The History of Mary Veneration: A Protestant Prospective

My wife and I went to the Cleveland Museum of Art a few weeks ago. As a theology nerd, I went straight to the Christian art section hoping to have a little bit of a mini-retreat there in the gallery. Unfortunately for me, a MASSIVE portion of the art focused on Mary:

And this one that really took the cake…

Mary’s coronation as the Queen of Heaven.

It was hard to have a spiritual response to when everything was so Mary-centric! When I looked up, Mary’s gaze was the first thing I encountered. Jesus wasn’t even looking at me most of the time! If he wasn’t looking off in the distance, he was looking up at Mary, drawing even more attention to her. Naturally, that led to the question, “when did Christians start venerating Mary and why did Protestants stop doing it?” Some Protestants might agree that Mary is uniquely worthy of admiration, but even the most intense Protestant admiration is a far cry from the veneration that she enjoys in Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. So what happened? Did we ditch something that was passed down from the beginning, or did we actually manage to strip away a medieval innovation that had little to do with the Christianity of the apostles?

The uncomfortable truth about Mary veneration is that the historical evidence is a lot less black or white than most parties would like it to be. The veneration of Mary started waaaaay earlier than your average Protestant would hope, but it also happened waaaay later than your average Catholic assumes. First and second century Christians would have found any prayers to Mary a totally alien practice, but in the midst of the raging battles against heresy in the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries, it started to develop as a way of preserving the same orthodoxy that Protestants and Catholics share today. In the centuries that followed, it continued to grow and intensify, leading to eventual skepticism from Protestants that wanted to go back to the basics. Even though our tradition ceased the practice of Marian veneration (and had a reasonable claim on recovering early orthodoxy in doing so), a study of how the practice came to be can help us appreciate how that veneration helped our theological ancestors cling to orthodoxy at a time when the nature of Jesus was under fire.

Let’s start our journey with the first century. Easy enough, since there’s no evidence for Marian veneration in this era at all. If we take the Scriptures as the clearest evidence of first-century Christian thought and practice, there’s just not much there. The gospels bring up Mary sparingly, usually during the birth narrative, and the epistles only reference her a handful of times, usually indirectly (for example, Galatians 4:4  reads “God sent forth his Son born of a woman“). If you’re going Sola Scriptura, Mary is a relatively minor Bible character that exists within the narrative as Jesus’s mom. You can definitely find some commentaries out there that try to push the mystical importance of certain passages. For example, some Catholic commentators make much about John 19:26-27: “When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, ‘Woman, here is your son,’ and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ You can read that to mean that Jesus is mystically speaking to every disciple today, encouraging them to accept Jesus as their own mother… or you can conclude that Jesus was worried about his mom and sent her off with John. The latter seems a great deal more likely than the former. Emphasizing the small passages that Mary does appear in doesn’t solve the big problem: nobody in the Scriptures is venerating Mary or explicitly telling others to do it.

There aren’t a ton of indisputably first-Century Christian documents readily available outside of the Scriptures. We could look at documents like the Didiche (also known as The Teachings of the Apostles) and the Epistle of Barnabas (both of which tend to be considered first-century) and note that neither of them mention Mary at all. First-century Christians just don’t seem particularly concerned with the place of Mary within the order of Christianity. She was Jesus’ mom and that’s about it.

So, onwards to the second century… in which evidence is still pretty scant, all things considered. The Catacomb of Priscilla has the first recorded painting of Mary and Jesus:

There’s a few other paintings from the second century as well, all of which depict Mary as the mother of Jesus. Nothing really new here, but they do speak to the broader concern regarding Mary in this era: was Mary actually Jesus’ mom? The big heresy in the second century was docetism; the belief that Jesus wasn’t really human, so much as he was a spiritual being that looked human. Was he born? Not really. Spiritual beings can’t be born. There wasn’t a consensus among the docetists as to where Jesus did come from. Some claimed that Jesus only appeared to live among us while others suggested that Jesus was just an average man that was born by Mary and the spirit of the Christ descended upon him at his baptism. One famous heretic by the name of Marcion went so far as to totally remove all birth stories from the Scriptures, solving the problem of Jesus’ birth by just having him show up on the scene as a fully-grown man. Regardless of the specifics, the basic message of docetism was the same: Jesus Christ wasn’t really a man, but he was really God. Mary starts to garner more interest from orthodox Christians because she establishes both the human-ness and the divinity of Jesus.

The big theologians in this era reference Mary while they’re making arguments against the docetists. For example, take this passage from Tertullian’s On the Flesh of Christ:

Why is Christ man and the Son of man, if he has nothing of man, and nothing from man? Unless it be either that man is anything else than flesh, or man’s flesh comes from any other source than man, or Mary is anything else than a human being?

Ch. 5

One popular technique used to emphasize the crucial role of Mary is recapitulation (retelling the story of humanity but with all of the bad things from the fall being fixed by similar events during salvation). For example, here’s Tertullian again: “As Eve had believed the serpent, so Mary believed the angel,” (On the Flesh of Christ, Ch.17). And here’s a longer example from the famous second-century apologist, Justin Martyr::

[Jesus] became man by the Virgin, in order that the disobedience which proceeded from the serpent might receive its destruction in the same manner in which it derived its origin. For Eve, who was a virgin and undefiled, having conceived the word of the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary received faith and joy, when the angel Gabriel announced the good tidings to her that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her, and the power of the Highest would overshadow her: wherefore also the Holy Thing begotten of her is the Son of God; and she replied, ‘Be it unto me according to your word,’ (Luke 1:38).

Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Ch 100

Recapitulation holds to that same anti-docetist thought pattern: if Eve sinned and humanity was doomed through the error a woman, how can humanity saved without the faithfulness of a woman? We need a Mary that genuinely participated in the story of salvation to reverse the damage that was done during the fall. Similar ideas float around in the works of other theologians in this era (Irenaeus, for example) and even start to pop up in some of the apocryphal writings. The Gospel of James, for example, is a retelling of the story of Christ’s birth which explicitly includes a (really uncomfortable) section in which a midwife inspects Mary’s hymen after the birth to make sure that she was genuinely a virgin. Jesus isn’t just a regular baby; he’s a miracle baby! He’s a man that’s also God! She’s genuinely his mother, but the birth is miraculous and mysterious.

Onward to the third century! Mary continues to increase in stature. The teacher of teachers, Origen of Alexandria is supposedly the very first person to write the word “theotokos” (mother of God) down as a title for Mary. Not only would this be remarkable because of the level of authority a title like that naturally bestows upon the listener (it’s a fair bit more impressive sounding than “disciple” or “deacon”), but because this is the exact title that will start to normalize Mary veneration in the 5th century. Tying this title to such an ancient and dignified teacher would lend an incredible amount of legitimacy to the practice! But in all of his recorded writings, Origen never used the word “theotokos.” Not even once. A 5th century author, Socrates of Constantinople, made that claim while he was attempting to dismiss the objections of someone named “Nestorius”:

Origen also, in the third volume of his Commentaries on the Apostolic Epistle to the Romans, gives an ample exposition of the sense in which the term Theotokos is used. It is therefore obvious that Nestorius had very little acquaintance with the old theologians[.]

Ecclesiastical History 7.32.17

Unfortunately for Socrates of Constantinople, we have a copy of Origen’s commentary on Romans and can clearly see that no such passage exists. Not only does it not exist, but Origen never uses the same language of high veneration that later authors will use. Despite some poor claims that continue forward into modernity, Origen’s writings don’t have any real jumping off point that naturally leads to the veneration of Mary.

I bring up this false claim because it indicates that things are really starting to get moving. The water is starting to get muddied. Even though the claims don’t have much legitimacy, the fact that someone made such a claim specifically targeting this era reflects that Mary’s status within the faith is growing. Origen may not use that particular power-phrase, but he does focus on Mary even more than most previous theologians. We start to see Mary stuff start to pop up more and more in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries. Somewhere in this timeframe (depending on which person is doing the dating), we even see see the Sub tuum praesidium hymn pop up for the first time:

Beneath your compassion,We take refuge, O Theotokos [God-bearer]:do not despise our petitions in time of trouble:but rescue us from dangers, only pure, only blessed one.

Sub tuum praes., earliest manuscript of which is from a Coptic fragment known as John Rylands papyrus 470

We still regularly see theologians say that Mary was sinful and there are very few clear recommendations of praying to her from leading Christian figures, but language about perpetual virginity that started popping up in the second century is carrying forward. She is not only a mother, but she is a mother that remained ever-virgin. And again, we have the odd scraps of evidence (like the Sub tuum papyrus) that seem to suggest that some communities are starting to pray to Mary and hold her in particularly high esteem. As we get more thoroughly into the fourth century, big-name theologians like Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianzus start using the phrase “theotokos.” The mother of God has officially arrived.

We could spend ages looking at the slow evolution of the practice of Marian veneration, but I think I’ve already established the trend— Marian veneration slowly developed as a way of battling heresies that claimed that Jesus was not both all-man and all-God. She established both realities; her miraculous birth established Christ’s divinity, while her humanity established Christ’s humanity. But the fifth century offers one more large leap in the history of Mary veneration: the Council of Ephesus and their official endorsement of the title “theotokos.”

A fifth-century archbishop by the name of Nestorius didn’t approve of the title “theotokos” that some Christians had started using (yes, this is the same Nestorius that Socrates of Constantinople made up a fake quote to argue against). Mary couldn’t have given birth to God. God is eternal! God has neither beginning nor end! So he recommended the title “Christotokos” (mother of Christ) as a more accurate title for Mary. She gave birth to the human aspect of Jesus, but was not truly the mother of the divine trinity. The ancestors of orthodox Christianity noted that this effectively split Jesus into two parts: the human and the divine. The human part was born, but the divine part wasn’t. Mary was the mother of half of Jesus, but the other half descended after the fact. If Jesus’ divinity and humanity could be isolated and held responsible for different events, did Jesus work miracles, or was that just his divine half? Did Jesus die on the cross, or was that just his human half? A split Christ was no Christ at all. They insisted that Jesus had to be both God and man, not two separate aspects that could be split for the sake of certain events. Cyril of Alexandria, acting in accordance with both the Pope and a synod of Egyptian bishops, wrote the famous Twelve Anathemas Against Nestorius, the first of which openly affirmed the language of the theotokos:

If anyone will not confess that the Emmanuel is very God, and that therefore the Holy Virgin is the Mother of God, inasmuch as in the flesh she bore the Word of God made flesh [as it is written, The Word was made flesh] let him be anathema.

