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Trinitarian Thoughts

I recently had lunch with a friend who has always impressed me with his knowledge of the Bible. Though I must admit – as I have also told him more than once – the Bible for him is mostly the letters of Paul. Nevertheless, with Paul as his anchor and guide he has in the past managed to delve deeply into the truths of the Christian revelation.

He shocked me, however, in this my latest encounter with him. He has come to a new understanding of the Christian message that excludes faith in Trinity or the divinity of Christ. So he is basically an Arian; and he did indeed refer to Arius and other ‘heretics’ of the first centuries as the heroes of the faith that he reveres.

To be truthful, I found myself agreeing with much of his exegesis that he used to support his new understanding. I also have sometimes questioned the dogmatic definitions of God as Trinity; they are too confident! But instead of denying the Trinity I prefer to resort to the apophatic approach that was very dear to those very same fathers of the church in the fourth century that established the doctrines of the Trinity.

Icon of the “Hospitality of Abraham” at the entrance of Holy Trinity Church, Portland, Maine (Click to further enlarge)

The apophatic approach is the way of negation, which provides a defence against taking our doctrines as complete representations of God. So I have always seen the Trinity as a metaphor, an approximation in human terms of the ineffable. It should come as no surprise that the Orthodox tradition, though rich in iconographic representations, does not allow a literal icon of the Trinity. Though ‘icons’ of two men and a dove to represent Father, Son and Holy Spirit have crept in, in imitation of western paintings, the Orthodox tradition allows only one icon of the Trinity – and it is not even called an icon of the Trinity. That’s because it is not an icon of the Trinity. It is a representation of the scene in Genesis 18, where three men receive hospitality from Abraham and Sara. And thus the icon is called The Hospitality of Abraham. One such icon sits at the entrance to our church building in Portland, as our church is named Holy Trinity.

The text in Genesis 18 opens with the statement, “The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre,” and then immediately goes on to say, “Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby.” So these three men were the Holy Trinity out for a walk in the desert? Highly unlikely. Were they angels, messengers and representatives of the Most High God? Probably – and the three figures are indeed shown with angelic wings in the icon. But they are also shown with definite identifiers of trinitarian ontology. The figure in the middle gives it away. The halo around his head has a cross inscribed within the circle and three Greek letters, ὁ ὢν. The cross and these three letters are inscribed within the halo in every icon of Jesus Christ. The reference of the cross is obvious, while the three letters form part of the self-identification of Jesus in Revelation 1:8 and Revelation 22:13. The next thing to notice is that the middle and third figures both incline their heads and bodies toward the first figure. Now we can complete our identification: The first figure on the left represents the Father, the middle figure is the Son, and the third figure is the Spirit. Both the Son and the Spirit receive their being from the Father, which is why they both incline toward the first figure. But these identifications are only meant figuratively. This is not a literal icon of the Trinity. It simply takes Genesis 18 at face value and interprets the three men who appeared to Abraham and Sara as somehow representing the three persons of the Trinity. But the iconographic tradition adds ontological symmetry and the dynamic of movement within the symmetry. A fairly sophisticated slice of trinitarian theology is found in this scene of a hospitality in the desert. Let’s leave it at that.

The church fought for the establishment of icons because they added a mystical dimension to theology that mere words and conciliar decisions could not fully express. Icons are genuine expressions of faith. They remind us of the centrality of the incarnation and the human extension of God. My friend now chooses to see Jesus as only a man. He rejects all statements of “the death of God” or “the crucified God” – anything that connects the Cross of Golgotha to God in the flesh. In this manner my friend is saying the Cross has nothing to do with God’s being, since there is no Father-Son relationship. The Cross is thus reduced to a mere instrument for the expiation of our sins. An entire dimension of Biblical teaching is completely lost in such a reductionist revision of Christian truth.

Paul’s letters are the cipher upon which forensic theologies are built. Yet, even Paul sometimes touched on something deeper. Consider that great passage in Philippians 2:5-11.

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (ESV, English Standard Version)

There is nothing about an expiatory death here. Of course elsewhere Paul did define the expiatory significance of the death of Christ. But here in Philippians, the entire dynamic of pre-existence-incarnation-death-glorification is expressed solely in the context of Christ’s relationship to God the Father and the exalted status of Jesus Christ as Lord. One doesn’t have to be a trinitarian to see that there is something more than a man dying on a cross here.

I respect my friend and I have always valued his approach to Bible study. But I fail to see how his commitment to the forensic significance of Christ’s death survives the reduction of Jesus to mere man. I feel the church has overreached in its dogmatic definitions. The apophatic approach was forgotten when intricately detailed dogmas were articulated to describe God’s inner essence and the interpersonal relationships of the three persons of the Trinity. Way overboard, in my opinion. Gregory Palamas in the 14th century attempted a less presumptuous approach to knowing God, but he too ended up inventing a new language of essence and energies that led to new confusion and neo-gnostic monastic practices. But I cannot join my friend in his rejection of the Trinity. The Trinity is at the core of everything that Christianity is about. But it is much more than any dogmas can define. I prefer to meditate on our icon of the Trinity than spend much time trying to understand the Nicene Creed.


