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Saturday, January 30, 2010

Theology for Dummies--Three

Jesus Christ

Christians believe that Jesus is both God and man. The Gospel of John describes how he existed as the eternal Word of God prior to creation, and then became flesh, dwelling among us. It is why he is spoken of as God the Son, the second person of the Trinity. To his critics, Jesus said:

Before Abraham was, I AM (John 8:58).

The grammar is as shocking in Greek as it is in English--but it is completely intentional. Jesus is claiming an identity with the one who revealed his name as "I AM" in the burning bush (Exodus 3:14). The letter to the Hebrews begins with a series of quotations from the Old Testament to describe the Son, including quotes from a Psalm that is addressed to YHWH (see Heb. 1:8,10-12; Ps. 102:25-27).

As for the humanity of Jesus, there is very little dispute over this. The second chapter of Hebrews, following on the heels of the confession of Jesus' divinity in chapter one, is an exposition of Jesus' humanity and identification with the people he came to save. The first chapter of Matthew, identifying Jesus as the heir of Abraham and David, further shows God's concern with real, historic humanity in sending the savior. Hence, Christians confess that Jesus possesses a complete divine nature and a complete human nature in one person.

Of course the humanity of Jesus includes as well his identity as the Messiah of Israel promised in texts as diverse as Isaiah 53, Psalm 2, Psalm 110, and others.

Jesus' work is also described in terms of the covenantal offices of prophet, priest, and king. As prophet, he delivers the word of God. As priest, he offers sacrifice on behalf of his people, and as a king he saves and defends his people.

These, however, shall be treated individually later.

On the Trial of Geert Wilders

Geert Wilders is a Dutch libertarian-conservative (NOT "extreme right wing" as he has been painted) on trial for criticising Islam, and hence offending a group of people.
Here is a proposed re-write of the Netherlands' national anthem:

(to be sung to the tune of "Het Wilhelmus")

The triers of Geert Wilders--
Are they of true Dutch blood?
Their fatherland in peril,
They moo and chew the cud.
William of Orange goes rolling
In his grave beneath the ground;
His feckless heirs go crawling,
Lest they be "bigots" found.

It's fine to mock at Jesus,
And to Christians be a foe.
But criticize Muhammad--
Just ask Theo van Gogh.
When the modern Duke of Alva
Comes waving crescent moons
They lick his boots in submission
Like cowardly poltroons.

"Lest we be declared bigots,
"We'll sell our children's lives
"Our country's hard-earned treasure
"to cure Bouyeri's hives.
"Theo van Gogh's murder
"Taught us nothing at all,"
These judges, whimpering and whining,
To Islam now they crawl.

When the next Duke of Alva
Comes with the crescent moon,
The triers of Geert Wilders
Will make their daughters swoon
And submit to open outrage
To prove their liberal stand,
And nod their heads approving
When thugs pillage their land.

Long live the First Amendment!

The Rousseauan and Marxist pieties of "Avatar"

Avatar is a stunningly artistic production, but offers a predictable plot in which Green Mansions meets Pochahontas meets Karl Marx. It features an injured soldier named Jake who travels to a life-supporting moon called Pandora in exchange for the surgery that will repair his crippled legs. He finds that the half-human, half-tiger Na’vi who inhabit the planet have rejected all contact with the human colonists who desire to mine the mineral “unobtanium”, which is needed for some unspecified purpose. Jake’s job is to collect information on the Na’vi, which he does by going into a deep sleep, during which his mind is fused into an artificial Na’vi avatar, hence the movie’s title. While on his mission, he falls in love with a beautiful female Na’vi, who helps him understand her culture, in which all is in harmony with nature and guided by a mother goddess, female-directed spirituality. This ultimately proves far more attractive than the harsh, mechanistic, “mother-killing”, military-industrial complex which the humans are importing to Pandora; so, in the end, Jake, aided by some other enlightened humans, goes native and helps the Na’vi run off the would-be despoilers of their extraterrestrial Eden.
The technological human civilization which has made the entire Hollywood enterprise possible is painted in the worst possible colors, in which a callous corporate suit is willing to wipe out a whole alien species in order to meet his corporation’s bottom line. He is aided by a cold-blooded military mercenary to lead the expeditions that destroy the giant tree in which the Na’vi live while killing as many as possible for the sake of the most transparently named mineral. The dialogue of the movie reveals that the humans are colonizing Pandora because “they have killed their own mother”—clearly suggesting that the story takes place in some apocalyptic future in which corporate greed has rendered Earth dying and close to uninhabitable.
In the idealized Na’vi, the noble savages of Rousseau are removed from the solitary lives which Rousseau postulated and turned into wonderfully collectivized Marxist proletarians taken one stage beyond Mao’s revolutionary peasantry into utopian hunter-gatherers. Never mind that Mao’s revolution has proven something that post-Deng China would really like to forget; that Rousseau’s noble savages never existed; and that the primitive Communism posited by Marx as the original stage of human culture conveniently ignored the way in which hunters who brought back deer certainly fared better with the females of their bands than the ones who could only bag turtles, snakes, and rats. And, never mind that tribal spiritualities often featured such wonderful things as human sacrifice and cannibalism.
Perhaps the best adjective to describe Avatar is pious. In one film, all the pieties of collectivism, radical feminism, and loopy ecologism come together. All it lacks are a group of beautiful Na'vi practicing loving and caring sodomy. However, it is almost certain to rake in a wonderful pile of money which will allow Hollywood corporate suits and deep ecologist stars to leave gigantic carbon footprints.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Theology for Dummies -- Two


