March 28, 2014

Knowing the Light and Walking in the Light: A Sermon

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 7:02 pm
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1 Samuel 16:1-13
Ephesians 5:(1-7)8-14
John 9:1-13(14-27)28-38
Psalm 23

Plato and AristotleRecently, I have been reading a book about the influence of the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle in the history of Western civilization. It is a fascinating book that shows how these two Greek philosophers who lived approximately four hundred years before the birth of Jesus Christ have repeatedly influenced Western thought for over two milennia. The book is entitled The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization.1 The title takes its name from Plato’s famous analogy of the cave. You’re familiar with the analogy? In Plato’s dialogue, The Republic, Socrates suggests that the human situation is something like that of a group of people who have been chained in a cave all of their lives facing a blank wall. Behind the people are a group of figures whose shadows are being cast on the wall in front of them by a fire –something like shadow puppets –and the people are trying to make sense of the silhouettes. These shadows are the only reality the people know. Socrates then asks what would happen if someone were to be released from the cave and were to venture out into the world above to see the sun and nature as it really exists. If such a person were then to return to the cave and tell what he or she had seen, the man or woman would not be believed. The people in the cave know what reality is. It is the shadows that they can see on the wall. They cannot imagine anything else.

Arthur Herman, the author of the book, contrasts Plato’s understanding of reality – knowing the unchanging truth that lies behind the illusory shadows – with Aristotle’s. In contrast to Plato’s focus on knowing the permanent and unchangeable, Aristotle insisted that we could find reality in the ordinary day to day world in the midst of which we live our lives. Where Plato wanted to leave the cave, Aristotle insisted that the cave was where we needed to get to work.

Each philosophy has its consequences for how we live. To be simplistic, Plato’s philosophy included an ethic that focused on knowledge, specifically, knowledge of that which is certain and permanent and about which one cannot be mistaken. Aristotle’s ethic focused instead on what he called “practical knowledge,” that is, how to get things done in a world that was not certain or permanent, and which changed constantly. So Plato’s prescription for how we should live focuses on “knowing.” Aristotle’s focuses on “doing.” There’s a silly joke that’s been around for awhile that gets the philosophers wrong, but basically gets the idea right, so I’ll adjust it by providing the correct names. Plato said: “To be is to do.” Aristotle said: “To do is to be.” Frank Sinatra said: “Do be do be do.” And, of course, Fred Flintstone said: “Yabba Dabba Do.” And Scooby Do said “Scooby Dooby Do.”

Both philosophies have their influences, and also their characteristic errors. The characteristic error of Platonism would be the Socratic fallacy. If we only know the right thing, we’ll be sure to do it. Of course, that is not the case. We all do things that we know we should not do. The characteristic heresies associated with Aristotle are perhaps Pelagianism and antinomianism. Although these are opposite heresies, they are both characterized by a focus on action, on what we do rather than on what we know, on, as we say, “pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps.” So today the descendents of Plato would be the ideologues, the people who spend hours on their computers typing comments on social media because someone on the internet said something that was wrong. The descendents of Aristotle are the activists. They can be do-gooders who try to change the world for the better, but they can also be the busy bodies who make everyone else’s life miserable by trying to straighten them out.

Why bring up Plato and Aristotle in a Lenten sermon? As we look at the lectionary readings these morning, we note that there is a common theme about “seeing” and “light,” especially when we compare the gospel and epistle readings. John’s gospel tells the story of Jesus healing a man born blind. Before Jesus heals the man, he says: “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” (John 9:6). At the end of the passage, Jesus says: “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” (v. 39). The Ephesians passage contains the statement: “Walk as children of light . . . and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord” and concludes, “But when anything is exposed to the light, it becomes visible. . .” (Eph. 5:8,14) The similarities to Plato and Aristotle are certainly intriguing. There is the same imagery of light and darkness. The John passage, like Plato’s analogy of the cave, focuses on “seeing.” To the contrary, while the Ephesians passage uses light imagery with its contrast between light and darkness, the focus is on “doing,” more like Aristotle. John seems to be focusing on knowing the light. Paul focuses on “walking in the light.” (more…)

March 9, 2014

Concerning Women’s Ordination: Disciples of Jesus

Filed under: Theology,Women's Ordination — William Witt @ 5:57 am
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PDF Version of This Document

Previous posts in this series include:

