Testaments Old and New
My local Church, although Anglican, is evangelical. Nothing wrong in that: the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. If there’s good news to tell, it ought to be shared. The problem for me is in the approach to the source of that inspiration, the Bible.
The great reformer, Martin Luther, felt bound both by the Scriptures and plain reason, but not by the word of the Pope or any Council. He told the Diet of Worms that to do other would go against his conscience. I’m not blaming him for that. Faced by a Church thinking that they could sell indulgences, a return to first principles was sensible.
Quite surprisingly, the early Church Councils, which took such a prominent role in the development of Christian theology, did not formally ratify the 27 books that make up the New Testament. Yet these were being used by the theologian Origen in the early third century. Church councils did not fully catch up until after both the Great Schism and the Reformation. By then separate councils of Orthodox, Catholic and Reformed were needed. So Luther committed no logical inconsistency in seeing scripture’s authority as separate from that of the Church. When he spoke, the authority of the books included had come from early custom and practice.
Is it reasonable therefore to assume that this is the same thing as the working of the Holy Spirit? That’s a very big assumption, one I don’t fully share, thinking that the role of that still, small voice of calm didn’t end at that point, indeed that it can be heard at all points in space and time.
I’ve read some of the hidden gospels that didn’t make the grade. In every case, I can certainly see why they didn’t catch on. There clearly was an attempt to ensure no gnostic thinking was included in the Canon, of which Johannine Christianity, based on John’s gospel, was most aware. The other three gospels are mainly a mix of history and teaching and have used similar sources, with Luke’s continuing into Acts.
John’s gospel has an exalted Christology from its first verse, with Jesus as the Word with God from the beginning. It also has the great ‘I am’ metaphors from Jesus, which surely read as rich theology and not actual words spoken.
Then much of the rest is Paul’s. Paul does not start with a high Christology. He reads to me as an Adoptionist, one who believes that Christ joined the Godhead at his ascension. As Paul examined what that might mean, he decided it needed more. He wrote movingly and beautifully in Corinthians. In Romans, in facing up to the faith and works debate, he is anxious to show that salvation is through faith alone, and that through grace. On the assumption that salvation is required, that appears sound to me, although it then raises the question of what faith and belief are and in whom, which are not for this piece. While attending to this, Paul also ties the reader, if not himself, up in knots about if Christ has fulfilled or abolished the law. On these issues, he clearly does not agree with another contributor, James, who was possibly the brother of Jesus and certainly the head of the early Jerusalem church. Paul did not know Jesus personally and thus unlike Peter and James was not constrained by memories of the historic Jesus. Peter and Paul do appear to have developed an uneasy truce between them. But Paul did lay down some didactic assertions which go beyond anything heard from Jesus, and raise questions as to what authority he should have.
No review of the books of the New Testament would be complete without mentioning Hebrews and Revelation. I find Hebrews the book most in touch with what the Holy Spirit tells me through my conscience, and Revelation as not as good an end to the rich theology of Johannine Christianity as I would have hoped for. Others find it inspirational of course. Yet the provenance of Hebrews is unknown.
What those first Councils did succeed in doing was developing a theology of the nature of the Godhead and of Christ. The council at Chalcedon propounded that Jesus was wholly man and wholly God, a formulation that has proved useful through the ages. The Athanasian creed as used in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer has God the maker of all things; Jesus the only begotten Son of God, begotten before all worlds, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made; the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son and is the Lord and Giver of Life. The Godhead is thus described as entirely male or perhaps neuter in the case of the Spirit.
This of course is not new. The creation stories in Genesis assume a male God. Jesus clearly called him Father.
I’m not going to attempt as full a critique for this Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament. It clearly has far more literary genres within it than the New Testament. There are two separate creation stories in Genesis alone, attributed to Priestly and Yahwist authors by scholars. In addition, two other schools are said by them to be at work, the Elohist and Deuteronomist. My reading always looks for the tension between the priestly and the prophetic epitomised in Hosea 6:6: ‘For I desired mercy and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.’ It still seems in all branches of the Church that there are priests, ministers, elders who prefer the burnt offering of a rule book.
I just offer one example of naive reading of texts leading to an unnecessary conclusion. Ostensibly one hundred and fifty years before Cyrus the Great was born, the prophet Isaiah foretold his birth and name. The fact that the book of Isaiah clearly has more than one author with different styles, and much has been added later is not sufficient to deter the miracle callers. Real faith should not seek a sign.
So at last I reach my purpose in writing this. My local Church is minded to insist on a male lead Minister when the vacancy next arises. A paper prepared by the Rev Andrew Brewerton of Sheffield diocese has been circulated. The main arguments proffered are: the complementary nature of relationships between the members of the Trinity: that man was formed first in the complementary relationship with woman: from the second creation story in Genesis where woman was created from the spare rib, Paul argues that man is the glory of God and woman the glory of man: these patterns are to be followed in Christian marriage in St Paul’s teaching with the husband as head of the wife and the wife a collaborative helper: similarly, that’s how the Church should work, with the Minister a male, the helpers can be female.
I’ll try to show Christian forbearance in responding to this priest-serving construction. Our view of the Godhead is a useful human construct and should be used for no other purpose than in attempting to understand the mystery of God. Maybe we should regard the absence of the feminine within our model as a weakness that needs work. Jesus called God Father as he was totally human as well as divine, and God was seen as male in his culture. The same argument as used by Brewerton against women’s ministry can be used to say that Theresa May should give way to a man in a suit. These are not eternal truths. The Holy Spirit in my conscience isn’t just whispering that they’re wrong.
The physicist in me sometimes solves the paradox of how the quantum wave function is collapsed by suggesting that it only happens once at the end of time, which is also the beginning, the Alpha and Omega. Jesus was wholly man as he lived his life but was in the Godhead as it all started. It’s a fond thought that may or may not have been guided by the Holy Spirit. I don’t see The Dove soaring away, so I’m probably wrong. The Christian message has produced great comfort in life for many and can continue, but to do so it constantly needs to separate temporal from eternal truth. Wiser evangelicals do consider that the Bible contains what is necessary for salvation while not necessarily correct on other matters. It is a wonderful set of books that seeks to raise questions and allows the Holy Spirit to answer them. That Spirit is always at work, in the meadow, at the rock concert, in the Physics class as much as at the Sunday sermon. Keeping women out is an anachronism which makes the Church look mean and foolish, and is not at all Christian.
I do think Paul was right about one thing in Romans. Whether Jesus fulfilled or abolished the law, he didn’t come to add to it. Nothing in the gospels suggests otherwise. The New Testament is not a rule book. And to solve Paul’s dilemma on faith against works, I hope everyone will be saved, with or without faith, the devil included, though none of us deserve it. That does have some biblical warrant, perhaps not enough. Origen hoped for it too. He thought that the brilliant book of Hebrews was from Paul, if not written by him. Maybe Paul had mellowed. Church Councils didn’t. Origen seems to have been anathematised centuries after his death, perhaps for believing that all would be saved or perhaps for seeing Jesus as wholly human as well as divine.