Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Thoughts on Journal of Early Christian Studies Winter 2008

I'm still catching up on reading those scholarly articles.  Glad I don't subscribe to a large number of publications!

The Winter 2008 edition of Journal of Early Christian Studies (JECT) has three articles that I think are of a bit of interest.  It opens with an article by Ellen Muehlberger entitled "Ambivalence about the Angelic Life: The Promise and Perils of an Early Christian Discourse of Asceticism."  The volume continues with "how Thin Is a Demon?" by Gergory A. Smith, then has "A Cure for Rabies or a Remedy for Concupiscence? A Baptism of the Elchasaites" by Andrea Nicolotti.

All three articles have some strikingly recurring themes.  In all instances we are discussing, well, not surprisingly, early Christian belief and practice, particularly in the period we'd probably think of as late antiquity, rather than the Middle Ages.  In the early years of the monastic movements we see believers who wish to set themselves apart by their life of holiness and separation to God.  While this is generally considered a noble thing, and is certainly approved by Scripture, many of these people thought by their overt and visible acts of asceticism they could earn merit in the eyes of God.  They had moved from a life conformed to the Gospel into a life conformed to the Law.  In this monastic life the believers would humble themselves, depriving themselves of many of the normal things of life, including relationships with believing and unbelieving elements of the society at large.  They would seek to purge themselves of evil through departing from society as completely as possible.  Then, lo and behold, the monks would in fact find evil in their midst.  They would find that they were subject to the same temptations in their monastic life that they had been subject to prior to separating themselves to that monastic service.  Leaders would seek revelation from the Holy Spirit about sins to confront, but would wonder if they were being led by the Holy Spirit or by demonic forces.  The believers in late antiquity, just like believers today, found that they were not able to earn merit before God, that they were not able to flee temptation completely, that they found sin within themselves, and that even in their attempts to weed out and confront unconfessed sin they were not always reliably right.

This leads us to the idea of the demonic presence.  It was apparently a fairly common idea in late antiquity that demons frequently took on some sort of semi-corporeal form.  They seemed to have the characteristics of angels, which makes sense since they are, biblically speaking, fallen angels.  But the demons would apparently show themselves to people and have at least apparent corporeality.  This brings us again to what I mentioned above.  Demonic and angelic revelation is often indistinguishable to the human mind and heart.  Believers must be on their guard against the kind of revelations they perceive which are not explicit in Scripture, which cannot be mistaken for something else.

Finally, we find that believers often seek some sort of remedy for sin, and seek it in physical means.  While I would confess that baptism is sacramental by nature, i.e., it actually accomplishes something through the physical application of the Word of God and the water, as God's appointed means to wash us from sin, there was something going on among a group known as the Elchasaites which was not biblically defensible.  The Elchasaites were apparently not well accepted.  They did not appear to be within the mainstream of Christian faith and practice.  Yet they were accepted at least in some areas.  One of their odd practices was to rebaptize people.  We see this to some extent today in American Christianity, where people who hold to a symbolic view (baptism is an outward sign of an inward change) of baptism will insist that only those who are already confessing their faith in a persuasive manner should be baptized, and that those who were baptized as infants should be baptized again once they make a persuasive confession.  Some of these groups will baptize believers multiple times as those believers find and confess sins which persuade them that they were not really Christians before, so should be baptized again.  The Elchasaites took this to an extreme, apparently.  They applied baptism as a cure for various physical ailments, affirming that the ailments had a demonic source and would therefore be cleansed by the waters of baptism.  They even prescribed the number of times over a particular number of days that those suffering from rabies or consumption were to be baptized.

How does all this tie together?  Do we in this day and age seek to flee from our sin only to find that we could flee it only by leaving ourselves?  Do we persist in unbiblical views of reality, including denial of the bodily resurrection, assuming that angels and demons are different in ways other than the fact that demons are fallen, or deciding that we can seek spiritual information and depend on the revelation we receive in prayer as something definitive?  Do we assign uses and conditions to baptism which aren't there in Scripture?  In fact, we do fall into all the errors I just mentioned and more.  What will serve to rescue us from these errors which so many generations of Christians have fallen into before us?  Dependence on God's Word and the sacraments, the means of grace which our Lord has appointed, giving promises of their efficacy.  Do we want a revelation from God?  Let us look to the Scripture where we have all God wished to reveal about life and salvation laid out in a definitive way, using a format that we can study and review.  Do we want to flee from sin and seek cleansing from sin that we commit?  Let us look to the means God has appointed - the baptism which washes our conscience and cleanses us, drawing us from the corruption of the world as God drew Noah and his companions on the ark from the corruption of the world.  Let us look also to the daily nourishment our Lord has given us in His body and blood, given and shed for us, in which he offers us this divine κοινωνία - a "participation" as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 11.  Let us cling to what our Lord has given us, not falling into the error that we so easily find when we try to devise a better plan ourselves.

Dave Spotts
blogging at http://capnsaltyslongvoyage.blogspot.com and http://alex-kirk.blogspot.com

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Mystery of a Sacrament

In our adult catechesis class on Wednesday we started talking about the Sacraments. The view of a sacramental life has been very difficult for me to get my head around. I suppose that is to be expected. But it has been the big motivator of my move from the more symbolic Zwinglian and Calvinist branches of the Reformation into the Lutheran branch. I still can't really explain it. Suffice it to say, at least for now, that there seems to be this biblical view of Jesus as not only the one who offers himself once, but who presents himself in his power and majesty whenever we are assembled together in His name, and who presents himself primarily using very simple means - the spoken Word and the physicality of the bread, wine, and water. That's quite a mystery. In fact, it appears that the Greek term "mystery" was frequently translated into Latin as "sacrament." Here's an article I read about it. http://www.lcms.org/ca/www/cyclopedia/02/display.asp?t1=S&word=SACRAMENTANDTHESACRAMENTS

The more I read the Old Testament the more I see I have come from a tradition that tends to look down on the physical. This tradition is consistent with a Platonic view that the material universe is a bad thing, a thing to be escaped. But a true biblical faith seems to present God as intimately involved in the physical, working in and through physical means.