Man is a worshipping being. While human concepts of God differ, most peoples understand that there is a power or being higher than themselves. While many call themselves "atheists"--people without a deity--their godlessness is invariably linked to the traditions in which they were raised, and their denial of a God or gods is the denial of whatever their wider society worships. However, these "atheists" sooner or later deify something that a Christian would call a creature, or created thing: self, money, power, the cosmos, you name it.

However, since Adam's rebellion against God described in Genesis 3, this "God-consciousness", or natural revelation, which seems hard-wired into us is insufficient to give us a full, saving knowledge of God. As Calvin observed in Book I of his _Institutes of the Christian Religion_, this natural revelation suffices only to tell us that we are lost. And since God is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable while man is finite, mortal, and conditioned, God cannot be "discoverec" by human effort. If God is to be known to us, he must reveal himself.

The Bible is the book of God's revealing of himself to men. It deals with God's choice of the family of Abraham as his vehicle of revelation and salvation, recounts the history of that family becoming a nation, and records Moses the lawgiver and the various prophetes who came to the people of Israel. It goes on to show how promises of the Messiah are fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

The Bible is both necessary and sufficient for saving knowledge of God. In times past, prophets were sent to ancient Israel from time to time. God might show miracles, too--although biblical miracles tend to cluster around the Exodus from Egypt, entry into the Land of Canaan, the ministries of Elijah and Elisha, and int the work of Jesus Christ and his apostles. However, the coming of Christ and his working salvation for us completes the work of revelation. Thus, while the Old Testament came from various God-guided men working over a span of time ranging
roughly from 1400-400 B.C. (Moses-Malachi), the New Testament was composed by Jesus' apostles and their associates within a generation.

Hence, all of our "God Talk" must ultimately be based in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. The Westminster divines meeting in London between 1645-48 spoke of how only the words of Scripture and what could be derived therefrom by "good and necessary consequence" could bind the consciences of Christians. This is the essence of Protestant Christian theologizing.

In the Roman and Eastern traditions, the traditions of the church are taken as revelation as well, for it is held that God the Holy Spirit is ever guiding his church. To this, the Protestants add that the church can and does err, and that the Holy Spirit will convince us of the words God himself has given. Scripture is therefore a check on the exuberence (sometimes sinful) of the church and a corrective. Perhaps this is why the biblically-informed Western world has long been the most actively self-critical of the world's major civilizations.

Many faiths describe themselves as "searches" for truth. Yet Christian theology is based on the premise that the truth came and found out men. More will be said later.

To be Fair...

Since I've published "Disturbing Thoughts on the Religion of Peace", it is only fair to call attention to at least one Muslim blogger who calls for more proactive anti-terrorism efforts from his co-religionists:

The blogger is an Iraqi immigrant in Canada.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Theology for Dummies: One

