Saturday, January 26, 2013

(Evangelical) Doctrine and Historical-Critical Exegesis

Within a tradition committed to the doctrine of sola scripura, some issues arise regarding the source of doctrine, its malleability, and the relationship between doctrine and academic conclusions. What role does academic inquiry and discovery have in informing Christian doctrine? Conversely, does Christian doctrine place limitations on what sorts of academic conclusions are possible or acceptable?

In a recent post titled The Deeper Scandal of the Evangelical Mind: We Are Not Allowed to Use it, Peter Enns decries the fact that, within Evangelicalism, "doctrine determines academic conclusions." That frustration is perhaps understandable (given Evangelicalism), but does Enns believe that doctrine should be as fluid as the current archaeological, linguistic, and historical academic consensus on various issues? One suspects he wouldn't fully reverse the formula and declare that "academic conclusions determine doctrine", so what is the correct relationship between the two?

My sympathies are split on the matter: on the one hand, I think evangelicals are right to be highly suspicious of current trends in academia affecting or altering received doctrine and tradition. If Christ is the source of true doctrine, which he handed down to the Apostles, and which has been faithfully preserved within the life of the Church by the Holy Spirit, then no academic finding or conclusion can possibly affect doctrine. This general disposition of Evangelicals is the proper one.

The problem is that this general disposition is at odds with what they believe to be the source of doctrine. If "the Bible alone" is the source of doctrine, then doctrine will necessarily be subject to revision as academic discoveries are made regarding the cultural context of the original text, comparative linguistic studies are done, and archaeological discoveries are made. This cautions against making doctrine out of issues that are not inherently doctrinal in nature, but that is only part of the problem. With "the Bible alone", doctrine is already varying according to the many ways people interpret "the Bible alone" (see: the thousands of denominations within Protestantism). And so it isn't clear just which or whose doctrine(s) we're talking about.

Evangelicals should follow their gut and conclude that doctrine ought not be subject to the whims of academia. They should also follow their gut in endeavoring to hold fast to tradition over and against innovation. But this ultimately means rejecting traditions and doctrines which they have received that were at one point innovations and a departure from the faith once delivered to the saints (and which thus can possibly come into conflict with sound academic research). Such as sola scriptura.

Historical-critical exegesis of scripture can be a valuable tool for deepening and broadening our knowledge of the scriptures, but the doctrines of the faith are not subject to change, addition, or subtraction. The doctrines of the faith can be articulated more precisely in order to combat heresy, but they don't change as they were given by Christ who is "the same yesterday, today, and forever." (Heb. 13:8).

Monday, January 21, 2013

Louie Giglio and Preaching to the Culture

On this the day of Obama's 2nd inauguration, Mark Galli has a piece in Christianity Today on the Louie Giglio fiasco and its significance for Christians and their engagement with culture. The overall thrust of the piece -- that the Church needs to preach Christ crucified vigorously, and ditch the moralistic therapeutic deism -- is admirable, but Galli makes some crucial mistakes in his diagnosis of the problem. He says:
When the culture takes issue with the church today, it carps about our oppressive sexual ethics (especially our opposition to homosexual behavior) and our various prosperity gospels (from the most egregious health-and-wealth messages to the more subtle but equally dangerous sermons on how faith in Christ can improve your marriage, your business, and your self-esteem).
With regard to the first, I don't get the impression that Galli thinks this is a problem on the Church's end -- let's be charitable and assume he doesn't. Then this is a non-issue: the Church rightly stands up for its sexual ethics in the public square, and the culture rightly (given its values) tears at its garments and wails. This is as it should be. May it ever be so.

The real mistake is with the latter. The claim that our culture takes issue with self-help, life-management tactics is utterly false. Not only does the wider culture not take issue with this element of American Christianity, but this aberrant strain of the faith is a direct outworking of -- and sustained ally to -- our cultural values and ideology. Thus, when Galli declares:
The current state of our preaching is driven by an admirable desire to show our age the relevance of the gospel. But our recent attempts have inadvertently turned that gospel into mere good advice—about sex, about social ethics, about how to live successfully. This either offends or bores our culture.
One wonders which culture he could possibly be referring to. Again, with regard to preaching about sex, sin, and repentance, our culture does rage against us and we should welcome the fury with delight. With regard to preaching practical, self-help therapy, our culture has no issue at all and is in complete sync with the Church on this point.

