elsewhere it is said to be something mainly done by men with men but which can even be done to a woman. A meaning that explains a lot of the evidence (but not all) is "anal rape" or "having sex with someone in order to prove dominance over them" (bear in mind that in the ancient world this was a somewhat common practice for heterosexuals to engage in). In short, Greek usage provides no reason at all to think that the word means "homosexual". No study I have ever seen has concluded that the word meant "homosexual" in Greek.

However Christians who have studied Greek are rather infamous for never reading or paying attention to any Greek documents outside of the Bible. So often their policy is: Using the Bible alone, what does this word mean? I would like to stress that such methodology, in general, is incredibly bad. The bible was written in Koine ('common') Greek and it uses normal words from the common Greek of the time. It was NOT written in some heavenly language that came into being for the sake of writing the bible and then immediately disappeared (as a few scholars once wildly speculated!). Its original readers when reading it would have understood the meanings of the words it uses because they already knew what the words meant from their knowledge of Greek, just as we who read it in English understand it because we already know how to speak English.

At any rate, people have searched the bible from top to bottom to see what arsenokoites (man + bed) means in the 'bible' language and discovered a passage that uses 'man' and 'bed' in the same sentence in the bowels of Leviticus. Therefore it must be a reference to that, right? (Because, of course, Paul would invent a word his Corinthian readers didn't know and expect them to search the bible from top to bottom to find the sentence that most closely matched it... not!) The sentence in Leviticus is generally believed to be condemning homosexuality and therefore "arsenokoites" in Paul's writings is translated "homosexuality".

In short, I see no reason to think either malakos or arsenokoites in 1 Cor 6:9 have anything to do with homosexuality whatsoever. Such translations are simply a result of poor scholarship.

PS. It has been brought to my attention that a lot of the evidence regarding ancient usage of 'arsenokoites' was only discovered in the last 30 years, and that therefore the scholars who in the past concluded it meant homosexuality based on the above-critiqued argument were engaging in reasonable speculation based on the lack-of-evidence they had at the time.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Justin Martyr, Defender of Christianity

Justin Martyr (b. 100AD, d. 165AD) was born in Palestine, and was a philosopher who converted to Christianity. In the second century a number of Christian writers wrote public defenses of Christianity to try to stop persecution, and Justin's works are the longest and most comprehensive of these to survive. According to church legend he was martyred in Rome. Justin's works are generally very clear and easy to read. They set out Christianity simply and clearly for a non-Christian audience. If anyone is interested in studying early Christian writings, I suggest they start with Justin's First Apology and Second Apology.

Justin presents Christianity as consisting primarily of four main doctrines:
1. Monotheism
2. Jesus, the Teacher of virtue, the Word of God
3. Free Will
4. Eternal final judgment by works

Here are some quotes from Justin's Apologies:
And we have been taught, and are convinced, and do believe, that He accepts those only who imitate the excellences which reside in Him, temperance, and justice, and philanthropy, and as many virtues as are peculiar to a God who is called by no proper name. And we have been taught that He in the beginning did of His goodness, for man's sake, create all things out of unformed matter; and if men by their works show themselves worthy of this His design, they are deemed worthy, and so we have received—of reigning in company with Him, being delivered from corruption and suffering. For as in the beginning He created us when we were not, so do we consider that, in like manner, those who choose what is pleasing to Him are, on account of their choice, deemed worthy of incorruption and of fellowship with Him. (1 Apol 10)

We hold this view, that it is alike impossible for the wicked, the covetous, the conspirator, and for the virtuous, to escape the notice of God, and that each man goes to everlasting punishment or salvation according to the value of his actions. For if all men knew this, no one would choose wickedness even for a little, knowing that he goes to the everlasting punishment of fire; but would by all means restrain himself, and adorn himself with virtue, that he might obtain the good gifts of God, and escape the punishments. ...That all these things should come to pass, I say, our Teacher foretold, He who is both Son and Apostle of God the Father of all and the Ruler, Jesus Christ (1 Apol 12)

[Those] only are deified who have lived near to God in holiness and virtue; and we believe that those who live wickedly and do not repent are punished in everlasting fire. (1 Apol 21)

We say also that the Word, who is the first-birth of God, was produced without sexual union, and that He, Jesus Christ, our Teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven (1 Apol 22)

For among us the prince of the wicked spirits is called the serpent, and Satan, and the devil, as you can learn by looking into our writings. And that he would be sent into the fire with his host, and the men who follow him, and would be punished for an endless duration, Christ foretold. For the reason why God has delayed to do this, is His regard for the human race. For He foreknows that some are to be saved by repentance, some even that are perhaps not yet born. In the beginning He made the human race with the power of thought and of choosing the truth and doing right, so that all men are without excuse before God; for they have been born rational and contemplative. And if any one disbelieves that God cares for these things, he will thereby either insinuate that God does not exist, or he will assert that though He exists He delights in vice, or exists like a stone, and that neither virtue nor vice are anything, but only in the opinion of men these things are reckoned good or evil. And this is the greatest profanity and wickedness. (1 Apol 28)

We have learned from the prophets, and we hold it to be true, that punishments, and chastisements, and good rewards, are rendered according to the merit of each man's actions. Since if it be not so, but all things happen by fate, neither is anything at all in our own power. For if it be fated that this man, e.g., be good, and this other evil, neither is the former meritorious nor the latter to be blamed. And again, unless the human race have the power of avoiding evil and choosing good by free choice, they are not accountable for their actions, of whatever kind they be... But this we assert is inevitable fate, that they who choose the good have worthy rewards, and they who choose the opposite have their merited awards. For not like other things, as trees and quadrupeds, which cannot act by choice, did God make man: for neither would he be worthy of reward or praise did he not of himself choose the good, but were created for this end; nor, if he were evil, would he be worthy of punishment, not being evil of himself, but being able to be nothing else than what he was made. (1 Apol 43)