A young boy near and dear to me visited a famous art museum, and came away with the slightly disgusted comment, "There's nothing there but Mary and Jesus!"
Perhaps his comment is too jaundiced. Perhaps it was informed by the Puritanism of his father. Or, perhaps it was an early recognition that the art, literature, history, culture, and even politics of the Western world are somehow connected to Christian theology.
Unfortunately, this vital piece of our self-understanding is conscientiously barred from the public school curricula of the United States. In institutions of higher learning, even departments of "religious studies" are too interested in the experiential aspects of various demographics to explain the world of symbols and meanings informing so much of what went before. Even many charged with transmitting the stories and doctrines that nurtured so many centuries of Western life are often either ignorant of or subversive towards the traditions they supposedly preserve.
Hence, both Christian and non-Christian students need a resource that can explain without either confusing or misleading.
Uncle Cephas is someone who believes in putting his cards on the table, so his dear readers are hereby forewarned that he is offering what a local preacher would call a "Hi-Cal" diet--for "High in Calvinism". This is because Uncle Cephas, while not a clergyman, was well instructed in this school of thought. But, at the same time, he is aware that this tradition shares a fair amount of common ground with Lutheranism, Neo-Evangelicalism, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and other traditions which call themselves Christian.
The postings that follow will seek to inform more than persuade or defend. Countless others--the Trinity Foundation, for example--do the work of apologetics better. However, Uncle Cephas prays that the Spirit of God might nonetheless use these postings to aid his fellow believers, and perhaps show the seeker how "God Talk" is indeed the way to true and lasting peace, love, and justice.

(1) God and Christian Existence

The theological definitions offered in these postings are Christian definitions.
Obviously, being a Christian has something to do with Jesus Christ.
The First Question and Answer of the Heidelberg Catechism state:

What is your only comfort in life and death?
That I with a body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ; who with his precious blood, hath fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also sassures me of eternal life and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.

Immediately, we need to understand the following:

Jesus Christ
God the Father
Holy Spirit

Let's start with _God_.

God is a spirit, infinite,eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, holiness, justice,goodness, and truth.

Alright, I cheated. The definition is pulled from the Westminster Shorter Catechism of 1646.

Immediately, we see that the God we worship has attributes of eternality, infinity, spirituality, and unchangeableness. These are proper to God himself, and are not shared with human beings. Hence, they are called the incommunicable attributes of God. Existence, knowledge, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth can and are shared with at least some of God's human creatures. Hence, these are called God's communicable attributes.

God is therefore not an elderly gentleman with a long, white beard sitting on a cloud, no matter how many waggish cartoonists have so portrayed him. R.H. M. Elwes, who says that Spinoza was the one who did away with an anthropomorphic God, is therefore dead wrong. A generation or so before Spinoza, Puritan children in the British Isles were already being taught that God is a limitless spirit--and their mentors would have cheerfully admitted that they got the idea from the Bible; specifically John 4:24 and I Kings 8:27.

When the Catechism speaks of our Saviour Jesus Christ, God the Father, and the Holy Spirit, it brings us to the Trinity. This means that God, who is one in his being, is nonetheless a composite unity of three persons (centers of consciousness, knowing, and sharing), namely, the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The Heidelberg Catechism also speaks of "belonging" to Jesus Christ. Christians are a community of people centered on Jesus Christ. The name Jesus comes from the Greek form of _Joshua_, which means "Jehovah [God} saves". The name "Christ" comes from the Greek word _Christos_, which translates the Hebrew _M'shiach_. The terms mean "Anointed". Anointing was used in the Old Testament to set apart priests, prophets, and kings. Hence, theologians sometimes speak of Jesus as prophet, priest, and king over his church.

The name "Christian" means "belonging to Christ". So, there is a sense in which Christians share Jesus' anointing. They, too, are set apart. This will be covered in future posts.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Weight of Two Greek Letters and other Musings on the Biblical Text

A commonplace of anti-Christian writing apologetics holds that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are corrupted through a line of manuscript transmission and the ecclesiastical interests of those entrusted with the task. The grains of truth in this error are that the New Testament was, until the 15th century A.D., transmitted via hand-written manuscripts and that the ecclesiastical authorities of Christendom have been at times unscrupulous and power-hungry men (and now in our liberal age, unscrupulous and power-hungry women and transgendered persons have been added to the mix). Further, church history offers a sad parade of power-hungry wolves in sheep’s clothing, stupidity, and a sin identified by the Puritans as “vain credulity” (we would probably call it gullibility). Yet it does not necessarily follow that church leaders and scribes have treated the Bible text as a plaything to advance their own agendae, introducing corruption after corruption until the words of Christ and His apostles are unknowable.

Even the most virulent heretics have preferred to introduce new “Scriptures” rather than tamper with the Bible text itself—a noteworthy exception being Joseph Smith, the 19th century founder of Mormonism, whose Inspired Version contains large interpolations which are without a shred of textual support antedating Smith’s own times. In ancient times, the various Gnostic sects were prolific publishers of new Gospels, Wisdom literature, Epistles, and Acts; some of which are themselves testaments to the canonical New Testament text on which they drew liberally—and, incidentally, witnesses to the greater antiquity of the canonical writings, which would have to predate the Gnostic writings in order to be copied in them.

