Tag Archives: hermeneutic of Gentile Responsibility

Open Theology, Clement, Stoicism, and Prevenient Grace

There are many parallels between Clement of Alexandria’s theology and John Wesley’s. In fact, there was a study that I read and recommend, A Definitive Study of Evidence Concerning John Wesley’s Appropriation of the Thought of Clement of Alexandria by Neil D. Anderson.  Today, I want to briefly look at what John Wesley and Arminian theologians call preparatory, or preventing grace.  Prevenient grace is where “Wesley believed that God places a little spark of divine grace within us that enables us to recognize and accept God’s justifying grace.”  My apologies in advance for the long quotes followed below.  

“So there is no absurdity in philosophy having been given by Divine.  Providence as a preparatory discipline for the perfection which is by Christ; unless philosophy is ashamed at learning from Barbarian knowledge how to advance to truth.”

– The Stromata (Carpets/Miscellanies), Book 6, Chapter 17

This selection is one but many where Clement refers to the philosophies of the Gentiles as objects of preparation. As such, as Clement argues, these ideas and practices are in no way equal to the revelation that the Scriptures passed down to the Church attest to. On the subject of the Stoics, Clement of Alexandria was a bit critical of their doctrine. “Thence also the Stoics have laid down the doctrine, that living agreeably into nature is the end, fitly altering the name of god into nature; since also nature extends to plants, to seeds, to trees, to stones.”- The Stromata, Book 2, Chapter 19.

Now, the subject matter, the literary context where Clement is talking about the Stoics confusing nature for god is what’s crucial. If nature is god (similar to process naturalism), god is an impersonal force. In the paragraph before, Clement is discussing Plato, and how Plato says that happiness is to be in the likeness of God. But Plato, according to Clement’s account, plagiarized Moses, and so it’s really only through the Exodus God that Moses wrote about that we can know personally who to (YHWH) and how (the Ten Commandments) to participate in the life of the Creator. “For the law calls assimilation following; an such a following to the utmost of its power assimilates. ‘Be,’ says the Lord, ‘ merciful and pitiful, as your heavenly Father is pitiful. [CoA citing Luke 6:36]’- ibid.

Following Clement’s argument, CoA is arguing that to partake in the Triune God’s life is to obey and be on one accord with the One True God of the Exodus. In his commentary on the Decalogue, on the first commandment, Clement explains there is but one God who revealed Godself to humanity in the deliverance of the Hebrews from Pharaoh.  YHWH freely defines Godself as a Loving and Just Divinity by showing pathetic acts of mercy.  It is in this self-revelation of the divine that humanity knows God in God’s pathos, the self-humiliating journey from the throne of heaven to the world.

Not only is the Exodus Creator God willing to demonstrate God’s holiness through acts of self-giving and self-revealing acts, God is awesomely generous.  God’s grace, as the Gospels say, is like the Sun, that shines on the just and  unjust.  For Clement, Truth has revealed himself in the Logos.  Speaking to the “Greek preparatory culture” since Clement was located in Alexandria, the Greek speaking city of Roman Egypt, Clement compares the salvific work of the Good Shepherd who not only takes “care of sheep, but the care of herds, and breeding of horses, and dogs, and bee-craft.”  While all of these philosophies differ, they can be useful for life. Now, question is how does Clement define “philosophy.”  They are in his words “whatever has been well said by each of those sects, which teach righteousness along with a science pervaded by piety,” and more importantly, Clement stresses, “But such conclusions of human reasonings as men have cut away and falsified, I would never call divine.”

Two important notes: first, Clement says that what ever is beneficial to Christian holy praxis, these philosophies are worthy.  However, these truths and practices are not to be understood as universal or binding, never to be called divine, or ever on par with Scripture.  These philosophies are glimpses of indirect contact with God,”in the way showers fall on the good land, and on the dunghill.” (above quotes taken from,The Stromata/The Carpets Book 1, Chapter 7).  The difference between the God as self-revealed, personal, and covenantal living with God’s people in the Promised and Athenian sophists speculating on a dungheap is great.  For example, take Clement’s critical appropriation of the Stoics, once more, “Now the Stoics say that God, like the soul, is essentially body and spirit.  You will find explicitly in all their writings.  Do not consider at present their allegories as the gnostic [Christian mystical] truth. presents them; whether they show one thing, and mean another, like dexterous athletes.  Well, they say that God pervades all being; while we [Christians] call Him solely Maker, and Maker by the Word,  They [the Stoics] were misled by what is said in the book of Wisdom: ‘ He pervades and passes through all by reason of His purity,’ since they did not understand that this was said of Wisdom, which was the first of the creation of God.” (Stromata/Carpets, Book 5, Chapter 14).

