Friday, December 28, 2012

In good company (or, the futility of theodicy)

Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani?
by Ann Kim
A version of this post was previously published on the ABPnews Blog maintained by Associated Baptist Press.
Today, the fourth day of Christmas, is the Feast of the Holy Innocents--a feast invested with special significance this year. It was the innocence of the twenty youngest victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, all the ages of my son and his first-grade classmates, which made this latest mass shooting most enduringly haunting.
Their innocence also underscores the incapacities of the major approaches to theodicy for offering a satisfying resolution to the tension between Judeo-Christian affirmations of the goodness and omnipotence of God on the one hand and the ongoing existence of evil and suffering in God’s world on the other.
“Theodicy,” literally a “justification of God” in relation to the observation that all is not right with the present state of the world, is a philosophical legacy of the Enlightenment (Gottried Leibniz first employed the term in 1710). But the questions a theodicy seeks to answer are as old as humanity, for many ancient religions and philosophical systems represent attempts to answer them.
In antiquity and modernity, Christian thinkers have proposed various ways of relating what they affirm about the character of God to the sufferings that mark life in God’s world. Many in the Christian tradition have concurred with Augustine of Hippo (354-430), for whom humanity is to blame for the way things are: people use their God-given freedom to choose evil rather than good, and innocent people suffer as a result. Yet over two centuries earlier Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 115-ca. 202) seemed to suggest that the possibility of suffering was part of God’s good creation from the beginning as necessary for helping people grow toward everything God intended humanity to be, a suggestion developed more fully in recent years by John Hick (1922-2012).
The Reformed tradition exemplified by John Calvin (1509-64) offered a twofold answer: God makes use of some instances of suffering to punish the wicked and discipline God’s people; in all instances God has a good purpose for suffering, but we cannot understand God’s purposes this side of heaven. (Echoes of this perspective are discernible in the public responses of some prominent American evangelicals to the tragedy in Newtown.) Others have proposed that the present state of the world is best explained in terms of a limitation of God’s omnipotence that is either constitutional or volitional—that is, either God is the sort of God that cannot do anything about innocent suffering, or else God can but chooses to be the sort of God that never overrides the free choices of people and their consequences.
In the wake of December 14, such ancient and modern proposals seem insufficient or even outrageously indecent when we use them to try to wrap our minds around our imaginings of what happened inside two first grade classrooms.
People of faith have been trying to wrap their minds around the reality of innocent suffering for a long time. The biblical book of Job portrays its main character as “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” The book of Job tells a story inspired by a question: what if a completely innocent person were to suffer unjustly?
It’s a question that calls into question a common assumption of ancient near eastern people: if you do good, God will reward you with health and wealth, peace and security, and a long life. The corollary of that is that if you’re sick or poor or suffering the effects of a natural disaster or dying an untimely death, it must be that you’ve done something wrong and God is punishing you.
That’s not just an ancient assumption. If an earthquake produces a tsunami that kills hundreds of thousands of people in Southeast Asia, it must be because those people didn’t worship the right God. If a hurricane floods a gulf coast city and kills almost 2,000 people, it must be that that the people of that city did evil. If a tornado strikes a convention center while a church denominational convention is meeting there, it must be that God is giving them a warning because they welcome the wrong sorts of people into their churches. If an earthquake levels the cities of an impoverished Caribbean country, it must be because its citizens engaged in witchcraft. And it wasn’t long into the afternoon of December 14 before someone with access to a media megaphone blamed the deaths of twenty young children on America’s supposed “removal” of God from public schools.
Many of the people of God thought like that in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple and the deportation of its citizens to Babylon in 586 BC, which seems to be the time when Job’s story came to be written. But might it be possible that one could live an upright life and still suffer? If that’s the case, what does that say about God and God’s relationship with us?
Job is blameless and upright, one who fears God and turns away from evil—and yet the very things thought to befall the evil as punishment for sin happen to Job. He loses his family and flocks and fields; he loses his health; he falls into deep depression and feels abandoned by the God who to him is silent. Job’s very name means “enemy” in Hebrew, and he comes to see himself as God’s enemy because of his suffering and God’s silence. If good Job experiences such suffering, maybe no one’s exempt.
Yet the role Job plays in this story isn’t fully embodied by Job himself. Job may approximate blamelessness and uprightness, but Jesus is right: “No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18) There’s a sense in which Jesus is the “real Job,” a concept the late Baptist theologian James Wm. McClendon, Jr. developed in his Systematic Theology in a section critical of modern theodicies. Unlike Job, Jesus is perfectly blameless and perfectly upright, fully fearing God and turning away from evil without exception. And even Jesus, the “real Job,” the only perfectly blameless and upright person who has ever lived, suffers. If even this one suffers, no one is exempt. It is the reality of our world.
