Friday, January 6, 2023

How Is the Husband the “Head” of the Wife according to the Apostle Paul? Ephesians 5:15-33 [1]


Fresco described by Dr. Catherine Clark Kroeger in “Toward an Understanding of Ancient Conceptions of ‘Head,’” cover of Priscilla Papers 20:3 (Summer 2006).

Aída’s perspective

When we were first married, a friend of Bill’s parents from his conservative birth church phoned and demanded: “I want to speak to the head of the house!”

Bill, who answered the phone, snapped back: “To do that you will have to pray because Jesus is the head of our house!”

His friend responded, “Good answer!”

Our caller meant by “head,” who is the boss of the house because to many of us “head” signifies thoughts, decisions, authority, rule.

But, is this what the Apostle Paul meant by “head” almost 2000 years ago?

We have answers to this question right in Paul’s same letter of Ephesians. We don’t have to go far.

First, let’s look at Ephesians ch. 4, vv 15-16: but speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (NRSV).

          What does this mean in its context?

Do not stay as an infant or child in the faith, being fooled by wrong teaching, but rather grow in love and truth “into him, who is the head, Christ, from whom all the body, being fitly framed and held together by every ligament which serves to give it support according to the proportionate activity of each individual part makes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love” (Aída’s literal translation).

    What is all this about? “Head” is a metaphor. It is not literal. If it were literal, when Bill and I were married, a butcher would have showed up to slash off both our heads and put Bill’s head on me. Then we would both be dead!

          A metaphor is an implied comparison between two things of unlike nature that yet have something in common so that one or more properties of the first are attributed to the second.

          So, what two things are being compared in Ephesians? Not the head representing the mind and thoughts, but the physical head as a source of life compared to Christ’s work in the church.

          What is the literal basis for this metaphor?

          In our head, we have the pituitary gland which affects the growth of bones. The ligaments give support to the bones. Remember that Luke the physician is there in Rome with Paul and may be confirming the accuracy of this extended image. So, when Paul is inspired to write that the husband is the head of his wife, he means that the husband should be a source of growth and life to his wife, in other words, a life-giving source.

          That is also true of Christ. Christ is a source of growth to the church (5:23). In ch. 4, Christ helps us grow by equipping us with apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers so that the saints are equipped for the work of ministry, so that we as a church can be mature spiritually and not childlike (4:11-13).

         Paul also defines head right in Ephesians 5:23 when he says Christ is “head of the church,” in other words, he adds: “Savior himself of the body.” Christ saves the body by giving us spiritual gifts and, of course, by dying for us so that we can be reconciled to God. As Paul writes in ch. 2: “but God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us  even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,  so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we may walk in them” (2:4-10 (NRSV). Christ’s spiritual gifts help the church grow and affirm us.

         Did the ancients ever see the head as the source of life? Remember the story of Athena, who was born out of Zeus’ head? Ancient Greeks frequently created statues where a head becomes the source of a fountain.[2] The ancient Greeks and Romans thought of the mind or nous as the source of reasonings. The ruler or the judge (in Greek archē) might make decisions. But, the inner life and decision-making was often symbolized by the heart, for example, “the eyes of the heart” help us to know (1:18).

          But for Greeks the head (kephalē) was the symbol of life.

          Decision-making in the home should be a mutual task. One person making decisions for all is a heavy cumbersome impossible task. How can I know what I decide is really the best for all?

        Steve Tracy in our book on Marriage at the Crossroads tells the tale of the mistake he made with his family, by thinking for them all and how he came to change his view to a sharing role of the husband and father in decision-making.

          Sometimes traditional marriages are actually based on an unspoken bargain. The man becomes the figurehead and leads while the wife appears to follow. But what may really be happening? The man gets the glory outside, while behind his back, the wife, who enlists the children, complains about his decisions. That’s what happened in both our parents’ marriages.  My mother and I would go on an errand, and she would complain all the time about my father. My father would say that all he wanted was to take walks with my mother. Bill’s parents’ marriage was similar.

          When I was in high school or college, I told my mom that I had enough. I didn’t want to hear her complaints about my father anymore. She was furious!  I had broken the years-long unwritten marriage contract: “You lead, I complain!”

          (Nevertheless, they persevered in their marriage long enough to celebrate 60 years of marriage!)

          Recently, Bill and I participated in a panel with two other couples at a national conference. We were the egalitarian couple. One other couple represented the model traditional marriage. The third couple was supposed to be the moderates. To our surprise, the wife in the nationally known famous traditional couple spent much of her time complaining about her husband. For instance, how he bought a truck into which she could hardly step up.

She said that when they meet the Lord and the Lord complains about this wasted money, she would say, “It was all his decision and it’s his fault!

          Sounds a little like Adam and Eve after the fall in reverse. This time, the wife would say: “It’s the husband you gave me! It’s his fault!”

          What Paul is asking of husbands is much more than to be figureheads. Help your wife grow as a Christian. Bill will explain more of that in the second half of our blog. Though, I would like to give you a few examples.

          After I finished college, I worked as a community organizer among Latin Americans in Plainfield, New Jersey. While I did that, Bill began studying at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA. He would return to New Jersey weekends and tell me about his studies of Bible and theology. They sounded so exciting and worthwhile! And I wondered aloud, could I too learn more about Christ? Bill immediately said, “Sure!”

          I asked, “Do women go to seminary?” Of course, “yes,” he told me. Later I found out there was only one female part-time student in the school—a nurse! But that was enough precedent for Bill. Moreover, I didn’t have any money for school and he also found a scholarship for me.

          When that campus was closed, we transferred our studies to Princeton Theological Seminary. Their only two-year degree was in Christian education. But, I wanted to learn koine Greek, the language of the New Testament, in order to delve deeper into the word. I asked my faculty advisor, May I do that? But in a Christian education program, she said, there was no room for Greek.

          I was devastated and shared this with Bill, who at that time was my fiancé. He said, “Don’t be concerned! I’ll teach you Greek.” Therefore, once a week we would meet and he would teach me one lesson from the Greek textbook. During the week, I would do the homework and memorize the vocabulary. I finished the year, and the next fall I took an entrance test, passed it, and entered the first level of interpreting the New Testament.  For over forty years I have taught the New Testament in Greek and now I am a Senior Professor of New Testament. It was Bill who started me on this route and encouraged me all along.

          Bill helped me grow and develop as a spiritual partner.

          So, when the Apostle Paul asks wives to respect their husbands and become part of that church-wide mutual submission (Eph. 5:21), he’s simply asking them to be thankful for everything their husbands are doing for them.