So that what we say about future events being foretold, we do not say it as if they came about by a fatal necessity; but God foreknowing all that shall be done by all men, and it being His decree that the future actions of men shall all be recompensed according to their several value, He foretells by the Spirit of prophecy that He will bestow meet rewards according to the merit of the actions done, always urging the human race to effort and recollection, showing that He cares and provides for men. (1 Apol 44)

Those who lived virtuously are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them (1 Apol 46)

He shall raise the bodies of all men who have lived, and shall clothe those of the worthy with immortality, and shall send those of the wicked, endued with eternal sensibility, into everlasting fire with the wicked devils. (1 Apol 52)

The unjust and intemperate shall be punished in eternal fire, but the virtuous and those who lived like Christ shall dwell with God in a state that is free from suffering (2 Apol 1)

The teaching of Christ [says] that there shall be punishment in eternal fire inflicted upon those who do not live temperately and conformably to virtue. (2 Apol 2)

But neither do we affirm that it is by fate that men do what they do, or suffer what they suffer, but that each man by free choice acts rightly or sins;...since God in the beginning made the race of angels and men with free-will, they will justly suffer in eternal fire the punishment of whatever sins they have committed. And this is the nature of all that is made, to be capable of vice and virtue. For neither would any of them be praiseworthy unless there were power to turn to both [virtue and vice]. (2 Apol 7)

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Theology of Lactantius

Lucius Caelius Firmianus Lactantius (b. 240AD, d. 320AD) was born in North Africa and became a renowned teacher of philosophy and taught in many cities around the Roman Empire. He converted to Christianity and subsequently authored the first Latin Christian Systematic Theology, titled Divine Institutions. Of all the pre-Nicene writers he is one of the easiest to read due to his clarity of writing style and comprehensiveness. There are none of the normal problems with concepts left undefined or cryptic indecipherable references - he spells out his views simply, clearly, and at great length.

The theology he presents can be summed up very simply:
  • Monotheism, One Creator God.
  • Jesus, Teacher of Virtue, both Human and Divine,
  • The importance of humans living virtuously
  • Eternal judgment by works
Here are a few one-liners:
The spirit must earn immortality by works of righteousness (D.I. 4.25)
No other religion is true except that which consists of virtue and justice. (D.I. 6.25)
He has given us this present life, that we may either lose that true and eternal life by our vices, or win it by virtue. (D.I. 7.5)
Immortality, then, is not the consequence of nature, but the reward and recompense of virtue. (D.I. 7.5)
Whoever by his virtue has trampled upon the corruptions of the earth, the supreme and truthful arbiter will raise him to life and to perpetual light. (D.I. 7.27)
For those interested, here are some longer extracts:
I will first show for what reason Christ came to the earth, that the foundation and the system of divine religion may be manifest. When the Jews often resisted wholesome precepts, and departed from the divine law, going astray to the impious worship of false gods, then God filled just and chosen men with the Holy Spirit, appointing them as prophets in the midst of the people, by whom He might rebuke with threatening words the sins of the ungrateful people, and nevertheless exhort them to repent of their wickedness; for unless they did this, and, laying aside their vanities, return to their God, it would come to pass that He would change His covenant, that is, bestow the inheritance of eternal life upon foreign nations, and collect to Himself a more faithful people out of those who were aliens by birth. But they, when rebuked by the prophets, not only rejected their words; but being offended because they were upbraided for their sins, they slew the prophets themselves with studied tortures: all which things are sealed up and preserved in the sacred writings. ... On account of these impieties of theirs He cast them off for ever; and so He ceased to send to them prophets. But He commanded His own Son, the first-begotten, the maker of all things, His own counsellor, to descend from heaven, that He might transfer the sacred religion of God to the Gentiles, that is, to those who were ignorant of God, and might teach them righteousness, which the perfidious people had cast aside. And He had long before threatened that He would do this... Therefore (as I had begun to say), when God had determined to send to men a teacher of righteousness, He commanded Him to be born again a second time in the flesh, and to be made in the likeness of man himself, to whom he was about to be a guide, and companion, and teacher. But since God is kind and merciful to His people, He sent Him to those very persons whom He hated, that He might not close the way of salvation against them for ever, but might give them a free opportunity of following God, that they might both gain the reward of life if they should follow Him (which many of them do, and have done), and that they might incur the penalty of death by their fault if they should reject their King. He ordered Him therefore to be born again among them, and of their seed, lest, if He should be born of another nation, they might be able to allege a just excuse from the law for their rejection of Him; and at the same time, that there might be no nation at all under heaven to which the hope of immortality should be denied. (D.I. 4.10-11)

He had to be clothed with flesh on the earth, that having assumed the form of a man and the condition of mortality, He might teach men righteousness; ... [many people now] adore His name, confess His majesty, follow His teaching, and imitate His goodness (D.I. 4.12)

Therefore the Most High God, and Parent of all, when He had purposed to transfer His religion, sent from heaven a teacher of righteousness, that in Him or through Him He might give a new law to new worshippers; not as He had before done, by the instrumentality of man. (D.I. 4.13)

For God, when He saw that wickedness and the worship of false gods had so prevailed throughout the world, that His name had now also been taken away from the memory of men (since even the Jews, who alone had been entrusted with the secret of God, had deserted the living God, and, ensnared by the deceits of demons, had gone astray, and turned aside to the worship of images, and when rebuked by the prophets did not choose to return to God), He sent His Son as an ambassador to men, that He might turn them from their impious and vain worship to the knowledge and worship of the true God; and also that He might turn their minds from foolishness to wisdom, and from wickedness to deeds of righteousness. (D.I. 4.14)

For nothing among earthly things can be venerable and worthy of heaven; but it is virtue alone, and justice alone, which can be judged a true, and heavenly, and perpetual good, because it is neither given to any one, nor taken away. And since Christ came upon earth, supplied with virtue and righteousness, yea rather, since He Himself is virtue, and Himself righteousness, He descended that He might teach it and mould the character of man. (D.I. 4.16)