Concerning Women’s Ordination: Preliminaries
Non-theological Arguments Against the Ordination of Women
Concerning Women’s Ordination: The Argument “From Tradition” is not the Traditional Argument
Concerning Women’s Ordination: Hierarchy and Hermeneutics
Concerning Women’s Ordination: Beginning with Genesis

“For Martha”

christ_in_the_house_of_martha_and_maryIn previous essays in this discussion of women’s ordination, I have identified two basic theological rationales endorsed by two different groups who oppose women’s ordination – a Protestant approach and a Catholic approach. Both oppose women’s ordination, but for very different reasons. Protestant opposition to the ordination of women focuses on hierarchy and authority, and bases its case on passages (especially in some of the New Testament epistles) that suggest that women should be in subordination to men or that women should not speak in church or teach men. Catholic opposition focuses not on authority, but on sacramental theology. It is claimed that women lack some essential characteristic that is necessary for administering the sacraments.

Both arguments also appeal to Jesus, but do so for contrary reasons. The Catholic position emphasizes that both Jesus and his twelve apostles were all males. Since, it is argued, the ordained clergy represent Christ when they administer the sacraments – the ordained presbyter/priest acts as a representative of or “in the person of” Christ (in persona christi) – a woman cannot be ordained because a female presbyter cannot represent a male Christ. Conversely, the Protestant position has recently stressed an argument drawn from a novel interpretation of the doctrine of the Trinity. Protestant opponents to the ordination of woman have argued for a parallel between the eternal relations of the divine persons of the Trinity and the relations between men and women. It is argued that, although all three persons of the Trinity are ontologically equal, from eternity the Son has a “role” of subordination to the Father, and the Father has a “role” of authority over the Son. From all eternity, the Father commands and the Son obeys. Similarly, it is argued, there is a parallel relation between men and women. Men and women are ontologically equal, yet, just as with the Father and the Son, there is always a subordination of “roles” between men and women. Men always exercise authority over women, and women are always subordinate to men.

The Catholic and Protestant positions thus provide contrary reasons for not ordaining women to church office. For the Catholic position, women cannot be ordained because they do not resemble Christ. For the Protestant position, women cannot be ordained because they do.

At the same time, insofar as these ironically contrary reasons for not ordaining women appeal to Christology for their opposition to women’ ordination, they share a common characteristic. Both positions use highly abstract arguments that are somewhat removed from the actual narratives about Jesus in the gospels or the specific focus of the teaching about Jesus in the epistles. The Catholic argument presupposes a specific understanding of the role of ordained clergy in celebrating the eucharist that seems to have been formulated first in the Medieval period, and then attaches to that theological understanding reflection on its significance for women that seems first to have appeared in an encyclical of Pope Paul VI in the twentieth century. The Protestant argument makes highly questionable assumptions about the eternal relations of the divine persons of the Trinity, insisting that the “economic” obedience of Jesus to his Father that appears in the gospels (an obedience of the Son in his “mission” as God become human) is a direct parallel to an eternal subordination of authority and obedience in the “immanent” Trinity itself, and, furthermore, that this eternal obedience of the Son to the Father is directly parallel to a permanent role of obedience of women to men.1

Needless to say, neither of these arguments reflects a careful exegetical reading of what the New Testament actually says about Jesus. There are no New Testament discussions whatsoever about the role of ordained clergy in celebrating the eucharist, let alone what its theological implications might be for the ordination of women; nowhere in the New Testament is there a parallel drawn between the highly speculative theory about an eternal obedience of the Son to the Father in the immanent Trinity and a permanent subordination of women to men.2

At the same time, both positions are correct that a discussion of ordination and the relation between men and women rightly needs to focus on Jesus, and that what the New Testament teaches about Jesus is finally normative for what the church believes about the relations between men and women, and, ultimately for the question of whether women can be ordained to ordained ministry.

In what follows, I will examine the significance of what the gospels teach about Jesus for its significance for the relations between men and women. (In a subsequent essay, I intend to write about the same issue in the Pauline epistles.) In particular, I will focus on the question of subordination. Does the New Testament teach a permanent subordination of women to men, and does it do so based on the example of Jesus? (The essay will focus, then, on Protestant rationales for opposition to the ordination of women. The Catholic sacramental argument that a female presbyter cannot represent a male Christ will be addressed in a later essay.) In addition, in contrast to the highly abstract Christological arguments endorsed by both Protestants and Catholics, this essay will focus on the specific concrete teaching of the New Testament gospels, particularly the implications of their narrative and symbolic logic. (more…)

January 16, 2014

Behold the Lamb of God! A Sermon on Sin and Freedom

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 12:24 am
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Psalm 40:1-10
Isaiah 49:1-7
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-41

Lamb of GodIn our gospel reading this morning, John the Baptist announces: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29). John’s statement is a brief summary of the heart of the Christian faith. Christian faith is about Jesus. Who is Jesus? He is someone who has a special relationship to God. “He is the Lamb of God.” He is also, according to John’s gospel, “the Word of God,” “the Son of God,” “the Christ,” “the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” the “Bread of life,” “the Water of life,” and a number of other things.

