Faith, Works and Other Stories

I almost hesitate to post this paper because I’m afraid that a) I come off looking, in the end, like I have some sort of superiority complex–and maybe I did at the time of writing, or maybe I still do, but I hope not, and b) I worry that someone from either Then Church or Now Church is going to misinterpret something here and think I’m being dismissive or unkind. I’m going out on a limb and posting it anyway, because I hope other people from both Then Church or Now Church might recognise that I’m speaking in generalities and also might find the history interesting and enlightening. I think it might clear up some questions that either they or anyone else around here, for that matter, might have. Or just stir up new ones. In which case, ask away.

Theology Thursday
Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary 

Faith, Works and Other Stories

The Fundamentalist-Modernist Controvery

CH502: The Church from the Reformation

by Jennifer Anne Grosser – Winter 2010

Church: You never know what you'll find inside!

Church: You never know what you’ll find inside!

In 1980, my parents and the Conservative Baptist Association planted a church in [Boondocks, New England]. I grew up in the church and then moved away from the area for many years. When I returned, I felt I must have become a liberal in my own absence. I was startled to find small group Bible studies there insisting that “Answers in Genesis” had the only answers regarding Genesis. Unlike many of the members there, I haven’t read the Left Behind series. I am afraid of Sarah Palin. Members of this church love Jesus and want to share him with their community, but often seem encompassed by a subculture that doesn’t know the neighbors very well. A few years after my return to the church of my youth, I was hired as Director of Christian Education at another church. This church was begun earlier in the last century by a group of Salvation Army people. When I arrived, I felt I must have been mistaken and that truly, I am a conservative. There was one Bible study, in which we were encouraged to find God equally in all things, and members of the church sheepishly but readily admit to having Bibles but not knowing what’s inside them. A generous and well-used food pantry notwithstanding, the main form of “outreach” to the community consists in annual fundraisers. The congregation loves Jesus and wants to share him with neighbors, but most members do so silently, because they lack expression of the fundamentals of their faith.

In the 1920s and 30s, a battle raged between two groups within the Protestant church: the fundamentalists and the modernists. For much of the period, the two factions behaved like hostile spouses on the eve of divorce, dividing up children and assets, so that the losses sustained were greater than the gains. I believe that ultimately, both the fundamentalists and the modernists abdicated certain essentials of the Christian faith, with the result that, in spite of great strides made among many churches in the ensuing decades,[1] congregations nearly one hundred years later are still trying to put the pieces back together to regain a living orthodoxy.

 That Was Then
The Biblical book of James is famous for being called “a book of straw” by the eminent Martin Luther, and for its repeated assertion that “faith without works is dead.”[2] Interestingly, both the modernists and the fundamentalists claimed Martin Luther and the Reformation movement as a whole, as uniquely representative of what they thought they were doing in their own time, but both seem also to have missed the point. Modernists, who, we shall see, were adapting the way Scripture was read and studied and interpreted, felt that they were severing Protestantism’s last ties to superstitious and enslaving Roman Catholicism.[3] They used Luther’s judgment of the book of James as justification for their treatment of the Scriptures.[4] Fundamentalists pined for “’a new Reformation,’ a rebirth of orthodox Christianity, that would restore the ‘glories of the past.’”[5]

Both groups saw society and the church as being at a crucial turning point—perhaps even on the eve of destruction. Both groups wanted to redeem their church and their culture from the forces of evil they saw encroaching and which had manifest themselves through the atrocities of the First World War. Both groups also, however, had entirely different perceptions of what was wrong in the world and how to go about fixing it.[6] The modernists, often (though not exclusively) seeing in Jesus the ultimate example for humanity, and not so much an atoning savior, wanted therefore to take the good news of a better life to the streets and improve the lot of people in the here and now. “There are many,” Merrill wrote, “who grow uneasy at attempts to apply Christ’s ideals to living questions and current practices. What an incredible inversion of reality when one is restless at hearing the teachings of Jesus discussed and applied, and ‘wishes the minister would preach the Gospel.’ What is the Gospel, if not the way of life according to Jesus Christ?”[7] On the other hand, people like J. Gresham Machen felt that works without doctrine were dead. He “insisted that Christianity influenced culture primarily by the furtherance of right doctrine.”[8]

Clearly, in their evaluation of what was wrong with society, both modernism and fundamentalism assumed that one of the things that was wrong was the other party. Thus the twofold expression of Christianity which James outlines was foregone as the modernists dispensed with a lot of solid doctrine which should have made their works vibrant, and the fundamentalists separated from society in such a way that their faith, in very many cases, could certainly have been considered dead. But how did things come to such a pass?

The century immediately preceding the controversial 1920s was undeniably tumultuous, leaving important advances but also philosophical and emotional wreckage in its wake. Lloyd Averill calls the nineteenth century an era of “unparalleled creativity,” and cites secular geniuses like Lamark, Mendel, Freud, Einstein and Darwin.[9] These men of science were, if not openly opposed to traditional Protestant Christian modes of thought, nevertheless not endorsers of them either. Their discoveries and theories caused quite a stir among any Christians who were at all serious about the Bible and their faith. Interestingly and conversely, during the same century the social creatives were in many cases professing Christians: Susan B. Anthony, William Wilberforce, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, to name a few.[10]

In spite of the strength of Christians in the realm of social action, by the time World War I had ended, many people were experiencing what Averill terms “psychic dizziness and disorientation.”[11] Horrors had been borne that previous generations would not have been able to imagine. In spite of this, many people clung to the new discoveries as signs of hope and progress. These so-called “modernists” were still living in the glory days of the 1800s and believed that theories like that of evolution were descriptive of human existence generally, such that humanity could only improve from there on in.

Others, however, did not take such an optimistic view. They saw in the same scientific theories the seeds of discord, anarchy and hostility. At base, they felt that the new ideas were a threat to their beliefs and lifestyle, and ultimately to society as a whole. They focused on certain fundamental values within their traditions and were willing to fight tooth and nail to regain the ground they felt they had lost to the spirit of modernity.

Dividing Lines

The fundamentalists were more “concise” in their thinking, as compiler Eldred C. Vanderlaan says in his “Explanatory Note” for his fascinating collection of articles and arguments, Fundamentalism versus Modernism.[12] In spite of being frequently accused of obscurantism,[13] their “five fundamentals,” first drawn up within the Presbyterian church, made it relatively clear where they stood. The fundamentalists were simultaneously supernaturalists and literalists. They believed that the Bible was the inerrant Word of God, which God himself had directly inspired men to write. They believed that Jesus was literally born of a virgin and that Jesus’ death atoned for individuals’ sins such that he was punished as a substitute for sinners. They trusted that the miracles attributed to Jesus in the Bible had literally happened, that he had risen from the dead physically, and that he would one day literally return as the Bible said he would.

In contrast, the modernists embraced an apparently broader range of views. Some were openly hostile to the literal stance of their fundamentalist counterparts. Others pleaded, “No one wishes to forbid the literal interpretation; the wish is that the nonliteral shall be permitted also.”[14] The Presbyterian modernists drew up a document called the Auburn Affirmation, which was probably the closest thing to a delineation of a modernist Christian point of view. They asserted that they, too, believed Scripture was inspired of God, that Jesus was, in fact God, reconciling creation to himself. They confessed Christ’s death and resurrection and salvation through it.[15] What the Affirmation did not state was that they did not necessarily believe in these tenets as they were literally described in the Bible. Although the Affirmation included the word “sin,” not all modernists, with their optimistic view of humanity and evolution, actually believed in such a construct. Many of them disbelieved that Jesus had physically risen from death. They wished to “reformulate the Christian faith in terms that were consonant with the nineteenth century’s achievements in science and technology, in social progress, and in scholarship.”[16]

In some cases, this led to mind-numbing vagueness in the name of spirituality. Much of the modernist philosophizing about the nature of God sounds, to contemporary ears, familiarly New Age-y. One modernist wrote smugly, “To the Fundamentalist love is an attribute of God. To the Modernist love is the very essence of God.”[17] He also considered that the fundamentalist view of deity was spatial and anthropomorphic, while the modernist “thinks of God in the imagery of concrete moral experience . . . Looking within, he finds God.”[18] One might counter that space and personality make for more “concreteness” than “moral experience,” but perhaps no one did.

Christians on either side of the dividing line found the opposite point of view baffling, and frequently accused their opponents of not being true Christians at all. Christian Century magazine, the banner publication of the liberal branch, observed that the differences between the two groups were so stark, they might as well be two different faiths entirely.[19] William Pierson Merrill took the charges to another level and suggested that fundamentalists were committing the unpardonable sin against the Holy Spirit because they were living by dead forms instead of by the living Spirit of Christ.[20] Fundamentalists, however, did not seem very convinced that the modernists were living any better by the Spirit of Christ. “As no two of the critics of the Bible fully agree as to what part is myth and what part is authentic history,” politician and fundamentalist defender William Jennings Bryan wrote, “each one, in fact, transfers the presumption of infallibility from the Bible to himself.”[21] James Orr expounded on this idea when he observed that such a philosophy “leaves Jesus Christ Himself—without any authority for us save that with which our own minds see fit to clothe Him.”[22]

Such accusations and the implications were serious, and not always unfounded. The modernist camp, at its most extreme, was subjecting the Bible to the same sorts of dissections and investigations that scientists were using to explore and understand the universe. To them, such an exercise was exhilarating. Many felt that looking at the Bible through the lens of higher criticism—a technique of analyzing Scripture “scientifically,” such that the end result was usually a denial of the supernatural as well as the chronology and authorship of the writings—gave them a new lease on their spirituality and gave the Bible new credibility. Although in hindsight much of their research and “discoveries” seem to me hazy and vague and ill-founded, at the time many people found them compelling. Evangelical modernist J.R.P. Sclater, more moderate than some of his compatriots, nevertheless believed “the traditional views of date and authorship render the Bible unintelligible.”[23]

To many, both fundamentalists and modernists, such a belief cast doubt upon the actual contents of the Bible. If most of the books of the Bible had been written by people other than those to whom they were attributed, at a time much later than the events recorded, it could be said the Bible contained false, or at least mistaken, information. Adding to that the modernist’s all-encompassing theory of evolution, and the Bible became a book of gradual human realizations about God, rather than God’s direct and intentional revelation to humans.[24]

Fundamentalists were sure that such an understanding of the Bible was akin to atheism, and no modernist assertions that scientific theories did not preclude the action of God, or that the “inner substance” of Christian beliefs remained untouched in spite of the modification of their “outer forms,”[25] could convince them that the Christian faith and the very structure of society were not doomed by these ideas. When the modernists accused the Bible of lacking coherence, the fundamentalists retorted that in fact, it was all of a piece, a connected story with a structure and a purpose running through the entire book regardless of the span of time in which it was written.[26] “Evolution,” said Bryan in an open-air meeting one Sunday during the infamous Scopes Trial, “is a stagnant pool, the center of disease and death, and revealed religion is a flowing spring, giving forth all the time that which refreshes and invigorates.”[27] He was speaking not only of biological evolution, but of the theory of evolution as used by the modernists to describe all of life. According to the fundamentalist mind, modernist ministers were secularizing the church, and a secular church would be no earthly or heavenly use at all in restoring the surrounding culture to the way of Christ.[28]

The logical conclusion to all these debates and hostility was division. Fundamentalists asserted that for someone with modernist beliefs, who could not in good conscience mean the creeds literally when he or she said them, remaining in a traditionally orthodox church was outright hypocrisy.[29] Some modernists agreed. Others were offended at not being considered orthodox in the broadest sense of the term. Fundamentalists were seen as intolerant, rigid, fossilized. In some sense, it is hard to imagine things playing out any other way. The debated issues were significant. In spite of the different shades of ideology within the modernist camp particularly, the basis of truth was being challenged and reconsidered.