If any one gives to men precepts for living, and moulds the characters of others, I ask whether he is bound himself to practice the things which he enjoins, or is not bound. If he shall not do so, his precepts are annulled. For if the things which are enjoined are good, if they place the life of men in the best condition, the instructor ought not to separate himself from the number and assemblage of men among whom he acts; and he ought himself to live in the same manner in which he teaches that men ought to live, lest, by living in another way, he himself should disparage his own precepts, and make his instruction of less value, if in reality he should relax the obligations of that which he endeavours to establish by his words. For every one, when he hears another giving precepts, is unwilling that the necessity of obeying should be imposed upon him, as though the right of liberty were taken from him. Therefore he answers his teacher in this manner: I am not able to do the things which you command, for they are impossible. For you forbid me to be angry, you forbid me to covet, you forbid me to be excited by desire, you forbid me to fear pain or death; but this is so contrary to nature, that all animals are subject to these affections. Or if you are so entirely of opinion that it is possible to resist nature, do you yourself practice the things which you enjoin, that I may know that they are possible? But since you yourself do not practice them, what arrogance is it, to wish to impose upon a free man laws which you yourself do not obey! You who teach, first learn; and before you correct the character of others, correct your own. Who could deny the justice of this answer? Nay! a teacher of this kind will fall into contempt, and will in his turn be mocked, because he also will appear to mock others. What, therefore, will that instructor do, if these things shall be objected to him? how will he deprive the self-willed of an excuse, unless he teach them by deeds before their eyes that he teaches things which are possible? Whence it comes to pass, that no one obeys the precepts of the philosophers. For men prefer examples rather than words, because it is easy to speak, but difficult to accomplish. Would to heaven that there were as many who acted well as there are who speak well! But they who give precepts, without carrying them out into action, are distrusted; and if they shall be men, will be despised as inconsistent: if it shall be God, He will be met with the excuse of the frailty of man's nature. It remains that words should be confirmed by deeds, which the philosophers are unable to do. Therefore, since the instructors themselves are overcome by the affections which they say that it is our duty to overcome, they are able to train no one to virtue, which they falsely proclaim; and for this cause they imagine that no perfect wise man has as yet existed, that is, in whom the greatest virtue and perfect justice were in harmony with the greatest learning and knowledge. And this indeed was true. For no one since the creation of the world has been such, except Christ, who both delivered wisdom by His word, and confirmed His teaching by presenting virtue to the eyes of men. (D.I. 4.23)

[Christ needed a mortal, fleshly, body because] if He should come to men as God, not to mention that mortal eyes cannot look upon and endure the glory of His majesty in His own person, assuredly God will not be able to teach virtue; for, inasmuch as He is without a body, He will not practice the things which He will teach, and through this His teaching will not be perfect. Otherwise, if it is the greatest virtue patiently to endure pain for the sake of righteousness and duty, if it is virtue not to fear death itself when threatened, and when inflicted to undergo it with fortitude; it follows that the perfect teacher ought both to teach these things by precept, and to confirm them by practice. For he who gives precepts for the life, ought to remove every method of excuse, that he may impose upon men the necessity of obedience, not by any constraint, but by a sense of shame, and yet may leave them liberty, that a reward may be appointed for those who obey, because it was in their power not to obey if they so wished; and a punishment for those who do not obey, because it was in their power to obey if they so wished. How then can excuse be removed, unless the teacher should practice what he teaches, and as it were go before and hold out his hand to one who is about to follow? But how can one practice what he teaches, unless he is like him whom he teaches? For if he be subject to no passion, a man may thus answer him who is the teacher: It is my wish not to sin, but I am overpowered; for I am clothed with frail and weak flesh: it is this which covets, which is angry, which fears pain and death. And thus I am led on against my will; and I sin, not because it is my wish, but because I am compelled. I myself perceive that I sin; but the necessity imposed by my frailty, which I am unable to resist, impels me. What will that teacher of righteousness say in reply to these things? How will he refute and convict a man who shall allege the frailty of the flesh as an excuse for his faults, unless he himself also shall be clothed with flesh, so that he may show that even the flesh is capable of virtue? For obstinacy cannot be refuted except by example. For the things which you teach cannot have any weight unless you shall be the first to practice them; because the nature of men is inclined to faults, and wishes to sin not only with indulgence, but also with a reasonable plea. It is befitting that a master and teacher of virtue should most closely resemble man, that by overpowering sin he may teach man that sin may be overpowered by him. But if he is immortal, he can by no means propose an example to man. For there will stand forth some one persevering in his opinion, and will say: You indeed do not sin, because you are free from this body; you do not covet, because nothing is needed by an immortal; but I have need of many things for the support of this life. You do not fear death, because it can have no power against you. You despise pain, because you can suffer no violence. But I, a mortal, fear both, because they bring upon me the severest tortures, which the weakness of the flesh cannot endure. A teacher of virtue therefore ought to have taken away this excuse from men, that no one may ascribe it to necessity that he sins, rather than to his own fault. Therefore, that a teacher may be perfect, no objection ought to be brought forward by him who is to be taught, so that if he should happen to say, You enjoin impossibilities; the teacher may answer, See, I myself do them. But I am clothed with flesh, and it is the property of flesh to sin. I too bear the same flesh, and yet sin does not bear rule in me. It is difficult for me to despise riches, because otherwise I am unable to live in this body. See, I too have a body, and yet I contend against every desire. I am not able to bear pain or death for righteousness, because I am frail. See, pain and death have power over me also; and I overcome those very things which you fear, that I may make you victorious over pain and death. I go before you through those things which you allege that it is impossible to endure: if you are not able to follow me giving directions, follow me going before you. In this way all excuse is taken away, and you must confess that man is unjust through his own fault, since he does not follow a teacher of virtue, who is at the same time a guide. You see, therefore, how much more perfect is a teacher who is mortal, because he is able to be a guide to one who is mortal, than one who is immortal, for he is unable to teach patient endurance who is not subject to passions. Nor, however, does this extend so far that I prefer man to God; but to show that man cannot be a perfect teacher unless he is also God, that he may by his heavenly authority impose upon men the necessity of obedience; nor God, unless he is clothed with a mortal body, that by carrying out his precepts to their completion in actions, he may bind others by the necessity of obedience. It plainly therefore appears, that he who is a guide of life and teacher of righteousness must have a body, and that his teaching cannot otherwise be full and perfect, unless it has a root and foundation, and remains firm and fixed among men; and that he himself must undergo weakness of flesh and body, and display in himself the virtue of which he is a teacher, that he may teach it at the same time both by words and deeds. Also, he must be subject to death and all sufferings, since the duties of virtue are occupied with the enduring of suffering, and the undergoing death; all which, as I have said, a perfect teacher ought to endure, that he may teach the possibility of their being endured.(D.I. 4.24)

