Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Helpers—an overlooked “Church Office.”

The Reformation period churches of the sixteenth century that settled this country during the period of the Renaissance (14th -17th centuries) were very different in organization, spirit, and theological ideas from those loosely organized Christ gatherings (ekklēsiai; incorrectly translated "church") of the middle first century. We have detailed information about only one of those early gatherings—the gathering around Christ at Corinth (1 and 2 Corinthians), but the light cast on the character of nascent Christianity in those letters is enough to produce a jarring recognition of a graphic difference from the Reformation era churches. The gathering at Corinth under Paul's ministry (Rom 15:14-16) was a free-wheeling spirit-led group. By the sixteenth century what in the early period was an informal gathering became an organized creedal institution, for which the designation "church" is entirely appropriate.
            One example of the difference is reflected in 1 Cor 12:4-11. Paul discusses varieties of "gifts," which are given by the Spirit of God "for the common good." Hence these charismatic abilities bestowed by God's Spirit are aimed at ennobling and enabling the entire gathering. At the end of the chapter Paul lists a few specific "offices" or recognized functions of leadership (1 Cor12:27-28). These offices consist of apostles, prophets, teachers, [workers of] miracles, gifts of healings, helps, administrations, and [speakers in various1] kinds of tongues. The people who are gifted with these abilities are not chosen by the gathering to perform services in these areas, rather God has appointed them through the Spirit (1 Cor 12:28). Oddly we find no mention in this passage of deacons (1 Tim 3:8), pastors (Eph 4:11), bishops (1 Tim 3:1), evangelists (Eph 4:11), elders (Tit 1:5), or preachers (1 Tim 2:7). These functions came along later, once the charismatic-spirit of the earliest groups dimmed. Later the churches established qualifications for certain offices and began to select their leaders on the basis of secular qualifications (1 Tim 3:1-13). A cursory glance over the list reveals several official functionaries that are lacking in many churches of the modern era, such as an official who works miracles or [speaks in various] tongues or one who utters prophecy (compare 1 Cor 14:1-25).
            One of the early positions, whom God appointed through the Spirit, was that of someone gifted to give "helps," or as it is usually translated "helper" (1 Cor 12:28). The word antilēmpseis translated "helper" appears only here in the New Testament. As to its function, it is listed ahead of administrators and [speakers in various] kinds of tongues and follows immediately after healers. In other words a Spirit-gifted Helper was not regarded as a minor "volunteer" functionary, but such a person was selected specifically to play a significant role in the community—to judge by its association with the other spiritual gifts. For example, the first converts of Achaia (the household of Stephanus) are singled out as "devoting themselves to the service of the saints" (1 Cor 16:15-18) and they deserved to be recognized for their service.
            What exactly might the function of Helpers have been? "Perhaps it is similar to the final three items in the list of Rom 12:8 (service, giving to the needs of others, doing acts of mercy)."2 Hence some in the Christ gathering at Corinth ministered to the physical and spiritual needs of others in the community,3 and those who possessed this gift had a seat at the table right up there with apostles and prophets or those who performed miracles.
            We read of the appointment of elders (Acts 14:23), apostles (Acts 1:21-26), deacons (1 Tim 3:8-13), and preachers (1 Tim 2:7); why shouldn't "helpers" also be recognized as an official function in the church, particularly since Paul insisted that God had appointed them to an official position in the Corinthian gathering?
            This analysis subtly raises another question: if the Spirit ever actually charismatically gifted Helpers or [workers of] miracles, why did it stop? Lord knows, we could use a few scientifically confirmable miracles today!
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
1For the superior ability of interpreting tongues over ecstatic speech, see Pau1's comments in 1 Cor 14:5-6, 13, 18-19, 26-28.
2Gordon Fee, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 621.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Transforming by Renewing the Mind

