"The case of Spinoza: One of the suggested reasons for his [Jewish] excommunication, in Amsterdam on 27 July 1656, was that he thought that 'the soul dies along with the body', a shocking opinion amounting to a form of sheer atheism…If this was a factor in the excommunication of the distinguished Spinoza, it is clear that immortality of the soul was a serious matter in Jewish life.
"Well, the reader may say: this may be so, but of course it is only because these Jewish traditions had imported the concepts of Greek philosophy. Yes, perhaps. But this is just the point. People have not only been using a crude and questionable opposition between Hebrew and Greek thought, but they have been implying that the Hebrew thought, thus identified, is perfect and complete. [emphasis his] As it is depicted by many writers, it leaves no problems, no insoluble dilemmas; it contains no contradictions and it answers all the questions. This being so, if anyone was attracted to elements of Greek thought, it is because they were fools or knaves. Having a perfectly adequate mode of thought, they were willing to spoil it through the introduction of faulty and inadequate ideas from Plato or others, ideas which could only wreck the entirely satisfying totality that already existed.
"All this has been an illusion."
James Barr, The Garden of Eden and the Hope of Immortality, p. 46
I am guilty of this illusion. I didn't realize just how guilty of it I am - or, rather, how hypocritical of me it was to hold this illusion - until it was put this way. It is my primary frustration with the theology of the church as a whole that they adopt this same narrow-minded, prohibitive view of Christianity, "implying that the [early church fathers'] thought, thus identified, is perfect and complete." Indeed, "as it is depicted by many writers, it leaves no problems, no insoluble dilemmas; it contains no contradictions and it answers all the questions", to the complete and utter exasperation of those of us not satisfied with the problems, dilemmas, contradictions, and unanswered questions of the Incarnation, Trinitarianism, the Doctrine of Original Sin, and countless other dogmas. We scream, "Why is God not permitted to give new revelation? Why is the understanding of men two thousand years ago so superior?" And all of our frustration falls on the deaf ears of our fellow conservative Christians because "if anyone is attracted to elements of [new revelation], it is because they are fools [and heretics]."
Conservative Christians face a dilemma. If we cannot simply be content with re-explaining the "perfectly adequate mode of thought" presented by the Early Church, over and over again ad nauseum, in the hopes that one of these days, we can make these inexplicable doctrines more palatable, we must abandon our conservative values altogether and join the far left, where words like "heresy" hold no significance. If we are "willing to spoil it through the introduction of faulty and inadequate ideas from [modern revelation, in all its forms], ideas which could only wreck the entirely satisfying totality that already exists," then we must do it without recognition of our personal and intimate relationship with God, a high Christology or, me genoito,* a high view of scripture! Joining the world of "Progressive Christianity"** means we gag on at least as much there as we do in our conservative circles, AND we're branded as "fallen away ones". But at least we'll be free to seek God. Is it worth it? Or is it better to just plunge our heads back into the sand?
The fact of the matter is, NO perfect theology exists - not then, not now. God is infinite and he has given us an eternity to spend learning about him. We will never - in all of that experience in all of that eternity - know him completely. That should tell us something about our few thousand years on earth, let alone the experience we as individuals have in developing our PERSONAL theology. Instead, God utilizes what I will henceforth term "escalating revelation", building line upon line and precept upon precept just the way he always said he would. And it looks a bit like this:
- He revealed himself in the Torah.
- Then he revealed himself through the prophets in a way which (to the anxiety and egregious discomfort of those Jewish scribes trying to determine whether or not to throw out the book of Ezekiel) developed, influenced, and, yes, CHANGED Torah and our perception of it.
- Then he revealed himself through Hellenism (I choke… but I'm becoming convinced of this) and changed the way the Jews read the Torah AND the Prophets. This was the environment that Paul was born into, seeing the Jewish scriptures NOT from a "Hebrew-not-Greek" perspective, but from the perspective of a Hellenized Jew. Accepting this will help us to understand why Paul seemed to hold ideas about the guilt of women, the inherent danger of sex, the nature of original sin, and many other ideas not easily verified by direct comparison with the scriptures about which he is offering commentary and interpretation.
