Monday, July 20, 2015

Can the Church Grant Absolution for Sins?

To be absolved means to be "set free from the consequences of guilt."  And yes, some churches do claim to be able to absolve people of their sins. In the Episcopal Church, for example, a penitent may confess their sins to God in the presence of a priest or bishop and receive from them the assurance of pardon and the grace of absolution. Upon their confession the priest then pronounces this absolution:
Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has left power to his Church to
absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of
his great mercy forgive you all your offenses; and by his
authority committed to me, I absolve you from all your sins:
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy
Spirit. Amen. [Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, page 447].
            The rationale behind this Episcopal Church tradition (also found in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, and Lutheran traditions) is that Jesus forgave sins (Matt 9:1-8; Mark 2:1-12; Luke 5:17-26; 7:36-50), and passed on to Peter the authority to "bind and loose" (Matt 16:18-19); and in the Gospel of John Jesus passes on to all his disciples the ability to forgive sins (John 20:19-23). The custom of the church granting absolution for sins does not appear to be known in the rest of the New Testament.  Ignatius does not seem to be aware of the practice of ecclesial absolution for sin in the early second century (but compare his Letter to the Philadelphians 8.1).  The Shepherd of Hermas (100-150), however, disagreed with those who believed that if anyone sinned after baptism there was no opportunity for repentance (compare Hebrews 6:1-6, where forgiveness is not possible after apostasy).  The Shepherd asserted that there was opportunity for the church to repent (Shepherd, visions 2.2-3; mandates 4.1-4, 12.3-6; similitudes 8.11,1-5)   In the third century those about to undergo martyrdom or who underwent torture or imprisonment were deemed to be able to absolve those who had committed the sins of adultery and fornication. A shocked Tertullian (died after 220) reported (Modesty, 1 and 22) that a certain Bishop Kallistos (who himself had experienced torture and imprisonment) issued an edict saying that "I remit to such as have discharged repentance the sins of both adultery and fornication."  Such is the evidence for absolution in the earliest period. After the late second century the custom became institutionalized in the later church for sins in general.
            It seems to me that the church practice of absolving people of their sins is a usurpation of God's prerogative on the assumption that the authority Jesus is believed to have had and extended to his disciples falls by default to the institutional Christian church.  That is to say: someone had to pronounce absolution for sins, and who better to do it than the church?
            Those who take upon themselves the pronouncement of absolution for the sins others commit may believe they have the authority to do so by virtue of church custom and their ordination, but in my view they are deceiving themselves about the limits of their ability.  The Scribes asked the correct question: "who can forgive sins but God alone?" (Mark 2:7).
            In the context of religious faith only God has the authority to pronounce absolution for sins.  Even though God doesn't speak audibly anymore, those who have sinned must still by themselves seek absolution from God.  In the context of human life absolution for sins (i.e., injuries, ills, harms, etc. done to others) must also be sought from those they have injured—in the case of the recent murders in Mother Emanuel Church in Atlanta forgiveness was extended to the murderer by the injured families without any repentance on his part.  Forgiveness was theirs to give, or not.
            If the statements in the previous paragraph are correct, it would appear that the priestly pronouncement of absolution is like the counsel of Eliphaz, the Temnite, to Job—just so many "windy words" (Job 16:2)—vaporous words, full of well meaning intent perhaps, but signifying little.  Absolution for sins must be sought in two venues: 1. a person must stand, nakedly remorseful, before the injured party in person and humbly petition for absolution; and 2. during a personal dark night of the soul penitents must make their own peace with God. The Church may assist the penitent seeking absolution, but it seems an arrogance of the first order to assume it can grant absolution, or even assure the penitent that absolution has been granted.  A third party has no standing in this situation.  God cannot be "bound or loosed" by church tradition (compare Exodus 33:19; Romans 9:15).  Believing oneself capable of committing the God of the universe to anything on one's personal say-so seems very much like thinking one can bridle a giant fire-eating dragon: it is the stuff of romantic fiction and mythology.
            What are your thoughts?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Did John Baptize Jesus?