          Did you know that Ephesians 5:22 in the earliest Greek New Testament manuscripts has no verb? It says simply: “the wives to their own husbands as to the Lord.”

          The wives--what? What are we supposed to do? We can’t tell until we look back to verse 21 to get the answer: “being submissive to one another in fear/respect of Christ.” And that verse is the end of a long sentence beginning in 5:17. The gist of it is:

Understand the Lord’s will, don’t become fools, don’t get drunk with wine or intoxicating substances because then you cannot be filled with the Holy Spirit. Rather encourage one another, be thankful always, be cooperative with one another.

          The heart of submission is cooperation with others to do God’s will.

          What is God’s will? That we imitate him and “live in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (5:1-2 NRSV). One way to live a life of love is to submit to other Christians, while they submit to you. Mutual submission is two ruling authorities bowing to each other because they both bow to a greater authority: Christ.

          Paul writes, for example, that the spirits of prophets should be subject to one another in 1 Corinthians 14. They listen to each other when they prophesy, they do not monopolize the whole time, they learn and encourage each other and evaluate each other’s messages (vv. 29-33). They cooperate with each other so that all can exercise their roles. They do this to themselves; they are not forced to submit.

          That’s what I try to do in our marriage: to cooperate in love, listen, learn, encourage, evaluate, to become a supportive presence in actions and words because of respect for Christ. Our marriage is by no means perfect. Even after fifty years of marriage, we still are not always fully in agreement. (By the way, did you notice that Paul uses the future in v. 31: “the two will become one flesh.” Before God we may be one, but not yet in reality.) That takes time and is a process that is always ongoing.    

          That is our goal, to become truly united. I, for my part, strive to appreciate Bill, be thankful, respect him privately and publicly, because he strives to help me grow spiritually. Of course, I must do the same for him, to love him and help him grow spiritually.

Bill puts in his 2 cents

As Aída and I translated this passage together and assessed each of the beautiful Greek words Paul was inspired to employ to build this passage and, then, when Aída read me her interpretation of what she realized Paul was saying here, I was struck once again with this thought: It all makes perfect sense!

It didn’t always make sense to me – or, as I realize, to some thinking folks in the church into which I was born. This hyper-conservative church was living under its own brand of remnant theology. This is the way I characterized it as a youth: “After the fall, God set aside a small number of Baptist Churches, only two of which were in New Jersey!” Our church was down in the plains, and we related only to one other church up in the mountains. (If we didn’t, none of our young would have been able to find a spouse, if there wasn’t one in our church, since nearly all others in Christendom were a pack of heretics. That is what we were taught.)

With an outlook like this, people in my birth church were used to fragmenting our thoughts. I heard many sermons and teachings on this passage in Ephesians and all of them atomized it. I don’t ever remember any preacher working with the rest of the book to see what was actually the context around what Paul was saying, as Aída has just done.

Instead, preachers would center in on Ephesians 5 as if it were a set of commandments that dropped from heaven right into their pulpits and they’d hammer away at them in a vacuum. The message each one planted in all of our brains was very clear: Eve sinned and misled Adam and that’s not going to happen in our church! So, the commandment was women submit, men rule, that’s God’s will, end of story. Serve us up some lunch, ladies!

But you know, we looked at Ephesians 5:25-33 from every angle and I couldn’t then and I still can’t now find these words in these verses: “Loving your wife is bossing her around!”

Apparently, the women in my birth church thought so, too, because, while they made a show of submitting to their husbands in public, these women ruled the church. They taught every Sunday School class I was in until I entered junior high when a well-meaning, but way out of shape man warned us boys not to worship at the temple of muscles – apparently a rule he took to heart. Since he had a very beautiful daughter, all the older boys treated him with great respect. We younger boys had to fend for ourselves, as far as our opinions were concerned.

One thing I noticed was that, despite what was being taught about what this church thought Paul meant, the women told their husbands how to vote in their deacons’ meetings. Perhaps you’ve heard the old saying: “The man is the head; the woman is the neck that turns the head?” Well, these necks, under whose tutelage I was reared, turned with an iron resolve. Most of them were very sweet, but some frustrated church women I’ve met along the way have been absolutely terrifying.

Since my home church women had already trained all the boys, we held an iron-clad opinion of their wisdom. I realized that any pastor who fell afoul of one of the key women of the church on Sunday was out on Monday. As it was, three families appeared to run the church and those patriarchal families were actually, in reality, matriarchal. After all, fundamentalist women in the late 1940s-early 1950s, who had worked like Rosie the Riveter, while the men went to war, were very strong, and now suddenly they were not supposed to work outside the home. But they were used to working. So, they transferred their work to the church. And they worked just as hard as they ever did. They just weren’t given adequate credit for it.

For me, everything changed in my perspective after my dad was hurt in an accident at work that busted him up and put him in the hospital for months as God along with the doctors rebuilt his hand, legs, ribs, and everything else broken. My folks were a young couple paying off a mortgage, devastated by a series of stillborns and miscarriages, and my wonderful sister’s accidental death two years earlier at the age of 11, and being stuck with the arduous task of trying to keep alive their only surviving child: a sickly 8-year-old me at the time (not being the robust, firewood-chopping senior of today). This accident of my dad was a catastrophic finale to a series of familial heartbreaks.

I remember my mother, crying on the porch of church friends who wouldn’t open the door more than a slit to us, while she told them she didn’t know where her and my next meal was coming from. I think they figured we must be sinning, and they didn’t want to catch this annihilating disease of disasters. I think they slipped some macaroni left over from dinner out the door. It was good. I was small and hungry.

My mother was a child of the Depression and a true survivor, so she went out and got a job at a large department store in a city next to our borough which supplemented the church care baskets that came on Thanksgiving and Christmas (and eventually the desultory checks that were stuffed into my dad’s pocket as he limped around the church building, a Trustee in leadership no longer).

My Mom continued to teach in the Sunday School, but we were definitely under a cloud. My home church had no theodicy, that is, no theological understanding of the four biblical reasons for suffering we see in the Bible and which, as a result, we explore in our book Joy through the Night: Biblical Resources on Suffering. Sure, punishment for sin is a biblical reason for suffering, but living in a fallen world where everybody suffers is a much more far-reaching one, because disaster strikes the good and the bad. Mudslides make no distinctions. Everyone dies.

In short, my parents broke the rules. My mom did not submit and stay home and starve. And my dad did not hobble out of the hospital in his full body cast and fumble around trying to paint on houses, particularly in the aftermath when, knitted back together again, he was undergoing long-term therapy to get his hand (put back together strangely) eventually to be able to hold the brush and to get his legs able to move and support him again. Few, if any, seemed to notice God’s miracle that my father eventually painted with that hand and climbed ladders with those broken legs after his therapy helped him become mobile again. My parents were heroic.

