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Cyprian, Mortality, and Future Hope

By Chad Thornhill

Cyprian of Carthage was a third century bishop in North Africa. He is most famous for his pastoral interactions during the Novatianist schism. His writings evidence his pastoral concerns not entering into theological reflection for the sake of doctrinal elegance, but rather focused upon the needs of those connected with his ministry. He influenced later thinkers, including Augustine, and was himself influenced by Tertullian’s writings. His most famous work is On the Unity of the Church, in which he wrote what is perhaps his most well-known statement: “He can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother.” In his On the Mortality, Cyprian also addressed how the Christian ought to respond to suffering and the imminence of death in this life.

On the Mortality no doubt reflects Cyprian’s concern, as do many of his works, for the threat of recantation which faced many of his flock. Cyprian ministered in an age where persecution was an ever-present threat for the Christian community. Much of Cyprian’s theological reputation comes from his opposition to Novatian, who had set himself up as an anti-pope and was opposed to reinstating the “lapsed” (i.e., those who had denied their faith when faced with persecution) to good standing in the Church. Cyprian, though he advocated for re-instating the penitent, nevertheless did not encourage laxity among believers. In On the Mortality, Cyprian encouraged Christ-followers to remain faithfully obedient to God, even when faced with death. Part of Cyprian’s plea is for the believer to keep the reality of the in-breaking of the kingdom of God ever present before them. He wrote:

The kingdom of God, beloved brethren, is beginning to be at hand; the reward of life, and the rejoicing of eternal salvation, and the perpetual gladness and possession lately lost of paradise, are now coming, with the passing away of the world; already heavenly things are taking the place of earthly, and great things of small, and eternal things of things that fade away. What room is there here for anxiety and solicitude? Who, in the midst of these things, is trembling and sad, except he who is without hope and faith? For it is for him to fear death who is not willing to go to Christ. It is for him to be unwilling to go to Christ who does not believe that he is about to reign with Christ (Cyprian of Carthage, On the Mortality, II, translation by Robert Ernest Wallis).

Cyprian, assured by the words of Jesus that the kingdom of God is both here and near, maintained that confidence in the face of death is available to the Christian. This, though, does not mean—because of the “not yetness” of the kingdom—that Christians can expect a life free of suffering in the “now.” As Cyprian continues:

Thus, when the earth is barren with an unproductive harvest, famine makes no distinction; thus, when with the invasion of an enemy any city is taken, captivity at once desolates all; and when the serene clouds withhold the rain, the drought is alike to all; and when the jagged rocks rend the ship, the shipwreck is common without exception to all that sail in her; and the disease of the eyes, and the attack of fevers, and the feebleness of all the limbs is common to us with others, so long as this common flesh of ours is borne by us in the world (Cyprian of Carthage, On the Mortality, VIII).

According to Cyprian, not only should believers expect to experience the same pain and suffering as the unbeliever, they should in reality expect more, since the spiritual powers will battle all the more fiercely against them (Cyprian of Carthage, On the Mortality, IX). They are ultimately, however, assured that they will overcome death even if they must traverse through it in order to do so. Cyprian wrote:

What a grandeur of spirit it is to struggle with all the powers of an unshaken mind against so many onsets of devastation and death! (Cyprian of Carthage, On the Mortality, XIV).

In On the Mortality, Cyprian referenced Philippians 3:21 in his word of assurances. Because of the power of the risen Jesus, who has been given authority over all things, those in Christ will be transformed into the state of his glorious body. As Paul writes elsewhere (1 Thessalonians 1:12), Christ’s glory will be shared with those united with him. Ultimately the assurance of believers’ resurrection can be held firmly because Jesus himself is the firstfruit of that resurrection (1 Cor. 15:20). The greatest threat which the cosmic powers can wield against God’s people (O, Death) must ultimately be viewed as no threat at all. Death’s sting departs. Death’s failure arrives. And in the face of the suffering inevitable in this world, that truly is Good News.

 

Image: “Resurrection 60″ by Waiting for the Word. CC License. 

The Bible, Same-Sex Sexual Activity, and the Parameters for Flourishing (Part 3)

By Chad Thornhill 

For those who do not accept the Bible as authoritative, discussing exegetical nuances (see Parts 1 and 2) likely offers little reason to change their view. I would not expect it to, nor would that be my intent. However, for those who do believe in the authority of the Bible for faith and yet would challenge its prohibitions against same-sex sexual behavior, I think we must ask, in what sense, then, does the Bible offer any ethical norms? In other words, if cultural movements and individual stories can override the prevailing opinion of Second Temple Jews (the NT’s context), Jesus and Paul (the NT’s central sources of doctrinal information), the earliest “Christians,” and the majority view of the Church throughout its history, in what sense can we find any ethical norms in Scripture or tradition? Is it all fair game and to be redefined as culture changes? Would the same principle apply, for example, to illegitimate divorce, or lying, or stealing, or drunkenness?

