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that some Christians insist that the Bible was “inerrantly dictated by God,” skewering that perspective as laughably outdated.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In the Bible [negative] elements [such as slavery, polygamy, and violence] are not final; they are always being superseded; revelation is progressive.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.

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.

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.

C.S. Lewis’s Nerdy Poetry: The Country of the Blind

Most of my experience with C.S. Lewis comes from those approachable classics that sit on many a Christian’s bookshelf: The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, A Grief Observed, The Great Divorce and a few others. Only recently have I started to see the more academic, professorial side of him. Books like The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval Literature are way more intense than Narnia, and frankly, they’re a bit of a slog. And now, I found out the man wrote poetry! Not just any poetry either. He wrote the nerdiest poetry you’ll ever find. These poems were not intended for general audiences. They’re just a smart guy playing with ideas in verse. If you enjoy them, great! If you don’t get ’em or don’t like ’em, I don’t think he would particularly care. My current success rate of “getting” his poetry is about 70%. Some of them are loaded with mythology and theory that I’m not familiar with (especially the Greek mythology, which he clearly loves), but the ones that I do get are brilliant. I thought I’d share a couple of them on here along with my thoughts as I work through them.

The Country of the Blind
Hard light bathed them-a whole nation of eyeless men,
Dark bipeds not aware how they were maimed. A long
Process, clearly, a slow curse,
Drained through centuries, left them thus.

At some transitional stage, then, a luckless few,
No doubt, must have had eyes after the up-to-date,
Normal type had achieved snug
Darkness, safe from the guns of heavn;

Whose blind mouths would abuse words that belonged to their
Great-grandsires, unabashed, talking of light in some
Eunuch’d, etiolated,
Fungoid sense, as a symbol of

Abstract thoughts. If a man, one that had eyes, a poor
Misfit, spoke of the grey dawn or the stars or green-
Sloped sea waves, or admired how
Warm tints change in a lady’s cheek,

None complained he had used words from an alien tongue,
None question’d. It was worse. All would agree ‘Of course,’
Came their answer. “We’ve all felt
Just like that.” They were wrong. And he

Knew too much to be clear, could not explain. The words —
Sold, raped flung to the dogs — now could avail no more;
Hence silence. But the mouldwarps,
With glib confidence, easily

Showed how tricks of the phrase, sheer metaphors could set
Fools concocting a myth, taking the worlds for things.
Do you think this a far-fetched
Picture? Go then about among

Men now famous; attempt speech on the truths that once,
Opaque, carved in divine forms, irremovable,
Dear but dear as a mountain-
Mass, stood plain to the inward eye.

This one especially has consumed me as of late. I can’t help but read it and think about Jesus’s response to the disciple’s question: why do you speak in parables?

13 This is why I speak to them in parables:

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

14 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:

“‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
    you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
15 For this people’s heart has become calloused;
    they hardly hear with their ears,
    and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
    hear with their ears,
    understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’ (Matt 13:13-15)

I generally assume that Jesus wants everyone to understand what he’s saying. Sure, I might rail against visions of him that are altogether too polite and soft, but by no means do I assume he would intentionally make his points opaque to keep people from understanding them. And we could go back and forth trying to soften the impact of the verse by applying different theological methodology to it (after all, it does say that they closed their eyes first), but it seems like it would be almost impossible to erase the sense that not everyone will understand what Jesus is saying and that that is intentional (John Calvin is smiling down on this paragraph, I’m sure).

Lewis’s poem is right in this same vein. We still have people that do not see, but it’s not their own willfulness or crafty parables that are keeping them from seeing. They’ve shut their eyes for so long that their biology has shifted to accommodate their decision. Even if they wanted to see, they lack the capacity. Worse than that, they refuse to confront the reality of their own blindness. They’re happy to discuss the world with the small amount of people that can still see, but only insofar as they’re treated as complete equals. Whatever is being discussed is primarily understood as a matter of internal experience, rather than external truth. “Of course, we’ve all felt like that,” they croon, completely missing the simple fact that they haven’t. Every piece of information being shared is radically different from anything they’ve ever conceptualized, but rather than admit it, they just insist that they already know and continue on.