Another small complaint about Galli's piece is the introduction, in which he echoes the unfortunately widespread downplaying of Christian persecution in this country -- such as that suffered by Giglio and Hobby Lobby -- by noting that other Christians, at other times and places, get killed and tortured for their faith. Expressed in syllogistic form this argument seems to go something like:

Premise 1: There are many levels of severity of persecution.
Premise 2: ?????
Conclusion: Relatively mild persecution is not persecution at all.

We are called to live faithfully and to suffer through the persecution that might result. And we should encourage our brothers and sisters who suffer persecution, no matter what form it comes in. This obsessive need to downplay legitimate persecution, just because it's not as bad as it could be, is abhorrent. Murdering Christians for their faith is wicked; chasing Christians from the public square because they refuse to submit to the anti-Christian secular hegemony is also wicked, not to mention anti-American. If we are going to serve as a prophetic witness to the culture, we have to call out persecution for what it is rather than shrug it off.

With all that said, Galli is still right about the prosperity gospels, subtle and blatant, which need to be rooted out from the garden of Christianity. What he doesn't seem to get is that, even if this purge were wholly successful, this is much more likely to make Christianity even less attractive to our culture. Thankfully, we're not called to market the faith effectively, but rather to repentance, faithfulness, and holiness.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Mystery and Marriage Revisionism

I honestly don't have a great interest in issues of Christian feminism and egalitarianism, as my previous entry and this one might suggest. But this seems to be the front from which the left is staging its assault on traditional Christian teaching, and I am a great fan of Christ, His Church, and the traditions they have established and handed down. That being the case, this stuff becomes difficult to avoid.

Being Orthodox, I suppose you can avoid it by simply resting in the assurance that there is no such thing as a completely novel understanding of any Christian doctrine that is also correct, therefore being assured that egalitarianism is false and anathema, for example. The problem is that there is a nation of Christians being confronted with these challenges to traditionalist Christianity who have no such bulwark. They might really be open to persuasion, which would spiritually harm not only them, but also the broader culture and the Christian witness to the world.

All that to preface my response to this guest column by Kristen Rosser on Rachel Held Evans' blog, in which Rosser marshals historical-critical exegesis to call into question whether Paul really meant what he said about marriage being "a great mystery" which "concerns Christ and the Church." Or, she would say, whether he means what most claim that he means.

Let's start at the end where she attempts to allay fears that the motivation for such convoluted interpretations of Scripture is unbiblical conformance to modern culture. No, she assures us, because she and her husband are "best friends" just like they want to be. Are you waiting for the scriptural citation that says that marriage is a kind of sanctified best-friendship-with-benefits? Me too. Not to mention everything the Bible teaches about marriage that belies that denuded, small understanding utterly -- such as the very passage she is interrogating.

Her chief claim -- that in Ephesians 5:21-32, Paul either isn't using Christ and the Church as an illustration for marriage, or if he is it's not about authority and submission but about giving and sacrifice -- is partly correct, part straw-man, and partly incorrect. Correct is that the relationship of husband to wife and Christ to the Church is not solely -- or even necessarily centrally -- about authority and submission. This is also the straw-man because no complementarians or traditionalists claim that these relationships are solely about that. This being the case, her supposed corrective -- explaining that Christ sacrificially, lovingly, and in all humility gives his life for the Church, thereby coming down to her station and raising her up to glory -- is no corrective at all. No complementarians or marriage traditionalists deny this aspect of Christ's relationship to the Church, or that it is a template for marriage. Her implicit, unstated premise is that this understanding is mutually exclusive with headship, authority, and submission, which of course doesn't follow. Christ both humbly dies for and serves the Church, raising her up to glory and  is her head to whom she lovingly submits.

She expends some energy explaining literary "chiastic sandwiches", which -- even if one accepts as the proper literary framework for the passage -- doesn't really get her any purchase in the argument because, again, the central point -- "That He might present to Himself the church in all her glory" -- is not one that any traditionalist misses, downplays, or denies anyway.

