Christian Whimsy

This is a brief departure from my current series. I’ve been chipping away at the fundamentalist/modernist debates, but this came up and it was too fun not to write about.

I don’t know that Christianity is usually associated with whimsy.  Sure, you have your happy-clappy Christians that play guitar while they sing who are a good deal more relaxed than their high church counterparts, but even they’re pretty serious in the grand scheme of things.  They seriously implore people to love their neighbor.  They seriously talk about the need to emulate Jesus.  Though they may be chipper and informal, they’re still not exactly playful on average.  Whimsy seems not to come naturally when your centerpiece is a crucified God.  That’s the thing I love about the Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton. He taps into a level of whimsy that is so rare within Christian communities. 

For example, in his book Orthodoxy, he recalls an incident in which he was working in a publishing house and his boss had just turned someone’s manuscript down.  This boss muttered, “He’ll be ok.  He believes in himself.”  Chesterton promptly argued that point with him:

Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in themselves? For I can tell you. I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the thrones of the Super-men. The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.

(Ch. 2, Orthodoxy, Chesterton)

Sure enough, when we’re logical about it, when recognize that believing in ourselves doesn’t actually make us any more likely to succeed than anyone else.  Every would-be pro-athlete and aspiring instagram influencer believes in themselves.  Some delusionally so!  We’ve all known someone who has no ability to sing and yet insists that they will be the next great pop-star.  We’ve all known someone who wrote “the next great American novel” without being able to handle simple sentence structure.  But telling them that they won’t hit it big won’t change their plans one iota.  Why?  Precisely because they believe so strongly in themselves.

Our individualist society says that if you believe in yourself, you’ll get somewhere, but Chesterton takes that secular dogma and flips it on its head.  Logically, we are the least trustworthy people when it comes to evaluating our own ability.  We’re incredibly biased, either for or against ourselves.  We need to believe in something more secure than our own ego.

He does the same flip with our faculty of reason.  We assume that if you use your reason, you’ll figure things out sooner or later.  But how flawed is that assumption?  Some of the most rational people in the world are the least reasonable:

If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all the men deny that they are conspirators; which is exactly what conspirators would do. His explanation covers the facts as much as yours. Or if a man says that he is the rightful King of England, it is no complete answer to say that the existing authorities call him mad; for if he were King of England that might be the wisest thing for the existing authorities to do. Or if a man says that he is Jesus Christ, it is no answer to tell him that the world denies his divinity; for the world denied Christ’s.

Ch. 2, Orthodoxy, Chesterton

Again, the tables are turned!  We assume that a keen sense of rationality can make sense of the world, but none of the people in this scenario are illogical!  They all make perfect sense!  And yet, we know they’ve reached the wrong conclusions.

The world we’ve constructed in our minds is far too narrow.  We assume that we need to set out with our brain and our ego to conquer a largely stagnant world.  But in the process, we miss all of the delightful joy that surrounds us.  For example, we fail to celebrate the greenness of a leaf.  We all assume that leaves ought to be green because they’re always green.  But what if that leaf were polka-dotted?  Or puce?  Or teal?  Why not?  Things could have been any way imaginable!  And yet, the leaf is green.  What a delight!  What a pure, unpredictable delight to see the greenness of a leaf and know that it could have been any other way, but it is green.  It’s only our own self-centeredness that stops us from seeing the joy in that leaf!  We assume that things are the way they are because “logically” that’s what they have to be.  Or we assume that the green leaves are just backdrops for our grand story that we’re responsible for making.  But these leaves are more than that!  Once we start to delight in the crazy random joy of green leaves, we can start to wonder, why are they like that?  Is it all just mechanistic detail to be relegated to the background?  Or is there a joyful logic to it?  Is there a god that happens to delight in green leaves?

The world we live in is so dreary.  There’s so rarely anything greater than ourselves.  We are expected to go out in all of our power and make something out of both ourselves and this mixed-up world.   But Chesterton tells us to stop.  There’s so much more at work in this world than what our little minds can perceive.  Rather than drawing the limits at our own horizons, he invites us to rediscover a world infinitely larger than our own perception.  A world in which a green leaf is a miracle and in which we are a tiny speck in the plans of an infinite God.

Chesterton’s works are all in the public domain, so if you’re intrigued, check out a free copy of his work on Amazon or google.  And if you don’t have the time for a new read right now, reawaken your sense of whimsy.  Don’t believe the narrow constraints that modern philosophy places on the world.  The good news of Christianity isn’t all somber.  A creative, world-creating God is real, and he’s in charge of every little thing you see.  That truth makes mundane existence more of a fairy tale than you might expect.

What is a Christian?- Harry Fosdick’s Shall the Fundamentalists Win

As I began my delve into the fundamentalist/modernist controversy, Harry Fosdick seemed like the right man to start things off with. His sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” is held up as the powder keg that exploded into open controversy in the Presbyterian Church in 1922. Before I jump in, I just want to admit that I really didn’t agree with Harry’s sermon. Like, at all. He’s super eloquent, but if this sermon is indicative of the modernist perspective during the bulk of what’s to come, I doubt we’re from the same tribe. That being said, I did try to find some things to love about his work. It’s so easy to see something you don’t like and just shut down. I tried to listen well so I could grow in spite of our differences. I will start with what I didn’t like, sure, but I’ll end with what I learned from him. The bulk of this particular sermon is addressing exactly that great change that I mentioned in the last post. The world is a changin’! What should a Christian believe in light of this new world?

From the off, it’s worth noting that the form of this particular sermon betrays some of Fosdick’s underlying assumptions. He references the Scripture he chose to preach on (Acts 5) in two of the twenty-seven paragraphs that make up his work. Oof. Part of me just wants to chalk it up as a one-off. Maybe this particular sermon was intended to be more of a speech than an actual sermon? But the sermon itself makes it very clear that he places a low value on Scripture. As his argument progresses, Fosdick laments that some Christians insist that the Bible was “inerrantly dictated by God,” skewering that perspective as laughably outdated. Meanwhile, he promotes this perspective:

In the Bible [negative] elements [such as slavery, polygamy, and violence] are not final; they are always being superseded; revelation is progressive. The thought of God moves out from Oriental kingship to compassionate fatherhood; treatment of unbelievers moves out from the use of force to the appeals of love; polygamy gives way to monogamy; slavery, never explicitly condemned before the New Testament closes, is nevertheless being undermined by ideas that in the end, like dynamite, will blast its foundation to pieces…  There are multitudes of Christians, then, who think, and rejoice as they think, of the Bible as the record of progressive unfolding of the character of God to His people from early primitive days until the great unveiling in Christ.

Fosdick, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win,” Paragraph 10.