The New Testament itself offers a wealth of circumstantial evidence suggesting that the churches have always found it too sacred for tampering; for the biblical text speaks against the cherished practices that grew up in the churches long after the New Testament was completed and published. In fact, the purveyors of works like The DaVinci Code, Five Gospels, and other challenges to the integrity of the New Testament reveal that they are the ones dependent on ignorance, gullibility, and special pleading for dubious agendas; and that the New Testament texts remain the final and reliable witness to the person and work of Jesus Christ.

*Plurality of Bishops

Few expect church polity to have a bearing on issues of textual transmission. But perhaps it says something for those entrusted with transmitting the text either by copying the originals or producing translations when they perpetuate a witness against their own extra-biblical tradition.

Today, when most people think of a bishop, they think of a robed man with a miter on his head and crosier in hand who singly directs the affairs of all the churches in a given geographical area. There is one Roman Catholic Bishop for the Washington area; one Episcopalian bishop; one Eastern Orthodox one. For much of Christian history, something like this was indeed the case. Even at the end of the first century, the bishop and martyr Ignatius of Antioch seems to witness that his was a monarchial office, with himself presiding over the presbyters of his city of Antioch and its environs. This system is called monarchial episcopacy, and is followed by the Roman, Constantinopolitan, Anglican, Coptic, Lutheran, and other churches today.

Yet in the middle of the first century, as the church was being founded and the New Testament being written, the terms “bishop” and “presbyter” were synonyms. Leaving Ephesus, Paul speaks to the elders (presbyters) of the church as a group, and calls them “overseers” (επισκοποι=”bishops”) in Acts 20. In the letter to the Philippians, Paul also addresses a plurality of bishops in one city—a striking contrast to the practice of later Christian centuries:

Paul and Timotheus, the servants of jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons (Phil. 1:1).

However, despite this difference between the tradition of the churches and the words of the New Testament, the textual apparatus of Aland-Metzger Greek New Testament knows no variant “with the bishop (singular) and deacons”. In their Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, the same authors reject the possibility that Paul meant “fellow bishops” instead of “with the bishops” on the grounds that it destroys the grammatical sense of the verse.

During the Reformation, many Protestants, especially in the Reformed camp, appealed to Phillipians 1:1 and Acts 20 for a reform of church order which placed the churches under graded councils ranging from a local church session made up of the pastor and lay elders to presbytery (or classis) to synods, in which each member, whether lergy or lay, had an equal vote. This system became known as the Presbyterian system of church government, and was adopted by the churches of Switzerland, Geneva, the Low Countries, and Scotland. English Puritans also hoped to further reform the church government of the Anglican church along such lines. The Presbyterian or related Congregational system of church government, with a plurality of elders, is also used by most churches which conscientiously use Scripture rather than tradition as their organizational model.

The Puritans hoped that when James VI of Scotland became James I of England on the death of Elizabeth in 1603, he would carry the practice of Scotland to his southern realm. Their hopes were disappointed when the king declared at the Hampton Court Conference that “A Scotch presbytery as well agreeth with monarchy as God with the devil,” and “I will harry you out of the land.” The result was several generations of conflict for British Protestants and a migration of Puritans to the New World.

Yet the Bible translation which the same King James commissioned, which was produced by a group of scholars loyal to the monarchial episcopacy of the Anglican Church, made no changes in Acts 20 and Philippians One. Even more strikingly, the Roman Catholic translation made at Rheims also has Paul writing to several bishops in the single city of Philippi. Yet in those same years, the Reformed actively contended against the monarchial episcopacy that both Rome and Canterbury supported; and surely could have been at least partly silenced among the common people had the Anglican and Roman translators either forged a textual variant to support their own position or falsified the text in translation. However, the plain light of history and the texts they published show that they did neither.

Why did church authorities fail to alter Scripture when it was plainly in their best interest to do so? The conclusion is that they were far more scrupulous and honest about the sacred text itself—regardless of how they might have interpreted it—than the secular scoffer allows.

*Paul’s rebuke of Cephas

The Roman Catholic church is a favorite target of many secularist writers, the most recent and notorious of whom is Dan Brown in The DaVinci Code. The premise is that the hierarchy of the Roman Church and its “control” over the New Testament canon has hidden the “truth” that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married, and started a long lineage.

