October 15, 2014

Reflections on the “new” Vatican position about homosexuality

Filed under: Ethics,Theology — William Witt @ 7:35 pm
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Melancholy I‘ve been noticing a lot of conversation in the last few days about the Vatican’s apparent “shift” regarding homosexuality, both in the secular press and among Christians. There is both celebrating (by secularists) and gnashing of teeth (by traditional Christians). Before they conclude either that the Vatican has finally “seen the light,” or that “the sky is falling,” people should read the document in its entirety: Relatio post disceptationem.

The document clearly affirms the historic Christian position on marriage. The key paragraph is probably the following:

Jesus Himself, referring to the primordial plan for the human couple, reaffirms the indissoluble union between man and woman, while understanding that “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning” (Mt 19,8). In this way, He shows how divine condescension always accompanies the path of humanity, directing it towards its new beginning, not without passing through the cross.

What is being addressed seems clearly to be an issue of pastoral response to what are described as “wounded families” and “irregular situations.” A number of such “irregular situations” are referred to: African polygamy, children born outside the context of marriage, civil marriages (a problem for Roman Catholics, since non-church marriages are not recognized), religiously “mixed” marriages, non-remarried divorced, remarried divorced, cohabiting couples, homosexuals.
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October 2, 2014

Concerning Women’s Ordination: Speaking and Teaching

Filed under: Theology,Women's Ordination — William Witt @ 5:50 am
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head coveringIn the last few essays in this series on women’s ordination, I have focused on the handful of passages in the writings of the apostle Paul to which complementarians regularly appeal to justify their position that women should always be subordinate to men and should not exercise authority over men in the church. In the previous two essays, I have focused on the two lengthiest passages in Paul’s writings discussing questions of the relationship between men and women: Ephesians 5:21-33, in which Paul discusses the relationship between husbands and wives, and 1 Corinthians 11:3-16, in which Paul talks about disorderly practices connected with the ways in which men and women were leading church worship. I have argued that there is nothing in these passages to suggest a subordination of women to men or a hierarchical order defined by a position of permanent authority of men over women. Appeal to Paul’s metaphor of “head” (Greek kephalē) to justify the complementarian position of “headship” as authority of men over women represents a misunderstanding of how Paul used that metaphor, and is reading into the text something that is not there.

In this essay, I will address two much shorter passages in Paul’s writing which, in the end, provide the strongest biblical warrants to which complementarians appeal, the “last resort” to which appeal is made if all else fails – 1 Corinthians 14:33b-36 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15. (Indeed, these two passages are often the first resort in less formal settings.) At first glance, a straightforward reading of English translations of the passages, especially when select verses are read out of context (as they often are), makes it seem as if Paul intended to forbid any public role to women in worship: “As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches.” (1 Cor. 14:34b-35); “I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” (1 Tim. 2:12.)

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September 12, 2014

Anglican Reflections: What About Priests?

Filed under: Anglicanism,Theology — William Witt @ 12:01 am
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Lamb of GodThe New Testament uses the words episkopos (“bishop”) and presbyteros (“elder”) to refer to those who exercised office in the church, along with diakonos (deacon). It uses the word hiereus, equivalent to English “priest” or Latin sacerdos to refer to Old Testament and Jewish priests (Matt.8:4; John 12:51, Acts 5:27, Heb. 7:14), to the High Priesthood of Jesus (Heb. 4:14), and to the priesthood of the entire church as the people of God (1 Peter 2:9, Rev. 20:6). The New Testament never uses the word hiereus to refer to persons who hold office in the church.

Nonetheless, Anglicans have continued to use the word “priest” to refer to those who hold the office of presbyter, to the consternation of some. Richard Hooker wrote that he preferred the word “presbyter” to “priest” because he would prefer not to offend those who are troubled by the word. The Anglican Reformers rejected the notion of eucharistic sacrifice, and so rejected any notion of priesthood that implied sacrifice. As Richard Hooker asked, “Seeing then that sacrifice is now no part of the church ministry how should the name of Priesthood be thereunto rightly applied?” Hooker believed that the term “priest” was permissible in reference to one “whose mere function or charge is the service of God,” and specifically in reference to the celebration of the eucharist: “The Fathers of the Church of Christ with like security of speech call usually the ministry of the Gospel Priesthood in regard of that which the Gospel hath proportionable to ancient sacrifices, namely the Communion of the blessed Body and Blood of Christ, although it have properly now no sacrifice.” In the end, Hooker did not think the word itself is very important: “Wherefore to pass by the name, let them use what dialect they will, whether we call it a Priesthood, a Presbytership, or a Ministry it skilleth not: Although in truth the word Presbyter doth seem more fit, and in propriety of speech more agreeable than Priest with the drift of the whole Gospel of Jesus Christ.” (Laws 5.58.2-3.)

