Tag Archives: authority

Matthew 20: 17-28 Greatness in the Kingdom

Domine, quo Vadis? by Annibale Carracci, 1062

Matthew 20: 17-28

Parallels Mark 10: 32-45; Luke 18: 31-34, 22: 24-27

17 While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, 18 “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; 19 then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.”

20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. 21 And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” 22 But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” 23 He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”

24 When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. 25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26 It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Central to the organization of the last three chapters of Matthew’s gospel has been a response to ‘greatness’ in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is not a Messiah (king) like the kings of the nations but instead is one who comes to serve instead of serving. The world imagined by the kingdom of heaven is an alternative to the worldview of the nations of the earth, and in this world reoriented has drastic implications for these disciples of Jesus as they consider the shape of their own lives. Even as we stand at the threshold of closing Jesus’ ministry of teaching and prepare to enter the narration of the final week in Jerusalem the disciples and those around them continue to require a conversion of their imaginations (to use Richard B. Hays’ terminology) to embody this new society as an alternative to the ways of the nations.

The section begins with the final foretelling of Jesus’ coming betrayal, condemnation, humiliation, and crucifixion. Two previous times[1] (three if you count the words spoken to Peter, James, and John after the Transfiguration) Jesus has foretold the events that will occur in Jerusalem and been met with resistance, distress and now misunderstanding. As people who are able to read and hear this narrative repeatedly and who understand the narrative in light of the resurrection it is easy to become judgmental of the disciple’s inability to understand a crucified and resurrected messiah, but the disciples, like all the other characters of Matthew’s gospel, attempt to make sense of Jesus’ identity, actions, and words from within the worldview they inherited from their society. Perhaps one of the reasons that Matthew’s gospel is more charitable to the disciples than Mark’s is a pastoral understanding (in the sense of the responsibility for the forming of a community) of the need for patience as the kingdom’s worldview slowly begins to transform the engrained ways of the nations.

In Matthew’s gospel it is the mother of James and John who makes the request rather than the two disciples themselves. This, perhaps for Matthew, provides a little space between the disciples in the narrative who have just heard for the fourth time (since James and John were at the Transfiguration) about the upcoming death of Jesus. The mother comes and prostrates herself before Jesus which may be simply ‘bowing down or paying honor’ but within Matthew’s continued usage of the Greek proskuneo it is also used at times in an ambiguous way where ‘worship’ is implied and there is a revelation of Jesus being ‘God with us.’[2] Regardless the mother of James and John shows some openness to who Jesus is, but she and her sons continue to construct that identity in terms of the rulers of the nations. She comes to ask ‘a certain thing/something’ of Jesus (translations often translate this as a favor but this ritualistic request has a greater weight than asking for a favor) and Jesus responds to her request with “What is your will/desire?” (the Greek theleo is often translated as wish, but wishing in English is more ephemeral than this term for willing something to be) Her request for positions of high honor in the coming kingdom of Jesus for her sons shows both insight into a portion of Jesus’ identity and a misunderstanding of greatness in the kingdom of heaven. A ritual request for a declaration is a powerful and binding thing, and so if Jesus makes this statement he, as a king, is bound to it.[3] Jesus could deal with her, her sons, and later the disciples in a harsh way, but Jesus instead uses the moment as one more opportunity to talk about greatness in the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus addresses the request by trying to help James and John understand the request that is made. In the context of having foretold his own death in Jerusalem we are introduced to the idea of ‘drinking the cup’ that Jesus is about to drink. This will be resonant image in both the Hebrew scriptures and in the passion narrative that will begin in the coming chapter. In the Hebrew Scriptures drinking the cup (particularly the cup of the LORD) often used in the prophets as the language of suffering[4] but as Warren Carter notes it can also denote the LORD’s provision or deliverance.[5] (Carter 2005, 402) It may seem paradoxical that suffering and salvation are joined together in an image, but this is after all a kingdom where those who ‘want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’ (16:25 emphasis on life is intentional, see below) In the coming passion narrative the cup will feature in both the last supper (26:27-29) and a Gethsemane. (26:39-46) Ultimately Jesus, after asking if they are powerful enough to drink the cup he is to drink, partially grants their request in an odd way. James and John will share both the suffering and the life that is to come, but their ability to fill the spots to the left and right of Jesus in his kingdom are not his to grant. Matthew’s linkage of this scene with the crucifixion is also echoed by the placement of the bandits who are crucified with him, “one on his right and one on his left.”

The response of the remaining ten disciples to James and John is often translated as ‘angry’ or ‘indignant’ which are typically used to translate the Greek aganakteo, but I am going to risk using a more precise word ‘resentful.’ While indignant may be a word that expresses anger or annoyance at unfair treatment, I think it is a word that is outside most of our emotional vocabulary. I do think we need to work on teaching the skill of “labeling our emotions with a nuanced vocabulary.” (Brackett 2019, 19) and anger is a large emotion which covers many of what Marc Brackett describes as low pleasantness high energy emotions. Resentful is a word in English that most people understand that captures the anger or annoyance at unfair treatment that the older indignant represents. I also think that it is an understandable emotion in terms of the requested honor and partially favorable response that James and John have received. All of the disciples are still viewing Jesus’ message from within the worldview they inherited from their parents and the society around them, and even now Jesus continues to patiently reorient them to the very different values of the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus directly engages the worldview of the nations and their perceptions of greatness and contrasts them to the values of the kingdom of heaven. Instead of the values of the nations where the rulers lord it over their followers and the great ones exercise authority over (this doesn’t have the negative implication in modern English that tyrants does: the Greek is a conjunction of the prefix kata (according to) and ekousia (authority)) the great in the kingdom of heaven are servants and the first is a slave. Throughout this section the disciples have been told they need to be humble like a child placed in their midst (18:4) instead of a rich young man (19:16-30 a person who has every advantage in that society) who would need to give away his possessions to embrace the kingdom. Jesus embodies these values for his disciples and his serving instead of being served will be the model for them to emulate.

