August 10, 2007

As we have always taught...

My brothers, you descendants of Abraham’s family, and others who fear God, to us the message of this salvation has been sent. Because the residents of Jerusalem and their leaders did not recognize him or understand the words of the prophets that are read every sabbath, they fulfilled those words by condemning him. Even though they found no cause for a sentence of death, they asked Pilate to have him killed. When they had carried out everything that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead; and for many days he appeared to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, and they are now his witnesses to the people. And we bring you the good news that what God promised to our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus; as also it is written in the second psalm, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.” As to his raising him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he has spoken in this way, “I will give you the holy promises made to David.” Therefore he has also said in another psalm, “You will not let your Holy One experience corruption.” For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, died, was laid beside his ancestors, and experienced corruption; but he whom God raised up experienced no corruption. Let it be known to you therefore, my brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you; by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses. Beware, therefore, that what the prophets said does not happen to you: “Look, you scoffers! Be amazed and perish, for in your days I am doing a work, a work that you will never believe, even if someone tells you.” (Acts 13:26-41)

This passage from the early history of the church is a reminder of several things:

  • Those in the position to understand the scriptures sometimes don’t, and those with the authority to interpret them are sometimes wrong.
  • Sometimes those who are sure they are doing God’s will are working at cross-purposes with God.
  • God still somehow makes the best of things. Sometimes these things are amazing and completely unexpected and unbelievable.
  • So God takes a long time to do so — from a human perspective. (“A thousand ages in thy sight are like an evening gone...”) Even though David’s words had been sung for fully a thousand years, they only came to realization in Christ, and then were seen (by those with faith to believe) to mean something different from what people thought they meant all along. Much of the world still rejects this interpretation, even after 2,000 more years.
  • Jesus came to bring liberation from sin, which obedience to the law of Moses could not accomplish.
  • This too may take a long time to sink in.
  • There is abundant evidence to show that the church has changed, developed, and evolved in many of its teachings over time, not just on moral questions but on doctrine. (A clear articulation of the Trinity and the Incarnation took about 400 years. The canon of Scripture itself remains unsettled to this day between the various branches of Christendom. There are many acceptable theories concerning the Atonement.)
  • Scoffing is not an appropriate response to the possibility of a new understanding of God’s purpose or plan. A humility that admits one may be mistaken, even after having believed something to be true for a long time, or with great personal conviction based on one’s own experience, is advisable.
  • We don’t have all the answers. God does. And even though God has revealed much, we still dare not claim to have understood perfectly — our knowledge is as partial as our love is imperfect.
  • It appears there is a relationship between our ability to love one another and our ability to understand one another.
  • God commanded the former. Perhaps we should work on that as a way to accomplish the latter.

Tobias Haller BSG


June Butler said...

A humility that admits one may be mistaken, even after having believed something to be true for a long time, or with great personal conviction based on one’s own experience, is advisable.

You know, I did that in my late sixties with a complete reversal in my view of same gender sexuality. It's not gender or sex that's most important in a relationship, but faithfulness and kindness one to the other. I'm still moving, still changing, thanks be to God.

I could be mistaken, even now. If I'm wrong - and I allow that's possible - I'd rather err on the side of acceptance, inclusion, and refraining from judgment, unless it becomes quite clear to me that my reversal was a mistake.

Chris Jones said...

Reverend Father,

Humility is always advisable, but so is faithfulness. Openness to "new understandings" may seem to be an instance of humility; but it also puts one at risk of being taken in by false teachings, against which the Scripture consistently warns us.

There are many possible understandings, but there is only one Jesus of Nazareth Who is the only Saviour, and there is only one Pentecost, which was, and remains, the Seal of revelation. The Holy Spirit's ministry is not to reveal new understandings, but to keep us in the one true faith -- to "call to our remembrance" that which has already been given to us.

Beware of "new understandings" lest you find yourself putting your trust in another Gospel.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks GM. That's exactly what I mean.