Note that this does distinctly free him from the burden of the Biblical text. Why talk about it at length if it only represents a starting point? Fosdick is moving from what he refers to as a “primitive” past towards a new and glorious future. The Bible is only important insofar as it’s a jumping-off point for his own ideas.

Much of the sermon is like this. He presents historical Christian theology (the virgin birth, the inspiration of Scripture, Christ’s second coming, Christ’s miracles, etc.) as particular perspectives. And they’re fine to hold! Yes! It’s ok for Christians to agree with these outdated, quaint perspectives… as long as they don’t actually act as though it’s true. No doctrinal standards should be normative. No truths should be held as definitive. There are only varying opinions held by pious people. And why should anyone get angry about that? There’s room enough for everyone in the church! In his words, “Shall one [group of Christians] throw the other out? Has intolerance any contribution to make to this situation?” (paragraph 9). His end is not to kick out the fundamentalists; it’s to subordinate the idea of truth to pluralism. Christians can have opinions, but not truths.

I have to wonder though, what does Fosdick imagine the word “Christian” might actually mean? Words are only effective insofar as they actually communicate something to people. The word “firefighter” is helpful because it helps people understand which people might help them put out fires. If the word were to be expanded to refer to people who sell fire-retardant home decor, that would be reasonable in one sense. Those are, after all, people whose efforts serve to fight fires! But in another sense, it would be unreasonable. The point of the word was to tell people who could help if their home caught on fire. If the people called “firefighters” can’t actually put out active fires, then we’d need to come up with a new word to refer to people who ride in fire engines and bring hoses to put out fires and “firefighter” would pass from popular vocabulary. A word imparts vital information both by telling us what something is in the positive sense and in a negative sense by excluding all those things that are not the something in question.

Obviously, Fosdick is aiming to establish a broad application of the word “Christian.” But what information does he hope the word will still convey when he’s done with it? He argues for its use for people that actively disagree with a variety of positions that the historic church has held, largely by appealing to changes in the popular social imaginary and an inclusive sense of politeness. In his (pointed) words, “Has anybody a right to deny the Christian name to those who differ with him on such points and to shut against them the doors of the Christian fellowship?” (paragraph 6). But if anyone can be a Christian simply by claiming the title, what does the word actually mean? What are Christians like? Are they theists? Do they attend church? Do they believe that Jesus was right about everything? Do they help the poor? I’m genuinely curious. The advantage of “Christianity” as understood by the historic creeds is that I know what a Christian is. What does a Christian believe? They believe in God the Father, creator of Heaven and Earth (and so on.). Fosdick spends a lot of time arguing for a broad application of the word, but he doesn’t attempt to define the word in a positive way. It includes everything and excludes nothing. At that point, why bother using the word? It ceases to be a meaningful term and becomes something vague and polite.

Fosdick would be horrified, I think, by his own fruits. The vasts majority of “Christians” in the United States today use the term out of historic obligation without darkening the door of a church. The way he speaks of Christianity, it sounds self-evident that it should consume a good deal of your life and energy. I suspect he presumed that the label “Christian” was meaningful, even without any definition to hem it in. Unfortunately, once the label means nothing, you can’t be surprised when people treat it as nothing. They learned the expectations from you.

To summarize my critique, I think Fosdick was a product of a time and place in which the word “Christianity” was very important to the average person. To admit that you weren’t Christian? Taboo! Unthinkable! And so he redefined the word to include disbelief of every shade of unbelief he could imagine. Rather than just admit he wasn’t Christian, he clung to the vestiges of his historic belief system and watered them down to the point that he could manage them safely.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that the owner of a blog named “CLASSIC theology” isn’t super excited by a group that’s whole schtick was detaching itself from historic doctrine.

But what did I love? Well, apart from his eloquence (of which there can be no doubt), I really appreciated this appeal:

Science treats a young man’s mind as though it were really important. A scientist says to a young man: “Here is the universe challenging our investigation. Here are the truths we have seen, so far. Come, study with us! See what we already have seen and then look further to see more, for science is an intellectual adventure for the truth.” Can you imagine any man who is worth while, turning from that call to the church if the church seems to him to say, “Come, and we will feed you opinions from a spoon. No thinking is allowed here except such as brings you to certain specified, predetermined conclusions. These prescribed opinions we will give you in advance of your thinking; now think, but only so as to reach these results.”

Paragraph 23.

Of course, I don’t agree that with the way he represents doctrinal faith as narrow-minded and science as some kind of magical field of infinite creative discovery. Anyone who has been in a science classroom knows that there’s a vast amount of material that students are expected to memorize and learn before they can take honest steps towards any new discovery. Theology is just like that! We’re expected to listen and learn so that we can build upon the foundation that was created by the people before us. Just like in a science classroom, not everything is “up for grabs.”

Bad analogy aside, we’ve all been to churches that were something like what Fosdick is describing. We’ve all been scolded for wondering whether a doctrine is true or not. We’ve all wondered, “how can someone who wants to learn find a place here? How can I think while being a Christian?” Or maybe not everyone has. I know that’s certainly a part of my own Christian journey. A lot of churches are poor at teaching. But that’s why we need more Christians that are able to teach with kindness and courage. People that are able to answer questions from a variety of perspectives and help questioners ask their questions well. That’s the gift of people like C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton; they treat us like we have brains, all the while telling us little more than basic Christian theology. And perhaps our teachers also need to be willing to let someone admit that they’re not Christian. It might hurt to see someone turn from the teachings of the Church, but redefining “Church” in an effort to keep things comfortable doesn’t do anyone any favors. At some point, we have to be honest about the fact that not everyone really is a Christian. If we can’t accept that fact and attempt to force people to agree with our doctrines, we’ll be the very people Fosdick is warning about.

As we approach a post-Christian era, I think we’ll see more and more people that are disinterested in the type of Christianity that Fosdick represents (as already evidenced by the increasingly empty pews of mainline denominations). There is no longer any real advantage to claiming the term “Christian,” so why would people bother? There will always be experimenters. Every religion under the sun has those. But it will be hard to maintain churches that are united around politeness and social good. Fosdick was wrong, but his warnings about education weren’t. We need to communicate those classic Christian truths with both intellectual integrity and grace if we want to be faithful to another generation.

Fosdick is done! Next up: his longtime fundamentalist rival, John Machen!

If you want to read Fosdick’s sermon for yourself, check it out here.
If you’re looking for a comprehensive account of the fundamentalist/modernist debates in the Presbyterian Church, The Presbyterian Controversy by Bradley Longfield is scholarly while still being super readable.

Fundamentalists, Modernists, and the UMC Split

The United Methodist Church is busily trying to split. It’s gross. Necessary, but gross. There’s a lot of posturing and politics by people that are definitively not acting very Christian and it’s all pretty frustrating. Needless to say, it brings out the worst in people. But rather than bemoan the situation at length, I’ve been trying to understand it from a broader perspective. When did this start? What are the underlying philosophies at conflict? How have these things tended to play out and what should we all expect? Naturally, this has brought me back to the modernists and the fundamentalists.