The clear consensus of contemporary scholarship is that the baptism of Jesus by John is historically certain!  The Jesus Seminar printed Mark 1:9 in dramatic red in The Acts of Jesus, with the comment that few Fellows of the Jesus Seminar doubted that John baptized Jesus.  Here are some comments by a few scholars expressing the confidence they feel in the baptism of Jesus by John as historical event: "historically certain" (Lars Hartman); "one should not doubt the baptism" (Dale Allison); "a fact that commands almost universal assent" (James Dunn); "one of the firmest elements of the Jesus story" (Craig Evans); "as historically certain as anything in the gospels" (Bart Ehrman); "almost beyond dispute" (E. P. Sanders); "a basic historical fact" (Gerd Theissen).  If you are interested in seeing the literature, I can send you the bibliographical data.
            Of course, not everyone agrees.  The baptism of Jesus by John is described as myth by Burton Mack and Martin Dibelius ("myth": stories about Gods in a time and place not recognizable as our own time; hence it is not critical history).  Rudolf Bultmann, probably the most influential New Testament scholar in the twentieth century, describes it as a Christian legend about Jesus that emerged in the later Hellenistic church ("a story about holy people and religious heroes intended to be read for inspiration, instruction, and spiritual edification"; hence it is not critical history).  One can understand their reluctance to regard the story as a historical event.  Mark 1:9-11 clearly has the trappings of myth and/or legend: Jesus saw the heavens split asunder, he saw the Spirit descending; and a voice came out of heaven addressing him, "you are my beloved son."  Was it a vision and only available to Jesus?  (Compare Matt 3:17 where the voice addresses the bystanders.)  Did such events actually occur?  In truth, these kinds of happenings are not part of our common everyday world.

            What is the evidence for John baptizing Jesus?  Those who regard the baptism as historically certain are most persuaded by the criterion of embarrassment, that is to say, since it would cause the church a great deal of embarrassment to admit that Jesus was once the disciple of John the Baptist, it is hardly something that the church would have invented.  Those who doubt that it is historically certain raise a number of objections to its historicity. The obvious mythical/legendary character of Mark 1:9-11 for one.  For another, the Baptism of Jesus appears indisputably in only one late source (i.e., after 70CE): Mark 1:9-11.  In Matthew John has discomfort with baptizing Jesus, and Matthew never in so many words describes John as baptizing Jesus (Matt 3:13-17); In Luke John is put in prison before Jesus is baptized (Luke 3:18-22), and the baptism is not described as a baptism by John; in the Gospel of John, the Baptist only observes a spirit baptism of Jesus (that is, it is not a water baptism, John 1:29-34).  The reluctance of Matthew, Luke and John to depict Jesus as being baptized by John upon the confession of his sins is seen as evidence for the criterion of embarrassment (Mark 1:4-5).  But that criterion works as easily for the church in the latter first century as it has been claimed for the early first century.
            There is no evidence, however, that Paul knew of the baptism of Jesus by John, and early Christian baptism is not linked to the baptism of Jesus.  The baptism of Jesus, according to Q scholars, is not found in Q (a sayings collection thought to have been used by Matthew and Mark as a source for their gospels), and Josephus does not know a tradition of John baptizing Jesus.  There is only one source in the latter half of the first century that attests to the event—Mark 1:9-11.
            Whence then comes the supreme confidence that contemporary scholars have that John's baptism of Jesus is historically certain?  Likely they must be assuming that an incipient oral pre-Pauline Palestinian tradition of Mark 1:9-11 must have existed in some form prior to 70CE.  That might possibly have been true, but there is no evidence of such a tradition, and hence such a "hail Mary" argument is not probable.
            Bultmann did not address whether or not a kernel of history lies behind the legend of Mark 1:9-11.  But in describing it as a Christian legend that arose in the Hellenistic church and ruling out any chance that the legend was already circulating in the Palestinian church Bultmann seems to have made a de facto decision, which is that the baptism of Jesus by John as Mark 1:9-11 presents it is clearly not historically certain—perhaps it never even happened.
What are your thoughts?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University