Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Genesis Creation Stories

Possibly no part of the Bible arouses more controversy and strong feeling than its opening two chapters on the creation of the world.  In one corner of the cultural boxing ring we have those who regard those chapters as a literal description of how the world was made (with some exegetical wiggle room about the definition of the word “yom/ day”, and therefore about the age of the cosmos), and in the other corner we have those who regard such Creation Science (as it has been called) as self-evident nonsense, regarding Creation Scientists themselves as medieval obscurantist throwbacks.   In this contest much time is spent arguing for or against “the Theory of Evolution”.  I suggest that though it makes for great cultural theatre, both sides are misreading those opening chapters, which can only be read correctly when anchored in their cultural context.
            John Walton, Old Testament prof at the evangelical Wheaton College, has done just such an anchoring job, and the results of his research can be found in his books Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament and The Lost World of Genesis One.  Following him, I would suggest that the creation stories do not intend to teach science or update the cosmology of its original audience.  The Hebrews who first received these stories shared a cosmology similar to everyone else in their day.  They believed (for example) that the sky was solid (a belief reflected in the Septuagint term for “firmament” in Genesis 1:6, stereoma, defined by one lexicon as “the solid part”), and that it was this solid sky which separated the waters above from the waters below.  We moderns know that the sky is not solid, and so like to imagine that “the waters which were above the sky” must refer to clouds.  In fact in doing so we read our modern cosmology into the text throughout, with a well-intentioned eisegesis.  (We see such eisegesis in the visual depiction of the creation in the 2014 film Noah where the divine command “Let there be light” was fulfilled in an original “big bang”, when in fact it was fulfilled in the creation of time.  Read the text carefully:  the light was called “Day”, and was contrasted to “Night”.) 
It seems that God was content to leave this ancient Near Eastern cosmology intact.  He did not intend to give lessons in geography or astronomy, or teach that the world was round and of great age.  These lessons would have meant nothing to their original hearers and done nothing to change or enrich their lives.  God had more revolutionary and important lessons to teach in those early chapters, lessons which did not involve proclaiming a new cosmology which would only have bewildered its original hearers.
Foremost among those lessons was this:  that their God, the deity worshipped by an obscure Hebrew set of tribes, was the creator, owner, and sovereign over the whole earth.   Other pagan cosmologies mentioned a number of gods, and all of these are conspicuously absent from the opening chapters of Genesis. There Elohim (or Yahweh Elohim as He is called in Genesis 2:4) is the only One involved in the earth’s creation.  The other gods, the deities of the rival nations, do not even warrant a mention, doubtless because they were nothings, phantoms, idols.  The subtextual message?  “Our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases” (Psalm 115:3). This message needed to be heard, both then and now, as the People of God felt themselves powerless before greater international forces and mightier tyrannies.  Israel need fear nothing, for their God was Lord of heaven and earth.
Another lesson involved the dignity of man.  In the other ancient cosmologies, man was simply the provider of food for the gods, the keeper of their temples.   The king was made in the divine image, and might be properly regarded as the son of the deity, but the common man (and still more, the common woman) was of no account and of little worth.  Against this cultural background, the Genesis creation stories declare that both the common man and the common woman were made in the divine image.  Humanity did not exist simply to feed the gods; they existed as God’s regents and viceroys on the earth.  They existed to subdue the earth and have dominion over it in God’s Name, which is what it meant to be God’s image.  And note please:  women shared this dominion equally with men (Genesis 1:27-28).  The Genesis text proclaimed not only the monotheistic sovereignty of God, but also the revolutionary dignity of the common person.  The lowest mud-covered peasant working the fields was God’s image, created to rule in His place.  It was a more important lesson than any merely astronomical one, and a lesson we have not yet learned. 
Perhaps we should return to the opening chapters of Genesis and read it with fresh eyes and a teachable heart.  We are tempted to look out over a world terrorized by ISIS and rent by defections from the European Union with trepidation, and conclude that perhaps things are beginning to spin out of control.  It is not so.  Our God is still sovereign over the nations and directs the affairs of the world to fulfill His own hidden purposes.  He who first created the world has not abandoned it, nor gone on some long heavenly Sabbatical.  He continues to reign over His the creation.  Our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases.  As we work to do His will in the world, we can let our hearts find peace in that sovereignty. 