In my view, all the church seemed to see was our family as a bunch of pariahs, losing a child and undergoing a work disaster, since a ladder rung snapped and my dad plummeted three stories down, smashing on a macadam driveway. Apparently, the church expected angels to catch him mid-air and waft him down safely to the ground, if he was really the good man he appeared to be.

Our home, in the church’s opinion, was a shambles. My dad was distressed and very depressed in the hospital when he learned from my mom that she had gone back to work. My mom was out of control! The department store, which later became part of the Macy’s chain, made her a junior executive and she won numerous Ambassador Awards for her high sales volume and her popularity with customers who would turn down other salespeople (including men), patiently waiting on the display sofas for their turn to come up and be served by her.

But, despite all her success, she was always paid less than the men, since the same inequitable, patriarchal attitude ruled the secular world as well as it did the church.

I saw this as a travesty. My 8-year-old brain recoiled at it and I complained, “Mom, you’re working harder than anybody – why are you paid less?” My mom, who didn’t question the status quo, replied, “Well, the men are the bread winners, and they need to earn more.” I remember pleading back, “But, Mom, you’re the bread winner in our house.” That’s when I began to become an egalitarian. I was on the road to ruin.

My church also considered our situation a travesty. From its point of view, everything was awry in our house.

The church was taking its cues from Bill Gothard, a patriarchal unmarried man who gave an authoritative voice on how to run a family, later into eclipse for his reputed weird behavior with his young female volunteers.

And, for us, when my dad finally was able to work again, with me now old enough to help him paint, my mom refused to quit her job – even when store work transferred to a location far away on a highway. It was a clear violation of the teaching in Ephesians 5:25-33 on the way a wife should behave and a household should run.

But was it?

Was it really a violation of what Paul was actually telling husbands and wives to do? No.

Ephesians 5:25 reads literally: “Husbands, love your wives.” Now, how does Paul tell us husbands to do that? Is it by bossing our wives around and confining them to the house, whether they want to be there or not?

No. According to the rest of that verse, it’s for us to act the way that Christ acted in his love for the Church. So, how did Christ act? Literally, the rest of verse 25 on through verses 26 and 27 tells us Christ “delivered himself up in behalf of her, so that he might sanctify her, having cleansed with washing of the water in the spoken word, so that he himself might present the Church glorious, not having a spot or wrinkle or any such thing that she may be holy without blemish.”

Now, guys, this is not about buying her cold cream and cosmetics and dolling her up with a new hairdo. This is about self-sacrifice on her behalf and bathing her in upbuilding words that help her become the fully realized, holy and sinless person that God intended her to be. How is that done? Through love.

Love means finding out what gifts God has given one’s wife and a husband sacrificing his ego and even his advancing in his career if necessary to make certain every gift God has given his wife may be used to the fullest extent to help her live a holy life without a spot of sin, serving God in whatever her gifting points her to do, so that she may one day hear the “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:21), which is the reward toward which every Christian should be striving.

How do we love our wives? If we’re not clear about what love is, Paul tells the Corinthians in 1st Corinthians 13, so we can review it there.

If every Christian husband did this for their wives, we could shake the world for God. In fact, every Christian man should extend this courteous behavior to every Christian woman, since Paul advises Timothy he should treat older women in the church as mothers and younger women as sisters in all purity or chastity (1 Tim. 5:2). Normal men want to honor their mothers and protect their sisters and help these beloved family women flourish. That’s how we should be treating the blessed women in our churches. I used to say that one of the greatest ploys of the evil one is to keep 60% of the church from using its full gifts. Recently, a wonderful Christian Kenyan woman informed me, “Oh no, in Africa it is 80% women that comprise the church.” In China, many if not most of the house churches have been pastored by women. I think these kinds of statistics may be true for much of our faith around the world. Lately, I’ve been told that a group of conservatively trained graduates from some of our U.S. seminaries are returning to China and causing trouble by telling the women who have been pastoring for years to step down rather than helping them refine the gifts that God obviously supplied them to plant and pastor these churches. If we want to see a violation of Ephesians 5:25-33, I would think this is it: stop the women pastoring and then stick some man who is not gifted to do it in her place the next Sunday, and see what happens... What are they thinking? My advice? Gentlemen, read the passage again – and this time pay attention to it!

For myself, when I kneel before the Lord to report how I used my life, I would much rather say, “Lord, I did everything I could do as a husband, pastor, and a professor to help my wife and other godly women use the gifts you gave them to the fullest. In fact, Lord, we even edited a book called Christian Egalitarian Leadership: Empowering the Whole Church according to the Scriptures, with women and men of many nationalities encouraging each other to use their gifts equally to grow Your church. I hope You’re pleased, Lord.” I would much rather report that then, “Lord, I made sure 60%-80% of your church never went into leadership or exercised any directing gifts, and when I couldn’t help it, because I couldn’t find any man able to do better and I had to let women lead, well, Lord, I made sure these women didn’t get any credit for their work!”

These days, there is a push in the church to do a “plain reading” of Scripture. Well, this is it for Ephesians 5:25-33. How do we love our wives? We sacrifice our lives and ambitions in the gentleness of upbuilding words so that our wives can reach the holiness and spiritual beauty that comes when everything God has equipped them to do can be realized without a ceiling put on them. Together, then we can work in partnership to help God reconcile the world to Godself. That’s the end – that is the goal – of our story.

Amen

Aída and Bill



[1] An earlier version of this blog was preached as a sermon at Pilgrim Church in Beverly, MA., Nov. 27, 2022. The only difference between “wife” and “woman”  or “husband” or “man” in Greek is a modifying word such as “their own men” or “their own women” which introduces a discussion (Eph 5:22, 33; 1 Cor 7:2). Such a modifying word is missing from the discussion in 1 Cor. 11. In 1 Cor. 11, whatever Paul signifies as “head,” it does not limit women from praying or prophesying (1 Cor 11:5). For a further discussion of the meaning of “head” from several points of view, see Marriage at the Crossroads: Couples in Conversation About Discipleship, Gender Roles, Decision Making and Intimacy, edited by Aída Besançon Spencer, William David Spencer, Steven R. Tracy, and Celestia G. Tracy and also Christian Egalitarian Leadership: Empowering the Whole Church according to the Scriptures, edited by Aída Besançon Spencer and William David Spencer.