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The Mystical Power of Prepositions

I was about to start writing a commentary on today’s verse, Psalm 139:9-10, when I looked at my weekly email from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks that had arrived yesterday but which I hadn’t read yet. You can read it on his website. It is a very eloquent and profoundly theological statement, and in it he quotes this section of Psalm 139. Let me quote a large segment of what he wrote:

We tend to forget how profound the concept of a synagogue was. Professor M. Stern has written that “in establishing the synagogue, Judaism created one of the greatest revolutions in the history of religion and society, for the synagogue was an entirely new environment for divine service, of a type unknown anywhere before.” It became, according to Salo Baron, the institution through which the exilic community “completely shifted the emphasis from the place of worship, the Sanctuary, to the gathering of worshippers, the congregation, assembled at any time and any place in God’s wide world.” The synagogue became Jerusalem in exile, the home of the Jewish heart. It is the ultimate expression of monotheism – that wherever we gather to turn our hearts towards heaven, there the Divine Presence can be found, for God is everywhere.

The very idea that one can build a home for God seems absurd. It was all too easy to understand the concept of sacred space in a polytheistic worldview. The gods were half-human. They had places where they could be encountered. Monotheism tore this idea up at its roots, nowhere more eloquently than in Psalm 139:

Where can I go from Your Spirit?

Where can I flee from Your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, You are there;

If I make my bed in the depths, You are there.

Hence the question asked by Israel’s wisest King, Solomon: “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain You. How much less this temple I have built!” (I Kings 8:27).

The same question is posed in the name of God by one of Israel’s greatest prophets, Isaiah:

Heaven is My throne,

and the earth is My footstool.

Where is the house you will build for Me?

Where will My resting place be? (Isaiah 66:1)

The very concept of making a home in finite space for an infinite presence seems a contradiction in terms. The answer, still astonishing in its profundity, is contained at the beginning of this week’s parsha: “They shall make a Sanctuary for Me, and I will dwell in them [betokham]” (Exodus 25:8). The Jewish mystics pointed out the linguistic strangeness of this sentence. It should have said, “I will dwell in it,” not “I will dwell in them.” The answer is that the Divine Presence lives not in a building but in its builders; not in a physical place but in the human heart. The Sanctuary was not a place in which the objective existence of God was somehow more concentrated than elsewhere. Rather, it was a place whose holiness had the effect of opening hearts to the One worshipped there. God exists everywhere, but not everywhere do we feel the presence of God in the same way. The essence of “the holy” is that it is a place where we set aside all human devices and desires and enter a domain wholly set aside for God.

Every time I read something by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks I find something that enlarges my understanding of God’s profound ways. This week’s post is one of the best. What he wrote here is very much to the point of what I wanted to say today about the verse from Psalm 139 and that psalm as a whole. But what really caught my attention is the rabbi’s quote of Exodus 25:8. Rabbi Sacks is one of the most respected exponents of the Hebrew language of the Bible. In quoting Exodus 25:8, he prefers the interpretation offered by the Jewish mystics rather than the conventional interpretation and translation that is almost universal.

Look at any translation of the Bible and you’ll find the Exodus verse translated something like this: “Have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them.” Or, “that I may dwell in their midst.” I’m certainly no Hebrew scholar and I would never argue with a master of the Hebrew language such as Rabbi Sacks, but clearly there is a choice in how to translate the preposition בְּ in the word betokham on which Rabbi Sacks bases his comment. Indeed, the preposition can be interpreted as meaning “in, at, among, upon, in the midst…” So the reader of the Hebrew text has to make the choice between God ordering a sanctuary so he could dwell among his people, or in his people – or the more unusual choice the Rabbi includes, “in it.” Wow, that’s an amazing range of choices, all coming from how one interprets the preposition and deciding whether it’s pointing to “them” or “it”. The choice made by all transactions, “among them” sounds like the logical choice. But Rabbi Sacks and the mystics prefer “in them” as the meaning. I like his discussion, and I like his and the mystics’ choice, “in them.”

The ancient Greek translation of the scriptures, what we call the Septuagint, offers this rendering: καὶ ποιήσεις μοι ἁγίασμα, καὶ ὀφθήσομαι ἐν ὑμῖν. The choice in the Greek version is the same. The preposition ἐν can mean “in, among, in the midst of” – the same range of choices as the corresponding Hebrew preposition! The only difference is that the Hebrew says “in [or among] them” while the Greek says “in [or among] you” and “you” is in the plural, ὑμῖν. But it gets even more interesting when we move beyond the Hebrew scriptures.