A possible retort might be here that what is being argued for (same-sex unions) falls under the hermeneutic of “love,” which Jesus (Mark 12:28-31; Matt 22:37-39; Luke 10:27), Paul (Rom 13:8-10 ; Gal 5:14), and James (Jas 2:8-13) all affirm as central to Christian obedience. However, these commands come from a combination of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (Love God) and Leviticus 19:18 (Love neighbor). The irony here is Jesus, Paul, and James affirm the validity of Leviticus 19 for Christian practice. If their basis for establishing the centrality of love for Christian obedience is rooted in Leviticus 19, would we expect them to then be ignoring Leviticus 18 and 20? Clearly not. If these three chapters informed both their sexual ethics and their commitment to the centrality of love, can we so readily rend them apart? It seems to me this runs roughshod over sound and sensible hermeneutical principles. To claim the centrality of love is to stand upon Jesus, James, and Paul and Moses (cf. Lev 19). Erasing the validity of Leviticus from the foundation of ethical norms likewise erases the foundation for the centrality of love of neighbor which permeates the New Testament. Let’s not throw Moses out with the bathwater.

This does not mean, of course, that the Church, even if it stands on reasonable ground historically and exegetically for holding that same-sex sexual activity, and all sexual activity outside of male-female unions, has handled these matters well. The numerous failings, offenses, and outrages are well-documented. In fact, we have inverted the matter entirely. It appears that both Jesus and Paul value the primacy of celibacy for religious service and offer marriage as a concession. Jesus seems to imply this in Matthew 19:10-12, which we examined above, and Paul states it outright in 1 Corinthians 7:7-9 (“Now I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with sexual desire” (LEB).).

In our efforts to establish the validity of our position on marriage, we have established it as the norm to be attained and ignored completely the value of celibacy, perhaps even reinforcing the misguided idea that the primary function of marriage is sexual pleasure and gratification. Celibacy is to be praised rather than seen as an unfortunate outcome for those unfit for marriage. Celibacy frees followers of Jesus to dedicate their life and relationships to ministry and service. Celibacy does not entail loneliness. It entails a sacrifice, of course, but the Christian life is paradigmatically a life of sacrificial cruciformity. In fact, as Joseph Hellerman has argued,[1] we seem to have gotten Jesus’ (and Paul’s) priorities out of order. For Jesus, the “fictive kinship” offered in the family of God was to be the central place of community and relational nourishment for God’s people. The Church was the family. When Jesus places following him over blood-relation ties, this is what he means. We frequently hear it said that our priorities should be God-family-church, but Hellerman argues Jesus’ priorities were God-church-family. This does not mean the family is to be neglected, and ideally the biological family will overlap with the spiritual family. However, the New Testament suggests, perhaps clearer than we have recognized, that the primary place of relational sustenance was to come from the community of faith. The Church family. We do not offer the church, then, to those who we think should pursue celibacy as the way to follow the teachings of Scripture, as a lesser good. Rather, it is the primary good which we have regrettably made secondary.

The Church for too long has singled out same-sex sexual activity as the ultimate offense. If we were consistent, we would view adultery (including remarriage in cases of illegitimate divorce and dwelling on sexual thoughts toward a married person), pre-marital sex, consumption of pornography, and other forms of porneia with the same rejection as same-sex sexual activity. Perhaps we have found the LGBT “other” an easier target than the offenses of adultery, pornography, and cohabitation which permeate the church in the West today. Whatever the case, this lopsided aggression toward same-sex sexual activity in the larger culture at the expense of ignoring more prevalent issues in the Church must end. This means we should openly acknowledge that the Church has regrettably promoted disrespect, hate, and an unequal measure of condemnation on the LGBT community. Repentance is in order. We can and should maintain our position, but we should maintain it with consistency, taking into account the entire biblical witness and the whole picture of what human flourishing should look like. And we should maintain it with love. We need not separate Leviticus 19 from 18 and 20.
If we were consistent, we would view adultery (including remarriage in cases of illegitimate divorce and dwelling on sexual thoughts toward a married person), pre-marital sex, consumption of pornography, and other forms of porneia with the same rejection as same-sex sexual activity.