Early in my ministry I once caused a minor controversy in a class I was teaching when I stated that Mark (and Matthew) by extension did not have any atonement theology where Christ died for our sins to redeem us. Ultimately Matthew and Mark do not have any type of atonement theology like Anselm of Canterbury talks about in Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man one of the classic texts of medieval classic atonement theology) but here in 20:28 we do have the only introduction of the idea of ransom in Matthew (and its parallel in Mark). In the Hebrew scriptures the idea of ransom is often used in the context of freeing the people of Israel from their captivity under other nations (Exodus 6:6; Isaiah 43:1-7; 44:22) and while this may be connected with the sins of the people which led to their exile, this is not an individualistic salvation from one’s sins. Throughout Matthew, from the beginning when the angel of the Lord tells Joseph, “he will save his people from his sins” (1:21) I have written about this in terms of Jesus bringing about the end of the exile of the chosen people. Although Stanley Hauerwas comments on this passage are an interesting place to begin discussion:

Rather, he has ransomed us from the very temptations he resisted in the desert, to make possible our participation in the only politics that can save us. He has brought to an end our slavery to the politics based on fear of death, making it possible for us to be servants to one another and the world. (Hauerwas 2006, 179-180)

The temptation to define power in the ways of the nations of the world is to fall into the devilish temptation that Jesus avoided. Jesus’ kingdom does not involve the death and destruction of his enemies, but for those he has patiently worked upon to transform their values and worldview it is the beginning of a new way of understanding power. The great in the kingdom of heaven are the servants of the world, the first are slaves. Or in Martin Luther’s famous paradox from the Freedom of a Christian:

A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all (Luther 1989, 596)

What the Son of Man uses in ransom in his psuche which is normally translated elsewhere as ‘soul’ but as I discussed in 10:39 and 16: 25-26  in Hebrew thought the soul is not detachable from one’s life but is the very essence of it. There is no body/soul duality that would become engrained in later Christian vocabulary. To give up one’s psuche is to give up everything of oneself. Just as the disciples earlier could state they gave up everything in following Jesus while thinking of their possessions and relationships, now Jesus demonstrates a world where one’s entire being is placed completely in the service of God. As Paul could say in his letter to the Romans:

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. Romans 12: 1

[1] Matthew 16:21; 17:22-23 (17:12)

[2] See the fuller discussion in Matthew 14:22-33

[3] At least in terms of the rulers of the nations: think for example of how the words of King Ahasuerus throughout the book of Esther bound him or how King Darius in Daniel 7 is bound by his own ordinance. These stories would be a part of the worldview of both the mother and the sons in this story.

[4] Isaiah 51: 17; Jeremiah 25:15-38; Jeremiah 49:12; Ezekiel 23: 32-34; Habakkuk 2: 15-16; see also Psalm 75:8

[5] See particularly Psalm 16:5 and Psalm 116:3

Matthew 11: 1-15 Jesus and John the Baptist: Identity, Time and Authority

Saint John the Baptist in Prison Visited by Salome, Guernico (1591-1666)

Matthew 11: 1-15

Parallel Luke 7: 18-28

1 Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities.

2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written,

‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’

11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. 13 For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 Let anyone with ears listen!

Jesus concludes the instructions for his disciples, and we return to narrative where we are again confronted with the question of Jesus’ identity and authority. In chapters eight and nine we were drawn in a rhythm of stories of acts of power which disclosed Jesus’ identity and authority combined with stories interjected which point to the character of discipleship under Jesus. After Jesus completes his instructions for his disciples his encounter with a group of John’s disciples returns us to the reflections upon Jesus’ identity in chapter eleven which will use language strikingly similar to some other New Testament authors and link into themes in Paul (in this section), John (in the next section) and again Paul (in the final section). While Matthew may not develop these themes in the same what that Paul or John will it does at least allude to some common language and understandings about Jesus’ identity already being present in the time of the compilation of Matthew’s gospel and continues to point to Jesus’ identity being greater than even a title like Messiah (or Christ) can encompass.

The opening verse of chapter eleven transitions us from the instruction to narrative in a pattern commonly used in Matthew’s gospel (see also 7:27; 13:53; 19:1 and 26:1). The language of this transition is also similar to the language that Deuteronomy narrates Moses using at the end of each of his teaching of the twelve tribes of Israel (Deuteronomy 31:1, 31:24 and 32:45) and further heightens the connection between the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve disciples.  The translation of the Greek teleo here as ‘finished’ is appropriate and contrasts to the normal translation of the same term in Matthew 5:48 as ‘perfect’ which I address at length in that section. The word translated ‘instruction’ (Greek diatasso) has a firmer sense of commanding, ordering or directing and it reinforces the position of Jesus as one to give orders and to send out these followers into the prepared fields for harvest. Jesus may have completed giving instructions to his disciples, but he now moves towards the continued proclamation of the kingdom of heaven and teaching about how to live as a community under that kingdom to the cities on his journey.

Jesus has sent forth his disciples but in the presence of the crowds he receives the disciples of John who come to him and question his identity. John has heard in prison of what Jesus is doing, and the words behind the ‘what the Messiah is doing’ is literally the work of Christ (Greek erga tou Christou). Christ and Messiah are the same word (Messiah is the transliterated Hebrew and Christ is the transliterated Greek) and it refers to one who is anointed to rule. While Christ or Messiah or the Latin Rex all refer to kingship and John the Baptist’s reference to the work of the Christ probably indicates an understand Jesus in terms of the awaited king to reestablish the Davidic line and bring about the renewal of Israel. Yet, the works that Jesus is doing is not the work of a warrior king, like David, (at least not against the armies of Rome) but rather there is a different quality to the work of Jesus. John’s query through his disciples asking, “are you the one?” provides another query into the identity of Jesus and its meaning.

Jesus’ answer refers to the works narrated in chapters eight and nine, but their form also points back to language of Isaiah, particularly 35: 5-6:

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongues of the speechless sing for joy.  Isaiah 35: 5-6a

Being the Messiah or the Son of David is redefined in terms of healing rather than military conflict. In fact, the opposition to the kingdom of heaven’s approach will be by those who use violence to bring about peace. The kingdom of heaven is not the violently maintained Pax Romana which is enforced (often brutally) by the legions of the empire or the kings and rulers of the various provinces of the empire. The Christ as embodied by Jesus embodies both the characteristics of a prophet like Elijah or Elisha (who would heal and even raise the dead), a Moses who can give instructions to the nation of Israel but also a king with authority.

