Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Why Anglican/Episcopalian? Liturgy

Canterbury Cross

"Every Christian communicant volunteers for translation into the supernatural order, and is self-offered for the supernatural purposes of God. The Liturgy leads us out toward Eternity, by way of the acts in which [we] express [our] need of God and relation to God. It commits every worshipper to the adventure of holiness, and has no meaning apart from that."

As has been the case with many others, one of the things that drew me into the Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition was the liturgy.

Liturgical worship has come usually to mean worship that is structured and follows a set pattern as opposed to forms of worship that seem less structured and more spontaneous. It is a style of worship Anglicans/Episcopalians share with the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and the Lutheran Church. It is not the kind of worship I knew growing up. But, when I first experienced it, I was hooked. 

I was taken with the poetry and drama of it all. Here was worship that incorporated beauty. There was a sense of majesty and mystery. There was room for wonder. There was a sense of being caught up in the glory of God who was transcendent yet incomprehensibly near. There was an intimation of something deep and true and eternal. Though I had grown up going to church and have much to be thankful for in that heritage, I remember feeling like I was worshiping for the first time.

The liturgy directed my attention away from myself – including my obsessive questioning – and focused it on the mystery and wonder of God. It focused my attention on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It opened me up the the promise of New Creation in Christ. It wasn't about my felt needs or conscious concerns. It was about my need to get out of and beyond myself and into “the bracing atmosphere of God” (Evelyn Underhill).

Related is the way the liturgy emphasized the communal over the individual. For one thing, it wasn't about whatever the pastor or worship team cooked up for a given Sunday, but something more rooted and enduring. Even more, it was about common worship–the people gathered together to offer petitions, thanksgiving, confession, and praise. I remember being struck by how different were the prayers of the people which called on the participation of the people from the pastor-centered prayers I had grown up with. Receiving Communion from a common cup reinforced the understanding that belonging to Christ meant we belonged to one another. It was less about me and Jesus than us and Jesus

And because the liturgy is less sermon centered, there were multiple avenues for the Holy Spirit to get my attention. The sermon might be good or bad, the hymns might be wonderful or just OK, the receiving of Communion might be more or less profound, but generally the Spirit would break through somewhere. Or it might be simply hearing the scriptures read, or the recitation of the Creed, or the Confession/absolution, or the passing of the peace, or some phrase or idea in the Eucharistic Prayer. Certainly, now that I am a regular preacher and celebrant, it is freeing to know that it doesn't all hang on whether I am 'on' as a preacher on any given Sunday.

Receiving the bread into my outstretched hands and sipping wine–wine!–from a common cup reinforced all of this. And wine. I remember feeling it infusing my chest as I swallowed. So different from the shot glass of communion grape juice I had grown up with. There was an awareness of its potency. And, indeed, the idea that Christ is somehow really and transformatively present in the bread and wine is potent indeed. The mystery of God was made mysteriously tangible. The weekly Eucharist became and remains a central and essential aspect of my piety.

I appreciated the weekly recitation of the story of salvation contained in the Eucharistic Prayer.

I was moved by the history represented and the sense of worshiping with the Church of the ages.

I was also moved by the full-sensory aspect of worship which included sight, sound, smell, and taste.

Kneeling for confession and for receiving Communion was profoundly instructive.

So was adopting the sign of the cross. In The Liturgy Explained, Thomas Howard wrote, “By making the sign of the cross, on our head, breast, and shoulders, we acknowledge ourselves to be crucified with Christ, in our thinking, our affections, and our actions.”  I came to think of it as a sort of physical “Amen.”

I have come to experience the liturgy as an elaborate spiral dance in which we symbolically circle around and around the altar, like Moses approaching the Burning Bush, drawing closer to the exuberant, self-giving, eucharistic Mystery at the heart of all who calls us to “the adventure of holiness.”

