March 21, 2012

Some Brief Reflections on Inclusive Language

Filed under: Christianity and Politics,Ethics,Scripture,Theology — William Witt @ 4:46 pm
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I first encountered the problem of “inclusive language” when I was working on my doctorate quite awhile ago.  The University of Notre Dame Theology Department had a policy that all written work had to use “inclusive language.”  At least one of the faculty members interpreted this to mean that one could not use male language in reference to deity, and would penalize students a full grade for doing so.  I encountered a real problem when I wrote my dissertation and had to decide how to translate homo (the Latin word for “human being”).  Latin does not normally use pronouns, but English does.  In translating Latin “homo,” should I use “man” or “human being”?  Which pronoun should I use when an English translation of a Latin verb referring to the action of “homo” needed a pronoun — “he”? “He or she?”  “They?”

I think the problem is less acute these days. However, if we write papers or give sermons, we still have to ask the question of how properly to refer to God and to human beings.  Do we call God “she”?  If God is “Father” is God also “Mother”?  Do we use “man” when referring to human beings?  Why or why not?  Following are some short reflections:
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March 4, 2012

New Article on The Hermeneutics of Same-Sex Practice

Filed under: Ethics,Scripture,The Episcopal Church,Theology — William Witt @ 9:02 am
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Melancholy It is only within the last generation that affluent Western Christians have suggested that same-sex sexual activity might be morally permissible. The unanimous consensus of the previous Christian tradition (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and Anglican) has been that homosexual activity is immoral, condemned by both Scripture and Church tradition. The vast majority of critical biblical scholars continue to recognize that the plain-sense reading of the biblical texts prohibits homosexual activity, and that Scripture endorses only one permissible model for sexual activity: exclusive life-long commitment within heterosexual marriage.

Given the historic Anglican commitment to the primacy and sufficiency of Scripture, it would seem difficult to make a case from an Anglican perspective for the approval of same-sex activity, for the blessing of same-sex relationships, or for the ordaining of practicing homosexual clergy. Those who attempt to make such a case necessarily have to address the question of biblical authority. How one attempts to reconcile the endorsing of same-sex practices with the authority of Scripture will depend, first, on whether one recognizes that Scripture prohibits same-sex activity, and, second, how one responds to Scripture’s teaching.

The above is the beginning of a new rather lengthy article I’ve just written entitled “The Hermeneutics of Same-Sex Practice: A Summary and Evaluation.” It can be found in the Pages section to the left. I cannot imagine it will win me many friends.

June 26, 2010

Second Readings: A Sermon

Filed under: Scripture,Sermons — William Witt @ 10:26 pm
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Feast Day of St. John the Baptist
Isaiah 40: 1-11
Acts 13:14b-26
Luke 1:57-80

Old Testament Trinity
In what follows, I am going to depart from the usual way in which responsible expository preachers are supposed to preach sermons. I am not going to focus primarily on the meaning of the biblical texts themselves. Rather, I am going to look at the slightly different question of how it is that we as Christians make sense of the texts, how it is that the church has read these particular texts, and particularly the text in Isaiah. Because, frankly, there is a bit of a problem.

Let me explain what I mean by referring to an icon called The Hospitality of Abraham, that shows three angels sitting around a table. (For backround, see Solrunn Ness, The Mystical Language of Icons, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), pp.36-37) It is based on the story from Genesis 18 in which three men appear to Abraham, and Abraham offers the men hospitality. There are some odd details about the story. The narrative begins by stating that The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, and throughout the narrative Abraham speaks to one of the visitors, who promises Abraham that he will have a son, and later he and Abraham have a long discussion about whether or not Sodom is going to be destroyed. Throughout the narrative, this visitor who speaks with Abraham is referred to as the LORD.

The icon has a second name. It is also called “The Old Testament Trinity,” and the Eastern Church in particular has identified these three visitors with the divine Trinity. John of Damascus says: “Abraham did not see the divine nature, for no one has ever seen God, but he saw an image of God and fell down and worshiped.” (See John of Damascus, On Holy Images, part 3, ch. 4.) In the icon, the figure on the left is identified with the Father; the figure on the middle is identified with the pre-existent Word or Logos. The one on the right is identified with the Holy Spirit. (more…)

February 14, 2009

Thomas Aquinas on the Formal Sufficiency of Scripture

Filed under: Development of Doctrine,Scripture,Theology — William Witt @ 9:54 am
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AquinasDr. Michael Liccione has responded to my post on the distinction between formal and informal sufficiency of Scripture, and specifically objects to my reading that Thomas Aquinas subscribes to a “formal sufficiency” of Scripture. By a formal sufficiency I had meant that Scripture has an inherent intelligibility that does not derive from some source outside itself. To the contrary, I had stated that a merely material sufficiency would not have an inherent intelligibility, but would rather derive its intelligibility from an outside source. Dr. Liccione specifically quarrels with my reading of Aquinas, and insists to the contrary, that Aquinas affirmed the “material sufficiency” of Scripture

in the sense explained by WW, in no way affirmed the formal sufficiency of Scripture in the sense explained by WW. That is partly why Aquinas, like Newman and even Vatican II after him, most certainly did see a magisterium as necessary for interpreting Scripture reliably.