Jesus’ answer to John’s disciples ends in another beatitude, like the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, where “blessed (happy) is anyone who takes no offense at me.” As I mentioned when discussing the beatitudes in Matthew 5, this takes us into the rhythm of wisdom literature where one is ‘blessed’ to be like the saying illustrates. Wisdom is going to be introduced in our next section, but here we are also by the Greek skandalizo which is the verbal form of skandalon used by Paul, for example in 1 Corinthians 1: 23:

but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block (skandalon-scandal) to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks.

Paul will in 1 Corinthians allude to the wisdom of God, which is Christ crucified, and as we will see as the conversation continues between Jesus and the crowd we will also be brought into an identification with Jesus and the character of wisdom. Here it is worth having one’s ear open to the identity being alluded to as Jesus redefines the expectations of Messiah initially in terms of healing and then highlighting the ‘offense’ that will cause many to choose the path of foolishness rather than wisdom.

As John’s disciples depart Jesus returns to the crowd to talk about the identity of John by extension his own identity. Jesus rhetorically negative responses about what the people went into the wilderness to encounter John the Baptist is a pretty direct jab at Herod Antipas. A reed shaken by the wind probably alludes to the coinage Herod Antipas issued which uses reeds on them. Reeds are common in Israel and while they are blown about by the wind because they are unreliable for strength. Jesus may be referring to the way Herod Antipas was ‘battered’ by John’s prophetic condemnation of his relationship with Herodias. This is sharpened by the ‘soft robes’ description. The word ‘soft’ can also be translated ‘effeminate’ which would be a strong criticism indeed in the ancient world. Herod is subtly accused of being weak, unreliable and non-masculine. John the Baptist is the contrast to Herod Antipas (even though he is imprisoned by him) and his role is that of a prophet and specifically the prophet sent to prepare the way.

Matthew uses scripture to point us to the identity of Jesus in surprising ways. Here he uses the same passage Mark quotes in relation to John the Baptist (see Mark 1:2 where Mark misquotes this as Isaiah). The reference is to Malachi 3: 1:

See I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.

The use of Malachi is important because it is the end of Malachi where the hope for a return of Elijah comes:

Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse. Malachi 4: 5-6

John the Baptist’s identity is linked to Elijah who prepares the way for the coming of the LORD, the God of Israel, and by at least allusion Jesus is linked to the LORD. Messiah as a title is insufficient for who Jesus is in Matthew’s gospel. It, like the Son of David, Son of God, and Son of Man it points to a portion of Jesus’ identity but ultimately needs to be redefined in the terms of the ‘works of the Messiah.’ John the Baptist may be greater than any who came before him, but in the dawning kingdom of heaven even the least of its citizens are now greater than John for they are a part of a new thing. The crowd hearing the proclamation of Jesus stand at a critical time for they are seeing what the prophets and the law and John the Baptist all prepared the way for. What they are seeing and hearing is the fulfillment of the prophetic and covenantal hope of Israel.

Verse twelve and thirteen can be read multiple ways. The NRSV renders ‘the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came.’ In translating this there are two significant issues: first in the kingdom of heaven’s ‘suffering violence and being taken by force’ and secondly in the sense the prophets and the law ‘prophesied until John came.’ The first passage the Greek biazetai kai biastai arpazoousin auten is behind this phrase. Biazetai and biastai are a related verb and noun. While the NRSV’s translation of third person singular passive biazaetai as ‘has suffered violence’ is the traditional rendering of a verb that indicates entering by force it can also mean that the kingdom of heaven has entered forcefully or entered in power and in resistance to that power violent men have tried to force their way into the kingdom. The kingdom of heaven does come in power as illustrated by the healings and Jesus’ authority of sin, the demonic, creation and even death demonstrated in the previous chapters, but it will not be established by violence. There are conflicting visions between those who are looking to Jesus in terms of a traditional king or emperor whose peace is maintained by military force. Jesus himself will be seized by violent men and they will attempt to maintain their power through their violence. There is a conflict between the kingdom of heaven and those violent men who maintain the kingdoms of the earth, and the kingdom of heaven is not powerless, but it will not respond like a king or emperor. The second translational issue is whether the law and prophets have ceased their function after John came and that prophesy is at an end. I would keep the Greek word order and render the phrase ‘the law and the prophets up to John prophesied.’ There is a temporal aspect to this Greek phrase but the way the English rearranges the words in the NRSV can be read as John the Baptist bringing an end to prophecy where the Greek simply states that those who came before John and including John prophesied.

Moving back out of the translational reeds we do have in this exchange between the disciples of John, the crowds and Jesus a continued reflection on who John the Baptist is and by extension who Jesus is. John the Baptist, for those willing to hear is Elijah, and Jesus is the one for whom Elijah is preparing the way. Messiah or Christ as it is applied to Jesus needs to be understood in relations to the ‘works of the Messiah’ demonstrated by Jesus. The kingdom that Jesus proclaims and reigns over is not a kingdom created by violent men like the conquests by David or Caesar, but it is not without power. Its power may seem like foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews in Paul’s language. Continuing in Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians and preparing us for the next section this ‘Christ Jesus, who became for us the wisdom of God’ is the Jesus who will be the one crucified by violent men is also the one in whom this paradoxical power of the kingdom of heaven resides. This power that allows, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

 

 

All That Is Solid Dissolves Into Air

Smoke 1When the air becomes heated hotter than the smith’s forge
And the pillars of the earth begin to falter under the heat and pressure
When cynicism strips away every foundation, every dream, every hope
And all that is solid dissolves into air. 

In that breathless, lifeless landscape of an atomistic existence
That tears apart the ties that bind under conditions of molecular fission
The stories told, the dreams cherished and the hopes nurtured burn
When all that is solid dissolves into air. 

Can fusion reemerge from the fission and the foundations be sunk anew?
Can the furnace of our destruction be quenched and the pressure released?
For the atom rich air has no place left for the complexity of life
Until that which was dissolved becomes solid again.

The Place of Authority 3-2:Byzantium, Triangles and the Quest for Stasis

As a symbol and expression of the universal prestige of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, Justinian built the Church of the Holy Wisdom of God, Hagia Sophia, which was completed in the short period of four and a half years (532–537).