What a tremendous way to look at the modern shift in metaphysics. I can’t help but think of it in terms of pastoral expectations as they were laid out in Andrew Root’s, The Pastor in a Secular Age. In each era, Christians have expected different things from pastors. In the medieval era, the priest had power. Even if the whole service was in Latin and you didn’t quite understand how communion worked, the popular imagination had such a strong sense of God’s action and a dynamic range of entities beyond human senses that you knew he carried power. He was the bridge between this world and the next. In a magical world, the priest stood as an obvious and clear figure worthy of your attention. With the shift to Protestantism, there was a fundamentally new way of imagining metaphysics. Suddenly, it wasn’t just the priest that was responsible for navigating the path between this world and the next; it was the individual believer. You were responsible for what you believed! You had to devote yourself to the highest ideals of Christian life and take responsibility for your own faith if you wanted to please God. Here, we see this tremendous shift towards the pastoral ideal as a professor. People like Luther and Calvin are the obvious legendary figures in this tradition, but the example Root provides is Johnathan Edwards. According to legend, Johnathan Edwards studied and prayed for thirteen hours every day. And his congregation was happy! They wanted to understand the intricacies of the world around them and the claims that were being made in the Bible, so if the pastor preached an hour long sermon that relied on multiple commentaries and theological bigwigs? Awesome! Bring it on. These were people that strove to see. They wanted to know the nature of the universe, and no watery spirituality would be an acceptable substitute.

Root details a long history of philosophical shifts that slowly lead to modernity, but as we approach our own era, the assumptions about what a pastor does have totally shifted. A pastor does not tell objective truths. That’s what math and science are for! No, a pastor works in the realm of values. They tell you how to live a good life. They help you understand who you are. They belong in the humanities section of a university, not the sciences side. Their value comes from their ability to befriend people, reflect an identity for others to consider, and build a massive church with multiple satellites to reflect the vitality of the community. The ideal pastor is a mix between an entrepreneur and an instagram influencer, encouraging us to try on a way of living that will make us happy. We moved from a world in which the Church was expected to teach objective truths about the world around us to a world in which the church was expected to help us feel subjective somethings within ourselves.

Unfortunately for moderns, Scripture is devilishly difficult to cast as something that’s primarily concerned with subjective feelings. The whole of the book bursts with objective claims about creation! And yet, religious dialogue is often dominated by what feels right and how we can live moral, decent lives. Not that either of these are inherently bad things, of course, but when they’re uprooted from the metaphysical grounding of the objective claims that surround them, they wither and shift whatever way the wind blows. Our cultural hesitance to let the audacious claims of Scripture be what they are muddies them considerably and betrays a certain unwillingness to claim them as true knowledge. Christians and non-Christians alike are put into a position where truth is what we make of it. We fail to see the reality around us because we’re so busy constructing our own narrative that suits us.

We do not see.

Even the claims in Scripture start to look less and less like truth claims and more and more like “sheer metaphors” and “myths.” What if Jesus was not actually Jesus? What if he’s only intended to be a metaphor for humanity’s capacity for good? What if Jesus’s resurrection is no longer an actual resurrection, but a symbol intended to reflect the eternal resurrection of hope and goodness in the world? That slow erosion of the claim slowly eats away at it, giving more and more authority to us and less and less to the claim itself. Symbolic meaning can always be uncovered in an objective event, but once the event or story is stripped of objectivity, not only does it lose the core of its meaning, but the possibility for symbolism becomes infinite. Without any semblance of authority, the claim exists only to allow others an opportunity to create their own meaning. The “divine forms, irremovable” that were once so obvious and clear to every eye have become “symbols of abstract thought;” ideas to toy with and little more.

