Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Church Fathers and Judaism

If you hang around patristic circles for any time, you will find someone who will object to the Fathers collectively because of their attitude to Judaism or women or such groups. Nor are these protests entirely without a point. We cannot expect the Church Fathers to be free from the prejudices and cultural blindness of their period, so, predictably, individual Church Fathers can be depended on to say things to which, today, we would take offense, if one of our contemporaries should say it. Part of this is because the rhetoric of the age was rather more polemical in tone than we would countenance in our rather bland, but serviceable civil discourse today. And, yes, part of it was the moral failings of those Fathers who were sinners, just like the rest of us. That sounds presumptuous, of course, but, if not even Paul could not rely on his own righteousness, I don't know anyone else who could. The last I checked the only sinless man was Jesus, so is it a stretch to say that his saints were also sinners, even if they were seeking sanctification in imitating Jesus to the best of their ability?

These thoughts particularly came into my head because, over the last few weeks, I've been reading R. Kendall Soulen's God of Israel and Christian Theology. Soulen examines the theological issue of how Christians have dealt with the God of Israel from the early patristic age (St. Justin Martyr and St. Irenaeus) to the Englightenment (Schliermacher and Kant) to Barth and Rahner. His main aim was to examine the impact of supersessionism on our beliefs about the God of Israel and his people in the aftermath of the Holocaust. His discussion of St. Justin and St. Irenaeus is, I think, illuminating, if disturbing for a patristics enthusiast living in this post-Holocaust world.

What he argues is that Justin and Irenaeus were instrumental in working out how to reconcile the Hebrew Testament with the Christian narrative, later expressed in the New Testament writings (which had not yet fully formed into a canon yet). He notes the appropriation of the Hebrew Testament, especially the prophetic writings, away from its historical connection with the people of Israel towards allegorical and typologically pre-figuring of Christ. That is, the story of Israel becomes the story of Christ pre-figured, while the story of the Church is the story of Christ in real time. In that sense, the experience of Israel as a people is superseded by the story of the Church in Christ. Israel in its carnal reality becomes obsolete and replaced by the spiritual reality of the Church. The most the Jewish people could be would be a noble ruin of a previous covenant. This would be defined as economic supersessionism in that the obsolescence of Israel is an essential feature of God's economy of redemption for the world.

Soulen, then, goes on to describe a more overtly anti-Semitic form of supersessionism: punitive supersessionism. This form of supersessionism, also found in Fathers like Justin and Irenaeus, goes beyond pronouncing Israel obsolete, but it openly argues that the Jewish people reject God in Christ and, thus, have been rejected by God. The persistent accusation levelled against the Jewish people that they were Christ-killers and such like comes from this form of supersessionism. Of course, after the Holocaust, this virulent form of supersessionism has been discredited and very few Christians would countence this kind of theological position.

What Soulen establishes for us is that the outlines of these two forms of supersessionism can be found in the 2nd century Fathers who most determined how we read Scripture: Sts. Justin and Irenaeus. He also points out that this settlement is very different from Paul's image in Romans about the Gentile church being a graft onto Israel and the understanding that Paul had that Israel will eventually turn to its Lord (Romans 11). He also notes that the economic supersessionism of the Fathers is later intensified by Enlightenment and post-Englightenment thinkers who wanted to expell all particularist elements of relligion from Christianity in order to enforce its claim as a universal, 'reasonable' religion.

This tendency towards supersessionism in this context explains the almost Marcionite tendency in mainline denominations (especially those with strong liberal leanings) to dismiss the Hebrew Testaments as merely law and, hence, useless for Christians who, like the New Testament church, are a people of grace. It also explains how and why the churches of Hitler's Germany so easily accepted the anti-Semitic measures of that government, even to the point of Holocaust. They simply had no resources to resist the formulation that Judaism could safely be removed from Christianity because they were already doing it.

The problem, of course, is what to do about this problem of supersessionism. It is, of course, easy to condemn punitive supersessionism, but economic supersessionism remains a more seductive and insideous problem. It is especially difficult because the Gospels clearly show Jesus re-interpreting passages of the prophets as evidence of his mission and, ultimately, of his death and resurrection. In that sense, the Fathers who look for Christological types in the Hebrew Testaments are really only emulating their Lord in how to read the Hebrew writings. Christianity very much tells its story by co-opting Israel's story as our own.

The question that remains for me at this stage is whether Christians can return to the settlement of Paul which saw Gentiles miraculously participating in the story of Israel as grafted branches? After all, did not several prophets suggest that, in the days of the Messiah, that the nations would worship the God of Israel? This approach, I think, would change the way that we would read the Hebrew Testaments, but also how we interact with the children of Israel today. Can we honour the faithfulness of God's people today, while continuing to maintain that they will come to accept their Messiah, Jesus Christ, in God's due time?