One of the things I’ve been doing as I took an extended break from my more historical work on the place of authority within society and religion was to do some broader thinking about where this all might be heading and to try to bring in some other disciplines that could help me process the large historical stories in a way that both made sense and was as fair as possible to the historical narrative. I’m going to take you on a brief journey into the sometimes scary process of how my mind thinks through things (clearing away as much of the clutter as possible) and hopefully you will be able to see why I am drawing some of the conclusions I am at this point and as I move forward and then I will apply the scheme I develop to the period of the Byzantine empire (what remains of the former Roman empire after Rome collapses based out of Constantinople) and then we shall see how far I move forward in history before I feel the need to re-evaluate.

One thing that every society seeks is stability, instability is notoriously bad (at least in the short term) for the people in any society and people will endure a lot of things to avoid a drastic upheaval of what is considered normal. That got me thinking about Bowen System Theory and specifically his (and other’s who followed Murray Bowen’s work from the 1970s on) work on triangles:

“The theory states that the triangle, a three person emotional configuration, is the molecule or the basic building block of any emotional system, whether it is in the family or any other group. The triangle is the smallest stable relationship system. A two-person system may be stable as long as it is calm, but when anxiety increases, it immediately involves the most vulnerable other person to become a triangle. When tension in the triangle is too great for the threesome, it involves others to become a series of interlocking triangles”[i]

If any place in this time period could be talked about as stable and able to resist major changes it was the Byzantine empire and the Orthodox Church which was the dominant expression of religion within the empire. Thinking about what a triangular system might look like from the Byzantine perspective might look like took me back to another three fold characterization.

There is an ancient way of talking about Jesus which is called the three-fold office, which goes back into the ancient church, at least to the early church father Eusebius (263-339) and probably earlier than that. It breaks down the offices of Jesus as: prophet, priest and king- and as I mentioned in an earlier post for the early followers of Jesus he occupied the central defining role in forming their identity as Christians. Let me expand each of these roles briefly:

The kingly role is the role of political power, to those familiar with a Lutheran two kingdom way of thinking this is the left handed kingdom which deals with military power and security, taxes and wealth, roads and trade. Typically in every layer of society there is someone who occupies a place of political power and who guarantees safety, peace and security for the price of obedience and taxes. This is the role of the secular power, and it can be abusive or benevolent (although it more often trends towards abusive) and it often depends on the next office for it’s authorization in some manner.

The priestly role is the role of religious authority, this would be the right hand kingdom of Lutheran two kingdom typology, which deals with placing people in a right relationship with the sacred, whatever that may mean for a society. In almost every society that I am aware of the priestly function is carried out by those who are closely aligned with those in the kingly role. In a theocracy the priestly office will dominate the political office, this is less common but there are societies and times where the priestly office will hold sway. More commonly the political office will exercise greater power than the priestly office and the priestly office will give additional legitimacy to the political office. This may sound skeptical and there is give and take in the relationship, however for stability there is a mutual self interest involved since the political office protects the priestly office and the priestly office legitimizes the political office.

The prophetic role is that place, person or thing within a society which places a check on the political and the priestly offices when they are not acting in accordance to whichever divine source of authority , they are the mouthpiece of God that challenges the excesses, abuses, deceptions, oppression, idolatry or hubris of the other two offices. The prophetic role may be occupied by a person or persons or it may be an idea, book, etc…as we will see in some of the upcoming transitions. All three roles are necessary and linked together.

In the Byzantine empire the emperor remained the dominant political figure, and had a lot of authority within all realms of both political and religious authority. The bishops had and exercised their authority with the protection and in cooperation with the emperor, but for the Orthodox church and the Byzantine empire the prophetic role was occupied by tradition. Tradition was what the church had believed and confessed, hence orthodoxy, and anything that deviated from that tradition of the earlier church fathers and councils was considered heresy or at least unorthodox. After the reign of Theodosious I (379-395 CE) the eastern half of the empire based in Constantinople would remain in some form with the emperor reigning and the Orthodox church intact until Constantinople falls in 1453.

In Gruene, Texas there is a dancehall which proudly proclaims “Gently resisting change since 1872” and in many ways the Byzantine empire was able to gently resist significant changes for 1,000 years. The world around its borders changed and went through a number of upheavals and eventually it would find itself caught between the Catholics on one side and the Muslims on the other, and yet the emperor, orthodox priests and the tradition of the fathers provided stability while the world around them was filled with chaos.

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com


[i] Murray Bowen, 1976 quoted in Roberta M. Gilbert, The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory: A New Way of Thinking About the Individual and The Group, Falls Church and Basye, Virginia: Leading Systems Press, 2004 and 2006, 47.

Climbing Out of the Rabbit Hole: Walking Away from Post-Modernity

cheshire cat

I’ve probably been spending too much time with philosophy lately, and I know that many people don’t ask the same type of questions that I do, but I am curious-I like a good challenge. I am willing to take an intellectual journey intentionally wrestling with some of the deep questions that are asked by philosophers and historians and artists, but I’m also willing to, after taking seriously what they have to say, walk away unconvinced and disappointed that good questions often can lead to answers that are indeed poor and shallow. I was first made aware of post-modern thought around the turn of the millennia when I began studying at seminary, and I guess that it would be hard to study any liberal arts discipline without being exposed in significant, if not always obvious, ways to the questions of postmodern philosophy, and while I am thankful for many of the perspectives that these questions exposed me to, it is time to climb out of the rabbit hole and to begin to reconstruct a different way of looking at the world.

I am taking the climbing out of the rabbit hole comment from a series of movies that was quite intentionally shaped by a postmodern viewpoint, The Matrix.(The link will take you to one of the more famous and most representative scenes of the movie) If one can get past the huge amount of violence that is present in all three of the films they ask some very deep philosophical questions about the nature of knowledge, of truth, of authority and power, of free will and volition and in almost parabolic form the main character Neo become the one, a Christ-type figure that liberates a portion of humanity to their enslavement to a system of illusion and lies, but the reality that he has to offer is a brutal, ugly and equally ambiguous one…it may be the truth (or at least closer to it) but it is an uncomfortable one.