[2] Cover, Priscilla Papers 20:3 (2006)

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

I, NICODEMUS, Nicodemus recollects Jesus’ birth and life at the fall of Jerusalem. How can God become human? A dramatic monologue based on John 3:1-16; 7:50-52; 19:38-42


 google image: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/nicodemus-john-lautermilch.html

        I spend so much idle time these days, sitting by this window, looking out over the coming ruin of this once great city of Jerusalem – this once blessed nation. I see so much hopelessness.  We are desperate.

         Some ask me about the Messiah’s origin.  Yes, I am old – I was alive then, but I wasn’t there to see this birth event.  In fact, none of us were. It was just this one young village girl’s account of an experience she claimed she’d had. But she wasn’t anyone important. Just a teenager from a small town up in the lake region. Frankly, she was nobody who mattered to all of those who counted in the great city – so everybody ignored the rumor. Almost everybody, that is…Not Herod, as it turned out, or some truly wise men from the East, but we found that out much later.

I myself was a child then. In a few years I had my hands full enough, being trained to help my family in our corn, wheat, and barley business.

Those were such good times for us. My father was a rich businessman - a merchant on the grand scale! Our granaries were filled to bursting – and I was the best of his sons in business. So, as my dad aged, I had his entire enterprise to oversee and extend.

 I was scrupulous about everything.  I have always been very generous and knew how to give so that we’d get a decent return, if, in nothing else, at least in good will.  On that note, I was also very careful to fulfill my Temple tithe in every measure.

  It was natural, then, that I should join in with the group of rich businessmen who took their work and their faith seriously. We fancied ourselves “the separated ones.”  We might all be laymen, but we were holy, set apart to observe the law in all its finest details.  We prized legalism and separatism. Some people said we were a club of lawyers. Some of us actually were lawyers. So anything that touched the religious law interested us.

 But now and again word would leak out about a strange and precocious child from up north who could understand the deep mysteries the rest of us could only glimpse. He wasn’t one of us, of course, so most of our set ignored him.  But the rumors of his strange doings kept trickling down.

          One incident involving him even happened right here in Jerusalem about a dozen years after his mother’s initial report about the angels. This boy shows up at the Temple one Passover.  He’s about 12 or so and instead of leaving with his parents, like I always did, this boy sits down with the teachers, listens to them carefully, asks questions, and amazes all of them with his understanding and his answers. Then he startles everyone by calling the temple his Father’s house. The teachers didn’t understand what he meant.  I guess none of us did.

 I myself had been trained at the Beth Hamidrash – the school of the rabbis – here in Jerusalem. I had a particularly good teacher – Rabbi Gamaliel.  My dad could afford the best. Students came in from all around. Of course, we had the rabbi’s own son, Simon, who is so famous now. And my best friend, Joseph, whose family is from the east, up between Lydda, Antipatris, and Joppa on the coast of the Mediterranean – it’s a little town called Arimathea, which is hardly on the maps, so you may not have heard of it.  His father dabbled in a lot of stuff, including real estate and they owned a beautiful garden park in the northern part of Jerusalem, where we loved to go and play on holidays when we were young. In my class we also had a zealous young man from way over in Tarsus named Saul who was pretty philosophical and always arguing about some fine point in the law.

 And me?  I was always looking for the deeper knowledge.  Like in business, I was always figuring, “so what’s the angle?” Well, it was like this with religion too.  Anything worth doing is worth applying yourself to – you know, to get it right.

  So, I studied hard and I worked hard.  And you can imagine my father’s pride when I was appointed to the aristocratic supreme council of seventy-two ruling elders:  the Sanhedrin. Although he was semi-retired by now, Dad still had a hand in the business, and, having a son in government was good business – since it enhanced the family reputation and, besides, it gave him a personal distinction – some reflected glory: my son, the councilor, the leader of our people, working daily with the high priest himself!

  “You go ahead, Nicodemus,” he’d say.  “Take your place in the city gate, son. Judge the people. You’ve helped me set this business up so well, that your brothers can operate the workaday running. Besides, you working close and dipping in the same lunch pot with all those representatives of the best families is good for all of us. For one thing, your two youngest sisters are at marriageable age and maybe you can help us attract a good match. And putting in a word for the business now and again is just what we need, if we’re going to expand into the caravan trade in any serious way.”

         Well, all this was fine with me. I had helped him develop ours into a thriving enterprise and the Sanhedrin was certainly the place to make connections with the power people. In addition, it was full of scholars I liked and admired:  my old professor, Gamaliel, his son Simon, Shemaiah the scribe, my best friend Joseph from Arimathea – and – not that argumentative Saul, who was off serving a tribunal, judging criminal cases.   The high priest might have been running the show, but Gamaliel kept it all interesting.

And that’s what I was doing when the “miracle child”—all grown up now—suddenly burst on Jerusalem like a thunderclap off the eastern sea! We hadn’t heard about him for years, not since that incident when he was 12, and then the rumors started up again about strange doings in Galilee. I mean, we all know that prophets and soothsayers are a denarius a dozen.  If it’s not the Essenes with their “king of light” nonsense that’s going to get us all killed, it’s some desert crackpot blowing in from the Negev with a special revelation how he ought to be high priest.  And, of course, they all eventually end up here in Jerusalem and we argue most of them out of town!       

 But there was something about this one that so different.

  For one, the things he did.  He went to a wedding and turned jugs of water into wine!  I’ll bet the local ale houses didn’t like that much – not to mention the family that owned the Galilee wineries. When we heard that, Shemaiah, whose family has an interest in the wine we use in the temple, kept muttering, “Wine out of well water?  Who can compete with that?” Think what the local reaction was!

   Then he started in on the mass feedings – 5,000 men plus additional women and children out of some child’s lunch?

   This guy was like a one-man economic disaster. He could put us all out of business.  In one day, he could make up enough meals to bankrupt the entire food industry.   Fifteen thousand people suddenly don’t need to buy supper?  Do you know what fisherman do when nobody’s buying their fish?  They can’t put them in their purse for tomorrow – this stuff goes bad over night!

   And then when he starts preaching to the people, what does he talk about?  “Don’t worry about buying good clothes!”  God is going to provide that?  So now he’s in the textile business with God!!! Talk about an unfair trade monopoly!  Who’s going to compete with the Almighty for daily wear?  We’re talking about the One who kept our ancestors’ clothes from wearing out for forty years in the desert? 

    And then he says, “Don’t worry about where you live – a fox hole or a bird’s nest is fine?”

    For purple merchants, landowners, tradesmen, this kind of talk threatens the whole economic infrastructure. We’re built on business.  What’s good for business is good for God and God’s people.

    And that’s another thing!  This young man from Galilee is handing out authoritative words on God as well.  Who does he think he is?  God’s son or something?