The ultimate consequence is a sort of de-evolution. Lewis never was shy about suggesting that things in the premodern world were better, and here he’s said it in an incredibly direct way. The people he’s considering aren’t portrayed as the same bipartite beings that were created in Genesis: “God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life,” (Gen 2:7). Their descriptors lack that sense of divine spark. The language surrounding the blind creatures is primitive and earthy. They are “mouldwarps” with “fungoid” ways of describing things. They lack that spirit that separates them from the plants that preceded them.

And yet, the poem isn’t just a gripe about the good ‘ol days. At least, I don’t think it is. It’s profoundly melancholy. Some of these creatures still see. They see the grandeur of the stars, the waves, the human form, and the misty dawn. But even as they see the wonders around them, they have so few to to share it with. By the eyes they were given, they are able to see tremendous beauty, but they also become the bearers of an incredible sense of loneliness. What Christian in the postmodern era has not felt like that? Who has not lamented the inability of others to see the throngs of angels singing, the cloud of witnesses watching, the divine spark that lingers in every eye, and the glory of God in every rock? But attempts to uncover the transcendent turn shallow all too quickly. Even semi-regular churchgoers are all too often concerned with mere morality and tradition than the vibrant eternity around them, frustrating the Christian all the more. To see is to be lonely and burdened. How do you awaken others to the world?

Part of me wants to cut the intensity of the poem by suggesting that the claim isn’t quite what it is. It sounds hopelessly arrogant to claim to see when everyone else is blind. To say that you understand a reality that the rest of the world can only hopelessly grasp at until they are somehow granted sight is brash! But didn’t Jesus make those claims? Isn’t that the whole of the history of Christianity? Lewis has claimed to see, and while it would be more comfortable to mask the arrogance of claiming to know truth, it’s critically important for us to let his statement stand and consider it not as arrogance, but as humility in the face of a truth beyond himself.

Asherah and TikTok Apologetics

One of the students in my youth group sent me this TikTok and wanted to know if it was true. He always finds the best stuff to ask about. A lot of people don’t know much about Baal and Asherah, and there’s been a significant amount of theorizing done by different scholars on that point, so I thought I’d share the answer that I sent him. And before you ask, YES, I absolutely sent a teenager a giant answer to a one minute TikTok. He’s a smart guy. He can handle it.

The professor in that video represents one school of thought regarding the creation of the Bible.  I would argue that it’s a very unchristian way of thinking (which is supported by the fact that the creator of this theory is a professed atheist).  The core assumption here is that the Bible isn’t actually true, so much as it is an expression of exploitative power.  Note how Dan said that Josiah wanted to “centralize the cult” and rewrote everything before that date to make Asherah seem evil.  Before that date, “Asherah worship was 100% normative.”  Right there he’s told us that he thinks that the Bible is a document that powerful people created to control others.  A king wrote it to gain better control over his populace.  If you read the article he’s referencing, the woman who created this theory (Francesca Stavrakopoulou) wrote that Asherah worship was banned primarily because of sexism.  Men wanted to control women, and so they had to remove religious iconography that honored femininity.  Both of them assume that the Bible is a tool of oppression created to control people, rather than a book of liberation that is trying to tell us the truth about existence. 

Before I get into what orthodox Christians believe (orthodox meaning those Christians that believe the basic tenants of the faith that have been handed down for a few thousand years), I do want to look at the evidence Dan and Francesca provided.  They gave us some dates as to when the documents were written, and they referenced some archaeological information.  The dates about when the Bible was written are very disputable.  I could get into the weeds about different methods of dating the Bible, but let’s keep it simple.  Problem 1: paper does not preserve well.  How can you know how old an idea is when the primary way of recording said information is so easily destroyed?  Problem 2:  how can you know the date of ideas that were passed down orally before they were written down?  If I tell you a story and it’s so good that you tell it to your kids who tell it to your grandkids and then your grandkids finally write it down, how would a person that found the paper know how old the story was?  They couldn’t!  And that only gets more complicated when you consider that the paper might get destroyed, which would make it even harder to trace the idea.  Whenever someone starts dating the different parts of the Bible and claim that certain parts are “written late,” what they’re usually trying to do is suggest that those parts are suspect.  They are not authoritative.  They are not true.  Given that there’s no way to inerrantly trace the history of the story written on that paper, the claim that certain parts are “written late” boils down to, “I don’t believe that.”  Which is fine.  They’re welcome to say they disagree with what’s written in the Bible at any time.  Many people do.  Pretending that it’s rooted beyond reasonable doubt in the history of the document itself is just inaccurate.