Chris, the problem is that the Gospel itself was a "new understanding." Certainly I accept that "the eternal gospel" of salvation through Christ is a given "once and for all." But there have been too many other changes in Christian history, coming about through a better understanding of God's will for human beings, to simply hold fast to the current understanding on these other customs and traditions, which may have traveled along with the ship of Truth like so many barnacles. Distinguishing between that which is eternal Truth and that which is merely coincidence is the present work of the Holy Spirit. Like the Father, the Spirit never ceases from working, and is as active today as in the time of the apostles. And the Spirit's work is both to keep us in the faith and to lead us into new and better understandings of what has been revealed.

John D Bassett said...

I think Christians get into the most trouble when we are sure that we have found a faith which is free of history, a Christ apart from any culture.

Christian faith is always shaped by particularities of time and geography, and it always will be. As such, our understanding will always be partial. But the more we can listen to different voices, and be willing to be open to different understandings of Christ and our faith, the more fully I think we will grasp the breadth and depth of God's love revealed to us in Jesus.

I am certain of only one thing: my understanding of my faith is certain to be seen by those who come after me as deeply flawed in some sense. And that's OK for me.

Does that make me a realist, an idealist, or just a heretic?

RFSJ said...

Fr. Tobias,

I really like your summary here. It speaks of what I understand as a proper Anglican humbleness toward God and Scripture and revelation. I am linking to it on my own blog as well.


Anonymous said...

If we are to admit change in the content of the faith, it seems to me the least we must do is articulate our criteria for change, and state whether those criteria are themselves unchanging. Otherwise what is to keep us from simply conforming Christianity to our own desires and opinions?

Newman famously tried to set out criteria for distinguishing corruptions from developments of doctrine. Some of them are problematic, but at least he approached the problem head-on.

At the very least we must distinguish elaboration and systemization from correction. Some of the formulations of the Nicene creed would have appeared novel to the Christians of the second century. But they did not contradict them, or condemn them. They show the effect of theology--not to undermine the received deposit of faith, but to contemplate it more deeply, express it more fully.

That seems to me different from a change that directly contradicts what has come before. And it is true that in many particulars Jesus did so. Do we therefore have the same authority to correct the revelation of God? It is not an easy question to answer.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

I certainly agree that in matters of core doctrine (creedal doctrine) it is very unlikely that the church will seek to make any changes. What I was pointing out, however, was the fact that the early church did make a number of changes in relatively important doctrinal positions. Some of these changes are recorded in Scripture, such as the momentous decision to allow for Gentile membership in the body of God's chosen people without circumcision. This is not something directly dominical, but arises from the early church's encounter with the Holy Spirit.

However, as I say, I don't see similar major decisions in the future. What I do see is a greater understanding concerning social and moral issues: and here I hope you can agree that the church has made significant changes since the times of the apostles. Probably the best example is the shift on slavery from something entirely praiseworty to tolerated to impugned. There are any number of other such things one could point to, and it is instructive to read the canons of the early church to see just how many things once forbidden are now rather casually permitted. I once collated a list of such, and perhaps will post it when I return from vacation and have a moment. It is instructive, for example, to read the list of those to whom baptism is forbidden in the post-apostolic era.

Change must always be tested and reasonable and clear, and based on some demonstrable principle. But "retention" must also enter the discussion and realize that "we've always done it that way" is not evidence for continuing a practice. (It is another example of begging the question, a logical fallacy much used in the discussions concerning the development of moral theology.)

Anonymous said...

"I hope you can agree that the church has made significant changes since the times of the apostles. Probably the best example is the shift on slavery from something entirely praiseworty to tolerated to impugned."

I would like to see your list of these when you return.

The case of slavery is a most interesting one, and one which I think is much misunderstood.