The modernist/fundamentalist controversy of the 20th century may be the single most important event to help explain the modern religious landscape. There are plenty of different groups of Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, and other major denominations out there, but a lot of them would rather worship with churches from outside their historic denomination than with one another. Why? The fundamentalist/modernist controversy. This is when we saw a split between what we might call “progressive” churches (or mainline or liberal or another such title) and “evangelical” churches (or traditional or orthodox or something else like that). In a lot of ways, a church’s stance on this axis is more relevant to their identity than their Reformation-era obligations. I mean, sure, historic theological topics are a big deal (sacraments, church organization, the definition of grace, etc.), but it’s been a hot minute since those argument have lit a fire in the public sphere. Which side of the theological spectrum you come down on? That affects topics like abortion, the proper attitude towards Scripture, and same-sex marriage. Those are topics that’ll get people arguing.

Of course, it’s not hard to guess who won the war in the court of public opinion. If I were to say, “Oh, you’re such a modernist,” it would sound a little odd, but it certainly wouldn’t be offensive. If I were to say, “Oh, you’re such a fundamentalist,” there’s no doubt that I’m not in favor of whatever it is that you were talking about. In our age, “fundamentalist” has become a slang to refer to anyone who is religious in a scary way. Fundamentalist Mormons are the ones that live in the backwoods of Utah and have 18 wives. Fundamentalist Muslims are the ones responsible for religious violence. Fundamentalist Christians are the ones that are really mean and do all of those things that you don’t like. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the historic fundamentalists must have taken quite the drubbing to have their name reduced to this fate.

So what happened? What was this controversy? It’s hard to summarize quickly, but I’ll take a stab. The modern era came with a lot of changes to everyday life. Industrialization fundamentally changed the way that people interacted with the world. Work forces moved closer to the cities to offer their labor to opening factories and offices. Information could be disseminated more and more rapidly. A rising middle class had newfound pocket money and newfound leisure time, which was quickly catered to by an expanding entertainment industry. We were learning to harness electricity and vast leaps were being made in the field of medicine. Darwin was writing his famous On the Origin of Species.

In light of all of these changes, what was the Church expected to do? How could a 2,000 year old organization continue to be relevant?

The two big parties that responded to that concern were the modernists and the fundamentalists. I’ll let them summarize their positions in their own words before I give them my own summary. One of the big champions of the modernists, Harry Emmerson Fosdick, argued that their goal was to “see the Christian faith in terms of this new knowledge” (“Shall the Fundamentalists Win?“). John Machen, a fundamentalist champion, argued back that “Christianity is not engrossed by this transitory world, but measures all things by the thought of eternity.” (Christianity and Liberalism, Eerdmans: 1923, 149). You can see where this is going. The modernists argued that Christians ought to adjust their doctrines in light of this new world, while the fundamentalists argued that eternal truth doesn’t change.

The fundamentalists got their name from the list of things that they claimed were essential to the Christian faith. “Fundamentals,” so to speak. There’s several lists of historic fundamentals floating around out there. The post popular one tends to be the five fundamentals as affirmed by the Presbyterian Church in 1910:

  1. The inspiration of Scripture by the Holy Spirit to keep it from error
  2. Jesus was born God and man from a virgin through the Holy Spirit
  3. Jesus died for our sins to appease justice and reconcile us to God
  4. Jesus rose again on the third day after his crucifixion
  5. Jesus performed miracles during his lifetime both to teach us and to reveal his power and love.

You can find the five fundamentals in their original language here. I tried very hard to briefly summarize them without using modern buzzwords, since that would muddy the waters, but the originals are very readable all on their own.

Those points broadly reflect the big fault-lines in their battle. A modernist would likely see Scripture as something written by humans and subject to error while a fundamentalist would see it as the inerrant word of God. A modernist would hold that miracles were mythological events while a fundamentalist would insist they actually happened. A modernist might object to the idea of Christ dying for our sins, while a fundamentalist would be quite pleased with that portrayal. You get the picture. The division that is remembered most vividly, of course, is Darwinian evolution vs. creationism. The modernists won quite the victory on this point during the famous Scopes Money Trials (the one about whether schools should teach evolution).

I’m surprised at how popular most of the fundamentalist positions are, not only in modern American Christianity, but in historic orthodoxy. These are the guys that I’m not supposed to like, but they seem like the ones that most Christians would agree with. I keep hearing that it’s not only what they said that was so off-putting, but the way they said it, so I’m hoping to delve into some of their writings to learn what they thought in their own words. Then again, I shouldn’t be surprised if they aren’t as bad as they’re reported to be. Perspectives on matters like these can vary wildly depending on the bias of the speaker, and I may have just heard the story as told by the children of the modernists more often than not.

Thus far, I haven’t found any really good accounts of the conflict that even pretend to be non-biased. Most either herald the modernists for their tolerance and forward thinking while trumpeting a fear of evangelicals, while those on the other end point to the modernist victory as the great loss of mainline doctrine and the rise of the wishy-washy pop-Christianity of today. The reactions are all very tribal, which points to the simple truth that this controversy is not over. The children of the modernists and the fundamentalists are still at war. Their names may have changed, but their philosophies still stand. What is Scripture? What is culture? What is truth? I’m hoping to dig into this era more in the coming months to gain a little more perspective on what’s going on in my own church life.

One Point Per Parable: Julicher is Overrated

I knew a pastor that used to preach that every parable had precisely one meaning. They never explained why that was the case. Of course, making declarations like that from the pulpit isn’t uncommon. Pastors have a terrible habit of just kind of declaring that their school of thought is self-evident and there’s no other possibilities out there. Or worse yet, they use the dreaded, credibility-grabbing phraise “scholars say…” Which scholars? Why do they say that? What are my other options? Don’t get me wrong, I get the instinct. Sermons aren’t intended to be a comprehensive history of religious thought. At the same time, I do wonder how often we cause problems by not fully explaining why we’re preaching what we are. In any case, I just assumed the “one point per parable” idea was a weird quirk of that pastor and ignored it. Until now. Lo and behold, I found the history of the idea. And it turns out the guy behind the theory was pretty influential! But not quite as influential as many claim.