As to the second piece of evidence (that archaeology proves that people worshiped God’s wife before King Josiah), they’re only half write.  There have been archaeological findings that Canaanites worshiped three gods: a dad (El) a mom (Asherah) and their son (Baal).  If it sounds vaguely like the trinity, it really doesn’t the more you get into it.  It’s much closer to the Greek gods than anything else.  They fight with each other, they go on adventures, etc..   This archeological evidence is absolutely true.  The claim that the Bible is making on this point is that some Israelites were tempted to worship like the Canaanites and add a mom and a son to their worship ceremonies, casting God as the Canaanite father God, El.  Was it “100% normative” for all Israelites?  No!  That’s the whole point of the story!  A lot of Israelites were doing it, but they weren’t supposed to be doing it.  That’s why it was upsetting!  To say, “we have archaeological evidence that PROVES that everyone was worshiping Asherah in that era” is impossible, since no archaeological evidence can prove that literally everyone in a region was doing anything; they can only prove popular practices.  The Bible agrees that worshiping Asherah and Baal were popular practices, and the archeological evidence reflects that as well.  The question isn’t “was the common man worshiping Asherah?”  We all agree on this point.  The question is “was that whole God thing just made up after the fact because powerful people didn’t like Asherah and Baal?”  Christianity says no.  These professors say yes.    The truth is not in the evidence; it’s in your core belief.  Is God actually real and has he revealed himself to certain people throughout history?  Or is the Bible a document that primarily exists only to oppress and marginalize people?  At the end of the day, the real question here is much less exciting than it pretends to be: is Christianity true?  And that question has been around since the dawn of Christendom.

We’ve looked at their core assumptions and we’ve evaluated their evidence, so let’s move on to the real feast: what is it that Christians actually DO believe on this particular issue?  We believe that God is actually real and he’s the only god that exists.  He is not the husband of Asherah and the father of Baal because those two are not actually real.  He is also not a biological man.  Jesus was a man in the incarnation, but the triune God in its fullness is not biologically male.  Even that person of the trinity known as the Father is not male.  The name “father” denotes his closeness to us and his love for us, not his biological chromosomes.  Christians believe that this God that really does exists has communicated with certain people since the beginning of time.  The Bible is a record of this, and it sets us free from the tyranny of this world’s power structures by pointing us towards the truth.  If an orthodox Christian were to respond to these professors, I think they’d just be sad that their assumptions about the world are so different from ours.   Where we assume that the Bible is setting people free, they assume it is a tool of oppression.  One of us is right and one of us is wrong.  I’d say that it’s a matter of faith, but that misrepresents what Christian faith is.   It is not a guess that might be wrong and might be right.  It is, to quote Hebrews, “assurance of what we do not see,” (Heb 11:1).  I don’t think that God might exist.  I know he does (though my evidence would probably look as sketchy to those professors as their evidence is to me).  Rather than say that it’s a matter of faith, I’ll keep it simple and just say this: they’re wrong.

Through the Eye of an ACTUAL Needle: The Fake Gate Theory

Matthew 19: 23-24 famously reads:

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

There are two popular interpretations for the phrase “eye of a needle.” The first theory is that it is a reference to the tiny hole at the top of a sewing needle. Simple enough. The second theory is that it is a reference to a gate with the name “the eye of the needle” that was in first century Jerusalem. The gate was so small that anyone that hoped to get a camel through would have to take all of their baggage off the camel, get it down to its knees, and kind of shimmy the camel through the tiny opening.