The First of Cyril’s Twelve Anathemas Against Nestorius

When Nestorius didn’t relent, the Council of Ephesus officially followed through on Cyril’s anathemas. There’s a lot of politics and lofty theological argumentation behind all of that, but note the true focus of the argument: the nature of Christ. While Mary’s title is the most obvious sticking point, in all of the official documentation surrounding this controversy, almost all of it is primarily concerned with the nature of Christ. Only the first of the twelve anathemas mentions Mary, and none of the canon judgements of the Council of Ephesus mention her at all. What we’re seeing here is that same tendency to use Mary to establish Christ’s divine and human nature, but elevated to the highest point thus far. Now Mary has been given an obligatory title, and one that carries a fair amount of prestige at that.

Now, you might say, “Wait, that just establishes that it’s legitimate to call Mary the mother of God. What about the veneration? That’s what we’re here for!” It continues to ramp up over time after this decision. We’re still a long way off from our Salve Reginas, Hail Marys, and the title “the Queen of Heaven,” all of which start popping up between the 11th and 13th century, but the Council of Ephesus really does kick off a period of renewed emphasis on Mary and the first really decisive evidence of large-scale veneration. After this event, churches started being named in honor of Mary and influential theologians like Augustine of Hippo started focusing even more time and attention on doctrines elevating the position of Mary. What was born out of a conflict regarding establishing Christ’s nature resulted in new titles, new theological lines in the sand, and new heresies defined around Mary. In the following centuries, the veneration of Mary would continue to increase. Devotional practices would be oriented towards Mary. Theologians would continue to make even bolder claims about Mary’s importance. Monasteries especially would introduce worship practices to appeal to Mary. What we’ve observed here in the fifth century is the first bud that would eventually bloom into full high Marian veneration during the Middle Ages.

Now onto the big question: why did Protestants reject Mary veneration? If it was built up over centuries specifically to avoid certain heresies, why get rid of it? Perhaps the simplest reason is that they were trying to reform the faith in the pattern of early Christianity. They thought the medieval church had strayed too far from the pattern set out by early Christianity, and so they turned to the Scriptures and tried to get back to the basics, but now they weren’t asking the same questions they were 500 years before. There was no doubt that Jesus was both God and man. Nobody wondered if he was some kind of purely spiritual being or a really nice guy who was acting in cooperation with a divine spirit. Conversations about Mary were no longer necessary to battle active heresies about Christ’s nature, and with the new radical emphasis on Scripture, a suspicion of tradition, and an emphasis on the priesthood of all believers, many of the core tenants of Mariology were completely removed. Why should anyone pray to Mary? It’s not modeled in the Scriptures or in the writings of the early church fathers. Besides that, what would make her more important than anyone else? In Luther’s words:

Your prayers, O Christian, are as dear to me as hers. And why? Because if you believe that Christ lives in you as much as in her, then you can help me as much as she.

Luther’s 1522 sermon on the Feast of our Lady’s Nativity;
Unfortunately, there’s no good English translation readily available, but excellent details are available through Grisar’s work on Luther: “Werke,” Weim. ed., 10, 3, p. 321 f. 499. as Cited in Hartmann Grisar, Luther, trans. E. M. Lamond (Project Gutenberg, 2015) p. 503.

There was a radical equality being emphasized in Protestantism, and the elevation of Mary did not fit. The hundreds of years of debate that crafted this practice seemed more like years of embedded pagan influence and error than compelling doctrinal formulation.

As I poured over articles to gather all of this info, I found more than a few cries from within Protestantism that Mary needs to be returned to a prominent role (if not her rightful historic role) within our theology. Perhaps… and perhaps not. There can be little doubt that there’s no harm in emphasizing the role of Jesus’ mom within the Scriptures. It is doubtless that she was a person of outstanding faith and moral character on top of being a person intimately involved in God’s work of salvation. At the same time, I don’t know that I’m eager to return to praying special prayers to the “high queen of heaven.” The major Protestant creeds all keep Christ enshrined as both 100% God and 100% man. While I readily concede that there are plenty of self-proclaimed Christians today that disagree with that basic point of orthodoxy, they’re certainly not uniquely Protestant. The early Protestants set out to turn away from medieval innovations and return to the basics Christianity while preserving Christian orthodoxy, and I think they did a reasonably good job of it in the case of Mary veneration. I think it’s lovely that the first few centuries of Christians share our view of Mary and could pray alongside us without any qualms. At the same time, I like to think we can appreciate where some of the emphasis on Mary came from in the case of our Catholic and Eastern Orthodox siblings. Their practices were born out of a defense of the same orthodoxy that we hold dear. Even if we don’t agree with their specific expression of piety, I think we can at least appreciate where those practices came from and how they’re trying to preserve orthodox Christianity in their own way.

Mind you, I’m still probably not about to have a spiritual experience at the Cleveland Art Museum.

THE NEPHILIM! A Word Study and History of Interpretation

Be there giants?

2 Timothy 3:16 famously says that all scripture is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.  Unfortunately, not all of it is easy to understand.  So let’s pick out a really weird verse and see what God has to say in it!  We’ll take a good look at the verse itself, explore the history of its interpretation, and see what we can make of it.