Rather than maintaining a theologically informed and balanced sexual ethic, too often evangelical believers have depended on a “yuck” factor to bolster their negative depictions of homosexuality. Without a more biblical and rigorously honest rationale undergirding their proscription of homosexual practice, there is little wonder that so many Millenials today (even professing Christians among them) have been remarkably resistant to the idea that same-sex sexual activity is a sin.

Our society largely judges “freedom” as the ability to follow one’s every whim and desire. As Christians, we rightly view this as bondage. Unfettered freedom is ultimately destructive. The teachings of Jesus and his apostles and the rich traditions of the Church, like the Law before them, provide parameters for human flourishing. We err when we selectively pursue the parameters which best serve our purposes or are most easily implemented. Full human flourishing requires full submissive obedience to the revelation of God and to the Revealed One.

Notes: 

[1] Joseph H. Hellerman, When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus’ Vision for Authentic Christian Community (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009).

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The Bible, Same-Sex Sexual Activity, and the Parameters for Flourishing (Part 2)

By Chad Thornhill 

Part 1

Much also has been made of the Pauline passages which touch on the subject of same-sex sexual activity (Rom 1:26-27; 1 Cor 6:9-11; 1 Tim 1:9-10). We should remind ourselves, before attending briefly to these texts, that Paul shared this same first century Jewish context with Jesus. If Paul deviated significantly from the standard, traditional Jewish sexual ethics, we would expect to find a great deal of effort and care exerted in order to accomplish that end. What we find instead are numerous affirmations of that ethic.

“For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error” (Rom 1:26-27, NASB).

Perhaps the most famous Pauline condemnation of same-sex sexual activity comes here in Romans 1. There are, however, a handful of real interpretive issues related to this passage. Some have suggested that 1:18-32 actually sets out the opinion of Paul’s interlocutor, and thus is not even Paul himself speaking.[1] Romans is frequently recognized as a diatribe, where Paul interacts with his interlocutor (whether imagined or real), and so it is possible that he presents his interlocutor’s position here (an ancient rhetorical strategy known as prosopopoeia) at the beginning of the letter and begins his own response in 2:1. We do not have time to chase that rabbit here, but suffice it to say that if that is the case, Romans 1:26-27 loses considerable (i.e., all of its) force as it relates to our question about same-sex sexual activity. Second, there is also the question of what Paul means here by exchanging natural relations with unnatural ones. It has been suggested that Paul has something in mind here other than consensual same-sex sexual activity. If, however, pederasty, oppressive same-sex practices, or cultic sexual practices are in view, Paul has used rather obscure terminology to indicate this when clearer words were available to him. There would be clearer ways to express that idea than the way Paul has done here. That withstanding, legitimate questions persist concerning this particular text and its relation to our topic. In my estimation, other passages in Paul are clearer.

“For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Eph 5:31, NASB).

In terms of a positive example, Paul (who I take to be the voice of Ephesians) uses male-female marriage as a picture of the relationship of Christ and the Church and also affirms here the male-female nature of that union. For Paul, like Jesus, there was no consideration given to recognize same-sex unions or to validate same-sex sexual relations.

“But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully, realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching” (1 Tim 1:8-10, NASB).

The NASB does not render the key words here as clearly as it could. The terms here are likewise debated. The Greek word for “homosexual” is arsenokoitais. The term here is a compound of two terms found in Leviticus 20:13 and refers to a man who engages in sexual activity with another man. This same term appears also in 1 Corinthians 6, where it is paired with another debated term.

“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor 6:9-11, NASB)

Here again a certain deficiency plagues the translations chosen by the NASB (I used it here simply because I used it elsewhere). The words for “effeminate” and “homosexuals” are malakoi and arsenokoitai, respectively. The terms in 1 Timothy 1:8-10 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 both have been questioned as to whether they refer to same-sex sexual activity in general, or to the practice of pederasty in the ancient world, where older men would engage in sexual activity with boys.  Both BDAG and Louw-Nida (two standard NT lexicons) suggest the terms refer to the passive (malakoi) and active (arsenokoitai) partners in a male same-sex sexual encounter. The term arsenokoitai was likely coined by Paul on the basis of Leviticus 20:13, which suggests Paul has in mind here the context of the Law of Moses rather than Greco-Roman practices. Nothing in the context indicates Paul has a more specific, restricted application of the term in mind, and his inclusion of sexually immoral persons (pornoi), idolators, and adulterers, strengthens the possibility that Leviticus is informing his thinking all the more. The other major category mentioned in Leviticus is incest, which Paul has addressed quite thoroughly in 1 Corinthians 5. In other words, it seems quite plausible that Paul is bringing Leviticus 18-20 to bear on the Corinthian congregation in order to set out the proper sexual pattern for followers of Jesus. It seems no small coincidence that Paul also lays out two possibilities in the next chapter (1 Cor 7) for his audience. All forms of sexual immorality (porneia) must be avoided, and the two options set forth are male-female marriage among believers and celibacy. Like Jesus, and like the Jewish world around them, Paul imagines no other alternatives for sexual activity.