So Clement continues the line that the Greeks, even the Stoics, badly plagiarized concepts from Scriptures.  While the Stoics saw an impersonal force of nature throughout everything, Clement argues to say that it is the work of the Logos, the Wisdom of God.  An impersonal force cannot share life or any of its attributes with creation.  This ancient version of what we now call  process naturalism. This is why Clement, like a few other Church Fathers had to radically redefine ideas like impassibility.  God is covenantally and dynamically sovereign over Godself and the world, is in control of God’s emotions, but God also chooses to use passions to accomplish God’s mission in the world: salvation.  I will save Clement’s thoughts on grace, wrath and atonement for another post.  On God’s happiness, Clement says,

“And for this reason we rightly do not sacrifice to God, who, needing nothing supplies all men with all things; but we glorify Him who gave Himself in sacrifice for us, we also sacrificing ourselves; from that which needs nothing to that which needs nothing, and to that which is impassible from that which is impassible.  For in our salvation alone God delights.  We do not therefore, and with reason too, offer sacrifice to Him who is not overcome by pleasures […] The Deity neither is, then, in want of aught, nor loves pleasure, or gain, or money being full, and supplying all thing to everything that has received being and has wants.And neither by sacrifices nor offerings, nor on the other hand by glory and honor, is the Deity won over; nor is He influenced by any such things but He appears only to excellent and good men, who will never betray justice for threatened fear, nor by the promise of considerable gifts.”-

 

Stromata/Carpets, Book 7, Chapter 3

The Triune God is not some self-glorifying Johnny Bravo as Piper and the New Calvinism teaches, neither is God the recipient of all of human experiences as forms of process theism teach.  Rather God freely determines Godself, whose freedom and covenantal natural when God reveals Godself to us, operates as the source of what Clement calls “the self-determination of the soul.” Because “believing and obeying are in” our [the Christian mystics’] power, works always out of neighborly love, so that their neighbors may experience goodness, and become good themselves.  The person who is justified in Christ first rules over herself, and by partaking in the true, shared life of the Trinity, becomes a most moved mover and shaker co-creating a more just society with the God of the Exodus [Clement gives the example of Moses, specifically in politics] (ibid).  In conclusion, in order to understand what true justice is, and the purpose of social justice, humanity must have Justice revealed to them

Divine Freedom, Apatheia, and Gentile Politics

My friends and fellow Open Theists Tom and T.C. are having an excellent discussion on the attributes of God.  Last week, I wrote Open Theism, Moltmann, Patristic Thought and Divine Apatheia, and it was well received.  In so far as the Church Fathers and Mothers REDEFINED the Gentile doctrine of divine apatheia to mean the Creator God’s complete freedom to free humanity for a relationship with Godself, they are correct and have precedent in the Biblical narrative.  What one has to say at this point is that from a Gentile standpoint, God is ineffable, because we as Gentiles do not have access to the throne of YHWH except through Christ Jesus. At the cross, as Moltmann rightfully argues, God opens up the covenant to us Gentiles so that we may partake in life everlasting with the Triune God. So, in other words, just as the New Testament calls the New Covenant a better covenant, not because of anything intrinsic that we have done, but by Grace, YHWH has chosen to include MORE people to be in relationship with Godself (in line with passages like Hebrews 7:22, and 8:6, etc.).

If I may wax Jeanine from Veronica Roth’s Divergent Trilogy, understanding the Christian life is like this: The Future Is For Those Who Know Their Place.  I have argued for years that Gentiles must know our place before we proceed forward with doing theology.  I haven’t changed that at all. What’s different is now I am finding Christian writers who have argued along the same lines, who were right under my nose.  The early Church Christians who appropriated items such as “apatheia” from their culture did so as a means to communicate with their culture, so they could relate and give witness to Christ where they stood. If there are better ways of communicating God’s freedom and dynamic sovereignty in our age, certainly we should try them, yes, rather than make Gentile concepts absolute and universal, and somehow beyond critique?

