Tuesday, February 28, 2012

No Double Jeopardy with God

So ... remember how I said I didn't really like 1 Peter? In the last two days, I've gotten to know 1 Peter a lot better, and I'm starting to appreciate it for what it is -- a late first-century Judean ethical treatise in the wake of Jesus. And pointedly not for what the non-Judean Christian Fathers saw in it!

What I find so very interesting about it is how it treats sin, death, and the afterlife. The purported "harrowing of hell"? It looks like a mistake. Why? Because the first thing "harrowing hell" requires is a hell. All we have in 1 Peter is a place where the dead go: Sheol. No devil, no ruler over this place in antithesis to God and heaven. None of the trappings of "imprisonment" of the "disobedient" for punishment. All the suffering is this-worldly, and comes whether you do good or bad things. But the suffering is separate from God's judgment on your deeds.

This realization came about because I had a friend ask me, basically, "what's going on in 1 Peter 3:19-20?" Which is a legit question -- the author's Greek doesn't boil down to English very well, let alone into colloquial paraphrase. This is because it's fairly "high" syntax, a relative clause in a long sentence without a clear object. But after breaking it down, I received a question I didn't expect. "So, are their sins forgiven?" Are the sins of the spirits in Sheol forgiven?

Friday, February 24, 2012

Through the Waters to New Life

You know, I don't really like 1 Peter. And part of my dislike for it is that, a bit before our epistle for this week, Peter expands significantly on the benefits of wifely submission and husbandly condescension. You see, 1 Peter belongs to an environment that has marked similarities to the Timothies and Titus, which I also don't really like. These letters belong to a world in which social conformity is desirable in order to live peaceably -- even if such conformity has nothing positive to do with who we are called to be as the people of God. "Go along to get along." Assimilate and suffer blamelessly.

But with some major differences (like not being persecuted), you can also see such a world around you today -- and I don't like it, either. A Christian worldview and a Christian ethic that belongs to social mores more than it does to scripture. The people of God chasing an idol of human manufacture: "Christian culture." Cultural Christianity.

Readings for Baptismal Theology: Lent 1B

Wednesday's readings were for the sinful creation in medias res, demonstrating the proper liturgical response to the apocalypse -- and we will sing this response, "Return to the Lord your god, for he is gracious and merciful / slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love." But Sunday's readings, for this first Sunday in Lent, speak of the new creation in the wake of the apocalypse. This week, we contemplate the life promised as we return to YHVH our god, who is patient and has mercy on creation.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Translations for Ash Wednesday

As we come down from the mountain of Transfiguration, we find ourselves moving quickly into Ash Wednesday, carrying our burdens of deep confusion with what we've seen into a season of reflective afterthought (metanoia) and baptismal grace. And that season begins with apocalypse, much as it did on Sunday. But even though this revelation looks a lot more like the end of someone's world, it promises the beginning of a new one for the people of God.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

God does not leave you on your own.

See the title link for texts and translations for Transfiguration. This was supposed to connect through the Gospel and then move to Paul, but that would not come, and now the time is past. All I've really got is gospel preached from 2 Kings, but I do at least have that.

We could definitely say something about human action this week. About faithful following, faithful questioning, faithfulness in being sent -- even faith in general. But we cannot say it first. It cannot stand on its own out of these texts, as though they suggested that you could stand on your own. You do not become a prophet like Elijah on your own, and not being one is not a failure on your part. You do not follow like Elisha on your own, and not doing so is not a failure on your part. You do not become a witness like Peter, James or John on your own, and not being one is not a failure on your part. You do not become an apostle like Paul on your own, and not being one is not a failure on your part. And you have not become who you are today on your own, either. Who you are today, failures and all, whether devoted, bereft, confident, scared, confused, awed, trying to be useful, or even just sitting there not knowing how to respond, is who you are as God's good creation, the creature God has called, who calls back to God in prayer. God's creation, for whom God acts in love.