    And that’s when the report of his mother from thirty years ago comes into play.  Because, that’s exactly what he thinks he is – the son of this earthly woman, who was given her child when the Holy Spirit of the Most High put a divine seed into her.

    That was what his followers were claiming – and it seemed so preposterous!  Like God was Zeus or something, running around impregnating women!  It sounded blasphemous really. The great teacher Philo wrote that for a Jew to even consider God could “change into a human” or “a human into God” was the “most grievous impiety.” Philo wrote that, by the way, exactly fifty years ago in Alexandria, when he lived through what we are now enduring.   His words, wise but wasted, were addressed to that insane monster of an emperor, Gaius, who’d had his images placed in every house of worship.  His callous prefect Flaccus incited the Gentile mob to pillage and slaughter us and there was a great pogrom.  The only thing that saved us was Gaius getting himself assassinated, so Claudius, who at least wasn’t crazy, could take over the government.

    But, I don’t think anything is going to save us now from Vespasian and the destruction of all we hold most sacred and dear.  I, Nicodemus, sit here in my window and wonder, how did it ever come to this?  How did we ever fall so far from God that our city and our civilization have been given over into the hands of the Romans and Jerusalem is about to fall and we are all about to die?

    Some have been wailing around the city that our doom is upon us because we murdered James the Righteous, the earthly brother of the Miracle Child.  I think it may very well be because we rejected and murdered God’s greatest gift to us: the Miracle Child himself.  How blind we have all been.

   But there are extenuating circumstances for our blindness.  See, all of us call God our Father.  But, what we mean by that is God is our Creator, the One from whom we inherited the land we were promised and our favored status among humanity as God’s chosen people. But, none of us imagine God to be like an earthly father – some large man in the sky – like the pagans imagine their gods. The true God is a Spirit – not sexual at all. God told Israel back in the days when the law was being given in our book, which we call: “These Are the Words That Moses Spoke,” (which some these days call Deuteronomy), in chapter 4:12-16, which says, when “the Lord spoke to you out of the fire.  You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice…Since you saw no form when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire, take care and watch yourselves closely, so that you do not act corruptly by making an idol for yourselves, in the form of any figure – the likeness of male or female.”                      

     So, we thought, how can this be?  How can this man be born of an earthly mother and actually have God as his father?  How can someone be both human as we are and at the same time our God among us?  It seemed to fly in the face of everything we believed.

      True, it made sense out of Scriptures we could never fully understand, like that puzzling passage in Isaiah’s prophecy in 9:6, “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

You see, our question here goes far beyond asking: is this man the Messiah, the Anointed One of God, he for whom we have been waiting.   It is asking something much more profound:  Is this One somehow Almighty God among us.  And, if so, how can that be?

But at the same time we were puzzling over his bold words, this fully grown now “Miracle Child,” was backing up everything he was saying with the most incredible deeds. He was turning lepers and others with dreaded skin diseases back to normal – their skin as smooth as babies’! He was lighting up the eyes of people blind from birth! He was raising the dead back to life! And I’m not just talking about village rumors – I mean servants and children of Roman officials!  It was astounding!   And then he and his gang arrived here in Jerusalem.

Well, he immediately got everybody’s attention.  The first thing he did was storm into the temple, make a whip out of the cords they use to tie up the animals and stampede all the sheep and cattle out of the courtyards. And while the merchants were all running after their wares, he then turns over all their tables and spills the coins everywhere so that they all run together and nobody knows what belongs to whom. Some were outraged, but this didn’t actually bother me at all. See, the Sadducees, our competitors, were in charge of the Temple. As a Pharisee, I’d never really approved of all this commerce going on inside that the Sadducees were allowing.  Sure, I’m a businessman but I think there’s a place for business and it’s not in God’s house. Besides, anything that put the Sadducees in an embarrassing position was just fine with me – and with the rest of the Pharisees.

What disturbed us all, however, was what he was yelling as he was driving them all out, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” There it was again.  “My Father’s house.”  What did he mean exactly?

I wondered and when I wonder I find out!  I discovered the Miracle Man was staying at a home here in Jerusalem, so I slipped over to see him one night. When I arrived, all this man’s disciples were hanging about outside.  But that was fine with me. My main concern was avoiding the notice of my colleagues in the Sanhedrin, who were dead set against him. This is why I chose night. 

So, I came calling and there he was – a young man a little younger than my age, strong and lean and tanned and looking both serene and determined. I decided to be polite, as I always am, and began respectfully:   

“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who came from God; for no one is able these signs to do that you are doing unless God may be with you.”

But, the man, who was called – of all things “Jesus,” which, as you know, means “God is salvation,” was short on small talk or formal pleasantries. He simply looked at me fully and steadily, but not unkindly, for what seemed a very long and uncomfortable minute, like my whole life lay out before him on some tribunal’s examination table and then he said, “Indeed truly, I tell you, unless someone is born from above, they are not able to see God’s kingdom.”

Being born another time?  I was confused and blurted out: “How is anyone able to be born after having grown up?  He is not himself able into his mother’s womb a second time to enter and be born?”

Jesus simply said, “Indeed truly, I tell you, unless someone is born from water and Spirit, that one is not able to enter into God’s kingdom. What is born from the flesh is flesh, and what is born from the Spirit is spirit.”

And right there he was telling me about his dual parentage, if I’d only had the ears to hear him or the wisdom to understand it. He himself had both births simultaneously, born of a woman and of the Spirit of God. I had had one birth, but he seemed to be offering me somehow to follow him and receive the second. I was baffled.

He smiled at me and said gently, “You are the teacher of Israel and these things you do not understand?”

Well, no, I guess I didn’t.

So then he spelled it out so plainly for me. He revealed he knew these heavenly things because he had descended to us from God’s very presence, from heaven. He explained the significance of Moses lifting up the symbol of the snake in the wilderness to heal Israel from snake bites – that somehow he himself was going to be lifted up and heal us all from the bite of the great Serpent Satan. I had no idea at that point he meant he was going to be lifted up on a Roman executioner’s cross and die for my guilt as well as ignorance to set me right with God. He told me he wasn’t here to condemn me, but that God loved me so much that God sent him, God’s son, that I might believe in him and gain eternal life with God. I felt so strangely warm inside, even though I was thoroughly astonished.

He left Jerusalem immediately after our conversation and I returned to the Sanhedrin deeply in thought.

A little while later, he was back in the temple and teaching the crowds and things were turning really nasty. A group that had heard about his birth by a virgin mother, insulted him, since they all knew he wasn’t Joseph son, so they said, “We are not illegitimate children.”  They claimed they were descended from Abraham and they were the true children of God.