What does Jesus do? He takes away the sin of the world. These are the two central affirmations of Christian faith. Lose either affirmation – who Jesus is and what Jesus does – and you no longer have Christian faith. Yet both of these affirmations have become increasingly problematic in contemporary Western culture, and, significantly enough, I think, the second more than the first.

Let me illustrate what I mean by mentioning two incidents that happened in the last several weeks, one in secular culture and one in the church. The first is the notorious Duck Dynasty incident. Phil Robertson, the star of a reality television series about a family of self-styled backwoods Bible thumpers who became millionaires from making duck calls created a cultural firestorm when he answered a question addressed to him in a magazine interview: “What in your mind is sinful?” I am not going to repeat Robertson’s answer here. You are no doubt familiar with the story.

The second event was the appearance of a new Church of England baptismal rite. Supposedly the rite had been rewritten to put it in the language of East Enders in London, who apparently could not make sense of the current rite of baptism in the Church of England’s Common Worship liturgy. What is significant about the new rite is not that the language is simplified so that East Enders can understand it, but that the language changes the actual meaning of the rite. It removes all language of sin, and all references to Jesus as Savior from sin. The baptized no longer “die to sin,” but to “all that destroys.” The baptized do not renounce sin; they renounce evil. Throughout the new liturgy, in every case in which the word “sin” appears in the current rite, the word “evil” is substituted.

What both of these incidents have in common is that they reflect the discomfort our society currently has with the notion of sin. (more…)

January 8, 2014

The New Church of England Baptismal Liturgy

Filed under: Anglicanism — William Witt @ 7:14 pm
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My brief (for me) comments on the new Church of England baptismal liturgy.

Evil is horizontal language. Sin is vertical language. An atheist can reject evil. Sin always has reference primarily to God. Dropping the language of sin is carried through to soteriology. The baptized no longer turn to Christ as “Saviour,” but simply “turn to Christ.” They no longer “submit to Christ as Lord” and Christ is no longer identified as “the way, the truth, and the life.” The extent of Christology is that the baptized “trusts” in Christ and promises to “follow him for ever.”

It is interesting that the baptismal prayer omits all language of sin. The apostles’ creed is dropped in preference to vague promises to trust God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The prayers again omit any reference to sin or forgiveness of sin.

This strikes me as a Nestorian (or adoptionist) Christology an Abelardian soteriology, a Pelagian anthropology and an ethics that has only the second table of the law.

The formula itself does at least contain the traditional trinitarian names of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but if we take seriously the principle of lex orandi lex credendi, it is questionable whether this is even a Christian rite of baptism because the content of the faith in to which the person is baptized is not Christian faith.

January 3, 2014

On “Lutheran” Anglicanism

Filed under: Anglicanism,Spiritualty,Theology — William Witt @ 7:56 pm
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Luther"Last summer, my friend David Koyzis started a conversation about why there are so many Baptists who call themselves “Calvinists,” but no “Lutheran” Baptists.

David might be surprised to know that there are Anglicans who call themselves “Lutherans.” They have historical connection with Trinity School for Ministry in connection with a former Dean/President, and every year I discover at least one or two new students in my classes who identify with this “Lutheran” Anglicanism. The recent publication of this book reminded me that “Lutheran” Anglicanism is alive and well, and has prompted me to post my own assessment of “Lutheran” Anglicanism.