Saturday, July 16, 2016

A Lethal Legacy

A friend of mine just returned from back east where he had attended the funeral of a friend and was mightily impressed by it—but not in a good way.  The deceased was an older woman who had died, leaving behind a grieving family who loved her very much.  The eulogy applauded her as a devoted wife, a steadfast friend, and an apparently perfect mother.  Chief among her virtues was her devotion to her sons, as expressed by her spending time with them whenever possible.  Indeed while they were growing up she would rise early every Sunday morning and take them with her to (wait for it) a thrift store.  It was a special time for them all to be together and to pass a leisurely time relaxing and browsing among the discarded donations of others.  The point of these weekly trips on a Sunday morning was not acquisition, but recreation, a time to spend unhurried hours with her children.   The point was stressed not only by her own children in their touching reminiscences, but by others in their eulogies also.  What better way to spend a Sunday morning could there be?
            The person presiding at the funeral (which was held not in a church building, despite the deceased’s membership in a Ukrainian church and her pride in her Ukrainian heritage, but in a funeral home) was a dear friend of the family.  He also spoke admiringly of her exemplary life.  He spoke movingly about the hope of resurrection, and about God’s love.  He even read from the Bible and prayed.
            It was just here that my eastern friend had to resist squirming and began to be unimpressed.  From the encouraging tenor of the remarks one gathered that everyone who died would find a resurrection of joy, and that bliss awaited us all on the other side.  The speaker stressed that life was a miracle and that surely something as miraculous as life could be expected to end in something equally wonderful.  St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians about Christ’s triumph over death and the joy it brought were applied to all.  The word “repentance” was not heard, much less stressed.  Apparently all that was required to enter into the joy of one’s Lord was the fact of one’s birth.  This being the case, why not spend Sunday morning at a thrift store?
            Obviously it is not the place of anyone living to pass judgment on the soul of the dear woman whose funeral I described, nor to opine what her final score will be on the Last Day.  What transpired between her and God in the hidden privacy of her heart in the moments before her death is not known, and anyway is none of our business.  We must leave her eternal fate in the hands of God.  But we may still offer judgment on how exemplary or otherwise were some of her practices for one striving to be a Christian.  In particular I suggest that she left a lethal legacy to her sons by rising early and taking them every Sunday morning to that thrift store.  Though she did not mean to teach such a lesson, she left her boys with the perhaps indelible impression that Christ and His Church did not matter—or at least that they mattered less than rummaging among the things discarded by others and available cheaply at a public market.   Each Sunday morning presented them with a choice:  either they could have the Body and Blood of Christ our God, or they could have the possibility of finding a bargain in a bin.  She was teaching them, week after week, to choose the latter.
            She thereby offers us a cautionary tale to us all.   How do we spend our Sunday mornings?  At a thrift store?  On a golf course?  Before the television set?  Jogging on the road for our health?  Sleeping in?  And if we choose any of these options, what are we teaching others by these choices?  Confidence in the face of death is not derived simply from the accident of being born, but by the continued choice of repentance and faith.  The Lord and His apostle were not addressing their words of consolation to the general public, but to His devout disciples.   The funeral offices of the Orthodox Church also presuppose such devotion on the part of the dead.  Paschal joy in the face of death comes not so much from being a good person (whatever that means) or a devoted parent, but from a life of faithfulness to the risen Christ. 