During Holy Week many Christians give voice to the reality of our world with a Good Friday recital of Psalm 22. Its opening words are Jesus’ final words from the cross in Mark’s version of the story: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Yet Christians have found various ways to distance good Jesus from what those words mean at face value. Some point out that later in Psalm 22 the psalmist does declare trust in God, and they suppose that by quoting from the beginning of that Psalm, Jesus is really invoking the entirety of the psalm and its expression of trust in God. But that’s not the part Jesus quotes. Some see this cry as suggesting that in this moment Jesus is bearing the sins of the world and that God the Father, who is holy and supposedly cannot look upon sin, turns his back on Jesus. There are all sorts of problems with that take on Jesus’ cry: nowhere does the text even remotely hint at anything like that, and that interpretation has all manner of problematic implications for how God relates to sinful people like us in our suffering. No, Jesus’ words must mean what they say: they express the paradox that God in the flesh has become God-forsaken. God has fully experienced the God-forsaken feeling of suffering people like Job, who sense in their suffering only God’ silence and absence.
One of my favorite artistic renderings of Jesus’ crucifixion is a 1998 painting by Korean-American artist Ann Kim. Her painting is titled “Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani,” Jesus’ cry from Psalm 22 in the Aramaic language Jesus spoke. The painting is striking in its perspective—most depictions of Jesus on the cross look at Jesus from below, standing on the ground looking up at Jesus hanging on the cross. Ann Kim’s painting looks down on the cross from above. It’s a God’s-eye view of the cross, looking down on an expressionistically-painted, ghost-like naked and hairless figure, face desperately straining toward heaven, sunken eyes wide with terror, and mouth gaping open in a scream that evokes the expression in Edvard Munch’s famous 1893 painting “The Scream”—which many have seen as Munch’s portrayal of the cry of modern humanity, for whom God is dead with nothing to replace God. Kim’s God’s-eye painting of Jesus’ scream “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” does justice to Jesus’ God-forsaken agony.
Where was God in Jesus’ God-forsaken agony? Not turning God’s back, not refusing to look on the sin Jesus bore, but precisely with Jesus. Indeed, the suffering Jesus is God. If we believe that Jesus is fully divine and fully human, that doesn’t cease to be true on the cross. The fully divine and fully human Jesus experiences fully the sufferings of the cross and fully suffers them as God—and so God fully does with us in our suffering. The Holy Spirit that is God’s perpetual presence everywhere in the world is also in particular fully present with Jesus in his sufferings and fully experiences his sufferings, just as the Holy Spirit that dwells within us fully does with us in our suffering. The God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is made known to us in Jesus Christ, who according to the author of Hebrews “sympathizes”—“suffers with”— us.
What we Christians have isn’t a solution to the problem of evil and suffering, but a response. It’s the response of the Triune God to the reality of a suffering world. God responds by being fully present with that world, suffering with that world, lamenting the God-forsaken experience of that world and doing something about it. It’s also the response of God’s people, who are called to do what God does: to be present with suffering people, suffer with suffering people, and lament their seemingly God-forsaken suffering—which is to agree with God’s perspective on the injustice of their experience and to join God in doing something about the injustice of their lot in life.
In the Job story, Job’s friends don’t get a terribly sympathetic portrayal. When they hear of Job’s suffering they come to be with him, but they feel compelled to say something, and when they do it’s not very helpful. (There’s a lot of that going around.) They’re sure Job must have done something to bring such suffering on himself, and they tell him so. But something else Job’s friends do is underappreciated: Job’s friends were with Job when everyone else had abandoned him. And that’s all we have to do: we don’t have to have the right thing to say to help people in their suffering (though we can assure them God is with them and joins them in their suffering). All we have to do is be with them, and when we do so we embody the presence of God. And if we are with them, we will share their suffering, and we’ll find ourselves crying out to God in lament over it and motivated to do something to join God in working against its causes.
When people suffer, they’re in good company. They’re in the company of Job, who was renowned as good and suffered anyway. They’re in the company of Jesus, who was perfectly good, and suffered anyway. They’re in the company of the Triune God, who suffers as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the sufferings of the cross and in the sufferings of everyone, who laments their sufferings and works against the causes of their sufferings. When people suffer, Christians are called to be part of that good company as the body of Christ on earth.
That’s how God and God’s people respond to the sufferings of this present world. It’s not a theodicy, but something much better: it’s the Good News.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Musings on theodicy after Sandy Hook