You can see why this is important for Bible readers. Either Jesus is saying that it is impossible for a rich man to get into Heaven, or he’s saying that it’s really challenging for a rich man to get into heaven. There’s a big difference between impossible and barely possible. So which is it? Is it hard or impossible? What is the eye of the needle?

After a little research, I wasn’t able to find a trustworthy modern commentary that genuinely advocated for the gate theory. In varying detail, they all disproved it with archaeology, translations from the Greek, interpretive history, and the plain sense of the story. That being said, I didn’t find a single place that really poured out all of the evidence for the reader’s consideration (especially when it came to the history of interpretation). So here we go! This is my attempt to round up all of that evidence and hand it over to you.

The archaeological evidence for the gate theory is pretty poor. There’s no legitimate evidence of a gate known as the “eye of the needle” gate existing in Jesus’ lifetime. I would cite something, but you can’t cite evidence proving a lack of evidence! A quick google search reveals that even modern claims about eye of the needle gates in Jerusalem are dubious at best. There’s one small Orthodox church that claims that they have the actual gate that Jesus was referring to (which looks suspiciously like a hole in an old wall). There’s also a handful of travel blogs from people that claim they went to the eye of the needle gate. None of these claims are citation-worthy. Church websites often make dubious claims (see my article about fake quotes from famous saints for more church website sins) and the travel blogs pictures feature people smiling by a variety of totally different “eye of the needle” gates. Were there gates in different times and locations referred to as eye of the needle gates? Yes. There’s gates like that in German castles from the Middle Ages and obviously a handful in Jerusalem today that claim to be eye of the needle gates. That being said, there’s no record of a gate being referred to by that title until after the year 1000. In first century Jerusalem, there is absolutely no evidence that such a gate existed. Strike one.

The Greek manuscript makes the gate theory even less viable. If the “eye of a needle” was the name of a specific gate or a reference to a type of gate, that would make the language a title. You’d have to use the same words, “eye of the needle,” every time you talked about it because you’re not actually talking about eyes and needles; you’re talking about a type of gate known as an eye of the needle gate. The story comes up three times in the Gospels (Matthew 19, Mark 10, Luke 18) and each author uses slightly different words for this phrase. Matthew calls the eye of a needle the “trypēmatos rhaphidos” (τρυπήματος ‘ῥαφίδος), while Mark calls it the “trymalias tēs rhaphidos” (τρυμαλιᾶς τῆς ‘ῥαφίδος). Both are using the same word for needle (referring specifically to a tailor’s needle), but they’re using different language to talk about the eye of that needle. Luke not only adds a third option for the eye, but uses the word for a surgeon’s needle rather than the word for a tailor’s needle: trēmatos belonēs (τρήματος βελόνης ). If they’re trying to use a title for a specific kind of gate, they’re all over the map! Two of the three of them are using the wrong words to refer to that gate. If, on the other hand, they’re talking about needles and the tiny holes in them, the differences in their accounts present no problem. Strike two.

Now to the history of interpretation. Most commentaries I looked at claimed that the gate theory was a legend from the Middle Ages, but there wasn’t much detail provided beyond that. I saw a lot of people throw around dates like the 9th century (maybe), the 15th century (definitely wrong), and the 19th century (right out), but few provided direct quotes from their sources, much less cited sources at all.

The oldest reference I could find that’s absolutely airtight comes from Thomas Aquinas’ megacommentary, Catena Aurea. It packed great quotes from multiple noteworthy church fathers into one convenient commentary. In the section on Matthew 19, he provides the following commentary from Anselm of Canturbury:

It is explained otherwise; That at Jerusalem there was a certain gate, called, The needle’s eye, through which a camel could not pass, but on its bended knees, and after its burden had been taken off; and so the rich should not be able to pass along the narrow way that leads to life, till he had put off the burden of sin, and of riches, that is, ceasing to love them.

Anselm of Canterbury as cited in Catena Aurea, Thomas Aquinas, CCEL Edition.

