Sunday, February 27, 2022

Rethinking Scripture?

A few days back the daily office reading, according to the NZ Lectionary, included a troubling passage from Titus.

There are many troubling passages in Scripture. 

Some split opinion, if not churches (e.g. passages on salvation, on women/men, on rules for sexual behaviour). 

Some are more or less ignored, or ignored most of the time (e.g. James in relation to Romans/Galatians becomes an issue when, say, we study James, but not when we study Romans or Galatians; ditto, the meaning of most of Revelation; perhaps also Genesis 1-2 on the creation of the world). 

Some passages raise questions which are difficult to answer and which reflect some serious, potentially faith-losing concerns about Scripture as (in any sense) the Word of God - the so-called texts of terror, in which terrible things done by one human to another, appear to have the authorisation of God behind them (e.g. some ghastly stories in Judges).

A troubling passage, which does not involve complex argument and counter argument about (say) gender or sexuality, is Titus 1:12-13a:

It was one of them, their very own prophet [=Epimenides, c. 600BC], who said, "Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons."

That testimony is true.

Paul, writing to Titus in Crete, appears to endorse this stereotype view of Cretans, a view which consigns them all to the mental bin in which we place persistent liars, vicious brutes and lazy gluttons. It is a view which we would normally describe today as racist. It is also a pretty strange view in a Christian document. Imagine a mentor of a missionary in (oh, I don't know, say) Russia who wrote,

"Russians are always liars, vicious brutes and lazy gluttons."

The missionary would likely write back, "Umm, Paul, some Russians behave very badly, but most Russians are not like the stereotype you think they are."

Back to Titus.

What does it mean that Titus 1:12-13a is (I would argue) both Scripture and controversial (i.e. the proclaimed truth can be controverted effectively, not least, by Cretans asserting the precise opposite to the stereotype)?

It could mean it is a puzzle, which we are invited to solve, in favour of Scripture as (in the end, behind the apparent racism) a pure and unimpeachable "Word" or revelation from God.

Certainly there are puzzles in Scripture - challenging passages upon which some of the best of biblical scholars have brought learning and intelligence to - and resolution of the puzzles has been achieved in some cases. For example, there is a way of reading Genesis 1 and 2, in the light of evolutionary biology and astronomy, which both affirms the truth of these chapters and the truth of science.

But there are also puzzles (and I think Titus 1:12-13a is one of them) which either defy resolution or have resolutions provided which, in the end, are not particularly persuasive resolutions (so attempts I read to resolve the puzzle of the texts of terror in Judges).

What if we think about Scripture in another way, that Scripture has some bits which, frankly, honestly and even embarrassingly, are not reflective of what is actually true of God and what God would say about some situations (e.g. God, speaking directly about Cretans would never be racist like Epimenides was and Paul writing Titus was)?

That is, Scripture is permitted by God to have, is not rescued by God from having some passages which are (sadly, shortcomingly) human and not (joyfully, perfectly) divine.

There are implications to concluding that this, or something like it, is the most plausible explanation for the awkward, difficult, impossible to explain away parts of Scripture.

I will try to get to them next week or the week after. There may be a need to say something about Ukraine next week - after all, Ukrain and Russia's invasion of it is also a problem for theology. Is God a Russian Orthodox or a Ukrainian Orthodox?


Anonymous said...

But you have missed the bigger puzzle, Peter.
The statement "All Cretans are always liars" was made by a Cretan.
So was he lying when he said this?

See what Thomas Aquinas has to say on this!

Pax et bonum

Wliiam Greenhalgh

Unknown said...

On Mount Athos, I was taught to fish by good-humoured Cretan monks who wore that text as a badge of honour. As they read it, St Paul himself had given them (not folks from some more persnickety places) a clear rule for spiritual progress.

But did they think that the text was *true*, I wanted to know. Probably so, they replied.

Crete, they explained, is a blessed isle where life is so easy that it does not challenge an unserious person to grow morally and spiritually. In the eternal perspective, a blessing like that one is a curse.