This all raises a flag for how the debate often goes concerning how we should understand Leviticus’ application for today. Because Christians often view the Law in negative terms (i.e., it represents unattainable moral perfection) or as something which was discarded (though numerous NT texts indicate otherwise), there is a challenge in understanding how Leviticus might be relevant for a Christian’s sexual behavior. The question of the role of the Law is a complex and sticky one, and I cannot do complete justice to it here. The fact of the matter is that Jews continued to keep the Law. The whole point of the Acts 15 council was to consider what expectations Gentile Jesus-followers should keep and which ones they were exempted from following. Their conclusion is that Gentile Jesus-followers were to abstain from idolatry, sexual immorality, and consuming blood or meat from animals which had been strangled. In other words, no keeping the feasts, no circumcision, no following Jewish purity rights, etc. (all of which are issues which Paul addresses in his letters, meaning some Jews apparently did not get the news or ignored it). This does not mean the Law did not apply to them, but rather that the Law was not what centrally defined their identity. Jesus did. Throughout Paul’s letters, we find Paul grounding both his instruction and ethical teachings in the Old Testament in general, and the Law specifically. This issue provides a clear example. Paul expected the ethical guidelines concerning sexual behavior to still be binding on Gentile Christians, which meant incest, adultery, same-sex sexual activity, and other forms of sexual activity outside of male-female marital unions were forbidden. This was true of Jews and was to be true of Gentiles as well. Leviticus 18-20 still applied.

Furthermore, the term porneia, which we have mentioned several times now, was a bit of a “catch all” term for all kinds of inappropriate sexual behavior. It, along with its cognate terms, is used 55 times in the NT. It is used in various places in the NT to refer to adultery, prostitution, and incest, yet is also distinguished at times from those categories, indicating again that it could be a bit of an “umbrella” term for inappropriate sexual activity (i.e., that occurring outside of a male-female marriage union). All this should weigh heavily in favor of the fact that both Paul and Jesus very likely viewed all forms of sexual activity outside of male-female marital unions as sinful and forbidden.

New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, who supports same-sex unions, notes,

The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says [i.e., the NT authors condemned same-sex sexual activity]. But what are we to do with what the text says? We must state our grounds for standing in tension with the clear commands of Scripture, and include in those grounds some basis in Scripture itself.”[2]

Johnson argues from the movement of God in human experiences, using the analogy of the Spirit-led work of the inclusion of the Gentiles to what we see occurring in same-sex relationships today. He does not see a basis in the NT itself for declaring same-sex sexual activity as good. Rather, he suggests the cultural movement afoot today and the stories of LGBT persons show us that the opinions of the NT writers are no longer valid for our understanding of sexual ethics today.


 Notes:

[1] See Douglas A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 528ff.

[2] Luke Timothy Johnson, “Homosexuality & The Church: Scripture & Experience,” Commonwealth Magazine, June 11, 2007, accessed June 30, 2015, https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/homosexuality-church-1.

 

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The Bible, Same-Sex Sexual Activity, and the Parameters for Flourishing (Part 1)

By Chad Thornhill 

Part 2

It may surprise those outside of the field of biblical studies that there has been intense debate in recent decades over the meaning of the handful of passages in the Bible which seem to condemn same-sex sexual activity. These passages, sometimes referred to as “clobber” texts, since it is often said they have been used to “clobber” LGBT persons (and they unfortunately have), have maintained a fairly stable interpretive history (at least as far as these things go) in the church until the sexual revolution resulted in their revisitation. It may also be surprising that with several of these passages there are legitimate questions regarding the meanings of words and phrases, as the terminology is not always completely clear, even from the context of the passage. Thus there have been some good reasons for the debate, even though there have also been some overly-creative interpretive approaches attempted as well. Having done a fair amount of reading on the matter (though by no means considering myself an expert on all things related), I remain convinced that the texts do indeed forbid same-sex sexual activity.

Notice I did not say they forbid “homosexuality.” The way that term is used today usually refers to sexual orientation, or to one’s basic sense of attraction. While conversion therapy in its heyday sought to redirect homosexual attractions into heterosexual attractions, most now recognize that the therapy largely did not work, and that orientation is not easily changed.[1] Though some still suggest the possibility of conversion therapy’s success,[2] most within the evangelical community have abandoned it. While I do not think the Bible speaks clearly (if at all) about “sexual orientation,” it does speak (and I think with greater clarity) concerning same-sex sexual activity.