Let men therefore learn and understand why the Most High God, when He sent His ambassador and messenger to instruct mortals with the precepts of His righteousness, willed that He should be clothed with mortal flesh, and be afflicted with torture, and be sentenced to death. For since there was no righteousness on earth, He sent a teacher, as it were a living law, to found a new name and temple, that by His words and example He might spread throughout the earth a true and holy worship. ... if He had been God only (as we have before said), He would not have been able to afford to man examples of goodness; if He had been man only, He would not have been able to compel men to righteousness, unless there had been added an authority and virtue greater than that of man. (D.I. 4.25)

But with reference to the cross, it has great force and meaning, which I will now endeavour to show. For God (as I have before explained), when He had determined to set man free, sent as His ambassador to the earth a teacher of virtue, who might both by salutary precepts train men to innocence, and by works and deeds before their eyes might open the way of righteousness, by walking in which, and following his teacher, man might attain to eternal life. He therefore assumed a body, and was clothed in a garment of flesh, that He might hold out to man, for whose instruction He had come, examples of virtue and incitements to its practice. But when He had afforded an example of righteousness in all the duties of life, in order that He might teach man also the patient endurance of pain and contempt of death, by which virtue is rendered perfect and complete, He came into the hands of an impious nation, when, by the knowledge of the future which He had, He might have avoided them, and by the same power by which He did wonderful works He might have repelled them. Therefore He endured tortures, and stripes, and thorns. At last He did not refuse even to undergo death, that under His guidance man might triumph over death, subdued and bound in chains with all its terrors. But the reason why the Most High Father chose that kind of death in preference to others, with which He should permit Him to be visited, is this. For some one may perchance say: Why, if He was God, and chose to die, did He not at least suffer by some honourable kind of death? why was it by the cross especially? why by an infamous kind of punishment, which may appear unworthy even of a man if he is free, although guilty? First of all, because He, who had come in humility that He might bring assistance to the humble and men of low degree, and might hold out to all the hope of safety, was to suffer by that kind of punishment by which the humble and low usually suffer, that there might be no one at all who might not be able to imitate Him. (D.I. 4.26)

There are two ways, O Emperor Constantine, by which human life must proceed—the one which leads to heaven, the other which sinks to hell; and these ways poets have introduced in their poems, and philosophers in their disputations. And indeed philosophers have represented the one as belonging to virtues, the other to vices ...the two ways belong to heaven and hell, because immortality is promised to the righteous, and everlasting punishment is threatened to the unrighteous. ... he who follows truth and righteousness, having received the reward of immortality, will enjoy perpetual light; but he who, enticed by that evil guide, shall prefer vices to virtues, falsehood to truth, must be borne to the setting of the sun, and to darkness. (D.I. 6.3)

The first step of virtue is to abstain from evil works; the second, to abstain also from evil words; the third, to abstain even from the thoughts of evil things. He who ascends the first step is sufficiently just; he who ascends the second is now of perfect virtue, since he offends neither in deeds nor in conversation; he who ascends the third appears truly to have attained the likeness of God. (D.I. 6.13)

Friday, February 22, 2008

Atonement doctrine in the pre-Nicene Fathers

By far the strongest view of Jesus' saving work within the early Fathers is one that sees his primary work as being that of a teacher, who imparts to humanity information about how to live in a way that God considers righteous. His teachings and example are considered to be able to lead humans to live righteous lives in correct worship of God and correct behavior. The church movement is seen as continuing and disseminating these teachings, and thus the founding of the church is considered an important part of Jesus' actions.

This concept of Jesus as a teacher of righteousness is universally a primary soteriological concept in the pre-Nicene Fathers. In the large majority of them, it is the only one. Protestant scholars have historically had a tendency to label the Christianity of this period, somewhat derogatorily, as "Moralism" due to the emphasis placed on moral effort in salvation. (Judgment by Works + Free Will + Christ as Teacher = "Moralism") This "Moralism" is the theology of the Apostolic Fathers and the Apologists which constitutes the orthodoxy of the second century AD (see here).

Some of the later pre-Nicene Fathers developed other ideas of Jesus' saving work in addition to holding the one described above. As I outlined in my previous post Greek philosophical concepts about union with and contemplation of the divine began to influence Christian thought. In the last quarter of the second century the thinking of Irenaeus of Lyons and Clement of Alexandria was heavily shaped by these ideas. In their writings the notion of Christ as a teacher and example of moral righteousness remains of first importance, but alongside it and of equal importance is the attainment of the human soul's unity with God through mingling with the divine. This conception occurs to a much lesser extent in a many of the subsequent pre-Nicene writers (eg Origen, Hippolytus, and Methodius) but climaxes again at the close of the pre-Nicene period in the writings of Athanasius and was extremely influential thereafter and the main driving force in the Christological councils of the fourth to sixth centuries.

Another view of Jesus' work that makes its first appearance in this period is the concept of "Ransom from Satan" / "Christus Victor" which appears in the work of Origen in the early third century AD. This idea sees sinners as falling under the power and influence of Satan and needing to be freed from Satan through payment or force. Origen in his biblical commentaries often depicts a major part of Jesus' work as being a payment to Satan to free us from his grasp (although the concept of Jesus as a teacher of moral virtue receives more emphasis). This view of rescue from Satan does not seem to have caught on during the pre-Nicene period, but its popularity seems to have blossomed during the fourth century - being popularized by Gregory of Nyssa and by a resurgence of interest in the writings of Origen.

