Wednesday, 24 June 2015

God our Mother: an oversight?

It has become pretty cool to consider that God the Father might have been a construct from patriarchal cultures (read antiquated). The Liturgists say: "we know all about God our Father... but to know only God the Father would be like knowing just the day-time and never the night".

I am a big fan of the Liturgists, I listen to their podcasts, I discuss their episodes with friends. They blow away the horrible religious cobwebs from your soul! But I think here they should have done a lot better, given their pedigree.

First, listen to Pink and Blue. I actually find it shocking that so many of these "maternal" attributes are considered to be maternal! Is it not paternal to look at your son or daughter and say "Son, I believe in you"? That - to me as a father - strikes me as so paternal. What it means to the child will be different whether they hear it from their mother and the father, but it is just so, so simplistic to assume that these themes they are throwing out there are so black and white. Another theme was "motherly" protection.

Second, bring us back to the Bible. Please. God does not just reveal himself as a Father through Scripture, in a direct "I am God your Father" way, not much anyway. What he does is reveal his fatherhood through his incredible relationship with his monogenes, Jesus Christ, by whom we are also adopted into the same family if we follow Jesus our Brother, His way, His stance of son. We understand God as Father in and through his unique relationship with the Messiah, right? 

So while it is not clear to me now that we need to concede the first person of the Trinity to now be the Parent, there is someone else that I feel would have to be conceded on the same level. Only half of us can really strive to be a son like Jesus is a meaningful way. Reason dictates that, obviously, but also the diversity in the early church across gender and ethnic background, requires it: that we look to the male Jesus for his stance as child before God, and not only as Son. This much is granted (and it is interesting that monogenes does also apply to only daughters, see my monogenes post). Yet the one who is physically irrefutably male, or perhaps that Trinitarians would say became male, his condition of child of God is rarely if ever examined. It probably carries with it the whiff of heretical belittling because a child is small relative to the parent, while the Son can be as big as the parent. Yet the female half of the population called to ressemble Christ as uniquely Son, and not child, might, according to the God our Mother method, be left with a lack of role model.

But what about the one Jesus called "God" and "Father"? Was Jesus so caught up in a patriarchal culture that he himself was unaware of the gender choices he was making or endorsing? Jesus can strike as very counter-cultural, capable of exchanging blows with the religious elite of his time, but was this one just out of his human perceptual capabilities? Would not the God who wants to reveal himself (or should I say, themselves, to conserve the gender neutrality) so fully to us, in and through Jesus, have allowed Jesus to grasp that they were more Parent or Mother as well as Father, rather than this whole Divine Dad thing?

I have a feeling that this throws us back, quite sweetly, to the Liturgists poor delineation we commented at the start of this post. Could it be that all the qualities that we require in a perfect parent are equally present in both the perfect father and the perfect mother, but expressed differently? I think that could be right. In which case there is nothing in the Father that is lacking, because the perfect Father lacks nothing the perfect Mother would possess, while he will express it in a male way.

Of course, the "God-bearer" Mary, Theotokos, via her own immaculate conception as required in the Catholic church (or just sinless life according to the Orthodox church), may have embodied some of these same aspirations of the God our Mother propagators in times past.

There was more in my mind on this, but the post is long enough and I am half asleep so I bid you goodnight!

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Trinities questions asked (i) and some thoughts from Novatian

I was privileged again a couple of weeks ago to have Dale Tuggy take seriously a question I raised, which he even aired and responded to in a clear, honest and concise way. If I say honest, it is because he does not attempt, as some scholars do in this matter (I am thinking particularly of Bart Ehrman), to have a full explanation that fully explains precisely the route from A to B. Which matter am I referring to? The journey of the church to the tripersonal God. So here's the question and a link to Dale's answer (hurray you get to hear my voice, I was a bit nervous!).

Thanks for your latest posts, really interesting. I look forward very much to hearing more on Clarke. In the meantime, I would like to hassle you a little more on the 325-381 development that you see from homoousios to tripersonal God, as you saw on the comment I left. I even wonder if you feel you are close to identifying the semantic stepping stones (as others have attempted, but rarely in any kind of satisfying way I feel) that take take us all the way through from New Testament to Chalcedon. I sense you might be (or maybe you already have somewhere?).