To recognize this distinction is to recognize a difference between our context and the biblical context(s). The Bible was written in places, times, and cultures vastly different from our own. When we come to the text, our goal should be to interpret it, as much as we are able, in its own context rather than ours. This does not remove its relevance for today’s Church, but it does mean we must consider that relevance with a great deal of thought and care. Though I can develop the case only briefly here, I wish to suggest that it is that very ancient context which makes it highly plausible that the New Testament authors, and Jesus himself, would have understood same-sex sexual activity as sinful.

Texts Addressing Same-Sex Sexual Activity

First, and perhaps most famously, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 state:

You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination (Lev 18:22, NASB).

If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death. Their bloodguiltiness is upon them (Lev 20:13).

Leviticus 18 and 20 are both concerned with inappropriate forms of sexual activity. Forbidden here are various forms of incest, adultery, and bestiality. The basis for the condemnation of this behavior is that it is an abomination (Heb: ʿēbâ; Gr: bdelugma). This term, which has been argued is restricted to a cultic/purity usage and thus is not applicable to Christians, refers to something offensive to God which makes a person unclean. Such activity would defile Israel in ways the surrounding nations had been defiled (cf. Lev 18:4ff.). Language of “clean” and “unclean” is less common in the New Testament than the Old, and is indeed transformed in a sense (e.g., Mark 7:19; Acts 10:11-15; 1 Tim 4:1-5), but this in and of itself does not mean the entire passage is no longer applicable (more on that below). The term (ʿēbâ; bdelugma) also carries a similar ethical connotation in Revelation 17:4, where it is connected with “sexual immorality” (more on that notion below as well).

Often what constitutes “sin” in the Old Testament (and the New) is that which disrupts the intended function given by God. We learn in Levicitus that it is not just the individual, but the community and the land itself, which would be corrupted by these forbidden activities. There are communal and ecological consequences for disrupting the divinely established parameters for human flourishing. Just as God is “otherly,” his people must act “otherly,” distinguished from the surrounding societies, as he has set them apart to do (cf. Lev 20:26).

Second, while it is frequently claimed that Jesus is silent on issues concerning same-sex sexuality, there are implicit indications in Jesus’ words which indicate otherwise. Two texts (among a few others) in the Gospels seem to point in a different direction.

But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, and the two shall become one flesh; so they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate (Mark 10:6-9, NASB).

Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” And He answered and said, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” The disciples said to Him, “If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry.” But He said to them, “Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it” (Matt 19:3-12, NASB).

What makes us think Jesus here is implicitly (NOT explicitly) suggesting same-sex sexual activity, or more broadly, any form of sexual activity outside of a male-female marital relationship (which, for Jesus, would include sexual activity among the illegitimately divorced)[3] is condemned? If we remind ourselves that Jesus was a first century Jew, who grew up within Second Temple Judaism and shared major affinities with Judaism[4], we can see that Jesus shared a common thread with traditional Jewish beliefs about sexual activities. These beliefs, largely derived from Leviticus 18-20, among other places, viewed all forms of incest, adultery, and same-sex sexual activityas causing defilement and out of step with the divinely intended pattern. They were actions which, if not repented of and “put off,” merited consequences, both immediate and eschatological. As Preston Sprinkle has summarized succinctly, “Judaism from 300 B.C. to 500 A.D. unanimously and unambiguously maintained the Levitical prohibitions against all forms of same-sex relations.”[5] Jesus, within the context of first-century Judaism, and only validating male-female marriage (cf. Mark 10:6-9) or celibacy (cf. Matt 19:10-12) as the available options, stood squarely within that Jewish context. There is no hint that Jesus deviated from the traditional, widespread Jewish belief. None.

Notes:                                                                                                          

[1] See Bobby Ross Jr., “No Straight Shot: More Evangelical Therapists Move from Changing Orientation to Embracing Faith Identity for Gays,” Christianity Today, September 14, 2009, accessed June 30, 2015. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/october/1.10.html and Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Gay, Christian, and Celibate: The Changing Face of the Homosexuality Debate,” On Faith, August 4, 2014, accessed June 30, 2015, http://www.faithstreet.com/onfaith/2014/08/04/gay-christian-celibate-the-changing-face-of-the-homosexuality-debate/33482 and “Evangelical Leader Russell Moore Denounces Ex-Gay Therapy,” Religion News Service, October 28, 2014, accessed June 30, 2015, http://www.religionnews.com/2014/10/28/evangelical-leader-russell-moore-denounces-ex-gay-therapy/.