Divided Assets

Unfortunately, simply splitting an ancient organization down the middle was no simple task. Although the fault-lines seemed fairly clearly demarcated, both groups had unwittingly dispensed with aspects of orthodox tradition which forestalled truly creative thinking and truly redemptive living. Moderates existed in the middle of the battle, but their voices went largely unheard and finally most had to choose sides in this “conflict among generals.”[30] “The deepest disgrace of this quarrel,” said Algernon S. Crapsey regarding the impending split in the Episcopal church,

. . . is that it is practically a quarrel about nothing. The bishop says Jesus is to him very God of very God; the rector says that Jesus is to him his divine Lord and Master . . . And if the bishop did obey his God and if the rector did follow his divine Lord and Master, would not these two meet in the midst of the stern moralities and severe spiritualities of the Sermon on the Mount . . . and cry . . . ‘Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner?’[31]

A writer for Christian Century echoed a similar sentiment when he said,

Both [sides] hold that the Bible is inspired of God; . . . both hold that it is the record of a disclosure of the divine nature . . . both believe that it possesses moral and religious authority . . . both believe that rightly understood it is an adequate standard of appeal in matters of the spiritual life. It would seem that agreement on these elemental aspects of the Scripture, however widely people may vary in precise definition, would afford a common ground of faith and conduct. Yet such seems to be far from the case.”[32]

Eventually the era of conflict came more or less to an end, and neo-evangelical and neo-orthodox movements began to pick up the mantle their ideological predecessors had left them. However, the effects of the 1920s still, in many ways, haven’t really gone away. The fundamentalists had relinquished their role, so faithfully performed in the 1800s, of reaching out in practical ways to tend to society’s ills. Intent on keeping pure and accurate doctrine, many also lost sight of the process that faith does, indeed, incorporate, and the free and honest relationship with Christ that He Himself came to give us. “This unhurried theological pace of modernism which so exasperates the lawyers and Pharisees is as natural as the contentment of the twelve while Jesus was with them. His present authority was never in doubt,” said a modernist writer. “It was not an authority that flowed from some accepted doctrine or explanation of His person . . . He simply exercised it. They simply felt it and yielded to it. Why should it be otherwise now?”[33]

Initial name-calling notwithstanding, it’s a good question. How fundamental were those five fundamentals really, and were they worth the price of relationship with other people who were genuinely seeking to follow Christ and redeem their culture? To be sure, not all modernists were so genuine. But enough of their writings hold similar sentiments that the question is worth some consideration. Moderates, too, even if convinced about the orthodox interpretation of Scripture, believed that life provided a better gauge of Christian faith than right doctrine. “A man may recite an orthodox creed and believe it,” wrote Charles Erdman, moderator during the split of the Presbyterian church, “and yet be self-deceived as to his relation to Christ . . . On the other hand a real believer follows Christ, obeys Christ and reflects the character of Christ.”[34] Averill points out that “although [fundamentalism] represented itself—and indeed thought of itself—as a return to the faith of the apostles, it was, in its own way, as new as the modernist theological formulations and the secularist social movements it so scathingly denounced.”[35] The Reformers, who made much of Scripture as the final authority for faith and practice, nevertheless had not come up with such a rigid and difficult-to-defend doctrine as that of Biblical inerrancy.[36]

On the other hand, modernist ideas weren’t all that new. The church had been combating doubts and misinterpretations about who Jesus really was and what He had come for, since Athanasius and the other early church fathers.[37] The modernists were not as free-thinking as they sometimes imagined. Some of them were perceptive enough to realize, sooner or later, that the spirit of their own age dictated their understandings at least as much as the fundamentalist drive for literalness dictated theirs. One modernist was, in fact, astute enough to realize, “Two extensions, in particular, have to be avoided—(1) that intellect is self-sufficient for the discovery of truth, and (2) that intellect is self-sufficient for life.”[38] Even Henry Sloan Coffin, the ringleader of the modernists within the Presbyterian church, recanted many of his ideas later in life. “It did not occur to these earnest Christians,” he said, speaking of his own modernist brethren, “that there might be something faulty in the spirit of their day and in their own ideals, that the ethical and intellectual tendencies of the age might not be a divine standard to which the Christian Church should be adjusted.”[39]

This Is Now

Unfortunately, in spite of cultural shifts within society and within our churches, we still are faced with the legacy of this confusing controversy. The modernists focused on progress and their desire to bring the Kingdom of God to fruition in the here and now, and the fundamentalists believed that Jesus was going to return at any time and that he was the only one who could inaugurate that Kingdom. Therefore, the modernists “took over” much of the practical “good works” of the church in society, and the fundamentalists relinquished them. After all, what was the point of bettering the physical life, when people were headed for Hell in a proverbial handbasket, and Christ’s return would make all such efforts superfluous?

The church in which I grew up has always been decidedly evangelical. They have sent people around the globe and around the neighborhood, in order that as many people on earth as possible get a chance to hear that Christ died for their sins. This is laudable and, as Erdman and others stressed, evangelism—that drawing people into a relationship with the living God through Jesus Christ—is of paramount importance. On the other hand, as James said millennia ago, faith without works is dead, and, given the examples he cites in his epistle, those works don’t have to be a sermon from the pulpit. Times are changing, but I still encounter people, when I return to the church of my youth, who stare at me blankly when I talk about caring for the environment or working with illegal immigrants.

In contrast, many modernists churches are dying out, and the ones that remain are struggling for a passion in life and mission that they lost when they relinquished the solid doctrines that made their faith unique and life-giving. Abdicating distinctives to a lazy universalism does not make for vibrancy, and self-motivated humanitarianism often does not endure. Last August’s issue of Christian Century, that publication which held forth so strongly for the position of modernism in the 20s, ran an article about contemporary spiritual formation of teens, in which the author argued that the God being introduced to teens in many churches is too “nice.”[40] She calls the “condition” brought on by this nice-God image “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” or “MTD.”[41] Although it is less socially active than what the modernists were promoting in the 20s, the sort of God implied in it sounds eerily similar. She contrasts MTD teens with teens who have a more “devoted faith,” citing, among other things, the teaching of God as alive and presently active in their lives, and a high value of Scripture, as determining factors.[42]

In the church where I now work and worship, I do detect signs of MTD, among the teens but also among the adults. With both a new Christian Education director and a new pastor, the Bible is being opened more, and people’s lives are starting to blossom, but there is still an underlying sense of compassion fatigue and a wistfulness about it. People are more open about their desire to “share Christ,” but many still look at me askance when I mention having previously been a missionary. Universalism dies hard.

In the days of the controversy itself, a writer for the New Republic suggested, “We would like to see the Modernists become Fundamentalists in the interest of a Christian revival.”[43] It’s not a bad thought. Perhaps we are now in the days where something along those lines could happen. Maybe conservative and liberal churches are, in some corners, learning to look at each other with less suspicion. If that happens, ideally the conservatives can “re-teach” the liberals about their Biblical foundations, and liberals can remind the conservatives that in order to truly know it, it takes a process which must be lived out. It’s what, by God’s grace and calling, I believe I’m trying to do.

Sources Consulted

Allen, Leslie H., comp. and ed. Bryan and Darrow at Dayton, New York: Arthur Lee & Company, 1925.

Averill, Lloyd J. Religious Right, Religious Wrong: A Critique of the Fundamentalist Phenomenon, New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1990.

Dean, Kenda Creasy. “Faith, Nice and Easy: The Almost-Christian Formation of Teens.” Christian Century, 10 August 2010: 22-27.

Henry, Carl F.H. The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1947.

Longfield, Bradley J. The Presbyterian Controversy, New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Machen, J. Gresham. “The Relation of Religion to Science and Philosophy,” reprinted from The Princeton Theological Review, January 1926.

Rosell, Garth M. The Surprising Work of God: Harold John Ockenga, Billy Graham, and the Rebirth of Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008.

Sclater, J.R.P. Modernist Fundamentalism. New York: George H. Doran Company, 1926.

Steer, Roger. Basic Christian: The Inside Story of John Stott, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009: 101-110.

Vanderlaan, Eldred C., comp. Fundamentalism and Modernism. New York: The H.W. Wilson Company, 1925.

[1] Garth M. Rosell, The Surprising Work of God: Harold John Ockenga, Billy Graham, and the Rebirth of Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008).

[2] Jas. 2.14-26.

[3] William Pierson Merrill, “Protestantism at the Crossroads,” World’s Work 47 (February 1924), reprinted in Eldred C. Vanderlaan, comp., Fundamentalism Versus Modernism, The Handbook Series (New York: The H.W. Wilson Company, 1925), 53.

[4] Martin Luther, as quoted by Sabatier, “Luther’s Free Attitude Toward the Bible,” Luther’s Works, Erlangen, ed., reprinted in Vanderlaan, 197.

[5] Bradley J. Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 218.

[6] Ibid., 102.

[7] Merrill, reprinted in Vanderlaan, 49.

[8] Longfield, 46.

[9] Lloyd J. Averill, Religious Right, Religious Wrong: A Critique of the Fundamentalist Phenomenon (New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1990), 14-15.

[10] Ibid., 16.

[11] Ibid., 17.

[12] Vanderlaan, v.

[13] John Stott, quoted in Roger Steer, Basic Christian: The Inside Story of John Stott (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 102.

[14] Dickinson S. Miller, “Conscience and the Bishops: A Historic Step,” The New Republic 38 (March 5, 1924), reprinted in Vanderlaan, 429.

[15] Longfield, 79.

[16] Averill, 21.

[17] “Fundamentalism, Modernism and God,” Christian Century 41 (March 20 and 27, 1924), reprinted in Vanderlaan, 75.

[18] Ibid., 73.

[19] Ibid., 69.

[20] William Pierson Merrill, “The One Fundamental,” Christian Work 115 (September 22, 1923), reprinted in Vanderlaan, 61-2.

[21] William Jennings Bryan, “Mr. Bryan on the ‘Five Points,’” Forum 70 (July 1923), reprinted in Vanderlaan, 33.

[22] James Orr, “Holy Scripture and Modern Negations,” The Fundamentals Vol. IX, Chapter IV, reprinted in Vanderlaan, 116.

[23] J.R.P. Sclater, Modernist Fundamentalism (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1926), 32.

[24] Vanderlaan, 6-7.

[25] Ibid., 4.

[26] Orr, reprinted in Vanderlaan, 124.

[27]  Leslie H. Allen, Bryan and Darrow at Dayton: The Record and Documents of the “Bible-Evolution Trial” (New York: Arthur Lee & Company, 1925), 109.

[28] Longfield, 27.

[29] J. Gresham Machen, “Modernists Have No Right to Be in Orthodox Churches,” Christianity and Liberalism (The Macmillan Company, 1923), reprinted in Vanderlaan, 362.

[30] Longfield, 5.

[31] Algernon S. Crapsey, “The Shame of the Churches,” Nation 118 (January 16, 1924), reprinted in Vanderlaan, 107.

[32] “Fundamentalism, Modernism and the Bible,” Christian Century 41 (April 3, 1924), reprinted in Vanderlaan, 189.

[33] “Fundamentalism, Modernism and Christ,” Christian Century 41 (April 17, 1924), reprinted in Vanderlaan, 88.

[34] Longfield, 141.

[35] Averill, 31.

[36] Ibid., 34-35.

[37] William T. Manning, “A Message on the Present Situation in the Church,” Christian Work 116 (February 23, 1924), reprinted in Vanderlaan, 387.

[38] Sclater, 26.

[39] Longfield, 214.

[40] Kenda Creasy Dean, “Faith, Nice and Easy: The Almost-Christian Formation of Teens,” Christian Century, 10 August 2010, 22.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid., 26.

[43] “The Parsons’ Battle,” New Republic 37 (January 9, 1924), reprinted in Vanderlaan, 358.


The Elder Brother on the Doorstep

I wrote this paper during Seminary-the-First-Time, too. This one was about Parables (that’s a Jesus story!), but I got this professor to let me write it as a story rather than a report, just like that Old Testament one. It’s a long paper, but it kinda has chapters. Definitely read it! I used the traditional English name-renderings in this one, for some reason. I like the transliterations out of Hebrew better, but at least this way you don’t have to work out that “P’rushim” are “Pharisees.”

Wordy Wednesday

 Denver Seminary

The Elder Brother on the Doorstep

Parables and the Kingdom of Heaven – Dramatic Monologue

NT511—The Gospels and Acts

By Jennifer Grosser, 12 November 2003

The Mustard Tree (Luke 13.18-19)

That man and his metaphors!  His name is Jesus, and even though he only comes from Nazareth, the people of the land[1] think he is a prophet.  He tells irritating stories[2] about what he calls “the kingdom of heaven,”[3] twisting familiar metaphors[4] about the redemption of Israel so that they are nearly unrecognizable.  My brother Pharisees and I have longed for this redemption for years, and along comes Jesus threatening to turn it all upside-down.  It makes me cross.  People like Joseph, who is only my servant, hear these stories and tell them to each other, and I hear them, too, and become even crosser.

Mustard seeds, for example, do not become trees[5].  Apparently, Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, because it starts small and grows large.  At least, this is what I understand.  I can even accept this.  But I don’t understand why he said it becomes a tree, and I don’t understand what birds nesting in the branches have to do with the kingdom, either.  There is a story in our Scriptures about a kingdom like a tree with birds nesting in it, too, but that was a Gentile one,[6] centuries ago, and whatever else can be said of it, surely the kingdom of heaven has nothing to do with Gentiles.

Joseph said maybe it has, and maybe this is one of the “mysteries of the kingdom” Jesus keeps telling his disciples about.  I said it’s easy to talk about mysteries; it keeps out people one dislikes, and Jesus dislikes me.  Joseph suggested that “birds in the branches” doesn’t sound like an idea that would come from someone who wanted to keep people out.[7]   He further incriminated himself by adding that perhaps my dislike of Jesus was more the problem, and that I should consider the idea that the heavenly kingdom is about forgiveness most of all.[8]  I got angry with him then, and told him if he were less capable, I would dismiss him.  He said perhaps I was beginning to understand forgiveness already, and that there might be a mustard seed growing in me somewhere.  I growled at him and stalked out of the house.