My blog post "In good company (or, the futility of theodicy)" appears today on the ABPnews Blog hosted by Associate Baptist Press. Next week I'll post the full text here on Ecclesial Theology. In the meantime, here's an excerpt:

It was the innocence of the twenty youngest victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, all the ages of my son and his first-grade classmates, which made this latest mass shooting most enduringly haunting.

Their innocence also underscores the incapacities of the major approaches to theodicy for offering a satisfying resolution to the tension between Judeo-Christian affirmations of the goodness and omnipotence of God on the one hand and the ongoing existence of evil and suffering in God’s world on the other... (read the full post on the ABPnews Blog)

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus

Ecclesial Theology is a little late in calling attention to the most recent book by my former Campbell University colleague and fellow Texas native (and North Carolina transplant) Adam C. English, having been preceded by significant media notices and interviews that have included The Wall Street Journal, Fox News, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and North Carolina Public Radio. Readers of this blog who weren't yet aware of The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra (Baylor University Press, 2012) will want to check out the book's web site and order a copy. The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus establishes Dr. English as a scholar of wide-ranging interests who communicates the import of his research compellingly to the contemporary church and its culture, provides yet more evidence that Baylor University Press has emerged as an academic publisher that successfully advances first-rate scholarship in a trade market, and furthers the trajectory of Baptist theological work that engages the tradition of the whole church as the heritage of Baptists and all other Christians.

Monday, December 10, 2012

40 Great Books on Missional-Ecumenism

I'm grateful to John H. Armstrong and the Act 3 Network for including my book Ecumenism Means You, Too: Ordinary Christians and the Quest for Christian Unity (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade Books, 2010) in the organization's recommended list of books on the church, mission, and unity: "40 Great Books on Missional-Ecumenism."

Interested in reading Ecumenism Means You, Too? Order the book directly from the publisher or via Amazon (paper and Kindle formats available).

Friday, December 7, 2012

Ambrose of Milan, Advent hymns, Charles Wesley, individual eschatology, and ecumenism

5th-century (or possibly contemporary?)
mosaic, Basilica of St. Ambrose, Milan
Can a brief blog post possibly tie all those things together?

Today (December 7) is the feast day of St. Ambrose of Milan (ca. 339-397), regarded by many as the "father of Christian hymnody" due to his role in popularizing the singing of metrical liturgical hymns in the Western church. I've frequently invoked Ambrose's hymns in my Christian Theology courses to illustrate the lex orandi, lex credendi ("rule of praying, rule of believing)" principle of the coinherence of the church's liturgy and theology, for he composed numerous hymns that reinforced Nicene orthodoxy at a time when its reception in Northern Italy was in doubt. Many of these hymn texts are included in the hymnals of various Christian denominational traditions today, including the Advent hymn "Savior of the Nations, Come" that was later popularized through a German translation of its Latin text by none other than Martin Luther. (My personal favorite Ambrosian hymn in English translation is "O Splendor of God's Glory Bright," a recent choral setting of which may be heard here.)

Speaking of Advent hymns, yesterday evening I continued my custom of introducing the unit on "individual eschatology" in my Christian Theology II course with Charles Wesley's hymn "Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending" (a nice choral rendition of the hymn by the Lichfield Cathedral Choir may be heard here). It's one of the few eschatologically-themed hymns included in North American evangelical hymnals that treat the return of Christ in terms broader than the occasion for eternal life in heaven, and its stanzas help the class place individual eschatology within the context of the preceding unit on cosmic eschatology.

For the past five years the singing of that hymn has powerfully recalled to my mind one of the most meaningful ecumenical gatherings in which I've ever participated. The December 2007 meeting of the Baptist World Alliance-Roman Catholic Church international theological conversations in Rome coincided with an ecumenical worship service at the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls in honor of the 300th anniversary of the birth of Charles Wesley. The members of the Baptist and Catholic delegations were privileged to attend this service at which both Walter Cardinal Kasper (then President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity) and Methodist theologian Geoffrey Wainwright spoke and during which we sang several of Wesley's hymns, including the well-known "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling" as well as "Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending." We were reminded that something Baptists and Catholics share in common today, beyond many other things we discussed that week, is our mutual reception of the heritage of Wesleyan hymnody in our services of worship.