Paul's exhortation in Rom 12:2 is unclear, which explains why bible commentators have responded to it in different ways. Paul writes this to the Christian gathering at Rome:
Do not be shaped by this age, but be transformed by renewing the mind in order to critically determine what the will of God is—the good, acceptable, and perfect.
Paul did not establish the Jesus gathering at Rome and had never actually visited the group previously (1:10-13; 15:22-24, 28-29), but in the salutation of his letter he includes them as full partners in the gospel enterprise (1:5-7), one assumes because of the reputation of their faith "that is proclaimed in all the world" (1:8; no doubt partly an exaggeration to win a sympathetic hearing). The "letter" is heavily theological with little personal information about the gathering at Rome.
            Let me unpack the exhortation: "the spirit of this age" is a condemnation of what Paul regards as the present evil age (Gal 1:4)—hence, those in the Roman gathering should not allow themselves to be shaped by the perceptions of reality pushed on them by the "spirit" of this evil age. Rather they are to be completely transformed (metamorphosed) by "the renewal of the mind" (singular)—perhaps to the end that their collective minds be unified as one (1 Cor 1:10). The goal of mind renewal is "critically to determine" (dokimazein) what God's will is, as to "the good, the acceptable, the perfect"—one assumes with regard to the character of living in this present evil age. The word "mind" (nous) relates to a human being's ability to know, understand, and judge—that is, it refers to what a person "has a will to"—i.e., what a person intends or wills. Hence, a renewal of mind, is not a relearning but a renewal of what one wills, as a matter of customary practice (Bultmann, Theology, I. 211).
            At this point readers should come to a full stop, since Paul has neglected to tell his readers exactly how they should go about renewing the mind. Paul's failure to make that clear is responsible for the different responses from commentators. Strangely, none of the commentaries I checked (randomly) chide Paul for his unforgivable lack of clarity. Here are some of the ideas from the commentators about transforming the mind by renewing it:
1.               Renewal of mind means being shaped by the Holy Spirit to the mind of Christ (L. T. Johnson, Reading Romans, 179-80). [and how does one do that?]
2.               Paul "has in mind the basic recovery of righteousness and rationality through conversion." Compare 1 Cor 2:16, where the community "shares 'the mind of Christ'" (R. Jewett and R. D. Kotansky, Romans, 733).
3.              "Paul is talking about a change in worldview…about a new or 'renewed' and Christlike way of looking at the world." Knowing what is good, pleasing, and perfect comes by means of a fallen person being transformed (B. Witherington III, Romans, 286-87).
4.               "The character and personality are transformed by renewing, renovating ideas and ideals which the mind reaches by the study of spiritual truths—reading the Scriptures, religious books and papers, and by meditation" (C. B. Williams, Pauline Epistles, 301-302).
5.               "This [renewal] is accomplished through the ministry of the indwelling Holy Spirit…by controlling the mental processes of the believer" (Wuest, Romans, 208).
6.               "The process [of renewing the mind] would in modern language be described rather as sanctification than regeneration," which is occasioned "by the Holy Spirit" (W. R. Nicoll, Romans, 688.
7.              "Repentance is—the renewing of your mind…" (K. Barth, Romans, 436).
8.               It is "the new birth, the new mind, the new man." A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures, 403.
Virtually all of the commentators that I consulted regard "renewing the mind" as a mystical act and relate it to repentance, conversion, or sanctification through the Holy Spirit. It appears that answers like these are incorrect if Paul actually did accept the Roman gathering as full partners in the gospel enterprise—meaning Paul would have assumed on the part of the Romans all those things the commentators suggested. Only one commentator (C. B. Williams) takes "renewal of mind" to refer to an act of natural learning that anyone could accomplish by reading and studying certain spiritual things.
            As a former educator, I think that formation and transformation of character can and does take place in an atmosphere of critical learning. Religious "conversion" most often leads to a kind of "group think" from which it takes years to extricate oneself, if ever. With respect to how Paul might explain renewing the mind happening, one can only guess; my guess is that Paul would regard renewing the mind to be a work of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 2:9-13), just like repentance, conversion and sanctification, and the many other things that Paul thought the Spirit did (1 Cor 12:4-11). How do you see it?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)