The reason why I wrote this question back in March was that it had dawned on me for the first time, although this podcast and other sources had already hinted at this, that to say that "God is triune" and "the Son is homoousios [consubstantial, of the same stuff] with the Father" are not synonymous expressions. I love the fact that we can be honest and concede that we are not in a position today to fully grasp what got the church to the "tipping point" as Dale puts it. He refers to a possibility that draws from the notion of Divine Simplicity, but is unsure.

* * *

I then responded on the show notes comments section with the following:

in answering my question about the semantic steps, Dale mentioned that second and third century theologians were sometimes cross-examined about the way in which they called Jesus theos - did that not mean that they worshipped more than one God? The response centred around the uniqueness of the Father, the ultimate, One, True (...) God. Can someone provide some examples of such cross-examinations, if they have them ready to hand? It would be helpful for me to see this distinction played out when it really mattered.

Strangely enough, although no-one has yet answered this favour, I have stumbled over an excellent example from Novatian. Here it is (an excerpt, actually, from the paper I am always harping on about):

Father and corresponding “He” occurrences are in orange and the Son’s “He” occurrences in purple, and there is certainly no mixing.

… but He is of the Father, because He is begotten, whether as being the Word, whether as being the Power, or as being the Wisdom, or as being the Light, or as being the Son; and whatever of these He is, in that He is not from any other source, as we have already said before, than from the Father, owing His origin to His Father, He could not make a disagreement in the divinity by the number of two Gods, since He gathered His beginning by being born of Him who is one God.[1]

Novatian here mentions something absolutely foundational to understanding how trinitarianism might have evolved (and he is only 60 years away from the first Ecumenical Council of Nicaea). In any other religious world-view, the fact that there is more than one divine entity is not an issue, you simply add the “s” to “god”. But that is not something that the Christian faith could allow at any fundamental level – and yet the budding church had to work out some kind of solution based on their scriptures and distinctive faith. What Novatian pinpoints here is a crucial difference between other world-views of multiple gods, and the Christian God and his beloved only begotten Son – those polytheistic traditions have gods of independent origins. Jesus, however, whom the Christians worship and call “god” or "God" can do so because his origin was in the One God who has “no beginning”; he drew the logos out of himself, thus giving him the “matter” of which he is eternally and granting him divine status without multiplying the gods.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Key notions defined series: 14. Translation

Having completed my main review of the New Testament (and some Old Testament) texts, cataloguing almost 500 passages, I am "celebrating" that milestone by publishing a part of the paper that helps me in the weighing of these texts, which is currently entitled Chapter 2: Key Notions Defined. It is also an opportunity for me to tidy up these definitions. Here is the next one:


Translation is interpretation. If you already speak two languages then you already know this, since there are so many words that you have already seen cannot be systematically translated the same way, that require context absolutely, etc. However, it can be, as Anthony Buzzard correctly notes, a most subtle type of interpretation. Gordon Fee concurs: “it is sufficient to point out how the fact of translation in itself has already involved one in the task of interpretation.”[1] 

Buzzard mentions its subtlety during a discussion of the significance of Jesus being worshipped[2]. Imagine the following, slightly exaggerated, example: every time God is worshipped (in Greek, Proskuneo), we get “worship”, every time Jesus is worshipped, we get “worship”, every time a superior human other than Jesus is worshipped (in Greek, still Proskuneo), we get “bowed down”, “prostrated”, etc. That would be a very subtle form of bias that begins before we even start to look at the text, expressing an underlying theological commitment on the part of the translator(s) of which most lay readers of the Scriptures have no awareness. 

Fortunately, I think we can say that translators working in teams, even when they might share some overarching theological perspectives, are steadily removing some of these theological biases that have been historically present in the translations we and our predecessors have been reading[3].