The Banquet (Luke 7:36-50)

This is what I did the night of the banquet, too, although not at Joseph, and not at first.  At first, I invited Jesus to one of the meetings of our haberim, our local religious society.  We meet for meals and invite visiting sages to come share their ideas with us.[9]  Jesus was visiting, if not a sage.  I wanted to know what he meant by the kingdom of heaven.  I thought he would recognize the honor showed him by my invitation, but it appeared not, and it was all the fault of that woman.

The banquet was laid, and I thought I had been quite generous with it, given the fact that this Jesus is actually an erstwhile carpenter.[10]  He was going to have to prove that he really was the prophet all the people think.[11]  It does not do for people to go about with delusions of grandeur, and I certainly was not going to encourage this man’s.  Having him in for a meal was munificent enough, and just in case he got the idea that I was convinced of his claims already, I did not bother to kiss him in greeting when he arrived, nor did I have Joseph wash his feet.[12]  Joseph gave me one of his reproving looks, but I have lived with those long enough that they cease to move me, if they ever did.

As usual, all the riffraff spilled through the open doorway into the edges of the room as the meal got underway.[13]  People will always be curious, and Jesus had just made some rather intriguing statements out of doors,[14] so no doubt they wanted to see if he would make more of them.  Among the people in the corners this time was a certain woman.  She is a “sinner in the city,”[15] as we say, and that is being kind, really.  Joseph says I had better say she was a sinner in the city, only that is not just being kind, but fanciful.  I don’t think that kind of woman can ever change, even if she swallowed an entire mustard “tree,” birds in the branches and all.

Jesus reclined on the couch designated for him, after it became clear I had no intention of encouraging his self-aggrandizement.  Guests should not comment on their host’s hospitality,[16] and I hardly thought he dared in any case, knowing the stock from which he came.   But the woman might as well have done it for him.  She had crept behind him, so that she was standing just where his feet jutted back into the shadows.  The meal had scarcely begun, when there was a strange noise.  Everyone turned to look at the maker of the sound, and there was the sinner-woman, crying over Jesus’ dusty feet.  As she sobbed, she took the flask of perfume that hung from her neck and broke it all over his feet, too, so that the perfume mingling with her tears made a great soppy, muddy mess.  To make matters worse, she let down her hair and began wiping the mess up with it.  She might as well have disrobed in front of us all.[17]  I was disgusted, and embarrassed for my guests.  They, for their part, did not know which way to look.

Wryly I thought to myself, “If this man were a prophet he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner” (Luke 7:39).

“Simon,” said Jesus then, as if answering my thoughts, “I have something to tell you.”  He certainly did.  “Two men owed money to a certain money lender.  One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.  Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both.  Now which of them will love him more?” (7.40-42).

The trouble with parables, especially as Jesus tells them, is that they are tricky.  They are first of all disorienting, because they never sound like they have anything to do with present circumstances.[18]  But of course they always do.  While one is trying to discover the connection between story and situation at hand, one is also acutely aware that, however one answers one is likely to be incriminated, most likely for espousing some perfectly defensible mode of behavior which Jesus sees as incompatible with his vision of the kingdom.  Incomprehensibly, though one can agree or disagree, the very decision makes one feel compelled to act accordingly.[19]  The answer to Jesus’ present question was not difficult.  It was the dread of what would come after that made me pause before I answered, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled” (7.43).

“You have judged correctly.”  Somehow I was not comforted.  “Do you see this woman?” (7.44) he went on, talking to me but facing her.[20]  Of course I saw her.  She was difficult not to notice.  He was forever defending and having table fellowship with completely unsuitable types.  He even had adopted an unheard of practice of allowing women to run around with him and his disciples.[21]  But surely he was not going to defend this woman, was he?

“I came into your house,” Jesus said.  “You did not give me any water for my feet.”   The room grew deathly still.  Everyone was staring.  I sat, willing him to stop.  Surely even this maverick would respect the desire of his host to preserve some sense of decorum.  But he continued, “She wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.  You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet.  You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet…I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven, [therefore][22] she loved much.  But he who has been forgiven little, loves little” (7.44-47).

I was furious, but there was nothing to say.  Jesus was still facing the woman.  “Your sins are forgiven,” he said to her, to the further consternation of my guests.  “Your faith has saved you.  Go in peace” (7.48, 50).

The Nature of the Kingdom

It was the woman’s fault.  I will not even blame Jesus.  Without her, the haberim would have asked questions, and he would have answered them.  We would have eaten and been civilized like men, and I would have discovered if Jesus were a prophet.  Instead, the guests left early, with silent apologetic faces, and Jesus left without apology at all.  Afterwards I paced our small courtyard to try to recover from the insult he had given to my hospitality.[23]  Instead, the only thing I could think of was the kingdom of heaven.  “Joseph,” I commanded, “come out and talk to me.”

Joseph came out.  “Joseph,” I said again, “Jesus did not mention the kingdom of heaven in his inexcusable little diatribe, did he?”

A muscle in Joseph’s face twitched, but he said, “No sir.”

“Therefore he must have been talking of something else.  The parable he told tonight was not about any kingdom.”[24]

“Not in those words, sir, no.”

“How then?”  I had no reason to think Jesus had been talking about the kingdom of heaven.  I did not know what it could have to do with two debtors.  But an uncomfortable nagging had begun in my mind, and it disturbed me that Joseph might also think there had been a message about Jesus’ concept of the Lord’s reign[25] in his tale.

Joseph was silent, which I knew meant that he disapproved of me and was waiting for permission to tell me so.  “How then?” I repeated.

“He often tells of the kingdom,” said Joseph.  “So that I think even when he does not use those words, he is still speaking of it.”[26]

“And what,” I asked, “would you say the nature of this kingdom is, according to him?”  My relationship with Joseph is unusual.  Other Pharisees do not talk to their servants this way.  But wives cannot understand such things, and when I talk to Joseph, it helps me to get my thoughts outside of myself so I can understand them better.  I do not expect Joseph to know the answers.  I expect him to help me find them.

“Jesus said to repent because the kingdom is at hand—like that baptizer, John, used to say,”  Joseph offered.

“At hand,” I said.  “Does that mean it is already here?  I do not see the son of David on the throne in Jerusalem.  I do not see people accepting the Holy One’s yoke.[27]  Do you know what we Pharisees say, Joseph?”  Joseph probably did know; he heard our discussions.  “We say,” I said, not waiting for an answer, “that the deliverance of Israel is coming.  We are not so audacious as to claim that it has arrived.”[28]

“Perhaps, sir,” Joseph said, “it hadn’t arrived before now.”

“And how do we know it has arrived now?” I demanded.

“Things are changing, sir,” said Joseph.  “Maybe the kingdom has to happen inside people and come out.[29]  Maybe the rule of God without Rome will come later.[30]  Right now, Jesus heals people.  People repent.  Maybe this kingdom is about repentance.  And if it is, it must be about forgiveness, too.”

“And if you are right?” I said.

“Then,” said Joseph firmly, “we had all better repent immediately.[31]  Do not the Pharisees also say that people must repent before the coming of the restoration?”[32]

I looked at him.  “Joseph,” I said suspiciously, “do you think I need to repent?”

Joseph said nothing, and a moment later he bowed his head and re-entered the house.  This was the first time I thought of dismissing him.  How dare he imply that I needed to repent!  I am a Pharisee.  We understand the Scriptures.  We have handed down and treasured the traditions of the elders precisely so that we do not disobey the words of the Holy One.  One only repents when one has disobeyed.  But we keep ourselves ritually pure, eating only what the Scriptures allow, washing our crockery in a special manner, and certainly avoiding all contact with defiling persons.[33]

I had just had a very upsetting evening, in which one of these defiling persons had not only come into my house but had humiliated me.  Jesus had proceeded to defend her by comparing her unfavorably to me, the Pharisee,[34] and then supposedly forgiving her, as if he had the authority.  Now my own servant was telling me I needed to repent!

“Yes indeed,” I thought bitterly.  “I’ll repent.  I repent that I ever invited Jesus here, and I will never forgive that woman.  I was shamed in my own house, by a harlot who apparently thought my hospitality to the ‘prophet’ was insufficient.  But Jesus is no prophet, and he certainly did not deserve any more hospitality than I gave him.”

The Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:23-35)

The trouble was, I could not forget the incident, or the parable.  For days I thought about the debtors, one owing much, the other little.  I could not forget because I knew Jesus told the story seeing me in it, and if I were in it, either way I was a debtor.[35]  I made a point never to owe anyone anything.  But it was clear the creditor in the story represented the Holy One, so if I were a debtor, it was to heaven itself.

For a while I comforted myself with the idea that at least I was the debtor who owed little.  But that consolation did not last.  Late one night, instead of sleeping, I tossed and turned under the horrible impression that perhaps the woman and I owed an equal debt, but she was forgiven much because she was somehow aware of hers, and I was only forgiven little because I could not see mine at all.[36]  This was an unacceptable notion, which I quickly dismissed at daybreak.

Nevertheless, fatigue made me pensive.  I could not understand how I could be indebted to the Lord.  After daily oblique comments by Joseph, I was beginning to grudgingly accede that perhaps I had been less than hospitable to Jesus.  Still I did not see how that had any bearing on the kingdom of heaven, nor on my owing a debt.  If I thought about it too long, I started imagining that Jesus was linking himself inextricably with the Holy One’s reign, and as more than just its messenger.[37]

The people wanted him to be their Messiah, the one anointed of God from the line of King David,[38] and if he were, he must somehow usher in heaven’s reign.  In which case, perhaps my snubbing him when he came for the banquet had not been the most politic action, and had incurred some sort of debt to the Holy One after all.  Of course no one, least of all Jesus, had proven that he was in fact the Messiah, and I was still highly skeptical.

On the other hand, one does not get to be a Pharisee for nothing.  The price, in my case, was a rather heavy load of guilt.  Regardless of my air of confidence, I always had an underlying suspicion that I was neglecting to follow one of the commandments or teachings—that I myself was somehow preventing the Holy One’s reign from being inaugurated on earth.  Ever since that woman had upset the haberim meal, my guilt had increased, as evidenced by my delusions of debt and my inability to sleep.  At long last, with something of a sigh of relief, I decided I would go to Jesus and ask his pardon, just in case I needed it.  If he could truly forgive that harlot, then certainly he would be able to forgive me.  Besides, in the story, both debtors were forgiven…

It was not difficult to find Jesus.  This day, he was meeting in the house of one of his wealthier friends.  He seemed to be discussing issues with those people who closely and regularly associated with him,[39] but, as others had entered my house to observe Jesus at my banquet, so now the curious had spilled into this house, too, for similar reasons.  I had come alone, and at first I was embarrassed to be seen among the gawking crowd, but soon my eyes lighted on Samuel.  He was a Sadducee, one of a group of people who, to my mind, seem to wish they were Greek instead of Jewish.  Generally Pharisees and Sadducees speak together only to argue,[40] but in this case it was comforting to see someone who looked less shabby than the others, so I went and stood with him.  He welcomed me with a smile.  I thought, not for the first time, that it is remarkable how Sadducees can be simultaneously so accommodating and condescending.

By the time I was able to pay attention Jesus, he had launched into one of his parables again.  “The kingdom of heaven,” he said, “is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.”  I think I made a small choking noise, because Samuel looked over at me with some concern.  I waved the concern away and said nothing.  Inside my head, however, my thoughts were whirling.  Had Jesus seen me come in?  He was speaking to his disciples; but was he telling this story because I was here?  Settling accounts again.  How did he know?

The story went on to describe two more debtors; this time one was a debtor to the king, and one was a debtor to the other.  The debtor to the king owed an extraordinary amount of money—even more than Herod required in a year, I thought.[41]  But, at the servant’s pleas for more time to pay the debt, the king cancelled all of it instead.  A gasp went up from the crowd.  This was hardly to be expected.  I thought of the inexcusable woman in my house.  This is what it would be like for the Holy One to forgive her all her sins, I mused.  It did not seem likely.  I knew from the Scriptures that the Lord does not look kindly on harlotry.  But could even harlotry be metaphorically more extreme than a debt of ten thousand talents?  I could not tell.

“But when the servant went out,” Jesus went on, “he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii.  He grabbed him and began to choke him.  ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.  His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back’” (Matthew 18.28-29).

As Jesus told it, the first servant refused and had the man thrown into prison.  When the king found out about it, he called the servant back and imprisoned him, too, for not forgiving as he had been forgiven.[42]  “This,” Jesus concluded, “is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart” (18.35).  I did not wait to hear more, but went out into the street and began to walk.

“Simon?”  I turned.  It was Samuel, coming out after me.  “Are you all right?”

“This man and his parables,” I muttered, too distressed to worry about whether this Sadducee thought I was all right or not.  “They irritate.”