At the close of the pre-Nicene period in the early years of the fourth century AD, two contrasting Christian writers best depict the difference between the past and the future. Lactantius wrote a systematic theology of Christianity in which the "Moralism" typical of the pre-Nicene period is in fullest flower, and which represents the close of an era in the sense that it is really the last major work in which the concept of Christ-as-Teacher stands alone. Meanwhile Athanasius was authoring a work in which took further than ever before the concept of a union with God through the God-man Jesus, and which also suggested the idea that Jesus suffered punishment from God on our behalf... both ideas were signs of things to come.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Vision and Contemplation of God

According to ancient Greek philosophy, the highest good, the greatest state of true happiness, was when the innermost part of the human soul contemplated and was illuminated by the divine. The ultimate goal of human existence was for the soul/spirit to conform itself to the divine archetype by having a constant vision of the divine before it, and through its focused gaze on the nature of the divine the soul would gain immortality and the divine likeness. This concept of a mystic, direct and intimate union of the soul with God through contemplation or ecstasy was hugely influential within Greek philosophy and was expounded by Plato, Aristotle, Middle-Platonism and Neo-Platonism. As a result it exercised a profound influence on Greek-Christian thought, especially on Christians who had philosophical training.

In the second century AD, Christian Apologists when speaking of how Christ taught Monotheism and God's moral laws, draw on the language of philosophy to speak of how Christ was the "logos" (a word from Greek philosophy that described the mediator of divine illumination) who has brought this "knowledge of God". Toward the end of the second century this gets taken to an extreme by Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria who draw fully on the Greek philosophical conception of union with God. For Clement the highest possible good is "divine contemplation and illumination", and Christ's illuminating teachings are the instruction through which an initiate can attain to the true vision of the divine nature and live a contemplative life. Clement sees a great difference between the average Christian who merely does what God wants and the super-Christian who fully apprehends the reality of the divine through contemplation. For Irenaeus "union and communion between God and man" is the highest goal and the divine incarnation in the person of Jesus that opened the way to unite the human soul with the divine. These ideas also play a prominant role in the fourth to sixth centuries AD, heavily influencing theologians such as Athanasius, Augustine, the Cappadocians, Maximus etc.

In Christian theology there are essentially three variant forms of this idea which are significantly different to each other and worth dealing with separately:

1. Jesus is conceived of a teacher and revealer of truth about God. He teaches monotheism, God's commandments, morality etc. By following the teachings and example of Jesus a person can live a morally virtuous life. God will reward such people with immortality. Language from Greek philosophy is used to describe these concepts.

2. The mystic vision of the divine light, and conformity of the soul to the likeness of the divine is the highest goal and state of the soul. To set ones gaze upon the divine results in moral behavior and godliness being manifested in one's life, and brings immortality to the soul by virtue of its direct mystical participation within the immortal divine nature. Jesus taught information about God and mystical truths about the divine nature. Through the incarnation, the nature of God is revealed and by contemplation of the person of Jesus as the incarnate God we can contemplate the divine nature.

3. Human souls due to their separation from the divine essence and light have lost their similitude to the divine and become subject to corruption. Human souls will eventually pass into non-existence due to this ever-increasing decay unless reunited with the divine. In the incarnation God mystically joined the divine essence and the created order, making them one in the God-human Jesus. By that act all humanity was reconnected to the divine and the decay into non-existence of the human soul averted.

Those three ways of thinking in order represent an increasing influence of Greek philosophical concepts on Christianity. In the first, philosophical terms are used to describe Christian doctrine without any of the philosophical concepts being present. In the second, many concepts from Greek philosophy are taken for granted and Christianity is seen as the best means to attaining the goal of the philosopher. In the third, concepts from Greek philosophy map out the 'problem' that faces humanity and are used to dictate the understanding of its solution in Christ. All three concepts are present strongly in Athanasius' influential work On the Incarnation of the Word (~318AD) and continued to play a strong role through the centuries. (eg In the fourteenth century it was suggested that the use of meditation, repetition and breathing by monks to attain an inner vision and experience of the ineffable uncreated divine light in the union of their consciousness with the divine energies was a waste of time, but church councils ruled on it as a worthwhile activity.)

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Inhospitality of Sodom

In the ancient world an action valued extremely highly was what we might call "hospitality".

The intertestamental work "Testament of Abraham" depicts hospitality as being Abraham's primary virtue which makes him great in the eyes of God. In Judges 19-20 there is a story of an Israelite who instead of hospitality receives attempted rape and murder at the hands of fellow Israelites which leads to a major battle. The importance placed on hospitality in the ancient world is well-document by scholars studying its social environment. Hospitality and inhospitality were actions seen to be of major importance, to an extent that Christians often do not understand today.

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah contrasts the great hospitality of Abraham and Lot with the inhospitality of the men of Sodom: Abraham and then Lot welcome the strangers that come to them, whereas the men of Sodom attempt to rape them. The story cites God's reason for destroying Sodom as being that they are "exceedingly sinful" and subsequent Jewish tradition and interpretation attributed a huge variety of sins to them (economic crimes, general nastiness, pride, violence). But one sin that Jewish and early Christian interpretation saw as being primary was the sin of inhospitality depicted so clearly in the story. In the Gospels on two different occasions Jesus and his apostles speak of the primary sin of Sodom and Gomorrah as being inhospitality:
If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town. (Mat 5:14-15 / Luke 10:11-12)

On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, "Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" (Luke 9:52-54)
The Christian writer of 1 Clement, ~100AD, picks up on the theme of hospitality:
"On account of his faith and hospitality, a son was given to Abraham in his old age... On account of his hospitality and godliness, Lot was saved out of Sodom" (1 Clement, ch 10-11)
Yet, somehow, for Christians today "Sodom and Gomorrah" seem to have become synonymous with homosexuality. There seems to be a widely assumed view that the reason God destroyed these cities was because they were full of homosexuals. I have no idea as to how or why this viewpoint arose - it is not justified by the text of the story, and has no support in ancient Jewish and Christian interpretation of the story. Yet we have the word "sodomy" (originating it seems, sometime in the middle or dark ages) that focuses on the homosexuality of the men of Sodom (I suspect the 'logic' of this link may also have originated in the dark ages!)