As a reader of the Greek New Testament I am drawn to Luke 17:21, which reads in the original language: ἰδοὺ γὰρ ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ ἐντὸς ὑμῶν ἐστιν. What is interesting is that most modern English translations render this as, “for the kingdom of God is among you” or, “in your midst.” But older translations, including the King James version, translate “for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” Why such a decision in the modern translations? Are modern translations allergic to any kind of spiritual or mystical sense? Does everything have to be external for the modern mind? The fact of the matter is that the preposition ἐντὸς is far more specific than ἐν – it means “inside, within”, not “among”! If you look at the biggest and most reputable dictionary of ancient Greek, the Liddell and Scott Greek-English Lexicon, you find only one meaning: “inside, within” and the opposite is listed as ἐκτός, meaning “outside”. And yet, when you look at lexicons of New Testament Greek, the meaning of “among” crops up. Why? The only other place in the New Testament where this preposition occurs is in Matthew 23:26 – “First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.” Note the Greek text: καθάρισον πρῶτον τὸ ἐντὸς τοῦ ποτηρίου, ἵνα γένηται καὶ τὸ ἐκτὸς αὐτοῦ καθαρόν. Note the contrast between τὸ ἐντὸς, the inside, and τὸ ἐκτὸς, the outside.

So I ask myself again. Why these maneuvers with language? The Hebrew text of Exodus 25:8 does seem to imply the usual translation, “among them” or “in the midst of them,” though Rabbi Sacks and Jewish mystics make a strong support for “in them.” The Greek text of Exodus 25:8 is more open to the other translation – at least linguistically. But the Greek text of Luke 17:21 is definitely something else. The preposition ἐντὸς has only one meaning in classical Greek. Why should it take a new meaning in the New Testament – and in that one instance of Luke 17:21, when in the only other occurrence in the New Testament, Matthew 23:26, it clearly means “inside, within”? What gives translators of the Bible the freedom to come up with a new definition? Especially when the new definition changes the meaning of a Bible verse completely?

As I said, this was meant to be a reflection on the verse of the day, Psalm 139:9-10, when I was sidetracked by the Rabbi’s article. But the issues he raises are very much pertinent to anything I would say about Psalm 139. The question in Psalm 139 that prompts the answer in the highlighted verse is: “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?” The answer, of course, is nowhere. God is everywhere and he knows us inside out: O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar…. For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made…. Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”

There is power in prepositions – even mystical power – and prepositions can make all the difference in how we read a biblical text. Careless reading and translation of biblical texts should not be accepted, especially when they’re also wedded to a particular world view. The Bible touches both the inside and the outside of our existence. Let’s not limit the Bible’s reach. Psalm 139 tells us that God knows us inside and out and everywhere. The word of scripture is like a double-edged sword, “piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). So yes, God commanded the construction of the tabernacle in Exodus, not because he needs a place to stay, but as a visible reminder that God lives in his people; and the kingdom of God is in us, inside us!


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The Word in Hebrew and Greek

What a towering statement, a highpoint of biblical theology, a pinnacle of human understanding and spirituality. Thousands of years of human search for truth and for God, culminated in this statement by the Gospel writer John. The Word, the Logos was in the beginning – was, which means did not come into being at the beginning or some time before the beginning; but already was, in an indefinite past tense of the verb εἰμί, ‘to be’. This indefinite past tense is called the ‘imperfect’ in grammars – indicating no specific time, but a continuing state. And of course how could the Logos be anything other than always existing, since, as John tells us, ‘the Word was God.”

The noun λόγος, logos, is one of the most important gifts of ancient Greece, especially to philosophy and religion. But the religious weight of ‘word’ is not only derived from ancient Greek philosophers, but also from the Hebrew scriptures. The noun דָּבָר (dā·ḇār) is especially important in the form דְּבַר יהוה, dā·ḇār yhwh, “the word of the Lord.” It was by ‘word’ that God created the universe in the beginning of the scriptures, Genesis chapter one. So ‘word’ in the Genesis context can also mean ‘command’.

It is an open question whether John had more of the Greek background or the Hebrew background in mind. My own assumption has always been that John’s poetic inspiration in chapter 1 of his Gospel came from both the Hebrew and Greek usages of logos/dā·ḇār. How could it be otherwise? How could any single language ever do justice to the profound acts and revelation of God? So John borrowed from the two most important languages of the ancient world. That may sound chauvinistic, but let’s face it, what other languages have had the influence on human existence and history that these two languages have had? Yes, ancient Chinese produced extraordinary philosophical concepts independent of the Mediterranean cultures. But it is only in recent decades that Chinese philosophy became widely known and influential outside of eastern Asia – and that is happening at a time when eastern Asian cultures themselves are increasingly embracing western philosophies and cultural and religious concepts! The same can be said of the civilizations of the Hindus valley. And closer to home, Latin thought and language was so derivative of Greek that it doesn’t warrant much attention on its own. So it is not chauvinistic to assign such prime importance to the two languages that formed the Christian mind of John the Evangelist.

