A New Look at Romans 1:26-27

This is a reprint of a post from Nota Bene:

I believe it is the most interesting and convincing argument I have yet seen on the issue of homosexuality and “Paul’s” alleged beliefs about it. It is compelling in my opinion.


Whenever I’m debating with someone who authoritatively declares that the Bible condemns homosexuality, and who cites the infamous Romans 1:26-27 as proof, I almost always offer this rejoinder: “What do you make of the vocative at the beginning of Romans 2?”

The question is admittedly pretentious on my part but I’ve found it effective, because those often most eager to wield the Bible as an authoritative weapon are also often those who have read it only in translation, and not very closely at that.

But it’s not an idle question.

Anyone who has engaged the issue of sexuality and the Bible has at some point contended with Romans 1:26-27, in the NRSV: “For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.”

Sounds pretty bad, and indeed, so does the entire last half of the first chapter of Romans. Who, broadly, is being described here? Most agree it’s the Gentiles, and most agree that what is being represented here is boilerplate, Hellenistic Jewish material that attacks the Gentiles. But the condemnatory nature of the verses from 1:18-32 also fits awkwardly, if at all, with the spirit of the rest of the epistle, which goes from talking about the “uprightness of God” in the early verses to suddenly referring to the “anger of God” here, an anger that God uses to “hand over” these people to all manner of horrible behaviors.

But then, they’re Gentiles. They’re rotten, horrible individuals. Did you hear the sorts of things they do? In fact, as pointed out by scholar Calvin Porter, “they” recurs in this section with striking concentration, with repetition of the third-person pronoun αὐτός thirteen times, the reflexive (“themselves”) once, and third-person plural verbs over and over: “No other section of Romans contains such a concentration,” he observes.

What’s even more striking, notes Porter, is what comes next: an abrupt change to the second person in Romans 2:1:

“Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.”

Here, then, is the vocative in the Greek, “Oh man,” a grammatical case used for direct address: ὦ ἄνθρωπε. And this takes us to the question I have posed to those who repeat 1:26-27 in condemnation. Who’s the ἄνθρωπος that Paul’s addressing here?

It’s actually a very big question.

Scholarship has been preoccupied often with the content of verses 1:26-27 to the distraction of its context. Scholars such as James Miller and Mark D. Smith have gone back and forth as to whether the behavior described in those verses can be considered “homosexual” from our culture’s standpoint, or whether they refer to something else entirely. But an even more interesting angle surfaced in Roy Bowen Ward’s entry into the fray: “It is still open to question whether these two verses represent Paul’s voice or the voice of a rhetorical spokesperson in Rom 1:18-32, whom the apostle criticizes beginning in Rom 2:1.”

That’s right. Some scholarship of late, of which Porter’s article is the most thorough example, has noted that Romans 1:18-32 does not represent Paul’s view, but the prevailing view of Gentiles among many Jews at the time, which this apostle to the Gentiles feels compelled to refute. Building off of the scholarship of J.C. O’Neill (who calls it “a traditional tract which belongs essentially to the missionary literature of Hellenistic Judaism”) and E.P. Sanders (who explains that “Paul takes over to an unusual degree homiletical material from Diaspora Judaism”), Porter ultimately concludes that “in 2:1-16, as well as through Romans as a whole, Paul, as part of his Gentile mission, challenges, argues against, and refutes both the content of the discourse and the practice of using such discourses. If that is the case then the ideas in Rom. 1.18-32 are not Paul’s. They are ideas which obstruct Paul’s Gentile mission theology and practice.”

Other explanations of what ὦ ἄνθρωπε is doing here are less satisfactory. Some have suggested that Paul is sincerely making these condemnations, stressing here (but only here) God’s anger instead of his kindness (as in 2:4), and then he imagines some onlooker applauding what he’s saying and turns to address him, condemning him for judging but somehow still agreeing with the content of what was just said.

Porter’s argument (which he thoroughly supports with rhetorical models from antiquity) makes much more sense: that the arguments present in the last half of Romans 1 were typical of those made by Hellenistic Jews to distinguish themselves from the Gentiles (thus the repeated use of “they” as noted before), and Paul, as an apostle to the Gentiles, finds this condemnation problematic and thus seeks to refute it, leading up ultimately to his similar conclusion in Romans 14:13, using strikingly similar language to that in 2:1: “Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.”