There is only one version of this parable: it comes from Luke's special parables tradition. Joachim Jeremias, the distinguished German New Testament scholar, pointed out that of the ninety examples of the Greek historic present1 appearing in Mark's gospel, Luke has only used one from their shared material (Luke 8:49).2 In Luke's special parables tradition, however, he has used the historic present five times in narrating parables (13:8; 16:7; 19:22), two of which appear in Rich Man and Lazarus (16:23, 29). Jeremias argued from these observations that the contrast in the use of the historic present between Luke's broader gospel narrative and his parables constitutes "clear evidence of an underlying pre-Lucan tradition."
            He further pointed out that the first part of this parable (Luke 16:19-26) reflects well-known folk material deriving from Egyptian traditions (The Journey of Si-Osiris to the Underworld), which was transported to Palestine as the story of the poor scholar and rich Publican, Bar Ma'jan.3 His view is that Jesus made use of the underlying folk narratives to compose his own story. The second part of the parable (Luke 16:27-31) is a new epilogue that Jesus added to the traditional folk material in the first part; hence the emphasis of Jesus' parable lies in the second part. Further, the parable's title should be the "Parable of the Six Brothers."
            The result of the discussions of this parable by members of the Jesus Seminar concluded that this parable did not originate with Jesus for several reasons: because folk tales about a rich man and a poor man whose fates were reversed in the next world were well known in the ancient Near East; in no other genuine parable of Jesus were characters given names; and that an interest in the plight of the poor is a special interest of the author Luke. The result of the combined vote of the Fellows was that the first part of the parable is questionable as a parable originating with Jesus. The second part, which described the six brothers, concerns the characteristic early Christian theme of the Judean lack of belief in the resurrection. For these reasons ninety percent of the fellows voted against the parable as originating with Jesus.4
            Hence, on balance, there are enough questions about the pedigree of this parable to seriously question it as a parable composed by Jesus of Nazareth. Not all agree, however. For example, one critically trained scholar is aware of most of these challenges to the parable as a composition by Jesus, but nevertheless argues the following: "Although the parable in its present wording has clearly been transformed by Christian allegorization, it would seem that a nucleus of the parable can be attributed to Jesus."5 And he even uses a 12th century painting of Lazarus at the rich man's gate on the dust jacket of his hard-back book, in a sense symbolizing all the parables.
            Perhaps it is time that critical scholars formulated a history of religions rule for evaluating parables that states: "The more certain it is that a parable reflects themes, plots, values, and traditional religious views of antiquity, the less certain it is that the parable originated with Jesus of Nazareth." The rationale for the rule is the following: because the parable makes extensive use of well-known traditional material it is far less certain that it might have originated with Jesus. The problem is not that one has thereby disproven its origin in the mind of Jesus, but that one cannot disprove that it originated with the gospel writer or elsewhere in antiquity. In attributing the parable to Jesus one runs the risk of attributing ideas to Jesus that were not his own. And for those reasons it should not be included in a database for determining the characteristic ideas of Jesus.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
1 The Greek "historic present" is the use of a present tense where one would have expected a past tense. For example, in telling a story a narrator says: "and he says…" instead of the expected "and he said…" The historic present is a characteristic literary feature of Mark's gospel, but not of the other two.
2 Jeremias, Parables of Jesus (6th edition), 182-86. See Hawkins, Horae Synopticae,149.
3 Jeremias, Parables, 183, 178-189.
4 Funk and Hoover, Five Gospels, 360-62.
5 Hultgren, Parables of Jesus (Eerdmans, 2000), 115.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Did Jesus believe in the Christian Hell?

Some months while waiting in the gym for Herself to finish exercising, a stranger sat down across from me and asked if I was I. I confessed that I was; he asked, "Do you believe in Hell?" I allowed that I did not.1 The brief discussion that followed was awkward. At the end he thanked me for forthrightly answering his questions, and left. I have seen him around the gym from time to time and our exchanges were superficial but always polite. Again a few days ago in the locker room he renewed the discussion: "I believe you told me you did not believe in Hell," he said. "What is your evidence?" I replied that it was by observation; I found no evidence for it. He said "I thought so." I asked, what is your evidence that Hell exists? He replied: "the Son of God"—I took his answer to mean that according to the Son of God (Jesus) in the Bible, there is such a place, and hence I replied "the Bible is a human book. We can talk about it sometime, but it will take longer than three minutes." "Have a nice swim," he said, and we parted—me to the pool and him to the bike.
            I previously published a blog entitled "Did Jesus believe in the Christian Heaven?"2 but neglected to address Jesus' beliefs about the Christian Hell. That impossible-to-answer question runs headlong into the classic contradictions between Jesus as represented in the synoptic gospels and Jesus as represented in the Gospel of John.3 There is no mention of Hell (hades) or Gehenna (geenna) in the Gospel of John, although the synoptic Jesus (Q, Matthew, and Luke) is represented as believing in Hell.4 Of course we don't know what was in his head (nobody can read minds). We only know that statements about Hell are attributed to Jesus in the synoptic texts.
            For me the most interesting of the sayings on Gehenna is Luke 16:23, which appears in the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-26). The Jesus Seminar voted that this story did not originate with Jesus. They further voted that it had been augmented by an early Christian reference to the resurrection of Jesus (Luke 16:27-31).5 If someone decided that the story did come from Jesus, however, they would still be confronted by the fact that the Gospel of John mentions neither Hades nor Gehenna, and on this question one is forced to choose between John and the synoptic.
            There is no future fiery place of punishment recorded in John's gospel! There are hints that there will be a judgment of some kind (3:16-19; 5:24-29; 9:30), but such judgment is not overtly described. In fact judging from these "hints," judgment may not even be eschatological but rather existential. The most interesting "hint" is the description of Judas as "the son of perdition" (17:12; compare 2 Thess 2:3; Acts 8:20; 2 Pet 3:16; Phil 3:19; Isa 57:4 LXX), but the nature of the "destruction" (ἀπώλεια, apōleia) is unclear.
            One must remember, however, that John is not writing history but rather writing theology, and may not even know the difference between these two different writing styles,6 which means John is completely unreliable as a historical source. But that must not be construed as a vote for Mark's representation of Jesus as the "historical" default—for Mark's gospel is also seriously flawed as historical report.7 Also It must always be remembered that "the son of God" is not an actual historical figure, but rather a construct of early Christian faith based on the largely unknown historical figure, Jesus of Judea.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
1See Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog, "Hell does not Exist," August 29, 2015.
2Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog, May 10, 2017.
3See Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog, "The Gospel of John, a Revisionist Gospel?" Dec 6, 2012.
4Hades (Q = Luke 10:15 = Matthew 11:23; Matthew 16:18; Luke 16:23); Gehenna (Q = Luke 12:5 = Matt 10:28; Matthew 5:22, 29, 23:15; Mark 9:43 = Matt5:30, Mark 9:47 = Matt 18:19).
5Funk and Hoover, Five Gospels, 361-62.
6See Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog, "Does John Know the Difference between History and Faith?" (September 21, 2015).
7See Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog, "History, Historical Narrative and Mark's Gospel" (December 22, 2013); and "The Problem of History in Mark" (October 1, 2016).