The willingness of the Roman church to “cook” miracles and canonize unhistorical saints is well known. Statues of the “weeping virgin” are made using air pressure, a hollowed head of a statue, and pinpricks in the eyes to simulate tears. The Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s was famous for throwing out a vast catalogue of saints, relics, and supposed miracles that had no basis in historical fact. Overnight, faithful Catholics who had prayed to St. Christopher for protection during journeys discovered that their patron was only a medieval legend.

But the modern radical secularists target not only things which Christians—including many Roman Catholics—have jettisoned through a process of reflection and study. The claim is made that not only were the Medieval Donation of Constantine and other documents forged (a discovery established by the painstaking literary, and orthodox Christian, scholarship of Lorenzo de Valla back in the 15th century), but that the New Testament itself is a forgery designed to support the claims of an epsicopal hierarchy. It is said that throughout the Middle Ages, Popes and their lackeys ensured that the Scriptures would include nothing embarrassing to papal claims.

Yet in the Vulgate Latin version of the New Testament, declared as the canonical, official version of Western Catholicism by no less authority than the Council of Trent, the letter to the Galatians 2:11-16) still has Paul rebuking Peter (called Cephas in both the Greek and Latin versions, after Keipha, the Aramaic word for a stone), the supposed first Pope, for refusing table fellowship with Gentiles. Not even the Protestant reformers’ use of this passage to support their doctrine of justification by faith—which the Council of Trent had anathematized—could persuade the unscrupulous Roman Catholic hierarchy to alter the text of their official Bible. The common reader who knows no Latin may consult the Rheims New Testament or other accepted Roman Catholic translation.

Yes, the Roman hierarchy can and does find ways to make merchandise of gullible lay people. However, in its treatment of the biblical text, it has certainly failed to make alterations that would be far more beneficial to its cause than the book that emerges from its own copyists and presses.

*The Siblings of Christ

Early in the Christian centuries, many Christians came to believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary, mother of Jesus. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 made Mary’s perpetual virginity an article of faith accepted by both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox believers. The early promulgators of this doctrine doubtlessly reasoned that a womb that had once borne God Incarnate would be degraded to carry any other child.

Yet the New Testament again testifies against large and powerful churches—even in the versions that those churches read!

Matthew 1:25 says that Joseph “Knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son, and he called his name JESUS.” This quotation, from the King James Version, reflects the reading found in both the Greek original and the Latin Vulgate. The Roman Catholic translations offer no competing translation.

Mark 6:3 names Jesus as the brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon. Even the Latin Vulgate, accepted and unchanged by Rome, uses the common term for brother, or frater (the root of our English words fraternal and fraternity).

Usually, thanks to the pervasive influence of Roman Catholicism in modern American religious life, discussion of Jesus’ siblings is presented with strained “Aha!” and “Gotcha!” tones in public television documentaries and popular writing. Yet biblically informed Protestants do not find mention of Jesus’ siblings detracting from Jesus' virgin birth, sinless character, and unique union of a fully divine nature with a fully human one in one person. But if the Roman and Constantinopolitan churches which put so great a stress on Mary's virginity will not alter the New Testament text that causes them embarrassment even when they held a near-monopoly on the transmission of the New Testament text, it is unlikely that they altered much else.

*Mary’s Confession of her need for a Saviour

The sinlessness of Mary, including her freedom from original sin, is another dogma of Rome. It was promulgated in the 19th century as the immaculate conception of Mary. Yet again, the Roman Catholic version of the Magnificat, Mary’s Song of Praise in Luke 1:46-55, retains her confession of a need for a saviour. Again, let the libraries of polemics between Romanists and Protestants over whether Mary is sinless or not testify that the text had been free of tampering.

*What of King James?

We may now withdraw from Roman Catholic ground and examine claims commonly made about the King James Bible, long the official Bible of English-speaking Protestantism.

Simple unbelievers and purveyors of new translations "know" that there are bold interpolations on the part of the Jacobean translators at the end of Mark, in the Johannine Comma (I John 5:7), and other places. It is charged that King James' translation team knew less Hebrew and Greek than translators of today. Sometimes a political question may be raised about the choice of David’s “league” with the elders of Israel in II Samuel 5:3—especially at a time when the English word “covenant”, the more common translation of the Hebrew b’rit, had taken on anti-monarchial and anti-episcopalian connotations from Puritan pens (and was present in the Geneva Bible, which the Authorized Version supplanted after 1640).