Before I give my own assessment of Lutheran Anglicanism, I should perhaps say a little about my own acquaintance with Luther and Lutheranism before I encountered the “Lutheran” Anglicans. During my years at graduate school, I came across Luther as part of my studies, and knew several Lutherans who were fellow students. I studied Luther primarily in courses on Christology and liturgy, and included a chapter on Luther in my dissertation. My assessment of Luther was mixed. I appreciated most Luther’s Christology and his sacramental theology, although I found his theology of the ubiquity of Christ’s ascended human nature problematic. I was less happy with Luther’s Bondage of the Will, where I thought he could have learned a thing or two from Thomas Aquinas or Augustine. Luther’s failure to distinguish adequately between natural and moral freedom combined with a failure to distinguish adequately between foreknowledge and predestination led to a determinist doctrine of human will and divine predetermination that made God responsible for sin. Luther’s way of stating the distinction between the “hidden” and “revealed God” was rightly repudiated by Karl Barth as undermining the fundamental theological thesis that God is in himself who he is in his revelation. I was also less than happy with Luther’s “law/gospel” hermeneutic, which, while it had some validity for interpreting certain passages in Paul’s letters to the Galatians and the Romans was largely a case of eisegesis if imposed on the Bible as a whole. As a Reformation Christian, I embraced Luther’s doctrines of sola scriptura, and justification by grace alone through faith alone, not because they were Luther’s but because I believe them correct – although I tended to understand the Reformation sola’s through Anglican eyes.

As part of my doctoral research, I read quite a bit in modern secondary literature on Luther. I read not only Luther, but became familiar with some of the key hallmarks of Lutheran theology – the Augsburg Confession, and much of the material in the Book of Concord. I also became familiar with a few modern Lutheran theologians: Soren Kierkegaard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gustaf Aulen, Helmut Thielicke, and contemporary Lutherans such as Wolfhart Pannenberg, Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson, Gilbert Meilaender and David Yeago. Overall, my assessment of Luther and Lutheranism was mostly positive.

I discovered a very different “Luther” and approach to “Lutheranism” among the “Lutheran” Anglicans, a kind of Lutheranism I had never encountered before. This “Lutheran” Anglicanism was a variant on a way of reading Luther that Lutheran theologian Gilbert Meilaender calls “dialectical Lutheranism”1

Dialectical Lutheranism is distinguished by the following key characteristics: (more…)

December 21, 2013

What Happened to Pluralism? The Duck Dynasty Fiasco

Filed under: Christianity and Politics — William Witt @ 11:40 pm
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Melancholy It seems to me that a key issue here is that of genuine pluralism. Most people spend their time with other people who are much like they are and who largely share their own values and views. This social isolation tends to be self-reinforcing as we simply presume that our own views and values are self-evidently correct. We seldom encounter those who disagree strongly with our views, and we tend to characterize those who are not part of our own “in group” as not only “the other,” but also as self-evidently in error, and, if obstinately holding their views, perversely in error.

When people (of whatever ideological commitment) come to share social power, the immediate temptation is to use that power to surround oneself with those of like-minded commitments, but, not only that, to use that power to reinforce the “in group” ideology, and to limit the expression of those characterized as “the other.”

From Pius IX’s principle that “Error has no rights” to McCarthyism to the Soviet Gulags to the A&E and Duck Dynasty, the knee-jerk tendency is simply to “shut up” those who are self-evidently deluded.

The alternative is genuine pluralism. Genuine pluralism presupposes that cultures and societies are formed of numerous social groups, who, simply because they are different social groups, will necessarily hold views that are at odds with one another. Genuine pluralism insists that this is a good thing and to be encouraged, and that the best way to resolve issues of disagreement is through public discussion and the genuine politics of “give and take.” If nothing else, pluralism is to be encouraged not only because our own views may be those that are in error and cannot be corrected without being willing to listen to those who disagree with us, but because the alternative to pluralism may mean that it is our own views that are suppressed tomorrow. (more…)

October 27, 2013

The Trinitarian Unity of the Church: A Sermon on Ecumenism

Filed under: Ecumenism,Sermons — William Witt @ 6:31 pm
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Ephesians 4:1-16
John 17:11-26

TrinityThe epistle reading from Ephesians and the reading from John’s gospel are perhaps the two single most frequently cited biblical passages about the unity of the church. Certainly unity is a central theme in both passages: Ephesians 4 rings the changes one the word “one”: There is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all (Eph. 4:4-6). John has what is sometimes called Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer, where he prays that his followers will be one even as he and the Father are one (John 17:11,22). And, of course, unity is one of the four classic marks of the church: The church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

What is the nature of the church’s unity that is such a major theme in these passages? There have been numerous answers to this question given in the history of theology. The 39 Articles and the Lutheran confessions speak of that unity in terms of activities that the church performs: The church is where the word is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered. The Roman Catholic Church has historically placed that unity institutionally: The church consists of all those who are in communion with the pope, the bishop of Rome. Anglo-Catholics have focused on historical continuity. The church is rightly found in those churches who can trace their succession through a series of bishops to the apostles. In the last century or so, many of the Orthodox have focused on Sobornost, a notion of the church as a community or fellowship based in freedom and love. In the last several decades, Christian ethicists such as Stanley Hauerwas have focused on the understanding of the church as a community of character, of Christian discipleship as a path of virtue whose primary focus is following the way of Jesus in the non-violent way of the cross.