Genesis 6:1-8

6 When human beings began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. 3 Then the Lord said, “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.”

4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.

5 The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. 6 The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. 7 So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.”8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.

What on earth is happening in this passage?  For me, the pinnacle of weirdness is in verse 4: “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.” What the heck?

To make heads or tails of this passage, we have to be able to identify 3 different groups: the sons of God, the daughters of man, and the Nephilim.  Unfortunately, it’s incredibly hard to translate the Hebrew here with any level of certainty.  Not only are the words and phrases vague enough that they leave several interpretive possibilities on the table, but exact phrases like these are used so rarely in the Bible that we don’t have a lot of clues to help us out.

First, we have the sons of God or “bene haelohim”.  The phrase appears two other times in the Bible (Job 1:6 and Job 2:1) and in each instance it clearly means “angels.”  That being said, Genesis and Job weren’t written at the same time, and there are several other translations that would be well within the bounds of reason.  It could mean something like “men who follow God” or “men who are like God,” (aka godly men).  To add even more confusion to the matter, the word “elohim” can mean “God” or it can be used to refer to any being that’s particularly impressive.  It could mean “king.”  It could mean “angel.”  You get the picture.  Bene haelohim could easily mean “sons of kings” or “sons of warlords.”

Clearly the “daughters of humans” (a phrase uncommon in Scripture and more clearly rendered “daughters of man” in Hebrew) are intended to be the opposite of whatever the sons of God are.  If we say that the sons of God are angels, then thinking of them as human women makes the most sense.  If the sons of God are godly men, the daughters of man are intended to be worldly women.  If we say that the sons of God are the sons of kings or warlords, then they are intended to be peasant women.

Finally, we have the Nephilim.  You know a word is bad when Bible translators don’t even touch the thing.  There’s a few options here as well.  The literal translation from the Hebrew is “the fallen ones,”  It appears in two other places in the Bible: once in Numbers when the Hebrew spies look over at Canaan to see if it is safe to inhabit and they see nephilim (usually rendered “giants” in English) and again in Ezekiel 32 to describe warriors that have fallen on the battlefield.  In a battlefield context, the word could also be used to talk about strong attackers, or those who “fall upon” their opponents with attack after attack.  The giants idea might seem out of left field, given the English translation, but an ancient Greek manuscript grants us a little insight.  The Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Old Testament from the 3rd century BC) has Nephilim translated as “gigantes” or giants, so there’s some kind of cultural or linguistic link there, even if it’s not immediately apparent.

Where does that leave us?  Well, we have three story options starting to emerge.  This could be a story about angels coming to earth, having children with humans, and giants being born as a result of that union.  It could be a story about righteous men of God having children with worldly women, leading to a slow compromise of faith over the generations.  Then there’s the option that it could be about the sons of rich merchants mistreating peasant women and raising a generation of fierce warriors.  Each of these seems viable.

So what now?  Well, time to look at tradition.

The oldest interpretation I could find was from the Book of Enoch.  This little apocryphal book (book that didn’t make it into the Bible) was probably written between 200 and 300 BC.  And obviously Enoch didn’t write it.  Enoch is the guy who was famously “taken away” by God in Genesis 5:24 (and there’s much speculation about what THAT means, but that’s a story for another time), so someone else must have written it and popped his name on it.  The book is basically an attempt to retell the story of Genesis more thoroughly, filling in all the plot holes that the original has.  In the retelling of this story, the sons of God are DEFINITELY angels that come to Earth to have children with human women:

And it came to pass when the children of men had multiplied, in those days were born unto them beautiful and comely daughters. And the angels, the children of heaven, saw and lusted after them, and said to one another: ‘Come, let us choose wives from among the children of men and beget us children.’

1 Enoch 6:1-2

Not only do they have children with human women; they give humans science and technology!  Unfortunately for them, God is not best pleased with this development:

Bind Azazel hand and foot, and cast him into darkness: and make an opening in the desert, which is in Dudael, and cast him therein. And place upon him rough and jagged rocks, and cover him with darkness, and let him abide there for ever, and cover his face that he may not see light. And on the great day of judgment he shall be cast into the fire.

1 Enoch 10:4-6

Bad times for Azazel.

Does the story sound familiar to you?  It sounds suspiciously like the Greek myth of Prometheus to me!  A lesser divine being comes to Earth, hands out some tech, and gets banished to torment in a barren wasteland for their sin against the divine being/beings in charge.  I don’t think it’s any coincidence that this book starts showing up around 200-300 BC considering that Alexander the Great did his grand crusade of the world between 356 BC and 323 BC.  Would it be so crazy if an Israelite that heard the Greek myth was looking for greater clarity in their Scriptures and took a little inspiration from the Greeks?  I don’t think so.  Mind you, that’s a disputed point, but the dates and the narratives are too similar for me to dismiss.

In any case, we’ve got the angels and giants theory on the table.  How does mainstream Judaism react in the coming years?  They don’t seem to care for it much.  Not only is the Book of Enoch never canonized, but a majority of rabbinic writings that emerge tend to favor readings that cast the sons of God as tyrants and the Nephilim as powerful warriors.  These readings gain more and more momentum over time.  Nonetheless, the apocryphal books have their supporters.  There are certainly people, especially at the fringes, that strongly support a supernatural reading.