So first, what is this postmodernism I am talking about walking away from? It is a reaction to the optimistic worldview that eventually we would be able to fix all of our problems through science, society, technology and information. In the words of Morpheus from the video above they became aware that “there is something wrong with the world…like a splinter in their mind driving them mad.” Not a unified group, they began to question the progressive hope that humanity could and would continue to get better and better off, because despite the privileged status of many of the early postmodern thinkers and artists (most of these were members of the academic and artistic portions of society in the 1950s and later)they viewed the world critically and often felt betrayed by this optimistic worldview. Instead they viewed art, language, society, history, science and technology all serving the political ends of those in power, while those without power were victims of progress. Postmodern thought is certain in its uncertainty, in an information society it views most information needing to be distrusted because it is merely  being utilized to create a narrative to benefit those in power, and in reality taken to extremes it borders on paranoia. For a postmodern person all meta-narratives (the big stories that help us make sense of our lives-whether Christianity or national identity or history) lost their authority and that truth, at least a universal truth, is impossible and some manner of relativism is what we are left with. Truth instead of being something that is true for everyone is instead dependent on one’s standpoint (i.e. am I viewing this question as a woman, as Hispanic, as poor, as an immigrant, as a person in the third world, etc.) and even language itself is a cultural construct.  Ultimately we live in our constructions of reality, our world and our truth revolve around us. Everything from art and literature to science and technology became subject to an endless set of qualifications and limitations. If you go down the rabbit hole very far it can become very disabling, it is a type of cynicism that makes you question every foundation that you try to place something upon, it allows a person to be a great critic but denies the narratives and structure in which to create. Honestly, most postmodern artwork is ugly, much of its thought is highly depressing and in its quest to liberate people intellectually it managed to take away their tools to bring together people for societal change.

Many of the questions that postmodern thinkers asked needed to be asked, but it is one thing to be a critic and another to be a constructive critic which helps frame a way forward. The hermeneutic of suspicion, where everything is viewed with a sense that it might not be trustworthy, cannot be the system any sane person lives their lives out of. We need narratives, big stories that help us make sense of ourselves and our world. Do those narratives need to be trustworthy, absolutely and in particular some of the feminist and post-colonial critiques of biblical studies, theology and politics have helped me re-evaluate my own approach to these narratives, but I am also unwilling to collapse into a relativism that has no sense of truth that is universal. We need history and art and beauty, and perhaps a pre-modern sense of wonder and mystery. The world needs truth more than it needs facts and data, it needs a set of inter-related stories to help us make the tough ethical and economic decisions that we as individuals and society have to navigate. We need big stories of who we are as people, our past and our present and our hopes for the future as we engage in difficult decisions related to war and peace, crime and punishment, medical care and technological innovation as well as our everyday relationships with one another. So in my own way this is a walking away,a climbing out of the rabbit hole if you will, not unchanged by the experience and the questions, but rather in a sense that it is time to grow up, to put childish things aside, to realize that even in its imperfections that the we all need stories to make sense of our lives and that my story and the stories of those around me have more in common than I had been led to believe.

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com

Something Different: Are We Losing Faith in Religion?

On the front page of yesterday’s Omaha World-Herald the central story was “Are We Losing Faith in Religion?” The article highlights Gallup’s 2012 survey on the Confidence of Institutions which has been taken annually since 1973. To me this is not surprising, honestly I am surprised that organized religion scored as well as it did, with the way in which the perception of authority is changing. In general people have become much more skeptical of the political process, the economic world, the medical system, news sources, and big business. Organized religion scored better than any institution other than the military, small business and the police.

Gallup does not report reasons, only breaks down responses into six categories of confidence in institutions:

                 Great Deal of Confidence
                Quite a Lot
                Some
                Very Little
                None
                No Opinion

 But since I’ve been doing a fair bit of thinking about authority lately here are some of my reflections:

This is a part of a broader cultural and philosophical trend to distrust authority, as Eileen Burke-Sullivan (who is quoted in the article) says there is “a general malaise in the United States about leadership of any kind.” There has always been some level of questioning of authority built into the type of governmental system that we have, but we live in a time of increasing polarization in many institutions. Television news, for comparison to organized religion’s 44%, only received a 21% great deal/quite a lot of confidence and newspapers only 25%. Even the people communicating the news to us are not to be trusted. Postmodernism’s hermeneutic of suspicion (the idea that every source of information needs to be evaluated suspiciously) is firmly imbedded in our sub consciousness. As the X-Files used to say, “Question everything.”

There are many ways in which each of these organizations have failed to live up to the standards they set for themselves. Probably the two most common examples are sexual and fiscal impropriety. In religion there are certainly numerous scandals across denominations, from the Catholic Church’s continued struggle with priests who sexually abused minors to the indiscretions of mega-church pastors. Financial mismanagement, fraud and theft are not new but it receives more news coverage and visibility than at other times in history. This is not merely a function of religious organizations; it applies in government, economic institutions, and medical. Ultimately the increased visibility of these very real moral failings continues to feed the perception that those in various positions of authority are not looking out for our best interest.

Even though authority of religious institutions has been affected by both of the above criteria, there is a broader set of re-evaluation going on as the church (along with society) enters into a period of re-examining what it believes in light of a rapidly changing world. This is not always an easy process and there will be conflict which sometimes elevates into combat. The way the church has dealt with controversial issues (and it has done this rather frequently since the 1960s) as well as trivial issues has often not been healthy and many have walked away from the conflict wounded and with a deep mistrust of the organization.

For me this is a challenging but exciting time to try to re-think what is means to be Church. I am convinced that at the center are the questions of authority-which ultimately has to do with the ability to narrate the stories in which we make sense of our world. There are a lot of stories out there, Richard Lischer in The End of Words makes the claim that the average American is exposed to 6,000 messages per day (conversations, advertisements, stories, songs, tweets, texts, etc…) and honestly that is one of the primary reason I am doing the work of relooking how the story was told across time and who got to tell it. I’m not convinced I have the answers yet, but I am convinced I am asking the right questions.

On a different note, why did the military, the police and small businesses score as well as they did? Here are my thoughts on that, which are by no means scientific. In contrast to the Vietnam War where the military was lumped in with people’s feelings about authority in general and the war in particular, since the 1980s, regardless of the public’s feelings about a war or a political leader, the perception of the military has remained high. Partially this may be guilt related; since people no longer have the threat of being drafted to serve there is a feeling that the military is making sacrifices that the rest of us are not. Even though the police have had times where they are viewed negatively, for the most part people have a fairly positive attitude towards police officers who they believe put their lives in danger for their protection. Small business has been trumpeted across the political spectrum as the group that will save us from recession and so who doesn’t like small business? Even each of these groups has seen some small declines in recent years, but they still enjoy broad confidence.