Actually, the most legitimate complaints against the King James Version are two: one is that its language is that of five centuries ago; the other is one of textual base. Indeed, the latter is an argument whose veracity is hardest for the lay reader to judge, since textual criticism is a very specialized branch of scholarship. It involves the relative weights of minute variants in the manuscript evidence—none of which have a bearing on the doctrinal controversies of either the first Christian centuries or the Reformation. At points Launcelot Andrews and the team of scholars he led at the behest of James VI and I sacrificed strict fidelity to elegance of sound, for far more than most Bible translators, they considered how the Scriptures would sound when read aloud to a congregation. Yet, at the same time, they provided alternative translations of most of these passages in the marginal notes of their version.

But if the King James Version represents political, doctrinal, and ecclesiastical special pleading, what is to be made of its acceptance by Puritans after 1640, when the last edition of the Geneva Bible was printed? The Authorized Version served the polemical purposes of the revolutionary Puritans who wished to either tame the British monarchy’s claim to absolute power or abolish it altogether; and to establish Presbyterian or congregational forms of church polity to replace the episcopacy which James had supported. It even served the more radical purposes of Levellers, Ranters, and Quakers. From the mid-seventeenth century onward, it has served predestinarian polemicists no less than it has served the Arminian heirs of Archbishop William Laud of Canterbury.

Finally, if King James’ “league” in Second Samuel is suspect, his translators’ “shall be justified and shall glory” at Isaiah 45:25 is certainly closer to the Hebrew than the 20th century Revised Standard’s “shall triumph and glory”. The Authorized Version’s “propitiation” in Romans 3 and First John 2 requires less special pleading than the Revised Standard’s change to “expiation.” King James’ “generation” rather than the New American Standard’s “race” in Matthew 24 is also closer to the meaning of the Greek term used. At the end of the day, it can only be said that the King James Version is one excellent translation among several; superior to a plethora of recent translations into modern English when it comes to fidelity to the original texts, suitability for public worship, and suitability for serious study; and remains an incomparable monument of classical English prose. This should not be taken as a plea for "King James Only", but as a criticism of unwarranted criticisms leveled at the traditional English version.

*What of Alternative Gospels?

In recent years, many have seized on the recently discovered Gnostic writings to “prove” that an alternative Christianity to the kind represented by Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and traditional Protestantism has been “suppressed”. A pioneering work in this genre was Elaine Pagels’ Gnostic Gospels, which appeared in the late 1970’s; and the work of the Jesus Seminar. The presupposition is that the canonical New Testament marks a bid by bishops and their clergy to lay claim to being the heirs of the apostles against a more “free form” tradition going back to Jesus himself—a tradition which, supposedly, is recoverable from various apocryphal New Testament texts an, coincidentally, favorable to late 20th century’s feminism and new age mysticism.

This is perhaps a more sophisticated attack on the traditional New Testament text than attempts like William Hone’s _Apocryphal New Testament_ of 1820 (perennially reprinted as _The Lost Books of the Bible_) to suggest an alternative canon. Hone drew on a collection of texts which had never been truly “lost”; for works like the Letters of Clement and Epistle of Barnabas were long known and recognized as orthodox; only they were never recognized as having the same weight and importance as the known writings of the apostles. The works bearing the names of Clement and Barnabas (both mentioned in the canonical New Testament) clearly accept the traditional Gospels and Epistles as prior to their own works, and authoritative. As for the Acts of Paul and Thecla, a charming second century romance highly reflective of a creeping asceticism in the church, its author’s pleading that he wrote “in honor of Paul” got him defrocked by his fellow presbyters of Roman Asia—an incident which in itself calls into question the common assumption that early church leaders were highly superstitious and gullible men disinclined to question writings that came their way and supported their doctrines.

Today, the favored apocryphal works are those recently discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt, especially the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, which the Jesus Seminar would canonize as a “fifth Gospel”. Yet these writings, mostly in the Coptic language, again clearly post-date the New Testament. The language in which they were written, Coptic, was a development of the old Egyptian language adapted into a basically Greek alphabet to abet the propagation of Christianity; and by the time the Nag Hammadi texts were written, more than one Coptic literary dialect had arisen. The writings themselves abound with echoes of the canonical New Testament, again testifying that they postdate them. Coptic “Thomas” shows none of the interest in the historical life and work of Jesus the Messiah so present in the Four Gospels and New Testament epistles;

*Conclusion: Whose Credulity? Whose Special Pleading?