There is actually no particular reason to think the men of Sodom were homosexuals as we would define them. The story in Judges 19-20 is similar in that men of the city attempt to rape a male visitor, yet when that visitor gives them his woman instead they rape and kill her and leave him alone. These men are apparently not wanting sex with men so much as being aggressive, and scholars tend to analyze their behavior through the idea of that they were seeking to prove their dominance over the visitor (dominance being quite an important concept in the ancient world). By overpowering him and treating him as a woman they would dishonor him, but they also achieve the same by taking his woman for themselves. In the Sodom story a similar thing occurs, when they demand to rape the visitors Lot offers to them his daughters instead. Lot's offer would be silly if Lot knew these men to be homosexual - why not offer a male relative instead? Clearly as in the Judges case there is an understanding that it is not that these people are attracted to men but are rather acting aggressively for other reasons. In the case of Sodom the counter-offer is refused (the women being offered do not belong to the strangers and therefore raping them would dishonor Lot not the visitors. Lot's offer is an example of his hospitality - he is willing to suffer dishonor himself rather than see his visitors dishonored). The actions of the people of Sodom are consistent with seeking dominance over the strangers (aka "overwhelming pride" - Josephus Ant 1:194) not with being homosexual.

The widespread modern view that Sodom was destroyed because of its homosexuality seems to me entirely unfounded. The evidence does not indicate the people of Sodom were homosexual. Their major crime in the story is depicted as inhospitality and this is how the story was understood by early Jewish and Christian interpreters including Jesus.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Jesus died in order to ...make the church

Mike Bird has a recent post in which he suggests that a primary goal of Jesus' death was the creation of the Church as a movement.

I believe that thesis to be fundamentally correct.

Mike in his post mentions only a couple of reasons for his holding this view (and they're not very good ones IMO). However there are numerous reasons for holding this view. I recommend Paul on the Cross: Reconstructing the Apostle's Story of Redemption by David A. Brondos, 2006, for a really good analysis of Paul's soteriology which argues that Paul's view was primarily that Christ's life and death were focused on creating the Church movement.

In such a view, the church is a movement founded by Christ which has the role of spreading his teachings to transform people's lives and the world. That role is seen as so important that one of Christ's purposes, perhaps his only purpose, was to create the church movement. In such a reading, Christ's death is no longer a supernatural event which atones for the sins of the world, but rather a historical event in which Jesus dies as a martyr for the sake of the movement he is trying to found - a movement that he hopes will change the world. History shows that the church movement has affected the lives of billions of people.

The view that Christ gave his life and was resurrected for the purpose of founding the church is attested in post-biblical literature as early as the writings of Ignatius (~110AD), and Jesus is depicted as a martyr in the Martyrdom of Polycarp (~150AD). Such a view, as Brondos demonstrates in the book referenced above, has a great deal of explanatory power when it comes to the writings of Paul. Paul says things like "in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church." (Col 1:24)

Also important in my view is that such a view ties the story and theology of the gospels to the story and theology of the NT epistles. If someone heard the gospel accounts they would never guess that Jesus had died a Penal Substitutionary death for the sins of the world unless someone explicitly explained this to them - which makes me wonder where the NT church could have got the idea of Penal Substitution from if they believed it (which I don't think they did). But a person reading the gospels would say that Jesus had died for his cause to found his movement - scholars who focus on the gospels seem to be in widespread agreement that the gospels depict Jesus death as a martyrdom. Recent research has also demonstrated that the "Christ died for us" phrases that Paul loves using have their background in the milieu of Greek martyrdoms - Christ's martyrdom was done in order to found the church and through it help us. This view thus ties Paul's theology into the gospels - they have the same message: Jesus teaches, dies and is resurrected with the purpose of founding the church movement which now has a mission to go out and change the world doing "greater works" than Jesus (John 14:12).

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Pre-Nicene Salvation By Effort

A key component of pre-Nicene Christian theology was a strong emphasis on human effort required to live virtuous lives and be saved. Christianity worldwide in the second and third centuries was a religion that put the strongest possible emphasis on the freedom of the will and the need to make an effort to live righteous lives in order to pass God's final eternal judgment that would be according to works. I find it fascinating how Christianity has changed over the centuries and how many modern Christians are precisely against the very doctrines that were originally considered the foundations stones of Christianity.

The following two ancient quotes capture the typical view nicely:
"Man was not created perfect, but created suitable for acquiring virtue... For God desires us to be saved by our own efforts." -Clement of Alexandria, ~200AD, Stromata 6.12.96

"I do not know if these commandments can be kept by man, because they are exceeding hard." [The Angel became extremely angry] and said to me, "If you lay it down as certain that they can be kept, then you will easily keep them, and they will not be hard. But if you come to imagine that they cannot be kept by man, then you will not keep them. Now I say to you, If you do not keep them, but neglect them, you will not be saved, nor your children, nor your house, since you have already determined for yourself that these commandments cannot be kept by man." -Shepherd of Hermas, ~150AD, Commandment 12.3-4

Friday, February 08, 2008

Morality without God

Some Christians I speak to are convinced that morality cannot exist without God. Or, alternatively are convinced that the existence of morality proves the existence of God. They think that the alternative to belief in God is moral nihilism. I get the impression that they think a country full of atheists would instantly disintegrate into anarchy as everyone would go out and murder, riot, steal and so forth... So here's a few little exercises to show why all of the above ideas are completely misguided.

Imagine you are a person who does not believe in God. If you were such a person, would you think that murder is an act that harms people? Of course you would. Would you be happy about the idea of someone murdering you or one of your family or a friend? Of course not. Since you care about yourself and various other people in your life, you have a desire that no harm comes to them because you value their well-being.

So you'd want to prevent people killing them. Indeed, you'd want to stop people from causing any sort of serious harm to those you care about. If you were such a person, would you prefer to live in a society that permitted murder and where hundreds of people were murdered every day, or one where murder was illegal and a relatively rare thing? Obviously, you'd prefer to live in a society where murder was rare because you don't want those you care for to be harmed.