It is true that the early Christians no more thought of abolishing slavery than we moderns can conceive of abolishing the relationship of employment. What the early Church did was deny the fundamental premise of slavery, that a slave is a piece of property, not a human being. I know of no praises of slavery in the early Church; what I do know of are admonistions for slaves and masters to see each other as co-servants of God, and to treat each other as children of God. Hence the much-remarked-on attraction of early Christianity to the slaves themselves.

It is good that we have largely abolished slavery. Whether it could have been abolished in the ancient world, I have my doubts. But we have not abolished the arbitrary domination of one by the other, through economic power. We no longer conceive of laborers as property. But we do conceive of labor as a commodity in the market, and we are content to allow the market to acquire and discard human beings as our fundamental law (mitigated by some few concessions to humanity).

We still have very far to go, and I don't know if the Church should be advocating the abolition of the market if it has no better plan for material production (I have always had a sympathy for socialism, but must admit it has also shown some tendency toward arbitrary domination of man by man as well).

In short, I do no find in church history any encomiums of slavery, per se, but I do find a teaching of human love and acceptance that has much mitigated an extreme form of human domination, but has very much farther to go, I think, than many realize. I don't see the dramatic about-face that you find there.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear Rick,
Thanks for the comment. Again, being on the road restricts my ability to respond in full, but I will on my return work on a post on the issue of slavery in the church, and the extent to which the modern church has rather romanticized the early church's attitude towards slavery. One irony is that some of those who are acting as if the early church was enthusiastic about marriage (it wasn't) overlook the fact that slavery is eulogized to an even greater extent as an image for the relationship between Christ and the church. This happens explicitly in Ephesians, for example. Slavery was seen, to some extent as "morally neutral" in and of itself (just like marriage!) but a "good" master slave relationship was just as conceivable as a "good" marriage. And no one would defend that position today, as we would regard the ownership of one person by another to be inimical to human dignity.
As I say, more later...

Anonymous said...

I do think the passage in Ephesians relevant to the discussion, and I'd like to know your take on it more when you return.

I think it possible that there can be earthly relations of douloi and kyrioi that are acceptable to Christians--indeed, it's hard to see how the world would function without them. we don't seem to be able to operate political bodies, or business units, or churches or clubs without some designation of authority and specialization of function.

Here Paul is undoubtedly speaking to his own social situation, where the doulos is the slave, but his advice has wider application, and I don't think the abolition of slavery has made it obsolete.

But, regarding specifically the institution of slavery as Paul experienced it every day, whereas the admonition to the doulos was absolutely conventional, the admonition to the kyrios is very much a warning, that whatever your relationship to your doulos, you are doulon to a kyrios in heaven who cares not a whit for your current position: "prosopolempsia ouk estin par auto."

This imagery (if imagery it is) is also prominent in the "fiat" of Mary: "I am the doule kyriou [the slave of the master, if we wish to translate as bluntly as possible]; let it be done to me according to your word."

It is a question worth asking, whether a relationship of power over another is in itself sinful, or is the harmful exercise of that power what is sinful?

It isn't an academic question, because, even with the abolition of slavery, many such relationships exist, and they arguably have to exist for large numbers of us to live without anarchy.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks again, Rick. This is to me a very "topical" issue, and probably, for the reasons you note, of greater real moral import in our present day. Even though literal chattel slavery is rare, there are other economic forms scarcely distinguishable from it in terms of the suffering our society will tolerate in order to be well supplied with goods. One thinks of our toleration of human rights violations because of the cheap goods laborers working abroad under harsh conditions provide us with. I also found myself cringing through some of the recent discussion on immigration, in which immigrant workers are tolerated (or have become an addiction of sorts) because they are willing to work for substandard wages with no benefits. It is shocking to read what migrant workers in agriculture can be expected to do -- and the fact that tne NY State legal structure allows abuses in these areas of work that would not be tolerable in another context.

I'd better stop now or this will become a stump speech! I think it also well worth exploring the extensive servant/slave imagery that informs so much of the sacred story. My initial thought is that it is acceptable for a human being to serve as "God's servant" but we get into trouble when people begin to assume the authority to do so to others, particularly in situations where the slave has no rights. You are quite right to point to Paul's advancement in reminding the slave owner of his status as a slave of God.