When Christians start popping up, they’re a little more interested in the whole angels and giants thing.  After all, a lot of early Christians were on the fringes of Judaism.  Apocalyptic Judaism was a fringe movement that focused heavily on the coming of the messiah, and the Book of Enoch was very popular with them.  If mainstream groups didn’t like the Book of Enoch, it was because they were scared of its prophecies concerning the messiah!  And so early Christians inherited the angels/giants theory from some of their earliest supporters.

Mind you, its momentum didn’t last long.  After about the year 300, the angel/giant theory seems to take a nosedive in popularity within the Christian community.  Not only did they slowly accept 1 Enoch as “not legit,” but they started asking questions.  What is an angel?  What can an angel do?  Are angels all male?  When did angels fall?  Why does the term say “angels” when clearly disobedient angels are devils?  Jesus said specifically in Mark 12 that Angels have no interest in procreation.  Why did the angels do that?  What happened to them? And what happened to the giants, because if you render that word “giants” to resolve their appearance in Numbers, you need them to survive a world-ending flood that the Bible deliberately says they would not have survived.  The whole interpretation is just incredibly bizarre and doesn’t make logical or narrative sense. So theologians started speaking out against it.  You have heavy hitters like Clement and Augustine weighing in against it.  Chrysostom goes so far as to call the theory “blasphemous.” 

To read the passage well, Christians looked back at what happened previously in Genesis and tried to think about how this puzzle piece fit.  Genesis 5 is highly interested in genealogies.  Seth is born to Adam “in his image and likeness.”  Genesis 1:26 previously established that Adam was made in God’s image and likeness.  To some interpreters, this was a symbolic passing of the torch.  Seth inherited his godliness from his father, and his people would continue to strive for godliness in the coming generations.  There became two types of people on the Earth: the children of Seth, and the children of Cain.  These two branches seem to be symbolic, more than biological.  The devout and the worldly both lived on the earth, though living in very different ways.  This, then, is a story in which people of faith decide to compromise their beliefs to intermingle with the attractive people of the Earth.  As Eve tempted Adam, so now the daughters of man tempt the children of God.  The resulting offspring are fallen; they do not know God, even though they know the ways of the world quite well.  The only truly devout man left is Noah.  You know how the story goes from there.

By the time the reformation rolls around, there seems to be broad consensus that this view is correct.  Martin Luther presents it as the obvious meaning.  John Calvin only brings up the angels and giants thing only to ponder why ancient thinkers would possibly have thought something so odd:

That ancient figment, concerning the intercourse of angels with women, is abundantly refuted by its own absurdity; and it is surprising that learned men should formerly have been fascinated by ravings so gross and prodigious.

Calvin’s Commentary on Genesis 6:2

The matter seems settled.  But lo and behold, the angels and giants make their way back into popular Christian thought around the 18th century.  At this point, modernists (a group that considered their Bibles to likely contain large amounts of mythology) started re-investigating the issue.  If the Bible is full of myths that aren’t literally true, why can’t this be a story about angels and giants?  Ironically, some fundamentalists reached the same conclusion, but through very different methodology.  If the Bible is always true and you don’t need tradition to understand it, then why shouldn’t you be willing to believe a fantastical story about angels and giants?  It’s one of those weird points in history where really conservative people go one way and really liberal people go another, and somehow they end up making a giant loop and meeting up at the same point.

But now we’ve looked at all the interpretive options and poked around all the major strands of tradition.  What do I believe?  Well, you ought to know that I’d rather be wrong with the likes of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin than right with anybody else.  Not only is their interpretation the most well-represented in Christian tradition, but it just makes sense.  It’s logical.  It fits the Biblical narrative leading from genealogy to flood, and it addresses a constant theme in the Bible: don’t compromise your faith to fit into this world more comfortably (Deut 7:3, 2 Corinth. 6:14, Deut 16:21, etc).  To be a true disciple of Christ, you can’t afford to compromise any part of the truth.  You have to live your whole life in constant worship and obedience.  Not only do I think this is a good interpretation, but I think it’s something that’s an important reminder as we try to live out our faith today.  We live in a world that’s increasingly secular.  Our culture is more than happy to accommodate Christians that are willing to compromise on the things that they believe.  If you’re willing to make a few concessions, you’ll fit in easier.  You’ll be the “right kind” of Christian. Your life will be significantly attractive on the outside.  If you don’t?  Well, things might get difficult. 

As people made in the image and likeness of God, we can’t afford to compromise truth for temporary gain.  After all, we know truth itself in the person of Jesus Christ. The only way for us to live well is to hold fast to truth and to continually honor God, rather than ourselves.

That’s my take!  But rather than end on a dramatic note, I’ll end with some humility.  It’s a tough passage!  If you think I missed something or want to dig around on your own, check out some of the resources below!  See what you think!   Either way, wrestle with those tough verses when you find them.  If all Scripture is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, sometimes we have to do a little bit of wrestling to see what God is saying.