Paul goes on to offer advice on healing the rifts between Jew and Gentile, so Porter’s reading is compelling, and certainly the best I’ve seen for answering the question of who’s being addressed in 2:1: “The shift to the direct address, the second person singular, along with the coordinating conjunction, διό, indicates that the reader who agrees with or is responsible for 1.18-32 is now the person addressed.”

Of course, there will be all sorts of arguments apologizing for the words of 2:1 so that one can keep the words of 1:26-27 as a straight-up, unambiguous condemnation, which one can then rely upon to rationalize all manner of discrimination against gays and lesbians. But the flurry of scholarship on this score, not to mention all of that preoccupied with the words of 1:26-27 themselves, should in the very least make it clear that it’s not all that clear.

It’s yet another example of how close study of the Bible – in this case, the function of a single word – raises far more questions than it does answers.

Oh What of Lazarus?

One of the enduring lessons of law is not really about law at all. Rather it’s about psychology, which finds voice in some instructions to juries as they begin their deliberations, especially in criminal cases.

The instruction relates to the fact that eye-witness testimony is to be treated with great care. The human being, in the excitement of the moment, often misses important facts, and often, unbeknownst to them, mentally “fill in the blanks.” In other words, we often “see” what experience tells us we should see, rather than what is actually there.

Numerous testing of this proposition are well known. Students, sitting passively in a class are suddenly subjected to a masked person who bursts into the room and then quickly leaves. When questioned separately, a variety of “differences” between the observers always occurs.  A famous one of  a person in a gorilla suit wandering through a basketball game illustrates that people don’t always see what is there, when it is not something they “expect” to see.

I think about this sometimes when I read the story of the resurrection of Lazarus. John masterfully tells the story in great detail, weaving in and out the expectations of his disciples, the fullness of faith exampled in Martha, and the limitations of Mary’s faith.

Then, seeing all this distress, Jesus performs the miracle of miracles, he calls Lazarus from the tomb where he has lain dead for four days. Not only his disciples and Martha and Mary witness this, but also many “Jews”  who have come from Jerusalem to “sit Shiva” with the sisters.

And yet, the reading leaves off with this:

Many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what he did, believed in him, but some of them went to the Pharisees to tell them what Jesus had done. (Jn 11:45 emphasis added)

Many? Isn’t this amazing? I ask you, if you witnessed such a thing, would you not believe? Yet, some did not, or at least went to the leaders in their religious community to relate what they had seen and get their opinion.

What could they have witnessed that left them in doubt? Were they confused? Were they troubled that perhaps as had been charged against Jesus before, that he was the disciple of Satan? of Beelzebub?

We cannot know of course, and if we proceed further into the discussion by the Pharisees we see that is may not have been so much about “by whose power” he did what he did, but rather the consequences of there being such a power within the community. How would Rome respond to such a one as Jesus whose power rivaled theirs?

I guess the point is, that we need to approach scripture carefully. We need to turn it upside down and inside out occasionally, if only to be careful that we  are simply reading into it what our experiences tell us “should” be there in terms of meaning and direction.

This is perhaps where biblical scholarship comes in most handy. It allows us to “see” the text through the eyes of those who were it’s first hearers. And we are forced to ask ourselves new questions.

John’s gospel was written in the 90’s of the first century, perhaps as late as 100. His gospel is quite openly anti-Jewish. Earlier gospel accounts are not nearly so. We learn that John’s community was under a lot of pressure from other Jesus’ related groups, especially those who still maintained a strong ties to the Jewish Temple.

Members of John’s community may have included elements of Samaritans, traditionally enemies of the Jews of Jerusalem. Other Jewish Christians were trying to maintain their life within the synagogue. The situation at Ephesus, where this gospel was likely written, was roiling with hostility and distrust.

Understanding this, we can look upon John’s story of the almost intentional disregard for the powers of Jesus in a very different light. I suspect very few if any of the “witnesses” to the resurrection of Lazarus failed to believe in what they had seen with their own eyes. I suspect that no one ran to “tell”.

What the authorities within the synagogue and later in the Temple thought of all these rumors of miracle resurrections is another story, one John perhaps does not know. He does however craft a story to give his people, his community, fortitude to deal with the pressures they are facing from an increasingly hostile Jewish leadership.