But Jesus replied, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I myself came from God and now I am here. For, I did not come on my own, but he sent me.” 

There it was again, his utterly uncompromising claim that he, a human being, was conceived by God’s Spirit.

And then he stated it plainly – he called himself the “I am,” the name for God!  He told them he saw Abraham rejoice about the day he would come.  They cried out, “You aren’t even fifty years old, how have you seen Abraham!”

And Jesus shot back, “Before Abraham was, I am.” 

That was it!  They all picked up stones to kill him for blasphemy, but he was gone by the time they’d found some.

And where had he gone?  Outside to cure a man all of us had seen all our lives – a man blind from birth!  Can you beat that?  And, indeed, all of Jerusalem was filling up with formerly diseased and handicapped victims now healed and productive active citizens.  Day after day, a steady stream of these began to be dragged in before us for questioning - a veritable outpouring of formerly lame, and blind, and sick, and leprous people – one after another after another! I didn’t know what there was to argue about.  I’d seen these people every day in the streets.  He healed them – no discussion there.

 I tried to speak up for him once when the Temple police were being berated for not arresting him and explaining that no one had ever spoken as he did. I knew exactly what they meant.

I defended the police.  I said, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”

But my colleagues on the Sanhedrin slammed me down. “Surely you aren’t also from Galilee, are you?” they sneered at me. “Search and you’ll see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee!”

Shortly thereafter, they managed to ensnare Jesus and kidnapped him one night and held an illegal trial under cover of darkness. It was all done swiftly and expertly and, before any of us knew it, there he was: lifted up like Moses’ bronze serpent in the wilderness, and dead on a Roman cross.   It was despicable.  I was ashamed of my colleagues and deeply saddened.

My friend Joseph from Arimathea, who also had not voted for the trial and execution, felt exactly as I did about Jesus: at first, intrigued, then full of hope, then shattered in despair.  We stepped forward and took him from his cross - his regular disciples had gone into hiding – all except one named John, who knew the high priest and had taken in Jesus’ mother, she of the virgin birth, to comfort her.

I invested in a hundred Roman pounds’ worth of spices and ointments for Jesus’ body, while Joseph went to Pilate and asked him for permission to take that body down. Together we buried him in Joseph’s lovely garden park, in a new tomb Joseph had set aside eventually for himself.

Never would we have guessed what was to happen in three days, when all our mourning turned back to astonishment and joy.  I saw him alive again, but that’s another story, for another day.

Today, some forty years later, I too have experienced the two births.  Born of flesh from my sweet mother and my dearest father. And born a second time in the Spirit by believing and following Jesus, “God is salvation,” right up to the present day.

And now I am very old, awaiting my own loss of this life and my entrance into the life to come – that blessed life that is eternal with Jesus and his heavenly Father. Indeed, there is nothing left for me here.  Last winter my granaries were burned down in the rioting.  Everyone I love is dead or gone.   Finally the mobs have gotten what they’ve been asking for.  Jerusalem is besieged. Starvation and disease will soon run rampant through the city. We will fall. I can do nothing more for my people.  So, my mind journeys constantly to days long ago, when God in human flesh walked among us. 

I am so glad I defended him and that I and my dear friend Joseph – now long gone – had the courage to bury God’s son. That was money we invested well! Today I couldn’t raise a tithe of that sum and soon it will all be over.  And then Jesus will stand up for me before his Father as I once had the privilege to stand up for him before my peers.

Hail, Mighty Savior!  Into your hands I commit my spirit.

So be it.  (Amen)

Bill

 

Saturday, November 12, 2022

Is Using an Illustration to Teach About the Trinity the Wrong Thing to Do?


 sun ray ping image

Since 1992, by way of introducing the doctrine of God and the varieties of views on the Trinity that have emerged throughout doctrinal history, I, Bill, have been starting off the Trinity sessions of my first systematic theology course each year asking students what images and illustrations they use when they teach in their churches or in their homes. Each time a student would introduce an illustration new to me, I would note it down. As can be imagined, a lot of repetition followed, but images new to me, some of these acquired in their churches or invented by these creative students, themselves, would join the list, The point of this lively exercise was to start with an engaging class discussion before I backed up my dump truck of knowledge and let all the wisdom in my lectures slide onto this captive audience.

You can imagine my surprise, then, when recently one of my Brazilian students handed back the survey with one line scrawled on it: “I don’t use one. It’s a mystery.” Shortly after, a Nova Scotia Acadian student (in my wife’s class at Acadia Divinity School, where I was simply helping out, but whose gracious students agreed to answer my survey) expanded the reason for rejecting images: “A number of people will use various illustrations. However, to my knowledge, they all lead to heresy if
they are pushed at all. If you find one helpful that is fine. Do not rest your faith on it or think that it accurately pictures the Trinity.” This student, who signed his name, was serving as a denominational representative.

Back in Boston, a “Caucasian” student who picked “water as solid, liquid & gas” as the preference, did not extend that image to children, deciding to protect them against imagery, explaining: “I probably wouldn’t use an illustration for a child – just describe the 3 Persons living together as one, leaving the mystery in place.”

A Chinese student wrote, “I seldom use those images. I know someone uses water, ice and steam. Some use different parts of a tree. But I had a hard time us[ing] them and I am not comfortable using them.”

For the majority of my students, with no special emphasis on ethnicity, increasingly, the theme of avoiding heresy dominates as the reason for discarding the use of images in describing the Trinity, as one “Caucasian” student announced: “I’ve started avoiding metaphors since all too easily they fall into heresy.” And, yet, this student confessed, “I sometimes draw a triangle and write the names of the person of God,” but assured me in a parenthesis, “I used to most often use the clover, but stopped.” As for talking to a new believer or child: “I wouldn’t use an image/metaphor if talking to someone well-schooled. I’d be more tempted to use one with someone new to the idea or a child.” But, immediately, the answer to the preference for kinetic or static images was qualified: “Again I try to avoid images – but probably static,” and added, a closing caution: “All the illustrations break down and trivialize the paradox!” Back and forth, back and forth, this student went, but settled for including a clear rejection of the use of images or illustrations in the answers to all four of the survey questions.

Some students struggled as did this one, but other students did not struggle, just writing “no” at the top of the survey page or handing back the survey blank without answers of any kind. By 2021, when I completed the research for my latest book, Three in One: Analogies for the Trinity, I was seeing at least 1/3rd of my class avoiding images, and, if I weighed in how many did not return the survey, I realize we may be up to half the class rejecting the use of illustrations for the Trinity.