“They’re just stories,” said Samuel soothingly.  “You don’t have to do anything about them.  They’re his ideals.  No one lives up to ideals.[43]

“Some of us try to!” I retorted, probably more heatedly than necessary.

Samuel seemed not to notice.  “Take that story, for instance,” he continued.  “Flawed.[44]   Jesus was talking about forgiveness, but the king in the story only forgave his servant once, and at the next mistake had him thrown in prison for the rest of his life.”

I pondered this.  “But,” I said, after a moment, “the king represents the Holy One.  The king always represents the Holy One.  He has a right not to forgive.”

“God is a loving God,” said Samuel.  “He wouldn’t take back his forgiveness.[45]  I don’t think Jesus really knows what he is talking about at all.”

“Of course he does!” I protested.  “And the king didn’t take back his forgiveness.  He simply refused to offer it a second time.”

“Ah, my friend,” said Samuel.  “You missed the earlier part of Jesus’ teaching.  He had just told that fisherman friend of his—you know, Cephas—that his disciples need to forgive each other indefinitely.[46]  But the king did not do that at all.[47]

“The king didn’t do it,” I said, “because the servant didn’t do it.  He could forgive the debt—he just would not forgive the servant for not showing someone else the same mercy he had received.[48]  The servant did not fully accept the forgiveness, or he would have forgiven, too, and the rejection of forgiveness was what the king would not forgive.  It was an affront to the king’s generosity.  I think Jesus argued his point well.”

“You Pharisees and your rigid justice,” Samuel said, more condescending than ever.  “Listen to you.  You’re even defending Jesus now.  Are you coming back in?”

“No,” I said.  “I need to return home.  I—er—I have business to attend to.  Thank you for your concern, Samuel.  This discussion has been most enlightening.”

I am not certain how I got home that evening, lost in thought as I was.  I, of all people, had just defended Jesus, of all people.  Jesus had described the Holy One’s kingdom—the reign of a King who evidently forgives all debts but unforgiveness—and I had defended him.

As if that were not disturbing enough, I was identifying with this story even more than I had with the last one.  These characters, these types of people—I knew them.[49]  One of them was me, and it wasn’t, as it turned out, the servant who owed another servant a hundred denarii.  I owed the King ten thousand talents.  Would he forgive me?

For the next few weeks my wife said I was unbearable, and even Joseph appeared concerned.  Food did not appeal to me.  I was not sleeping.  Neither condition improved my mood, nor did the growing dread that I owed the King, the One True God, a debt I could not pay.  I had dishonored and mocked his very Messiah, the one who was going to bring the kingdom, and I had encouraged others to do the same.

Furthermore, when I had been offended, admittedly by a woman and a loose-living one at that, I did not forgive her.  She had made a spectacle of herself and of me in my own house.  She had infuriated me.  She had shamed me before my guests.  But she had honored the Messiah.  Jesus had said her sins were forgiven because her faith had saved her.  All that was left was for me to forgive her small debt to me.  Would I?

I did not want to forgive her.  I thought, on principle, that all such women should be locked up, like the servants in the parable, and the fact that this one had made matters worse by interfering in my own life only exacerbated my feelings.  But the more I worried and wrestled with my thoughts, the more I came to wonder whether it was really up to me to judge her for her sins against the Holy One.  This was the astonishing thing about us Pharisees.  We were scandalized any time Jesus told someone his sins were forgiven.  Yet many of us placed ourselves in judgment over everyone else, deciding who was worthy of forgiveness or not.  At last I could bear the conflict no more.  “All right!” I shouted one night, hoping the neighbors would not hear and that heaven would.  “I will forgive her!”

But the next day there was still no peace.  The servant in the parable had been put in jail until he could pay back his debt, because he had not forgiven.  I was willing to forgive now, but I had not been at first.  Maybe it was too late.  What happened in the kingdom of heaven when someone forgave too late?

The Elder Brother (Luke 15.11-32)

Even without an answer, eventually I had to start eating and sleeping again, and I did.  I tried to treat my wife more kindly, and I stopped threatening to dismiss Joseph.  Sometimes I wished the harlot would return to the city so that I could tell her I forgave her—or perhaps ask her to forgive me—although I was sure the results of that would be scandalous.  She, however, not able to return to a respectable life in a community who only knew her as a sinner,[50] had left everything and joined the group of people who followed Jesus exclusively.  They were slowly making their way to Jerusalem now.[51]  My household and I began our journey there for the Passover a short time later, but much more quickly, and we discovered them along the way.

I kept close to the other Pharisees in the group and tried to stay out of Jesus’ sight, but any time I thought I heard him telling what sounded like a parable, I found myself stopping what I was doing to listen.  One night, he was telling stories about lost things.  They were metaphors about his beloved tax collectors and sinners—the ones for whom heaven would apparently become most undignified in order to find them.  The Scriptures spoke against such people, and I still found it greatly illogical that the Holy One could have changed his mind enough to suddenly take so much trouble over them.  But then, he was the King, and maybe his kingdom could not be earned, only offered and accepted.

We Pharisees spoke of how important it was for people to accept the Holy One’s rule, so much more blessed than the rule of our human oppressors.[52]  Maybe the rule was repentance and forgiveness.  Maybe Joseph was right.  Maybe that was all it was.  Such a small thing, like a mustard seed, but with such enormous consequences, as if that seed could turn into a tree.

The stories about the lost things saddened me.  The lost were found, and they were rejoiced over more than the ones that had never been lost in the first place.  I wanted to be rejoiced over, but if I was not lost, there was no celebration for me, and if I was lost, I still had not been found.

Then Jesus told another story.  It was a parable, not about two debtors and a creditor, or about two servants and a king, but of two sons and a father.  The younger son made the scandalous demand that his father give him his portion of the inheritance early.  Almost equally surprisingly was that the father complied.[53]  Not surprising at all was that the son took it and squandered it.

Over the course of the story, this young son became destitute to the point of living with pigs, at which point he realized he was better off at home.  He set off in order to offer himself to his father as a servant, having forfeited any claims as a son already.[54]  After the stories about the other lost things, it maybe should have been less surprising to me that the father, seeing his son coming, ran to meet him.  But I confess I was shocked.  I would never run, especially to such a son.  A man in my position has abandoned all need to run.  It certainly would undermine any sort of respect I had earned.  Or would it?  Perhaps it would just show to the world how much I loved.  I did not think I had ever loved anyone or anything that much.[55]

I longed for that kind of response from a forgiving God, I realized.  This was what Jesus’ tax collectors and sinners and fishermen were receiving.  Somehow, through this Jesus, the Holy One was running to forgive them.  He was throwing his cloak about them and putting his signet ring on them and killing a calf for them to eat in celebration.  It was a completely different type of banquet than the one I had laid for Jesus.  Mine had been set to trap him and had instead trapped me.  This banquet of God—this kingdom of God—welcomed the sinner before he even had a chance to apologize.  Surely he was washed and purified eventually, but the father welcomed the son before any of that.[56]  This was a banquet anyone could join.  Why was I not celebrating?[57]

“Meanwhile the older son was in the field,” said Jesus.  I had forgotten the third character.  “When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing.  So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on.  ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’  The older brother became angry and refused to go in.  So his father went out and pleaded with him.  But he answered his father, ‘Look!  All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.  Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours, who has squandered your money with prostitutes, comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’” (Luke 15:25-30).

I was staring at Jesus.  Where did he get those words?  How did he know exactly what it felt like, serving the Holy One the way I had all of these years?  How did he know just the way in which I had always hated the sinners—for their sin, and because it seemed they could get away with it?  But now I only wanted to join in the celebration.  I would forgive them.  I would stop hating them, heaven helping me.  I just needed to know if the elder son could be forgiven for his affront to his father (rebuking him in front of the guests—I understood that![58]).  I just wanted to know if the elder son could come inside.

Now I thought maybe Jesus was looking right at me, as I was looking at him.  “’My son,’ the father said,” Jesus said, looking at me, “’you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.  But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found’” (15:31-32).

I waited for the end of the story.  What would the elder brother do?  But Jesus never said.  He paused a little, and then went on to speak of other things, and I was left, waiting on the doorstep with the elder brother.

Conclusion and Application

That is the trickiness of Jesus’ parables.  They draw one in until one becomes part of them.  Eventually, one has to tell the end of it oneself.  “I suppose,” I said to Joseph that evening, “we Pharisees are right about the kingdom of heaven.  Ultimately, it’s a choice.[59]  A person can either accept the rule of heaven, taking his yoke, or keep bearing the yoke of the world.[60]

“And what is his yoke, sir?” Joseph asked.  “I never was quite clear about that.”

“Now that,” said I, sighing, “is where I suppose we are mistaken.  I thought it was the Law and the traditions of the elders—and, well, I can’t believe it isn’t partly that.”

Joseph raised an eyebrow, and I said hurriedly, “But not just that.  You were the one who mentioned forgiveness, all that time ago.  Repentance and forgiveness.  Like the Jubilee Year, when all debts were to be forgiven.[61]  I suppose the kingdom of heaven is his power manifested on earth, more than it is this Israel.[62]  And the power comes from being forgiven by the Holy One, by which forgiveness we can forgive others.  And then…”

I used to imagine with the Pharisees what the kingdom of heaven would look like.  Everyone would be clean and look something like me, and there wouldn’t be any harlots or tax collectors or thieves or idolaters because they had been evicted to Gehenna or some such place.  Now I had a vision of it again, and it was similar but also very different.  Everyone looked like themselves, but everyone also had something about them that reminded me of Jesus—something a little dangerous and uncomfortable, but glorious, like forgiveness.  There were no harlots or tax collectors or thieves or idolaters, not because they had been evicted, but because they had stopped being those things.

The harlot who had interrupted my banquet was received into a community that loved her.  The local tax collector was kissed on both cheeks in greeting.  The thief was taught to earn his bread, and the idolaters were so overwhelmed by these genuine displays of repentance and forgiveness that they saw their idols were worthless and accepted the yoke of the Holy One.

I did notice, to my disappointment, that there weren’t very many Pharisees.  But Jesus had not finished telling his last story.  The Day of the Lord had not arrived yet, even if the kingdom had, and the elder brother could still decide[63] to join the celebration.[64]  The joy of the kingdom of heaven is that the elder brother can celebrate with the younger.  The kingdom of heaven is not about the sort of person who deserves to enter it.  The only sort who can enter are the forgiven ones, and they can come from anywhere.  But it happens slowly and quietly, like a mustard seed growing into a tree.

The Prodigal Son - Rembrandt

The Prodigal Son – Rembrandt



Aland, Kurt, ed.  Synopsis of the Four Gospels.  New York:  American Bible Society, 1982.

Bailey, Kenneth E.  Through Peasant Eyes, ix-xxiii; 1-21.  Grand Rapids:  William B. Eerdmans, 1980.

Blomberg, Craig L.  Interpreting the Parables.  Downer’s Grove:  IVP, 1990.

________.  Jesus and the Gospels.  Nashville:  Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1997.

Carter, Warren.  “Resisting and Imitating the Empire:  Imperial Paradigms in Two Matthean Parables.”  Interpretation 56 no. 3 Jl (2002):  260-272.

Crossan, J. Dominic.  “Parable.”  Anchor Bible Dictionary:  O-Sh, vol. 5, ed. (in-chief) David Noel Freedman, 146-152.  New York:  Doubleday, 1992.

Goss, James.  “Eschatology, Autonomy, and Individuation:  The Evocative Power of the Kingdom.”  The Journal of the American Academy of Religion 49 S (1981):  363-381.

Heil, John Paul, “Parable of the Unforgiving Forgiven Servant in Matthew 18.21-35.”  In Matthew’s Parables,  96-123.  Washington, D.C.:  The Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1998.

Hendrickx, Herman.  The Parables of Jesus.  London:  Geoffrey Chapman, 1986.

Hill, David, ed.  “On Forgiveness.”  In New Century Bible:  The Gospel of Matthew, 277-278.  London:  Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1972.

Linneman, Eta.  Parables of Jesus:  Introduction and Exposition.  London:  SPCK.  1966.

Longenecker, Richard N., ed.  The Challenge of Jesus’ Parables.  Grand Rapids:  Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.  2000.

Meier, John P.  A Marginal Jew:  Rethinking the Historical Jesus, vol. 3.  New York:  Doubleday, 2001.

Nouwen, Henri J. M.  The Return of the Prodigal Son.  New York:  Doubleday, 1992.

Ryken, Leland.  How to Read the Bible as Literature, 139-153, 199-203.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 1984.

Scott, Bernard Brandon.  “The King’s Accounting:  Matthew 18:23-34.”  Journal of Biblical Literature 104 S (1985):  429-442.

Snodgrass, K.R.  “Parable.”  In Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight, 591-600.  Downer’s Grove:  Intervarsity Press, 1992.

Song, Choan-Seng.  Jesus and the Reign of God.  Minneapolis:  Augsburg Fortress, 1993.