Love, It’s Just About Love

I’ve been mulling over something I read on a blog all week long. I knew I wanted to write a reply of sorts, but wasn’t sure exactly what I should say.

I’m still not sure.

But today’s readings and something else I’ve been working on, all, as God perhaps intends, come together to suggest answers, or at least a profitable way of looking at it.

I will give the quote in full:

…For most of us, our religious community seems far more important than our religious community’s theology.   That is, people attend church largely to socialize with their friends and acquaintances in the congregation; somewhat less to worship their  god; much less to learn about their god; and almost never to think critically about their god.  Yet, many proselytizing atheists focus on critical thinking.  That might be like trying to use a carpenter’s pencil to lever a house off its foundation.  On the other hand, if I ever want to convert people to atheism, I’ll first hold a social.

Painful statement, yet there is truth in it. Yet, I feel no need to defend against it. Much. I’m aware of polling that suggests that atheists know more about the contents of the bible than do believers. And I have no reason to quarrel with it. Yet, I know that that should  not be very comforting, to atheists,  because what most atheists “know” about the bible is seen through the lens of  fundamentalism. The point out all the errors, the contradictions, but they really don’t understand anything about how it was gathered together into the distinctive writings that eventually found their way into a canon. Much of their error finding is irrelevant to scholars, and explainable.

I’m a good deal less troubled by the idea that going to church is mostly a social event. You hear that a lot from atheists. But that’s not something to defend against, but rather something to embrace.

We do socialize in church, and that’s a good thing. For in that action, we enlarge our circle of “neighbor” if indeed it is not limitless to begin with. For practical reasons we only have time for so many neighbors, those to whom we are beholden to offer our help even when it is awfully inconvenient. Church socializing forms those new friendships and  ties. It brings into the circle those we care for and about. It helps us to love our neighbor as ourselves. That’s a good thing.

The rest? About critical thinking arguments being wasted on the believer. Well that’s just plain mean, untrue and not worth further comment.

Today’s readings are:

Lev 19:1-2, 17-18
1Cor 3:16-23
Mt 5:38-48

In Leviticus, Moses listens to God who tells him to tell the people to be holy as I am holy.  You must love your neighbor as yourself.

Similarly,  Paul reminds us that we are God’s temple, and that we must respect God’s temple, both ourselves and others.

Jesus speaks in Matthew and he tells us that we must not hate, we must love our neighbor, even when our neighbor is unkind, hurtful,  or worse to us. We must give to whomever asks (something extreme right-wing religious might make note of as they argue that universe health care is wrong since it gives to some who are not worthy to receive).

Jesus reminds us that God makes the rain fall on the righteous and the wicked equally. Again,  perhaps we might remember that before we are so quick to claim that hell awaits those whom we find evil.

But the over-riding point Jesus attempts to make is one of love. Love conquers all, hate never can. It but creates more hate, distrust, fear. All negative. All cutting against the neighbor concept.

I’m reading a wonderful book about Mary Magdalene. It draws heavily on the so-called gnostic gospels of Thomas, Mary, Peter, and the Gospel of John. It requires a lot of reading between the lines, a fair amount of reordering one’s thinking. It suggests that Jesus, along “his way” diverted from the Nazarite path, the aesthetic path he began, and ended in a more Eastern approach. More Buddhist, yet not.

His was the way of self-emptying. A concept well-known to anyone who is a believer. Paul talks of this in Philippians 2:9-16. He understood Jesus, perhaps better than did the writers of Mark, Matthew or Luke.

It’s all about kenosis, self giving. Similar to the Buddhist way, of letting be, giving up, but not, the denial of all as transitory. Rather it’s  the giving all, and in that very process, receiving all, being all, being totally, wholly human.

Having never been an inerrantist, I have difficulty understanding the former fundamentalist. They accept that the bible is not inerrant, but they now have trouble seeing it as having any value. It is no longer trustworthy as conveyor of God’s “WORD.”

The bible, remains to me, (as other sacred texts do as well) as repositors of man’s highest achievement in enlightenment. We are able, as we progress, to tease out sometimes those things that point to a greater truth, one they didn’t even realize they spoke of.