These students are not surly. Not at all. They are affable, conscientious, caring Christian leaders who hand in class evaluations, and self-evaluations (answering honestly and often evaluating their work more severely than I do). They have heart-felt opinions and deep convictions. Mature, they often work two jobs, rear families, and pour themselves out for others. They are cordial with each other, very appreciative of me, hand in to the school glowing evaluations of the course, and constantly email me with questions and observations, sometimes sending me data they think I might find interesting on topics we are covering. Many have continued to keep in contact with me over the decades.

But on answering questions on the use of illustrations for the Trinity, I am running into a shutdown.

So, how was I to understand this unusual neglect for what seemed to me an important question: how do they teach or preach the Trinity to the people whom God has entrusted to their care?

One Sunday, I mentioned these hesitations to one of my fellow pastors at Pilgrim Church in Beverly, Massachusetts,[1] and he shared with me his own concern. He felt that analogies don’t tell us anything deeply profound about the Trinity because they are balancing two referents with often only a single connection between them. So, one sees the connection, but doesn’t really learn anything deeper about either referent that is being compared. The connection’s information, while interesting, he sees as shallow. His concern here is that analogies distort, and in theology distortion means heterodoxy.

But why now? Such issues have been presumably hanging around since God began to self-reveal to people on Day 1 of humanity’s creation eons ago. Why this sudden current widespread intent to put illustrative language on the short list for deep-sixing? 

Some of this mystery began to disappear when this co-pastor, various students, and even some academic colleagues began pointing me to the Lutheran Satire “St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies,” an hilariously entertaining, extremely clear, polemically provocative, compellingly creative, thoroughly caustic, and quite iconoclastic cartoon that teaches this point: “The problem with using analogies to explain the Holy Trinity is that you always end up confessing some ancient heresy. Let the patron saint of the Irish show you what I’m talking about.”[2] And show us it does with two rural cartoon rustics confronting the saint with a plea to explain the Trinity, then charging him with one heresy after another for each image he uses.

How effective is this three minute and forty-nine second attack on illustrative language, condemning its use as a gateway to heresy?[3] By April 7, 2022, “St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies” could boast 1, 677, 377 views, since its posting on March 14, 2013, and currently the YouTube site appears to have ceased counting at 1.7 million when I accessed it on November 9, 2022.[4] Ballooning when it was linked by Pinterest,[5] it has been picked up and posted by so many churches of both Calvinist and Arminian persuasions, para-church ministries, and individuals; that its influence is mind-boggling. The impact of this cartoon has spread like a spilled can of paint. It has inundated the web.

So, let’s take a moment and examine how exactly “St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies” works its logic as a biblical argument:

In this video, two cartoon characters, self-identified as illiterate 5th century Irish peasants,[6] ask St. Patrick to explain the Trinity. St. Patrick, as an icon, replies with discursive, declarative language: “There are three Persons of the Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Yet there is only one God.” When they claim not to understand, the spokesperson, Donall, asks for an analogy. When St. Patrick accommodates by summoning up the water image, how it can be found in three forms, “liquid, ice, and vapor,” these illiterate peasants turn erudite and reject that illustration as modalism (an ancient heresy speculating the one God appearing from time to time in one, two, or three temporary manifestations or modes but not existing in three coequal and coeternal Persons, as historic orthodoxy teaches.). St. Patrick then turns to the analogy of the Sun: “the star and the light, and the heat.” This they dismiss as Arianism, claiming the light and heat are creations and therefore not God. St. Patrick’s third attempt, the three-leaf clover is dismissed as “partialism,” a God in three thirds being suggested. The fourth analogy, “how the same man can be a husband and a father and an employer” is repudiated as modalistic, and the fifth, “the three layers of an apple,” as “partialism,” again at which St. Patrick gives up and just quotes the Athanasian Creed. This is finally acceptable. No figurative analogies anymore, but simply declarative statements somewhat similar to St. Patrick’s opening attempt. The difference apparently is that this final statement is from an historically orthodox creed.

Now, what do we make of this approach? Well, first of all, we need a bit of reality check about its dismissal of all analogies as prone to heresy.

St. Patrick didn’t make up the analogy of the Star sun in our sky and its radiance as depicting the relationship between the Father and the Son. The writer of Hebrews was inspired to reveal that.

For the writer of Hebrews, the illustration of the sun and its radiance pictures Jesus glowing with God’s Shekinah glory, a radiance shining with the brightness from the Godhead, the Source from whence Jesus Christ came. The illustration is appropriate. How salutary and nourishing to our spirits is God’s light in us, as the vitamin D of the sun is nourishing to our bodies.  No wonder this image became so popular in the early church. 

For Athanasius, the great early church theologian and defender of the seminal statement of Christian orthodoxy, the Creed of Nicaea, this analogy illustrated a key part of his argument for equality in the Godhead, the Son of God sharing equal substance with the Father. Athanasius employed this defense of Jesus Christ’s deity all throughout his critique of the Arian and Semi-Arian councils and their creeds, which denied the Son’s full deity and equality with the Father. Athanasius writes: “The illustration of the Light and Radiance has this meaning. For the Saints have not said that the Word was related to God as fire kindled from the heat of the sun, which is commonly put out again, for this is an external work and a creature of its author, but they all preach of Him as Radiance, thereby to signify His being from the substance, proper and indivisible, and His oneness with the Father. This also will secure His true unalterableness and immutability; for how can these be His, unless He be proper Offspring of the Father’s substance? for this too must be taken to confirm His identity with His own Father.”

Athanasius sees Hebrews’ illustration supporting his point: “Speak not of two Gods but of one God; there being but one Face of Godhead, as the Light is one and the Radiance…the sun and radiance are two, but the light one, because the radiance is an offspring from the Sun.” So, he reasons, “not more divisible, nay less divisible is the nature of the Son towards the Father.” “The godhead” is “not accruing to the Son,” as if the Son had to acquire divinity![7]

For Athanasius, divinity is a property of the Son, not a continual acquisition, as he explains, “the Father’s godhead being in the Son, so that he that hath seen the Son hath seen the Father in Him; wherefore should not such a one be called One in substance?[8]…and God’s Offspring, what should we fittingly and suitably consider, but the Word, and Wisdom, and Power? which it were a sin to say was foreign from the Father, or a crime even to imagine as other than with Him everlastingly.”[9]

Athanasius realizes this illustration of the sun and its radiance is “mean indeed and very dim” when imaging God, but it does lift our eyes above our nature. And by doing so, Athanasius declares, “Who can even imagine that the radiance of light ever was not, so that he should dare to say that the Son was not always, or that the Son was not before His generation? or who is capable of separating the radiance from the sun, or to conceive of the fountain as ever void of life, that he should madly say, ‘The Son is from nothing,’ who says, I am the life, or ‘alien to the Father’s substance,’ who says, He that hath seen Me, hath seen the Father?[10]

So, with what are we left here? Are we going to be served one more installment in the Donnall and Connall saga, where these animated theologians take Athanasius to task, correcting his own use of the sun and radiance imagery by demanding he stick solely to the discoursing words of the Athanasian Creed (based on Athanasius’s own teaching)? Reducing the acceptable explanation of the Trinity to reciting the words of the Athanasian Creed (or any creed) clearly counters the practice of Athanasius himself who, as we see, employed the analogy in Hebrews 1:3 as a major component of his proof that Jesus did indeed share substance with the Father and was God in the flesh.