I can't yet answer these questions fully, but I think they are the directions in which we need to work, if we expect to re-interpret our relationship with the God of Israel, the Hebrew Testament and the Jewish people. May we have the wisdom to do just that.


Sunday, November 18, 2007

Book Review: Bart Ehrmann, Misquoting Jesus.

Early last week, I finished Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus, a book which attempts both to popularize a discussion of textual criticism of the Bible and, I think, to raise serious questions about how we read the Bible in today's world. Generally, it was well-written, but that was all the more exhausting because I really felt I had to watch Ehrman all the time or he'd perform a pretty slight-of-hand on his audience without anyone really realizing.

The first warning to watch was in the introduction as Ehrman describes his own personal journey of faith and how it interacted with his studies in the Bible and textual criticism. Ehrman's early faith journey was spent in fundamentalist and evangelical circles in the course of the 60s and 70s. This meant his vision of the Bible was to emphasize its inerrancy and its verbal plenary inspiration. That meant that every single word, letter and punctuation mark had to be both absolutely correct and inspired. The problem was that, as he continued his studies in the Bible at the Moody Bible Institute, Wheaton College and Princeton, he discovered that there were many, many textual issues with the New Testament, so he started wondering how this inerrancy could work. Not a bad question in its own way, but deeply problematic for Ehrman.

Before I read even this far, I realized that Ehrman hadn't so much changed his mind about inerrancy and verbal plenary inspiration, but rather he has switched polarity. Since his former conception of Biblical authority couldn't work in the face of what he had learned, he rejects any possibility that the Bible could be authoritative, but rejects it as a merely human document no different from those ancient documents of Jesus' era and after. He is every much a literalist as he was in his Moody days, he has just rejected what that literalism teaches.

This should raise cautions about how we read this book, not because he's wrong about there being real textual issues with the Bible, but because his tendency is to oppose traditional readings or theology. As far as the textual criticism, he's right quite often, but there are times where I wonder about his argument. Here are just a few of my concerns.

One of the things that bother me is Ehrman's repeated contention that Christian scribes before Constantine were likely distinctly sub-standard. He bases this on a discussion in which he describes the dubious literacy of two scribes in Egypt and concludes that, since documentary evidence suggests that Christians were distinctly lower class as a rule and, according to Celsus (a prominent pagan opponent) under-educated (p.38-41). He, then, uses this contention to tar early Christian readings at several points throughout his book. Yet, this contention needs an examination. Celsus' evidence is suspect because he is hardly going to favour Christians; both given his enmity to Christians and his privileged cultural status which might engender intellectual elitism. Furthermore, we have to remember that literacy wasn't necessarily impossible even among slaves. What is more, given that copying was a technical skill (moderately lucrative, but not outrageously so-roughly 2 drachmas for a letter in the reign of Claudius), it is entirely possible to see freedmen involved in this activity, possibly at a high level. I know of no studies to back me up, but I suspect that the degree of literacy may not be entirely class-bound.

A second concern occurs in his passage dealing with theological 'corrections' to the text, Ehrman consistently argues against the majority, traditional reading of Scripture as fixing passages which might seem to back heretical interpretations. He employs the well-known rule of following the lectio difficilior on the principle that a scribe is unlikely to fix something which makes perfect sense. I don't want to say this principle is incorrect, but I see no a priori reason why it has to apply here. It is just as possible that some of these passages which support these heretical positions were inserted into the text by heretics and simply recognized as erroneous in the majority of our manuscripts. I see no reason to assume orthodox correction in the majority of cases. This doesn't apply to those cases in which a gloss may have crept into the text.

What worries me about Ehrman's book is that it feeds into the tendency in our culture to want to see the Bible's authoritativeness weakened. This tendency can be seen even in Christian circles and it worries me. You don't have to be a fundamentalist to believe that Bible is authoritative in Christian discourse; the standard to which we check our theological positions against. This naturally leads to a discussion on authority in the Bible which is rather another discussion. The task of textual criticism in this conception is not to tear apart our reading of the Scriptures, but, rather, to try to establish the text as clearly as possible. One of the things that Ehrman doesn't emphasize is that the job of the textual critic of the Bible is made easier by the sheer number of manuscripts. A classicist would kill for the textual tradition of the Bible. This isn't to say that there aren't an awful lot of errors in that tradition, but sheer number of errors doesn't signify much. They just prove humans copied it.


Sunday, November 11, 2007

Patristics Carnival VI

It looks like Patristics Carnival VI will be right here back at hyperekperissou. So...

The guidelines remains the same as Modest Proposal entry back in November, 2006 and my additions in August, 2007.

The last day of submission will be November 30th and the postings will be up later in the week of December 2nd. .