Everything I read and study, helps me to see Jesus, and God more clearly. It all, to me resolves itself into love. Love was the vehicle Jesus pointed to as the means to the Kingdom. As Cynthia Bourgeault suggests, it is the vertical axis connecting ourselves to the infinite. It is what, she theorizes forever connected Mary Magdalene to Jesus in a way far superior to any of the other apostles.

She got it, and many others have followed in her footsteps and His. It’s just about love.

Repost: Luke: A Theological Commentary

Originally posted at A Feather Adrift.

Today I review the second in the new Belief series published by Westminster John Knox Press. Luke: (Belief: A Theological Commentary) is written by Justo L. González.

Again, I give my deepest thanks to WJK for giving me the opportunity to participate in reviewing this extraordinary series.

If Plachter’s book on Mark was excellent, this second offering by González, meets that standard in every way. While Plachter perhaps placed more emphasis on the exegetical-historical aspects of the gospel, González focuses a bit more on the theological implications of Luke to our world today.

In the end, this seemed most right to me. Quoting Gustaf Wingren:

All good interpretation of the Bible is contemporary. If it were not so, it would not be good. . . .The Bible is not on a par with the subsequent interpretation; it is above it, as the text is antecedent to the commentary. And the interpretation is always an interpretation for the time in which it is written or spoken.

There is also a distinctive flavor of liberation theology which permeates the text. This also seems logical to me, since any fair reading of Luke renders the conclusion that Luke portraits a Christ who favored the poor and the marginalized as the true inheritors of the Kingdom of God.

Paramount in González’s theology of Luke is that the evangelist emphasized above all that Jesus’ teaching was one of the “great reversal.” His teachings were indeed revolutionary to his world. His was a world of power held by Rome, of patriarchy, of Temple priests and church hierarchy. His teachings again and again told of the coming Kingdom where none of this would be so.

The poor, the marginalized, the unclean, the unwanted, the unworthy, the sinners, the children, the women–all these would find a new world in God’s Kingdom, one in which those who were served would serve, those first would be last, those most religious and pious would often find themselves judged less than the most simple of the country folk of Galilee, that most marginal of lands.

In fact, Mr. González suggests that if one were to remove all the “reversal” stories from the text, there would be few pages left.

Perhaps the most stunning theological commentary comes with González’s explanation of the Paralytic. He shows how Luke weaves a story of how the teachers and scribes, the Pharisees sat around listening to the teachings of Jesus. The friends of the lame man could not get through the crowd of the listeners to reach the Healer. The end up opening the roof to lower the man to Jesus inside.

González reflects on these “circles” about Christ that we as church construct. We sit as pious listeners before the Word. We block the way for those who come in need of healing and comfort.

“Today, just like then, there are lame people who cannot reach Jesus, because access is blocked by the numerous and tight circles, circles of religious leaders and wise and profound theologians, circles of ecclesiastical, academic, and social structures. . .”

He points out that these people are not necessarily bad, but in their zeal to be at the forefront, they (we) block the way of others. We are cautioned to open the doors to those who are marginalized outside the circle. These are the people Jesus most came to help.

Of special importance to me, are the continued references to Jesus’ table hospitality. Too many of our churches set themselves up as arbiters of who is invited to the table of Christ. Any fair reading of Luke, suggests this is a grave error.

Time and time again, as González points out, Jesus welcomed the sinner to the table, and did not require any repentance as a condition to the invitation. He teaches that we should be inviting those who cannot repay our offer, instead of those who will extend a return invitation to ourselves.

González powerfully reminds us that:

“All too often Christians have claimed control of the Table as if it were ours, and not his. We decide whose belief is sufficiently orthodox to share Communion with us, who is sufficiently good and pure, who belongs to the right church. . . .Rather than inviting those who seem most unworthy and cannot repay us, we invite the worthy. . .”

There is example after example of gentle, and not so gentle reminders to us as readers, that the Gospel of Luke calls us to a discipleship that is not easy, and not comfortable either. Luke tells of a Jesus who comes not preaching so much an afterlife of bliss but a life offered that is truly life. A full life, filled with the Spirit, faithful to God, bearing the cross of discomfort with the joy of knowing that we are doing God’s will as did He who was his image.