- Then he revealed himself through Jesus and the New Testament and now the Christians have a new way of looking at Torah, the Prophets, and Hellenistic Judaism. (ie, it's canon)
- Then he continued to reveal himself, but we already had a canon! Unable to add to it (thank God!) with the searching by the early church fathers, as God continued to reveal himself in ways that REINTERPRETED PAST REVELATIONS, we venerated the searching of the early church fathers to a new category known as "dogma" - not quite scripture, but equally authoritative.
- Then came the so called "Dark Ages" and God never spoke again.
Because we needed order to early Christianity, we formalized our acceptance of all four revelations up to that point (Torah, Tanakh, Hellenism, New Testament) and forced them (sometimes with great difficulty!) to be seen as one perfectly congruent mass.*** Note that Jews did no such thing. Torah is Torah - primary and unchanging (and no, I'm not willing to enter into the Moses/JEDP tangent here). Later books (Tanakh) offer further revelation and explanation, but there is a distinct difference between "the law" and "the prophets". In fact, the idea of escalating revelation is fundamentally built on Judaism's treatment of Torah, Tanak, and Midrash. The Torah - indeed, the entire Bible - subject to reinterpretation three, four, five times over, was not suddenly fixed in an unchangeable stasis field because we called a council and defined canon. God did not die, or suddenly lose his ability to speak, after the Early Church Fathers were done with their contribution to revelation. It has continued. How arrogant are we to think otherwise? If God is done revealing himself, let's just end the world and be done with it! Incidentally, this is precisely what they expected to happen. But it didn't. So let's accept that our perspective and capacity for understanding God's plan for humanity is MORE ADVANCED (in years) than theirs and come up with a more viable solution to how we should have been viewing God's revelation of himself ever since Jesus didn't return when he "should have."
On a more personal note, and coming back to what struck me about this topic in the first place, is my own arrogance in failing to recognize God's hand in developing the understanding of himself through Hellenism and, indeed, Greek philosophy. They did NOT get it completely right and, in fact, may have royally screwed up some theologies in the process of coming to the deeper truth on others. But focusing ONLY on what they screwed up has prevented me from recognizing any value to the contributions they did make. I am willing to say that God talked to them as he indeed talks to us, and their revelations should be evaluated with respect in the pursuit of our deeper understanding today. But the danger in saying this is that I fear my "giving ground" will be taken as a recantation of all (or any) previous or future statements about what they got wrong. They got things right AND they got things wrong. And the things that don't seem to match what comes before OR what necessarily comes after cannot be accepted as absolute truth simply because we have spent 2000 years believing them without question.
We need a new way of evaluating God's escalating revelation, and I ask other Christians and scholars to join me in the efforts to further an understanding that neither discards scripture nor venerates the mistakes and misunderstandings of past theologians.
*me genoito, usually translated as something like "God forbid" or "certainly not" is an emotion-filled expression repeatedly used by Paul, most accurately (if socially inappropriate to our modern church) translated, "hell no!"
** This term has been claimed by a movement which dispenses with scripture and/or the centrality of Christ and simply becomes a "feel good" sort of Unitarian universalism, as seen here. For a view closer to my own, see instead, for example, this concerned blogger. Note the problem of how all of these things are lumped together as part of the same movement; if you ascribe to one (specifically, #3 and #4), you must claim them all. A high view of scripture and a high Christology/soteriology has no place in a classification such as this. See also here for another theologian's experience and wrestling with this same issue.
*** Because of my personal view of scripture, based primarily upon the fact that I don't believe God would have allowed a faulty representation of him to be provided for future generations, I believe that is it safe to accept what is found in Scripture as truth. The Bible is uniquely a living word, and God can reveal new things - progressively - over and over again through it. And this is precisely the point: When the canon was closed, it was closed, and it - not any later interpretation - MUST be the composite sketch we reckon with in evaluating new escalating revelation.