Part of the problem is Kristen's myopic focus on this single passage. Even setting aside the game of hermeneutical Twister she plays, a simple cross-reference could have saved her from making such errors. Take 1st Corinthians 11:3, for instance, which says that "the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God." If Ephesians 5:21-32 wasn't clear enough, this fortifies its obvious, unmistakable meaning (as does the rest of Scripture and Holy Tradition).

She starts to make a somewhat interesting point, pointing out that Paul uses the word "mystery" to describe the way marriage is a reflection of Christ and the Church. But she immediately goes astray, reducing this great mystery to a one-way illustration that shows marriage being kinda, sorta like Christ and the Church in one specific, narrowly circumscribed way. Whereas the traditional understanding of the great mystery is much more holistic and mutually reinforcing i.e. that Christian marriage images forth Christ and the Church, just as Christ and the Church shows us what marriage is all about. Bizarrely, she points out that "illustration" isn't used in the passage, only to reduce this great mystery to precisely a simple illustration.

If you compare her understanding of this great mystery to the other great mysteries of the Church, such as Holy Baptism and the Eucharist, it becomes clear that her understanding is much too small, reductionist, and narrow to possibly be correct. As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware says in his book The Orthodox Way:
In the proper religious sense of the term, “mystery” signifies not only hiddenness but disclosure. The Greek noun mysterion [from which we get the word 'sacrament'] is linked with the verb myein, meaning “to close the eyes or mouth.” The candidate for initiation into certain of the pagan mystery religions was first blindfolded and led through a maze of passages; then suddenly his eyes were uncovered and he saw, displayed all round him, the secret emblems of the cult. So, in the Christian context, we do not mean by a “mystery” merely that which is baffling and mysterious, an enigma or insoluble problem. A mystery is, on the contrary, something that is revealed for our understanding, but which we never understand exhaustively be­cause it leads into the depth or the darkness of God. The eyes are closed—but they are also opened.
This proper understanding of the sacraments of the Church (marriage being one) can't be reconciled with her systematization of the mystery wherein she claims that the mystery is all hiddenness now, and only disclosure in the eschaton.

Marriage revisionists are right to view passages like this one from Ephesians -- if understood simply, straightforwardly, and in accordance with the rest of the Bible and the traditions of the Church -- as incompatible with their desire to re-imagine marriage. It's amusing to watch them tap-dance around the obvious, but it's also too dangerous to let go by without serious challenge.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Modesty, Lust, and Feminist Apostasy

This is a fairly repulsive feminist apologia on behalf of two sorts of sin, immodesty and lust. Neither sin is gender-specific, but the two tend to interact in a particular vector because of biology (males being more visually stimulated, sexually, and more geared toward polygamy), and because of our culture's wholesale acceptance of -- and therefore perversion of -- this 'natural' inclination. When in reality, of course, it isn't 'natural' at all, but a component of our fallen nature and further cultural distortion.

The author, Dianna Anderson, correctly points out that sexual lust is only one sort of lust, but draws the false conclusion from this that therefore sexual lust is not about sex. She doesn't give any justification for this, but asserts it by substituting 'lust' for 'rape' in the trite and false feminist cliche that 'rape is not about sexuality, but about power and control'. As cognitive scientist Steven Pinker says (and goes on to give evidence to support) in his book The Blank Slate, "the rape-is-not-about-sex doctrine will go down in history as an example of extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds. It is preposterous on the face of it, does not deserve its sanctity, is contradicted by a mass of evidence, and is getting in the way of the only morally relevant goal surrounding rape, the effort to stamp it out." And if rape is about sex (as it obviously is), lust is even more patently, unmistakably about it.

In attempting to define the sin of lust exclusively as some transcendent abstraction which comes in different forms, but which is ultimately about "power and control", we are forced, as Christians, to wage war against this airy, nebulous phantom rather than the actual concrete form in which we meet it. Which is, in practical terms, impossible. The existence of other sorts of lust doesn't change the fact that sexual lust is in fact sexual in nature, and must be understood as such in order to be fought.

While Dianna seems to think that the fact that lust can more or less 'arise' within us involuntarily precludes this from being sin, neither the Bible nor Sacred Tradition make a sharp distinction between the insidiousness of voluntary and involuntary sins (in the pre-communion prayers of the Church we sensibly pray for forgiveness of both sorts every week). We're called to put to death the works of the flesh by any means necessary. You know, cut off your hand, pluck out your eye, etc. (Matt 5:29-30). Mrs. Anderson seems quite intent on keeping our hands & eyes intact as we are incinerated in the flames, contra Christ.