Friday, July 8, 2016

Worshipping with Muslims

In the current cultural debate over Islam, we sometimes meet people who rush to defend Islam and assert that Muslims and Christians both worship the same God.  Sometimes they give liturgical expression to this assertion, and participate in joint Muslim-Christian worship services, in which both the Qur’an and the Bible are read.  What are we to think of this?  Can Muslims and Christians unite in worship?  Is it true that they both worship the same God?
The question is deceptively complex, and since Islam post-dates the New Testament by six centuries, the New Testament cannot be expected to provide a direct answer.  But the New Testament does help answer a similar question:  Do pagans and Christians worship the same God?  There were differences obviously, since paganism worshipped many gods and Christianity was staunchly monotheistic.  But paganism did in some way dimly acknowledge that there was a supreme god of sorts, called Zeus or Jupiter (depending upon one’s geography).  Could Zeus and the God of the Christians be more or less identified?
            The answer (frustratingly for those who like to scream about such things on Facebook) is:  Yes and No.  That is, Yes, since there is only one God, and anyone consciously directing his prayers to The One God will find that The One God of the Christians receives his prayers, since He is the only God that there is.  That is what St. Paul meant when he wrote that God is not the God of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles also “since God is one” (Romans 3:29-30).  A pagan might direct his prayers to “the Unknown God”, but these prayers would be received by the God of the Jews and Christians, since He was the only true God who existed (Acts 17:23).   Our God therefore has some sort of relationship to any who sincerely seek Him, regardless of their religion.
            But the answer to this question is also No, since all pagan religions had an element of the demonic.  Though a devout, ignorant, and well-intentioned Athenian pagan’s prayers to Zeus may have been received by the God of Israel, this is did not mean that his Athenian paganism was more or less interchangeable with Judaism or Christianity.  While his heart and intention may have been acceptable to God, his actual religion, cultus, and sacrifice were not.   Paul affirmed that “What the pagans sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God” (1 Corinthians 10:20).  Idolatrous worship, though perhaps intended for and aimed at the Most High God, was intercepted and used by the demons, and Christians in the early centuries always regarded pagan religion as infected with the demonic.  That is why pagans converting to Christianity in baptism renounced their former religion as the worship of Satan.  Pagans and Christians did not in fact find their acts of devotion received by the same God.
            This analogy with paganism therefore would suggest that Islamic worship does not, in fact, connect the Muslim worshipper with the one true God of the Christians.  Our God is the God who eternally begets the co-eternal Son, and from whom the Spirit eternally proceeds to rest in the Son, and who therefore may be described as the holy, consubstantial, life-creating, and undivided Trinity.  The Second Person of that Trinity died by being crucified on a cross under Pontius Pilate—all of which is emphatically denied by the Qur’an.  Despite their shared theoretical monotheism, Christian and Muslim worship does not focus upon the same God, and (more importantly) the objective and spiritual reality present through their worship is not identical.  In Christian assemblies, Jesus Christ is present, for He has promised to be present whenever two or three gather together in His Name (Matthew 18:20).  In Muslim assemblies, Christ is not present in the same salvific way.  Rather, just as the early Christians said that the demonic was present in the sacrifices of the pagans, that same terrible reality is present now liturgically in Muslim assemblies.
            Does this mean therefore that every Muslim is therefore damned?  Like I said, the question is deceptively complex.  If a Muslim has no real exposure to or understanding of the Christian message, he might still be spared on the Last Day after all if his heart was in ignorance seeking the true God.  C.S. Lewis wrote about such a possibility in The Last Battle, the last volume of his Narnian series:  a worshipper of the god “Tash” (a thinly-veiled version of Allah) finds himself in the presence of the true God, the lion Aslan, an image of Christ.  He realizes that his life-long worship of Tash was the worship of a false god, and that Aslan was the true God after all.  In his own words, “Then I fell at his feet and thought, Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him. Nevertheless, it is better to see the Lion and die than to be Tisroc [or, King] of the world and live and not to have seen Him.  But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine, but the servant of Tash.  He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service to me… But I said also, Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days.  Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly.  For all find what they truly seek.”   I believe this.  I believe that those Muslims who have sought the true God so long and so truly may yet be accepted by The One God.  I believe that our God, who loves the sinner, will not reject any who are happy to see Him, but will save them through the Cross of Christ. 
Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?  No, and therefore Christians should properly avoid a worship service containing elements which suggest that they do.  Our task as Christians is to proclaim the Gospel and bring all truth-seeking hearts to the saving and transfiguring waters of baptism.  All pagan religions contained some elements of truth, but Paul still proclaimed the one true God to the pagans standing before the altar to the Unknown God on Mars Hill, and exhorted them to renounce their past errors and embrace Christ.  We must do the same for the Muslims of our time as well.  Our ultimate goal and divine mandate is not co-existence with Muslims but their conversion—as it is for all the children of men.
           