Another reason why John borrowed from both linguistic frameworks is that the Hebrew and Greek minds were very different but complementary for the purposes of what John needed to express: the Greek mind more contemplative, given to discourse and rational exploration; the Hebrew mind more earthy, more concerned with action. And the different minds are perfectly expressed in the noun ‘word’. The lexical definition of the Greek logos involves English words and concepts like the following: “word, saying, command, speech, conversation, report, story, law, proportion, explanation, argument, debate, reason, opinion, reflection, esteem, account, reckoning….” The philosopher Heraclitus (about 500 BC) was the first to give philosophical weight to logos. For him it meant the universal law, and thus the rationalism of the universe and the relationships among objects including the relationships among human beings. In later Greek philosophy logos also came to mean method of argument and discourse, so it came to refer primarily to the interactions of human beings in community. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis concludes the development of the Greek concept of logos this way:

Heraclitus’s general universal law and the Sophists’ individual oratorical ability are the extremes beyond which one cannot go within the frame of ref. provided by the understanding of λόγος that characterized the class. period. A fundamentally new orientation of thought, namely, the thesis that ethics is the basic problem faced by humanity, was provided by the Stoics, who confronted the Gk. starting-point of knowledge with the formulation of their question: How must I live in order to be able to be happy? Nevertheless, here too the complex of ideas from which the answer is worked out is denoted as the λόγος…

A thorough intellectual organization of the world and the definition of each person’s location in it—a fundamental precondition for ethics—is undertaken on the basis of Aristotelian schematization. There are, however, certain seminal, seed-bestowing Logoi (σπερματικοὶ λόγοι) that permeate the whole world and bring about the continuity of all growth and occurrence and thus its meaningful course. Furthermore, there is a “right reason” (ὀρθὸς λόγος) or universal law that bestows on human beings the power of knowledge and thence of moral behavior. Corresponding with the dual conceptuality of the term λόγος (thinking and saying), a distinction is made between the inner Logos (thinking) given by the God-Logos and the Logos ordained for articulation (speaking).

As you can see from the above, John the Evangelist had a huge conceptual background when he composed the opening of his Gospel. And the concept of seed-bestowing logoi (σπερματικοὶ λόγοι) briefly mentioned in the above paragraph became essential building blocks of early Christian theology, especially when the early church had to engage in dialogue with pagan philosophy. The word ‘theology’ itself is composed of two Greek words: theos (God) and logos (word, speech, concept). Thus, theology is: words about God – words, concepts!

The Hebrew mind saw ‘word’, dā·ḇār, primarily as force, action. The ‘word of the Lord’ was not a matter of discussion and speculation. It was active, sharper than a two-edged sword, as the Epistle to the Hebrews (4:12) so eloquently expressed it in the New Testament. And as God spoke through Isaiah (55:11): so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. In the Hebrew mind the ‘word’ is all about action. So God sends his word to the prophets and to other chosen individuals – and those who receive the word have no choice but to act; sometimes against their own will, as in the case of Jeremiah, who fought tooth and nail against what God was instructing him to do!

Jeremiah is indeed a classic case of the prophet being overwhelmed by the power of God’s ‘word’. Consider how the book of Jeremiah begins:

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” 
But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.”
Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

You see here the power of God’s word; as Jeremiah will speak the ‘word of God’ whole nations will be destroyed or built up! But it wasn’t easy for Jeremiah, he could not stomach pronouncing words of judgment, especially since it brought on the ridicule and violence of his listeners. So in chapter 20 Jeremiah cries out:

O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed;
you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed.
I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me.
For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, “Violence and destruction!”
For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.
If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,”
then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.

Such was the power of the word inside Jeremiah, like a fire, and he could not resist against it, even as it endangered his own life.

John took the importance that the Greeks assigned to logos and made logos the very definition of God. But that’s as far as John went in conceptual talk about logos. He brought the Greek fascination with logos to its logical (another logos word) climax by saying “the word was God.” (And let’s no forget that John gave another similarly concise description of God, when he wrote “God is love” in his First Letter.) Where can you go after that? That’s the end of Greek philosophy right there. Then the Hebrew mind takes over in John. And he continues his Gospel’s opening with these words:

All things were made through him [the Word], and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 
Here John echoes Genesis, where God created by ‘word’, spoken command. The Hebrew mind is now in control of John’s writing, and it culminates in perhaps the most radical statement of Hebrew understanding of God’s ways, in verse 14 of John’s first chapter:
And the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.
The Hebrew mind could not conceive of God becoming man. But the Hebrew mind could conceive of God’s word becoming incarnate. After all, the passages from Isaiah and Jeremiah above give us an image of God’s word present in living, active power in the world! So I don’t go for the usual assumption that John was more influenced by Greek philosophy. Certainly in introducing the term Logos he was definitely influenced by the Greek background. He was writing in Greek after all. But in my opinion the way he used logos in the first chapter of his Gospel is pure Hebraic.


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The Commandments of Theocracy

For many years evangelical and fundamentalist Christians in the United States have been fighting for the posting of the Ten Commandments in public buildings, especially courthouses, city halls and legislatures. I have always understood this as only a political move to assert the mythology of America’s Christian origins. I see it as political because there is no theological rationale for evangelical and fundamentalist Christians who claim salvation by faith alone and not by works to be so obsessed with placing the Ten Commandments on buildings. After all, they quote Saint Paul and his opposition to the law (meaning the Mosaic law, of course) every opportunity they get. They love Paul’s rejection of the Law, and yet they want to promote the heart and soul of the Mosaic Law! Go figure. But as I said, this is not a theological project; it is purely political and theocratic, the delusion of Christian nation.