Faith is a response to God, and in all of these stories it is God who is the true hero. It is God who does the decisive action. We trust God because we have seen how God is good, and because of that we have seen behind what happens in the world. And in the wake of that revelation, the world has new meaning. We belong to God's story of the world. We belong to God's action in the world, because this God acts for us.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Translations for Transfiguration

I am driven by a compulsion -- I have trouble preaching from bad translations. And Paul for this week is badly translated. But I am also beginning a discipline for Lent, if I am able to keep it, of working faithfully with the lectionary texts -- even though I am not immediately called to preach on them. And so I'm beginning it with Transfiguration, just as every roller-coaster starts at its point of maximum potential energy. Lent is a kinetic season, and this is the point from which we are released into it -- Ash Wednesday is simply the bottom of that first drop, the expression of the energy we will take with us throughout the season.

So: we have 2 Kings 2:1-15, Mark 9:2-13, and 2 Corinthians 4:1-6 (all slightly expanded to meet textual boundaries). Translating the psalm is a bit beyond me.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Subjective Authority of Scripture

So: The last post was an attempted discussion of the "what" of orthodoxy. And I cut it off before really getting into the "how" -- how we know what "seems right" for our time and place in history. I am genuinely trying to do theological science here. "How it seems to us" cannot merely be a hunch, and still rightly deserve the adjective orthos. When we turn to talking about the "how" of right thought about God, we are talking about the evidentiary basis for theological claims.

And, given that what is right in theology must be based on witness to the living God as the object of theology, we certainly have a strong evidentiary role for scripture. Our Lutheran confessions speak of themselves as normative documents because they interpret scripture, because the confessional norma normata is governed by the scriptural norma normans. And we wrap ourselves up in discussions of whether we will subscribe to them because they are faithful interpreters, or insofar as they are faithful interpreters, but one way or another, our ordinands do affirm in their vows that the confessions are "true witnesses and faithful expositions of scripture."

Now, every time I hear that phrase, I love it more. "True witnesses and faithful expositions." And I love it at least in part for its humility. It doesn't say, "true expositions." The confessors testify truthfully concerning what they have seen in scripture. And historically that is the gospel -- the revelation of God in Jesus Christ as an authority capable of showing us God's true will for us, and relativizing every other normative claim of religion upon us. Jesus Christ as the criterion of religious truth. And in this testimony, the confessors are not found to be engaging in falsehood, putting up a pretense for evading legitimate demands of God -- they are true witnesses to scripture, compelled by what they have found there, and making honest declaration of it. And this witness is grounded in their faithful exposition of scripture, faithful to both the text as they found it and the God in whom they trust.

These are guarantees of the subjective truth of the confessions. They are no guarantee of objective truth, nor do they claim to be. I cannot legitimately testify to how something is in itself -- only how it seems to me. I may only truthfully confess what I know. Were I to confess something that I did not know -- even if it turned out later to have been factual -- I would not be a true witness. I would be speculating. And yet if I confess something that I do know, and it later turns out not to have been true, I have not therefore borne false witness. I have only been mistaken as to what is really true, because of the limitations of my understanding and observation.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Qualifying Orthos Doxa

What is orthos doxa? What are we right to think? By what standards do we measure it? By what distinguish it from any other hairesis, any other school of thought? Is it even a school of thought itself?

In one classical sense, the orthos doxa is kat' holēs, what we receive from the entire tradition. What is catholic, what is truly a matter of common trust, is right. So the canon of scripture represents a catholic basis for thought, because it forms the minimum approved standard of our common trust in God. Other writings, other witnesses may be approved locally, but as concordant with the catholic canon. Discord is resolved by reference to what all hold in common.

Ah, but this is a late criterion. What is catholic cannot by definition belong to any one hairesis, any one school of opinion ... except that it belongs to the hairesis that had been confessionally defended. That Cappadocian minority opinion that expanded in authority to become the standard for orthos doxa. Otherwise, with possibly more justice, we might have had to declare the Arian view catholic.

So orthos doxa becomes catholic, but catholicity cannot define what is properly orthos. It is a leveling safeguard against idiosyncrasy, but it cannot defend against popular error. And it is only a safeguard of any sort after it has been instituted by a consolidating movement out of a plural tradition. It is only a safeguard if what it guards is actually safe. Catholicity cannot therefore be a primary criterion; all may be in error. It does not even guarantee the truth of what it protects.