[2] John Piper, “Same-Sex Attraction and the Inevitability of Change,” Desiring God, September 19, 2012, accessed June 30, 2015. http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/same-sex-attraction-and-the-inevitability-of-change.

[3] To flesh this out would take us too far afield of our topic. I bring this up since the New Testament makes concessions for divorce in certain cases (i.e., sexual unfaithfulness). I think theologically a case can also be made for abusive relationships and perhaps other situations. Beyond this, divorce because “it didn’t work out,” or “we grew apart,” or “we fell out of love” is simply not allowed in the New Testament view of marriage. Jesus says this is a hard teaching for a reason.

[4] He does not reject Judaism as a failed religious system as older Lutheran and Bultmannian traditions assumed.

[5] Preston Sprinkle, “The Sin “of” Homosexuality?” Theology in the Raw, April 20, 2015, accessed June 30, 2015. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/theologyintheraw/2015/04/the-sin-of-homosexuality/

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Gregory of Nyssa, the Death of Infants, and the Life of God

By Chad Thornhill 

“From where then comes evil?” This question, going back as far as Plato, more than any other perhaps in human history, has challenged the theist to think carefully about the nature of evil. And of course, there is a long tradition of responses in Christian history.

Most remember Gregory of Nyssa as one of the three Cappadocian fathers who were instrumental in solidifying the Trinitarian theology of the early church. As such, he became an important defender of Nicene orthodoxy. Defender against Arianism that he was, Gregory was exiled for a time during the reign of the pro-Arian emporer Valens, though this, fortunately for Gregory, was short-lived.

Gregory’s theological treatises (Answer to Enomius, On the Holy Spirit, On the Holy Trinity, On “Not Three Gods, and On the Faith) are some of his best known works. Lesser known is his On Infants’ Early Deaths, written as a letter to the governor Hierius near the end of Gregory’s life. Here Gregory addresses the difficult and painful question as to why “while the life of one is lengthened into old age, another has only so far a portion of it as to breathe the air with one gasp, and die.” Gregory ponders how we ought to think of such a life, too briefly glimpsed, in light of what we believe about human nature and divine judgment. “Will a soul such as that,” he asks, “behold its Judge?”

As any good theologian must do, to answer this question, Gregory first establishes a broader theological context. He puts forth as essential a series of propositions as prolegomena to the question, affirming:

  • the contingency of the universe as created by God,
  • the creation of humans in God’s image
  • the creation of humans to comprehend, glorify, and relate with God,
  • the existence of evil, like ignorance and truth, as the absence of personal connection to God,
  • the initiative of God to remedy this absence of relatedness to Himself,

Thus Gregory remarks, “alienation from God, Who is the Life, is an evil; the cure, then, of this infirmity is, again to be made friends with God, and so to be in life once more.” To be cut off from God is thus to be cut off from Life itself.

Gregory then takes to an analogy of two individuals with damaged sight. In his scenario, one of the individuals commits themself to being cured and follows “the doctor’s orders” while the other lives a life of pleasure and indulgence with no regard to the physician’s directions. The result of the process, Gregory states, is that the one, by his choice, receives again the ability to perceive the light while the other, by ignorant choice, receives the natural consequences of their decision. Obviously in Gregory’s analogy, humans are free to accept or reject the healing salve provided by the Father to cure them of the evil in the world. The infant, for Gregory, however, has not yet tasted evil, their sight has not yet been obscured, and thus they can partake in the knowledge of God, even if only partially, “until the time comes that it has thriven on the contemplation of the truly Existent as on a congenial diet, and, becoming capable of receiving more, takes at will more from that abundant supply of the truly Existent which is offered.” For Gregory, both the innocent infant and the unborn child will partake of the blessings of God.

Gregory also postulates that God allows infant death so as to not subject them to the evils of the world or to prevent the evil which they would perpetuate. He states, “Therefore, to prevent one who has indulged in the carousals to an improper extent from lingering over so profusely furnished a table, he is early taken from the number of the banqueters, and thereby secures an escape out of those evils which unmeasured indulgence procures for gluttons.”

What then of those who are born to this world and do perpetuate great evils? Gregory suggests, “He tells us that God, in rendering to every one his due, sometimes even grants a scope to wickedness for good in the end. Therefore He allowed the King of Egypt, for example, to be born and to grow up such as he was; the intention was that Israel, that great nation exceeding all calculation by numbers, might be instructed by his disaster.”

The difficulty of the issue certainly escapes our ability to fully articulate what God in His goodness and wisdom might allow or intend. Gregory’s response, while neither exhausting nor ultimately resolving the question, points us to some fruitful observations.