The charge that the Bible represents a strange ecclesiastical swindle of clerics out to press their own agenda against an equally ancient and “legitimate” tradition of free-form, proto-liberal Christianity depends on the ignorance and credulity of moderns. The fact that the canonical New Testament contains a number of points that challenge traditions and doctrines dear to the hierarchical churches of Christendom suggest a far greater number of scruples on the part of those hierarchical bodies had a near-monopoly on the transmission of the New Testament text.

The fierce squabbles over the interpretations of doctrines which did not appear prior to the age of print (Marxism, for example) further remind us all that texts regarded as sacred generally stand as given by their authors; and that sects and divisions arise from interpretation rather than textual transmission.


Metzger, Bruce M. 1971. A Texttual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. United Bible Societies

Scott, James M. 2003. “A Question of Identify: Is Cephas the Same Person as Peter?” Journal of Biblical Studies. 3:3:1-20.

Bible, New Testament. 1934. Novum Iesu Christi Testamentum: Vulgata Editionis Iuxta Exemplar Vaticanus. Mechliniae, M. Dessain.

The Greek New Testament (1970); New York and Stuttgart, et. al., United Bible Societies.

Reading Huldrych Zwingli

Some time ago,, I got my hands on Huldrych Zwingli's __Commentary on True and False Religion__. As a student of religion, I found it an interesting read.

Most modern American Evangelicals have scant acquaintance with Huldreich Zwingli, the fountainhead of the Swiss Reformation. While they probably know of Martin Luther as a heroic figure whose _Ninety-five Theses Against the Sale of Indulgences_ sparked the movement and of Jean Calvin as the theological genius who systematized the doctrines of the Reformation in his _Institutes of the Christian Religion_, Zwingli, if known at all, is only a vague figure.
Jean-Henri Merle d’Aubigné and other historians have noted that Zwingli rediscovered the evangelical principle in theology independently of Luther; meaning that the 16th century rediscovery of the Scriptural sources of Christianity led to similar conclusions in different parts of Europe on the part of men of differing temperaments and positions. While the difference between Luther and Zwingli over Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper may be the best known aspect of Zwingli’s thought and career, it must not overshadow other aspects of his thought and his contributions to Protestant Christendom.
Yet in many ways, Zwingli’s influence on the subsequent development of Evangelical Christianity is greater than Luther’s. Historians do not contest his position as the fountainhead of the Swiss Reformation, from which both the Reformed and Anabaptist traditions sprang. If Evangelicalism seeks to work out a Christian praxis directly informed by the Gospel rather than church tradition and to follow it through wherever the rational interpretation of Scripture leads, it is taking a Zwinglian rather than Lutheran approach. Certainly the accomplishments of the Saxon Reformation cannot be belittled; but those of the Swiss require more attention than they have been given.
A clergyman of German-speaking Switzerland, Zwingli shared both the renewed interest in Scripture that marked his time and a widespread awareness of the abuses of late medieval Roman Catholicism. Scripture, the fountainhead of the Christian faith, had opened his eyes to a picture far bleaker and harsher than that usually presented to moderns as the mood of the Renaissance. For Zwingli and the Christian humanists of his day, the indulgence sellers and pardoners familiar to us through Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales were not mere features of contemporary life or figures of fun, but parasites draining the economic life of the Christian poor to enrich the power and prestige of a few. The wealthy, sensuous, worldly popes of the renaissance were not the great patrons of the arts and colorful actors in a magnificent political drama who so intrigue people living five hundred years later, but cynical tyrants and living insults to Christian holiness.
Here, Zwingli was no different from England’s John Colet or the Netherlander Desiderius Erasmus. However, Zwingli’s education in Scripture and its original languages led him to the startling discovery that the mediator of grace is not the church and its sacramental system, but Jesus Christ himself. This is the note that would inform the rest of his career, and is the key to understanding his legacy. And it is this principle of Solo Christo that clarifies the positions Zwingli took on such characteristic doctrines as Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper and God’s workings beyond the borders of the covenanted community.
The principle that salvation is mediated only through Christ as he is known in the Scriptures is a key concept for understanding anything about the Reformation. Both Christian and secular society often present the Reformation as stressing individualism, private judgment, and egalitarianism; but this reading of the Reformation arises from liberal ideology’s unwillingness to consider theological doctrine. Having arisen on Protestant soil and accepted by many unwilling to sever their institutional connections to the Reformed type of Christianity, liberalism sought to re-read its own agenda back into the beginnings of Protestant history. Yet the Reformation primarily debated theological principles; and it was from points of theological doctrine that the Reformation’s other gifts arose—and those that have been conducive to modern liberties, rule of law, and limited government reflect the Christ-centered Gospel of the Swiss Reformation.
Zwingli's doctrine of salvation coming only through Christ is the key to both his agreements and disagreements with Luther. His doctrine of Christ's penal satisfaction for man's sin and its appropriation through faith is perhaps the greatest similarity between the Swiss and Saxon reformer. Yet it is also Zwingli's stress on "By Christ Alone" that led him not only to see in the Roman sacramental system a grave misunderstanding of the New Testament, but also to see in Luther's doctrine of consubstantiation and retention of baptismal regeneration a lack of sensitivity to both Scriptural language and Scriptural doctrine. The bread is no more the literal body of Christ than Christ, who declares himself as "the door of the sheep" in John 10 is a slab of wood with a knob and keyhole. The broken bread and poured wine, however, memorialize the efficacious sacrifice of Christ that pays for our sins.
Much is made as well of the iconoclasm of the Swiss Reformation, and its premonitions of Puritanism. This, too, reflects how Christ is known through his word rather than through man-made images. Zwingli took to heart Moses' reminder to the Israelites that on Sinai, they heard the voice of words rather than seeing an image or sismilitude (Dt. 4:15-18); and that the witness of the apostles included not a visible representation of Jesus Christ, but a written New Testament to instruct the church.
The Swiss Reformation stressed the practicality of Scripture for the same reason. If Christ is the sole mediator of grace, the power and authority of the church and its ministers is limited to guiding by what God has given in his word rather than a masterly authority that is free to add to what God has already given. A straight line connects Zwingli to his later Puritan heirs, who held that the church may not bind the consciences of men by anything save what is written in Scripture or what may be derived by good and necessary consequence from it.
Here, those raised to view the Reformed destruction of images and their elimination of holidays with horror (and that includes myself) should pause. The motivation was not a killjoy attitude to take away the "fun" elements of religion, but a zeal to protect the liberty which Christ had won for his people on the cross. Too often, moderns forget that the medieval sacramental system and its elaborate calendar were often a burden, and badly abused for the self-aggrandizement of ambitious clerics. Zwingli, however, like many of the humanists before him and reformers after him, sought to remove a fruitful source of abuse.
Thus, where Christian practicality means not the facile compromise with the world but an intelligent desire to apply biblical principle to the present, there is the spirit of Huldrych Zwingli. May he be well remembered in this new year.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The New Year