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com

The Place of Authority 2-6: The Constantinian Revolution Part 2-Councils, Canons and Creeds

Icon of the Council of Nicea

I mentioned in an early post (see the Place of Authority 2-3) that Christianity came into contact with the Greek culture and even though Christianity attempted to remain true to its Jewish roots, the questions and the terms of the dialogue were set by the Greek culture. The arguments and theology of early church leaders like Justin, Clement of Alexandria and Origen had conducted the debate with the surrounding culture in terms the culture was familiar with. Especially in the Eastern (Greek speaking) half of the church there was an emerging conflict between the philosophical ideas of what God should be like and various readings of Scripture. Remember that almost all of the early Christian leaders read the scriptures allegorically, and just as there are multiple ways of reading scripture today the early church had this struggle with this as well.

In 325 CE Emperor Constantine called the leaders of the early church together at Nicea, a city in modern day Turkey near Constantinople (Istanbul). Many of the issues dealt with were practical, having to do with which leaders and position would carry the greatest authority, how to readmit lapsed Christians, and how to elects individuals to fill the various leadership roles within the church. These were all essential tasks for an organization which had moved from being decentralized and rather small to a much more organized and broad church. It was within this meeting that some of the theological differences present came to the surface and had to be dealt with.

The controversy is named Arianism for a presbyter named Arius who found himself in conflict with the bishop of Alexandria (appropriately named Alexander) over the relation of Jesus and the Father. At the council of Nicea an Alexandrian controversy became a controversy that consumed the first council when a few convinced Arians, led by Eusebius of Nicomedia attempted to have the assembly rebuke Alexander for his condemnation of Arius’ teachings. At stake was whether the person of the Christ was divine with the Father or whether he was a created creature. Originally the assembly wanted to create a confession stringing together biblical texts, but they found it difficult to unmistakably refute Arianism using only scripture, but would eventually create a creed heavily dependent on a mixture of biblical and philosophical language to reject Arianism. This would be the beginning of the Nicene Creed (the Nicene Creed we use today would effectively be finished at the council of Constantinople in 381 CE but the first two paragraphs come from the Council of Nicea). This is the language agreed on in Nicea about Christ:

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of the Father, that is, from the substance of the Father, God of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten, not made, of one substance (homoousios) with the Father, through whom all things were made, both in heaven and on earth, who for us humans and for our salvation descended and became incarnate, becoming human, suffered and rose again on the third day, ascended to the heavens, and will come to judge the living and the dead.

The controversy was all about the person of Christ, and I find it interesting that the controversy stays there throughout this period and never moves to consider the work or the teaching of Christ. This creed, begun in a council called and presided over by an emperor not yet baptized, would be the one statement of faith that would be agreed upon by the Western and Eastern Church and would at a later point be a part of the controversy that would split the two, but that is a later story.

Even though the canon was not fixed at the Council of Nicea, as many people believe, the canon had taken the decisive shape by this point. Revelation and Hebrews would eventually gain enough acceptance to be viewed by most as a part of the New Testament. Yet the gospels and the letters of the New Testament began to be used more as a tool for theological ideas rather than understood in their own right. Christianity, like its predecessor Judaism, was moving on its own temple and monarchy trajectory-except now the temple was the church and the monarch was the Roman Emperor. Creeds would begin to become more influential than story, councils would become the interpreter of scriptures and although with the translation of the Bible in to Latin by Jerome made it available in the language of the Western half of the empire both illiteracy and the unavailability of copies of the scriptures in either the Greek or Latin would make the authority rest with the educated elite of both the ruling and clerical class.

There is certainly much to criticize about this era of Christianity’s struggle with authority from many people’s standpoints, especially as we find ourselves coming into a post-Christendom era (according to many commentators) but there is also much to admire. This was a time of theological giants: Athanasius, Eusebius of Caesarea, Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus), John Chrysostom, Jerome, Ambrose and perhaps the greatest of this group (from a Western Church perspective) Ambrose’s student Augustine of Hippo. The shape of the church in both the West and the East would be shaped for the next 1,000 years during this era. At the beginning of the fifth century the political climate would change as Rome’s loses its position as the sole imperial authority and we enter what is commonly called the Medieval Era. Much will be lost in the coming era, but the church will be the authority that many look to in the midst of the crisis Christianity will continue to spread throughout Europe, although in the Middle East and Africa a new player will emerge on the scene. It is to this era we will turn next.

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com

The Place of Authority 2-5: The Constantinian Revolution Part 1-The Rise of Power and the Crisis of Authenticity

The Baptism of Constantine, 1520-1524 by students of Raphael, Public Domain Art

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please” Luke 6.5f NRSV

In 312 CE when Emperor Constantine adopts a favorable stance towards the church and ends roughly 150 years of various levels of persecution a major change takes place. Christianity moves from the position of powerless to powerful, from being viewed as atheistic to becoming the religion of the empire (although this move is not completed under Constantine, it begins here) from being a persecuted and scattered minority to being an institution able to build large buildings, gather and deliberate in public and to freely communicate back and forth. In short the world that the church knows is turned upside down and it raises a lot of questions then and now. For some the church sold its soul to the devil and aligned itself with Rome, was corrupted and would never be the same. For others this was the Church’s great triumph and it ushered in the new age for the Christian Church. Reality is probably somewhere between these two extremes, but this was an era of such remarkable change in the church’s identity and authority that we need to spend a little time here.

People flocked into the now suddenly popular church. Church buildings became large structures like the temples of other religions, priests and leaders who had previously dressed in common clothes began to wear formal dress, and even incense once the province of the Imperial court became an aspect of the church’s worship. There also is a sense in which the leaders began to model themselves after the Old Testament priesthood and to occupy more of a priestly role within the church and society. Those in the church who viewed the emperor’s favor as a positive thing began to look upon the emperor as the one anointed by God to bring both history and the empire to its apex. But this sudden rise was certainly not without its own set of crises and problems.