There are two key aspects of ordained ministry that touch more directly on the “priestly” aspect of ordination in Anglican tradition than the use of the word “priest” as equivalent to “presbyter.”

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September 10, 2014

Concerning Women’s Ordination: Women in Worship and “Headship”

Filed under: Theology,Women's Ordination — William Witt @ 8:40 pm
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head coveringThere are four central passages in the Pauline epistles appealed to by complementarians to argue against women’s ordination or church leadership, based on an inherent subordination of women to male leadership and authority. The first is Ephesians 5:22-33, in which Paul exhorts women to “submit” to their husbands, drawing a parallel between Christ as the “head” of the church and husbands as the “heads” of their wives. I have already discussed this passage at length, arguing that, to the contrary, Paul is asking not for a specific subordination of wives to husbands, but a mutual subordination of all Christians to each other. Moreover, although Paul certainly affirmed that Christ exercised authority in relationship to the church, his use of the metaphor of “head” in relationship to Christ was not in the context of authority, but in the context of a kenotic self-emptying, of a voluntary taking on the role of a servant in relation to another, and in providing nourishment and support to another, what Michael Gorman refers to as “cruciformity,” and what Alan Padgett refers to as “submission II.”1

Ephesians 5 is distinguished from the other three passages in that the subject matter of the passage concerns household relations, and so does not touch directly on the place of women in the context of church worship. To the contrary, 1 Corinthians 11:1-1-16 focuses on problems concerning worship, and is one of three Pauline passages that are the lynchpins of the complementarian argument excluding women from participation in church office. The other two are 1 Cor. 14:34-35, and 1 Timothy 2:9-15. While complementarians appeal to other passages of Scripture to argue for female subordination – the creation narratives of Genesis 1 and 2, the role of women in the Old Testament, Jesus’ relationship to the apostles and to women in the gospels, Ephesians 52 – it is only these three passages that provide specific references to the status of women in the context of worship in the churches of the New Testament. In what immediately follows, I will discuss 1 Corinthians 11; I intend to discuss the other two passages later.

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August 19, 2014

Anglican Reflections: What About the 39 Articles?

Filed under: Anglicanism,Theology — William Witt @ 8:33 pm
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CranmerBroadly speaking, the 39 Articles stands within the tradition of Anglicanism as “reformed catholicism,” or, more specifically, a reforming movement within the western catholic church. (This contrasts with more radical Reformation movements, such as the Anabaptists, and, arguably, the Puritans,who viewed themselves as completely breaking with western catholicism to return to the pristine Christianity of the New Testament.)

The Articles are largely an ecumenical document, the majority of whose statements fall broadly within the parameters of “reformed catholicism.”

Arts. 1-5, 8 affirm historic creedal Nicene and Chalcedonian Christianity.

Arts. 9-10,12-13,15-18 affirm the positions of a moderate Augustinianism. Even art. 17 does not teach a specifically Calvinist doctrine of predestination. There is nothing about negative predestination (reprobation or double predestination). The election that is described is corporate and “in Christ.” (“In Christ” was added to the original 42 Articles.) “Arminians” such as Richard Hooker were able to affirm this article, to the chagrin of strict Calvinists.1

Arts. 6, 7, 11 affirm the sufficiency and primacy of Scripture as well as justification by faith, which are commonly held Reformation positions, although even here, an argument could be made that the position on Scripture is consistent with that of the patristic church, of Eastern theologians such as John Damascene, and Western theologians such as Thomas Aquinas. Anglican theologians such as Cranmer, Jewel, and Hooker make clear that (contrary to the Puritan hermeneutic), Anglicans do not understand the “Scripture principle” in a “regulative” sense.

The “controversial” articles are those articles, especially beginning with Art. 19, “Of the Church,” in which the position of the Church of England is set over against that of other contemporary Reformation-era churches, usually the Tridentine Roman Catholic position, but sometimes that of other Reformation churches, usually those of the Radical Reformation. (Arts. 38-39 are addressed against Anabaptists).