Theissen, Gerd.  The Shadow of the Galilean.  Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1987.

Young, Brad H.  Jesus and His Jewish Parables:  Rediscovering the Roots of Jesus’ Teaching.  New York:  Paulist Press, 1989.

               [1] Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels (Nashville:  Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1997), 47.

               [2] Herman Hendrickx,  The Parables of Jesus (London:  Geoffrey Chapman, 1986), 11.

[3] Blomberg, Jesus, 233.

               [4] Ibid., 386.

               [5] Ibid., 263.

               [6] Brad H. Young, Jesus and His Jewish Parables:  Rediscovering the Roots of Jesus’ Teaching, (New York:  Paulist Press, 1989), 210.

               [7] Blomberg, Jesus, 263.

               [8] K. R. Snodgrass, “Parable,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight (Downer’s Grove:  IVP, 1992), 599.

               [9] Kenneth E. Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes (Grand Rapids:  William B. Eerdmans, 1980), 4.

               [10] Blomberg, Jesus, 207.

               [11] Bailey, Peasant, 11.

[12]Ibid., 5.

              [13] H.B. Tristram, Eastern Customs in Bible Lands, (London:  Hodder and Stoughton, 1894),  36-38; quoted in Ibid., 4.

               [14] J. Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, (New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1966), 48ff; quoted in Ibid., 3.

               [15] Ibid.

               [16] Ibid., 14.

               [17] Ibid., 9.

               [18] Hendrickx, Parables, 11.

               [19] Blomberg, Jesus, 262.

               [20] Bailey, Peasant, 16.

               [21] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew:  Rethinking the Historical Jesus, vol. 3 (New York:  Doubleday, 2001), 79ff

              [22] Bailey, Peasant, 18.

               [23] Bailey, Peasant, 14ff.

               [24] Young, Jewish Parables, 189.

               [25] Song, Choan-Seng, Jesus and the Reign of God (Minneapolis:  Augsburg Fortress, 1993), 5.

               [26] Craig L. Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables (Downer’s Grove:  IVP, 1990), 291.

               [27] Young, Jewish Parables, 197.

               [28] Blomberg, Interpreting, 302.

               [29] James Goss,  “Eschatology, Autonomy, and Individuation:  The Evocative Power of the Kingdom,”  The Journal of the American Academy of Religion 49 S (1981):  365.

               [30] Blomberg, Interpreting, 296.

               [31] Hendrickx, Parables, 2.

               [32] Eta Linneman, Parables of Jesus:  Introduction and Exposition (London: SPCK, 1966), 39.

               [33] Meier, Marginal, 321.

               [34] Bailey, Peasant, 14.

               [35] Ibid., 13.

               [36] Ibid., 18.

               [37] Blomberg, Interpreting, 317.

               [38] Blomberg, Jesus, 410ff.

               [39] John Paul Heil, “Parable of the Unforgiving Forgiven Servant in Matthew 18.21-35,” in Matthew’s Parables,  (Washington, D.C.:  The Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1998), 96.

               [40] Blomberg, Jesus, 47.

               [41] Bernard Brandon Scott, “The King’s Accounting:  Matthew 18:23-34,”  Journal of Biblical Literature 104 S (1985):  342.

               [42] Heil,  “Servant,” 120.

               [43] Blomberg, Interpreting, 293.

               [44] Scott, “ Accounting,”  429.

               [45] Warren Carter, “Resisting and Imitating the Empire:  Imperial Paradigms in Two Matthean Parables,” Interpretation 56 no. 3 Jl (2002):  262ff.

               [46] Heil,  “Servant,” 116.

               [47] Carter, “Resisting,” 262.

               [48] Heil, “Servant,” 121.

               [49] Leland Ryken, How to Read the Bible as Literature,.(Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 1984), 143ff.

               [50] Bailey, Peasant, 11.

               [51] Kurt Aland, ed., Synopsis of the Four Gospels, (New York:  American Bible Society, 1982), 347.

               [52] Young, Jewish Parables, 197.

               [53] Hendrickx, Parables, 151.

               [54] Ibid., 152.

               [55] Ibid., 154.

               [56] Ibid., 155.

               [57] Snodgrass,  “Parable,” 599.

               [58] Hendricks, Parables, 157ff.

               [59] Linneman, Parables, 40.

               [60] Young, Jewish Parables, 198.

               [61] Blomberg, Jesus, 233.

               [62] Ibid., 384.

[63] Linneman, Parables, 39.

[64] Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son (New York:  Doubleday, 1992), 70ff.

Editor’s Note

By which I mean, “Writer’s Backpedaling:”

Let it hereby be understood (in case you thought that, just because I have lots of early memories, it means that they are also accurate) that every Memory Monday post, but especially any “chapter” unpacking, is just my own child-memory of how any of these events went down. No one, least of all myself, is asserting that these are true down to the last detail.

For a minor example, getting screamed at in the play house in Kindergarten. Mrs C was a legitimately mean person (people outside my own head can attest to this), but considering no one in my family of origin ever raises their voice, my “yelling” threshold is much lower than most people’s.

In my world, yelling is more about this

In my world, yelling is more about this . . .

. . . than about this.

. . . than about this.

Please consider yourselves “clarified.” Or, feel free to ask me questions if none of that made sense!

Chapter Two (Part 1) – In Which I Am No Longer the Centre of the Universe

Memory Monday – O, Brother . . .
The Sun Egg - the book that did it

The Sun Egg – the book that inspired the desire to write

My brother, TheBro, was born in June in the slightly less early 70’s. I had to stay with the “Five-Guys” family (I just decided to call them that, because they had five sons–not because of the restaurant) all day while my parents were at the hospital in Tegucigalpa. I was introduced to baked beans that day. I remember this because I was unsure how to eat them and, in fear of doing it wrong, attempted to spear each bean individually with my fork. My pal Marc didn’t say anything (maybe he didn’t know how to eat them either) but his (to my mind) practically grown-up brother Saul teased me about it, thus inflicting upon me exactly what I had been trying to avoid: embarrassment. That feeling came to be the most dreaded feeling in my arsenal of emotions until I was about 35. (You’re probably not supposed to dread things in your own arsenal, but that’s the kind of girl I am, I guess.)

It was dark out when Daddy came to pick me up, and he and Mr and Mrs Five-Guys stood in the carport for a while, talking, while I danced around sing-songing, “I have a baby brother! I have a baby brother!” Everyone thought this was cute and charming but that’s only because they missed my almost-four-year-old sotto voce, “But I wish I had a baby sister . . . ”

I stopped wishing that pretty quickly, and TheBro and I ended up becoming extremely close, but brother or sister, I was suddenly no longer either the only child or the only grandchild in the family. I don’t remember having difficulty adjusting, but I do seem to recall that biting was an issue. What I mostly remember about my “baby brother” was that I thought he was adorable. (He was, too.) Also, that he made a “colossal mess.” (My mother said this at one point, and I latched onto it and said it again, using the phrase correctly, too.)

At some point we went back to the USA and at the suggestion (or urging) of my mother, I “asked Jesus in to my heart.” I didn’t really understand the point, since I already knew I loved Jesus and what was this “into my heart” business all about, and if Jesus already knew everything He would know I wanted to belong to Him so why did I have to ask Him? But I did it because Mommy said it was important and then Grandma and Grandpa M and all the aunts and uncles went crazy with delight when we got to Grandma and Grandpa’s back porch and Mommy told them what I had done, and I got superannoyed (probably embarrassed) with all the gushing attention. I was all-the-way four at this time. Back in Honduras, but also when I was four, I announced to my mother that I wanted to write stories “like Elsa Beskow.”

I started school at Academia Los Pinares (which, at the time, didn’t look anything like the photos on its website look now) when I was five. A group of Airstreamers stopped by near our bus stop. My dad and I got to go inside one of the Airstreams. Did I mention I want an Airstream? My friend Marc was in my class. I also made friends with Greg* and Pete*, who became my on-and-off, and often simultaneous, “boyfriends.” Greg and Pete both had unhappy families. Greg’s parents hated each other, I think. His mother was a chain smoker and he once told me something, entirely incomprehensible to me at the time, about his dad “acting married” with other men in a van. Greg’s family had one of the first VCR’s, though, so that was cool. Pete’s mother had died and he talked about ghosts.

Our first kindergarten teacher, Mrs Z, was wonderful, but her husband got a job transfer and took her away from us, leaving us with Mrs C. Mrs C yelled at us and, I believed, especially at me. I didn’t hold the pencil right. I got unspeakably, nervously giddy standing in front of the class to explain a drawing I had done. I was under no circumstances to hid out in the beloved playhouse at the far end of the room when everyone else went home. I understand that last one, but she really did scream at me when she found me in there. Mrs C also told our class that if we bowed our heads when we thanked God for our snacks, we were actually praying to the devil, because he was “down” and God was “up.” This worried me for quite some time–years, I think–until I told my parents about it.

Our first grade teacher, Miss Y, in contrast, was a dream. She was really nice and she taught us how to read. In Miss Y’s class I asked Jesus into my heart again, this time understanding that I was a sinner and having a slightly better grasp on why I needed to invite Him.

Second grade was fine, though my best friend at the time, Gabriela, was a year behind me, so we didn’t get to spend as much time together as I would have liked. The other girls in my class teased me for not being able to colour inside the lines. Mrs B was sometimes moody, but nothing like Mrs C, and was a competent teacher. In second grade–maybe partly because we were in a joint class with a group of third graders–Greg was shown to me to be decidedly unpopular, so I dropped him. (I’m not sure why. It certainly didn’t make me popular. And I still couldn’t colour inside the lines.) Pete was no longer at A.L.P. I had no “boyfriends,” but crushes on all the boys–in whatever way 7-year-olds have crushes. My reading skills were taking off and I read voraciously.

Just before my year in second grade ended, my parents got a call back to the US to plant a church in New England. We said goodbye and flew away . . .

* Some names have been changed . . . mostly because I don’t know what’s up with these guys these days and I’d hate for someone to figure out who they were without their knowing about it.

A Time When He Was Not: Did the Arian Controversy Really Matter?

In my continuing housecleaning efforts on this blog (i.e., dismantling the “Stories Evaluated . . . ” page), I would like to post this paper, from Seminary-the-Second-Time. It’s pretty well related to last Thursday’s post. It’s also pretty long, but evidently a lot of people researching this topic end up at my blog because of it . . . Athanasius is almost as much a reason for people to end up here as Emmylou Harris is. Who knew?

Theology Thursday

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

A Time When He Was Not: Did the Arian Controversy Really Matter?

CH501: The Church to the Reformation – Dr. Garth Rosell – Spring 2010

THE_FIRST_COUNCIL_OF_NICEAI am a member of Generation X. As far as I can tell, my generation forms the seam between modernity and post-modernity, a state of affairs which occasionally leads to ambiguity and confusion. For example, the twin ideas of orthodoxy and heterodoxy both fascinate and repel me. Like any good post-modern, I wonder how we can really know who is right. In the Patristic era, for instance, often both sides of an issue argued from the Bible. Both sides were evidently sincere. I am tempted to believe in an orthodoxy that is unknowable, and a grace which offers the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, when I read about the controversies themselves, I find myself thinking like a modern. I want the orthodox to “win.” I find myself critiquing their arguments and sometimes getting annoyed at what seems like an inadequacy in the presentation. At the beginning of my research, I anticipated a paper that would outline my sense of the futility of the entire enterprise against heterodoxy. However, the more I read on the topic, focusing in particular on Athanasius and the Arian controversy, the more convinced I become that orthodoxy is worth fighting for, even in the face of better logicians, and even when, from the perspective of the present day, it seems that the heresies have remained alongside orthodoxy after all.

This Present Heresy

The Arian controversy went live for me, although I didn’t realize it at the time, with an email from a young agnostic during turn of the year. Andrew and I used to have heated religious debates when we worked together at Starbucks. Now he was starting them up again with an email about the Trinity. Although not all of his musings ran to Arianism, he did assert the “God-ness” and the “oneness” of God the Father, saying that the Son was created later. “In a sense,” he said, “the theos is the uncreated, the being, and the logos is the created, the coming into.  John 1:1 says ‘In the beginning was the Word.’  This implies that there was the God of no beginnings, the theos, and the God of beginning, the logos.  That theos is the essence of being and logos is the essence of becoming.”[1]

Like the small-scale, backwater, post-modern Athanasius that I was about to become for a brief moment, I sent him a letter of rebuttal. This, it seems, is what the church fathers did to combat heresies when they were not holding councils about them instead. I wanted him to know that the Son and the Spirit were coeternal with the Father. But my powers of debate pale in comparison to my friend’s, and I don’t think that anything I said rang true to him. And, after all, did it really matter? The fact that any conception of the Trinity at all had found a home in his understanding seemed preferable to some of his previous philosophies, and who can really explain the Trinity anyway? I hoped Andrew would someday reach a point where he understood the Word to be necessary for salvation. At that juncture, would it really matter if he thought the Word was co-eternal with the Father or not—even if I did?

