Friday, May 16, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's Two 5/15 Posts

If possible, I want to respond to your two posts via one entry. As I see it, you raise the following matters: the legal/political context of John 8:1-12, canonization, and celibacy.

(1) Christian scholars are familiar with the way the Roman government reserved capital punishment for itself. With reference to the story in John 8:1-12, this reinforces the strange nature of the entire event. It was "out of order" in almost every way possible. To my mind, this strengthens the case for the event being a planned political/religious test of Jesus, an attempt either to co-opt or discredit him.

(2) "Biblical inerrancy" is a relatively modern concept, a by-product of the Enlightenment rather than a historic Christian affirmation. Interestingly enough, it developed in roughly the same time period as the idea of papal infallibility. The ancient church, insofar as I can tell, took a different approach to the scriptures. For the sake of brevity, I'll illustrate the ancient approach by outlining the canonization process.

Most, perhaps all, of the writings that would become the New Testament were produced during the first century in the decades following the ministry of Jesus. None of these documents were regarded as scripture. Instead they, and other documents as well, were circulated among the churches. As the years passed, some documents came to be read over and over again, to be found to have lasting value so to speak. Various church leaders began to compose lists of the writings that were used by the vast majority of the churches.

Eventually, the church leadership gathered and debated which of the writings ought to be regarded by all the churches as scripture, that is as works useful and holy in the same sense as the Hebrew Bible. Three criteria applied. Is the work the product of an apostle or someone closely associated with an apostle? Has the church universal long found the work good for worship and instruction? Does the work in some sense contain the gospel? To put it another way, they sought some historical connection to Jesus, took the church's experience seriously, and asked one key theological question. At the end of the process, the gathered church made a decision to recognize what we know the New Testament as the "canon" of Christian scripture.

For the most part, Christians regard the process as closed. The New Testament, regardless of how various parts originated or found their way into the text, is the church's book--good enough for the purpose for which it was given, namely to instruct us for "salvation" and all that may entail.

The canonization process, in some ways, mirrors the human/divine nature of all of scripture. It certainly ought to remind us that the Bible is not God or a "fourth person in the Divine One." The Bible, instead, is a tool designed to do one thing well: draw us to God, draw us back when we wander, draw us to one another in community. Given this perspective, the legitimacy of any given text in the canon is not called into question by lower or higher "criticism."

(3) Celibacy is an apt topic within a wider discussion of sexuality. Very few Christians in any era have taken Matthew 19:12 literally. I certainly do not. At the same time, the words of Jesus forced the early church to break with normative Judaism and accept actual eunuchs, and others who were mutilated or injured or ill, as full-fledged members of the Christian family. As far as I can determine, such things did not exclude a person from membership or leadership in the ancient church. It's one of the few instances in which the ancient church ran ahead of its surrounding culture.

Protestants and the Orthodox tradition disagree with Roman Catholics over celibacy with regard to clergy. Yet all three traditions, I think, admit that celibacy may be a calling, a part of one's vocation. Celibacy has often been driven by a sort of dualism, but at its best it serves a better purpose: freeing one to devote one's energy solely to prayer, worship, study and ministry to others.

As for misogyny, it's certainly been part of the scene. All the other human sins we might name have been as well! And all such sins affect, distort and diminish the church. Yet...there's always a "yet"...I believe God works with such fragile and flawed vessels as individuals and groups and even institutions. For example, Kathleen Norris, without denying any of the negatives, has found that many monks believe and act as if women are "made in the image of God" and are good. History provides many stories of celibates who learned to practice hospitality, friendship, and self-sacrificial service. In short, from a Christian perspective, I do not think celibacy is to be sought, but God may offer the gift. In that case, it should be accepted, as we would (hopefully) accept any other gift offered by God.


MaryAnn said...

The early church was not monolithic and in fact may have had as many different expressions of Christianity as exist today. It was the Orthodox leadership, not Christians as a whole, that picked what went into the cannon, in part as a political move to de-legitimize the Gnostics and other sects. A number of the texts they chose not to include can be found in the Nag Hammadi Library.

Mike Smith and Rami Shapiro said...

This is Mike. I could not agree more: the early church was far from monolithic. Orthodoxy (generally accepted core doctrines, practices, etc)emerged over time from considerable diversity. Politics, both internal and external, played a well documented role.

It turned out to be quite a task to try and find a balance between among our Hebraic, Greek and Latin heritages--not to mention, the variations within each of those three major components.

To my mind, the first five or so church councils should be understood to have arrived at a reasonable solution for their time. The task, though, never ends and always falls far short of perfection, especially with regard to charity toward minorities.