With controversy over language regarding the participation of the Jews in the crucifixion of Jesus in a proposed text for a renewed Latin Tridentine rite mass very much in the news then, as we walked from the Basilica back to our bus after that service several of us were discussing the seeming anti-Semitic overtones in the second stanza of "Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending." As I suggested to my students last evening, while it's probable that Wesley had the Jews in mind in the second stanza ("Those who set at naught and sold him / Pierced and nailed him to the tree / Deeply wailing... / Shall their true Messiah see"), it's also possible to hear stanzas two and three as referring to the same group of people: for we, sinful yet redeemed humanity, are simultaneously "those who set at naught and sold him" and "his ransomed worshipers" whose twofold response to the coming of the Lord is both "deep wailing" and "endless exultation." For what it's worth.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Engaging McClendon

One of the events I'm most eagerly anticipating in connection with the upcoming meetings of the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature I'm attending in Chicago this weekend is the gathering of the National Association of Baptist Professors of Religion on Saturday, November 17, 9:00-11:30 AM at the McCormick Place Convention Center / Room W183c. The program will feature a panel exploring the work of Baptist theologian James Wm. McClendon, Jr. in connection with the reissue of his Systematic Theology this year by Baylor University Press in a new edition with introductions for each volume by Curtis Freeman. Panelists for the NABPR McClendon session include Terrance W. Tilley (Fordham University), Kimlyn Bender (George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor University), Willie Jennings (Duke University Divinity School), and Jacob L. Goodson (College of William and Mary), with Curtis Freeman (Duke University Divinity School) serving as moderator. Plans are in the works to publish these responses to McClendon in the form of a book symposium in the journal Perspectives in Religious Studies published by the NABPR (for which I serve as Book Review Editor). In a future post to the ABPnews Blog I'll report on this panel and offer my own reflections on the Baylor University Press reissue of McClendon; that post will appear subsequently here at Ecclesial Theology as well.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Vatican II, 50 years later: a Baptist appreciation

The following post was originally published by the Associated Baptist Press ABPnews Blog.

October 11, 2012 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council by Pope John XXIII. My service as a member of the Baptist World Alliance delegation to a series of bilateral ecumenical conversations with the Roman Catholic Church held from 2006 through 2010 has given me a deepened appreciation for many aspects of the work of that council and its legacy.

In particular, I’ve come to see that the Catholic Church is not unlike the Baptist tradition in terms of the role that forms of dissent play in the theological development of both traditions (though Catholics do not describe it as “dissent”—more on that distinction later), and that this feature of Vatican II suggests some ways Baptists might see themselves as participants in the ongoing formation of a larger tradition that includes the Catholic Church along with all Christian churches. I’ve also recognized that Baptists even made their own historical contributions to one of the official declarations issued by the Council and thus can arguably claim to have participated indirectly in the formulation of Catholic magisterial teaching, but I’ll save the explanation of that assertion for a future ABPnews Blog post.
While doing research for a paper offering a Baptist perspective on the Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum that I presented to the 2007 meeting of the Baptist-Catholic dialogue in Rome, I discovered that not only the Second Vatican Council but also the sixteenth-century Council of Trent were marked by intra-magisterial divisions and debates that preceded the official approval of their decrees. In both councils there were Catholic voices within the magisterium arguing for rather Baptist-like positions on the normativity of Scripture in relation to the tradition of the church, for example.
In 1546, the bishops assembled for the Council of Trent were deeply divided about the most appropriate Catholic response to the challenge of the Lutheran insistence on “Scripture alone” as the normative authority for faith and practice. There were initially thirty-three votes for a statement of the parity of Scripture and tradition, but there were eleven votes in favor of amending this affirmation with a Latin word suggesting that Scripture and tradition were similar but not equal, plus an additional three votes in favor of a statement that traditions should be regarded with respect but without language declaring their parity with Scripture. As debate continued over proposed revisions, Bishop Giacomo Nacchianti insisted, “To put Scripture and Tradition on the same level is ungodly.” In response to the interjection by another bishop, “Are we ungodly people?”, Nacchianti replied, “Yes, I repeat it! How can I accept the practice of praying eastward with the same reverence as St. John’s gospel?”
While Bishop Nacchianti’s position did not carry the day, in the final text of Trent’s Decree Concerning the Canonical Scriptures language declaring the truth of salvation to be found “partly” in Scripture and “partly” in tradition was dropped in favor of the affirmation that truth is revealed in Scripture and in tradition, but without a parceling out of some truths to Scripture and others to tradition. In retrospect Baptists would readily join the dissenting Catholic position that opposed the equation of the authority of Scripture and tradition, and they would find the nod to the minority in the wording of the final version of the text more amenable than the “partly” in Scripture, “partly” in tradition language that it replaced.
A comparable difference of opinion over the proper relation of Scripture and tradition emerged in the long and tumultuous process leading from the initial presentation of a preparatory draft of Dei Verbum in 1960 to its final approval as a dogmatic constitution in 1965. In a debate on a draft under consideration in 1964, Bishop Hermann Volk of Mainz in Germany argued in favor of a greater emphasis on Scripture as the norm of tradition:
[A] special importance attaches to sacred scripture because it is in itself the word of God and does not simply contain it. In the sacred liturgy we incense sacred scripture and not tradition, and in this hall we are solemnly exalting sacred scripture and not tradition.
Counting the preparatory draft, the text that became Dei Verbum had nine incarnations. Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, participated in Vatican II as a theological adviser and observed in a commentary on Dei Verbum:
The text…naturally reveals traces of its difficult history; it is the result of many compromises. But the fundamental compromise which pervades it is more than a compromise, it is a synthesis of great importance. It combines fidelity to Church tradition with an affirmation of critical scholarship, thus opening up anew the path that faith may follow into the world of today. It does not entirely abandon the position of Trent and Vatican I, but neither does it mummify what was held to be true at those councils, because it recognizes that fidelity in the sphere of the Spirit can be realized only through a constantly renewed appropriation. With regard to its total achievement, one can say unhesitatingly that the labour of the four-year long controversy was not in vain (Joseph Ratzinger, “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation: Chapter II, The Transmission of Divine Revelation,” trans. William Glen-Doepel, in Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, ed. Herbert Vorgrimler [New York: Herder and Herder, 1967-69], vol. 3, p.164-65).
As with Trent, the magisterial teaching that emerged from the contention and compromise of conciliar theological deliberation at Vatican II had taken into account a range of positions that included some with basic similarities to Baptist perspectives. Even if such positions did not triumph over the others in the final formulation of the dogmatic constitution, they did influence it and to some degree were incorporated into the “compromise” document that is Dei Verbum.
These processes of Catholic doctrinal debate exemplify what Baptists might call “dissent”—constructive dissent that contributes to the clarification of doctrine. Catholics reserve the term “dissent” for public rejection of Catholic teaching by Catholics, which is not the same thing Baptists have in mind when they describe themselves as dissenters.
Baptists are dissenting lower-case “c” catholic Christians. They are quantitatively catholic in the sense of acknowledging that they belong to the whole church, even if points of their dissent preclude for the time being their full visible unity with large segments of the whole church. They are qualitatively catholic to the degree that they share the incarnational and sacramental pattern of faith and practice that characterized ancient catholic Christianity, even as they dissent from certain developments of catholic Christianity that are features of the faith and practice of upper-case “C” Catholic Christianity.
While Baptists as dissenting catholics cannot offer an unqualified endorsement of Dei Verbum and other documents of Vatican II, they can find a place within the pattern of theological contestation that produced them. Fifty years later, the Baptist future may depend on finding that place and owning it, and the Catholic future may depend on embracing once again the healthy theological contestation that belongs to that pattern.