Adolf Julicher was the guy who started telling people that there was “one point per parable.” He’s a 19th century German professor. I stumbled across the name while I was reading Kenneth Bailey’s Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes (which is a phenomenal resource for anyone looking to learn about Middle Eastern culture and Christ, by the way). He cited Julicher’s work as the fundamental turn away from the allegorical approach which dominated thought in the medieval era. This would be a pretty major accomplishment. Allegorical interpretations are often pretty weird to modern eyes. For example, Bailey points to Augustine interpreting the parable of the Friend at Midnight (Luke 11:5-13). In that particular parable, Jesus tells everyone to imagine trying to knock on their neighbor’s door to borrow three loaves of bread at midnight. What would your neighbor say? Probably nothing nice. But if you keep pestering them, eventually they’ll get out of bed and give you some bread. He follows up with some of his classic thoughts on prayer: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find,” (Lk 11:9). Augustine reads this story and says that the person waking up in the story is actually intended to represent anyone who is seeking meaning in life. They’re up at midnight because they’re so world-weary and desperately seeking something more. The friend is Scripture, which we should always go to in times of need. And the bread? That’s the life-giving knowledge of the trinity. Needless to say, it’s a bit of a stretch. (If you want to know more about the best and the worst of the allegorical approach, see my posts on the best of it and the worst of it)

Adolf Julicher is presented as the anti-allegorist. He says Jesus told parables not to obscure the meaning of things, but to make them clear. Jesus wasn’t some kind of weirdo mystic; he was just a relatable storyteller trying to get simple points across. Consequently, there are no hidden meanings in parables. They have one meaning, and it should be obvious.

I’m sure some of you are thinking, “Hold up! But Jesus was specifically asked why he kept speaking in parables and he said:”

Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. This is why I speak to them in parables:

“Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand.”

Matt 13:11-13

Fair point. That passage definitely favors the allegorists more than Julicher. But that’s where Julicher’s modernist background comes across the strongest. The modernists were a group that thought the core of religion had been corrupted by centuries of mythology and tradition, and it had to be recovered by stripping away the weird parts of religious doctrine to get back to the pure ideas of Jesus. Julicher is right in those footsteps. He says that the apostles were all wrong about the parables. They quoted them out of context. They mythologized them way more than Jesus intended. They didn’t understandJesus at all. Rather than take him at face value and accept him as a sweet, simple rabbi that could help them grow, they mythologized him and made it incredibly complicated for the modern person to see the true simplicity that Jesus was getting at. What Julicher sees in Scripture is a sort of fanciful take on the true idea that was planted by the original Jesus:

The authenticity of the Gospel parables is not absolute. They did not emerge from the mouth of Jesus as we now read them. They are translated, displaced, and internally transformed. . . . Without careful examination, one can nowhere identify the voice of Jesus with voices of the Gospel authors.

Jülicher 1963: I.11. as cited at
https://parablesreception.blogspot.com/2015/08/adolf-julicher-1857-1938.html

As you can tell, Julicher’s comes with a lot of baggage. If we’re seriously claiming to rely on his work as a cornerstone of our own thought, we’ve got this whole, “Don’t trust the Bible, it’s full of misunderstandings,” overtone above everything else. We are forced to fumble through the mistakes of the authors when we pick up our Bibles, rather than to be informed about anything we didn’t come in with. We end up on this quest for a historical Jesus, which is ironically different from the story of Jesus that came down to us through history. Because that guy does miracles and was the son of God, and that’s just silly.

Is this really the cornerstone of modern parable interpretation? It seems like a lot of people out there think so. Not only did Bailey directly contrast him with the allegorical approach, citing him as the cure for the past’s goofiness, but a lot of professors in seminaries out there seem to hold up Julicher as the start of contemporary parable scholarship. And I think they’re wrong. If you’re a theological modernist, Julicher is absolutely core to that tradition, but there are a lot of Protestants out there who certainly aren’t intellectual descendants of Julicher and somehow avoid the highly allegorized approach. To know why, we need to look between these two eras to find a school of thought that was infinitely more influential and far less controversial.

What happened between the Middle Ages and the modern era? The Reformation! You know, that big period where people specifically started avoiding allegorical readings and focusing on what Jesus meant in his context when he said things. It was that era in which John Calvin and Martin Luther dominated. To be fair to Julicher, he seems to have suggested that these men were on the right track before their followers delved back into allegory, but I don’t think he’s right. To the contrary, I think that the fundamentals of the Protestant Reformation set out a path that’s normative for most Protestant preachers to this day. Let’s use Calvin as an example. Just glance through Calvin’s commentaries on any parable. He’s consistently logical (by modern Protestant standards). He pays attention to the cultural context and the implications of the words in Greek. He often gains several meanings from a parable, but they’re ideas that all seem theologically connected to the circumstances at hand and the major themes Jesus is speaking to. Calvin does all this without devolving into the fullness of allegorical wackiness. When he looks at the warning from Jesus that parables are deliberately unintelligible to some people, he doesn’t read that at a license to go wild speculating about the hidden meaning, nor does he dismiss it as a piece of obscurantism from some befuddled disciples. He goes in a different direction:

 These words were intended partly to show that all were not endued with true understanding to comprehend what he said, and partly to arouse his disciples to consider attentively that doctrine which is not readily and easily understood by all. Indeed, he makes a distinction among the hearers, by pronouncing some to have ears, and others to be deaf. If it is next inquired, how it comes to pass that the former have ears, Scripture testifies in other passages, that it is the Lord who pierces the ears, and that no man obtains or accomplishes this by his own industry.

Calvin’s Commentary on Matthew, ch. 13 v. 9

The challenge in understanding the parable is that no person is capable of understanding any part of God’s truth on their own. Only through God’s grace are we capable of understanding any of it. Anyone listening to the parables without the grace of God hears little more than nonsense. And just to make sure Arminians out there aren’t outraged by the choice of Calvin as normative, I gave Wesley a quick check and he says almost the same thing with the caveat that all people could listen to that grace, but some won’t because they’re so stuck in their worldly ways. Either way, the assumption that the parables are generally capable of being explored through logic and knowledge of Jesus’ cultural context and are ultimately legitimized through faith made possible by grace is pretty normative for most of the sermons on parables I’ve ever heard. And that methodology was around way before Julicher.

I hate to contribute to creating these big categorizations in history. It’s always unpleasant dividing thinkers between different eras. Whenever we categorize things, we inevitably simplify them to a degree that rarely does justice to the subject matter. Nevertheless, I was delighted to find Julicher and solve the mystery of where that pastor got the “one point per parable” theory, but I do think it’s necessary to keep a wider scope when considering his legacy. He’s not the first one to advocate intensely for less allegorized approaches to the parables, nor is he the most popular. He’s got his place in his tradition, for sure. But it’s not quite as massive as the average article seems to claim.

Apologies for the indirect citations for Julicher. Most of his key stuff remains in German, so it’s tough to get at. If you want to know more, check out this site, which has links to some great secondary sources in English and even one in German: https://virtualreligion.net/primer/julicher.html.