Best wishes for a happy and prosperous new year! I know that this is a bit belated, but the pressures of travel and getting back into the swing of teaching do take their toll.

Since I've been teaching about the enlightenment, and made political theory one of my sub-fields when I took my Ph.D., here are a few light pieces of doggerel on some of the shapers of the modern West.

Xanithippe her Socrates bugged,
Her curses his tender ears mugged.
She was lousy in bed
And poured piss on his head.
No wonder the poor guy died drugged!

Niccolo said it is right
For rulers to scheme and back-bite.
But this sneaky slob
Couldn't hold down his job,
And so he was forced to go write.

Hobbes said that lives brutish and short,
You know, of the quite nasty sort,
Are lives quite unfettered,
And need to be bettered
By kings, or else brought into court.

Rousseau, the great Libertarian,
Celebrated the noble barbarian.
Based on science abysmal
He thought society dismal,
And made politics contractarian.

Rousseau said that people are good,
And would say that the thugs in the 'hood
Of our great nation
Come from civilization,
And not from nature or blood.

Of Rousseau and Hobbes, it is said,
That Rousseau stood Tom Hobbes on his head.
Do folks need control
To nourish the soul?
Or is savagery better instead?

In Frace, Baron Montesquieu
Had an interesting point of view.
In the space of an hour
He divided all power.
I think it's amazing, don't you?

With great intellectual arts,
Montesquieu gave power three parts.
Parliament makes the laws,
Kings punish all flaws,
And courts interpret, for starts!

The theory of all things political
Requires minds quite analytical.
If we claim to explain
Publoic passion and pain,
Being stupid would be hypocritical!

A happy new year to all!

祝大家新年快乐! 可惜,我写的这些诗没办法翻成中文。 它描述极为有名的政治思想家,包括苏柯拉提,马恰为例,赫伯斯,卢梭,和蒙特斯乔。 Hobbes认为若没有政府与社会,人生不能长寿,并且很难过于暴动。法国的Rousseau把Hobbes颠倒了。Rousseau认为原始人生是尊贵的生命,只有文明叫我们变坏了。