Next Key Notion post: Trinity, trinities and Fourth Century Trinitarianism

[1] Fee & Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Creative Print & Design, Ebbw Vale), p. 15
[3] See my post here, based on two particular improvements to the NIV in Hebrews and Titus:

Monday, 15 June 2015

Key notions defined series: 13. Textual criticism

Having completed my main review of the New Testament (and some Old Testament) texts, cataloguing almost 500 passages, I am "celebrating" that milestone by publishing a part of the paper that helps me in the weighing of these texts, which is currently entitled Chapter 2: Key Notions Defined. It is also an opportunity for me to tidy up these definitions. Here is the next one, this time with footnotes (I have no idea why sometimes Blogger includes and excludes them):

Textual Criticism

This is essentially the study – I would even say a science – of establishing the most likely original text written by the author via the painstaking examination of masses of manuscript data. Its necessity flows from the following two facts:
  • We have no originals manuscripts
  • The copies we have all differ

In fact, the extant Greek manuscripts alone currently number close to 6000, and most evangelical or conservative scholars are not troubled by the large number of differences (I will not scare the reader with the agreed approximate number), as the vast majority of these are considered to be of no importance. However, there are passages where textual variants affect meaning, and some of these also concern the scriptural justification of Fourth Century Trinitarianism. Furthermore, these kinds of variants are no longer considered by textual critics to be all accidental.

For example, does John 1:18 say “the only begotten God”, “only begotten God”, “the only begotten Son”, “only begotten Son of God”, or “the only begotten”? In total there are no less than thirteen different variants depending on the manuscript you are looking at[1]. This verse clearly got up several copyists noses! Copyists are not machines – they are believers, followers of Christ, as Philip M. Miller is careful to note as he references to the late “giant” of textual criticism, Bruce Metzger:

“Metzger, while wrestling with the difficulties alterations raised in his Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, likewise noted the suppression of doctrinally difficult words, and secondary improvements ‘introduced from a sense of reverence for the person of Jesus’[2] [3].

This seemingly technical section will become relevant when we treat one passage in Chapter 7.

[1] P.M. Miller, Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament: Manuscript, Patristic and Apocryphal Evidence, p. 73 lists the manuscripts concerned. The most attested source (which of course does not necessarily mean the original) is “the only begotten son
[2] Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994), 200, note on John 11.33
[3] P.M. Miller, Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament: Manuscript, Patristic and Apocryphal Evidence, p. 64

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Key notions defined series: 12. Sola Scriptura

Having completed my main review of the New Testament (and some Old Testament) texts, cataloguing almost 500 passages, I am "celebrating" that milestone by publishing a part of the paper that helps me in the weighing of these texts, which is currently entitled Chapter 2: Key Notions Defined. It is also an opportunity for me to tidy up these definitions. Here is the next one, minus a few footnotes:

Sola Scriptura

The original title of this paper was Nicene Trinitarian Interpretations Against Sola Scriptura Constraints – I changed that because I felt it portrayed too blank-and-white a picture of the issues at hand. Sola Scriptura as a notion, however, remains a pillar in my thinking and draws me toward the Protestant tradition afresh, for it powerfully draws us back to the text and tries to say: “only you are authoritative”. Of course in practice that is a lot harder to do, as “the plain meaning of the text” is usually (if not always) coloured by the interpretations we have received about those texts from others. Those “others”, for believers, are faith-communities and authorities to whom they belong, and with whom it is often not straight forward to disagree or even reflect “plainly”. Nonetheless, it was used by the reformists to make that symbolic separation between what is tradition and the canon of Scripture of itself.

What I did not know, was, like with my modern understanding of monotheism, that my current-day understanding of the Protestants’ “rallying cry” of Sola Scriptura had undergone development and change from its earlier usage . Through their “rallying cry”, the reformists were challenging the Catholic Church over the authority base of the Bible; it is not the case, they said, that the Scriptures plus the Catholic (Pope-blessed) teaching together make God’s plumb-line. However, this expression Sola Scriptura can be found centuries earlier in a very entirely different context. A 12th Century-born Oxonian theologian named Robert Grosseteste seems to provide one of the earliest references to the sola scriptura principle – it would seem at some point between 1230 and his death in 1254. Grosseteste beautifully states:

 ‘The Scripture alone (sola scriptura) so inscribing the mind, elevates the person beyond himself and all the way to God, calling that person to unite with God, he creates one spirit, and causes that person to live in divine manner… Scripture is the only text that illuminates the mind, and forms the will, whereas all other texts at the disposal of the theologian darken the mind and deform the will’. 