The Flight of Gregory Nazianzen and the Challenge of New Beginnings

It’s been ages since I last posted. Life has been crazy. I’ve gone from being the associate pastor at Bexley UMC to the pastor at The Plains UMC. I moved about an hour and a half south for the new position and, right now, all of my life is in boxes. Needless to say, I’ve not had a lot of spare time for reading.

Once I got a moment to myself, naturally, I wanted to find a saint who had been through the same sort of challenges and read up about how they handled their big transition. I landed on one of my favorites: Gregory of Nazianzus. This is the fourth post I’ve written about him. Previously, I’ve written about his poetry, his take on theosis, and his refreshing melancholy in the face of the modern obsession with happiness, but this is the first time I’ve ventured out of the poetry of his retirement years.

In his younger days (32), Gregory was chosen for ordination a priest. His dad (also named Gregory) was the local bishop in Nazianzus and he found his son’s help invaluable in his ministry. His son managed to help him navigate the political and doctrinal challenges of the Arian Creed of 359 (Gregory Senior signed on as a supporter of a heretical creed and made a bunch of enemies until his son convinced him to apologize and withdraw his support), and besides that, he was incredibly capable as a theologian and pastoral care provider. Unfortunately, Gregory Jr. had no interest in actually being a priest. He wanted to be a monk! His ordination moved forward anyway, which was kind of a thing at the time. Ancient theologians are always getting priest-ed without wanting it. It’s humility trope—the most suitable person to put in power was supposed to be the guy who is too humble to want it. It’s usually reasonable to assume it’s being exaggerated for the sake of a good story. In Gregory’s case, it’s safe to assume he REALLY didn’t want to be ordained. He ran away for a few months, leaving his church really peeved at him, and after he finally did return, he called his ordination a “noble tyranny” in his first sermon (Or. 1, par. 1). If he was just trying to come off as humble, he went a little too hard.

In any case, Gregory was someone who knew what it was like to have his life uprooted for the Church and learned to thrive in the midst of it. How did he do it? I picked through his first two orations. The first is the sermon he gave when he returned to Nazianzus on Easter after a few months of hiding. The second is something he wrote to explain himself when people weren’t so thrilled with him after he returned (nobody came to church for a while in protest—church politics never change). I found a few gems in each.

The first one was certainly the lesser of the two. He doesn’t dwell much on his flight and spends most of the time talking about Easter. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad he didn’t make the Easter sermon all about him. That’s a great move. At the same time, I’m here for that juicy personal drama. The fact that it’s not here limited my interest. Nevertheless, I liked his biggest reference to his flight:

A Mystery anointed me; I withdrew a little while at a Mystery, as much as was needful to examine myself; now I come in with a Mystery, bringing with me the Day as a good defender of my cowardice and weakness; that He Who to-day rose again from the dead may renew me also by His Spirit; and, clothing me with the new Man, may give me to His New Creation, to those who are begotten after God, as a good modeller and teacher for Christ, willingly both dying with Him and rising again with Him.

Or. 1, par. 2

How eloquent! I appreciate his willingness to name his flaws. To call yourself a weak coward is pretty intense! But he didn’t shy away. It wasn’t that the task was too great; it’s that his courage failed him and he needed to step away and reevaluate himself. God’s grace is enough to cover it.

There are also several references to mysteries. As I read it, the first mystery appears to be his ordination. He withdrew because of the weight of the sacrament bestowed on him. Now, he returns proclaiming a second mystery, which is the mystery of the resurrection of Jesus and the new life bestowed on us all. By this promise, even one who was a coward can be born into the new man that God desires.

The second oration was a little juicier. This one wasn’t a sermon and was explicitly intended as an explanation of his absence, so I got pages upon pages of him giving personal details about his challenge in facing a big transition. This is what I came here for. It starts out:

I have been defeated, and own my defeat. I subjected myself to the Lord, and prayed unto Him.

Or. 2 par 1

What a bombastic opening. He immediately reasserts the best of what he said in his sermon for those who didn’t attend worship that day. Why was I gone? Because I was at war with God. I have laid down my weapons and been defeated. I am subjecting myself to him. I’m no longer running. I’m digging in.

In the ensuing paragraphs, he discusses his respect for God’s sacred order, his meager qualifications, and his emotions through it all. The big crescendo of his argument builds as he points to the duty of a priest:

[T]he scope of our art is to provide the soul with wings, to rescue it from the world and give it to God, and to watch over that which is in His image, if it abides, to take it by the hand, if it is in danger, or restore it, if ruined, to make Christ to dwell in the heart by the Spirit: and, in short, to deify, and bestow heavenly bliss upon, one who belongs to the heavenly host.

Or. 1, par. 22

He goes all out after this, going on for paragraphs about how this is, “the wish of the prophets and the law…why God was united to the flesh by means of the soul…why the new [covenant] was substituted for the old…” etc. (or 2, par 23-25). This is, in his eyes, the summation of it all. The whole of the job of a priest is to assist God in healing the core essence of a person. In light of this incredible duty, how could anyone be surprised that he balked for a moment? And yet, he ultimately accepts his new priestly responsibilities, saying, “I fell down and humbled myself under the mighty hand of God… now I am commissioned to exalt Him in the congregation of the people and praise Him in the seat of the elders,” (or 2, par. 115). What once seemed like a terrifying possibility is now a duty. The weight of the task may be heavy, and the responsibility unexpected, but he now recognizes that it has fallen to him to glorify God in this way. God put him in this place. Who is he to argue? And who is any detractor to deny him this place that God gave to him?

I don’t know that a lot of modern people can relate deeply to being stolen away from the monastery and ordained against their will, but Gregory still lays out a lot of great principles that are worth embodying. First, he’s honest! He owns his initial shortcoming and doesn’t try to cover it up. The whole thing could have been a total disaster, but he acknowledges his mistakes (something especially difficult when you’re under immense pressure) and ends up making the whole thing a moment that reflects the weightiness of God’s calling and the heights of God’s mercy. More importantly, he learns to trust God all the more after being called to something new. Big transitions are hard. It’s easy to get nervous, upset, frustrated, weirded-out, etc. But God isn’t just randomly switching things up. He’s placed us exactly where we are for the sake of our own holiness and the deification of those around us. Sometimes we might get negative. It’s certainly not ideal, but even some of the greats had their moments of despair. We need to bounce back and recognize the importance of the duties he’s given us. The heights of what God calls us to are greater than anything we could possibly imagine for ourselves.

I hope I can keep the spirit of post-flight Gregory as I adjust to my new setting down here in The Plains. I know God put me here for a reason, and I hope I can do work that brings him glory.

God is Red: Zhang Yinxian and True Discipleship

Back when I was first trying to find good books about Christianity, I went to my local library and grabbed whatever was on the shelves. One of those books happened to be Liao Yiwu’s God is Red, a series of interviews with people who endured persecution in communist China around the time of the Cultural Revolution. It made quite the impression on me. Specifically, the story of Zhang Yinxian was one that I never forgot.