What all of these descriptions have in common is that they are descriptions of the church from our point of view, from the ground up, as it were. Sometimes it helps to look at things from a different point of view. What is different about the way in which Ephesians and the Gospel of John look at the unity of the church is that they look at things from the opposite point of view, not from the ground up, but from the top down, from a God’s-eye point of view, as it were.

Both Ephesians and the Gospel of John point to the unity of the church first in the unity of the Trinitarian persons. The church is one because God is one. But God is not simply one as a monad. God is a unity of love between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In Ephesians, Paul writes: “There is one body and one Spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6). John records Jesus’ prayer “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us . . .” (John 17:21). We might read John’s approach as binitarian rather than trinitarian, except that in Jesus’ Last Supper discourse in John, he had already talked at great length about the Comforter, the paraklete, whom Jesus says, he will “send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father.” (John 15:26). So the church’s unity originates first in the unity of the Trinitarian persons. Again, the church is one because the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one. (more…)

October 22, 2013

Concerning Women’s Ordination: Beginning with Genesis

Filed under: Theology,Women's Ordination — William Witt @ 6:58 pm
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Adam and EveThe doctrine of creation is crucial to a number of related theological issues, and theologians have appealed to it when addressing numerous issues. Often theologians have engaged in a speculative exercise in which they distinguish between a created and a fallen world to address issues that initially might not seem directly related to the doctrine of creation. For example, theologians interested in the relation between Christian faith and politics have sometimes speculated about whether there would have been government if there had been no sin. Augustinians (and Lutherans) have tended to understand government as primarily concerned with justice, and, in particular with restraining and punishing evildoers in a fallen world. So, they have argued, there would have been no need for government if there had been no fall. To the contrary, Thomists (and some Calvinists) have suggested rather that the purpose of government is to promote the common good, and, even in an unfallen world, government would have existed. For example, even in an unfallen world, if people drove automobiles, there would need to be some way of deciding whether drivers should drive on the left or the right side of the street. How one answers this question will largely determine whether one sees the present function of government as a necessary evil, and, accordingly, limited largely to military and police functions, or, rather, whether one sees executing justice as only one of government’s functions, which would also include numerous public goods as well: highways, national parks, promoting the arts, public education, economic assistance to the poor, having a positive role in promoting a healthy economy, publicly funded health care.

Similarly the distinction between “natural law,” “ceremonial law,” and “civil law” that one finds in theologians and theological traditions as diverse as Thomas Aquinas, Richard Hooker, John Calvin, and the Lutheran Confessions, presupposes a distinction between the kinds of laws that are rooted in the nature of creation itself, and the laws that would exist only in a sinful world. (Thomas Aquinas argues, for example, that there would have been no private property and no need for laws against theft if there had been no sin.) Contemporary discussions about sexuality, particularly the question of whether Christians should approve of same-sex sexual activity, ultimately must address this question of “natural law,” that is, what was God’s original intent in creating human beings as male and female, and what bearing does this have on sexual ethics?

In the area of soteriology, theologians have speculated about such things as whether the Word of God would have become incarnate even if human beings had never sinned – the Medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas answered “no, while Duns Scotus answered “yes.” In the Reformed tradition, supralapsarians and infralapsarians disagreed about whether the doctrine of election presupposed a fallen or unfallen humanity.

