All posts by Joel L. Watts

Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Reading Scripture without buckets.

Altarpiece of the Church Fathers: St Augustine...
Altarpiece of the Church Fathers: St Augustine and St Gregory (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For those following along, I wanted to post a better way than buckets  to read Scripture as a Christian. You can read it with the Church Fathers.

First, begin here with a solid Wesleyan view. Christopher Hall has several great resources published via IVP-Academic.

The fathers considered the Bible a holy book that opened itself to those who themselves were progressing in holiness through the grace and power of the Holy Spirit. The character of the exegete would determine in many ways what was seen or heard in the biblical text itself. Character and wise exegesis were intimately related. In Athanasius’ words, “…the searching and right understanding of the Scriptures [demands] a good life and a pure soul…. One cannot possibly understand the teaching of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life…” (On the Incarnation [St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1982],

Then, for those interested in how this looks like in the Roman Catholic setting, see the catechism. There are three senses:

(1) The allegorical sense. We can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their significance in Christ; thus the crossing of the Red Sea is a sign or type of Christ’s victory and also of Christian Baptism. 

(2) The moral sense. The events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly. As St. Paul says, they were written “for our instruction”. 

(3) The anagogical sense (Greek: anagoge, “leading”). We can view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland: thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem. 

From the Orthodox perspective, you see something very similar:

Accordingly, the Church Fathers often distinguished between several different senses of Scripture. A good example is the way some of them read the Exodus tradition. In this account of Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt they found at least four different levels of meaning: 1) the “literal/historical,” which speaks of Israel leaving Egypt for the Promised Land; 2) the “allegorical” or “typological,” which sees Old Testament images (e.g., Moses and Joshua, the manna and rock in the wilderness) as figures or “types” that are fulfilled in Christ and the Church’s sacraments; 3) the “tropological” or moral, which sees in Israel’s journey an image of the soul’s conversion from sin and death to grace and “newness of life” (Romans 6:4); and 4) the “anagogical” or mystical sense, which speaks of the believer’s journey toward eternal glory (“anagogical” means “leading upward”).

Protestants, like they have with other things, have seriously damaged the way Christians read Scripture.

Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers is a vast improvement over reading it as if you are lord and master of what it says and whether or not that book belongs in there. Indeed, to suggest that because we no longer know how to read Scripture with the senses and thus some parts can be dismissed is not to elevate ourselves, but to show how far we have fallen.

 

A gentle response to Adam Hamilton

umc logoAdam Hamilton has attracted a lot of negative attention regarding his latest book and the presupposition that there are three buckets of interpretation for Scripture. This had led to charges of liberalism and the like.

I have, much to some of my friends’ consternation, defended him upon the grounds that at least one previous Christian sect looked at the Old Testament the same way. The sect that gave us the Pseudo-Clementine homilies viewed the Old Testament as a mixture of three parts. Some is under the guidance of God, some by Moses, and some by the evil one. They didn’t go through with scissors, but they did seek to understand the Old Testament through a lens that preserved Scripture and understood it rationally without going into the realm of Marcionism. They begin, of course, with Jesus (Matthew 19.8). Hamilton’s three buckets (not that he refers to this part of Christian history) seems to parallel this but without any support from Tradition.1

Until the other day. The Rev. Adam Hamilton, like many, reacted to the Supreme Court decision. He rightly noted,

…that the Supreme Court is charged with interpreting the U.S. Constitution, not the Bible.  The Court is not asked to discern God’s will, or what constitutes ethical or moral behavior for Christians.  Likewise, Christians do not determine their morals from public opinion polls.

Amen.

Further, he writes,

…the Bible has also taught me that the Bible is at times complicated.  Within its pages we learn of the heart, character, and will of God, but we also find on its pages things that we might question.  Things that seem to reflect the culture and times the biblical authors lived in more than the timeless will of God.