Tom helpfully clarifies my point about our Gentile context and the nature of apatheia when he referred us to Richard Beck’s 4 part series on Stoicism and Christianity from seven years ago.  If you have time, give it a quick read.  But here’s where the rubber meets the road. In part 1, Beck asked,

Are strongly relational notions of God morally and psychologically weakening us? That is, are these notions inhibiting apatheia?

Are many of our theological worries (e.g., unanswered prayer) the product of failures of apatheia? That is, rather than accepting our circumstance we wring our hands at why God is not answering us.”

So, critics of the doctrine of apatheia are reading their unanswered prayers onto God’s nature. What a humble suggestion!  Did Beck ever consider that the conclusion of critiquing divine apatheia lays as an answer to some of our prayers, rather than some spiritual failure on the part of Christians who disagree with him? Speaking of Christianity, while the series was entitled “Stoicism and Christianity,” part 2 was a citation of a Taoist parable. No New Testament or Hebrew Bible. Nothing about Christianity despite what the series was supposed to be about. What we have here is a little worrying. for those who care about Christian particularity, first and foremost.  Also just as worrying, as I may add, that a careless study of apatheia assumes that Taoist view of apatheia can be understood as compatible with Christianity as if they make same claims about the Triune God.  I find this disconcerting and problematic.  Like Clement of A, I see Truth as something where many streams lead to the same river, but I am not going to affirm light, Brogressive versions of imperialist pluralisms in order to whitewash real differences.

Part three of Beck’s series is his interpretation of Job (as a psychologist, not an exegete).  Beck speculates,

My thought is that the speeches in Job express the assumption that the God/Human relationship is, well, a relationship.”

Ummm what? We are have gone from just critiquing relational theologies as a “psychological weakness” to now “demonstrating” that God isn’t relational at all. Well, to throw this interpretation back at Beck and those who agree with him, Job wouldn’t have a proper relationship with YHWH because he isn’t a member of the assembly of Israel. Job is a Gentile, and must know his Gentile place in the story. Job must see God’s as ineffable to the extent that he remains ignorant of the God of the Exodus.

As we turn to the last post in the series, Beck discusses the idea of God as medicine, as the kind that changes us. Out of fear of a “hyper-personal” God, Beck uses an example of Buddhism, and turns the series not as one about Stoicism and Christianity, but Stoicism and God. I must ask, well, which God? And how do we Gentiles know who God is? The fretting of a “hyper-personal” or “hyper-interventionist” God as a source of human discontentment dismisses Jewish and Christian notions of God’s pathetic praxis in the world, inviting our participation in changing our circumstances. It is this liberating praxis of God that we can find our happiness and contentment rather than sitting idly by as we worship the Idol of apatheia. 

Unleashing the Word: Freeing the Church from Biblical Studies

THE BIBLE AND LIBERATION IN AND THROUGH WORSHIP

UN study bible

When I was in undergrad, one of the first courses I took in religious studies was Introduction to the Bible 101. It was taught by a Hebrew Bible scholar who also identified as a second-wave feminist. Throughout the semester, we learned how to examine the Old Testament using the scientific method. While many of my white, more conservative evangelical classmates left the class in unspoken rage because of the questions the professor raised, I began to learn how to read the Bible critically, and even began to question the professors approach at times.

Honestly, in our conversations looking back, I was ill-equipped to interpret Scripture because I did not even know what hermeneutics meant or the differences between genres were. These memories of growth are not what I want to talk about however. I really want to point out a rather perplexing episode that happened in this class. It was around the holiday season when the religious studies faculty made a request. That instead of returning our Oxford Study Bibles (NRSV) to the bookstore for $2 or whatever, to donate them to an organization that was providing Bibles to churches in China. Even back then I had a lot of questions about this project. Why would a faculty so critical of a text turn around and want to send ENGLISH translations of Scripture to a foreign land? Just never made sense to me until………….