The fact of the matter is that analogical language is used all through the Bible to describe God. Old Testament imagery like Rock, featured in Moses’s farewell song to Israel, where God is depicted as a rock. What does this tell us about God’s attributes? Deuteronomy 32:4 uses the image to depict the Lord’s durable perfection, justice, faithfulness, purity. Verse15 refers to the rock ( ur,צור ) of salvation (yֲšɚhuaָ יֲשןעׇה). So, rock depicts firm security in salvation, in this case foolishly rejected. Verse 18 mixes metaphors and speaks of the Rock begetting (ul) or bringing forth Israel with labor pains. [11] Verses 30 and 31 compare the superiority of Israel’s rock to defeat their enemies’ rock. The image of Rock is used throughout the Old Testament in Psalm 18, 31, 46, Isaiah 17, 51, and elsewhere. Other images in the Bible are a Fortress, a Shepherd, a husband to Israel, and many more.[12]  

The New Testament is also filled with imagery depicting our Creator as a loving father of a profligate son, a vineyard owner with criminals as hirelings, a wealthy woman in search of a lost coin, a wealthy master who is rebuked at the gracious offer to share a feast (Luke 14:15-23). In these illustrations, we learn about God’s patience, generosity, love, and quest to deliver us from destruction, as well as God’s justice and punishment at those who reject the attributes under the category of love extended to them.

And, if you want to explore this terrain further, I’ll take you on a much more thorough journey through Jesus, Athanasius, and other thought-provoking Christian thinkers’ use of illustrations to depict God correctly in my new book Three in One: Analogies for the Trinity (offered at a bargain price from Kregel Academic). 

So, what are we to conclude? For some inexplicable reason, theological speakers, despite their convictions otherwise, seem to favor the use of common clichés, dead metaphors like the proverbial “elephant in the room” or “throwing out the baby with the bathwater.” So let me say that discarding analogies is more than simply herding the elephant from the room. It’s also kicking out its keepers and tossing out all the furniture! And banishing analogies is much more than throwing out the baby and the bathwater, but also heaving out the tub, the stand, the washing nurse or mother, all that furniture, and sealing up the room of analogy when it comes to God!

If we are going to follow the Bible as our standard and Athanasius’s example as our model, we are going to have to realize that the use of imagery to describe God does not violate the biblical or historic Christian standards. The use of analogic language to describe God cannot in itself be wrong and does not necessarily lead to heresy. The way figurative language is shaped, presented, and interpreted is what can be right or wrong.

Further, quoting a creed is not a fail safe solution, as Athanasius demonstrated in his critique of the creeds of his day, starting with the Dedication Creed of AD 341 right on through a variety of deceitful creeds right up to the Council of Sirmium’s AD 357 statement that Hilary of Poitiers dubbed “The Blasphemy of Sirmium.” This creed prohibited any “mention” or “exposition” of equal substance (homousion) or even the semi-Arian “like substance” (homoiousion) in order to claim that the Father is “greater” than the Son in “honour, renown, and deity.”[13] So what is said of illustrative language, well, the same can be said of discursive and even creedal language.

Discursive, even creedal, language is no more safe than is analogy for describing God. No creed is infallible, canonical, or inerrant, even orthodox ones. We need continually to test every word against the Bible’s revelation and never give any discursive or figurative language the status of Scripture.

For now, if Athanasius, the great defender of orthodoxy, whose creed we all treasure as orthodox (that is to say “right doctrine”), followed the biblical example and carefully used a biblical illustration and other illustrations, as well, to depict God, why wouldn’t we?

Bill



[1] Rev. Dr. Robert Samsel.

[2] https://lutheransatire.org/media/st-patricks-bad-analogies/

[3] Since its runaway success, it has spawned a musical version, and a number of other creative cartoon videos challenging anti-Christian and heretical positions from Richard Dawkins’s atheism to the Mormons tritheism, to The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Unitarianism. “Saint Patrick: The Musical” (posted March 17, 2019), already boasts 153, 856 hits, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wHr02U1OYVk&t=224s, posted March 17, 2019.

[4] St. Patrick's Bad Analogies, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQLfgaUoQCw, accessed March 10, 2022.

[6].As they self-identify in a later cartoon, “Donall and Conall Learn That Jesus Isn’t Divine,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iXDt8WHSPhU

[7] Athanasius, In Defence of the Nicene Definition 5.11 ¶ 24 (pp. 40-41); Origin, Commentary on the Gospel according to John, trans. Ronald E. Heine (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1989), book 3.18.19.

[8] Ibid., 2.24 ¶52-53 (154-55).

[9] Athanasius, In Defence of the Nicene Definition, 5.8 ¶24 (pp. 40-41). Athanasius does refer to Jesus as being seen by human witnesses as “the Wisdom and the Power of God” during the incarnation, but without the Proverbs 8 reference in his On the Incarnation, rev. ed., trans. by A Religious of C.S.M.V. (Yonkers, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011), ¶19 (91).

[10] Ibid., 3.10 ¶12.

[11] To translate the Hebrew text, I am using A. Philip Brown II and Brian W. Smith, A Reader’s Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 356 with its helpful footnotes of Hebrew words that occur less than 100 times.

[12] F. Stevenson in his fine study Titles of the Triune God: Studies in Divine Self-Revelation notes, “We adhere to the traditional view that Shaddai is derived from the word “invariably used in Scripture for a woman’s breast,” he adds also “pap” and “teat, “referencing Schofield. He explains, “This emboldened some Bible students and preachers to speak of ‘the Mother-love of God.’” This does not suggest that God has gender, either male or female or both. It’s an analogy showing us that God’s love is a tender as a mother’s love as she nurses her child. In this way God fed Israel in the wilderness.

[13] See Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, eds., Documents of the Christian Church, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 45