Original Glory

Last week I wrote about how the cardinal doctrine of Christian faith – the resurrection – was not a mere product of the New Testament writers. If anything it like the virginal conception of Jesus developed alongside the writing of the new testament books. This time I want to discuss the problem presented by the doctrine of original sin.
This teaching developed during the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and was first formulated by St. Augustine. This doctor of the church committed the modern unforgivable sin of reading his intentions into the text of Romans. Western believers and non-believers have become so (if you will) indoctrinated that it is now difficult to read St. Paul’s letter to the Romans without an assumption that original sin is involved. One may ask, if Paul is not talking about original sin, what is he talking about? The sin of eisogesis can corrupt over generations just like…original sin (except for the fact that it does not have to be done).
The problem of original sin is so pervasive that western political theory takes it into account as a basic point. Theologically, it rigs the game. One cannot escape the original sin of Adam; and therefore is born damned. God allows us to be born to be damned? Salvation is necessary because God makes us sinners? No one actually argues in these words. But, this is the medieval argument held by some modern christian fundamentalists. Most churches cannot reconcile this doctrine when it is applied to babies for whom exceptions are made. Of course, this distinction was not contemplated by medieval theologians or the Reformers. In fact, it is a modern assumption. The Roman Catholic Church has all but given up on the idea of Limbo where unbaptized babies go when they die. Original sin is now regarded as the pervasiveness of sinning that cannot be avoided in human culture.
I believe the Bible provides a better view. The scripture gives us a sense of original glory. God gives the whole of Creation including humans a glorious blessing that we often fail to live up to. During Sabbath meals, Jewish families offer blessings on their children to give them goals to which they may aspire. “May you be as Isaac.” Or “may you be as Rebekah.” These examples of offered blessings are truly examples of godly grace being given and responded to.
The christian churches can revisit and reject the ideas that humans are so bad that we cannot in anyway respond to God’s grace. The truth is we can and often do. Original glory is a gift. For too many believers original sin has become an excuse for doing nothing.

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The New Testament and Doctrine

We are approaching the time of Lent and Easter again. I always enjoy the time of Easter and Holy Week that comes just before it. Lent…well let’s just say I know what it is for. The truth is that I could do without it. However, it just like those trough periods of spiritual dryness and depression that we get before we go back to those rare mountain to moments. So if we must observe Lent before we celebrate Easter…so be it.

The one annoyance of the this time is that the publishing industry likes to release some new take on the idea of the Resurrection of Jesus. Actually, it can be a very old take (remember the gospel of Judas?) of some gnostic or neo-gnostic idea. In marketing, timing is everything. And in religious debate one should remember the old advice “buyer beware.”

So, let’s take a look at the Resurrection as a doctrine in the New Testament. Paul, Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John each have a story of the events surrounding the experience of the Apostles had with Jesus after his resurrection. There is a temptation for modern readers to put the cart before the horse so to speak. The New Testament writers often bring their readers into the experience of the story as though the events were occurring right then. This leads some people to assume then the writing of the story as setting the real limits of the story itself.¬† Therefore, when the stories disagree on the names and numbers of persons or the setting of events then the basic underlying story must be false or needs a new interpretation. Of course, that is not the case.

The gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are written as worship events. They often set teachings within the environment of sacraments (baptism and Holy Communion) and liturgical calendars (both Jewish and Christian).¬† This allows for the story of (say) the Transfiguration and the Confession of Peter to be events within a context teaching the supremecy of Christ. It is the same reason Luke and Matthew give different understandings of the meaning of the story of the virginal conception of Jesus. Matthew sees the fulfillment of prophecy in the event. Luke understands the divine declaration of Abraham “For nothing is impossible for God” as the basis for a doctrine that was taught before both writers took up their respective pens.

This is the same with the Resurrection of Jesus. All four gospel writers and St. Paul believe in and experienced Jesus (even if it was during worship) after the Resurrection. They are explaining to believers what the resurrection now means to their new lives as messengers and citizens of the kingdom of heaven. Mark sends the reader back to Galilee where Jesus ministry begins in his story. Matthew reminds us that a mountain in Galilee is where the messianic kingdom is declared. Luke has two men in his gospel and the book of Acts reminding us that we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to live in the kingdom of God. John tells us we have seen God’s Son, Spirit, and power in the Word of Life.

What about God?

Once, during a radio interview, I was taken aback by the interviewer asking, “How do we convince people that Jesus is god with skin on?”
I admit I stumbled on that question. I could not get over the whole horrifying image of a visitor from another realm being disguised as one of us. (Readers who are familiar with the miniseries of V and the recent reboot know what I mean) I am waiting for someone to look at the imagery of the Holy Spirit descending as dove to call the HS “god with feathers.” Personally, I prefer the imagery given by the character Yenta in Fiddler on the Roof. “If God was a person people would break his windows.” Both of those images are interesting in what view of God is implied – God as secret visitor versus God as would be victim.
I agree with the Jewish theologian and philosopher Martin Buber who states that all of the terms we use for the doctrine of the Divine – monotheism, pantheism, panentheism, and even atheism – are not really about God. They are anthropological and sociological terms describing how human beings think about and worship the Divine. In short, these are words about us. Whatever definition about God we give is going to be incomplete because we are not Divine. Truly, we are tempted to fall into the trap of oversimplification.
The terminology is the main reason we have difficulties with the orthodox christian doctrines of the Trinity. Unfortunately, there is more than one definition. The declaration “The Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6) is still difficult to imagine when we pray to Jesus “as though to God” (St. Justin the Martyr). These are best described as word images of God.
A word image tells something about the relationship between God and the person. We use word images to describe relationships with other people. “He is my rock.” “She is my heart.” These images do not describe the persons. They describe the type and depth of a relationship one person has with the other. Remember Thomas’ declaration in John’s gospel “My Lord and my God” to understand this relationship between Jesus and his followers. It is very different than the vulgar statement¬†Thomas makes about touching and exploring Jesus’ wounds. And the confession is a much better description than the equally vulgar “god with skin on.”