Remember you can offer submissions on the carnival site or the dedicated e-mail (patristics-carnival@hotmail.com)


Sulpicius Severus, The Life of Martin, 15

Happy St. Martin's Day! As it is the feast day of St. Martin (and the Patronal festival for the church I attend), I figure that this is a good time to translate some more Sulpicius Severus, even if it is rather short section.


I will report on even what happened in the district of the Aedui, where, while he was overturning a temple in much the same way, a furious multitude of rustic pagans rushed at him. When one of them, bolder than the rest, attacked him with a drawn sword, after he threw back his mantle, he supplied his naked neck to be struck. (2) The pagan did not delay striking, but when he raised his right arm higher, he fell on his back. Thrown into confusion by divine fear, he prayed pardon. (3) That incident was not dissimilar to when someone wanted to strike Martin with a knife while he was destroying an idol. As he was making the actual blow, the knife was struck from his hands. (4) Most of the time, however, when rustics spoke against him so that he would not destroy their altars, he soothed their pagan hearts with holy words so that, having had the light of truth shown to them, they overturned their own temple themselves.

We have reached a transition section as we move away from miracles performed on St. Martin's cleansing of the countryside around Tours from pagan altars and temples. Here we have two murder attempts supernaturally prevented. This is in line with the stories which emphasize St. Martin's invulnerability. It also underscores the often violent resistance of pagans in the area of Tours to the Christianization of the countryside.

The final line underscores ability of St. Martin to soothe and convince the general population to drop their pagan ways. Whatever else we say about St. Martin, it does seem he has the humility and prescence to persuade all but the most stubborn pagan to convert.

The next section seems to deal with miracles involving various cures, so changes focus away from the countryside. More on that next month.


Saturday, November 03, 2007

Patristics Carnival V is up!

Patristics Carnival V has just hit the Net. Run, do not walk to theGod Fearin' Forum for this month's offerings.

Besides. God Fearin' created a very cool graphic for this carnival which I am plotting to steal (Heh, heh, heh!)

Seriously, God Fearin' has done a great job! Enjoy!

Also, if someone would like to host the next carnival for December, please let me know in the next week or so.


Book Review: Ronald E. Heine, Reading the Old Testament with the Ancient Church.

I just finished Ronald Heine's book, Reading the Old Testament with the Ancient Church, this week. Heine's book is part of the Evangelical Resourcement series from Baker Academic. I haven't read the other books, but I intend to hunt them up in the next few months. The series, of course, is part of the growing interest in the Church Fathers by conservative evangelicals which has spawned such projects as the Ancient Christian Commentary series and a multitude of books including the most recent entry from Brazos, Bryan Litfin's, Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction. .

I am, of course, heavily influenced by some of the big names in the movement, especially Christopher Hall, who really got that ball rolling in the late 90s. The first book on the Fathers I ever read was Hall's book on Reading Scripture through the Fathers, so Heine's subject is familiar. Of course, Heine's interest is more narrowly focused on the Old Testament which presents challenges and issues rather different from those of the patristic treatment of the New Testament. The attempt to read the Old Testament through the eyes of Christ was, of course, one of the major concerns of the Fathers, especially the earliest ones. It is still a task that we continue with, especially in the light of the Holocaust and the reassessment of Christian historical and theological stances to Judaism which followed that horrific event.

Understandably, much of the reaction of contemporary scholars to the patristic treatment of the Old Testament has been to highlight moments of insensitivity or outright anti-Semitism in the Fathers. No one, I think, can deny either of these issues. The stance of the Fathers to Judaism was inherently polemical which made sense because the two had very different readings of the Old Testament which are impossible to reconcile. The result was bitter controversy over readings which, in the style of all intellectual controversy of the day, degenerated quickly into accusations of bad faith and dishonesty on both sides. When the Christian view became backed by the Imperial government (which, in its pagan form, had been hardly pro-Jewish), Judaism began to suffer.

Yet, these same Fathers also establish our reading of the Old Testament in ways that people just don't remember. Heine goes through the way that this reading evolved by looking at the Fathers on such subjects as the Law, Exodus, the Prophets and the Psalms. Each of these presented similar problems because the Christian reading had to be established and defended, sometimes even against the literal sense of the passage. This is where much of the theory about allegory, typology and such like evolved because, otherwise, the Old Testament is a tough sell to Christians. This effort was, of course, started off by Jesus Himself in His explications of various texts as referring to His own coming. The Fathers, however, spend a lot of time working out how the re-reading started by Jesus could be applied through the Law, Prophets and Writings.

Heine's book is valuable for those unfamiliar with this approach and feeling that contemporary approaches are, perhaps, a little lacking. Given the general neglect of the Old Testament and the feeling among many Christians that they really don't know what to do with this series of writings, Heine's contention that the Fathers may be good guides in reading these difficult books should be welcomed. The Fathers, despite their very human failings, have shown themselves to be masters in biblical interpretation. We could definitely have worse guides.