As God is merciful, he moved the apostle give them a judicious warnjng.

But, I protested (for I was not very good at fishing), what do ordinary Cretans think when they hear this?

"They will only hear it in church. And if they are close to the merciful God, they understand his hard sayings."

And Epimenides? "He was saying the same thing. But if you say it outside the church, it does the people no good. Only those who have decided to progress in Christ can hear this."


Unknown said...


If you are in Christ and close to the Body, then read the scriptures as documents from another world (ie hermeneutically). The Holy Spirit will use their strangeness to show you what you need to see.

But if you are far from the Body and God terrifies you, then let a Christian you trust show you their propositions of mercy and blessing.

Once you have accepted Christ, the first rule will more and more be the right one.


Peter Carrell said...

Ah, the Cretan Liar Paradox etc!

I don't know that worries about the paradox etc take away my point that Scripture includes an unfortunate stereotype about Cretans.

BW's point is close to where I am going with this: living with and in Scripture, even when it says odd things, even bad things which are indefensible.

More next week!

Mark Murphy said...

Surely the Spirit can speak through all sorts of texts, situations, and people, in strange and surprising ways.

And, speaking as a layperson, I find Peter's approach the simplest and clearest - the least convoluted and torturous:

allow scripture - including the disciples of Jesus - its record of humanity, as God has. This is what we are all wrestling with every day, after all.


Mark Murphy said...

BW said:

"If you are in Christ and close to the Body, then read the scriptures as documents from another world (ie hermeneutically). The Holy Spirit will use their strangeness to show you what you need to see."

I really appreciate this unexpected, refreshing perspective. It helps me make sense of an experience I often have: of the surprising "otherness" of even familiar scripture (this and my bad memory)...a sense of being empty, without any familiar,tidy knowing/response, and in that "clearing" to then allow something new, or perhaps old and forgotten, to freshly emerge. The aliveness of tradition.

I recently attended a church for quite a few months that had no tradition of a lectionary (or any sacramental liturgy). I thought I'd miss the bread and wine, candles and songs, incense, but it was this strange tradition of having all these weird texts clumped together and read out that I missed the most - of having to wrestle each week with scripture and being surprised.



Unknown said...

The Via Media at 6:39 can be put another way.

God saves each soul to recruit an agent to his wider work of renewing his creation. In recruiting, he can be heard speaking rather propositionally. But souls with commissions will most often read the scriptures as documents of the course of the work itself.


Mark Murphy said...

Oh, that is too otherwordly for me now! What is the Via Media at 6.39?

It sounds like a train leaving an Anglican station.

And I am genuinely confused, and interested to know more, why you call this a Via Media.



David Wilson said...

If Wikipedia is to be blieved, Epimenides did not say "all Creatans are liars" to pose a paradox. ( Rather, it seems it was a theological issue over the mortality of Zeus.

From this article, it would seem Paul was quoting Epimenides in Athens (Acts 17:28).

Mark Murphy said...

Maybe it will as an in-joke or cultural reference, like the Via Media at 6.39, and Paul is currently still laughing we are spending so much time on it.


Anonymous said...

Hi Mark.

Sorry to take so long to reply.

"Paul is... still laughing."

Yes. Could St Paul have lived and thought as he did without a very wry sense of humour? I doubt that any have the theological virtue of hope to a heroic degree without one.

This even makes secular sense. Zelensky, who has some skill as a comedian, and Putin, who is so tragic because he is so hopeless, are possibly cases in point.

"If Wikipedia is to be believed..."

The Via Media of history is discussed in several Wikipedia articles. To my surprise and joy, these are accurate in a few places. But most repeat the usual error.

Reformation began on the Continent when Protestant states in the north, including England, allied to defend themselves from papalist states in the south. So the phrase *via media* first referred to the Church of England’s diplomacy among its Lutheran and Reformed allies on the Continent. I found this in primary sources, but Diarmaid MacCulloch touches on this more accessibly in his books on the Reformation.

