Saturday, April 30, 2011

Jesus and the Israelite Scriptures

Over two years ago we concluded Messy Revelation by stating:

The old models of exegesis--coded messages that are uncovered and interpreted by exegetes using grammar, allegory, typology, etc.,--are attempts to house train God, to make his self revelation in Jesus conform to a pattern that is comfortable for men. But is it reasonable that we should expect this of God? Enns' answer, if I may extend his logic somewhat, is or should be, No. We should expect, rather, that revelation should be "somewhat messy." For the reason that reality, and above all human life, is "somewhat messy." Enns, of course, is following his Protestant (Judaizing--h/t Spengler) model of revelation, by which God "speaks to man through Scripture," but he realizes that that is not the whole story. Not by half. For, "in much the same way: he enters into our world and uses our own cultural patterns to reveal himself." Here, unfortunately, Enns is still trapped within the notion of God's self revelation in Jesus having been accomplished through a collection of books that we call the New Testament, rather than in the very personal reality of Jesus of Nazareth. For the Christian, Jesus IS revelation, and all else, including Scripture, can only be "revelation" in a secondary sense. This must be the beginning of exegesis. And as a start we must seek to determine Jesus' own understanding of how to deal with "scripture."

We are now in a position to follow up on the project we defined as central to development of a theory of revelation: What was Jesus' own understanding of “scripture?” To answer that question we will look at how Jesus made use of the Israelite scriptures. That is, we will examine how the Gospels portray Jesus' use of those scriptures when speaking in his own voice, as opposed to how the evangelists use the Israelite scriptures when reflecting on the meaning of Jesus' life, death and resurrection.

It has become something of a truism to state that the early Christian writings we now know as the New Testament reflect the “theologies” of their authors. Some would, in fact, argue that that is all we have--that it is impossible to separate out a “theology of Jesus” as distinct from that of the early Christian authors or to distinguish the original words that Jesus spoke from the theologizing of the evangelists. While we do not minimize the difficulties involved and do not claim that a completely definitive account can be given, our reading of the Gospels convinces us that the distinction between the “theologies” of Jesus and of the evangelists is both valid and significant. Moreover, we are convinced that differing approaches to the use of the Israelite scriptures lies at the heart of that distinction. Thus, this undertaking will shed light on the "original voice" of Jesus.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Israel and Revelation

What follows is the text of an email I sent some years ago.  Since it constitutes in many respects the outline of a theory of revelation it seemed appropriate to post a lightly edited version of it.

Sometimes I recommend books more for the ideas and issues that they raise than for the actual solutions that they offer. With regard to Mircea Eliade's work, I see his importance as due to his formulation of what he calls the "ontology" of archaic man (the man of "traditional" cultures), the ontology of archetypes and repetition. Of particular importance, in my view, is that he recognizes that the strand of Western thought known by the Greek term "philosophy" is, in fact, derived from this archaic ontology--as of course is the advanced thought of other cultures as well. This, I believe, provides the indispensable framework for any theoretical understanding of man in history.

Original Sin: The Later Fathers

J. N. D. Kelly resumes his discussion of original sin in Chapter XIII of Early Christian Doctrines, “Fallen Man and God's Grace.” Having dealt with the earlier Fathers, up to the 3rd Century, he now turns to the later Fathers. He once again contrasts the relative optimism of the Greek Fathers with the decidedly pessimistic Western view of man, especially the Augustinian tradition that was passed on to the Western Middle Ages. He then notes the unsettled state of opinion regarding the origin of the soul. Early Christians were in general agreement that man is composed of body and soul, but there was some disagreement on the specifics. The opinion of most of the Greek Fathers--that the soul for each individual is created by God at the moment that the body is ensouled--ultimately won the day.

That, however, was not at the time a universal opinion. We have seen that Origen—an influential figure—held that the soul pre-existed the body and was attached to a body as punishment for sins that were committed by the soul in its pre-existing state, i.e., before being “assigned” to a body. This was definitely a minority opinion, but was not formally condemned until the 6th Century. Hilary, Ambrose (d. 397) and Jerome all accepted the dominant Greek view, which was to become the orthodox view in both East and West. Pelagius (d. 420), of course, also held that view.

There was also a third view, the traducian view of Tertullian, which held that the soul of the offspring is somehow generated from the souls of the parents. Tertullian, as we have seen, held a materialist view of human nature. In the East, Kelly notes (345) that Gregory of Nyssa (d. 394) seemed to share something like Tertullian's view, for he argued (against Origen) to the effect that the soul comes into being simultaneously with the body but that “the power of God work[ed] mysteriously on the human sperm to change it into a precious living being.”

However, by far the most important figure who tended toward Tertullian's views was Augustine (d. 430). While Augustine never fully made his mind up on the matter, and while he was critical of Tertullian's materialist views, he also realized that “a spiritual version of the same theory [traducianism] fitted in best with his teaching about original sin.” (345)

Friday, April 1, 2011

Early Christian Thought on Original Sin

We have seen (in Paul and the Yetzer Ha-Ra) that in Second Temple Judaism—the period during which the Genesis Adam and Eve narrative was written—there was no sense that this narrative had to do with a “Fall” of man based on an “original" sin. Rather, the narrative was intended to express the experience of the human condition in all its frailty and imperfection. The Judaic concept of the origin of human sin was instead expressed through the metaphor of the evil and good impulses in man, the yetzer ha-ra and the yetzer ha tov. By this view man is subject to both good impulses as well as purely natural impulses that, if embraced in a turning away from God, constituted a type of self worship that defined sinfulness. Habitual yielding to this impulse involved mankind in a downward spiral of sin, as described graphically by Paul in his Letter to the Romans.