I find this a startling admission, and shows at least that I have not misunderstood the kind of argument being put forward by current disciples of John Henry Newman. Dr. Liccione’s defense for his interpretation of Aquinas is a quotation from S.T. 2.2.5.3:

Now the formal object of faith is the First Truth, as manifested in Holy Writ and the teaching of the Church, which proceeds from the First Truth. Consequently whoever does not adhere, as to an infallible and Divine rule, to the teaching of the Church, which proceeds from the First Truth manifested in Holy Writ, has not the habit of faith, but holds that which is of faith otherwise than by faith.

Unfortunately, the passage does not mean what Dr. Liccione claims that it means, as one can discern from its immediate context. Thomas is not concerned here with epistemological questions such as Dr. Liccione’s distinction between “opinion” and the infallible teaching of the “magisterium.” Indeed, the authority of the magisterium is not the point of discussion at all. Aquinas mentions the “teaching of the Church,” but he nowhere mentions the pope, for example. To know what he means we have to know which specific teaching of the Church he is talking about, and why he considers it infallible. (more…)

February 12, 2009

Wrestling With the Symbols: A Sermon on Reading Scripture

Filed under: Scripture,Sermons,Theology — William Witt @ 8:28 am
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The following is a sermon that appeared on my website, and never made it to my blog. Sometimes an example is better than an argument. Perhaps what I write below shows something of what I mean when I say that Scripture is “formally sufficient” and has an “inherent intelligibility.” Other helpful examples can be found in my article on George Herbert in my “Pages” section in the sidebar and my sermon on “Christological Subversion.” . . . Or you could just read all of my sermons.

Lamb of GodO ne of the prerogatives of the preacher is that, since he or she is the one in the pulpit, he or she can also break the rules on occasion. This morning, I’d like to break the rules a little bit. Rather than preaching on the Scriptural readings, I’m going to talk about them. In a few minutes, you’ll realize what I mean by that.

What I would like to do this morning is talk a little bit about the use of metaphorical and symbolic language in Scripture. Metaphor and symbol are the primary ways in which the language of the Scripture speaks of God. This happens so frequently that often we don’t even think about it. A good example is the number of images that cluster around Jesus in the NT. In the NT, Jesus is called a King, a Lamb, a Priest, a Shepherd, a Judge—the list goes on and on.

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October 26, 2008

A Reply to the Questioning Christian

Filed under: Scripture — William Witt @ 6:12 am
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D.C. Toedt (aka The Questioning Christian) is one of the regular contrarians who hangs out at TitusOneNine, Kendall Harmon’s blog. D.C is a lawyer who regularly raises doubts about the historical reliability of the New Testament–especially when it comes to either miracles or the historic doctrines of the church. In a recent discussion over at TitusOneNine, D.C. raised the following objection:

If we’re to believe Acts, it’s abundantly clear that the apostles regarded Jesus as a mortal. They thought he was a special mortal, to be sure: in their minds, his resurrection proved that he had been designated by God to return Real Soon Now as Israel’s liberator. [Evidently they were wrong about that.] But there’s nothing in their reported early preaching that even hints they thought Jesus was God Incarnate. The standard orthodox response is that it took the church awhile to come to that conclusion. OK, fine: then the conclusion is far from self-evident — and it’s not at all unreasonable for others to conclude otherwise.)

I responded rather hastily, “Sorry, D. C., you’re wrong.” This resulted in a few interchanges at the end of which D.C. left this challenge:

Many of you think the apostles always believed a high christology, but Acts clearly suggests otherwise — which raises interesting questions that William Witt and others seem afraid to confront.

Not one to back down from a challenge, I promised D.C. to get back to him, but when I finally finished my response, I realized it was way too long to post as a blog comment, so I’m putting it as a post on my own blog in hopes that some find it valuable.

One of the causes for frustration in the current discussions between the orthodox and revisionists in the mainline churches these days (especially on the blogs) is that so often the debates are between an uncritical orthodoxy and an uncritical revisionism. (more…)

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