Which of the articles have been “controversial” in the history of Anglicanism and today? Art. 22, repudiating purgatory and icons; Art. 25, concerning the number of sacraments, and seemingly forbidding elevation of the consecrated host; Art. 28-29, which seem to reject any notion of bodily presence (not simply transubstantiation, but also the Orthodox or Lutheran positions) and elevation of the host; Art. 31, which appears to reject any notion of eucharistic sacrifice. Generally, Evangelical Anglicans have tended to be happy with these articles, and Anglo-Catholics unhappy. Conversely, Art. 27 seems on a literal reading to affirm baptismal regeneration, a position not embraced by a good many Evangelical Anglicans.2

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August 17, 2014

A Wedding Sermon

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 5:55 pm
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Song of Songs 2:10-13 and 8:6-7
Psalm 127
Revelation 21:1-7
Mark 10:6-9

For Paul Hunter and Christina Vance

angelusI am honored to preach this morning for the wedding of two of my former students, both of whom I am exceptionally fond. Although faculty do not have favorite students, if they did, Christina and Paul would have been two of my favorite students when they were at Trinity School for ministry, where I teach.

I want to make just a few comments about the lectionary readings, beginning with the gospel. The gospel reading points back to the creation narratives of the first two chapters of Genesis, the first book in the Bible. The context is that Jesus is being asked about whether divorce is ever permissible, and he responds by quoting the 2nd chapter of Genesis: “From the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife. So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Matt. 19:4-6; Gen. 2:24) The Bible begins with marriage. In Genesis 1 we are told that God said, “Let us make the human being in our image, after our likeness. . . . So God created the human being in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen. 1:26-27) The first chapter of the Bible tells us that to be a human being is to be created in the image of God, and to be created in the image of God is to be male or female. It is only as male and female together that we as humans reflect what it means to be created in God’s image.

In Genesis 2, we are told that God created woman because the first human being was alone, and needed a partner. “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the human being should be alone.” (Gen. 2:18) In Hebrew, the word for “human being” is ha’adam, which is the same word as the name “Adam.” The English language has historically not made a distinction between human being and male human being. English often uses the word “man” for both. But Hebrew does use different words for generic “human being” and “male human being.” The Hebrew word “ha’adam” does not mean male human being, but simply “human being.” It is only when God brings the woman to the human being – to Adam – that we first find the use of the word for “man” or “male human being” in the Hebrew text: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she called be called woman, because she was taken out of man.” (Gen. 2:24) It is only when the female human being – the woman – comes into the picture that the original human being is recognized as a male human being – a man.

The point is this, both Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 make it clear that men and women are made for each other, and what it means to be a human being is defined by our relationship to other human beings. Those of us who are men – male human beings – are human beings only as we are in relation to women – female human beings. Women – female human beings – are human beings only as you are in relation to us – male human beings. God intended us to be with one another, and marriage makes this clear. It is marriage that is the foundation of all other human relationships. As human beings, we are not meant to be alone; we are not human beings alone, but only with one another. So the first thing that marriage teaches us is that human beings need one another. We are made to be together.
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August 4, 2014

If God is for Us: A Sermon

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 12:12 am
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Psalm 78
Nehemiah 9:16-20
Romans 8:35-39
Matthew 14:13-21

fishI begin my sermon this morning with a question: What’s going on in the lectionary? During the Season after Pentecost, what is sometimes called “ordinary time,” the lectionary practice is to read through one of the synoptic gospels chapter by chapter and an accompanying epistle the same way. Because the New Testament readings are sequential like this, there is not usually any evident connection between the gospel reading and the epistle reading. What Matthew is saying in his gospel may or may not have anything to do with what Paul is saying in the epistle to the Romans.

Whether it was intended by the lectionary compilers or not, I think that there is a parallel between the epistle and the gospel readings this morning. Let’s begin with the epistle. Romans 8:31-39 is the climax of everything Paul has been writing up to this point in the letter. The main theme in the lectionary reading is God’s love, and is a repetition of what Paul had already said in Romans 5:1-11. In Romans 5, Paul wrote, “[W]e rejoice in our sufferings . . . because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. . . . God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (5:2,5,8) In this morning’s reading, Paul says, “For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” What Paul writes here is a continuation of what we read in last week’s lectionary reading: “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (8:31-32)

If God is for us, who can be against us? Paul lists a number of things that might suggest that God is not for us. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger or sword?” (8:35) People often list just the kinds of things that Paul mentions here as proof that there is no God, or if there is a God, he is not for us, but against us. If I am suffering tribulation or distress, perhaps that means that God has abandoned me. If I cannot provide food for my family, perhaps that means that God does not care for me. If the world is full of violence and war, perhaps that means that there is no God, or God would prevent such things. If Christians suffer persecution, perhaps that means that there is no God because if there were a God, certainly he would protect those who claim to believe in him.