That evil is both an intrusion into God’s world and the absence of Good rather than its cosmic opposite, offers a sound insight. In the thought-world of Second Temple Judaism, God is likewise viewed as Good, not as the author of evil. In the Wisdom of Solomon, for example, we learn “God did not make death, neither does he delight when the living perish” (1:13). Death, like evil, is an intrusion into God’s world, not His design for it. Likewise, Paul writes in a similar vein in Romans 7, asserting that Sin hijacked God’s good Law and forced it to bring death rather than life, which was God’s intent. Just as Gregory observes that the gift of life comes only from the True Life, so death comes as a result of Sin and evil, not as God’s design but as a force opposed to His purposes.

Can we hold with Gregory that those infants who die are allowed to do so that God might prevent the evils they would pursue? While this is a possibility, it raises obvious questions of why God would not prevent the life of Hitler or Stalin or Hussein. Or further more, why would God not prevent all human life, since all humans are bound to sin? Ultimately Gregory’s suggestion here is not entirely satisfactory. His insistence, however, that evil is a temporary intrusion into God’s plan to bless and prosper humanity, remains true. And his suggestion that the death of unborn children and infants must not be seen as affecting their judgment, but rather must be hopefully grasped as assurance of their being nurtured by the Father, is likewise worthy of approval.

We may, however, fault Gregory on another front as well, since in On Infants’ Early Deaths there is no explicit mention of Jesus as the means by which God is dealing with Evil, Sin, and Death. Christ’s death and resurrection ultimately alone provides hope for life and goodness. Apart from it, as Paul argues in Romans, Death and Sin still reign. But in Christ’s victory, the salve can be applied and the victory appropriated to those who come to the Physician for His healing touch. The goodness of a Good God assures us that evil will have its end, and the Life of the Light of humanity assures us that we can truly be made friends of God through the love of the Father, Spirit, and Son.

 

Photo:”ray of hope” by JP, CC License. 

Hilary of Poitiers on Prohibition and Imperative in the Christian Life

By Chad Thornhill

Evangelicals tend to bristle a bit when the “saints” of old are remembered. While more liturgical Christian denominations often celebrate the saints, most Protestant evangelicals shy away from such remembrances, except perhaps for the Reformers. Over the coming year, the contributors at Moral Apologetics would like to offer some reflections on some of the important figures of Christianity past.

Hilary is the first known bishop of Poitiers, a city in Gaul (modern day France). He is remembered primarily as the “Hammer of the Arians” and the “Athanasius of the West” for his role in fighting against the Arian heresy which denied the ontological equality and eternality of Jesus, viewing him instead as a creation of God. Hilary is best remembered for his De Trinitate, a treatise on the doctrine of the Trinity.

Some of Hilary’s homilies on the Psalms are also preserved for us, which Hilary reads through the lens of the Gospel and the Christ. He thus uses them prophetically and interprets them allegorically, though he constrains this exegetical method by keeping an eye to the New Testament.

In his homily on Psalm 1, Hilary reads the Psalm as a reflection of the condition of the psalmist/prophet, though read very intentionally through a Christian lens. Hilary first comments upon what it means to not “walk in the counsel of the ungodly,” “stand in the way of sinners,” and “sit in the seat of pestilence.” But having examined these prohibitions, Hilary aptly notes, “But the fact that he has not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seat of pestilence, does not constitute the perfection of the man’s happiness” (Hilary of Poitiers, “Homilies on the Psalms,” Psalm 1, 11). It is not avoidance of immorality alone that constitutes the good and right life of faith. Rather, Hilary remarks,

To refrain from what has gone before is useless unless his mind be set on what follows, But his will hath been in the Law of the Lord. The Prophet does not look for fear. The majority of men are kept within the bounds of Law by fear; the few are brought under the Law by will: for it is the mark of fear not to dare to omit what it is afraid of, but of perfect piety to be ready to obey commands. This is why that man is happy whose will, not whose fear, is in the Law of God” (Hilary of Poitiers, “Homilies on the Psalms,” Psalm 1, 11).

Hilary recognizes the profundity of the Christian life. It is not merely the “thou shalt not,” but also the “thou shalt” which must characterize the Spirit-led life. A life of Spirit-led obedience, full of a faithful following of God’s commands, truly is the good life. Hilary continues,

Meditation in the Law, therefore, does not lie in reading its words, but in pious performance of its injunctions; not in a mere perusal of the books and writings, but in a practical meditation and exercise in their respective contents, and in a fulfilment of the Law by the works we do by night and day, as the Apostle says: Whether ye eat or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God. The way to secure uninterrupted prayer is for every devout man to make his life one long prayer by works acceptable to God and always done to His glory: thus a life lived according to the Law by night and day will in itself become a nightly and daily meditation in the Law” (Hilary of Poitiers, “Homilies on the Psalms,” Psalm 1, 12).