For similar reasons, the doctrine of creation is important for assessing concerns about women’s ordination. The interpretation of Genesis 1-3 has played a major role in the discussion of women’s place, not only in the church, but also in marriage, and culture. The crucial question has to do with the interpretation of Genesis 3:16b: “Your desire shall be for your husband; he shall rule over you.” Is this verse a command, a curse, or a description? Is it a command that is a furthering of a subordination that was nonetheless part of God’s intention in creation, or, rather, a punishment or curse in response to sin, or, neither part of God’s intention for creation or a curse, but simply a description of the way things are in a fallen world, and thus a departure from God’s intention in creation? To be specific, if human beings had never sinned, would women be subordinate to men? And, even if subordination is only a consequence of the fall, is that subordination something willed by God or something to be overcome as much as possible? (more…)

October 5, 2013

The Just Shall Live by Faith: A Sermon

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 3:40 am
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Habakkuk 1:1-13: 2:1-4
Psalm 37
1 Timothy 1:1-14
Luke 17:5-10

agnus deiWhen I was a young man, the philosophy of existentialism was the main competition to Christian faith among secularists. The names of Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus were considered to offer the biggest challenge for Christians to address. Existentialism was even a theme in popular culture. When he first started out his career, Woody Allen’s movies were an outlet for existentialist themes. Existentialism seems to have fizzled out sometime in the early 1980’s, and in recent years it has been replaced by the New Atheism. Existentialists and the New Atheists have a lot in common, but also some considerable differences. Existentialists tended to be atheists, but they could also be agnostics. They tended to be neurotic. They wondered if life had meaning if there was no God. They tended to be nicer than the New Atheists. The New Atheists have no doubts. They don’t worry about whether life has meaning. They know that there is no God, and they’re angry at him for creating the world.

The single theme that unites the old existentialists and the New Atheists is the conviction that the evil and suffering that exists in the world makes it impossible to believe in a good and omnipotent God. At the end of Woody Allen’s movie Love and Death, his character says, “You know, if it turns out that there IS a God, I don’t think that He’s evil. I think that the worst you can say about Him is that, basically, He’s an underachiever.” The late Christopher Hitchens wrote a book entitled God is Not Great, but perhaps it really should have been titled God is not Good. Among other things, he writes in that book: “The Bible may, indeed does, contain a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre, but we are not bound by any of it because it was put together by crude, uncultured human mammals.”

Woody Allen certainly thought that he was being humorous in his quip about God being an underachiever, and I have no doubt that Christopher Hitchens thought his comments about the Bible and the kinds of people who wrote it was rather clever. If however, they thought that they were being original, that no one had ever expressed concerns about the goodness of God before, they were just a bit naïve, as we can find when we read the passage from this morning’s Old Testament lectionary passage from Habbukuk. Habbukuk looks at the world around him, and, in the light of what he sees expresses just as much concern about the goodness of God as does any twentieth century existentialist or twenty-first century New Atheist.

There is a common theme in Habbukuk and Psalm 37, which is why both are likely included in the readings this morning: Where is God when the unrighteous prosper, and the righteous are oppressed? The Psalm directly answers the question: “Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers! For they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb.” (v. 1) What we find in the Psalm is a typical example of a pattern we often find in prophetic literature. The righteous can be assured because God’s justice will eventually punish the unrighteous and the righteous will be rewarded. The Psalmist says: “Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil. For the evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.” (v. 9)

Habbukuk is different, however. In Habakkuk, we find the prophet questioning the traditional prophetic pattern. Habakkuk questions God in a way that is paralleled perhaps only by the Book of Job in the Old Testament. In chapter 1, Habakkuk complains to God about the prospering of the wicked: “O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see inquity, and why do you idly look at wrong? . . . For the wicked surround the righteous, so justice goes forth perverted.” (v. 2) This is standard prophetic fare.

And the standard prophetic answer comes in the following verses. God is not going to allow the wicked to prosper forever. They will be destroyed. The LORD promises in verse 5: “Look among the nations and see; wonder and be astounded/ For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told.” God then tells the prophet about how he will punish injustice: “For behold I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize dwellings not their own.” This is the traditional prophetic answer, and it sounds much like what we have read in Psalm 37.

But here things turn interesting. Habakkuk has received the standard prophetic answer, but he does not accept it. Habakkuk is actually bold enough to suggest that God does not know what he is doing! The Chaldeans were a notoriously merciless bunch of conquerors. If the leaders of Israel were unjust, the Chaldeans were wicked without qualification. Is not using the Chaldeans to punish the unrighteous in Israel only making a bad situation worse? If the problem is the rule of the unrighteous, the Chaldeans will only bring in a new bunch, even more unrighteous. Habakkuk challenges God: “Are you not from everlasting. O Lord my God, my holy One? We shall not die.” (v. 12) He appeals to God’s own righteousness. “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil, and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and are silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” (v. 13) Then in a passage that the lectionary leaves out, Habbukuk compares the Chaldeans to a fisherman who casually harvests the innocent in a net: “You make mankind like the fish of the sea . . . He brings all of them up with a hook; he drags them out with his net. . . . Is he then to keep on emptying his net and mercilessly killing nations forever?” (v. 14-17)