One of the many issues people have with this is that it is so subjective. Does a pastor have the right to say what is timeless or not? Surely not only the Roman pontiff would stake such a claim. Further, who says what is God’s will and what is questionable? Do we not then make it where we only accept something as God’s will if we do not question it — and thus create a God of our own choosing? And that is where the problem surfaces. He gives the standard list of problems modern people have with the Old Testament usually offered by skeptics and antagonists, ending with:

The Apostle Paul teaches that women are to pray with their heads covered and to not wear their hair in braids.  They are not permitted to teach a man, and Paul notes that it was “shameful” for a woman to even speak in church.

This is from the New Testament, the document that provides the interpretative measure for the Old Testament (for Christians), the same document that provides for the founding of the religion Rev. Hamilton adheres. Without a single reference to either the New Testament, to the Patristics, or the Wesley, not to mention any scholarship, confessional or otherwise, Adam Hamilton (the most respected and powerful pastor in The United Methodist Church) writes,

The Bible, in its writing, content, and canonization, is wonderfully complex and we do not do it justice, nor are we always able to discern God’s will, simply by quoting a handful of verses.  If it worked this way we’d still embrace slavery, polygamy, and concubinage.  Victims of rape would still be forced to wed their rapists. We’d not allow women to serve as pastors; but rather, we’d require them to remain silent in the church.

But that’s wrong. There is a lot of theology in the Catholic Church that prevents women from being ordained — and only in a few various free churches have I seen a requirement to women to be silent. The Church Fathers recognized the complexity but they never took that license to ignore Scripture. Rev. Hamilton often criticizes what others call the plain sense (the literalist reading) reading while he himself engages in the same literalistic reading and in doing so mischaracterizes Scripture. And, believe it or not, as complex as we want to make it, Scripture in The United Methodist Church, is interpreted through the Sermons and Notes of John Wesley. These are called the doctrinal standards and serve as models of exposition.

Yes, scholarship aids us, but my suspicion is that many like to point to the complexity of Scripture so as to avoid what it may or may not say. Even as United Methodists, we have guidelines and helps in understanding Scripture from a theological standpoint. That is why we don’t require women to keep quiet and why women are pastors. Not because we disobey Scripture, but because we struggled with it, what it has said and what it might say.

The canonization is rather simple. There is not only the writings of the Church Fathers on this, but some excellent current resources that I could offer Rev. Hamilton (including my own theory). The NT canon is actually pretty natural. But, let me move on.

The New Testament, I would argue (and not alone, mind you), condemns  “slavery, polygamy, and concubinage.” Indeed, what we see in some of the later books in the Old Testament is the same thing — the ending of such practices. Yes, Scripture is complex and does not deserve a literalist reading, but neither does it deserve the continued charge of “complexity” in order to elevate our own ability to properly read it (or to ignore it).

But my biggest issue this: If Rev. Hamilton sees in Scripture these things, and yet refuses to do them, where does he place Scripture? Sure, Adam Hamilton is known as a rather nuanced individual. And having read this post several times, I know exactly the path around it.  But he has a responsibility to his parish (and if he is modeling himself on Wesley, then the world is his parish) to teach better than this. It is not enough to say “if we are literal, then we would force rape victims to marry their rapists” and point to that as a reason to condone monogamous homosexual unions.

Our homosexual friends, brothers and sisters, deserve something better than that.

And then there is this:

I don’t believe God makes us gay or straight.  I think sexual orientation is developed in most of us at a very early age through some combination of nature and nurture.  Heterosexuality is normative, but roughly 5% of the population is drawn to love someone of the same gender in the same way that heterosexuals are drawn to love the opposite gender.2

I am deeply troubled by this, not only as someone who believes many are born gay, but by someone who listens to anti-gay comments about the gay agenda making kids gay. This is highly irresponsible as it leads credence to the notion of reparative therapy, something proved not only ineffective but likewise destructive. Not only does this tableau rasa stand against biblical and Church teaching, but likewise science. My concern is that this sounds like he is putting people into buckets — while ignoring those who see SSM as a struggle, or those who do not identify as Gay (or straight).

I hope that Rev. Hamilton, one of The United Methodist Church’s most visible leaders, will be more responsible with his words in the future.

