Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Is God the distant Creator in heaven—or your intimate Soul Mate?

Acts chapter 16 introduces an unexpected situation for anyone who thinks that all early Christians had a personal "heart-felt" response to God/Christ. At Philippi (a Roman colony, Acts 16:12) Paul and Silas answer the jailer's question: "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" by replying "Believe [2nd singular imperative] in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved—you and your household" (Acts 16:31). In other words the jailer's faith in Jesus saved not only the jailer but also his entire household (family and slaves), and the members of the jailer's household were baptized along with him (Acts 16:34)—even though it was only the jailer who believed Paul and Silas (it is the same in Acts 16:34). The same situation occurred earlier in Acts 16:14-15: Lydia opened her heart to what Paul said, and she was baptized—with her whole household. The situation is very different in Acts 18:8, however, where Crispus, his household, and many others in the city believed Paul, and they were all baptized along with Crispus (see also Acts 11:13-18; John 4:53).
The temptation is to assume that Luke was simply a careless or imprecise writer, and he really intended that these two incidents at Philippi in Acts 16 should be read in the light of the incident in Acts 8, where it is unambiguously stated that the members of the jailer's household actually did believe and hence (one assumes) had a personal religious experience—although that is not what the text says. But what if Luke was being very precise, and the jailer, as paterfamilias (head of a Roman household), had introduced a new deity (i.e., Jesus) to his family household?  Hence the jailer's family and slaves would also worship his new household deity. "The pater familias (sic ) was the priest of the household, and those subject to his potestas [authority] assisted in the prayers and offerings [of] the sacra familiaria [family rites]." *
From this perspective the jailer's family and all his household slaves were required to participate in an exercise of Christian (?) worship, even though they did not share in the jailer's religious belief.
That is not unlike the situation in contemporary Christian worship where we find elaborate ritual and liturgy at one end of a wide spectrum of beliefs and worship styles—and a charismatic type of worship at the other end. Think of that wide spectrum as the distance between Paul's charismatic and spirit-led Christianity (the Pauline letters) at its one end, and the institutional religion of the Pastoral Epistles (1st, 2nd Timothy, and Titus) at its other end.
Assuming that you have not abandoned participation in formal Christian worship altogether, where do you assume you fall on the scale between a keen sense of personal union with the Divine and a somewhat perfunctory participation in a ritual, whose beliefs you no longer share? Or put another way: does God's Spirit dwell within you to the extent that you are conscious of an intimate sharing in the divine Presence, or is it simply the case that God is in his heaven while you at a distance "experience" God only in the ritual, liturgy, and Eucharist (or Mass) of formalized worship?
What do you think?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
*H. W. Johnston, The Private Life of the Romans (New York: Scott, Foresman, 1903), 29.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

God does not exist

If God is spirit (John 4:24), then God is not an entity existing in space and time, as we human beings are.  We humans are existents, bound in space and time during our brief lives. God, on the other hand, appears to be nothing more than a concept, an invention of the human imagination, whose nature and character changes with each religious group and/or individual.  Hence, it appears that God, however conceived, has no independent existence, which exactly corresponds to those ideations of the human mind.
The rationale for this surprising statement is self-evident when viewed from the perspective of the history of world religions.  Each religion (and there have been a lot of religions through human history) conceives God differently, yet the adherents of this or that religion believe that God is actually just like what they conceive.  In short, they believe their view is the only accurate and true view that captures the essence of God.  But, alas, different understandings of God exist in other religions and the adherents of these other religions likewise think that their understanding of God is actually how God is.
For example, there is no one biblical understanding of God.  There are various views of God in the Christian and Jewish Bibles.  Describing each of these ways of understanding God as different is based on the recognition that the Bible is a collection of diverse texts representing the historical evolution of two different religions Israelite and Christian.  The authors in the Bible can only be held responsible for what that they wrote.  This idea may be difficult to accept because modern users of the Bible tend to treat the Bible as a unified text rather than what it is—a collection of largely originally unrelated texts  By treating the Bible as a unified and harmonious text readers tend to develop composite images of God (which themselves are also different).
Here then, necessarily briefly, are three different ways God is represented in the Biblical texts.
God the Giver of Tribal Laws: Principally, the Mosaic Covenant, which is found in Exodus 19-23 and Leviticus.  Ancient Israel is directed to keep the laws which have been given by God through Moses.  The obligations to which each party is committed are stated in Leviticus 26: The tribe of Israelites, 26:3-5; Yahweh, 26:6-13.  And if Israel breaks any of these laws, there is a penalty: Leviticus 26:14-33.  Would anyone doubt that the God credited with promulgating the tribal laws takes obedience to his commands completely seriously?
God the Merciful and Compassionate: The book of Hosea is permeated by the theme of divine compassion.  It is at one and the same time a story of Yahweh's steadfast love for Israel, and Hosea's love for the prostitute Gomer, whom he married at God's direction (Hosea 1:1-2).  She bore three children (Hosea 1:4-8) of whom Hosea was presumably not the father (Hosea 2:4-5). Gomer abandoned the family to take up again a life of prostitution, and Hosea at God's direction bought her back (Hosea 3:1-5), just as Yahweh refuses to abandon his people Israel (Hosea11:1-12). The dominant image that emerges from the book is the love and faithfulness of Yahweh in the face of Israel's unfaithfulness and abandonment of Yahweh (Hosea 4:1-19).
God the Capricious and Unjust: The Book of Job comes in two parts: a prose prologue (1:1-2:13) and epilogue (42:7-17), and a central poetic section (3:1-42:1-6).  The central section is concerned with showing that not all suffering is the result of sin.  The prologue, however, casts God as a capricious Eastern potentate who allows Satan to submit Job to every kind of suffering short of taking his life, even though God knows that Job is a righteous and blameless man (Job 1:1).  There was no reason for Job to suffer except to settle a casual dispute between God and Satan as to whether Job served God in his own self interest (1:8-12; 2:3-6).
In each of these "types" I have described what seems, far and away, to be the prevalent tone of how that writer views God's character.  Vestiges of other views may still be seen in each text, however.  For example, the major chord of Ecclesiastes seems to be God the Distant and Disinterested Creator.  The view of this writer is that although God is the creator of all, God has little to do with the creation.  Nevertheless, one does still find vestiges of a kind of secular view of God (3:17-18; 7:18; 8:12-13), and even a bit of traditional piety (12:13-14).  Nevertheless, God is not really a major concern in human life, and the ponderings of the author bring him virtually to the edge of despair.
My point in this essay is this: God is who we think or believe God to be. If there is a Deity, apart from the inventions of our minds, how would we ever come to the knowledge of that apparently completely unknown figure?  Do we pick the one with which we are most comfortable and claim that figure as true God?  Or do we simply stay with the understanding of the God of our childhood?
How does it seem to you?
Charles W. Hedrick