Liturgy does not guarantee spiritual vibrancy or holiness. Certainly one can find Episcopal churches (or Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Lutheran) that, on the surface at least, give little evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit. And it would be misleading to claim that every time I participate in liturgical worship I am aware of a profound spiritual experience of the bracing atmosphere of God. But, then, the liturgy reminds me that it is not really about my experience anyway. I do know that over time I have been formed and transformed by participation in the liturgy.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Why Anglican? Anglican Values

Canterbury Cross

This is not exhaustive and none of these is unique to Anglicanism. But, taken together, they begin to give a picture of what the Anglican tradition of Christianity is about. Among other things, Anglican Christianity is:

Biblically Focused

"The Holy Ghost rides most triumphantly in his own chariot [i.e., Scripture]."
Thomas Manton (1620-1677)

"The first [proposition] is this: If we believe in God at all, it is absurd and impious to imagine that we can find him out by our own reason, without his being first active in revealing himself to us. Therefore all our discovery of him is his self-manifestation, and all rational theology is revealed theology."
Austin Farrer (1904-1968), Saving Belief

Rooted in Tradition

Recognizing that the Holy Spirit's inspiration is not limited to scripture, Anglican Christianity looks to a broader foundation in the tradition of the Church, particularly the first five centuries:

"One canon reduced to writing by God himself, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries, and the series of Fathers in that period – the centuries that is, before Constantine, and two after, determine the boundary of our faith."
Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626)


However hobbled by human sin, reason is an essential means of understanding what God has revealed to us:

"The Holy Ghost is not a bird of prey sent by God to peck out the eyes of [humans]."
Nathaniel Culverwel (1619-1651)

"And this is the second proposition: If God does reveal himself to us, we cannot acknowledge or master what he reveals without the use of reason. Therefore all his self-manifestation is also our discovery of him, and all revealed theology is rational theology."
Austen Farrer (1904-1968), Saving Belief

Centered in Worship and Prayer

Anglicans do theology "to the sound of church bells, for that is what Christian theology really is all about – worshipping God the Savior through Jesus Christ in the theology of the apostolic age."


"Christ said 'this is my body.' He did not say 'this is my body in this way'. We are in agreement with you as to the end; the whole controversy is as to the method. As to the 'This', we hold with firm faith that it is. As to the 'this is in this way', (namely by the Transubstantiation of the bread into the body), as to the method whereby it happens that it is, by means of In or With or Under or By transition there is no word expressed [in Scripture]. And because there is no word, we rightly make it not of faith; we place it perhaps among the theories of the school, but not among the articles of the faith...We believe no less than you that the presence is real. Concerning the method of the presence, we define nothing rashly, and I add, we do not anxiously inquire, any more than how the blood of Christ washes us in Baptism, any more than how the human and divine natures are united in one Person in the Incarnation of Christ."
Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626) Response to Cardinal Bellarmine (via The Byzantine Anglo-Catholic)

"The Eucharist demonstrates that material reality can become charged with Jesus' life, and so proclaimed hope for the whole world of matter....The matter of the Eucharist, carrying the presence of the risen Jesus, can only be a sign of life, of triumph over the death of exclusion and isolation...If the Eucharist is a sign of the ultimate Lordship of Jesus, his 'freedom' to unite to himself the whole material order as a symbol of grace, it speaks of creation itself, and the place of Jesus in creation."

Catholic and Protestant/Evangelical

"Our special character and, as we believe, our peculiar contribution to the Universal Church, arises from the fact that owing to historic circumstances, we have been enabled to combine in our one fellowship the traditional Faith and Order of the Catholic Church with that immediacy of approach to God through Christ to which the Evangelical Churches especially bear witness, and freedom of intellectual inquiry, whereby the correlation of the Christian revelation and advancing knowledge is constantly effected."
William Temple (1881-1944), Encyclical, Lambeth 1930

Liberally Catholic and Generously Orthodox

Anglican Christianity seeks to embody a liberal catholicity/generous orthodoxy. It is catholic/orthodox in its commitment to the consensus of the first centuries as expressed in the early councils and the creeds. It is, as Charles Gore wrote, "conspicuously orthodox on the great fundamentals of the Trinity and the Incarnation. [Anglicanism] accepts the ecumenical councils as criteria of heresy." It is liberal/generous in its ability to reexamine how that consensus is applied in concrete historical contexts: ". . . standing ready with the whole treasury of Christian truth unimpaired to meet the demands which a new age makes upon it with its new developments of character and circumstance."

Anglican Christianity avoids the extremes "represented by a dogmatism that crushes instead of quickening the reason of the individual, making it purely passive and acquiescent, and on the other hand by an unrestrained development of the individual judgment which becomes eccentric and lawless just because it is unrestrained."