Zhang was an orphan that became a nun at the cathedral of Dali in the Yunnan province. That church was MASSIVE. There were over 400 that lived in the church complex and thousands who came from throughout the province to worship. All of that changed when the communists took over. Church property was confiscated. Worshipers renounced their faith to avoid punishment from the government. Out of thousands who worshiped, only three remained faithful: Zhang, her Aunt Li, and Bishop Liu.

They were beaten. They were imprisoned. They were released as pariahs at the bottom of the social ladder with few opportunities to avoid poverty. On top of all that, they had to endure mass denunciations. They would be trotted out in front of crowds that would spit at them and scream about how narrow-minded and backwards they were and how they were leeches on society. They endured all of that for thirty-one years.

In 1983, the Communist Party changed policies. Certain religions were now acceptable. People could worship freely. Church property would gradually be returned. Zhang, Li, and Liu were given modest apartments… but that wasn’t enough for them. They went to the local statehouse and started a hunger strike until they got their church back. The people that passed by them weren’t sympathetic: “You oughta be grateful for what you got! Be more patriotic!” But they stayed and they prayed and waited. A government official spoke with them and told them that they’d get their church back but these sorts of things took time. They said, “Thank goodness, because we’re hungry and we can’t eat until we have our church back. Here’s to hoping its soon!” The official got furious and called them greedy for demanding a massive building for just three people. They just said that it wasn’t for them; it was for God. They wanted to go to his house and worship him.

After 31 years of persecution, they got their church back. Thousands once worshiped there, but after thirty-one years of persecution, only three remained. There may have been a big crowd at that sanctuary, but there were only three real disciples.

Would I have been one of those three? I hope so, but I also know that I can’t fathom how hard it would have been to endure. Only an unshakable faith can endure trials like that, and an unshakable faith doesn’t just spring up by accident. It takes deliberate training and constant nurture. How can we help make disciples like Zhong, Li, and Liu? And how can we become disciples like that? I don’t know. But that mental image of little old Aunt Li getting spat on and screamed at while she loved Jesus has certainly stuck with me. Here’s to hoping I can be as faithful as she was.

An Odd Mix of Joy and Sorrow: Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands

A few weeks back, I wrapped up a class about hymns at the church.  We looked back at how music was used in worship throughout the ages and looked at some particularly famous hymns along the way.  If you’re interested in that kind of thing, we used the book Then Sings My Soul: Book 3 by Thomas Nelson, which is not only approachable and concise, but does a nice job of blending history and music. 

There’s one hymn that really stuck with me from that class: “Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands” by Martin Luther (sheet music and full copy of the lyrics here).  I have no idea how common this hymn is among Lutherans.  For all I know, they sing it every week.  Goodness knows Methodists know more than their fair share of Charles Wesley hymns.  However common it might be in other traditions, it was totally foreign to me, which means I could appreciate just how weird (and wonderful) it was. Here’s a great rendition by Concordia Publishing House:

First off, it’s an Easter song in A minor.  Who writes an Easter song in a minor key?  Easter is a celebration!  It’s glorious!  I don’t expect sad music!  But here’s Death’s Strong Bands, full of melancholy, proudly announcing Easter.  It’s a mix of joy and sorrow that I didn’t expect on Easter.

The lyrics have that same tension.  Just look at verse 1:

Christ Jesus lay in death’s strong bands
for our offenses given;
but now at God’s right hand he stands
and brings us life from heaven.
Therefore let us joyful be
and sing to God right thankfully
loud songs of alleluia! Alleluia!

The first two lines are intensely melancholy, so much so that I’m surprised by the heavenly triumph that follows! And before you say, “Hold on, Vincent!  What if Martin Luther was only saying something like ‘Christ died for us,’ in the first verse?  That could certainly be considered joyful,” hear me out.  The whole hymn vacillates between triumph and sorrow:

  • Verse two is about how all of humanity was enslaved to sin and death (mournful)

  • Verse three is about Jesus destroying death and taking its crown (triumphal)

  •  

    Verse four is about the “strange and dreadful strife” when good and evil fought and good won (triumphal, but with mournful undertones)

  • Verse five compares Jesus to the paschal lamb that died so his blood could save others (could be played either way; suffering love is a complex theme)

  •  

    Verse six and seven switch into high celebration, explicitly saying that it’s Easter and we should remember it with food, drink, and celebrations (highly triumphal)

When I talked to the class about this particular hymn, it turned out to be a lot less popular than I expected.  The most popular complaint was that it was just too gloomy to sing on Easter and too perky to sing on Good Friday. Maybe it could fit in on a Palm/Passion service? But even then you’d have to cut out the verse that explicitly says it’s Easter. It came off like a hymn with some problems that would need solved before it saw it’s day in Sunday worship.

Apparently the people who compiled the United Methodist Hymnal felt the same way.  They cut verses two, three, and five, removing the themes of death, sin, and atonement (the stuff we usually associate with Good Friday). What’s left is significantly more triumphal. Given that verse six and seven are the only two “very triumphal” verses, the percent of the hymn dedicated purely to celebration rockets up from 28% pre-edit to 50% post-edit. This is a common edit of the hymn shared by most mainline denominations and a few evangelical ones.

I can’t help but feel we’re losing something with edits like this. The tension between joy and sorrow and the battle between good and evil are what made the song interesting to begin with! If we ditch that, what are we left with? A weird, subpar Easter hymn that’s arbitrarily in a minor key. Gross. But I get what they were trying to do! They wanted to tip the balance between joy and sorrow in favor of joy! They wanted to resolve the tension and make it a little more Eastery! But resolving that tension made it boring and odd.

If were going to give it some tweaks to help it find a place in worship, a better solution (in my mind) is showcased by efforts like the band Koine. Rather than remove the tension between the celebratory stuff and the mournful stuff, they leaned into that tension. They removed verses 6 and 7 (the explicit references to Easter) and basically turned it into a Good Friday hymn:

Now that’s worth singing!  The minor key makes sense.  I get it.  The sweetness of salvation and the bitterness of Christ’s death are properly intermingled.  It feels a lot more loyal to Luther’s original intent as well. I can’t fathom someone asking him if they could ditch the stuff about Christ’s death and sin and him saying, “Oh, for sure!  Now that I think about it, it was a little gloomy.”  Not a chance.

I do have to admit that the original draft is definitely an odd hymn and a tough sell for Easter.  I almost wonder if you could split the verses and make two versions: the Good Friday edit would have verses 1 through 5, and the Easter Sunday edit would have verses 1, 6 and 7.  If you sang those different versions on their appropriate days during Holy Week, it might give a sense of continuing work that works really well. But maybe I’m working too hard to make an odd hymn work.  Or maybe I’m not properly appreciating what Martin did in the first place! Either way, this hymn’s mix of joy and sorrow hit me just right. I’ll keep pondering this hymn for weeks to come.