At the end, Mr. González ponders the church of tomorrow. And as we see a decline in the Western Church and a rise in the church of the South, the African, and the East, we see new thinking, new interpretation. We see reflections through the eyes of the poor and the marginalized. He asks:

“. . .could it be that God’s great gift to the worldwide church today is the growing church of the poor, who are teaching us to read the Bible anew? Could it be that God is using the last, the least, the poor, and the excluded to speak once again to the church of the first and the greatest?”

Is this the final reversal? Such questions as these do we ponder as we read this most excellent book. Do buy it. You will not regret the decision.

Repost: Mark: A Commentary

It is with pure delight that I thank Westminster John Knox Publishing for sending me the following selection for review. This is the opening book in a new series entitled: Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible.

The first book in the series is Mark, by William C. Placher. It was published along with Luke, which I have also received and will be reviewing shortly.

WJK also publishes the Interpretation series, of which I have long been a fan, but after reading Mark, I suspect this new series may far outstrip that wonderful series.

The idea behind the Belief series is to bring together the latest exegetical work, along with literary, historical, archaeological, and other pertinent advances as they impact how we interpret the bible from a theological point of view.

In Mark, they have certainly attained their goal. Professor Placher, unfortunately now deceased, has written a simply beautiful commentary. Not content to just tell us what the text means, or most likely means, Placher explores how Mark’s “good news” is still most relevant to the world we live in today.

For example, in the opening pages, he writes:

Americans today, therefore, read the Gospel of Mark–this story of a Middle Eastern man tortured to death by the most powerful empire of his time–when we are the most powerful nation of our time, and our forces are torturing people, sometimes to death. What does this imply about our values and the sort of people we have become?

Peppered throughout the chapters are “Further Reflections” on key phrases or words such as Kingdom of God, Miracles, and Ransom. Each of these probes into the historical record and juxtaposing that against our modern notions, finding common ground and points of comparison.

Quotes are boxed throughout the text as well, and are wide-ranging in their authorship, including Luther, Barth, Basil, Tertullian, Philo, Cicero and many others. These highlight themes introduced and explored by Professor Placher.

What is most compelling is the breath of sources. You will meet the likes of Karl Barth, and Luther of course, but also the likes of Calvin, John Dominic Crossan, and Gustavo Gutiérrez. Majority opinions are explained, but plenty of minority opinions are given with their rationales. Of course, Placher gives his choice and the reasons for it in the end.

We are a world more and more polarized along religious lines. Placher offers us, for example, a theological explanation of chapter 12:28-34. Here Jesus is questioned by a scribe as to which commandment is first. Jesus famously says “love God and love your neighbor.” This is all well and good, but in answering, Jesus shows us that even though many of his arguments are with scribes, not all scribes are bad, some come with honest questions. Barth points out that this the Hebrew Scriptures often engage “outsiders” to do the will of God, and thus Jesus shows us that good can often come from those who are not like us. How useful it is to remember that today.

The point always is, that when we read scripture, and Mark in particular, there is much that speaks to our condition today, both individually and as communities and nations. Every minister, priest, and preacher, every teacher seeks to make the scripture relevant to their listeners. This is no more than Mark did himself, in trying to tailor the stories he told to the issues present in his community.

How could Jesus help them? How can Jesus help us? As students of scripture, we have much to gain here in understanding, but if we are also preachers and teachers, we have even more, for here we can find new insights, new interpretations, new connections where we never realized them before. For every minister who has sat late into Saturday evening, still trying to find something “new” to say on tomorrow’s gospel, she or he will likely find help here.

We squabble, some of us in our respective traditions with rules about who can join us, and who cannot join us. We have our own brand of “unclean”. Yet, Jesus did not teach us that. He taught us the opposite. He regularly ate with sinners and those ritually unclean, and he never made it a condition for sitting at table with him that repentance was a pre-requisite. What does that say to us today?

Page by page, Placher explores, teases out, and conjoins text from not only Mark, but from other texts as well both in and out of the bible. The picture sharpens and Mark’s words take on added significance. We see in a new way, hopefully a better one.

I simply enjoyed this commentary more than I can say. I found it easy of explanation, yet profound in its theological depth. Placher has drawn from a broad spectrum of experts, and has intertwined them to make coherent and useful conclusions. He gives us a foundation from which to explore.

As I said, teachers and preachers will find this commentary invaluable as they search for new ways to marry scripture to today’s world. Individuals will see application in their own lives and spiritual journeys.