Saturday, August 26, 2017


This essay appeared on September 3, 2017 on page I12 of the Springfield News-Leader under the News-leader’s title “A New Narrative is needed on Confederate Statues."

The recent racist demonstrations in Charlottesville and the ensuing riots are a graphic reminder that all Americans do not share the same values, or the same national story. There are many narratives that Americans have adopted to explain themselves—two conflicting views were in evidence at Charlottesville, revealed by the images streaming from our television sets. Elements of the Alt Right, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Neo-Nazis held a demonstration around Civil War Monuments in Charlottesville celebrating White Power and vilifying African Americans, Jews, and any others they held to be different from themselves. As a result there has been a backlash against civil war monuments. Some have been torn down and others removed. There have been cries to put them all in museums—"get rid of them" seems to be the sentiment of a vocal part of our countrymen.
            I am a son of the post-reconstruction South, born in Louisiana, reared and educated in the segregated public school system of Greenville, Mississippi (1940-52). I do not recall ever having seen a civil war monument during my early youth, although I must have seen a few. At least I can say for certain that in my education the War of Rebellion and its leaders were never extolled or held up for special honor. The "stars and bars" as the confederate battle flag is called was, and still is ubiquitous throughout the south, but in Greenville it was never displayed in public buildings or functions. Online I discovered that Greenville has one civil war monument at the Washington County Courthouse, erected in 1909 by the Private Taylor Rucks Chapter Daughters of the Confederacy "To Commemorate the Valor and Patriotism of the Confederate Soldiers of Washington County 1861-1865." The statue itself presents a single common soldier of the line. On the four faces at the base are statements by Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Randolph H. M'Kim, and Charles B. Galloway. Except for the statement by Jefferson Davis (who mentions "the sacred cause of states' rights"), the others do not specifically relate to the war, and in themselves might be judged inspiring.
A 2017 study reported that at least 1503 symbols of the confederacy can be found in public spaces across the United States. These memorials include monuments and statues; flags; holidays and other observances; and the names of schools, roads, parks, bridges, counties, cities, lakes, dams, military bases, and other public works.1
We cannot ease or erase our national shame for having accepted and tolerated slavery as a convenient solution to economic problems (even as early as our colonial period) by eradicating vestiges of the War of Rebellion. Such symbols are part of our history as a people, whatever the reason they were erected. What is needed is a new narrative that puts these symbols into national, rather than regional perspective, so that there is a more compelling narrative that completely disallows racist rhetoric and ideology. These surviving vestiges of the civil war are like the "stones" the Israelites erected after crossing over the Jordan. The stones were to remain a memorial so that "when your children ask in time to come 'What do these stones mean to you?' You shall tell them…"  (Joshua 4:1-24). In my view, the monuments should remain in place and not be hidden away, but rather officially placed in perspective as symbols of a flawed cause, misplaced loyalties, and the enslavement of human beings. We must not be allowed to forget.
            Any cause that calls one to bigotry, racial hatred, the disparagement and inhumane treatment of others, and/or aims to romanticize or otherwise misstate the national significance of the War of Rebellion by appealing to these vestiges of the war deserves to be condemned.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Making of Poems and Parables