In other words you would view murder as a bad thing because it causes harm to those whose well-being you value, and you would want your society to prohibit and condemn murder by making it illegal and discourage it. The same applies for any other behavior you would consider harmful to those you value. Conversely any behaviors you deem beneficial to those you value, you would want your society to encourage and applaud.

Each atheist in society would be like you - being against behaviors that cause harm to people and being supportive of behaviors that are beneficial to people, because they in turn have those whose well-being they care about. All these people would want to see their society use its laws and customs to discourage, condemn and prohibit conduct that harms others and to encourage, praise and allow conduct that helps others. This atheist society would label many things "right" and allow them and label many other things "wrong" and disallow them. They would have a system of morality and do so without believing in God.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Jesus and the apostles on homosexuality

I was asked: do you really believe that Jesus and the apostles considered homosexual activity to be acceptable?

The gospels do not depict Jesus making any explicit statements on this topic. Nor is there much reason to think that his part of the world was familiar with concepts of sexual orientation or committed homosexual relationships as we would know them today. So to answer this question we have to speculate about Jesus’ reaction might have been to concepts he didn’t know about… so let the rampant speculation begin…

Jews in general at the time were against homosexual practices as they knew and understood them. Therefore we might think that Jesus, being a Jew, would have also held such a view. Alternatively we could consider that Jesus' ministry was focused on supporting, helping, and endorsing the oppressed minorities that the Jewish culture of his time was against. That in turn might lend us to speculate that Jesus would have opposed the Jewish view on this issue and supported homosexuals. I think however that if we apply the principles Jesus' stood for to the modern issues of homosexuality there is only one answer: By the principles Jesus taught, stood for and depicted in his ministry, the challenges he mounted against traditional Jewish moral and social viewpoints, lead me to believe that were he to speak on today’s issues he would uphold the rights of homosexuals. (Liberation theology has, I think, in general correctly grounded itself in Jesus' biblical ministry.)

Would the apostles have considered homosexuality acceptable? Well that is a very interesting question. The apostles struggled for years with understanding the implications of Jesus' ministry and values when applied to circumstances Jesus hadn't explicitly dealt with - most notably its application to the question of circumcision of Gentiles. I see us today as being like the apostles and having to struggle with the question of how Jesus' teachings play out in a new area that was not addressed by him. It took them years and more than one argument to reach a consensus (if indeed they ever did?) about circumcision of Gentiles, so we're in good company. I can only speculate that most/all of the apostles were, by default, against homosexuality because the Jews were (and time and again the Jewish apostles show they default to Jewish values unless some situation causes them to think deeply about how the teachings and values of Jesus might change these). Like them, we are being faced with an issue today in a way that has caused us to reflect deeply on it to a degree never done before when we took our assumed tradition for granted.

Paul is the only apostle to mention homosexuality in his writings and only does so once IMO (ie 1 Cor 6:9, I believe for exegetical reasons that Romans 1:26-27 is part of a speech by Paul's opponents). Paul is somewhat infamous in scholarship for the tensions that lie within his own ethical framework. He argues that Christians are bound by the spirit of the law not its letter, and that the entire law is summarized in the love of ones neighbour as themselves. This suggests a virtue-ethic moral framework where a good action is defined as one characterized by benevolence. (Which IMO as a moral philosopher is a really powerful and logical framework, and I myself would endorse it) Yet at other times, Paul defaults back to a Jewish rule-based ethic that is founded on a list of "do"s and "don't"s based on the Jewish Law. For example Paul gets upset when his Corinthian converts with whom he lived for years had so imbibed his spirit-of-the-law ethic and "freedom from the law" claims that their actions which logically flowed from these shocked his Jewish sensibilities. Many scholars have commented on the uneasy tension that thus exists within Paul's own ethics as his framework of "freedom" and "spirit-of-the-law based on love" battle the list of "do"s and "don't"s that have been ingrained into him from his life as a Jew. His love-framework leads him to make great statements of equality in line with Jesus' teachings, like "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." Yet the ramifications of this truly revolutionary egalitarian statement are not carried out fully in Paul's program. His biases creep back in - eg he doesn't allow woman to talk in churches, they should have long hair etc where he capitulates to cultural views rather than allow his ethical theory full reign. The fact that he buys into societies gender-roles battles with the egalitarianism that he'd learned from Christ. One major ethical conflict that shaped Paul’s life and ministry was the fact that as a Jew he had bought into Jewish racial/cultural roles of "Jew vs Greek" and this battled with the egalitarian principle that he saw in Christ's teachings. Paul's egalitarian won out on the race/culture issue and he made that his life focus, but it seems that he never fully let Jesus' egalitarian teachings flower with regard to the gender roles, or slavery issues.

Gender roles were of huge importance in the society of their day - a hundred or a thousand times more so than anything we in the West today can perhaps understand. Rejection of homosexuality in their culture was founded on an emphasis on gender roles. For example, Philo (a first century Jew) argues that homosexual acts lead one partner to act like a woman which is so bad that it deserves the death penalty (because in his eyes manliness is the ultimate virtue), and that the other partner is equally deserving of death for causing the other man to act like a woman. The speech Paul quotes in Romans 1 also ties homosexuality to gender roles. Modern societies with firm gender roles (eg Arab ones) are also firm in rejecting homosexual acts on the grounds that it causes a man to act like a woman. However in our Western society which has let biblical egalitarianism shape our view of gender roles, where we truly put into practice Paul's statement of "there is no longer male and female" we find that homosexuality seems to most people to be acceptable. For if no distinction is to be made between men and women in the social roles they are permitted to take, then it follows there should be no social rules about when genders take part in sexual acts.