Thanks again, and be well.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your thoughtful post. You wrote:
So God takes a long time to do so — from a human perspective. (“A thousand ages in thy sight are like an evening gone...”) Even though David’s words had been sung for fully a thousand years, they only came to realization in Christ, and then were seen (by those with faith to believe) to mean something different from what people thought they meant all along. Much of the world still rejects this interpretation, even after 2,000 more years.

Upon your return from your travels, please expand on this statement. How did God's mysterious and unknowable sense of time become realized in Christ? What were the pre- and post-advent interpretations of David's lyric? Do those in the world who reject "this" (presumably post-Christ) interpretation cling to the pre-Christ interpretation or to other perspectives which have evolved?

May the grace of God which fills your days be apparent, compelling, and refreshing to you.


Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear Waiting,

I’m not sure I understand your first question, but I would suggest that God’s sense of time is unknowable — and to some extent God is unknowable — except through the Incarnation of Christ. That is not to say that God is not also present in the prophecies that precede the coming of Christ, or in the growth of the church’s understanding after his coming — both of these being shaped and influenced by the Holy Spirit. In a way — to use a somewhat dated and limited analogy — if God’s will is the vinyl record, then Jesus is the needle. This image is limited to a large extent because I believe that God’s will is more dynamic. The whole question of the relationship of time and God is complicated by our inability to think outside of time. God, I would suggest, works inside of time but is not limited to it — it is another dimension within which God is free to move. (I find it helpful sometimes to think about God in relation to the four dimensions of space-time in the same way that we four-dimensional beings can look at two-dimensional art and perceive things that a creature living in Flatland would have no way of knowing. But I suspect this is ranging somewhat further from the question at hand.)

To answer your other questions, it would be best to focus on a single image from the Psalms — for there are any number of passages that are held to relate to the mission of Christ. Since a related text is coming up in this Sunday’s passage from Isaiah (“the precious cornerstone”) I would suggest the psalm verse, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.”

As with much of Scripture, this verse has many meanings depending on the reader and what the reader brings to it — in this sense the Scripture is like a recording that can be played on many different mechanisms, the difference being that tune itself may sound different from one to another. In some ways I believe that Scripture, and the process of revelation, is like the reverse of a radio — an instrument which one tunes to receive the many and various signals; in this case there is one “broadcast” but each “radio” will receive it differently. Perhaps this analogy will not be helpful — if so feel free to discard it. In any case, what I am suggesting is that, as I’ve said elsewhere, reception is the other side of revelation.

But to get back to our example verse, David (though this is not listed as “a Psalm of David” and it may be much later) may have been referring to himself, and his own calling — for, as you remember, his father Jesse didn’t even think it worth sending for him when Samuel came looking for a replacement for Saul. The Psalm also works, if it is of later composition, as an image for a restored Israel putting to shame all those nations who rejected it.

The Gospel writers, however, show Jesus using it as an image relevant to his situation in the face of those who opposed him. And Peter and Paul both pick up the image and similarly develop it.

Now, does this mean that this is what the text is “about”? My suggestion is that it is not the case of either/or but a both/and. The early church clearly saw many of the scriptural passages as having been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Does this mean that is what the authors intended? In some cases, perhaps — that is, the authors were writing specifically about Messiah; and for those of us who accept Jesus in that role we could speak in this way of the authors’ “intent.”

Does that mean that those who reject that interpretation are objectively wrong? I would say not— since the texts are, as I’ve shown, multivalent. People can, for example, apply the “cornerstone” text to their own lives. How many people, turned down for a number of positions, might not think of that verse when they finally are called? The Holy Spirit continues to speak in many and various ways, not because the text is different, but because the text is living and capable of being engaged by so many lives.

Thank you again for your comment, and I hope this has at least begun to answer your questions.