There was a major crisis of authenticity within the church. Many Christians had faithfully endured shame, suffering and in several cases death and had not renounced their faith-but others, including some leaders had under the pressure of interrogation or the threat of death sworn an oath of allegiance to Caesar, had handed over Christian scriptures or in some other way renounced their faith. Others had simply fled away from the persecution rather than to become a martyr for various reasons. Now that Christianity was no longer a persecuted religion it raised many new questions: “Do those members and leaders of the community who renounced their faith still have a place within the community?” “Does the work of leaders who renounced their faith still have a valid standing (for example does a person baptized by a leader who renounced the faith need to be re-baptized)?”  “How do we accept new members who have not had to go through the struggles we went through when we became Christians?” “Are these new converts to the faith doing this for reasons of social advancement or are they doing it because of a sincere devotion to God?” These were not questions answered easily or quickly.

One of the early controversies within this change has to do with leaders who failed to remain faithful through the persecution. The Donatist controversy, where the question of “did the faithfulness of the leader impact the efficacy of an act (like baptism or eucharist or forgiveness) or not?” Paired with this question was the secondary question of whether a lapsed or unfaithful leader could return to leadership within the church. Ultimately the church answered that the ministry they did was valid and that it was possible (although not necessarily automatic) that a leader who under pressure had renounced his faith (and it was almost always a male leader at this point) could return to an active role in the leadership of the church.  With this new members were welcomed and many quickly joined the Christian church now that it was no longer a persecuted minority. When in 380 CE Christianity becomes the official religion of the Roman Empire under Emperor Theodosius the church is still trying to sort through the effects of the transition to being the dominant religion.

For some this was a severe dilution of the holiness of the church and they would in many cases flee from the cities and attempt to live a holy life in isolation or in communities. This is not the beginning of Monasticism, where monks and nuns would retreat from the world around them in order to live holy lives, but it certainly marked an escalation in the number of people trying to pull away in order to be faithful.  In contrast to the regality that clergy and worship throughout the empire were beginning to adopt, the monks and nuns fled into the wilderness or out of the cities to practice a simpler and more constant devotion. These monks and nuns would provide one of the major institutions that would be important for the centuries to come. The monks and sisters would evolve into one of the major reforming voices in the church. Monks would both pose a challenge to the bishops and their sometimes very worldly lives and at other times they would find themselves called upon to be leaders of the church. The monks would also be responsible for preserving much of the knowledge that would otherwise be lost in the conflicts of the coming centuries.

Even with all of these challenges the position of the church had changed dramatically. With that change came the ability to focus internally on how it would determine what it would believe, to formalize its doctrine and its cannon, and to move towards becoming the authority the society would look to in the coming collapse. The authority of the church would not go unchallenged, but as the church addressed these challenges it would centralize its authority, its doctrine, and in this age of the theologian bishops two major authorities would hold power-the emperor and the council and it is to this reality that we will turn next.

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com

The Place of Authority 2-4: The Practices of the Early Church

Baptism Fresco on the Catacombs of St. Marcellinus and Peter, Via Labicana, Rome, Italy

There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways. The way of life, then, is this: First, you shall love God who made you; second, love your neighbor as yourself, and do not do to another what you would not want done to you. Didache (Chapter 1), 2nd Century Christian Writing

There are times I feel like Cuthbert Binns, the History of Magic Teacher from the Harry Potter series who one day falls asleep in the teacher’s lounge, dies and then as a ghost goes on teaching without seeming to realize the difference. I hope that unlike Cuthbert my approach to looking at authority within the history of Judaism and now Christianity is not incessantly boring, and is rather enlightening as we go back through time and examine the story of how we got where we are today. There are times where I want to take a shorter path, but I personally am learning a lot from going back and re-engaging material I haven’t studied since seminary-I have made some new connections that will impact some of my conclusions.

Practices are critical to the formation of identity and they help to shape what the people and any group come to believe. As Prosper of Aquitaine (390-455 CE), a Christian from a later era than I am currently discussing, memorably put it “the rule of prayer should lay down the rule of faith” (Pelikan, The Christian Tradition 1:339) and so the everyday practices of early Christians allowed them to make sense of the persecution they received from the Romans or the struggles they went through in their daily lives. It also gave them the basis of their community and bound them together with Christians across the empire and indeed across the world. Practices may not sound exciting to talk about, but their meaning will be discussed and debated for the millennia to come.

Love is the foundational idea that gets worked out in these practices, a love for neighbor and even for enemy that forms the basis for the actions of the early church. Certainly there will be many times where the early churches (like modern churches) will fail to live up to this ideal, yet in a society with no social safety net the vulnerable (the widows, orphans, immigrant and the elderly or disabled) were often taken in by many of the early churches and given identity and meaning. Certainly there were apologists and early thinkers like Justin Martyr or Origin who tried to make an intellectual case for Christianity, but most people came to Christianity through the example and witness of anonymous Christians, and they were invited into the journey of coming Christian by people who they encountered in the marketplace, their homes and their worksites.

With the persecution by the Roman Empire it was a dangerous thing to become a Christian, and early Christians wanted to make sure that potential converts were truly seekers and not spies. Often there would be a detailed process of catechesis, education in the faith, before a seeker would be admitted to the mysteries of the faith (baptism and then communion or Eucharist). Most of these communities were rather small, meeting in houses, cemeteries, catacombs  or in business places both because they could not have afforded a building dedicated for their meetings, but also for fear of being detected by authorities.

Baptism was the mystery of faith that led to identity with the church and mystically with Christ. A person in the waters was made clean, forgiven of sins, regenerated into a new person and received the Holy Spirit. Once a person was baptized they were a full participant in the life of the community, they could worship with all their new brothers and sisters in Christ, they could partake in the Eucharist. Even without any significant conflict the meaning of baptism was pretty much stabilized by the end of the second century with no real conflict over practice and thought (with one exception) until the time of the Reformation.

Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper or Communion was a community meal in which the people present celebrated their unity in Christ, remembered the actions of Jesus during the last week of his life and shared a meal that they understood having both spiritual and earthly realities. The precision of the debates that would emerge during the time of the reformation are not present, but the idea of the Eucharist having the power to transform the bodies of the early Christians from corruptible to incorruptible or they could call it the ‘flesh of Christ’ or even a sacrifice, but the fact that they didn’t nail down precisely what was happening did not stop them from trying to explain what it meant. It would take focusing in on Christology (who Christ was) before the early Church would have the language for the precision of later centuries.