As if to confirm this idea, Robert C. Gregg and Dennis E. Groh contend in their book Early Arianism that part of the reason Arius and his philosophies caused such a storm was because they were misunderstood. The traditional interpretation of Arius and his adherents, these men argue, is of men who were primarily “cosmologians,”[2] when in reality, their main concern was soteriology. “At the center of the Arian soteriology was a redeemer, obedient to his Creator’s will, whose life of virtue modeled perfect creaturehood and hence the path of salvation for all Christians.”[3] The question is, is this soteriology enough? If my friend ultimately came to this conclusion at the end of his musings on the Trinity, could I be content to leave him to his thoughts? Should I be?

The Back Story

Basic church histories will certainly mention the Arian controversy, if for no other reason than that the first great ecumenical church council (the Council of Nicea) was called largely because of it.  Arius was a presbyter from Alexandria who created a stir by his assertions that the Son of God had not always existed eternally with God the Father. Instead, according to him, the Son was created by the Father—unique among all other creatures by virtue of having been created first and from nothing—but a creature nonetheless. As first among creatures, this Son of God was the one through whom all other creatures were made. Because of his perfect life, he was adopted into the Godhead. As Gregg and Groh put it, “ . . . central to the Arian understanding of salvation was the view that Christ attained his favor with God through the machinery of ethical advance and thus established a like goal for all true believers.”[4]

On the other hand, Bishop Alexander of Alexandria and his successor Bishop Athanasius saw these ideas as touching the very core of the Christian faith and twisting it around until it became something quite different—and quite dangerous. Athanasius, in particular, spent most of the rest of his life combating Arius, his adherents and his philosophical descendents. Sometimes Athanasius’ pronouncements met with favor; sometimes he was exiled. In fact, he ended up being exiled far more times than Arius ever was, though not from doctrinal charges,[5] and though this may in part have been because Arius gave up the game and the ghost before the battle had even properly begun.

The fight, which was to take up so much of the fourth century, began “as a local quarrel. But Arius had invoked weighty support outside Egypt, and now Alexander of Alexandria was being opposed by important bishops . . . “[6] The Emperor Constantine, who had hoped the Church could be the unifying element in his empire,[7] was distressed. He called the first major ecumenical Church council at Nicea in hopes that the bishops could come to some sort of agreement and keep the peace within his realm. At first it looked like they could. A creed, followed by some curses upon people who held to Arian doctrines, was drawn up, and almost all of the bishops signed—even the supporters of Arian theology.

Within only a few years, however, the powerful and insidious Eusebius of Nicomedia, who had co-opted the Arian cause to the neglect of its founder,[8] returned to defame his enemies[9] and argue the point once more. A chief plank in his platform was that the Greek word homousion, used in the Nicene document to describe Christ’s consubstantial relationship to the Father, could not be found anywhere in the Bible.[10]

Although Athanasius, for one, saw this argument as a conniving way of skirting the real issues,[11] there are, as any post-modern will tell you, two sides to every story, and perhaps there was something in Eusebius’ objection. In the patristic period, the Bible was “the” source of theological authority. “Terms in dispute and debate, phrases which needed explication, and even whole perspectives on soteriology were built up out of a careful examination of systematic and incidental treatments of a given topic by the scriptures. This meant that . . . scriptural justification was primary.”[12] Even if Eusebius’ motives were doubtful, Arius had been a presbyter, who had made his living teaching the laity the Scriptures. He would have been committed to thorough exegesis,[13] surely. If the conclusion of this exegesis was “that even the preexistent Christ was, and had to be, a creature, no matter how exalted were the results of his creaturehood,”[14] who has the right to begrudge a man his attempt sincerely to discern the truth?

Granted, the entire ordeal became intensely political, what with the involvement of Constantine, the power plays of Eusebius and the frequent banishments and reinstatements of Athanasius. But just because some men took things too far, was Arius himself guilty of heresy and deserving of banishment? “Far beyond the clear desire to deflate what the Arians considered to be a disastrously overinflated Christology was the desire to chronicle the savior’s creaturely characteristics for a positive soteriology which seemed to the Arians to conform better to scripture and human experience.”[15]

Men Behaving Badly

Constantine, as has already been stated, simply wanted a unified Empire at any cost. Whether or not he was a genuine Christian is, and probably forever will be, a matter of conjecture and debate,[16] but it is certain that he was no theologian. The issues at stake during the Council of Nicea and for years afterwards were clearly lost on him and on his sons, who succeeded him and variously supported different factions in the controversy based on their own political aspirations at the time. “The order of banishment against Arius and his followers, with which Constantine attempted to show his support of the decisions of the Council, established a bad precedent: thereafter, when theological argument failed, and even before making use of it, one could always make use of the resources of politics and have one’s enemy banished.”[17] Meanwhile, the Church was having its own internal political trouble alongside its doctrinal controversies, as relations between the Eastern and Western branches were becoming more and more tense. The Arians were able to play off of these tensions and build up quite a strong base of support.[18] That any kind of unbiased, accurate analysis and formulation of Christian doctrine could happen in such a climate, which looked so little like the example of the debated Christ, was unlikely.

Nor, in fact, did it happen. “The orthodox and the Arians observed the codes and conventions of polemic and were equally adept at argument by insinuation, slander by association, and the deflection and misrepresentation of opponents’ assertions.”[19] Athanasius as a young man was something of a zealot,[20] so it was not difficult for Eusebius of Nicomedia to oust him from his role as bishop. As if in retaliation, Athanasius, whether at home in Alexandria or abroad in some exile, taught and wrote scathing letters against the Arians themselves and the doctrines they promoted.

“Polemic” is not an inaccurate description of Athanasius’ diatribes against the heretics. While arguing against specific tenets, such as the creatureliness of the Son, the nature of the Father or the Arians’ objections to the term homousion, he also indulges in certain rants and insults, which sound to twenty-first century ears completely tactless and undignified. He is anti-Semitic, calling his enemies “Judaizers”—comparing them to “the Jews” who were incapable of seeing Jesus for who he was and therefore guilty of his death.[21] He taunts them that, whereas Nicene doctrine has been passed down from respected sources—even the Apostles themselves—the Arians can claim no such lineage, but only have Satan as the father of their lying claims. He calls Arius the “forerunner of the Antichrist.”[22] Over and over again he calls the Arians impious, irreligious (an “insult” which many modern and post-modern Christians would receive with pride) and insane. He even exclaims, “who but would justly hate them while possessed by such a madness?”[23] Even considering the technically conditional nature of that cry, the idea of a supposedly Christian bishop enjoining hatred against those who don’t toe the party line is unsettling. It happens all the time. It is what people like my agnostic friend expect of Christians. Is hatred and doctrinal yelling and judgment and rejection really all the Church has ever been about—has ever been “good” at? Is there anything, to use a loaded term, redeeming about it?

Once Upon a Time

From a general perspective, the answer to that question is, maybe surprisingly, a qualified “yes.” Christians nowadays cry, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” Even though that is easier said than done and the cliché often cloaks an actual hatred of the sinner in question, at face value it is a reasonable ideal that should apply to heresy as much as to anything else. The distinction between orthodoxy and heterodoxy “is inevitable if one is to speak and think about Christianity in a way that does not do violence to the fundamental Christian experience of salvation in Christ.”[24] According to both modern and post-modern sensibilities, the possibility of violence to a religious idea sounds like it is missing the point. Are we not supposed to love our neighbor? Surely that is more important than fighting over words about God. But we are to love God first, and perhaps sometimes those words mean more than we think they do.

Bishop Krumm reminds us, “It is perfectly obvious to anyone who is acquainted with a modern academic community that some limits are set to the tolerance that serious scholars can extend to a man whose views are wildly divergent from those of the overwhelming majority of his fellows. So whether the word ‘heresy’ is used or not, the kind of judgment it represents is being passed all the time in even the most liberal and enlightened intellectual circles.”[25] In other words, maybe there really are heresies. If so, maybe they really are worth fighting. Even if the vitriol expressed in the fight appears neither seemly nor Christian, maybe sometimes ideas emerge that need to be removed or dissociated from the environment in which they formed.

Evidently Athanasius thought this was the case regarding Arianism. “For what have they discovered in this heresy like to the religious Faith, that they vainly talk as if its supporters said no evil? This in truth is to call even Caiaphas a Christian, and to reckon the traitor Judas still among the Apostles, and to say that they who asked Barabbas instead of the Saviour did no evil . . . ”[26] In spite of Gregg and Groh’s charge that both Alexander and Athanasius exhibited “a tendency repeatedly encountered in orthodox argumentation to deflect or divert Arian soteriological assertions in the direction of concerns which might more precisely be called theological or cosmological in character,”[27] it is clear throughout Athanasius’ impassioned writings that he knew very well that somehow salvation itself was at stake.

Athanasius was not a philosopher or a logician like many of the Arian leaders. His arguments are not as clever theirs and occasionally he resorts to repetition and bluster. These are the things that make the modern in me cringe. I would like him to have logical, well-thought-out arguments, precisely expressed. Though the greatest theologian of his time, he was more pastoral than intellectual.[28] “His work and his theology developed in response to the needs of each moment rather than on the basis of the requirements of a system.”[29] Gregg and Groh observe that, while Athanasius accused Arius of being heretical because his ideas were not Apostolic, in fact, elements of Arius’ subordinating Christology had been present in Christian teaching from its earliest days,[30] whereas Athanasius’ doctrine of grace was “peculiarly his own.”[31] Gonzalez agrees with this assessment.[32] If this is true, and Arius was a better debater, how was it that in the final analysis, Athanasius and his doctrines won out, and how can we be sure that they should have?

Arguing whether Jesus had always existed or not—was really of the same substance as the Father or not—seems like splitting hairs. Even when I emailed Andrew, however, not knowing exactly what to say or exactly why it mattered, or where the doctrine of the eternality of Christ came from, I knew that the role of Jesus in the Godhead was of vital importance to the understanding of salvation. How could a creature just like me save me? The Arians said that no one could ever be greater than the Son, but that it was hypothetically possible for people to be his equal. But what if we weren’t? Did the Arians really think they were? If this creature-Son was good enough to get into God’s good graces—adopted into the Godhead itself—that still doesn’t mean I am. Then what? It could, perhaps, be that the created Jesus’ goodness would be enough to count for me, too, but it seems very arbitrary, and it doesn’t sound like anything I’ve understood from Scripture. And really, how many people could one mere man’s perfection really cover?

Athanasius muses that if the Son was not eternally with and from the Father, but rather a being of other substance tacked on to the Trinity, then God could conceivably be added to and subtracted from. In this case, God can be both improved and diminished. “But this is not so;” he says, “perish the thought!” Later he explains, “Such statements do not glorify and honour the Lord of all, but the reverse; for he who dishonours the Son, dishonours also the Father.”[33] He clearly would not have agreed with Gregg and Groh that Arius was simply trying his best to exegete correctly and give everyone their proper due. Both Arius and Athanasius use the terms Word and Wisdom to denote the Son, but Athanasius contends that to say that the Son had a beginning and then was adopted into the Godhead is to imply, among other things, that God was once without word or wisdom.[34] Athanasius sees God’s word and wisdom as that which flows out from him like the living water of a fountain, which is sometimes used to describe God in the Bible. If God were once without word or wisdom, then surely he used to be a desert, and word and wisdom came to him from an external source. Athanasius finds this not only repellently sacrilegious, but baffling, as, I confess, do I. The water, Athanasius argues, is inherent to the fountain, just as the Father and Son are, and always were, one.[35]

The Arians liked to use the word “Ingenerate” to describe God. Athanasius, perhaps ironically, takes them to task for using a word stolen (inaccurately) from Greek philosophy and not found in Scripture.[36] Although Athanasius uses the term himself on occasion, he accuses the Arians of using it so as to avoid using the term “Father,” which naturally implies a Son.[37] This changing of names and terms and definitions is a hallmark of heresies, and Athanasius implies that calling God the “Ingenerate” depersonalizes him and changes his relationship with creation. “For He has bid us be baptised, not in the name of the Ingenerate and generate, not into the name of the Uncreate and creature, but into the name of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; for with such an initiation we also are made sons verily, and, while using the name of the Father, we acknowledge from that name, the Word in the Father.”[38]

Divine revelation, Krumm points out, is not mechanical—it is always a personal disclosure of the “heart and purposes of God.”[39] Heresies can swing to the opposite end of the spectrum, such that God becomes a “buddy” who averts his eyes from misbehavior. “Personal revelation” can be turned into a manipulation tactic. In the case of the controversy with Arius, however, Athanasius seems to have picked up on this important distinction between the impersonal and the personal God, though he did not use those words to describe it.