Easter Sermons, Augustine of Canterbury, and the Procession to the King of Kent

I preached my first Easter sermon this past Sunday, which was delightful. I hadn’t had the privilege of preaching on a holiday before (at least, not one of the big ones). Now that it’s over, I’m reflecting on the occasion. There are so many guests at churches on Easter. A lot of them have pretty minimal relationships with the Church. What do we show them to impress the importance of God on their hearts? How do we evangelize on big occasions like Easter?

Luckily for me, I stumbled across this reading from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England while auditing one of Matthew Hoskin’s classes at Davenant Institute (his blog is here and is brilliant, by the way).

Augustine of Canterbury (who is not the same person as Augustine of Hippo) was sent by Pope Gregory the Great to share the Gospel with the people in Kent (modern England). They set up a meeting with the king in the hopes of getting permission to evangelize throughout his territory. I can only imagine a meeting like that would be infinitely more stressful than giving an Easter sermon to a visitor-heavy crowd today. He needed translators! He needed to adhere to local sensibilities and codes of respect! If things went wrong, the King might not only decide to kick them out; he might decide to kill these obnoxious missionaries that were meddling where they ought not meddle. So what did he bring? What did he show the king of Kent to impress upon him the seriousness of this Christian faith?

They came… bearing a silver cross for their banner, and the image of our Lord and Savior painted on a board; and chanting litanies, they offered up their prayers to the Lord for the eternal salvation both of themselves and of those to whom and for whom they had come. When they had sat down, in obedience to the king’s commands, [they] preached to him, and his attendants there present the Word of life.

The Venerable Bede, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England, Ch. XXV

Can you imagine the spectacle of that procession? An envoy from Rome arrives complete with silver cross and marching chanters and all the (figurative) bells and whistles. It’d have been a breathtaking sight! More than that, Augustine is unapologetically offering up things that are otherworldly. He isn’t offering trade deals. There’s no promise of improved relationships with other kingdoms. He isn’t even explaining how fun the children’s ministry will be for the kingdom’s kids! All of the pageantry and splendor serve to create this little window into a world beyond our own. And it works! The king gives his approval for their activity in his realm.

I’m well aware that some of that procession is normative for the time and culture. I’m also sure that the average Easter visitor won’t have the same response to a crowd of monks chanting for their salvation that King Ethelbert did. As I continue to unpack my first Easter at the helm, I have to keep asking, how do we create a window into Heaven? How can we evangelize like Augustine of Canterbury and present the truth in a way that makes people stop and marvel?

What Did Jesus Write in the Dirt in John 8:1-11? Big Name Theologians Weigh In

While poking around some different articles on the treatment of women in Leviticus, I stumbled across some wacky interpretations of what Jesus wrote in the sand in John 8:1-11. Let me refresh your memory on that passage (with a verse from chapter 7 to make sure we don’t start in the middle of a sentence):

53 Then they all went home,

but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.

At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

11 “No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

What did Jesus write? It’s important enough that it’s referenced twice at crucial story moments, but apparently not important enough to tell us anything about it. I’ve heard people say he was writing a passage from Leviticus 20 indicating that BOTH people were supposed to be stoned, revealing that they would be breaking the law if they stoned her because they failed to produce both parties. Others have said that he was writing the names of every accuser along with the sins that they had recently committed. I’ve even heard that he drew a line in the sand for people to cross if they felt they were worthy. There are a lot of takes out there, but most of them aren’t really founded on much apart from one person’s random guesswork. What have the major theologians of the Christian tradition said about the writing in the sand?

Naturally, I started with Augustine (because you can never go too far wrong with Augustine). Luckily for me, he preached a series of sermons about the book of John and his take was customarily good. He suggested the trap the Pharisees laid was in making Jesus choose between gentleness and justice. If Jesus approved of the women’s death, he’d be the guy that condemned peasant women and his popularity would suffer. If he didn’t approve of her death, he was speaking against God’s justice and was officially a transgressor of the law! Jesus navigates the dilemma with his typical craftiness by taking neither option. But what about the finger writing?

You have heard, O Jews, you have heard, O Pharisees, you have heard, O teachers of the law, the guardian of the law, but have not yet understood Him as the Lawgiver. What else does He signify to you when He writes with His finger on the ground? For the law was written with the finger of God; but written on stone because of the hard-hearted. The Lord now wrote on the ground, because He was seeking fruit. You have heard then, Let the law be fulfilled, let the adulteress be stoned. But is it by punishing her that the law is to be fulfilled by those that ought to be punished? Let each of you consider himself, let him enter into himself, ascend the judgment-seat of his own mind, place himself at the bar of his own conscience, oblige himself to confess… Each looking carefully into himself, finds himself a sinner. Yes, indeed. Hence, either let this woman go, or together with her receive ye the penalty of the law… [H]aving struck them through with that dart of justice, [Jesus] deigned not to heed their fall, but, turning away His look from them, “again He wrote with His finger on the ground.” 

Augustine, Sermon on John Chapter VII. 40–53; VIII. 1–11

Brilliant! Rather than focus on non-existent content, he’s looking at the symbolism of the act itself. Why would Jesus write on the ground? Because God wrote the law on stone the first time, and now he’s writing on the ground. This is the same dust that people were created from. Were they fertile enough to bear fruit after all these years? Or were their hearts still hard as the rocks that the commandments were once written on? He even returns to his idea of gentleness by indicating that Jesus didn’t stare them down after the incident, shaming them for their sin. He just keeps writing. Really nice work here.

Other patristic authors are less worthy of sharing. John Chrysostom has a sermon series on John that deliberately skips over this particular story and a lot of ancient theologians (especially in the East) follow suit, leading some to believe that they had copies of John that didn’t contain these verses. In Against the Pelagians, Book 2, Jerome suggests Jesus was writing out the names of the accusers to to fulfill Jeremiah 17:13 “Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust,” (a passage which seems to have been intended to be more poetic than literal). By and large, Augustine’s logic seems to have been attractive. Thomas Aquinas carries it forward to the Middle Ages in his mega-commentary Catena Aurea and includes support from Venerable Bede and Alcuin of York to back him up.

In the Reformation, John Calvin comes out swinging against Augustine and approaches the story without interest in allegory:

By this attitude he intended to show that he despised them. Those who conjecture that he wrote this or the other thing, in my opinion, do not understand his meaning. Nor do I approve of the ingenuity of Augustine, who thinks that in this manner the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is pointed out, because Christ did not write on tables of stone, (Exodus 31:18,) but on man, who is dust and earth. For Christ rather intended, by doing nothing, to show how unworthy they were of being heard; just as if any person, while another was speaking to him, were to draw lines on the wall, or to turn his back, or to show, by any other sign, that he was not attending to what was said. Thus in the present day, when Satan attempts, by various methods, to draw us aside from the right way of teaching, we ought disdainfully to pass by many things which he holds out to us.