Friday, October 12, 2012

A Friday miscellany

Some miscellaneous tidbits at week's end:

I'm grateful to the Catholic Herald (UK) for including my ABPnews Blog post "Vatican II, 50 years later: a Baptist appreciation" in its morning "must reads" list today.

Speaking of that anniversary and things linked from the Catholic Herald: Catholic blogger Fr. John Zuhlsdorf has posted links to YouTube clips of newsreel footage of the opening session of the Second Vatican Council broadcast as part of an Italian television documentary.

Finally, I'm looking forward to doing some theodicy-themed teaching and preaching this Sunday at the First Baptist Church of Tryon, NC, where my friend and former student Jeff Harris is pastor. At 9:45 AM I'll deliver the lecture "God Is Great, God Is Good--Yet There Are Folks Who Have No Food: Thinking Together About God and Suffering," followed by Q & A. In the 11:00 AM worship service I'm preaching the sermon "In Good Company" (Job 23:1-9; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31). (In both the lecture and sermon I'll actually contend that in place of a "theodicy," the Christian tradition offers us and the world a Trinitarian account of the response of God and God's people to the reality of suffering and injustice.)

Thursday, October 11, 2012

On the 50th anniversary of Vatican II

Today is the 50th anniversary of the opening session of the Second Vatican Council. I marked the occasion by contributing a post to the Associated Baptist Press ABPnews Blog offering a Baptist appreciation for an aspect of that momentous development. I'll post the full text here on Ecclesial Theology in a few days; in the meantime, here's an excerpt from the opening of the blog post:

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council by Pope John XXIII on October 11, 1962. My service as a member of the Baptist World Alliance delegation to a series of bilateral ecumenical conversations with the Roman Catholic Church held from 2006 through 2010 has given me a deepened appreciation for many aspects of the work of that council and its legacy.