The Arians believed that the creation of the Son was necessary for our own creation. Apart from the logical difficulties, which Athanasius points out ad absurdum, regarding the mediation needed to create the Son if he was a necessary mediator to the rest of creation,[40] it makes God looks distant and uninvolved. “It is impious to suppose that He disdained, as if a humble task, Himself to form the creatures which came into being after the Son, for there is no pride in that God, who goes down with Jacob into Egypt, and for Abraham’s sake corrects Abimelech in behalf of Sara, and speaks face to face with Moses, who was but a man, and descends upon Mount Sinai, and by His secret grace fights for the people against Amalec.”[41] Athanasius knows the Scripture as more than a formula. He knows the stories, and that the stories are about people, and that the God of the Bible—the eternally coexistent Triune God—was directly involved with them.

How, Athanasius wants to know, can the rest of humanity be considered the Father’s sons along with the Son, if the Son is a creature, too? According to the sort of creature the Arians say the Son is, he was necessary in order for us to be created, and we take our substance from him. But in that case we share substance with him only, and not with the Father, since the Arians are bound and determined to express the difference between the Son and the Father. In that case, Athanasius quips, we should be called the Son’s sons, and not sons of the Father.[42]

Or how, he also wonders, can anyone speak of God creating his Only Begotten Son? On a human level, he points out, a man conceives a son from his substance, and a man builds a house, but you don’t say that the house bears the man’s image, nor do you try to assert that the son was made by, and not a part of, his father.[43] Certainly the Son was created—but only his humanity, not his substance.[44] He was necessarily always and forever divine. Once upon a time he became human as well. His entering creation from his divinity was what was necessary for our salvation, not his having been a creature from the start and pulling himself up by his bootstraps to show that the rest of us could. “And as we, by receiving the Spirit, do not lose our own proper substance, so the Lord, when made man for us, and bearing a body, was no less God; for He was not lessened by the envelopment of the body, but rather deified it and rendered it immortal.”[45]

These are the things Athanasius understands as crucial to salvation: that we become God’s children because God entered his own creation himself to remake it and draw it back to himself. In the end, the trouble with Arianism, as with so many heresies, was that it gave humans too much credit, and didn’t give God enough. Athanasius knew that God could have just spoken to lift the curse. It was something implied by the Arian idea that Christ was humanity’s (un-unique) representative before God, instead of God himself bringing his own nature into humanity.[46] But if God had just waved away the consequences of sin, grace would still be external to us and not a part of us as it has become from Christ’s sharing our nature. Most likely we would have sinned again, so the cycle would have had to repeat for all eternity.[47]

God has come to us instead of waiting and demanding that we come to him. He has entered our reality and saved us himself, instead of sending a proxy. He has become personally involved. “He was not first man and then became God, but He was God and then became man, and that in order to make us gods. Otherwise, if only when He became man, He was called Son and God, yet before He became man, God called the ancient people sons . . . it is plain that He is called Son and God later than they.”[48] Something about the Arian time-line is definitely inconsistent if the Son becomes a part of time. It is difficult to see how a finite Christ’s righteousness and title could really have any bearing on the generations before him, let alone the ones after. On the other hand, an always-existent, divine Christ can cover all of humanity, having infused it, past and future, with his own perfect nature.

“For of this was man’s nature in want, because of the degradation of the flesh and of death. Since then the Word, being the Image of the Father and immortal, took the form of a servant, and as man underwent for us death in His own flesh . . . therefore also, as man, He is said because of us and for us to be highly exalted, that as by His death we all died in Christ, so again in Christ Himself we might be highly exalted, being raised from the dead and ascending into heaven . . . “[49]


In the end, I’m still uncomfortable with bishops calling their flock to hate heretics. I know that heretics don’t always change, and that they can know Scripture better than some Christians and still not be open to the influence of the Holy Spirit to explain those Scriptures to their hearts. Athanasius himself observes, “ . . . but I cannot hope that those restless spirits will give up their opposition now any more than then. They will doubtless run about in search of other pretences, and of others again after those.”[50] But the grace—the real grace—which God has offered us through Jesus, His Only Begotten, consubstantial Son, is too amazing and too important to keep silent about. I know I can’t change his mind, but I’m not content for Andrew—and many others like him—to remain in his own heresy. To that end, I will pray that the divine nature enters his own to remake it, and I will, as the opportunity arises, keep writing letters about Jesus, the coeternal Son of God.


Sources Consulted

Athanasius of Alexandria “Against Arius: Discourse 1,” in Select Treatises of St. Athanasius in Controversy with the Arians trans. John Henry Newman. 6th ed. vol. 1. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1895. 155-220.

Athanasius of Alexandria, “Athanasius,” in The Early Christian Fathers: A selection from the writings of the Fathers from St. Clement of Rome to St. Athanasius. ed. and trans. Henry Bettenson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956. 274-299.

Athanasius of Alexandria, “Epistle of Athanasius,” in Select Treatises of St. Athanasius in Controversy with the Arians. trans. John Henry Newman. 6th ed. vol. 1. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1895. 10-55.

Chadwick, Henry. The Early Church: The story of emergent Christianity from the apostolic age to the foundation of the Church of Rome. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1967.

Gregg, Robert C. and Dennis E. Groh. Early Arianism: A View of Salvation. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981.

Gonzalez, Justo L. A History of Christian Thought, rev. ed. vol. 1. From the Beginnings to the Council of Chalcedon. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1970.

Krumm, John M. Modern Heresies. Greenwich, CT: The Seabury Press, Incorporated, 1961.

N****, Andrew. Personal correspondence. Email. 3 January 2010.


[1] Andrew N****, personal correspondence, email, 3 January 2010.

[2] Robert C. Gregg and Dennis E. Groh, Early Arianism: A View of Salvation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), ix.

[3] Ibid., x.

[4] Ibid., 117.

[5] Henry Chadwick, The Early Church: The story of emergent Christianity from the apostolic age to the foundation of the Church of Rome (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1967), 135.

[6] Ibid., 129.

[7] Justo L. Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought, rev. ed., vol. 1, From the Beginnings to the Council of Chalcedon (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1970), 266.

[8] Chadwick, 136.

[9] Ibid., 134.

[10] Athanasius of Alexandria, “Epistle of Athanasius,” in Select Treatises of St. Athanasius in Controversy with the Arians, trans. John Henry Newman, 6th ed., vol. 1 (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1895), 11.

[11] Ibid., 14.

[12] Gregg and Groh, 8.

[13] Ibid., 3.

[14] Ibid., 2.

[15] Ibid., 12.

[16] Chadwick, 128.

[17] Gonzalez, 273.

[18] Chadwick, 133.

[19] Gregg and Groh, 45.

[20] Chadwick, 134.

[21] Athanasius, “Epistle,” 12-13.

[22] Athanasius of Alexandria, “Against Arius: Discourse 1,” in Select Treatises of St. Athanasius in Controversy with the Arians, trans. John Henry Newman, 6th ed., vol. 1 (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1895), 162.

[23] Athanasius, “Discourse,” 208.

[24] John M. Krumm, Modern Heresies (Greenwich, CT: The Seabury Press, Incorporated, 1961), v.

[25] Ibid., 5.

[26] Athanasius, “Discourse,” 156.

[27] Gregg and Groh, 64.

[28] Gonzalez, 291.

[29] Ibid., 292.

[30] Gregg and Groh, 43.

[31] Ibid., 182.

[32] Gonzalez, 295-296.

[33] Athanasius, “Discourse,” 177.

[34] Athanasius, “Discourse,” 213.

[35] Athanasius, “Discourse,” 178.

[36] Athanasius, “Epistle,” 49-50.

[37] Athanasius, “Epistle,” 52-53.

[38] Athanasius, “Epistle,” 53-54.

[39] Krumm, 56-57.

[40] Athanasius, “Discourse,” 195-196.

[41] Athanasius, “Epistle,” 21.

[42] Athanasius, “Discourse,” 172.

[43] Athanasius, “Epistle,” 51.

[44] Athanasius, “Epistle,” 29.

[45] Athanasius, “Epistle,” 30.

[46] Gregg and Groh, 29-30.

[47] Athanasius of Alexandria, “Athanasius,” in The Early Christian Fathers: A selection from the writings of the Fathers from St. Clement of Rome to St. Athanasius, ed. and trans. Henry Bettenson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956), 293.

[48] Athanasius, “Discourse,” 217.

[49] Athanasius, “Discourse,” 220.

[50] Athanasius, “Epistle,” 54.

Alas for the Glory

I wrote this paper for an Old Testament class in Seminary-the-First-Time. It’s a paper, but it’s also a story . . .

Wordy Wednesday

Denver Seminary

Alas for the Glory

I Samuel 1-4Dramatic Monologue by Jennifer Anne Grosser, 16 April 2003

OT512 – The Kingdom of Israel and Her Prophets

The death of 'Eli

The death of ‘Eli

They say she sang at her son’s birth—a song about kings and the humble ones exalted.  A song about the glory of Adonai.  She named her son “Sh’mu’el,” that son she got from Adonai.  No wonder the song.  At my son’s birth I do not sing.  I cannot cry, even.  I say nothing but “I-Khavod,” for the glory has departed from Isra’el.  They think this is the name I give my son.  No matter.  What use a son now?  I did not ask for this son.  Even if I live beyond this moment, I will not see him grow up.

But I would have liked to see that Sh’mu’el grow up.  I had Achituv, a son already, before the glory went away.  But before Achituv, the woman brought Sh’mu’el just weaned, and I saw this was a different kind of child.  He was for Adonai, like not much else in Shiloh.  He even slept before the ark of God.  Special things were meant to happen through this child.  All the same, he would come to me and let me be something like a mother to him, and I loved him.

I loved him, and I loved ‘Eli, that silly fat man, the priest my father-in-law.  I think ‘Eli didn’t mean the harm he did.  I think I didn’t mean mine, either.  We simply sat and ate what we were given when my husband and brother-in-law came home.  Choice meat.  Rich, flavorful juices oozing from it, to run down hands and arms.  I had very little to do in preparing it, so I licked my fingers and smiled and pretended I was happy.  ‘Eli smiled and maybe really was happy.  Neither of us was strong enough to do anything else.

I had thought once that marrying a priest would be the greatest glory a woman could know.  What greater honor than to marry a man who served Adonai and Adonai’s people in the mysteries of the sacrifices?  The priest I married was Pinchas, named after the man who turned Adonai’s anger away from Isra’el when they had been whoring with the Moabites and worshiping their idols.  But my Pinchas was not that great Pinchas.  He was rather the opposite.  I have found no glory in being his wife.  I had two sons by him.  Many other women had many more by him as well.  I think I ate the sacrifices for a comfort.  I think I wanted to believe I deserved something good from Adonai, in exchange for this miserable husband.  Now, like my people, I have I-Khavod, and this is what I deserve.

A prophecy came to ‘Eli from a man of God.  Adonai was angry, the man said.  He had chosen our family to serve before him, and why did ‘Eli honor his sons more than Adonai, disrespecting the sacrifices, growing fat on them?  A prophecy came to ‘Eli through Sh’mu’el, too—poor boy, threatened into speaking by the man who would not discipline his own sons.  ‘Eli had spoken to his sons once.  Now, to Sh’mu’el, he said, “It is Adonai; let him do what seems good to him.”

But can this have seemed good to him?  Our people—Adonai’s people—went out to fight the P’lishtim—the idol-worshipers.  We were defeated and I knew why.  My husband.  His brother.  All of us who keep silent because we are the true idol-worshipers.  We worship the sacrifices and our bellies.  We do not know Adonai.  But I could scarcely have thought what would happen next.

“Why has Adonai defeated us today before the P’lishtim?” asked the elders of my people.  “Let’s bring the ark for the covenant of Adonai from Shiloh to us, so that he will come among us and save us from our enemies.”  My husband and his brother brought the ark and marched with it straight toward the P’lishtim, and all this time I have sat here with my baby inside, silent, waiting.  All this time, ‘Eli has sat, blind now, by the gate, silent, waiting.  Pinchas would die.  His brother would die.  We knew the prophecies.  But what of the ark of God?

Then this evening—was it this evening?—there was a commotion by the gate.  I made to go out, but someone rushed in, instead:  ‘Eli dead in the gate of shock, Pinchas and Hofni dead, the ark of God—captured?  I have never felt pain like this—crushing and searing at the same time.  It squeezed out my breath, so that although I would have liked to wail, I could not.  The pain was not the baby.  But the baby came as I bent under the pain, under the weight.

I have been silent, all these years.  I have said nothing as I ate the meat, nursing my hurt, ignoring the glory of Isra’el—and now the glory of Isra’el has gone into exile, because the ark of God has been captured.  Now I die from a child who will not live to be old:  I-Khavod—where is the glory?  We have treated Adonai as an idol, and now he behaves as one—he does nothing, as his throne is carried to the cities of idol-worshipers, and the priest’s family disappears, without glory, for the glory is gone.  Could Adonai not save himself?  Does his power wane when we forget him?  Or is it that he would not save himself for a people who treated him falsely?