The Poet Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) concludes his comments on analogy in poetry with this statement: "Thus poetry becomes and is a transcendent analogue composed of the particulars of reality, created by the poet's sense of the world, that is to say his attitude, as he intervenes and interposes the appearances of that sense."1 Thus poetic truth (which the poem is) as seen by the poet is an agreement with a particular aspect of reality viewed through the poet's imagination.2 In short the poem is a description of some aspect of reality as the poet himself/herself imagines it.
            Stevens draws on (but misquotes) an example from the Gospel of Matthew describing Matthew's imagination at work.3 Jesus went about cities and villages teaching and preaching, and "when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they…were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd" (Matt 9:36; Mark 6:34; and compare Matt 26:31 and Mark 14:26; Zech 13:7). Here is how Stevens describes Matthew's imagination working on particular aspects of reality:
There came into Matthew's mind in respect to Jesus going about, teaching and preaching, the thought that Jesus was a shepherd and immediately the multitudes scattered abroad and sheep having that particular in common became interchangeable. The image is an elaboration of the particular of the shepherd.4
Actually, in this case Matthew took the image from Mark 6:34 and Zech 13:7 (compare Matt 26:31) and applied it to Jesus. Still Stevens' description of the way image making is done is accurate, as his other examples in the chapter show.
            Jesus made his parables in much the same way as Stevens describes a poet making poems. The parables in the gospels, if they originated with Jesus, "are the creative inventions of the mind of Jesus…" and fragments of his fictional view of reality.5 His reality was first-century life in Judean villages, and he invented the plots for these brief narratives by applying his imagination to particular aspects of that reality.
As a whole, the stories suggest that Jesus was a shrewd observer of life about him, but the information for inventing realistic characters in his stories would not have come only from his imagination. His stories arose from a blending of creative imagination with shrewd observation of everyday [village] life in Roman Palestine.6
His stories are notable for their secularity and realism. In short Jesus saw and described things as they are. Few of the stories have what may be described as religious motifs,7 and they also sport a goodly number of flawed characters. Nevertheless, the narrative voice of the stories neither commends nor condemns the actions of Jesus' invented characters. The stories conclude but the complications that are raised for readers are not resolved, and that feature appears to be deliberately designed into Jesus' narratives.
            The stories reflect a kind of moral ambiguity. When read closely as creative fictions against their background in Palestinian village life, they raise perplexing moral/ethical questions but offer no solutions. They do not even hint at a preferred solution, but interpreters, beginning with the gospel writers themselves, have regularly turned them "into stories about Christian theology, social justice, religious morals, and metaphors for the reign of God."8
            One can never be certain about such things, but judging from the nature of his oral compositions, as they have come down to us, it appears that Jesus did not turn to God to inspire his imagination, but rather he turned to the reality of the Palestinian world.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
1"The Effects of Analogy" in The Necessary Angel. Essays on Reality and the Imagination (New York: Alfred A. Knopf and Random House, 1951), 130.
2Necessary Angel, 54.
3Necessary Angel, 113
4Necessary Angel, 128-29.
5Parabolic Figures or Narrative Fictions, xv.
6Hedrick, "Survivors of the Crucifixion" in Zimmermann, Hermeneutik der Gleichnisse Jesu, 176.
7Hedrick, Wisdom of Jesus, 128-29.
8"Survivors of the Crucifixion," 172-73.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