This misunderstanding and soft-pedaling of sexual lust is rooted in a widespread, foundational disbelief in the reality of the Fall in most of liberal Christianity, as evidenced by statements like: "When we demonize biological functions, we set people up for failure." No, people are set up for failure by being born with a fallen, sinful nature, and this fallenness is as biological as it is spiritual. We are called to war against our fallen, biological nature (Romans 8:13, Colossians 3:5), to flee temptation absolutely and relentlessly (1 Corinthians 6:18), while receiving a higher calling that is "not of this world". God's grace doesn't free us to sin (or to soft-pedal sin), it enables us to flee from sin, and to put it to death. And what is the feminist attitude toward this unequivocal Biblical mandate, and faithful adherence to it?
[A]s good little Christians are told to flee from it in order to remain pure. Many, as Libby Anne points out, end up fleeing from anyone they are sexually attracted to, figuring that this is the best way to avoid the temptation prior to marriage.
Why, it's condescending mockery, of course.

Now, while it is true that not all sexual attraction is lust, we should be wary about being convinced we know exactly where that line is. And we certainly shouldn't deny, as Dianna does, that mental activities such as imagining sexual encounters with other people are lustful. This is the essence of sexual lust. If you want to say that "power and control" are involved in this (despite this language being absent from the Bible and the Fathers regarding lust), I won't argue with you, as long as the unequivocal Christian teaching isn't rejected, as it is being here.

My disagreement on modesty is somewhat less intense, because I agree that the issue can sometimes be harmfully framed so as to place too great a psychological burden on women. Still, when a feminist decries 'modesty codes', it's really just code for decrying any external imposition of standards besides one's own. They may concede that modesty is alright, as long as you are setting your own standards for modesty, and so long as you aren't submitting to -- God forbid -- the Church's standards. This is not to excuse a false theology of modesty that makes it more about other people than about your own striving after holiness. It is only to point out that, in the feminist framework, a proper teaching of modesty is virtually always jettisoned along with the harmful sort of teaching. This is seen clearly in this post as modesty codes as such are rejected, and nothing is posited in their place.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Eucharistic Reflection

In the 6th chapter of the Gospel According to St. John, Jesus teaches His followers that He is the Bread of Life, the true Manna from Heaven, of which the manna given in the wilderness by Moses is only a pale shadow and type of. As his Jewish followers express bewilderment at Christ claiming to be bread, and to have "come down from Heaven", Our Lord drives the point home:

53 Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55 For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. 56 He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me. 58 This is the bread which came down from heaven—not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead. He who eats this bread will live forever.”
60 Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this, said, “This is a hard saying; who can understand it?”
66 From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more.

Note that Our Lord prefaces the teaching with "Most assuredly I say to you", and repeats that His flesh is food and His blood drink emphatically and many times over. When this teaching scandalizes many of his followers, He doesn't chase after them and say "Come back, come back, you misunderstand! I just mean that in the future, once I'm no longer with you, you'll have to eat a cracker and drink grape juice while thinking about me every once in a while." Surely if that was all that he meant He wouldn't have phrased it as He did, or allowed this teaching to turn people away from Him. That would be cruel. Christ does often use enigmatic sayings which can't be understood by his disciples except in the full light of His self-revelation (i.e. until His work is completed and the Holy Spirit is given), but He doesn't intentionally mislead, or drive away, His followers for trivial reasons. So He has to have meant what He said.

Many modern readers will want to metaphoricalize Christ's teaching here and say that he is simply talking about having faith in the Crucified and Glorified Savior. That "eating and drinking" Christ means being crucified with Christ through faith in Him, which is a hard teaching as well. But this isn't a parable, and Christ's words are unequivocal. It is, of course, through faith in Christ and through Holy Baptism -- wherein we truly die and are raised with Christ -- that we become worthy to partake of the Eucharist, but the Body and Blood of the Holy Table are not mere ornamental accessories of the faith. Rather they are an essential, life-giving centrality. As this passage clearly insists, and as is reinforced without equivocation by the tradition and teachings of the Church.