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Religious Titles for Jesus

Two titles conferred on Jesus by his early followers are so well known many think of them as part of his personal name: i.e., "Lord Jesus Christ."  Jesus, however, is the personal name that his mother gave him. "Christ" (χριστός, Christos) is a title coming out of the Israelite tradition meaning "anointed." Another title, "Lord" (κύριος, kurios), is a term of respect addressed to a person who commands respect or exercises authority; it is used in Hebrew Bible/Septuagint of Yahweh, God of Israel, where he was referred to as "the Lord God" and/or the "Lord." The title carries the idea of high authority.  Hence Jesus' two best known titles are "The Lord" and "the Anointed."
            An odd, little-known, title barely surviving in the New Testament is αρχήγος (archēgos), but how should it be translated?  In the Greek tradition it is used to refer to the founder of a city, among other things.  In the Septuagint it refers to political and military leaders of various sorts, both tribal and national.  In English translations it has appeared variously as beginner, leader, instigator, author, captain, chief, prince, etc.
            There are only four instances of its use in the New Testament, and all appear in confessional statements:
Acts 3:15 refers to Christ as "the Author (archēgos) of life."
Acts 5:31 refers to Jesus as "Leader (archēgos) and Savior."
Heb 2:10 refers to Jesus as "the pioneer (archēgos) of salvation."
Heb 12:2 refers to Jesus as "the pioneer (archēgos) and perfecter of our faith."
            The word also appears in 2 Clement 20:5, where it refers to Jesus as "the Saviour and prince (archēgos) of immortality."  In the Nag Hammadi writing (Letter of Peter to Philip 139:27 and 140:4) it refers to Jesus as "the author (archēgos) of our life."  In the German translation of Peter to Philip archēgos is translated as Urheber, which carries the dictionary meanings of author, creator, founder, or originator.
            George Johnston argued in 1981 that the term should be translated "Prince," and explained as a Christology viewing Jesus as "the fulfillment of the Davidic hope" (Ezekiel 34:24, 37:25; p. 384).
            From my perspective archēgos, as used in the New Testament, is a clearly secular word, which only takes on secondarily a religious sense by the word with which it is paired and the confessional context in which it appears.  A place in Hebrew Bible where an early follower of Jesus might have encountered it, while looking for messianic "prophecies," is Numbers 24:17: "A star shall rise out of Jacob, a man shall spring out of Israel, and shall crush the princes (archēgos) of Moab and shall spoil all the sons of Seth."  In the early 2nd century Irenaeus (Against Heresies 9.2) and Justin (Dialogue with Trypho, 106) cited this verse as a messianic prophecy, which Jesus fulfilled, but with no explanation as to how it applied.
            Simon bar Kosiba, the Judean rebel leader of the second Jewish revolt (early 2nd century) appealed to Numbers 24:17 to support his messianic claims.  His supporters and followers called him Bar Kohkba, "son of a star."  During his occupation of Jerusalem Simon even minted coins featuring a star.  Eusebius (4th century) said of him:
The Jews were at that time led by a certain Bar Kokhba, which means star, a man who was murderous and a bandit, but relied on his name, as if dealing with slaves, and claimed to be a luminary who had come down to them from heaven, and was magically enlightening those who were in misery. (Ecclesiastical History, 4.6.1-3)
Although Bar Kokhba may have presented himself as a messianic figure, he is clearly a military/political leader and war chieftain.  Those who view God as working in the world in a spiritual way, like Irenaeus and Justin, however, would see archēgos in a religiously spiritual sense.  Hence Jesus is the "leader" who, as precursor, first led the way in faith. He was archēgos in the sense that his faith (that is, Jesus' own confidence in God, Galatians 2:16) first established the spiritual path.  He was the pioneer, trailblazer, or archēgos of that Way of faith (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22). For a more complete development of this idea see the last four paragraphs of http://blog.charleshedrick.com/2015/11/is-holy-spirit-part-of-trinity.html.  Such a secular title had little chance of succeeding, however, against early orthodoxy's idea of a crucified and resurrected Savior, and its use simply died out as too bland or clearly inappropriate for a dying and rising Savior, who was far more than simply a "leader" or "beginner" of a path of faith.
            Titles given to Jesus tell us nothing substantive about the man, however; they only tell us what early Christians thought about him.
How does it seem to you?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
George Johnston, "Christ as Archegos," New Testament Studies 27.3 (1981), 381-85.