In particular, I’ve come to see that the Catholic Church is not unlike the Baptist tradition in terms of the role that forms of dissent play in the theological development of both traditions (though Catholics do not describe it as “dissent”—more on that distinction later), and that this feature of Vatican II suggests some ways Baptists might see themselves as participants in the ongoing formation of a larger tradition that includes the Catholic Church along with all Christian churches.

Read the full post on the ABPnews Blog.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Digital resource notice: Baker Academic Early Church Collection

Baker Academic is making available as a searchable digital download via the Logos Bible Software platform the Baker Academic Early Church Collection, a collection of fourteen monographs and edited volumes on various themes in patristic literature and thought originally published in hard copy from 2007 through 2012. Included in this collection is Evangelicals and Nicene Faith: Reclaiming the Apostolic Witness, ed. Timothy George (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2011), to which I contributed chapter 6, "The Nicene Faith and the Catholicity of the Church: Evangelical Retrieval and the Problem of Magisterium." Logos Bible Software is currently accepting pre-orders for the collection on its web site (see hyperlink above). Below is a listing of the volumes included in this collection:

Friday, September 28, 2012

10 Things You Can Do for the Unity of the Church--Flagler Beach, FL edition (re-post with updated links)

[Re-post of blog entry from August 3, 2012 with updated links for relocated web sites]

With my permission, the web sites of the Christian Unity Ministry of Santa Maria Del Mar Catholic Church in Flagler Beach, Florida and Flagler Churches Together in Prayer and Song have posted a synopsis of "Leaves You if You Don't Care for It: Ten Things You Can Do for the Unity of the Church," chapter 4 in my book Ecumenism Means You, Too: Ordinary Christians and the Quest for Christian Unity (click on hyperlinks for the synopses as they appear on the respective web sites). Many thanks to Dr. Chau T. Phan, a retired professor of political science, member of Santa Maria Del Mar Catholic Church, and lay advocate for the unity of the church, for calling attention to the book in this way. Readers of Ecclesial Theology will find Dr. Phan's account of his calling to this lay ecumenical vocation interesting and inspiring. I also encourage having a look around the web site of the Christian Unity Ministry coordinated by Dr. Phan at Santa Maria Del Mar Catholic Church--the most active local church effort at grassroots ecumenical engagement I've come across to date.

Home pages of main websites mentioned above: Christian Unity Ministry of Santa Maria Del Mar Catholic Church and Flagler Churches Together in Prayer and Song.

Interested in reading Ecumenism Means You, Too? Order the book directly from the publisher or from

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Jesus' "wife"?

(This post was previously published by the ABPnews Blog.)

On September 18 I glanced quickly at the headlines from the mobile edition of the New York Times and went straight to “A Faded Piece of Papyrus Refers to Jesus’ Wife.” As a theologian I’m always interested in how such stories are presented and received in relation to Christology (an account of the theological significance of the person and work of Christ), and since one of the specializations of my graduate studies and ongoing research is the intellectual history of early Christianity, I’m also interested in seeing how others in my profession tackle the challenge of communicating the import of ancient Christian texts to the public.

Finds such as this one are rarely as revolutionary as the media presentation of them suggests. When the existence and translation of a “Gospel of Judas” was announced to the public by the National Geographic Society in 2006, for example, there was much media discussion of how this find might alter our understanding of early Christianity. In actuality, it merely confirmed the accuracy of a reference to the document and summary of its contents by Irenaeus of Lyons in his treatise Against Heresies in the late second century CE.

Here’s what we know right now about this new find. I’m relying for the time being on reporting by the New York Times and the Associated Press for information about the fragment presented by Karen L. King, Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, to a meeting of the International Congress of Coptic Studies in Rome on September 18 and scheduled to be published in a future issue of the Harvard Theological Review. (Coptic is a stage of the indigenous Egyptian language that after the conquests of Alexander the Great came to be written in a largely Greek script with additional characters for sounds present in the Egyptian language but not in Greek and with numerous Greek loan words. Many ancient Christian texts from Egypt are written in Coptic, and Coptic continues to be the liturgical language of the Coptic Church.)

The manuscript fragment—but not necessarily the document itself—seems to date to the fourth century CE. Thus it could reflect a written text or oral tradition that originated as early as the first century and as late as the fourth.

In English translation, what can be deciphered of it seems to say: “…not [to] me. My mother gave to me li[fe]…The disciples said to Jesus…deny. Mary is worthy of it…Jesus said to them, ‘My wife’…she will be able to be my disciple…Let wicked people swell up…As for me, I dwell with her in order to…an image.”