The Ten Commandments have lasting value in and of themselves. They don’t need American theocrats to buttress them. They are essential building blocks of the covenants that God established with the people of Israel. But one has to question their validity outside the covenants with ancient Israel. One could accept the last six of the Ten Commandments (“words” as Exodus 20 calls them); they have some universal validity. But even among these last six commandments, there are questions that arise. What does it mean to honor father and mother? In the Mosaic Law, children are to be stoned to death if they disobey or rebel against their parents:

If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear. (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)

So along with the commandment to honor father and mother, will we also consider the punishment by death on those who don’t honor parents and who disobey their parents? After all, punishment is part of the bargain that a commandment implies.

As for adultery, of course it’s a sin. But put up this commandment in a courthouse? Are courts going to punish people who commit adultery? Moses of course said stone them to death. And how is one to define coveting, when our whole society is motivated by greed and competition?

But the real problem with the Ten Commandments lies in the first four; and I will claim that it is primarily for these first four that our evangelical and fundamentalist theocrats want to push the Ten Commandments into the public square. Let’s take the first four commandments one by one.

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” If I am a Christian, I certainly will have no other god but the Lord. But the Lord did not bring me out of Egypt – perhaps out of slavery to sin, but certainly not out of slavery in the land of Egypt. This first commandment was God’s announcement of his covenant with the people of Israel whom he had just brought out of Egypt. It has nothing to do with me. My covenant with God is not rooted in an exodus from Egypt! And what right do I have to shove this commandment in the face of people who have no connection with the biblical narrative and worship a god of their own liberation?

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” By this commandment, most Catholic and Orthodox Christians stand condemned. Regardless of how our traditions have rationalized the use of images in our churches, the evangelical and fundamentalist theocrats reject the Catholic and Orthodox use of images, so in their eyes we are transgressing against the second commandment. No wonder Orthodox and Catholics will not go up in the Rapture, right? Don’t make me throw up in your face, Mr. Evangelical Preacher!

But isn’t it ironic that the same theocrats who blast Catholic and Orthodox use of icons and statues like to start their worship services with the American National Anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag? When a conservative Evangelical or Baptist stands at attention at the start of a worship service with his or her right hand placed over his or her heart, how is that different from a Catholic or Orthodox venerating an image of Christ or the Virgin Mary? Granted the difference in theologies, I consider the veneration of flag in most Evangelical and Baptist churches a sheer example of idolatry and a clear violation of the second commandment. And finally, with respect to the second commandment: really, we are to promote the idea of God punishing the sins of parents to the third or fourth generation of children? Really, we should promote that image of God. Oh, I know, the theocrats only want to exhibit the short versions of the commandments – but that’s just dishonesty.

“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” Who can disagree with this commandment? And yet it is the most universally disobeyed of all ten commandments. So, good luck with this one.

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” I love the Sabbath, but who observes the Sabbath besides observant Jews. Do Christians? Or have we replaced the Sabbath with Sunday? Yes, that’s exactly what the Christian church did back in the early centuries of Christendom. But do Christians even observe Sunday as a replacement for the Sabbath? How many of these theocrats resist the urge to go to the Mall on Sunday afternoon? And how many of them are out there watching their kids in team sports instead of being at worship? Oh, I forgot they don’t need to be at worship on Sunday morning because they prefer to go in the evening or Wednesday night instead. Those times are more convenient and do not interfere with kids sports. So how does anyone observe or honor, not the Sabbath, but the Sabbath idea?

But let’s return to that first commandment one last time. God begins by declaring, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt…” It begins there, that is the root cause and justification for everything that follows.

Consider now Exodus 22:20“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And Exodus 23:9“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” In the same way that the first commandment begins with a reminder of Egypt, so also the commandments about how strangers and foreigners are to be treated are based on reminders of Egypt. But these commandments hardly register in the minds of flag-worshipping theocrats, because then they would have to disagree with their government’s policies toward refugees and migrants. No, their idolatry of flag and country and guns must endure! But let’s not be fooled by their pretense of honoring the word of God. In their minds and hearts these are the commandments of theocracy, nothing more or less.

 


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The True Icon

Who is Paul referring to in Colossians 1:15? Jesus Christ, of course: ὅς ἐστιν εἰκὼν τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ἀοράτου, πρωτότοκος πάσης κτίσεως. He is the icon – that’s the Greek word translated as image – of the invisible God. When we look at Jesus we see God. Not physically, for there is no physicality to God. God is spirit, Jesus told the Samaritan woman in chapter 4 of John’s Gospel. Jesus is the true icon/image of God in the sense that Jesus is everything God is. He represents God to us. He is the Word of God, the wisdom and power of God.

But an icon or image is meant to have a viewer or witness; someone to receive and see the image – just as you are receiving and seeing the image that is attached to this email. We are the witnesses, the recipients of the “image”! When we honor him, when we listen to him, when we follow him as disciples, we are recognizing that he is the image of the invisible God. God who is invisible chose to become visible to us through Jesus Christ. Can you understand the profundity of that statement? For us and for our salvation, God became visible.