Passionate, but Patient

Anglican Christianity is characterized by what Rowan Williams calls a "passionate patience" that is reticent to declare too handily exactly how God is to defined or to presume too easily to know what God desires in all instances. Continuing with Williams, "There is in the Anglican identity a strong element of awareness of the tragic, of the dark night and the frustration of theory and order by the strangeness of God's work." [ . . . ] "The result is a mixture of poetry, reticence, humility before mystery, local loyalties and painful self-scrutinies."

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Quotes on the Trinity

Sketch by William Blake

Some quotes I've collected on the Trinity:

1. “[The doctrine of the Trinity] is the ‘least worst’ language we have found for talking about something very disturbing and inexhaustible.”
– Rowan Williams, Living the Questions (the Converging Worlds of Rowan Williams),
The Christian Century, Apr 24, 2002, David S. Cunningham

2. “Trinitarian theology, in so far as it is concerned with what ‘kind’ of God Christians worship, is far from being a luxury indulged in solely by remote and ineffectual dons; it is of cardinal importance for spirituality and liturgy, for ethics, for the whole of Christian self-understanding.”
– Rowan Williams, Wrestling with Angels: Conversations in Modern Theology,

3. “A doctrine like that of the Trinity tells us that the very life of God is a yielding or giving-over into the life of an Other, a 'negation' in the sense of refusing to settle for the idea that normative life or personal identity is to be conceived in terms of self-enclosed and self-sufficient units. The negative is associated with the 'ek-static', the discovery of identity in self-transcending relation. And accordingly, theology itself has to speak in a mode that encourages us to question ourselves, to deny ourselves, in the sense of denying systems and concepts that are the comfortable possession of individual minds.”
–  Rowan Williams, Wrestling With Angels: Conversations In Modern Theology

Icon of the Trinity by Andrei Rublev

4. “Because the Christian God is not a lonely God, but rather a communion of three persons, faith leads human beings into the divine communion. One cannot, however, have a self-enclosed communion with the Triune God―a "foursome," as it were―for the Christian God is not a private deity. Communion with this God is at once also communion with those others who have entrusted themselves in faith to the same God. Hence one and the same act of faith places a person into a new relationship both with God and with all others who stand in communion with God.”
― Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity

5. “In the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, we find another resource for hospitality. The trinity shows God in relationships with Himself. our Three-in-one God has welcomed us into Himself and invited us to participate in divine life. And so the invitation that we as Christians extend to one another is not simply an invitation into our homes or to our tables; what we ask of other people it that hey enter into our lives.”
― Lauren F. Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath

Vision of the Trinity, Hildegard of Bingen

6. “Christians, then, do not believe in just any Trinity but in the Trinity of these three Persons–the Christ who does not grasp at equality but humbles himself, even to death on a cross, the One he called Abba or father, outpouring love, challenging human assumptions about hierarchy, the Holy Spirit of love, truth, and freedom, all one God glorifying each other.”
– William Placher, Narratives of a Vulnerable God

7. “When the invisible working of the Persons of the Trinity incorporates us, our relations with the Father in virtue of our union with Christ take on the more external form of fellowship, not co-inherence, in a way that continues to respect the creature’s finite boundedness. So incorporate, our lives as ministers of divine benefit have a Trinitarian shape: united with Christ, we are called to distribute the good gifts of the Father in the power of the Spirit. Rather than look for some more direct parallel to the relations of Father, Son, and Spirit, this just is the shape the Trinity takes on the human level.”
– Kathryn Tanner, Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity

8. The mystery of God, indeed, the mystery of existence, is the mystery of communion of God with all, all with God. The heart of Christian life is the encounter with a personal God who makes possible both our union with God and communion with each other. The mystery of God is revealed to be a matter of invitation and incorporation into divine life through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit; at the same time it is also invitation and incorporation into new relationship with each other, as we are gathered together by the Spirit into the body of Christ.”
– Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God for Us

9. “I have not even begun to think of unity when the Trinity bathes me in its splendor. I have not even begun to think of the Trinity when unity grasps me.” 
– Gregory Nazianzus, Orations

1o. “Suddenly the Trinity filled my heart full of the greatest joy, and I understood that it will be so in heaven without end to all who will come there. For the Trinity is God, God is the Trinity. The Trinity is our maker, the Trinity is our protector, the Trinity is our everlasting lover, the Trinity is our endless joy and our bliss, by our Lord Jesus Christ and in our Lord Jesus Christ. . . for where Jesus appears the Trinity is understood.”
– Julian of Norwich, Showings