This immediately reminded me of a dialogue between Peter and Jesus about the worthiness of Mary portrayed in the final pericope (114) of the Gospel of Thomas, another early Christian text written in Coptic:

Simon Peter said to him, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.” Jesus said, “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”

If the new fragment has connections to this text in the Gospel of Thomas, it’s not necessarily new evidence for a supposedly suppressed affirmation of women in certain “lost” streams of early Christianity. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find a more patriarchal perspective in surviving early Christian literature than the one expressed in Gospel of Thomas 114.

What of Jesus’ reference to “my wife” in this fragment?

It seems to me that there are at least three possible referents of this construction. First, as suggested in the media summaries of King’s work on the text, it could refer to a wife taken by Jesus. (More on the theological implications of that possibility later in this post.)

Second, as Ben Witherington III, Jean R. Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary, points out in the Associated Press story, a number of Coptic texts representing Gnostic Christianity in the second through fourth centuries are “sister-wife texts” which reference some Gnostic Christians as having “carried around a female believer with them who cooks for them and cleans for them and does the usual domestic chores, but they have no sexual relationship whatsoever.” If this fragment reflects that practice, it could be imagining Jesus as having such a “wife.”

Third, when I read King’s English translation of what can be deciphered of the fragment I thought of the New Testament texts in which Jesus is compared to a bridegroom in relation to his followers (e.g., John 3:29) and, in at least one of those texts, the church is portrayed as Christ’s “wife” (Ephesians 5:22-33).

A disclaimer: I am not a Coptic expert. I did, however, take a course in Coptic as an overly ambitious graduate student who in that same semester also took a course in Syriac along with seminars in the Greek Christian Apologists and in patristic theology (don’t try this at home). Consequently I retained very little of the Coptic and Syriac that I barely survived, but enough that I can read the script in the image of the fragment and can translate much of it with the aid of a Coptic lexicon. The expression “my wife,” tahime in transliterated Coptic, reflects the same word for “wife” (hime) employed in the early Coptic translations of Ephesians (“bride” as employed in the “bridegroom” texts in the Gospels is another word in Coptic). It’s a tenuous connection at best, but it’s possible that this fragment reflects knowledge of the Ephesian image of the church as the wife of Christ as well as the image of Jesus as a bridegroom in the New Testament Gospels. If so, a third possibility is that the fragment’s Jesus is referring to Mary as a member of the community of disciples that constitutes his “wife.”

But what if Jesus really did have a wife with whom he had sexual relations? Quite apart from the lack of any reference to Jesus’ married state in the canonical Gospels—or elsewhere in early Christian literature, with the exception of the possible reference in this text—would it pose any Christological difficulties if Jesus had a wife?

The celibacy of Jesus is not essential to Christology, just as Jesus’ maleness is not essential to Christology. The celibacy of Jesus does not privilege that state over married life (though it does suggest to us that one can be fully human in one’s gendered humanity without being sexually active or married), just as the maleness of Christ in the historical event of the incarnation does not privilege being male over being female (contra the Gospel of Thomas).

The particularities of Jesus’ historical existence are representative of the totality of human experience, from birth through death and resurrection, even if they do not reflect the particularities of every human being’s experiences. If Jesus was celibate, he nonetheless represents the fullness of what it means for sexuality to be a dimension of being human, for celibacy is one expression of an individual’s sexuality in relation to others, as is also married life.

Theologically, for Jesus to have been married would not require us to re-think historic Christological doctrine. But historically, there is not sufficient evidence to suppose that he was–even if the best interpretation of this fragment is that Jesus therein is referring to a woman named Mary as his “wife” in the usual sense of that word.

(This post was previously published by the ABPnews Blog.)

Friday, September 21, 2012

Preliminary $0.02 on the "Jesus' wife" fragment

Today the Associated Baptist Press News Blog published my preliminary historical and theological reflections on the Coptic papyrus fragment that seems to include a reference to Jesus' "wife." I'll post the full text of my contribution here on Ecclesial Theology early next week; in the meantime here's an excerpt from the beginning of the post:

On September 18 I glanced quickly at the headlines from the mobile edition of the New York Times and went straight to “A Faded Piece of Papyrus Refers to Jesus’ Wife.” As a theologian I’m always interested in how such stories are presented and received in relation to Christology (an account of the theological significance of the person and work of Christ), and since one of the specializations of my graduate studies and ongoing research is the intellectual history of early Christianity, I’m also interested in seeing how others in my profession tackle the challenge of communicating the import of ancient Christian texts to the public.