I read Stanley Hauerwas’ Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America. The question that I asked of myself nearly now almost a decade ago had found its answer. Hauerwas begins this controversial work with this truth bomb:

“No task is more important than for the Church to take the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in North America. […] North American Christians are trained to believe that they are capable of reading the Bible without spiritual and moral transformation. They read the Bible not as Christians, not as a people set apart, but as democratic citizens who think their ‘common sense’ is sufficient for ‘understanding’ the Scripture. They feel no need to stand under the authority of a truthful community to be told how to read. Instead, they assume they have all the ‘religious experience’ necessary to know what the Bible is about.”

page 15

Now, Hauerwas goes on to denounce this approach as a product of liberal democracy and egalitarian values. Yet, that would be a tremendously sloppy description of the United States of America and its perpetuation of racial hierarchies. Even in Hauerwas’ own work, he recognizes that a lot of white Americans have not confronted the reality that they live in a country built on settler colonialism, genocide, and slavery. It is this denial of the truth that keeps white North American Christians from being able to do the real work of Christian peacemaking.  The triplet colonial projects of U.S. American Bible Societies, Biblical studies, and the Bible translation industry are the reigning institutions that have petrified problematic, racist interpretations of scripture in USian Christianity.

A couple of examples include recent blog posts that recycle and pay  homage to the white supremacist doctrine of the Curse of Ham.  Rather than seek to liberate and completely annihilate this oppressive reading of Scripture, emergent Christians and liberals would rather seek to somehow redeem this understanding of the Bible.  These otherwise “enlightened” folks would prefer to save something that is already familiar to them rather than encounter the Stranger at the Margins, the actual people harmed by the traditional reading of these passages.  To keep with the example of the Curse of Ham, this interpretation is seen as normative, so much so it is allowed to be taught in public schools.  This perverse racialized reading of Genesis  that evangelical leaders like John MacArthur promote is NOT worth serving, especially since I have expounded many times how the Curse of Ham (and this weird expansion of it “the Curse of Bable”) is  a product of white slave masters and racist pseudo-scientific catalogues.

The history of Bible Societies has been just as problematic. As my brother pointed out, Bible Societies purpose lied from the time of colonialism ’til now, to make Christianity a monolinguistic, monocultural spirituality that submitted to the British and American empires.  Our doctrines of Scriptures even inerrancy are often the very things we hide our agendas behind.  Now it would be for me to say, well, let’s just abolish all three institutions and get it over with. But really, what should these practices be replaced with. So, I offer the following few practices that churches can start to subvert the Powers of Bible Societies, Translations, and Biblical studies.

1. In worship settings, at academic and church planter conferences, practice a preferential option for the margins.  Invite the homeless and the widows and orphans, and allow them to sit anywhere they want, even if it is at the very front.  Read Scriptures with and do small group studies at prisons, at-risk youth’s homes, and shelters for domestic violence.  I know I had the privilege of working at a Vacation Bible School at one of those shelters, and it makes a difference in de-centering our experiences while simultaneously being present where Christ is, among the least of these.  Some of the best commentaries on the Bible come from persons who have been held in chains.  Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are just two examples.  It’s a shame that Bonhoeffer’s Letters From Prison is just merely used to provide one quote about God being a Suffering God, and not much else.  I think there lies a biblical  Hermeneutic of Gentile Responsibility that also need s to be examined (and I plan on blogging on that too).

2. Make an attempt to teach every congregant the original languages of Scripture and the Early Church.  When I was a children’s minister, I worked to introduce the kids to some of the Greek alphabet.  That was before I moved on to purchasing and teaching from published, Book-store approved curriculums.  Maybe I did fail by a certain view of success, but just the trying is all that mattered.   W.E.B. DuBois advocated educating black Americans suffering during Jim Crow by teaching them all the classics, and Greek, Latin, and other languages.  Susannah Wesley raised and taught her children like John and Charles to read and interpret in these languages.  Bringing back this mode of education is crucial to de-centering the notion that English as God’s preferred language.

3. Lastly, boycott Christian bookstores, especially Mardel. No, I’m serious.  Churches need to stop relying on their neighborhood Lifeways and Cokesbury’s (are they still even around?) and look to their congregants, where there are people who’ve graduated seminary, teachers, and former professors who are more than able to provide a lifetime of knowledge. Chad even proposed at one time to make his own Bible translation after failing in his search where he compared all English translations. Christian education is about discipleship, spiritual formation in a local congregation. The Bible as a text, needs to be mediated by the Holy Spirit, our encounters with the poor, and an interpretative community that confesses the Lordship of Christ Jesus.

This is my contribution to the Living Liberation blogging event with MennoNerds and The Wild Goose Festival. The Wild Goose Festival is a gathering at the intersection of justice, spirituality, music and the arts. Happening June 26-29 outside of Asheville in Hot Springs, NC. You can get more information and tickets here: wildgoosefestival.org