For concrete example, as the Swiss churches were drafting their confessions, the CoE advised them to adopt language on the scriptures that was more compatible with emerging Lutheran theology of the Word and anyway theologically better judged. So if you compare the articles on the scriptures in say the Book of Concord and the Second Helvetic Confession, you will see an obvious contrast. Turning then to the 39A, you will be grateful, I think, that the Anglican language strikes some notes important to each circle's theology but avoids Reformed speculation on say which pointing of the Hebrew consonants was inspired by God.

The error, on which Tractarians launched a movement and others misinformed have built seminaries and whole provinces, is that reformers like Lancelot Andrewes and Richard Hooker saw themselves as taking a middle path between Wittenburg and Rome. This Victorian construct really does not make sense of the historical horizons of the Continental reformers, Tudor churchmen, or the Council of Trent. In fairness, C20 historians corrected masses of misunderstandings of all three, and what could count as willful ignorance today was not known to be false two centuries ago.

Like the Aeneid, the Holy Roman Empire, a notion that Puritans did not like sex, or another that bishops ordain with a chalice and paten, this is a distortion of the past that came to serve the polemical purposes of a later time. This particular error has been the charter for the three tribes of the modern Church of England. If Anglicans generally recognized the history of the Reformation as taught in universities, then that charter, and with it a certain conception of Anglicanism, would be discredited. Many whose working loyalty is to a tribal identity and practice would be disoriented and lost, if they could not resist being as ecumenical and irenic inside Anglican churches as we are outside them.

That said, I am intrigued to see Anglicans here up yonder and elsewhere trying to reclaim their Protestantism on the basis of the actual, historical, irenic Via Media. For a sample from a leader of this tendency, see W Bradford Littlejohn's short, punchy book on Richard Hooker.

Anonymous said...

"Oh, that [3:18] is too otherwordly for me now!"

At ADU, I telegraph some ideas in metaphors. Doing so spares me the repetition of ideas that have already been discussed at length, reframes them in a more imaginative way for those who like that, and saves everyone space and time.

"What is the Via Media at 6:39? ... why [do] you call this a Via Media?"

6:39 was not an explicit article of the original Via Media between the Lutherans and the Reformed. The partition that it dissolves ran through those circles rather than between them.

On one hand, some read the Bible as God's heavenly voice converting sinners with eternal propositions. Their beliefs about the Bible, often rather elaborate, are meant to safeguard the audibility of that divine voice. But in minimizing human authorship they have no simple defense when the scriptures have traces of what moderns saw as human faults-- unlikely attribution, limited knowledge, ethical myopia, confusing figures, poor style.

On the other hand, others read the Bible more as documents of the Creator's transformative activity in his creation. In them, faulty authors respond to his creating the world, responding to the Fall, recruiting Abraham's very human family to help fix it, settling them all in the Promised Land, responding when they forget or betray their mission, and finally sending the Son to make the family universal and its renewed members stewards of a new creation. Here, the more God does in and for flawed human beings, the more one wants to hear from and about them in their own voices. But where is the reader's own door into the story of redemption?

Justification by God's Word is that door; it is only the door. Once one sees the hearing of the former sort of reading as involvement in the saga of the latter sort of reading, some modern difficulties in both approaches disappear.

More broadly, this mediating way relates two ways of reading the Bible that are familiar to us by resituating the late medieval anxiety about justification back into the matrix of the first millennium Body from which it emerged.


Peter Carrell said...

A few reflections on “via media”:

1. It can be (e.g. in some controversy, whether or not theological) about Anglicans feeling encouraged to find a middle course between two opposing views. (I don’t think Hooker was doing that).

2. It can be about a freedom to not commit to a tribal approach to beliefs but to weigh all views carefully and to affirm what is true and deny what is false, whether or not such and such a view is held by Rome, Wittenberg, Geneva, or the nearest Puritan pulpiteer. (I think Hooker was doing that.)