Read the full post on the ABPnews Blog.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Philip Thompson on "Locating Baptist Dogmatics"

Earlier this summer I participated on the program of the Baptist History and Heritage Society Annual Conference on the theme "Baptists and Theology" held at First Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, June 7-9, 2012. The Baptist History and Heritage Society has now made available on the society's web site links to video of selected papers and plenary addresses from the conference, including a paper presented by Philip E. Thompson, Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Heritage at Sioux Falls Seminary in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on "Locating Baptist Dogmatics: Defining and Defending Baptist Identity in the Absence of a Normative Theology" (video embedded above). In my opinion Dr. Thompson's paper among those I was able to hear was the one that got most directly to the heart of the issues under discussion at the conference.

The site also includes a link to video of my own paper presentation "Baptist Theology in Dialogue: Reports of  International Bilateral Conversations with Baptist World Alliance Participation as Expressions of Baptist Constructive Theology," along with several other addresses and presentations of interest to readers of Ecclesial Theology.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

On Mormonism and Christian ecclesial identity

The Associated Baptist Press story "The Mormon Moment" by Bob Campbell includes information and a quote from me in paragraphs seven and eight. I declined to opine as to whether Mormons are Christians or are rightly related to God, choosing instead to focus my comments on my awareness of how the relation of Mormonism to Christian ecclesial identity is treated by such institutions of conciliar ecumenism as the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA:

Steven Harmon, an adjunct professor at Gardner-Webb divinity school and author of Ecumenism Means You, Too, noted that both the World Council of Churches and National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA do not consider the LDS eligible for membership.

I am aware that the National Council of Churches, which is nothing if not an inclusive Christian organization, does officially classify relations with the LDS as interfaith rather than ecumenical,” Harmon said.

Read the full story on ABP News.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Violence and the cross

Eloi, Eloi, lama Sabachthani?
(Ann Kim, 1998)

A version of this post was previously published on the ABPnews Blog.

Challenging the notion that some violent responses to violence are justified often seems to cause people to respond with greater vehemence than if their most deeply-cherished convictions about the nature of God had been questioned.

I suspect there are two reasons for that. First, if such people were to be convinced that the taking of human life by the state or its citizens is inherently unjust, they would lose the meaning of the national narrative that forms their identity as Americans. That may be too much for many American Christians to bear, but if so, it’s symptomatic of nothing short of idolatry.

A second reason became evident to me after I shared to my Facebook profile a link to Fisher Humphreys’ ABPnews Blog post “Should We Abolish the Death Penalty?” One comment in response objected, “It seems like the cross shows that God believes in the death penalty.”

While I disagree, I think the author of that comment was on to something.

Some common ways of understanding how the cross of Christ reconciles us to God portray God as one who engages in redemptive violence. Human virtue reflects the divine character, so if the cross reveals the justice of a violently redemptive God, it stands to reason that people are justified when they fight violence with violence.

The cross is undeniably violent. But who is responsible for the violence of the cross event?

People, of course, crucified Jesus. But there is a trajectory of Christian atonement theory—theological reflection on how it is that the cross of Christ makes God and humanity “at one”—that identifies God as the one that ultimately visits violence upon Jesus in the crucifixion through the instrumentality of those who crucified Jesus.

According to this perspective, God subjects Jesus to the penalty of death due humans as the punishment for their sin, a penalty we cannot sufficiently pay because of our sinfulness. The result is that the relationship between God and humanity is objectively changed from alienation to reconciliation.

That trajectory runs from certain medieval perspectives on why the cross was necessary for our salvation through John Calvin’s influential synthesis of the theological insights of the Reformation to widespread forms of contemporary evangelicalism.

In my judgment—and that of a great many other recent and contemporary theologians—that theology of the cross must be re-thought because of what it communicates about who God is in relation to us and who we ought to be in relation to others.

The root of my disagreement with that popular approach to atonement theory is a differing location of the ultimate source of the violence of the cross. If it is God, then the cross reveals God as violent and the endorser of violence. If it is humanity—as I think is the case—then the cross exposes humanity’s violence as sinful. It also reveals God’s solidarity with those who suffer violence and Jesus’ nonviolent way as that which triumphs over violence.

In the latter view there is still objectivity to what the cross of Christ changes about the relationship of God and humanity, but it is not the satisfaction of God’s wrath or the payment of a penalty required by God’s justice. Rather, it is the divinely-provided end of the universal human impulse to do something sacrificial to please the divine. While disclosed definitively by the cross, Abraham had glimpsed this truth about the relationship of God and humanity. His journey with Isaac to Mount Moriah reflects this universal human impulse to do something sacrificial to please the divine (perhaps with the practice of child sacrifice in the background?), but he learns there that God provides what is necessary for right relations with God.

The cross no more shows that God believes in the death penalty or other forms of “redemptive violence” than Jesus’ scourging suggests that God believes in torture. That’s my conviction, but others’ mileage may vary.

A version of this post was previously published on the ABPnews Blog.