Jesus is the “firstborn of all creation,” proclaims this verse. Does that mean that Jesus Christ was merely the first to be created by God? Would that mean that Jesus is none other than Adam? After all, Adam was the first man created by God, according to the archetypal language of Genesis chapters 1 & 2. And Adam and Eve were created “in the image and likeness” of God. So is Jesus Adam? It would have been very weird indeed if Paul meant anything like that. After all, he clearly differentiated between Adam and Christ in his other letters:

Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. (Romans 5:14 – the one to come is Jesus Christ, and Adam was a “type” of Christ, someone who foreshadowed Christ. Typology is a topic on its own.)

For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Corinthians 15:22)

Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. (1 Corinthians 15:45)

Clearly Paul is not equating Jesus to Adam, nor is he implying that Jesus was the first of God’s created beings. Translating πρωτότοκος as the English word “firstborn” is misleading if we don’t go on to include the remainder of what Paul wrote: for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:16-17) This is a big statement that can sustain a separate email exposition.

Not only is Jesus the one in whom everything was created (remember John 1:3?), he is also the Savior. Note how he links the theology of who Christ is to what Christ has done. It’s brilliant: He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:18-20)

Just as in yesterday’s extraordinary paragraph in Colossians 3:12-17, so also here he sees the church as the place where everything finds its purpose. In chapter 3, the church is the body of Christ, where our discipleship has its true home, and from where we learn how to go out into the world as disciples and messengers of Christ. In the chapter 1 passage, Jesus Christ’s works of creation, re-creation and reconciliation (which is another word for cosmic salvation) all find their culmination and focus in the church.

The church is all-important to Christ’s work. The church is the home of God’s purposes to save the world and bring us to glory. Is the church important to you? If yes, then how is it important to you? And how do you express that importance in your life and your participation in the life of the church? 


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Matters of Language

At last Sunday’s Matins I was shocked by the language in the Doxastikon of the Praises. The text refers to the Resurrection Gospel that was read earlier in the Matins service and which described the encounter of Mary Magdalene with the resurrected Jesus. Here is a translation of the Doxastikon:

Verily, the fervid tears of Mary were not shed in vain; for behold she was found worthy to learn from the angels, and to look at your face, O Jesus. But since she was a weak woman she was still thinking of earthly things. Therefore, she was turned away from touching you, O Christ. But she was sent to proclaim to your Disciples, and to tell them the glad tidings of your ascent to the heavenly heritage. With her, therefore, make us worthy of your appearance, O Lord. 

So Mary Magdalene was “a weak woman”, γυνὴ ἀσθενής? Maybe in the mind of the anonymous monk who composed this hymn, but certainly not in the Gospels, where the women, including Mary Magdalene, were the only disciples who stayed with Jesus to the end; except for John, who was the only male disciple at Golgotha.

In Christian traditional language, women are rarely more than weak; after all, they are descendants of Eve, who led Adam to sin by her own weakness in the face of the serpent’s temptation. Even men who know nothing about the Bible or theology – and don’t care to know anything – do not hesitate to blame Eve and women in general for everything that they don’t like. It’s only a short hop from the Doxastikon last Sunday to the hatred of women that we see in our society today.

When women are not “weak” in the medieval traditions of the church, they are sinners or prostitutes. No wonder that the only women that can become “saints” are either virgin martyrs or nuns; or repentant prostitutes who become nuns! Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza published a landmark book in 1983, In Memory of Her. The title of her book comes from the episode in Mark’s Gospel where an unnamed woman anointed Jesus. Immediately there was an uproar among the men against this act under the pretext that it was a waste of money. But Jesus’ response was memorable: “Truly I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Mark 14:9). The Greek is even more pointed: ἀμὴν δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν, ὅπου ἐὰν κηρυχθῇ τὸ εὐαγγέλιον εἰς ὅλον τὸν κόσμον, καὶ ὃ ἐποίησεν αὕτη λαληθήσεται εἰς μνημόσυνον αὐτῆς. Because of that conjunction καὶ in the middle of this sentence, I would translate it more like this: “Truly I say to you, wherever in all the world the gospel is proclaimed, this also, what she has done, will be shouted out as a memorial to her.” This act is her memorial for all eternity. But it also becomes part of the gospel, part of the good news of Jesus Christ. Because of that conjunction καὶ! For no other person, man or woman, does Jesus say such a thing. Perhaps the only other saying of Jesus that could be considered as similarly remarkable is what Jesus said to the thief on the cross.

Matthew’s Gospel has the exact same incident almost word-for-word as in Mark (see Matthew 26:6-13). There is a similar incident recounted in Luke 7:36-50, and there it is a sinful woman (presumably a prostitute or an adulteress) who anoints the feet of Jesus and receives forgiveness. But the Luke incident is clearly a different event and a different woman. There is NO similarity with the woman in Mark and Matthew. And yet much of Byzantine and medieval tradition merged both incidents into one: It’s a sinful woman who anointed Jesus!