3. It can be about a determination to hold as many Anglicans together (in the one congregation, parish, Vestry meeting, Synod, General Synod, Anglican Communion) and consequentially there is a determination to find the middle which bridges divides, cements cracks in the Body, and to which people can sign/resolve a motion. (I suspect Hooker was doing that, keen on a united kingdom under Elizabeth; but I am not sufficiently knowledgeable about Hooker to say more than that.)

Mark Murphy said...

Thank you BW and Peter for your responses. It helps me to think more about what Anglicanism might be.

I think you are saying, BW, that the via media was first used the describe a path between Luther and Calvin, rather than between Geneva and Rome. I didn't know that.

And I think you are saying, Peter, that the phrase and approach came to be more broadly descriptive of the attempt to hold together ' the unity of a human society', to use Massure's phrase, especially, historically, the society of England which was so traumatized and divided (one Reformation historian likens Civil War England to contemporary Iraq)....

And then the via media is not just about political diplomacy but can be seen as an outworking of the church's proper ministry - 'the ministry of reconciliation'. Your comments above bring to mind the Anglican Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand, and Polynesia's recent via media with regard to same sex blessings.

Of the via media, John Macquarrie writes: "Of course, it would be absurd to imagine that the truth is always midway between extremes...Nevertheless, there is a kind of dialectic that operates in theology, and that arises, I believe, out of the polarities of human existence itself. The effect of this dialectic throughout the history of theology has been to exclude extreme and exaggerated points of view. The Church needs both stability and flexibility in it's theology if it is to go forward, and not be either disintegrated or petrified."

So I think of a divine/human dialectic at play in both the authorship and interpretation of scripture, to get back to the initial thrust of this post.

Mark Murphy said...

And yet beyond, within, and beneath the dialectics of existence, theology, and history,

"the Bible not yet interpreted, the free Bible which remains free in face of all interpretations." (Barth).

This takes me back to Peter's second point - which was surprising and beautiful - the via media not as a middle point between extremes (dialectics), but as a " a freedom not to commit to a tribal approach", to stand back from, or come forward out of, tribal polarizations.

P.S. My parents had me baptized in an ecumenical service by both a Roman Catholic priest and a Church of North India minister - the via media at 1977.

Jean said...

Strangely enough the quoted verse in context doesn’t bother me overly much. I read it as a generalisation about the cultural mores of the time of people in particular geographical area. While generalisations aren’t always helpful I think they can be accurate in a collective rather than an individual sense. The one about the Cretan’s is a little harsh; at the same time by the surrounding verses the inference is some of the behaviour witnessed may have justified it. At times when reading the Bible I can also think some of the language is harsh against certain groups of people, however, often when I read what those people have been up to it starts to come into perspective.

In terms of generalisation of cultural mores I used to be perplexed about the saying ‘whinging Poms’ (aknowledging poms is probably more derogatory than whinging). I was perplexed but not insulted, as my English grandparents were as far from whinging as you get. However I have since met an English friend who made me laugh and think “oooohhh now I get it” and my sister on her O.E. Would often comment she found the people in London moaned a lot. Kiwi’s not being excluded of course, notorious for our indirect speech - I cracked up once reading a joke written by an Australia (of course) about how hard it was to get directions from a kiwi, it was soooo true! Even people residing in different towns or cities in NZ could be said to hold certain mindsets but I won’t get myself into trouble further.

B.W. I did enjoy the YouTube clip on the future of the church re Wright and Moroslav you referenced a few posts back, especially their personal biographical accounts, the questions students were interested in, and how both observed ecumenical connection at the community level increased unity and disabled divisions. And then life got away from me and I haven’t commented since until now...

Unknown said...

Empathising with all points of view-- not just extremes but neglected continua as well-- I often find myself at a relative centre. But, dogmatic as I am, this makes sense to me, not as via media, but as Colossians 1 --> Beatitudes.