On Giving up Traditional Religious Faith

Suppose you have given up traditional faith in God and have come to the conclusion that the Judean man Jesus was only a man, about whom little historical information is known for certain. You no longer believe in life after death, but think that everything ends in the grave, and the church is simply a social organization, rather than a spiritual organism. Would such a change in perspective really matter?
            The Bible has very little to say positively regarding such a turn of affairs. It does make a serious threat, however: If Christians commit apostasy, it is impossible to restore them again to faith (Heb 6:1-8), or so the author of Hebrews thought. Later church leaders had different views on that issue, however.
            The closest thing to a "positive" word for someone who has given up traditional faith is likely found in Ecclesiastes. The writer of Ecclesiastes (calling himself, "Koheleth"; perhaps, the "Gatherer") gathered his own random reflections on the utter weariness of life, which he found as bitterly disappointing at best, into the book Ecclesiastes (from its Greek title ekklesiastes, "one who calls an assembly"). "Everything," Koheleth declared at the beginning of his collection, "is an ephemeral vapor" (1:2).
            The central theme of the sage's reflections is that life is transitory—like a momentary breath (1:2-11). He finds that there is a weary sameness to life (3:15); it passes like a shadow (6:12). Being governed by chance, as it is (9:11-12), life is unfair: the righteous perish early and the wicked live out long lives (7:15).
            The author does believe in God (5:18; 3:13; 8:15), but thinks that the life the Creator has bestowed on his creatures is an "unhappy business" (1:13). Human beings are like the beasts of the field; both return to dust (3:18-20; see also 9:10), and there is no certainty about the fate of the human spirit (3:21-22). The writer is candid; his views reflect the honest ponderings of a man who sees life from a rational perspective rather than through the eyes of faith. He struggles with the question: what is the point of life—and finds no satisfactory answer. His quest for answers brings him to the edge of despair, and his solution was to take pleasure in the simple things of life, like eating, drinking, and work (2:24; see also similar statements at 2:10; 3:12-13; 3:22; 5:18-19; 8:15; 9:7, 9; 10:19).
            The precept of traditional religion with which the text ends (12:13-14) surely does not reflect Koheleth's views as such a sentiment violates the norm of the work as a whole. Koheleth ponders the dichotomy between the inequities of life, and the failure of traditional religion to cope successfully with that reality. In the final analysis, however, he gives up neither on God nor life, and continues pondering the human situation.1
            Could you learn to live without God and the comforts of traditional religion, as Koheleth has apparently managed to do? He found that honest transparency as an observer of life was preferred to embracing the answers of an inadequate traditional religion—even though by so doing he marginalized himself from the "righteous" (5:1-2; 9:1-6).
            If your fateful change of mind happened in one moment of time, the day following would nevertheless find the sun shining just as bright, birdsong just as sweet, and the world still filled with all the vibrant wonders of life. At least that was the experience of the poet Wallace Stevens. He began in Pennsylvania apparently as a traditional Lutheran2 but ended life as a poet who thought poetry, "an exceeding music" that "must take the place of empty heaven and its hymns."3 He was regarded as a "poet of reality," who through imagination peered into the figurations of what seemed to be, in order to see "things as they are." Here is a quote from one of his poems4 seemingly reflecting a positive response to a profound shift in thought:
It was when I said,
"There is no such thing as the truth,"
That the grapes seemed fatter.
The fox ran out of his hole.
You…You said
"There are many truths,
But they are not parts of a truth."
Then the tree at night began to change
It was at that time, that the silence was largest
And longest, the night was roundest,
The fragrance of the autumn warmest,
Closest and strongest.
In Stevens' case giving up traditional faith brought a renewed sense of the wonder of the universe. A literary critic once wrote of Stevens: In the end Stevens' subject was "living without God and finding it good."5

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
1In this description I have freely "borrowed" from my own description of Ecclesiastes found in The Wisdom of Jesus, 69-72.
2In 1953 he described himself as a "dried up Presbyterian," who was not an atheist, but he certainly no longer believed in the same God in whom he had believed as a boy: Letters of Wallace Stevens (1966), letter 808 and 875.
3From "The Man with the Blue Guitar," Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (1961), 167.
4Stevens, "On the Road Home," Collected Poems, 203-204.
5Frank Kermode, Wallace Stevens (1960), 127.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Armageddon and the Apocalypse