Great articles if you want to know more:
https://www.biblicalcyclopedia.com/B/bene-elohim.html
https://biblehub.com/interlinear/genesis/6.htm
https://lutheranreformation.org/get-involved/bible-study-luther-genesis-61-8/
https://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/ted_hildebrandt/otesources/01-genesis/text/articles-books/newman-gen6-gtj-1984.htm

Exaggerated Exegesis (Part Two on Wacky Patristic Interpretations)

In my last post, I chatted a little about some of the wackier interpretations of Scripture that I’ve come across from the patristic era. I ended on a pretty positive note regarding it’s legitimacy: “Maybe the Holy Spirit has some crazy things to show us in our Bibles if we keep our minds open.” Despite me wrapping things up with a happy ending, it was still an open question in my head. Are these interpretations legitimate? Or are they wrong?

I remember one friend telling me, “Well, they don’t violate any of the creeds. Why can’t the Holy Spirit speak in creative, unexpected ways in the Scriptures? I think churches today have a lot to learn about exegesis from the Church Fathers!” Now, by no means do I want to “roast” his answer. In a lot of ways, I don’t think it’s far from what I suggested last week. Nonetheless, it struck me as troublesome when I heard someone else say it. There are a lot of things that the creeds don’t address at all. Should wacky Bible readings get a pass just because they don’t violate a creed? And it sounds really neat to say that we have a lot to learn from the creative interpretations of the Church Fathers, and on some level it’s certainly true, but if something they did looks a little weird, why not question it? Nobody is above critique! We aren’t obligated to repeat patristic mistakes out of a sense of duty to tradition. That’s coming from someone who identifies as a “tradition guy.” The name of the blog is “Classic Christianity,” for crying out loud! But I can’t shake the nagging feeling that we’re giving the Church Fathers a pass on some stuff that we would absolutely reject if someone tried to do today.

Imagine me going into a church and saying this during a sermon on Sunday morning:

“Your teeth are like a flock of sheep just shorn, coming up from the washing. Each has its twin; not one of them are alone.” (Song 4:2)

Does the hearer learn anything more than when he listens to the same thought expressed in the plainest language, without the help of this figure? And yet, I don’t know why, I feel greater pleasure in contemplating holy men, when I view them as the teeth of the Church, tearing men away from their errors, and bringing them into the Church’s body, with all their harshness softened down, just as if they had been torn off and masticated by the teeth. It is with the greatest pleasure, too, that I recognize them under the figure of sheep that have been shorn, laying down the burdens of the world like fleeces, and coming up from the washing, i.e., from baptism, and all bearing twins, i.e., the twin commandments of love of God and neighbor, and none among them barren in that holy fruit.

Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Trans. J.F. Shaw

I legitimately don’t think I could get away with that. People in the pews would squint their eyes and say, “What? That’s not what it says at all. What’s wrong with Pastor Vincent this week? He’s going off the rails!” If I try to do that or anything like it without name dropping the quote’s originator, it looks like total nonsense. Meanwhile, if I name drop the author, “As the great Saint Augustine said…” I might get a pass based on his name value alone. If an interpretation is totally reliant on it’s famous originator to sound reasonable, is it really reasonable at all?

On some level, I guess my protestant expectation of plain sense readings is shining through. I have the voice of Luther in my ear, “Each passage has one clear, definite, and true sense of its own. All others are but doubtful and uncertain opinions.” Not that I hate allegory as much as he claims he did, but I do expect an attempt to interpret Scripture to seem… well… reasonable. If Scripture says that a woman had nice teeth, it seems distinctly unreasonable to say that it clearly and definitely means that the church ought to have sinless saints. But if I’m rejecting that, then I have to say what I think IS a reasonable reading of that passage. What does it mean that this man’s beloved had nice teeth? What religious truth is being conveyed by God in these words? How does that edify my soul? Apparently, Martin Luther, famed allegory hater, said that the whole of Song of Songs was actually an allegory about politics (an interpretation that doesn’t seem to have caught on). I can’t find what he said about the teeth specifically without paying a lot of money for a book that I’ll only use once for this express purpose, but I get the sense that white teeth probably had an equally weird meaning in his mind. Go figure.

NO ALLEGORY! Well… maybe just a bit….

There’s some passages that are incredibly hard to interpret. Since I’ve been doing a sermon series at church about Song of Songs, those are the ones that have been nagging at me lately, but there’s lots of similar passages throughout the Bible. Sometimes, literal readings of these passages seem so shallow that we have to turn to allegory. The Church Fathers gave us a wealth of allegorical readings to consider, but I think it’s fair to be a little critical of them. The interpretive moves that they made are often wild by our modern standards. Last time, I was enamored by their creativity. After some thinking, I still respect their writings. I’m just a little more cautious about borrowing from them without a nice, critical look at the primary text itself.

Sanctify this Work: George Herbert’s The Altar

I ran across the poet-priest George Herbert for the first time this week, much to my delight. I’d heard of John Donne (of Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God fame), but I had no idea that there was a whole group of 17th century English poets that had an interest in religious writing! Apparently, they’re called the metaphysical poets. Not all of them cover religious topics like Donne and Herbert, but a hearty chunk of them did. The idea of the poet-priest was popular in that day!

George Herbert was kind of a hotshot in his younger years. He went to school to become a priest, but ended up becoming the public orator at Cambridge, serving in parliament, and personally knowing the king. After the king died, he quietly left the political scene and finally got ordained. He served 2 rural churches and wrote poetry until his death at age 39. His poetry career wasn’t some way he secretly tried to stay in the limelight; he sent his poems to a publisher when he was on his deathbed for them print if they thought it might “turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul.”