If the rest of this series can be predicted upon the basis of this opening publication, then we are in for a rich treat indeed. You may indeed want to consider the entire series, as it comes out. I have barely begun Luke, and I can already see that it carries on the fine standards established in the first offering. Do yourself a favor and pick this one up. You won’t be sorry.

The Unbelief of the Baptist

As an amateur biblical scholar, I know that you aren’t ever to conflate the various Gospels for a “whole” picture. Yet, as a believer, one does end up trying to reconcile that which appears to be in conflict.

Thus, I have always wondered about John the Baptist. We are told that his sensitivity to the Messiah was so strong that he “left in his mother’s womb” when he sensed Jesus in the womb of his mother Mary. (Luke 1: 39-45)

We are told in Mark that after baptizing Jesus, he was presumably present to see the “heavens torn apart” and a “Spirit like a dove descending upon him.” (Mark 1:9-11) In Matthew, John protests that it is Jesus who should be baptizing him. (Mt 3: 13-17)

But in Matthew, (11:2-11) our gospel for today, we learn a curious thing: John sends his disciples to inquire of Jesus if in fact he was the Messiah, the chosen one. Jesus lauds John, calling him the highest of all the prophets and then says, “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

This all is quite confusing to me. How could John ever doubt that Jesus was the One when he leapt for joy in Elizabeth’s womb when Jesus appeared still unborn?  Why would he, after hearing of the healings Jesus had done, still doubt? When he saw the heavens rent, and saw the dove descend?

The message, I think should give us all much hope. For we doubt too. We all do. We must. For we cannot and do not KNOW. That is why we have faith. We BELIEVE.

John undoubtedly was aware that Jesus’ so-called miracles were not such things. In fact Mark never calls them miracles at all. Such actions, were not in that day, so fantastic as to be declared miracles. People in that time lived closer shall we say to the dividing line between seen and unseen. All things were from God, so what can be miraculous.

Still, Jesus’ healings were wondrous, and people exclaimed about them, and they can to him to be healed. That did not make him, however, the Messiah necessarily.

Still, we return to that leaping in the womb and we must conclude that John must have seen that as unusual, and predictive. He spoke during his ministry of “one coming after me” one he was “unworthy to untie the sandals of.”

This was a bigger statement than I realized. Rabbis were heard to claim that their disciples owed them every thing, except to untie their sandals. That was taking discipleship too far. Yet John, not only claims that this was not too much to ask from the Anointed One, but that he was unworthy to the task.

Yet John struggled with faith. Imprisoned, he questioned his own eyes and ears, his own instincts.

We, you and me, we who are “modern” have generally speaking no event to recall, of tearing heavens and doves descending. We, most of us, have no shuddering certainty that we are in the presence of something beyond mere human making. Is it any wonder we fail in faith?

And thus we can have hope that our failings will be forgiven, for John’s surely was. Jesus acclaims him the greatest of all the prophets. He is Elijah, and more. And with all that, Jesus can still acknowledge with generosity and tenderness, that even with all that, John is the least of those in the kingdom.

For, Jesus has told us as well, that children come to him with perfect faith. They are prepared to believe in what they cannot see or know. They are willing to suspend human questions, the ones I struggle with. They don’t ask to understand. They simply believe.

And Jesus tells us that if we can come to him in that way, then our faith is perfect. And that will place us before John. Blessed are they who have not heard or seen, but still believe.  Blessed is the centurion, who is a pagan, yet believes with perfect faith that Jesus can heal. These are our role models, the ones that Jesus reminds us to look to as we journey to God.


I am indebted to The Word Among Us, December 12, and Mark: A Theological Commentary on the Bible, by William C. Placher (which I will be reviewing here in a few days), for some of the insights here.

Will There Be Any Faith On Earth?

“But when the Son of man comes, will he find any faith on earth?” (Lk 18:8)

Indeed, what a question. It asks the seminal question to all of us, and for me synthesized a number of things I read, making me wonder, just what is faith?

What does it mean to be faithful?

NCR in an article entitled, The Had-it Catholicssuggests that once you account for immigrants, the American Roman Catholic Church is bleeding followers at the same rate that all the mainline Protestant denominations are. And the reasons have surprisingly little to do with child abuse and contraception. They have more to do with marriage and divorce rules, homosexuality teachings, and ordination of women. We can discuss any of those issues, but what caught my eye was a fairly common comment that is made against “dissenters.”