Modern day "prophets" are continuously warning us that Armageddon1 or the Apocalypse2 or the Day of the Lord is near. They claim to know "the signs of the times," and describe certain historical events as harbingers of the end—precursors to the day of the Lord. They base their dire predictions on what they regard as ancient biblical prophecies that have predicted certain events in our day, which they think will trigger an end-time scenario. They hope to persuade us through fear, and entangle us in their webs of misinformation.
            "Prophets" have been predicting the end of the world from Judeo-Christian texts at least since the Isaiah Apocalypse (24-27), and there is no lack of such people in the public media today. When their prophecies fail, as they inevitably must, they recalibrate the time of the end, and then these also fail. Eventually these self-styled "prophets" pass from public view—only to be replaced by other such "prophets."
            In the New Testament the "book ends" of end-time speculations are provided by the earliest writer (Paul) and the latest writer (the author of Second Peter). The end-time in Second Peter (middle second century) is generic—a simple prediction that the world will end at some unspecified future time, and includes an encouragement to live holy and godly lives, but with few specifics as to what that lifestyle includes (2 Pet 3:1-14).
Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day (2 Pet 3:8).
The day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up (2 Pet 3:10).
Therefore, beloved, since you wait for these [events], be zealous to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace (2 Pet 3:14).
Paul, on the other hand, imagines that the end of the world is actually happening in his own day in the middle first century (1 Cor 7:26, 29; 1 Cor 10:11). In the face of this present crisis he attempts a bit of social engineering in the daily lives of his readers. For example, here is his rule in all the churches: in view of the fact that the end of the world is now happening, people should remain in the social circumstances in which they find themselves (1 Cor 7:17, 20). Hence, if one is a slave, "never mind" (1 Cor 7:21).3 If circumcised, don't try to remove the marks of circumcision; if not circumcised, don't seek circumcision (7:18). If unmarried, or a widow, one should stay single (7:8). If married, a wife should not separate from her husband, and if she does she should remain single; and for the husband—no divorces (7:11-13). If one is living with a "virgin"4 either marry her or not, it makes no difference (7:36-38), but he preferred that people remain single as he was (1 Cor 7:8).
            There have been many attempts to predict the precise time of the end, and such attempts have always been able to attract a gullible audience for their nonsense. What usually happens is that the predictions fail, and then the "prophet" recalibrates the time of the end, which also fails in its turn. This, for example, was what happened in the case of the early nineteenth-century end-time "prophet," William Miller, leader of the Millerites, who predicted the return of Christ in 1843 or 1844.5
            If one gets hooked in the nets of these admittedly charismatic figures, prepare to be disappointed—as all have been through the years. People simply cannot predict the future and that statement includes even the authors of the biblical texts. Believing the predictions of modern day "prophets" will not make them come true—as the uniform experience of history proves.6 The fact that none of these prophetic figures through history have been correct is the one certain datum of such speculations about the end.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
1Armageddon; see Revelation 16:12-16. The word appears only once in the Bible.
2Apocalypse is a disclosure or revelation. As used of the end, it is the uncovering of the secrets of the end of the world.
3Paul, however, violates his rule, and concedes that if slaves have the opportunity to secure freedom, they should seize it.
4"Virgin" (Parthenos; παρθένος) in this passage (1 Cor 7:36-40) is usually translated "betrothed." James Moffat, however, translates it "a maid who is a spiritual bride."
6See John R. Hall, Apocalypse. From Antiquity to the Empire of Modernity (2009), 147-56.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

On Becoming God

An odd but well-known locution used by Paul throughout his letters is "in Christ." Rudolf Bultmann, arguably the most influential New Testament Scholar of the twentieth century, described this expression as denoting an individual's mystical relationship to Christ, from which the actual life of the believer is lived not out of himself but out of Christ. He continues: "It makes no difference whether Paul speaks of the believer's being in Christ or Christ's being in the believer."1 Perhaps Bultmann is correct, but that may not be the case. It seems to me that the linguistic contexts of antiquity out of which these two different locutions are driven are very different.
            Readers will be most familiar with the expression of Christ being in the believer: for example: "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Gal 2:20; compare, Rom 8:9-11; 1 Cor 3:16; 2 Cor 13:5). The language of these expressions finds its natural locus in the well-known context of spirit and demonic possession in the ancient world: for example, Mark 9:25-27; Luke 8:26-33; Matt 12:43-45a=Luke11:24-26; Luke 22:3.
            On the other hand, the language of the believer "being in Christ" is different; for example, "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away behold, the new has come" (2 Cor 5:17; Rom 16:7; 2 Cor 12:2; 1 Thess 4:16). The natural location of these kinds of expressions is found in a mystic encounter whereby the believer seeks to become one with deity, or to become deity; that is to say it is the process of deification or divinization; for example, Corpus Hermeticum I.25-26 describes the process of deification, or divinization:
The human being rushes up through the cosmic framework…And then stripped of the effects of the cosmic framework the human enters the region of the Ogdoad [the eighth sphere]; he has his own proper power, and along with the blessed he hymns the father. Those present there rejoice together in his presence, and having become like his companions, he also hears certain powers that exist beyond the ogdoadic region and hymn god with sweet voice. They rise up to the father in order and surrender themselves to the powers, and, having become powers, they enter into god. This is the final good for those who have received knowledge: to be made god.
This experience is a "birth of mind," of which the teacher claims: "we have been divinized by this birth" (CH XIII. 10; see similar statements in CH IV.6; X.24-25; XI.20; XII.1, 14). In a hymn Trismegistus (Thrice Great Power) praises the god Asclepius: "We rejoice that you have deigned to make us gods for eternity even while we depend on the body" (Asclepius 41; see also 6, 22).2
            A final example comes from the Neoplatonic philosopher, Plotinus (A.D. 204-70): The soul holds an "intent towards that unity to which all souls should move and the divine souls always move , divine in virtue of that movement; for to be a god is to be integral with the Supreme" (Ennead VI. 8).3
            Paul seems to share such a view and puts it this way in 1 Cor 6:17: "But the person joined to the Lord becomes one spirit." Many translators add the words "with him" to the end of the sentence, but the words are lacking in the Greek. The inclusion of a clarifying "with him" in the translation suggests a dualism whereby the person and the Lord retain their individual identities in the unity, but Paul only says the two become one spirit.  The same is true of the previous verse (1 Cor 6:16): whoever joins with the prostitute becomes one body." It is no longer he and she sharing one body, they are one body. Other arguments about unity seem to support this idea. For example, Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female "are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:28; see also 1 Cor 10:16-17; 12:12-13).
            While Paul does not explicitly say that "becoming one spirit" with the Lord is essentially becoming divine, he nevertheless uses the language of deification and it could easily have been understood in that way by his contemporaries. The author of Second Peter, on the other hand, has no hesitation and described people who shared his faith (2 Pet 1:1) as having "come to share in the divine nature" (2 Pet 1:4). One who has come to share in the divine nature has essentially become divine himself—or so it would seem. At least that is how the Christian experience is understood by the Orthodox Church of today, where deification or theosis is the aim of the Christian life:
[Saint] Basil described man as a creature who has received the order to become a god; and Athanasius…said that God became man that man might become god…Such, according to the teaching of the Orthodox Church, is the final goal at which every Christian must aim: to become god, to attain theosis, 'deification' or 'divinization.' For Orthodoxy man's salvation and redemption means his deification.4
Does sharing the divine nature make one divine?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
1 Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament (1951), 1.328
2 Quotations from the Hermetica are from Brian P. Copenhaver, Hermetica. The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a new English translation with notes and introduction (1992). The dates of CH are given as A. D. 2-5.
3 Translation by Stephen MacKenna, Plotinus, The Enneads (1991).
4 Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (1963).