When we read this kind of language in the Bible it suggests that the complaints of modern secularists are rather “small potatoes” by comparison. Habakkuk goes a lot further than Woody Allen’s observation in Love and Death that God is an underachiever. He actually has the gall to take God to task and to say “This just won’t do!” And then goes even further. Habakkuk goes on a sit down strike. The prophet says to God: “I’m going to wait here until you give me an acceptable answer!” In chapter 2:1, we read: “I will take my stand at my watchpost and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what he will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint.”

The point here is not that Habakkuk questions God’s justice. From the beginning to end, the prophet assumes that God is just. This is what makes Habakkuk more interesting than Woody Allen or Christopher Hitchens. Anybody can look at the world and realize it’s a mess. Anybody can look at the mess and then conclude that no one must be in charge. Habakkuk knows that God is in charge, and he knows that God is righteous. So if there is a mess, he knows that ultimately there has to be an explanation that makes some kind of sense, since he knows that God is in charge, and God is righteous.

And the really interesting thing is that God responds to Habakkuks’ challenge. “And the LORD answered me; Write the vision make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it. For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end – it will not lie. If it seems slow wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay.” (Habakkuk 2:2-3) The next line is obscure “Behold the soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him,” – Is this referring to the Chaldeans? – but the conclusion contains one of the those greatest hits of Scripture quotations: “the righteous shall live by his faith.” (vs. 4) (more…)

September 29, 2013

Concerning Women’s Ordination: Hierarchy and Hermeneutics

Filed under: Theology,Women's Ordination — William Witt @ 6:47 pm
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woman peeling applesIn previous posts in this series on women’s ordination I have identified two very different groups who are in opposition to women’s ordination – which I have referred to as “Protestant” and “Catholic” – and have noticed that their reasons for opposition are very different from one another. For the “Protestants,” the opposition is based on a hierachical understanding of authority: women are subordinate to men, and should never exercise authority over men. For the “Catholics,” the opposition is twofold: (1) the tradition of the church: traditionally, the church has ordained only males; (2) a sacramental understanding of ordination: women cannot be ordained because the priesthood is in succession to the apostolate, and Jesus chose only male apostles; in presiding at the eucharist, the presbyter represents Christ (in persona Christi), and a woman cannot represent Christ.

Although clearly advocating very different theological rationales, both groups claim simply to be representing the historic tradition of the church. In a previous post, I have argued that the theological rationales being offered by both groups represent new theological positions in response to the recent recognition of the equality of women. Accordingly, neither group represents the “historic” tradition of the church; both offer new reasons for opposition to women’s ordination.

In the posts that follow, I hope to address the theological rationales behind these new positions for opposing women’s ordination. Because “Protestant” opponents represent very different reasons for opposition to ordination than do “Catholic” opponents, the two groups will need to be addressed separately. Whether one begins with the “Protestant” opposition or the “Catholic” is a somewhat arbitrary decision, but I have chosen to begin by discussing the Protestant position because its opposition is primarily based on what its advocates claim to be biblical grounds. Discussion of what Scripture actually says about men and women will provide helpful theological background for discussion of not only Protestant, but also, Catholic opposition to the ordination of women.

Complementarianism

Who is Wayne Grudem? That might seem to be an odd question to begin such a discussion. However, for those not informed about the discussion of women’s ordination among Evangelical Protestants in particular, the name is important to know. Although there are many Protestants who are opposed to women’s ordination – entire denominations (such as the Southern Baptists and the Missouri Synod Lutherans, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church), their related seminaries (Southrn Baptist Seminary, Concordia Seminary, Westminster Seminary), and several parachurch organizations (Campus Crusade for Christ, Focus on the Family, Promise Keepers) – Grudem is the single individual who is most identified with the cause of opposition to women’s ordination among American Evangelical Protestants. In 1991, Grudem and John Piper edited Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism,1 a series of essays that marked the beginning of the theology of “complementarianism,” and the formation of a group called “The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.” Since then, Grudem has become the chief spokesperson for complementarianism, publishing several subsequent books and articles, most notably in recent years, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth: An Analysis of More than One Hundred Disputed Questions,2 an 800 page book responding to Evangelical advocates of women’s ordination. (more…)

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