  1. Perhaps, had he referenced Tradition, he would have noted the Catholic view of Scriptural interpretation, which is far better than dividing the Old Testament up or placing it into buckets.
  2. The statement seems to be at odds with itself. If we are born orientation neutral, then how is heterosexuality normative? Does that mean that if given enough time and Supreme Court decisions, homosexuality could be normative?

What is your “spirituality?”

Couleurs shitenno
Couleurs shitenno (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Spirituality is a word often tossed around. “I am spiritual but not religious.” “I prefer spirituality.” “She’s just so spiritual.” Shoot, it has even made its way into a recent Supreme Court decision.

The nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond, two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality. This is true for all persons, whatever their sexual orientation. – Justice Kennedy

Really? Who ever thought that intimacy and spirituality [whatever that means] were freedoms? And if intimacy is, one would think Freedom of Intimacy is abridged rather than expanded by marriage. Ask the nearest hippie. – Justice Scalia

Intimacy, if you do it right (or bad), can be spiritual.

giphy

I really like what Pope Benedict had to say to Deacons:

In the pastoral activity of parishes, remember that a healthy spirituality allows the Spirit of Christ to free the human person to act effectively in society1

In the same letter, he writes of the need of spirituality:

In order to arrive at genuine reconciliation and to live out the spirituality of communion that flows from it, the Church needs witnesses who are profoundly rooted in Christ and find nourishment in his word and the sacraments

He follows St. John Paul II in setting out standards for spirituality:

the ability to perceive the light of the mystery of the Trinity shining on the faces of brothers and sisters around us, to be attentive to “our brothers and sisters in faith within the profound unity of the Mystical Body, and therefore as ‘those who are a part of me’, in order to share their joys and sufferings, to sense their desires and attend to their needs, to offer them deep and genuine friendship”; the ability as well to recognize all that is positive in the other so as to welcome it and prize it as a gift that God gives me through that person, in a way that transcends by far the individual concerned, who thus becomes a channel of divine graces; and finally, the ability “to ‘make room’ for our brothers and sisters, bearing ‘each other’s burdens’ (Gal 6:2) and resisting the selfish temptations which constantly beset us and provoke competition, careerism, distrust and jealousy.”

That gives us a spirituality community, to be sure. And perhaps that is more important than individual spirituality.

But maybe not.

While spirituality, and whatever freedom is needed to either enjoy or express it, is often undefined, some connect it to psychology.

If it is connected in such a way, then it becomes rather individualized. And that is oftentimes, a good thing.

Some find spiritual solace in reading, or writing, or studying. I like my rosary. But, I also like my science. The more related it is to the the quantum side of things, the better. The deeper. I like hearing new theories on the origin of life in the universe. I enjoy reading stories about new planets, new understandings of the cosmos, and how transcendent all of that is.

It is humbling to know that the 70 or so years we spend on this planet is nothing in the scheme of things — of a 13 billion year old universe. And it is everything.

Honestly, Lee Smolin and Brian Greene are my areas of refuge.

And no, spirituality is not limited strictly to “believers.”

Some find spirituality in other areas, more grounded areas. Some in areas far afield of my own cosmic stretch.

But, since it is all the rage now — just ask the hippie — where do you find yours? And, do you think that somehow those seeking spirituality are less reasoned than others?

By the way, I define spirituality as that which calls us away from our present reality to a larger, grander scheme of things even if such a scheme is rather simple. Spirituality, for me, keeps us humble, grounded, and reaching for that which next.

  1. Pope Benedict XVI, Africae Munus (Apostolic Exhortations; Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011).

Taxation and the free exercise of religion in post-marriage equality USA

Logo of the Internal Revenue Service
Logo of the Internal Revenue Service (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mark Oppenheimer is the first out of the gate in suggesting that it is now time to remove the tax exemptions on churches and other religious groups (synagogues, mosques, etc…). He writes, “It’s time to abolish, or greatly diminish, their tax-exempt statuses.”

For from being the destroyer of worlds, Oppenheimer has some solid points. Sometimes, these non-profit institutions invade the public political arena (contra state laws) a little too much. Second, and this is really important, Oppenheimer writes, “…the religious exemption has forced the IRS to decide what’s a religion, and thus has entangled church and state in the worst way.”