It basically goes like this: If we have no settled doctrine to rely on, then we have nothing but what is the fashion of the day. I can as easily reject your “preferential option for the poor” as you reject church teaching on homosexuality. Where does it stop? To be Catholic is the accept this repository of faith as your foundation. No one is keeping you here.

This presupposes I would argue, that there is such a repository of faith that is sacrosanct as it were. Untouched in its basics since the resurrection at least, only added to as we come into a “fuller” understanding of truth. And many believe this is correct–they argue that there is perfect truth, unalterable, and knowable as such by everyone.

I daresay that every generation has thought it had the truth. Yet, civilization progresses over the eons and what was normative in 1350 C.E. is not necessarily so today in terms of moral behavior.

It denies as well, it seems to me, that the Holy Spirit works ever in the human race to help it, individually and collectively to understand who and what they are and what their life is to be. To suggest that even when majorities of faithful Catholics disagree with the Magisterium they are wrong by definition, is to deny that the Holy Spirit is active in the hearts and minds of each of us.

It is to deny, moreover, the value of the gift of intellect, or reason also gifted to us. Are we not to learn from the our pasts and to extrapolate anew, more inclusive morals for our future? Are we not to draw into sanctity all life as a higher level of love? All because such things were not contemplated in the past?

A few days ago, Enlightened Catholicism posted a report of a letter sent out  by Archbishop Vigneron, to the Archdiocese of Detroit. It warned that all clergy and laity were prohibited from attending a meeting of The American Catholic Council scheduled to be held next year in Detroit. The Archbishop claims the groups beliefs are contrary to Catholic “Faith” and are contrary to the “spirit of Vatican II.”  He said we should “shun efforts which threaten unity.”

Again we get the presumed “never-changing faith” claim. Does not the Archbishop know that this is not true? Moreover has he learned no lessons from the past?

Father Frederick J. Cwiekowski, in his book, The Beginnings of the Church, explained how modernism was condemned by the Inquisition, turned Holy Office in 1908. Modernism, meaning the use of modern methods of biblical exegesis such as form, text, redaction, and other forms of criticism. The determinations made by such methods were condemned.

Some of the claims of this new methodology were:

  • The Gospels were not historical but teaching testimonials, interpretations by the evangelist of what Jesus said and taught.
  • None of the evangelists were eye-witnesses, (Matthew and John) had been so taught)
  • It questioned Christ’s anticipation of the emergent church.
  • It questioned whether the apostles in fact knew of Christ’s deity before the resurrection.

The Pontifical Biblical Commission in the years 1905-1915 declared all these things in error and heretical. Such conclusions were bolstered by the encyclical On the Doctrines of the Modernists by Pius X, and again in Spiritus Paraclitus by Benedict XV in 1920.

Slowly things turned around after that, however, More openness was allowed and it was declared that such prohibitions only applied to faith and morals issues, in 1955. At the beginning of Vatican II, a working document, “On the Sources of Revelation” was issued to the bishops. Fully 60% rejected it, and although not the 2/3 required, John XXIII, sent it back for further work. When it was issued with Pius VI’s approval, the PBC, Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Bible,  contained the following:

  • The evangelists were witnesses not historians
  • There is evidence they did not understand that Jesus was divine until after his resurrection. The apostles passed down what Jesus truly said and did, but it was later interpreted to the needs  of the listeners of the Gospels.
  • None of the evangelists were apostles and they adapted and synthesized the information at hand to the situation of the emergent church.

These became incorporated into the final document, the 1965, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, (art. 19).

There is no truth to the claim that once dogma always dogma.

So what is faith?

It seems to me, that faith, and being faithful is to be a constant student of what is taught by the Church and constantly to study what is being learned about the bible and its theological underpinnings. It is constant searching for truth, always following heart and mind, with careful and deep reflection.

 It seems to me that we are all called to this work. It is simply not faithful to simply rely on an institution, no matter how revered as the sole determiner of all things moral and right. We, as Catholics, as Christians are obligated to seek truth ourselves.

Indeed, I do  think there will be faith on Earth, Lord, as long as good people of strong believe ever seek to apply the issues of the day to the tenor of your teaching.

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