“’Look!’” Sh’mu’el had said, brave and trembling before ‘Eli, speaking the words Adonai himself had spoken to him.  “I am going to do something in Isra’el that will make both ears of everyone who hears about it tingle.  On that day, I will do against ‘Eli everything I have said with regard to his family, from beginning to end.’”  My ears ring with the silence.

But they say she sang at his birth, and I cannot quite forget that—a song that Adonai kills and makes alive; he brings down to the grave, and he brings up.  Adonai makes poor, and he makes rich; he humbles, and he exalts.  I-Khavod is born and I cannot even cry, for we are humbled by Adonai.  But there is still Sh’mu’el.  He is not of our blood, and he was always a special child, with a song above his head.  Maybe—it may just be that, after ‘Eli’s family is gone, Adonai will rouse himself in power again, and allow his glory to return to Isra’el.  I will be silent now, and wait.


Boogaart, Thomas A.  “Narrative Theology in the Story of the Capture of the Ark,” Reformed Review 41, Winter 1988: 139-146.

Brueggemann, Walter.  Ichabod Toward Home:  The Journey of God’s Glory.  Grand Rapids, MI:  William. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2002:  1-23.

Carroll Rodas, Daniel M.  “1 and 2 Samuel,” class lecture.  Denver:  Denver Seminary, 2003.

McCarter, P.Kyle, Jr.  The Anchor Bible—I Samuel:  A New Translation with Introduction, Notes, and Commentary.  Garden City, NY:  Doubleday & Co, 1980:  49-116.

Stern, David H.  “1 Samuel 1-4, 14,” The Complete Jewish Bible.  Clarksville, MD:  Jewish New Testament Publications, Inc., 1998:  298-303, 311-313.

I Wonder If Any Celebrities Are Thinking About Me Right Now

The Tuesday Reblog

This guy always makes me LOL. No, really.

The Good Greatsby

The other day I was watching the special features on a DVD of the TV show How I Met Your Mother, and each member of the cast commented on how the other cast members had begun to feel like a family. And I wondered how this made those celebrities’ real families feel.

And I wonder how a celebrity feels when his real family is interviewed on the news, and his parents say, “From the time he was little it never felt like he was really part of the family. We always sensed he was destined to be part of a celebrity family someday. Everyone always said he was destined for great things, and this always surprised us because we just didn’t see anything special. Still don’t.”

And I wonder how a celebrity feels when his real brother asks him for real money to invest in a fake business.  And I…

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Chapter 1 – In Which I Am Born and Almost Immediately Go International

Not really a book chapter, but some of the “filling” of the first life chapter:

Memory Monday

dummy-92579_640I was born in the early 1970’s, the first grandchild for both sets of grandparents, all four of whom were still living–and not even that old yet, really. My life was peopled with them, my parents, and my aunts and uncles, most of whom were still single at the time. My dad was an associate pastor (or something) at a Baptist church in Connecticut. I remember the living room of our house, and the P’s (a family with 8 children who were friends with my parents). My earliest memory is at 8 months old, going to hear a Korean girls’ choir at a church. (I’m not sure it was the church where my dad worked.) I don’t remember the singing–just the faces. I’ve long thought it significant that my first memory is a cross-cultural one.

At age two, I went with my parents first to Costa Rica (I think) where they attended language school, and ultimately to Honduras. I remember snippets of deputation (where my parents traveled to churches that would sponsor them, to let them know what work they meant to do in Honduras) before our departure, too, like visiting different nurseries (crêches, for those of you across the Pond) in different churches. To this day I dislike visiting unknown churches–especially on vacation. According to my mother, at this time I called the car “home.” To this day I do like the idea of acquiring an Airstream or a Volkswagen camper van and living nomadically in it.

I developed a pacifier and a “Blankie” dependency. My parents broke the pacifier one for me in language school. They just let my pacifier get totally disgusting and misshapen and wouldn’t replace it, and eventually it was so uncomfortable in my mouth that I stopped using it. This was a mildly traumatic process for me, so I remember that, too. I don’t remember at what age I gave up the Blankie, so I must have been readier for it.

In Costa Rica, we had a maid named Estebana. She was really lovely. My parents couldn’t decide whether they should leave me home with Estebana while they went to classes, or send me to preschool instead. They decided I needed socialisation (which was probably true), so they opted for preschool. Given my life’s patterns (I adjust well when I’m good and ready, but not at all when I’m not), I think this might have been a well-intentioned mistake. At only two years old, I was clearly the youngest child in the preschool. I was spoiled by Doña Carmen and ignored by all the children. Other memories from this preschool include:

  1. Falling down a flight of stairs and getting my face all scraped up.
  2. Easter eggs.
  3. Seeing a boy’s . . . boy parts . . . for the first time–in the context of all the children being crammed into one bathroom at once for some reason. I thought his “apparatus” looked very practical (a much better way to pee than how I had to do it), and I was really irritated afterwards when my parents told me I couldn’t have one. (Hello, Freud.)
  4. Conflict over nose-picking.

When we moved to Honduras, I was put in another preschool, since Estebana couldn’t immigrate with us. I was just slightly older, which was an improvement. However, the kids were (as I recall) bullies, the teachers were mean, and I was more miserable there than at the previous place. I did make one friend there: Stephanie. Also, once they gave us real live chicks to take home. A cat got mine. (It might not have been an accident.) Other memories of this school include:

  1. A visit by a clown, which terrifed me.
  2. A visit by an accordionist, which terrified me.
  3. Not being able to figure out how to skip.
  4. Dinora and I had the same Holly Hobbie lunchbox, but mine was in better shape. One day she tried to take mine home. When I “confronted” her about it (possibly not very tactfully–after all, I was only three or four), she bit my arm hard enough to leave toothmarks for a while. (A few years ago I learned that she’s been doing Christian youth work or something like that in Latin America. So, you never can tell, I guess . . . )
Definitely worth my left arm.

Definitely worth my left arm.

The most important (and constant, and safest) people in my life were my parents. They taught me to love books and to love Jesus, and I felt loved by and special to them, too. The rest of the world was scary, though, and I was full of fear. I wonder if that’s why I refused to learn Spanish–because it represented the unfamiliar world of unfamiliar people who didn’t like me and separated me from my parents. I’m still pondering that one . . .

Who were your “safe people” when you were a little child? What made you afraid?

Getting It Right

This is a post I wrote for my old blog, back when I was in seminary the second time and taking a church history class. I am currently in seminary for the third time and taking a Christology class which, it turns out, is in many ways quite similar–and I found myself thinking similar thoughts this time around as well.

Theology Thursday

Getting It Right

I recently read if Athanasius hadn't been so consistent and persistent in his pursuit of the truth, Christianity wouldn't have survived. I feel that God will preserve what He wants to preserve, but on the other hand, maybe this kind of attempts to unravel God ARE important . . .

I recently read if Athanasius hadn’t been so consistent and persistent in his pursuit of the truth, Christianity wouldn’t have survived. I feel that God will preserve what He wants to preserve, but on the other hand, maybe these kinds of attempts to unravel God ARE important . . .

I’m sort of studying for my church history mid-term, only I think I’ve kind of forgotten how, and also? I’m not anywhere near as Type-A as I was in high school and college. (Maybe I was never really Type-A, but I was definitely very driven by grades.)

I’m hoping writing this post will help me get my head around some things and will, in a sense, be a way of studying. (At least, it makes a good excuse, doesn’t it?) I feel like I’m still stuck on heresies.

I don’t really have a problem with the idea that there is orthodox belief and heterodox belief. Unlike most postmoderns, I do believe that there is a Truth, that ultimately that Truth is Jesus Christ and affects the whole universe. I believe that you can be living more in line with the Truth, or less in line with it. But, like any good postmodern, I guess I’m not always sure I understand how we know it. I guess what I’m struggling with is not so much that the church leadership in the third and fourth centuries needed to create creeds and formulas by which to evaluate faith and life. I agree that they needed to decide on a Biblical canon, and I feel that their choices of books to go into the New Testament were right, and the things that were left out were left out for good reason.

I’m just kind of wrestling with the whole process of how they got there. My professor says (in his CD lectures–I’ve never actually met the guy) that, for example, in the case of the Biblical canon, the Holy Spirit, having inspired the canonical books, infused them with a certain authority, and that “canonisation is a recognition of what has already taken place.” I think this is true, but how did they know it had already taken place? How did they know that Athanasius’ list of 27 New Testament books was correct, and Marcion’s edited Matthew, Luke and 10 letters of Paul were not? (The fact that he edited them himself might have been an indicator, I suppose, but still–I’m just saying.)

Or how about this? Arius, a presbyter in Alexandria, started teaching that “there was a time when the Son was not”–that is, that the “Son” part of the Godhead had had a beginning, and that Jesus was this dude that God put His Spirit on and basically adopted into the Godhead, but who had not existed eternally like the Father. Athanasius said this was bunk, and that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit were co-eternal. Over the course of the Council of Nicea and the Council of Constantinople (dudes–I can even tell you the years of those!), Athanasius’ view was vindicated and Arius’ was defeated, but what the lectures didn’t tell me and the textbook did was that they went back and forth on these issues a few times, with both Arius and Athanasius being condemned and exiled multiple times (although I think Arius died first and got condemned posthumously a couple of times, too).

Or what about the Council of Ephesus? I’m not even talking about the Robber Synod that came on its heels. I’m talking about how the Antiochene bishops got to the council late and the Alexandrian bishops (and presumably any others–if there were any others) met already and decided that they (the Alexandrians) were in the right in their views on the dual nature of Christ and the title of Mary. The Antiochene bishops were understandably upset, so they came up with this compromise called the “Symbol of Union” which sort of agreed more with the Antiochenes about Christ’s dual nature, and sort of agreed with the Alexandrians about Mary’s title. You can decide these things via a compromise? What if they compromised on the wrong parts? When told of the issues before being told of the results of the council, I frankly thought the Alexandrians were more correct about the nature of Christ and the Antiochenes were more correct about the title of Mary. What if I’m right and Pope Leo or whomever, was wrong?

Or what if I’m wrong? How wrong do I have to be before I am considered a heretic? If I love Jesus and trust Him to get me to the Father and to have died for my sins and forgiven me and to be gradually transforming me more into His likeness, do I still have to fully understand how He is both fully divine and fully human, or how God is One and a Trinity, or whether the Spirit proceeds from just the Father or both the Father and the Son? What does that even mean?

I feel like there’s heresy all over the place, still, today, and often I recognise it when I see it, but I don’t always. I don’t think anybody does always. How much of our salvation depends on our recognising it? Especially if our salvation is dependent on grace and not works? I think it all does come back to the work of the Holy Spirit. I think He does confirm what He has already accomplished or established. But so many people claim to be speaking for the Holy Spirit. How do you really know the difference?

Chapters and Hinges

Memory Monday

So I’m taking this Spiritual Formation class and over the course of the term we’re supposed to be journaling our lives in order to come up with a “Life Map” or a “Spiritual Autobiography.” We start by identifying “hinges” in our lives: events where life took a turn for the different. Next we journal about the period of time between each of the hinges, trying to discern what was really going on underneath everything that was going on then–who was important in our lives at that time, what our frame of mind and frame of reference was, “where” God was in the events of the period. It’s proving to be pretty interesting . . . and time consuming.

Below please find, for your consideration, my list of hinges and some life “chapter” titles under which the hinges are incorporated. In upcoming weeks, I’ll divulge some of the content of the chapters, although anticipate vaguer details in the more recent chapters. I still know some of the people in them, and have no interest in airing other people’s dirty laundry. Or my own, for that matter!

See? Chapters, and hinges, too.

See? Chapters, and hinges, too.

Chapter One – In Which I Am Born and Almost Immediately Go International

Hinge Event One __Birth

Chapter Two – In Which I Am No Longer the Center of the Universe (not that I have even yet figured that out, really).

Hinge Event Two __Birth of TheBro

Hinge Event Three _Move to USA

Chapter Three – In Which There Are Growing Pains

Hinge Event Four __Period (Yeah, the girl kind) (Someone told me to be sure not to mention this in my class since I am the only woman in it–which made me realise that it was, indeed, a hinge event and that mentioning it and watching the awkward squirming might be kind of funny. I’m really not a very nice person . . . )

Hinge Event Five __High School Graduation

Chapter Four – In Which Faith and Friends Become My Own

Hinge Event Six __College Graduation

Hinge Event Seven _London

Chapter Five – In Which I Undergo a Third-Life Crisis

Hinge Event Eight __Back to USA

Hinge Event Nine __2008 (A lot, by which I mean a lot of stuff happened in 2008. Technically, a year isn’t supposed to be a hinge, but this one was.)

Chapter Six – In Which Third-Life Becomes Mid-Life and Two Lives Become One

Hinge Event Ten  __My Paul & Marriage

I wonder what chapters and hinges will come after this . . . You’re probably just wondering what all those chapters are about.

And how about you? What are your life hinges? Those moments that change everything–which was your favourite? Which was the most harrowing? Tell us a story . . .