I’m astounded at his humility. He mingled with some of the most elite Englishmen of his era! To turn around and take a job as a rural priest where the churches are so small that you’re expected to cover two of them? That’s a massive shift. But he seems to have enjoyed it. He wrote a manual to help country priests, A Priest to the Temple, which speaks of the job in the highest possible terms:

The countrey parson is exceeding exact in his life, being holy, just, prudent, temperate, bold, grave in all his wayes.

George Herbert, A Priest to the Temple, Ch. 3

That doesn’t sound like someone that’s inwardly miserable. It sounds like someone who genuinely believes they’re doing something of the utmost importance. He may have left the world’s seat of power, but to him, the rural pastorate seemed every bit as glorious as what happened in the king’s court.

In any case, today I just wanted to look at his famous poem, The Altar. It’s been running through my head all week, and it’s really been inspiring me to think about work differently (this poem was printed in an era where the letter s often looks a lot like f, so read accordingly):

It’s a gorgeous poem. It’s rare to see linguistic and visual artistry paired so seamlessly. Different disciplines are all too often siloed, robbing us of possibilities like this. The particular line that I keep coming back to is, “sanctify this altar to be thine.” What a bold request. Obviously, it works in the context of the poem to refer to his heart, but since the poem is in the shame of an altar, it works on another level: Herbert is asking God to sanctify his work itself! He gave of himself and his time to create this poem, and now he asks God to bless it.

I don’t know how often I consider my work something to lay at the feet of God. I’m usually caught up in thinking about how many people will like it, or if it will make me look impressive or silly or whatever else. But if I sincerely give something my all and dedicate it to God, wouldn’t that be blessingworthy? Even if the world hates it, I have to imagine he’d enjoy it, and what matters more than that? No wonder George was so humble. He was serving the world, but working for the approval of an audience of one.

Life After Injustice in the Church

In a tearful, faltering, sobbing voice, the man cried out, “What should I say to my boy if I took money from you for our shame?”

Captain Snegiryov, Brothers Karamazov

Captain Snegiryov isn’t a major Brothers K. character at all.  He is publicly beaten by the hotheaded Dmitri Karamazov for no particular reason and yanked around Town Square by his beard.  All the townspeople laugh at the sight, except for the captain’s son.  He begs the crowd for help with tears in his eyes before kissing Dmitri’s hand and begging for mercy.  When Alyosha Karamazov, Dmitri’s kind brother, finds out what happened, he tries to make amends with Captain Snegiryov.  The man is poor.  He lives in a wretched shack.  Half of his family has disabilities, and none of them are capable of working.  200 rubles would change his life, and Alyosha (who runs in some particularly wealthy circles) wants to help… but the scene ends in disaster.  The captain realizes that taking money from one of the wealthy Karamazovs after his humiliation would prove to his son that the rich can do whatever they want to the poor, and justice is dictated by the powerful.  In a deeply conflicted moment, he throws the money on the ground at Alyosha’s feet and storms away in tears.  His integrity demands he not accept their money, but that same sense of integrity has doomed him and his family to a life of poverty.

His cry for justice resonated with me this week as I’ve been pondering how we address injustice in our churches.  Anybody who’s been in a church knows that sin happens, often in a way that never gets addressed.  Time passes and circumstances improve, tempting us to move on from our frustration and live into the new, comfortable norm.  But should we?  Does forgiveness involve letting go of injustices that will never be accounted for?  Or is accepting the new post-frustration reality the equivalent of taking our 200 rubles and selling out? 

A few asides before I investigate: I want to avoid the standard response of, “well, if mistakes were made in the church, you should seek out a leadership position and do your best to make sure they don’t happen again.”  Churches are massive entities, often with deeply entrenched power structures, and change takes years of work to realize.  Being wronged shouldn’t condemn the victim to years of work in the hope of making a difference.  And what about people whose talents lie elsewhere?  Should they be pressed into leadership because they were sinned against?  I hope not.  I also recognize that as a person in church leadership, I’ve made wrong choices. Not all of my decisions were the right ones, or even fair ones for that matter, and it definitely frustrated people. Leadership is hard.  Every decision has the chance of being unpopular or erroneous.  I hope the ones that I’ve made haven’t pushed anyone out of churches I’ve served in, but I am as much a perpetrator of injustice as I am a victim. I don’t get to rail against the authority, since I’m a part of it.

Onward to the question!

It’s not that sin within the institutional church is especially rare.  Gobs of famous saints were persecuted by other Christians.  There’s St. John of the Cross (thrown in prison), John Chrysostom (exiled), Evagrius Ponticus (anathematized after death and followers persecuted) , John Calvin (exiled, attacked), Martin Luther (exiled, anathematized, attacked)… you get the picture.  Churches are supposed to be beacons of hope!  The hands and feet of God!  The joy and goodness of the future on Earth now!  But here are some of our famous saints, beaten down by the very hands that were supposed to hold them up.  Some of the frustration can obviously be chalked up to the fact that they were usually persecuted by people who didn’t recognize them as properly Christian, but that doesn’t change the fact that institutional churches (full of people that bare the title ‘Christian’) have historically caused a great deal of injustice against the very people that they now recognize as worth listening to.

What do we do with the memory of injustice after we are hurt?  How do we honor our integrity while moving on?