Hence, I would argue that though Paul rejected homosexual activity it was due to him failing to fully work through on the subject of gender roles the egalitarian teachings of Christ that he preached. The moral advances he achieved and advocated in the area of Jew-Gentile relations were never accompanied by a corresponding thorough-going challenge to his society's view of gender-roles or slavery, and this is depicted by many of his writings. In today's society we have put into practice the principles that he preached on the subject of gender roles and slavery, and have come to see that it thus supersedes what he said about woman having long hair, covering their heads, not speaking in Church, and having slaves obey their masters. Time and again on these issues we have determined that the clear ethical spirit of the New Testament needs to be worked out fully in practice in a way that the New Testament Christians themselves were not able to do, and that the ethical spirit of the biblical witness needs to trump the letter of the law when the views they express consistent with their culture are not justified in light of the underlying principles of Christian ethics they are espousing. The next logical step in our egalitarian abolition of gender roles is an acceptance of homosexuality.

I see there as being two basic biblical ethical principles advocated in the New Testament: (1) A love ethic, (2) Egalitarianism. (The second one is really a subset of the first, and so the first is essentially the overarching biblical principle) The love ethic expounded first by Jesus and subsequently by his apostles is that an action has a morally good intent if and only if it is done out of love, and morally good consequences if and only if it is beneficial to those who are affected by it. In other words, morality is solely about benevolence, and the good or harm that our actions bring to others. This principle is used ruthlessly by Jesus and the apostles against Jewish rituals and practices that the Jews saw as commanded by God. Early Christianity was insistent that such rituals had no moral value because they were not motivated by benevolence/love toward others. Today’s Western society due to its historically Christian origins has learned well the lesson of this love ethic and as a result it pervades public thinking and laws in a way that it has ironically actually failed to pervade the thinking of conservative Christians (who usually endorse a divine-command ethic). Since the general view is that homosexuality is neither malevolent nor brings harm to others, it is generally deemed a morally permissible act under a love ethic. Furthermore those who are anti-homosexual and/or want to forbid homosexuals expressing and living the love they feel for others are acting in a way that is contrary to such an ethic (hence why I would deem such opposition unchristian).

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Anglicans, schisms and homosexuality

I was having a read of this article about the latest Anglican shall-we-split-over-homosexuality antics, by NT Wright. I was a little surprised to see him misquote Acts 27:30-31 in the first line (he says "soldiers" when it should be "sailors"). But the article makes for sad reading in general. It seems the schismatics are at it again: In the Anglican church there seems to be a core group who would like nothing better to split their church. It seems to me (as an outside observer) that several of them are out for their own gain and have been quite pleased with the power and influence that stirring up conflict has already brought them, and they can see even more power on the horizon if they manage to split off a faction of the Anglican church and gain full control of it.

What some of this group is doing with the power they already have is deeply disturbing too. Peter Akinola, one of the leaders of the faction, in 2006 responded to Muslim violence against Christians in his country by announcing in his capacity as a Christian leader of Nigeria that "May we at this stage remind our Muslim brothers that they do not have the monopoly of violence in this nation." Eighty Muslims were killed by 'Christians' in a subsequent backlash. I can only wonder why he has not been stripped of his rank and excommunicated from the church for this... He clearly knows nothing of biblical teachings of love, and so his attempts to "correct" others on issues of biblical morality are laughable.

What I do not understand in this debate is the schismatic faction's strength of feeling on this issue. The number of times homosexuality is mentioned in the bible can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Another issue that occurs in the bible about as often - remarriage after divorce being adultery - was recently deemed acceptable by a general Anglican council without remotely the same degree of hue and cry. Apparently it is okay for people to live in committed adulterous relationships and for these to be sanctioned by the church, but it is apparently a matter of church-splitting importance if people live in committed homosexual relationships. I see a double-standard there. This group seems upset over the issue of homosexuality to an extent that is neither justified by the biblical texts nor logically consistent with their strength of feeling on other issues.

Honestly, I can only conclude that they are homophobic, lacking rational motivation for the degree of opposition on the issue but rather seriously affected by their emotions about it. Peter Akinola again comes to mind, as he has led a major movement in Nigeria against homosexuality and attempted to criminalize it. Perhaps someone might think that given the African Aids crisis he was acting out of concern for people and trying to prevent the spread of Aids, yet the statistics show that it is actually amorous heterosexual relationships that are the problem. The issue of homosexuality just seems to be one that gets people emotional in a way that other questions of divorce-and-remarriage don't. Even among non-Christians, I've observed people get far more vocal and have much stronger feelings about homosexuality than about many other issues. Something about it causes people to feel strongly (pro or con) in a way that other seemingly similar issues don't, and to be honest I'm not sure why this is.

As with all issues this one is often clouded by emotion. A lot of people make up their minds before studying the issue carefully and looking at the evidence. I find a lot of those Christians I talk to who feel strongly (pro or con) about the issue have only the tiniest acquaintance with what the bible says on the subject, virtually no grasp of relevant moral philosophical concepts, and little to no skill or training in careful exegesis of biblical passages. It is my experience and observation that, generally speaking, the majority of the most vocal and firm Christian advocates against homosexuality come from a demographic consisting of under-informed laymen. By contrast, the anecdotal evidence that has come to my attention shows that of those who have been through seminaries (and are thus, hopefully, somewhat more intelligent, more expert in exegeting the bible, and better at understanding moral philosophy than the average pew-sitter) the majority think homosexuality is okay. In my own city it seems to be the case that a few parishes contain a small group of people influential within the congregation who have decided to take a stand against homosexuality and they have told the remainder of their congregation that homosexuality is unbiblical and the rest of their congregation has unquestioningly accepted what they have been taught.

I'm a theologian-philosopher who has studied the biblical, exegetical, philosophical and theological issues carefully for years and concluded that homosexuality is definitely okay. (In fact I would go so far as to say that attempting to suppress or condemn homosexuality could be reasonably classed as un-Christian.) Yet time after time in discussion with lay Christians who are convinced the Christian and biblical position is to be against homosexuality (because their Pastor told them so, and pointed to a verse in the bible) I find that they simply know nothing of the issues that need to be considered before coming to any sort of conclusion. Time and again, they have simply believed others who sounded plausible and feel strongly about an issue they know virtually nothing about and are totally unqualified to have an opinion on.