Hilary recognizes the importance of the relationship between prohibition and imperative in the Christian life. A life marked by “one long prayer by works acceptable to God and always done to His glory.” A prayer not just of petition, but of offering. An active meditation. A responsive reading. A meditation of pious performance.

Epiphany Reflection

By Chad Thornhill 

“Epiphany” comes from the Greek word epiphaneia, which means “appearance” or “manifestation.” In liturgical traditions in the West, the day of Epiphany celebrates the appearance of the Messiah to the Gentiles in the visit of the Magi (Matt 2:1-12). In some traditions, the day also marks a remembrance of Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:9-13; Luke 3:21-22) or the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12). These events carry different degrees of emphasis in the Gospels, but each is thought to mark the point of Jesus’ “public” revelation, where he is first recognized as God’s Messiah. In essence then, Epiphany is the celebration of the revelation of the incarnation. In some traditions it is known as the day of “Theophany,” meaning a “manifestation or appearance of God.”

In the early church, the day was to be a day of rest and reflection: “Let them rest on the festival of Epiphany, because on it a manifestation took place of the divinity of Christ, for the Father bore testimony to Him at the baptism; and the Paraclete, in the form of a dove, pointed out to the bystanders Him to whom testimony was borne” (Const. Apost. 8.33). In spite of the liturgical importance of the feast, Chrysostom reminded his flock, in instructing them on the Lord’s Supper, “And yet it is not the Epiphany, nor is it Lent, that makes a fit time for approaching, but it is sincerity and purity of soul. With this, approach at all times; without it, never” (Chrysostom, Homilies on Ephesians, Homily III).

Commenting on the feast, Gregory of Nazianzus remarked, “For God was manifested to man by birth. On the one hand Being, and eternally Being, of the Eternal Being, above cause and word, for there was no word before The Word; and on the other hand for our sakes also Becoming, that He Who gives us our being might also give us our Well-being, or rather might restore us by His Incarnation, when we had by wickedness fallen from wellbeing” (Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration XXXVIII, 3).

It is impossible to separate the incarnation from restoration. Jesus’ coming to earth in human flesh is not simply the cause for singing songs about a precious Baby or as a tradition to help us usher in a new year. It is the ushering in of an entirely new order of creation. Creation itself, marred by Sin, awaits the consummation of this restoration. For now we taste it in part. And we await its fullness.

We should thus not think of the incarnation simply as a means to redemption or salvation. That it certainly is. But it is more than that. For in the redemptive work, we are not only saved from sin, death, and judgment, but we are transformed into the likeness of the Son. It is this transformation which is viewed as the goal of the eternal plan (Rom 8:29). The coming of the Son was to rescue the world, to restore it, and to transform humanity into the very image of the Son of God. To give us our well-being, as Gregory stated, of which Sin had deprived us. But not simply to make us better. Rather to make us into the image of the Divine One Himself.

Podcast: Chad Thornhill on the Doctrine of Election and the Moral Argument (Part 2)

Part 1

On this week’s episode, we hear from Dr. Chad Thornhill regarding the doctrine of election and some of the implications for the moral argument. Certain views of the doctrine of election might pose substantial problems for the defender of the moral argument, but Dr. Thornhill explains how, when we have a biblical understanding of the doctrine, these objections can be turned back and how a good understanding of the doctrine of election actually supports the moral argument.

This is a two part series. In this second part, we discuss problems with moral culpability and the character of God that may be raised by certain views of election.

Chad Thornhill on Election and the Moral Argument (Part 2)

Photo: “Irish United Nations Veterans Association house and memorial garden (Arbour Hill)” by W. Murphy. CC. License.

 

Podcast: Dr. Chad Thornhill on Election, Moral Performance, Culpability, and the Character of God

On this week’s episode, we hear from Dr. Chad Thornhill regarding the doctrine of election and some of the implications for the moral argument. Certain views of the doctrine of election might pose substantial problems for the defender of the moral argument, but Dr. Thornhill explains how, when we have a biblical understanding of the doctrine, these objections can be turned back and how a good understanding of the doctrine of election actually supports the moral argument.

This is a two part series. In this first part, we discuss the nature of human freedom and some questions related to moral performance and the moral argument.

Chad Thornhill on Election and the Moral Argument (Part 1)

Photo: “Irish United Nations Veterans Association house and memorial garden (Arbour Hill)” by W. Murphy. CC. License.