John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentary on John 13:1-11

Gone is the speculative symbolism! Instead, we have a Jesus that’s just not listening. Pharisees are coming around, asking questions that they already know the answer to, and Jesus just starts doodling in the sand. That’s how little he cares what they have to say. When he says “Let he who is without sin throw the first stone,” Calvin reads that as a deliberate reference to their own sinfulness. They know they aren’t being sincere. They’re scheming, conniving, wretched men trying to kill someone to prove their own point. It’s not that the law isn’t legitimate; it’s that they aren’t being legitimate, and they know it. Again, Calvin is sticking to the Scripture pretty thoroughly and avoiding wild speculation about the writing. Well done.

The Reformation seems to be a bit of a hinge in historical interpretation. After the Reformation, commentaries that I can find seem to take a more practical approach to the matter. The symbolic dimension is swallowed up by the practical. Some lean more heavily on WHY he wrote (to avoid meddling in politics, to calm people down, etc.) while others focus on WHAT he wrote (names, sins, passages of the law, etc.). John Wesley is one of the better big-name interpreters to marry the practical and the symbolic, but his notes are still ruthlessly pragmatic:

God wrote once in the Old Testament; Christ once in the New: perhaps the words which he afterward spoke, when they continued asking him. By this silent action, he,

1. fixed their wandering, hurrying thoughts, in order to awaken their consciences: and,
2. signified that he was not then come to condemn but to save the world.

John Wesley, Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on the New Testament, John 8:1-11

Obviously there are oodles of others well worth reading, but these were the ones that I thought were worthy of lifting up. They’re all respected enough for their words to carry weight, and each seems to represent the general stream of mainstream interpretation within their era.

Ultimately, I’m really pleased with what I found. I expected to find some really wacky stuff, but a shocking majority of commentators avoided wild speculation about the specifics of the writing and interpreted in light of the information that they had, rather than what they didn’t have. Frankly, that was my bias from the outset. If the Bible doesn’t say what Jesus wrote, it couldn’t have been all that important to the story (sorry Jerome). But really, it was phenomenal to see all the directions people went with it. I have a soft spot for that symbolic dimension. It emphasized the weight of each action within the passage in a way that was far beyond the mundane. So what did he write? Beats me. As much as I like Augustine, I’ll side with Calvin for the sheer delightful possibility of Jesus rolling his eyes and playing tic tac toe against himself in the dirt while they were trying to talk to him.

Heroes of Old… and Me! Jerome’s De Viris Illustribus

While I was doing a little more digging on Polycarp, I ran across an account of him in Jerome’s De Viris Illustribus (aka On Illustrious Men). According to Jerome, Polycarp was a student of the Apostle John, which delighted me to no end. What a neat little detail! The Biblical era is so often made it’s own little self-contained thing, so when you see those moments where apostles interacted with the generations that followed, it just makes their work seem infinitely more real. They weren’t just storybook characters; they actually lived, met people, taught them, and made leaders in the early Church. Of course, it’s not undisputed. As with all ancient history, some people think it’s true, and some people think it’s false. This particular claim has some heavy hitters weighing in behind it (Tertullian, Irenaeus, Eusebius, and Jerome) and the timelines totally line up, but ancient history is always a little sketchy. There just aren’t those ironclad sources that you have today. This meme sums it up nicely:

The sources we have in this case are a little stronger than a cousin’s friend’s dream, but you get the picture. Modernity favors exactitude, whereas ancient history is full of legends. Me? I think it’s reasonable to say that Polycarp and John met. Polycarp was a notable bishop in modern Turkey that lived through the first and second centuries. John the Apostle would have been alive and in modern Greece. It makes sense that they would have interacted. Between the timeline, the geography, and the sources, it works.

But that wasn’t the only treat in De Viris Illustribus. It had a few other treasures that are worth sharing, one which is Jerome trying to determine the authorship of various Biblical books. De Viris Illustribus is basically a who’s who of people who wrote noteworthy books for the Church. Naturally, Jerome starts with the New Testament writers, which quickly leads to conversations about who wrote what. After all, how can you bring up Paul and his writings without saying what he wrote? So did Paul actually write Hebrews? Did Peter write 2 Peter? Jerome doesn’t seem to buy either. Which is kind of nice, actually. Even though Jerome isn’t 100% sure about the authorship, he still considers the books canonical and crucial for Christians. In the modern era, questions about authorship often feels like a litmus test to see if you’re really a real Christian. It’s nice to see that things aren’t always as black and white as we think. Great saints have asked questions that we might reject offhand today. Maybe we can afford to be a little gentler when such matters come up.

I also just appreciated the nature of the book itself. Like I said, it’s a list from a big-shot theologian saying who wrote things worth your attention in the Church world. That’s something that’s shockingly rare in the modern era! If you don’t go to seminary, you may not know who is worth reading and who isn’t. I remember being a new Christian and just kind of buying Christian books at random, hoping that they were legit. A lot of what I got wasn’t worth reading. People need to know who is worth engaging with! And Jerome doesn’t pull any punches either. This isn’t a little list of authors who are comfortable and safe. There are heretics on this list! There are non-Christians! Mind you, he tells his readers why each source is worth reading and warns them about what they are, but the point stands that he’s not just filling people up with his own ideas. He’s preparing them for a greater conversation in the world at large.

Finally, I think it’s just nice to have a list of heroes. Some of the details in here are a blast! For example, he says that James the Just prayed so often that his knees “had the hardness of camel’s knees,” (Ch. 2). He says that Ignatius of Antioch’s last words before he was martyred in the arena were “I am the grain of Christ. I am ground by the teeth of the wild beasts that I may be found the bread of the world,” (Ch. 16). Polycarp is said to have met one of the first big heretics of the Church (Marcion) while they were both trying to prosthelytize in Rome and their meeting sounds like something straight out of a movie. Marcion walks up to him and asks, “Do you know us?” Polycarp responds “I know the firstborn of the devil,” (Ch. 17). Not only are these great Christians and great thinkers, but they ooze personality. Jerome even adds himself to the list as the final person of note, which is hilarious. I’d call him out for being cocky, but since his writings have survived since the fourth century, I have to admit that he wasn’t wrong.

In any case, it was a joy finding this old list of heroes worth reading. Feel free to check it out here if you demand more, or make your own list. Share it with your fellow Christians at church! Who knows how it might help someone? But a word to the wise: probably don’t add yourself as the last person on the list.