I can’t find a primary source from Anselm on this one, nor can I find anyone else who was able to track one down, so we’ll just have to take Thomas’s word for it. Anselm wrote in the early 12th century, so there’s definitely an uncomfortable gap here. Sources legitimately interested in uncovering the source of the theory often quote this as the its first official appearance, and I have to agree. I can’t find an earlier source than Thomas quoting Anselm. Did Anselm say it? Probably. Did he get it from someone else? I have to imagine he did. Someone that spent most of his life in England seems an unlikely candidate to start spouting off about gates in Jerusalem.

There are some people that point to an eastern bishop from the 11th century named Theophylact as the actual originator of the gate theory. If he did, it’s bizarre that he didn’t write it down anywhere and actively contradicted himself in writing. Here’s what he says on the matter in his commentary on Matthew:

As long as a man is rich and he has in excess while others do not have even the necessities, he can in no way enter the kingdom of heaven. But when all riches have been shed, then he is not rich and so he can enter. For it is just as impossible for a man with wealth to enter the kingdom of heaven as it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. See how Christ first said it was difficult to enter, but here that it is completely impossible. 

Theophylact’s Commentary on Matthew, Ch. 19, trans. Christopher Stade.

You can hear where he gets a little close: “when all riches has been shed, then he is not rich and so he can enter…” If there was a tiny gate where you had to get all of your gear off your camel and shimmy it through, the process might be something like that. But note that he still definitively says that it is impossible for a rich man to enter. Theophylact is describing the process of a rich person becoming poor, not talking about unpacking your camel for the sake of a narrow gate. Just to cover our bases, let’s see what he says about the same story in Mark 10:

Understand ‘hard’ here to mean ‘impossible’. For it is impossible for the rich man to be saved. This is clear from the example which the Lord gives, saying, ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.’ For it is impossible for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.

Theophylact’s Commentary on Mark Ch. 10, trans. Christopher Stade.

Yeah, this guy is absolutely not the originator of the gate theory. Some people just misread his commentary on Matthew. This is why primary sources are so critical: because people don’t always say what others claim they did.

There are a number of proto-claims that come way closer to the gate theory than Theophylact did. For example, check out this commentary from Jerome (a Roman theologian from the 4th century):

By this saying it is shown to be not difficult but impossible. For if, in the same way that a camel cannot pass through the eye of a needle, so a rich man cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven, then no rich man will be saved. But if we read Isaiah, how camels of Midian and Ephah come to Jerusalem with gifts and offerings, and those that were previously bent and distorted by the depravity of vices entered the gates of Jerusalem, we will see how even these camels to which the rich are compared, when they have laid aside their heavy burden of sins and the crookedness of their whole body, they can enter through the narrow and strait road that leads to life.

Jerome’s Commentary on Matthew, trans. Scheck, 220-221.

Like Theolphylact, Jerome EXPLICITLY says that it is impossible. Buuuut there is that passage in Isaiah (60:6) where camels with loads of fancy gifts and people who were bent and distorted get into Jerusalem. Sooo maybe rich people can get in too if they lay aside their riches and vices? A bit of a comforting stretch for a passage saying that something is impossible. In his commentary, John Broadus goes so far as to suggest that Anselm got the idea from a misreading of Jerome’s fanciful explanation. A bit of a stretch, I think, but the connection between proto-claims like this and the gate theory are definitely real.

There’s a definite instinct in the history of this passage to try to soften the blow. Whether the eye of the needle is made a gate, the camel is made a rope (a suggested mistranslation that’s just not viable, as you can tell from the simple fact that no reputable Bible translates it that way), or the reading of the story is followed up with long statements about how being rich is actually fine if you manage to resist the allure of your riches (Clement of Alexandria among others), there are a lot of people that want this to be a little easier to swallow. Which is surprising, because all of this evidence pales in comparison with the words of Jesus in the following verses (Matt 19: 25-26):

When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

Jesus literally says that the point of bringing up the whole camel and needle thing in the first place was to say that it is impossible. He’s intentionally using an absurd image to talk about something that can’t happen! If his words aren’t enough to put the final nail in the coffin of the gate theory, I don’t know what would be.

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.