Paul has one response to all of this. We know that God is for us because of an event, something that has happened – the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We know that God is for us because he has given us his Son. In giving us his Son, God has revealed his nature. God has show us in Jesus what he is like. God is love. (more…)

July 24, 2014

Concerning Women’s Ordination: Mutual Submission

Filed under: Theology,Women's Ordination — William Witt @ 9:46 pm
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weddingIn previous essays in this series on women’s ordination, I have distinguished between the two different kinds of arguments used against women’s ordination by those I have designated “Protestants” and those I have designated “Catholics.” Protestants have focused primarily on issues of hierarchy and authority: women cannot be ordained because of an inherent subordination of women to men. In the church and family (at least), men always exercise authority over women; women never exercise authority over men. Because ordination has to do with authority, women cannot be ordained. Women cannot exercise positions of leadership in the church; they cannot preach; they cannot teach men. Catholics have focused instead on issues of sacramental theology: In performing sacramental actions, the ordained act as representatives of Christ. Since Jesus is a male, no woman can represent Christ. Women can exercise other roles in the church, including roles of pastoral leadership, preaching, and teaching. What they cannot do is celebrate the sacraments. Because ordination has to do with celebrating the sacraments, women cannot be ordained.

I have focused so far on Protestant opposition, whose advocates designate their position as “complementarian”: women and men are equal in status, but exercise different complementary “roles.” The term “complementarian” is misleading, since the sole way in which the roles “complement” one another is that men always exercise authority, and women always submit to male authority. I have also focused on the Bible, specifically the creation narratives in Genesis and the teaching of Jesus and his interactions with women because the doctrines of creation and Christology are crucial to the debate. I have argued that both Genesis and the gospels actually count against the complementarian position. Far from suggesting that there is an inherent hierarchical relation between men and women, both the creation narratives and the gospel narratives point in the opposite direction. Genesis 1-3 teaches that men and women are equally created in the image of God, and the subordination of women is a consequence of the fall into sin, not part of God’s intention in the original creation.

Looking to the gospels, we find that although Jesus lived in a highly patriarchal culture, he deliberately subverted hierarchical relations between men and women by challenging the “shame culture” of the first century Mediterranean world, by treating women as equals, by having women as disciples. In his call to his disciples voluntarily to take on the role of servants to one another, Jesus challenged the notion of hierarchical relations between men and women rather than endorsing it. Nothing in either Genesis or the gospels teaches or implies an essential ontological subordination of women to men.

However, although complementarians appeal to Genesis and the gospels to argue for female subordination, the primary complementarian arguments against women’s ordination come from the epistles of the apostle Paul. Paul has no extended discussion of a theology of the relations between men and women. Instead Paul’s views on men and women and how they relate to one another occur in places in Paul’s occasional theology in which he writes about men and women in the context of some other issue: household management, worship in the church, whether the single should marry. It is this handful of occasional texts in Paul’s letters that have become central to the debate.

Complementarians appeal to two kinds of texts to support their position: texts advocating submission of women to men; texts restricting women’s activity in worship, either in speaking or teaching. In addition, in two letters (1 Corinthians and Ephesians), Paul uses the word kephale, the Greek word translated “head” in English to describe the relation between men and women. This single word kephale is so central to the complementarian position that complementarians regularly use the term “headship” to describe their position, even when discussing passages where the word kephale does not appear. For example, Wayne Grudem refers to “male headship” in his discussion of Genesis 1-3 although the Hebrew word for “head” that would have been translated kephale in the Greek Septuagint appears nowhere in the creation narratives. George Knight entitles the two main chapters of his book on The Role Relationship of Men and Women, “Submission and Headship in Marriage” and “Submission and Headship in the Church.”1

Readers of Paul have responded to this handful of Pauline texts in different ways. Complementarians have appealed to them as the definitive lynchpin in support of their position. Secular and liberal Protestant feminists have instead treated these passages as an excuse to dismiss Paul as an irremediable sexist. Other Christians, who recognize the canonical status of Paul’s writings and appreciate Paul’s crucial significance for Christian theology, especially his account of redeeming grace centered in the cross and resurrection of Christ, the Christian liberty that is a characteristic implication of his theology of grace (Gal. 5:1), and his affirmation of the fundamental equality of men and women in their unity in Christ (Gal. 3:28), read these passages with a kind of discomfort, perhaps wishing that Paul had not written them, or, in some cases, relieved that he did not.2