Monday, June 19, 2017

Are there Degrees of Spirituality?

This is not a question that I can answer. In my view a person's spirituality is an inner attitude; it is not a foreign supplemental addition to oneself. One can evaluate spirituality in terms of exterior social behavior after defining what is meant by "religious," but that is not quite the same thing as studying a mental state or stance toward something. The inner mental state or stance of spirituality is never available for direct study; instead, only the stated claims of those polled about spirituality may be analyzed.
            The Apostle Paul, however, thought there were degrees to spirituality, and from the perspective of nascent Christianity he described the scale this way:
But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as fleshly, as babes in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food; for you were not ready for it; and even yet you are not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not still of the flesh and behaving just like ordinary people? For when one says, "I belong to Paul," and another, "I belong to Apollos," are you not just ordinary people? (1 Cor 3:1-4)
The degree scale that Paul establishes is at its lowest end "ordinary fleshly people" (or babes in Christ) and at its highest end "spiritual people." I suppose that the designations fleshly/spiritual would come together at the midpoint halfway through the scale. Paul is able to distinguish these two extremes, however, only in terms of human behaviors and he gives his readers an example.  Ordinary fleshly people act jealously and create strife (1 Cor 3:3). Presumably the spiritual people at the upper end of the scale would act just the opposite; that is, spiritual people would be characterized by trust and they would create harmony. But perhaps we should use his words as to how spiritual people behave:
The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. (Gal 5:22-23 RSV)
On the other hand, the behaviors to which the flesh (what Paul regards as human lower nature) leads are:
fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissention, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and such things." (Gal 5:19-21 RSV
            Does "spirituality," however defined, improve the species Homo sapiens?  Again, it is not a question that can be answered for two reasons: 1. It will depend on how you define "improvement." For example, some may think spiritual improvement means being less formally "religious" (however defined), since they might regard religiosity as a holdover from the superstitious period of humanity's primitive past; and 2. Since "spirituality" is a personal attitude (that is, how one regards oneself or how one is regarded by others), we can never analyze the degree of one's spirituality directly. We can only know how we regard ourselves and what we claim about someone else—and our self claims and what others claim about us may disagree.
            Suppose, however, "spirituality" were defined in terms of stated concepts of the Divine—that is to say how has the species Homo sapiens described the Gods it serves? Have concepts of God evolved or devolved? My theory is that spiritual people are more apt to conceive a more ethically respectable God; spiritual people would scarcely serve a flawed Deity. The more ethically their Gods behave; the keener must be the spiritual sense of those believing in such Gods.
            I do see specific indicators of gradual change in the representation of Deity by the species Homo sapiens. The overlapping changes are not uniform throughout the world and have been occurring over millions of years.
1.   The ascription of Divinity to the primal forces of nature (Primitive period).
2.   Polytheism and anthropomorphism (Classical Greek and Roman period).
3.   Monotheism and Spirit (Judeo-Christian period).
4.   Panentheism: God is in everything and everything is in God (Post-Enlightenment).
Whether this represents an evolution that makes our species more spiritual or whether it is a devolution that makes our species less spiritual, is a subjective judgment, however, and will be answered according to one's personal faith.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University