 Around both of these realities was worship which focused on Jesus, eating together with the community, sharing their lives together and continuing to confess “Jesus as their Lord” even in the face of hardship. As the church moved into the third century it was still a persecuted group, the basics of structure had come into being (offices like bishop, presbyter and deacon were used-people set aside for helping the community function, but it was not a hierarchical as we are used to and there was not a specific class of clergy) and there was the beginning of movement towards what a canon would look like, what practices would be formational, and at least some commonality in what was to be believed, but a major change was on the horizon, a change that would transform the church from top to bottom. For some the early church was about to experience its triumph, for others it was making a deal with the devil, but in 312 CE the emergence of Constantine, an emperor favorably disposed to Christianity, the church would have to redefine itself yet again and ask itself the questions of authority that continually emerge.

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com

The Place of Authority 2-3:The Early Church’s Identity Problem

Image of Christ Pantocrator (Almighty or Lord of Hosts), Hagia Sopia, Istanbul, Turkey

When a movement is centered on one person who is no longer present in a corporeal (bodily) form that the members of that movement can continue to speak to and learn from eventually there will come an identity crisis where people begin to ask, “Are we following the right Jesus?” “Are we being faithful to his vision?” “Are we still following the God he pointed to?” As the church entered the second century it was dealing with heavy pressures from the empire around it and at the same time this early church had to figure out who it was from pressures from within.

It was still early in the church’s young life; the canon (the selections of works that would come to make up the bible) was not fixed. The four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were in wide circulation as well as many of the letters associated with Paul, but depending where you went the Shepherd of Hermas or the Letters of Clement or the Didache may also be present (which would later be viewed a positive works but not held at the same level as scripture). The challenge to how to tell the story of being the people of Jesus arose from within and to react to this challenge the church adapted and changed.

One of Christianity’s greatest gifts was that it was not tied to one language or culture. As it spread across the known world at that time it would be quickly translated into Greek (the language of the Eastern half of the Roman Empire) and eventually into more and more languages and cultures. The reason that the books that are a part of the New Testament are in Greek, not Hebrew or Aramaic,  is that by the time the stories of Jesus are written down and as Paul and others wrote letters they were going to churches that primarily spoke Greek (at least as a second language). With this encounter with the Greek world and language also came an encounter with Greek thought which was much different from the Jewish or Hebrew worldview that Jesus and all the original apostles came out of. As Greek speaking and thinking individuals encountered Christianity and they translated the message they would both be changed by it and in their own way they would transform the message as well. The question has to emerge what is a valid transformation and what is not? Two long lasting assumptions that many Christians include as central to their thought: the immortality of the soul or the absoluteness of God are Greek ideas not Biblical ones and yet with the introduction of Greek culture they become a part of the thought of the early church.

One of the early challenges came from a wealthy Christian named Marcion. While Hebrew thought has no problem with contradictions and gaps, a Greek thinker like Marcion could not abide contradictions. Among other things, Marcion felt that the God of the Old Testament was not reconcilable with the God of Jesus. Marcion read how in the Old Testament that God called for wars which wiped out entire populations, called down judgments in a harsh and unforgiving manner and came to the conclusion that in combination with these things he read and the reality of suffering in the world that the creator must be evil and different from the God of Jesus. In contrast to almost every other church leader at the time, Marcion read Old Testament literally rather than allegorically. Marcion felt that the Old Testament should not be a part of the Christian scriptures and therefore it should be thrown out. In addition to this, in a Greek way of thinking that viewed sex, childbirth and the body in general as bad, Marcion could not accept that Christ was born of a woman-even if it was a virginal birth God could not be born of a woman. For the first time we begin to see in a very powerful way the emergence of theology more than narrative as formational for a way of thinking about God and Jesus. Marcion quickly identified the contradictions and the differences in the New Testament gospels that were being held in most churches, so he eliminated Matthew, Mark and John and seriously redacted Luke to try to remove anything “impure” to be put alongside of Paul’s letters (also purified of Jewish “interpolations”). These modifications were viewed to be unorthodox by the leaders of the church in Rome and in 144 CE he was expelled from the early church. Marcion became one of the earliest to try to put together a canon, a list of texts that would form the basis for the church’s authority and the church would continue to deal with his followers for decades.

Another threat to the view of who Christ was came from those often referred to as Gnostic Christians. Gnostics are so named because they believed that they had secret knowledge that others, including other Christians, did not have. I am not convinced that there is one direction among the groups and the scriptures that we might label Gnostic, in fact they seem to represent a wide range of things. We are the beneficiaries of the rediscovery of several of the Gnostic gospels at Nag Hammadi in 1945 which give us a window into what Gnosticism may have looked like. Some of these, like the Gospel of Thomas, are very similar to many of the sayings in Matthew and Luke and portray Jesus as a wisdom teacher. Others like the Gospel of Truth associated with the Gnosticism of the Valentinians develop a whole cosmology that put Jesus among many heavenly beings and looks very little like anything we would recognize as Christian. Like Marcion they held the body as bad and the soul as good (or divine spark would be a term you might see in Gnostic gospels) and the purpose of having the proper Gnostic knowledge is for that soul or divine spark to be liberated from the body.  Again the early church made the decision that this was not an accurate representation of the faith and the Gnostic gospels would not become a part of the canon.

Each time a crisis presented itself between a Greek way of thinking and a Jewish way of thinking the church attempted to remain with the Jewish way. At the same time, even while trying to remain close to the Jewish origins of the story, the questions that were being asked were no longer the questions of the Hebrew mind, they were the questions of the Greek world. The Bible began to be viewed in terms that were familiar to the Greek way of thinking, so God had to be omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent (all powerful, all knowing and present everywhere) and this rather than the narrative became decisive for decisions. The biblical hope of a bodily resurrection at the return of Jesus, the participation in the new creation and all the images that populate the gospels and Paul’s letters began to be read in terms of the soul joining God in heaven. The story when it was read was often interpreted allegorically (there are gifts and challenges that come with this) and theology and a few common practices became the points where identity was formed for the early church. It is to these practices we will turn next.

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com