Friday, July 1, 2016

An Exclusive Creed

          The Nicene Creed was created to exclude.  This goes against the grain of our modern secular society, where the word “inclusive” has become a magic word, conjuring up warm feelings of virtue, righteousness, and goodness.  To be inclusive is to be good; to exclude is to be bad.  The magic is, I think, rooted in the American Civil Rights Movement, where certain people were unjustly excluded from certain things (such as employment opportunities or even sitting in the front part of a bus) based on the colour of their skin.  Such exclusions were plainly arbitrary, morally indefensible, and more than a little bit crazy, and this bequeathed a legacy of unacceptability to the very word “exclusion”, with a corresponding happy feel to the word “inclusion”. 
            But in this, as in many things, context is everything.  Exclusion is not always wrong.  Take the early part of the fourth century, for instance.  Then the heresy of Arianism was spreading over the Christian world like a raging roaring disease.  This was the heresy that denied that Jesus was truly divine, and asserted instead that he was a creature, created by the one true God in the same way as the angels were created.  Jesus of Nazareth therefore was not God, according to the Arians, though they allowed that He was very, very important, a heavenly celebrity of sorts, but not God in any real sense.  That is, He could be admired and praised, but not actually worshipped with the same worship with which the Church worshipped the Father.  This last bit was very important too, for salvation consists of worshipping Jesus, in falling down before Him as did Thomas and crying to Him, “My Lord and my God!”  Given the popularity of Arianism, something had to be done.
            Something was done, and what was done we now call “the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea”.  Bishops then came from all over to the town of Nicea in 325 A.D. to thrash the whole thing out.  It didn’t take them long to conclude that Jesus was divine, and that Arius’ teaching was simply wrong.  But how to declare this?  Arius was a slippery fellow, and there seemed to be no kind of Biblical formula or title for Christ that he could not twist and redefine for his own purposes.  The Fathers therefore decided to do something radical and unprecedented—namely, to use non-biblical phrases to describe who Christ was.  They took the baptismal creed, the statement with which all catechumens had to agree in order to be baptized and be considered Christians, and inserted several phrases, phrases so clear that even someone as slippery as Arius couldn’t wriggle out of them.  Jesus was not only “the only-begotten Son of God”, He was also “light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of the same essence as the Father, from whom [i.e. Jesus] all things were made”.  These phrases stated the divinity of Christ so clearly that not even Arius could say the words without choking.
            That was, of course, the point:  the Creedal statement was constructed with such precision as to exclude people like Arius.  In one sense the Creed was inclusive:  any person anywhere, regardless of race, language, ethnicity, or colour could confess it, be that person slave or free, rich or poor.  But it was also exclusive:  any person who did not believe the full and perfect divinity of Jesus of Nazareth could not confess it, and thus could not be a member of the Church. 
            Why this insistence on exclusion?  The Fathers of Nicea wanted to exclude heresy from the Church for the same reason that a doctor wants to exclude cancer from the body of his patient—because if he includes the cancer in the patient’s body, the result will be the death of the patient.  Cancer kills, and so does heresy.  Heresy is not simply incorrect opinion, akin to getting a numerical sum wrong.  Heresy is stubbornly refusing to accept the truth, in exactly the same way as someone who has been poisoned might stubbornly refuse to accept swallowing the antidote.  A person who has been poisoned will die.  And the good intentions of the heretic notwithstanding (for who knowingly accepts error?), the person who refuses God’s provided remedy of Christ will also die.  Heresy will kill the soul, just as surely as cancer will kill the body.  Salvation consists of exclusion—the cancer must be excluded from the body, and heresy must be excluded from the soul.  The Fathers of Nicea were not narrow-minded men, working mean-spiritedly in their ivory towers.  They were physicians of the soul, working as pastors in the front-line, concerned to save the souls of the children of men.  They knew that only as men fell down before Christ as God and offered their lives to Him could they find salvation.  They therefore excluded the Arian error which insisted on omitting this saving spiritual prostration.  They knew they lived in a world of dying men.  Only by falling down before the divine Christ could those men find eternal life.