For some of these lesser-known medieval theologians like Grosseteste, who no doubt were preparing the way for the later protests against the Catholic Church’s grip, there was something unique to the Scriptures themselves, not just in terms of the intellectual, factual or theological knowledge that could be drawn from them, but also in the way in which they bring spiritual transformation to Christians, elevating them, uniting them with God, illuminating them and shaping their will (presumably to align will and action). Perhaps we should study these theologians more!

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Key notions defined series: 11. Mystery

Having completed my main review of the New Testament (and some Old Testament) texts, cataloguing almost 500 passages, I am "celebrating" that milestone by publishing a part of the paper that helps me in the weighing of these texts, which is currently entitled Chapter 2: Key Notions Defined. It is also an opportunity for me to tidy up these definitions. Here is the next one:


Things can be defined as a mystery OR mysterious. But what is the difference? If something is described as A mystery, then there is something fundamentally ungraspable at its very core, a bit like an endless work-in-progress because nobody can really agree on what this mystery actually IS at its very heart. Even if people consistently acknowledge some phenomenon that is worthy of acknowledging and probing, they shift between imprecise language and depend on inadequate analogy. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity or the two natures of Christ might qualify very well.
If something, however, is to be described as merely mysterious, then mystery may not be at the very core of the phenomenon described.

Jimmy needs to get a flight to Detroit. He has the precise fare needed for a bus and a train to the airport. If Jimmy misses the last bus that would get him on time for the last train to the airport that would enable him to catch his flight to Detroit, then – according to this definition – it would be more fitting to describe his on-time arrival in Detroit as mysterious than A MYSTERY. It is not an unresolvable mystery to its very core that Jimmy made his flight. We can come up with alternative scenarios that meant that Jimmy got lucky.

What does it mean to say that God is one and tri-personal? It’s a mystery! I confess it now annoys me somewhat if, when a believer’s set of interpretations no longer holds together, they just play their joker card, and declare their belief to be a “mystery”. You can’t beat that card! Even the apostle Paul plays it that way, right? So some feel they can do this with authority because of how Paul speaks of mystery.

This way of understanding mystery is mistaken because mystery, exegetically, is about God’s inclusion of the gentiles, not about irreconcilable inconsistencies or contradicting points of view. According to the definition above, gentile inclusion is actually more mysterious than A MYSTERY because we do not see this inclusion as incomprehensible to its very core.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Kids and difference

What do you do when your kid is being taught something you disagree with, and you see them buying it?

This is a big question in some cultures where there is a state religion that is taught in school, even to the point of reciting that faith's sacred texts. It goes up a notch in a couple where the religion is different between the father and the mother. Another case, although probably not as intense, is highly secularised education, such as that in France.

I think one important step is to recognise diversity as a non-threatening aspect of human existence. So, parents who believe significantly different things actually have, I believe, a parental responsibility to being patient and consistent. It is actually an opportunity to show our kids that we can live in a diverse world. Forcing them into any kind of: it's me or your father, or it's me or your mother is simply not necessary. What is very necessary indeed is for our kids to see that love does not depend on agreement on all issues, even the spiritual stuff.

So if Mum is convinced that the world is curved and Dad says it is flat, then it seems key to me that the love, respect and tolerance exceeds the need for the kid to believe something identical to either parent. In fact, if the views of the parents contradict, then forcing a kid into one camp could be harmful on the family, drawing them into an internal confusion, and horrid divided loyalties.
So our kids need us to be asking ourselves, not what should I do, so much as how should I be?
  • truthful to myself
  • respectful of my spouse
  • patient and non-pressing on a decision of allegiance.

A child is not able to separate the issue from the parent, so I think we can also definitely recommend
  • - drawing in alternative worldviews and not polarising to one or another.
  • - showing that there is openness to "crossover " 
  • - that the two views may not be just polar opposites but located differently along a spectrum of beliefs. Other examples will probably be useful at this point.