Schüssler Fiorenza also points out something else that is deeply important and perceptive. In Luke’s narrative the woman washes the feet of Jesus and then anoints his feet with the ointment. It was normal in that society to wash the feet of a visitor; but even there the men make a big deal in Luke’s narrative because the woman was “a sinner.” How could Jesus allow a woman to wash his feet? Shocking! But the woman in Mark and Matthew pours the ointment over Jesus’ head, not his feet. Schüssler Fiorenza goes on to point out:

Since the prophet in the Old Testament anointed the head of the Jewish king, the anointing of Jesus’ head must have been understood immediately as the prophetic recognition of Jesus, the Anointed, the Messiah, the Christ. According to the tradition [accurately reflected by Mark and Matthew] it was a woman who named Jesus by and through her prophetic sign-action. It was a politically dangerous story.

Politically dangerous indeed; as in today’s political climate as well. Far from the world of “weak” women to which much of the Christian tradition has reduced women, here we have a woman who acted as a prophet in the Old Testament sense and proclaimed, by anointing his head, Jesus to be Messiah, the Anointed. Whether she was conscious of this or not, it is enough to say that God intended this woman to be the prophetess for Jesus. Just as another woman, Anna, was prophetess when she and Simeon recognized and blessed the 40-day old infant Jesus.

The language of church tradition needs a major overhaul, so we don’t resort to labels like “a weak woman” to describe one of the strongest and most remarkable persons in the life of Christ. And so we don’t turn every woman who went to Jesus into a prostitute or sinner. I’m not advocating political correctness of any sort. The label “politically correct” becomes a convenient way out for men in power. This is not about political correctness – it’s about linguistic correctness and accurate exegesis! But then that last sentence is probably beyond the vocabulary of many men in our society, including men in positions of power.

But what about Mary, the mother of Jesus, the most visible woman in the New Testament? She is the highest of all the saints in the church’s estimation. She is held as a model of purity, humility, faith and faithfulness, devotion, and everything positive that can be said about a person of faith. Surely she doesn’t need any “politically correct” help. Think again. In the most commonly used hymn devoted to her we sing these words:

More honorable than the cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim, without defilement you gave birth to God the Word. True Theotokos we magnify you.

A beautiful hymn to be sure, that properly elevates Mary beyond even the highest angels. But maybe she’s elevated too high, so she ceases to be a woman? Note how the hymn describe her birth-giving of Jesus: “without defilement” or “uncorruptedly” – αδιαφθόρως. Why is her birth-giving without defilement, without corruption? Is it a defilement to give birth? Is it corruption? Is her birth-giving “without defilement” because it was a virgin birth? So every other human birth is a defilement? Do I have to be politically correct to say that there is a problem with the anthropology behind such language? I prefer to believe that this is not the authentic language of the church! And yet there it is, in one of the most frequently sung hymns. I prefer to think it is the language of male monks. It is indeed a tragedy that once monasticism became an organ of the imperial church instead of what it was at the beginning – an act of resistance against the state church and the empire – the church allowed monks to become the primary hymn composers. And that is still the case today. And it’s a mistake, in my opinion; a weakness in our otherwise rich liturgical tradition.

A fellow church member was rejoicing that Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the US Supreme Court. He looks forward to the Supreme Court now overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that legalized abortion in the United States over 40 years ago. I told him that if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, there will be revolution and women will rise up. That’s okay, was his reply, we’ll put them right back in their place.

I don’t expect anything from politicians and Supreme Court justices. But the church listens to another teacher, the Holy Spirit. Shouldn’t we start by taking an honest look at our language and how we interpret the Bible? It would be a good start toward healing our attitude to women – and to men, for that matter.


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The Blessing of Abundance

I was struck by one phrase in the Epistle reading from 2 Corinthians 9:6-11. Τοῦτο δέ, ὁ σπείρων φειδομένως φειδομένως καὶ θερίσει, καὶ ὁ σπείρων ἐπʼ εὐλογίαις ἐπʼ εὐλογίαις καὶ θερίσει. That opening phrase, Τοῦτο δέ, is a call to attention: So now, this…this, pay attention, very important teaching about to follow. “He who sows sparingly – that is, with limits – will also reap sparingly.” Don’t think that by counting every penny, dollar, or every minute that you spend on something or someone you will achieve anything – whether love or a relationship or work to change society or helping someone in need.

How deep is your investment in someone’s life or in a principle you claim to care for? Are you counting pennies or minutes? Or are you invested abundantly, without comfortable limits? ὁ σπείρων ἐπʼ εὐλογίαις ἐπʼ εὐλογίαις καὶ θερίσει – “but he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” Wow, that’s the phrase that hit me when I read this passage in the original language. It’s the mirror image of the first half of this sentence. The verbs are the same – σπείρω (speiro) and θερίζω (therizo), and the syntax is the same. But here we have the opposite of sparingly, φειδομένως (pheidomenos). Here we have ἐπʼ εὐλογίαις (ep’ eulogiais) – translated as abundantly, the opposite of sparingly. That struck me. εὐλογία (eulogia) usually means blessing. Here it means abundantly?