However, his history is a bit off. The tax exempt status did not begin in 1909 as a response to charitable giving. Indeed, tax exemption for churches is quite early and follows a rather Constantian view of religion. The Founders interpreted the first amendment very straightforwardly, avoiding the taxation of churches for very particular (and non-Christian) reasons.

First, St Constantine the Great, Equal to the Apostles, far from being the bad theocratic monster modern conspiracy theorists paint him to be, preserved the religious freedom of the Empire to a very large extent. He famously said, “The struggle for deathlessness must be free,” while embracing something of a modern notion of religious pluralism. While he did support the Christian church, he did not enforce it nor did he exclude — through the power of the purse or otherwise — other expressions of the race to deathlessness.

Second, tax exempt status started early in the history of the Republic:

The Constitution solved this problem by abolishing European-style church establishment, but it hardly ended the accordance of benefits to churches, particularly in the area of taxation. Virginia exempted churches from paying property taxes in 1777, followed by New York in 1799 and the city of Washington in 1802. The Seventh Congress also passed a property tax exemption in 1802…European rulers had used taxes to prohibit the free exercise of religion before, and Americans didn’t want it to happen here.

In Europe, since long after the time of St. Constantine the Great, the power of the purse has been used to subdue rival religious claimants. Christians have waged economic war against other Christians. (Christians are not the only ones to use economic weapons to squash religious dissent.) The Founders, aware of this, attempted to remove this obstacle to religious pluralism. This is why tax-exemption started so early and was approved by a Congress so close to the Founders. While it has been expanded, it stems from the religious wars of continental Europe.

So, I guess, the question is: Would taxes prohibit the free exercise of religion?

Our case law, American/European history, and the history of religion as a whole says yes.

I wonder how many people who support taxing churches likewise hated the Citizens United decision because they recognize that it can be used to end freedom of speech… 

But, with that said, shouldn’t there be a way to prevent bilking organizations like Scientology from claiming religion status? Likewise, maybe Churches should respect the legal boundaries they adopt when using tax-exempt status. Further, at some point, millionaire pastors and multi-millionaire ministries should consider their own status, taxed or otherwise.

What sayeth ye?

update… Allan Bevere has a post up on why churches being taxed simply won’t happen

Book Notice, @OUPAcademic’s “The Murder of William of Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe”

Thanks to OUP for the review copy.

In 1144, the mutilated body of William of Norwich, a young apprentice leatherworker, was found abandoned outside the city’s walls. The boy bore disturbing signs of torture, and a story spread that it was a ritual murder, performed by Jews in imitation of the Crucifixion as a mockery of Christianity. The outline of William’s tale eventually gained currency far beyond Norwich, and the idea that Jews engaged in ritual murder became firmly rooted in the European imagination.

E.M. Rose’s engaging book delves into the story of William’s murder and the notorious trial that followed to uncover the origin of the ritual murder accusation – known as the “blood libel” – in western Europe in the Middle Ages. Focusing on the specific historical context – 12th-century ecclesiastical politics, the position of Jews in England, the Second Crusade, and the cult of saints – and suspensefully unraveling the facts of the case, Rose makes a powerful argument for why the Norwich Jews (and particularly one Jewish banker) were accused of killing the youth, and how the malevolent blood libel accusation managed to take hold. She also considers four “copycat” cases, in which Jews were similarly blamed for the death of young Christians, and traces the adaptations of the story over time.

Saint William of Norwich
Saint William of Norwich (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the centuries after its appearance, the ritual murder accusation provoked instances of torture, death and expulsion of thousands of Jews and the extermination of hundreds of communities. Although no charge of ritual murder has withstood historical scrutiny, the concept of the blood libel is so emotionally charged and deeply rooted in cultural memory that it endures even today. Rose’s groundbreaking work, driven by fascinating characters, a gripping narrative, and impressive scholarship, provides clear answers as to why the blood libel emerged when it did and how it was able to gain such widespread acceptance, laying the foundations for enduring antisemitic myths that continue to the present.