In recent decades, however, there have been numerous biblical scholars who have argued that a more careful reading of these passages does not support the subordinationist reading. What Paul writes is not inconsistent with the egalitarian position of Genesis or the gospels, and Paul should neither be appealed to as an advocate of male hierarchy, nor dismissed as a sexist. In the next several essays, I want to look again at these controversial passages in Paul’s epistles. In this essay, I am going to look at Paul’s discussion of the relationship between husbands and wives in Ephesians 5 because I believe that it is the key New Testament passage laying out Paul’s understanding of the relationship between men and women. Other passages need to be understood in the light of this passage.3

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July 8, 2014

Anglican Reflections: What About Apostolic Succession?

Filed under: Anglicanism,Theology — William Witt @ 9:05 pm
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Four_ApostlesApostolic succession has had three different meanings in the history of the church.1

(a) In the second century, apostolic succession was important (over against gnosticism) because of the issue of historical continuity. A historical succession of bishops was one of the four marks distinguishing catholic Christians from their gnostic opponents. Those churches that recognized the canonical authority of Scripture, interpreted and summarized Scripture by the Rule of Faith, and worshiped in word and Sacrament were the same churches that could trace their history through a succession of bishops from the apostles. This is the argument used by Irenaeus in Against Heresies 3.3,4. The focus here is on succession of bishops as an assurance of orthodox teaching.

(b) The bishops are successors of apostles in the sense that they continue to exercise various functions exercised by the apostles: teaching, preaching, celebrating the sacraments, ordination.

(c) The most controversial understanding of apostolic succession is that the “grace” of ordination is handed down from the apostles from one generation of bishops to another through the laying on of hands.

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July 7, 2014

Anglican Reflections: What About Bishops?

Filed under: Anglicanism,Theology — William Witt @ 12:07 pm
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I received the following question in my email and thought it worth sharing my response:

I am having a hard time wrapping my mind around the defense for episcopal church government. I can see the case for a plurality of elders in the New Testament, but this would seemingly lend itself to either a Presbyterian or Congregational polity. What is the best defense for the role of bishops? Can we defend it from the New Testament? And how do Anglicans account for the plurality of elders, such as revealed in Philippians 1:1?

The following is my own argument, but is a summary of arguments that can be found in numerous sources. A bibliography occurs at the end.

BishopAlmost immediately after the Reformation, Anglicans acknowledged that the distinction between bishops and presbyters is not clearly articulated in the New Testament. Episcopacy was still defended, and a number of similar arguments have been used and repeated, beginning at least from the time of Richard Hooker.

The first issue has to do with the difference between exegesis and hermeneutics, that is, the difference between what Scripture meant in its original historical setting and how the church applies Scripture to its life today. The fundamental difference between Richard Hooker and his Puritan opponents had to do with the issue of contemporary application. Both Hooker and the Puritans agreed that Scripture was the final authority for Christian doctrine and practices, but they differed on what that meant for the contemporary application of Scripture. The Puritans subscribed to the “regulative” principle of biblical interpretation: whatever is not specifically commanded in Scripture is forbidden. Accordingly, they were opposed to such practices as the exchange of wedding rings, written liturgies (such as the Book of Common Prayer), hymns (apart from the Psalms), vestments, and bishops, insofar as the Puritans noted correctly that the New Testament makes no inherent distinction between presbyteroi (presbyters) and episkopoi (bishops). To the contrary, Hooker embraced a permissive understanding of biblical hermeneutics: whatever Scripture does not explicitly forbid is permitted. Moreover, Hooker distinguished between matters of doctrine and morals (which are unchangeable), and matters of civil and ritual law (which are changeable by the church). The famous distinction between moral, civil and ritual law is not original to Hooker; it can be found in Thomas Aquinas, in the Lutheran Confessions, and in John Calvin. Hooker also insisted, however, that the distinction meant that churches were free to adopt ecclesiastical practices that were not explicitly commanded in the New Testament as long as they were not forbidden. This included written prayers (liturgical worship, including the Prayer Book), practices such as exchanging wedding rings, and retaining the historic catholic practice of the three-fold order of bishops, priests, and deacons – even if that order is not explicitly commanded or found in the New Testament. (more…)

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