I went to my lexicons for some help. We know that εὖ λέγειν in ancient Greek meant “to speak well,” either in the sense of “to speak finely” or “to speak well of someone.” But this good speech is related to deeper aspects of a person’s character and disposition. Consider this passage from Plato’s Republic, Πολιτεία, Book 3, 400d:

‘As for speaking style and language,’ I said, ‘they depend on a person’s character, don’t they?’

‘Of course.’

‘And everything else depends on speaking style?’

‘Yes.’

‘It follows, then, that good use of language, harmony, grace, and rhythm all depend on goodness of character. I’m not talking about the state which is actually stupidity, but which we gloss as goodness of character; I’m talking about when the mind really has equipped the character with moral goodness and excellence.’  (Republic, Robin Waterfield, translator, Oxford University Press)

Plato here lists εὐλογία with εὐαρμοστία (good, harmonious temper), εὐσχημοσύνη (gracefulness), εὐρυθμία (good rhythm) and culminates at εὐηθείᾳ (goodness of heart, good nature, guilelessness, simplicity, honesty), a word whose root is ἦθος, from which we get ethics, but which is also the English word ethos: the characteristic spirit of a culture, era, or community as manifested in its beliefs and aspirations; but also the characteristic spirit of a person, as well.

But notice, Plato writes εὐηθείᾳ ἀκολουθεῖ. The good ethos follows from the abundance of εὖ words. I should point out that at the end of this section in the Republic Plato lists the opposites of the εὖ words: καὶ ἡ μὲν ἀσχημοσύνη καὶ ἀρρυθμία καὶ ἀναρμοστία κακολογίας καὶ κακοηθείας ἀδελφά: “gracelessness and evil rhythm and disharmony are brothers to evil speaking and the evil ethos.” So either you have an abundance of εὖ qualities or the opposites.

ncientanswersdotorg.files.wordpress.com/2018/09/plato.png”> A modern statue of Plato graces the entrance to the University of Athens[/caption]So the

So the phrase ἐπʼ εὐλογίαις derives from this abundance of εὖ words in classical Greek. Even in modern Greek we often say, Ευλογία είναι. The garden produced an abundance of tomatoes this summer? Ευλογία είναι. I have one parishioner, a very generous parishioner, who gives so abundantly and each time tells me Ευλογία είναι. And here is where the abundance blends with the blessing. God has given abundantly to this person who then gives abundantly. It’s all a blessing, all ευλογία. But it’s abundance. God does not count the blessings he pours. He pours blessings. Some we receive, some we don’t receive – either because we’re not paying attention, or we’re too wrapped up in our negativities to catch the blessings. In two weeks we will read the Parable of the Sower and the Seed that shows us how God pours out blessings.

But notice how Paul goes on in the passage from 2 Corinthians:

Each one must do as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work.

As it is written, “He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures for ever.”

He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your resources and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for great generosity, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.

Note how it works with God’s abundance: You will be enriched in every way for great generosity, or unto great generosity – εἰς πᾶσαν ἁπλότητα – generosity without reserve, without counting pennies or minutes of your time. 

I’ve used the RSV translation here, which is still the standard translation used in our Archdiocese  The NRSV translation, which has become almost the new standard among many Christian writers and theologians because of its gender-inclusiveness (have we gone too far with political correctness?), is very wrong in how it renders the concluding sentence in the passage above. It writes: “You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity…” This rendering communicates something very different from the original text. The RSV and all other English translations understand the text correctly; the NRSV gets it wrong. Why? It implies what we today call the gospel of health and wealth; the false gospel preached in many evangelical and TV versions of Christianity. Namely, that God will enrich you if you are generous – which, of course in today’s evangelical culture usually means generous to the ministry that is preaching this message. This is blatant heresy, and I never imagined that the NRSV, which has become a favourite of liberal Christians, would communicate such a message, whether intentionally or unintentionally. The error is very simple, and it makes all the difference: There is no “your” in the Greek text. God is not going to enrich you because of your generosity. God is going to enrich you so that you will continue in generosity. Even the RSV is not totally correct. The Greek, εἰς πᾶσαν ἁπλότητα, is best translated as “to great generosity” not “for great generosity.”

Dear friends, the vision today is one of abundance. God’s abundance, our abundance – for the health of our lives, of our souls, for the goodness of our character. You don’t need the Senate or the FBI to establish your character. Start by speaking well, eulogia, and continue by thinking of your life in terms of abundance, ep’ eulogiais. Do not think in terms of lack or scarcity. Do not compare your blessings to anyone else’s. Open your heart, your soul, to see the blessings all around you.

Do not compare yourself to anyone. Then you will see that there are no enemies. The key to loving your enemy, that seemingly impossible commandment of Jesus in today’s Gospel reading, is to stop thinking in terms of enemies, that someone is better than you or stronger than you and means you harm. We are all in this together. Guide your mind – as Plato would say – and then guide the people in your life. Think in eulogiais. Every day, Ευλογία είναι. And then you will see more clearly how abundantly God has blessed you.