So here's my question. Just how much has God, who set aside priests by sprinkling them with blood from an offering and dressing them with holy garments, who purified sinners through very real dead animals and through washing with water, how much has this God of the Old Testament changed? What does this say about Jesus' work in his perfect life, death, and resurrection? What does this say about baptism and communion? Are these symbols of something larger but less concrete? Are they actual physical elements by which God in Christ conveys life and hope? How are we going to explain our faith in these terms?
Dave Spotts
blogging at http://capnsaltyslongvoyage.blogspot.com and http://alex-kirk.blogspot.com

The Myth of the Common School

I finally finished reading over The Myth of the Common School by Charles Leslie Glenn (2002, ICS Press, Oakland, CA).  Glenn talks about the development of a common school (government-sponsored primary and secondary school) primarily in the United States, France, and Holland. He traces the development of a common school philosophy from its initial agenda, common to all three nationalities, through the social and political debate about the validity of a common school, to the widespread acceptance of the concept.  Throughout, Glenn brings up arguments presented for and against common schooling.  

It was particularly interesting to observe that the philosophy underlying a common school education has never been a desire to make sure everyone can read, write, and calculate.  It has never been about literacy.  Especially in New England, where the eighteenth century ministers who valued education for their congregation provided literacy training, school attendance and literacy rates barely changed with the advent of the common school.  The common school, rather, was founded to train young people in the values which the administrators of the common school (the state government or department of education) considered socially important.  School, in short, was for socialization, not for education.  This was especially important within the French school system following the French Revolution, in which there were bold, overt efforts to set up an alternate religion, the religion of the new state.  There was relatively more flexibility in this landscape in Holland, where schools found their identities either as Catholic or Lutheran schools, government sponsored and approved, with their identity based on the religious identity of the community.  In the United States, the common schools first had rather a lot of orthodox Christian teaching, but with the rise of Unitarianism the idea of doctrinal teaching was removed as something which could be divisive.  The Bible remained in use as a manual of social conduct.  This, of course, was offensive to orthodox Christians, who to this day have fought for appropriate use of the Scripture and for doctrinal teaching which is distinctive and clearly defined.

As he closes the book, Glenn observes that in the United States the battle is not over.  There is a recent trend in the United States to withdraw from the common school system, with increasing acceptance of private sector and home schooling.  We are starting to see more and more of the dispute about the common schools to be focused on whether or not they are religious institutions in their own right, celebrating the religion of whatever the state considers good at the current time. 

While this is an intriguing book and brings up a lot of thought-provoking historical research, it is neither an easy nor interesting read.  Glenn is a professor at Boston University in the Department of Administration, Training and Policy Studies.  He has worked extensively with the state Department of Education.  Unfortunately, he writes very much in the style of an educational researcher, using the kind of bland and sometimes circumlocutory language that you would expect among the policy and government elite.  Yet once we get through his writing style, I think there are some gems to be mined in this book.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Translation Research

Some time ago I was reading the Summer 2008 edition of the Journal of Early Christian Studies.  There were three articles, going from pp. 143-254, which provoked me to thinking about the history of translation.

Here's the concept.  Many ancient works were continued, edited, or expanded by others while retaining the original identity.  This was an accepted practice when "translating" a text.  As a result of this practice, in some instances, it may be impossible to tell what is original to an author in antiquity.

My question?  To what extent, if any, does this practice carry over to the Scripture?  What information do we have specifically of "translations" and other editorial efforts over the near 2000 year history of New Testament transmission?

My theory is that the New Testament documents have historically been treated as documents to be translated literally as opposed to documents to be paraphrased, interpreted, or rephrased, as opposed to other early Christian texts, as well as from other, less orthodox documents.

Now, how to test this theory?  I plan to compare various historic translations to the Greek New Testament to evaluate the level of literal treatment.   Of course, I will not be able to compare the entirety of the New Testament to a very comprehensive list of translations, and my target languages will be fairly limited, as I don't happen to have adequate fluency to make adequate judgments in languages other than Latin and English.

Why do I mention this on my blog?  There are a couple of reasons that I think are worthwhile.  The biggest reason is that this blog is about a theological voyage.  This is part of the sailing.  Maybe it will be encouraging to someone.  Maybe someone reading will have an idea to throw into the mixing pot of ideas.  Maybe someone will be provoked to search out a topic.  And who knows when someone who is fluent in a language that I don't know will read the blog and decide to help out?  

How about a procedure?  I suppose I'll create some sort of a spreadsheet with columns for versions and comments.  Due to copyright restrictions I can't start with my standard - the latest USB edition of the Greek New Testament.  But I can use a version that is in public domain and make some comments about how it compares with the USB.  The differences are very slight.  I'm always impressed with the quality of preservation of the New Testament text.  We'll pick some different translations and make some comments about the level of interpretive language as opposed to literal language in use.

This sounds like something I'll probably get some of my advanced students involved in as well.  After all, something we need to learn to do when learning a language is to evaluate our own translation work as well as someone else's.

Dave Spotts
blogging at http://capnsaltyslongvoyage.blogspot.com and http://alex-kirk.blogspot.com