All of this got me to go pick up Martyrs Mirror.  I stumbled across this Anabaptist classic during a day of community service about 10 years back.  I was assigned to washing windows throughout the town with a Mennonite lady.  I wasn’t much good at washing windows.  I swear I tried my best, but I was a 21 year old guy with a messy apartment and she had spent over 10 years as a housekeeper.  As you can imagine we had different standards of cleanliness.   I’d see a spotless window and she’d see a mess. In any case, we got to chatting as she politely redid my work, and somehow she brought up Martyrs Mirror.  I told her I’d never heard of it and she insisted that every Mennonite household owned one before sharing some stories from it.

It’s turned out to be a great tool to help work through some of this.  The early Anabaptists (a broad category of Christians including modern Mennonites and Amish) were pretty much killed by everyone when they first popped up in Reformation-era Europe.  It didn’t matter if you were Lutheran, Calvinist, or Catholic; you probably hated Anabaptists.  Martyrs Mirror is their book of remembrance.  Here, they weaved together the accounts of their persecution with the historical stories of persecution from Christian tradition, both in the institutional church and outside of it.  On one page, there’s someone who died for witnessing their faith in a region where Christianity was punishable by death.  On the next, you’ll find someone who was destroyed from within the church for getting behind an unpopular doctrine or making the wrong enemies.  They moved beyond the triumphal stories of people who won handily in the church through sheer prestige and charisma (lookin’ at you, Augustine) and sought out the stories of the wronged to find solidarity.  In these pages, there’s no sense that good theology or good people will win the day.  If anything, bad theology and bad people win far more often than you’d hope!  Real Christians face real pain, both in the church and outside it. Faith isn’t always about thriving materially in this world, so much as witnessing beautifully to it.

The intro cuts right to the core of the work:

Most beloved, do not expect that we shall bring you into Grecian theatres, to gaze on merry comedies or gay performances… True enough, we shall lead you into dark valleys, even into the valleys of death (Ps. 23:4),where nothing will be seen but dry bones, skulls, and frightful skeletons of those who have been slain…Yet to look upon all this will not cause real sadness, for though the aspect is dismal ac-cording to the body, the soul will nevertheless rejoice in it, seeing that not one of all those who were slain preferred life to death, since life often was proffered them on condition that they depart from the constancy of their faith.

Martyrs Mirror, 10

You’re not about to get your happy worlly show.  That’s right out.  Instead, you’ll get something morbid: death.  But this death is livelier than anything that Homer could churn out.  This is the vital death of Christ that we have the privilege of living out.

The imagery moving forward is distinctly triumphal.  These are heroes, fighting in glorious combat, seizing the ultimate prize. At one particularly noteworthy part, they reference “the knight of Christ” (no idea who he is) who was killed.  The resulting theological poem, Accolade to a Champion, is downright Arthurian:

Climb up your golden height, champion of the band of holy souls, who followed God’s red banner of blood, in oppression and in the midst of misery; where naught but the smoke and vapor of human burnt sacrifices ascended to the clouds; yet thou, hero, didst go before them, yea, didst fight thy way through the strait gate to the wide Heaven.

Martyrs Mirror, 11

It’s worth mentioning that Anabaptists are traditionally peace churches.  All violence is considered to be a sin.  It’s better to die than to kill.  Here, traditional heroic imagery of the brave knight is subverted to make the murdered victim the hero of renown.  It’s certainly not an unheard of stylistic choice, but it seems especially powerful when it’s used by someone for whom violence was never an option.  You know that at they genuinely believe, even in tremendous suffering, that “all things work together for good to them that love God,” (Rom.8:28).

There’s a million martyr stories in this book, but one that I’ve always held up as particularly awesome (and that the window washing Mennonite particularly enjoyed) is the story of Dirk Willems.  Dirk got arrested for being an Anabaptist in the Catholic Netherlands.  He managed to escape the prisons by making a rope out of bed sheets, and he was running across a frozen lake to his freedom with a guard hot on his heels.  Dirk was so malnourished from his time in prison that he could run across the ice without trouble, but the guard had eaten well while Dirk starved.  The ice broke beneath him, and he fell in, screaming for help.  Dirk heard the guard’s cry for help and turned around. He pulled the drowning guard out of the freezing water.  His choice to help was a costly one: he was recaptured, tortured, and burned at the stake. He saved the man who doomed him.

There’s not many stories that illustrate injustice as well as this one, but Dirk isn’t remembered because the Catholic Church must now be punished, or because Anabaptists are now obligated to create structures that somehow correct the problems that occurred in this instance.  The remembrance isn’t a burden; it’s a joy.  Dirk was a hero.  We remember him because we hope to be like him, and ultimately, like Jesus.

What do we do with our injustices?  How do we remember them?  Maybe we don’t.  We remember the good that was done in spite of the evil that was wrought.  That’s not to say we’re barred from seeking change or finding a new community to be with if the hurt is too much to bear, but we can’t count on the institutional church to be just! It is limited by ignorance, sin, and flaws just as much as anything in this world.  The only way to move forward after injustice is the hardest way of all: be the Christian we’re meant to be.  Forgive the sinners. Shine with all the holiness that God offers and know that regardless of what our church did or what it does in the future, we are free to be what God called us to be: a saint.