11. “When I pray, when I breathe with God, I become part of the intimacy of God’s life.  The Spirit of God who breathes within me draws me into the circle of love between the Father and Son.  Through prayer I am drawn into the dance of the Trinity.” 
– Ilia Delio

12. The Threefold all-kindly
My walk this day with God,
My walk this day with Christ,
My walk this day with Spirit,
The Threefold all-kindly
Hō! Hō! Hō! The Threefold all-kindly

My shielding this day from ill,
My shielding this night from harm,
Hō! Hō! Both my soul and my body,
Be by Father, by Son, by Holy Spirit:
By Father, by Son, by Holy Spirit.

Be the Father shielding me,
Be the Son shielding me,
Be the Spirit shielding me,
As Three and as One:
Hō! Hō! Hō! as Three and as One.
– From The Celtic Vision by Esther De Waal,

Monday, May 16, 2016

How I Came to Change My Mind on SSU: Part 19. Conclusion

I started this series by enumerating some obstacles to changing my mind on the received Christian understanding of same-sex attraction and the possibility of blessing same-sex unions. Those obstacles are real. I have tried to address some of them and offer a case for rethinking the Church’s understanding in a way that I hope is faithful. But, I admit that the case is not straightforward. If you are unpersuaded, that is OK. I have no illusion that mine is the only faithful understanding.

But, as I have pointed out repeatedly (here and here), much depends on how we engage scripture and tradition. All of us need to be wary of imposing our biases and prejudices onto both. We need to be wary of selective readings. Just as importantly, we need to be conscious of the “rules” we use to interpret both and how we incorporate what we have learned about the world – and the people around us.

I have argued that the testimony and example of faithful gay and lesbian Christians must be taken into account – that means all gay and lesbian Christians not just the ones who say what we want to hear. It is such testimony that has persuaded me to rethink this topic. I find the evidence of brother and sister Christians who live lives of self-control and self-sacrificial love in committed, monogamous, same-sex relationships compelling

I have sometimes heard people say they would love to find an acceptable case for rethinking sexuality. Why? Of course it could be because of the power of personal desires that they want affirmed. It could be because of the social pressure to affirm what many in our society seem unwilling to condemn. But, couldn't it also be that we have been shaped by the Church's story – rooted in Jesus and the rest of the New Testament – of self-sacrificial love in the context of mercy and grace; and, given what we now know about same-sex sexual attraction, the prohibitions against it seem incongruous to that story? This series has been my attempt to demonstrate why I think the last question can be answered in the affirmative.

This is not a matter of mere "inclusivity," an ideal that is inadequate as a Christian principle. The issue, it seems to me, is whether or not entering into a committed, monogamous, permanent Same-sex Union provides a fertile context for the cultivation of redemptive, sanctifying disciplines that lead to deeper love of God and love of neighbor as exemplified by Jesus. It is about pursuing the holiness of God-centered, self-emptying, cross-bearing, other-oriented love incarnated by Jesus Christ and cultivating the disciplines that enable us to embody that love in thought, word, and deed. If so, do they not build up the community? I have come to believe the answer to that question is "yes."

When I started this series, I did not expect it would take exactly one year to complete. But, I am done.

"As long as Christian morality is thought to be mainly about whether and when people should go to bed, no bishops are going to be crucified. And this is depressing."
Herbert McCabe (Roman Catholic Dominican priest, theologian and philosopher), Law, Love, and Language


Part 16. Abomination (i)

Part 15. Sodom

Part 1. Obstacles

Saturday, May 14, 2016

How I Came to Change My Mind on SSU: Part 18. Creation and New Creation

I have argued that the Old Testament story about Sodom and Gomorrah is not relevant to Christian reflection on gay and lesbian sexual relations (more accurately, I linked David Gushee’s argument to that effect). I have also argued that the labeling of male homosexual behavior as an abomination in Leviticus might be more complicated than often assumed. The more significant passages of the Old Testament to the discussion are the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2.

Genesis 1:26-28 says humans are made in the image of God, created with “sexual difference” as male and female, and commanded (blessed) to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and “subdue” it. Genesis 2:18-25 depicts God’s recognition of the loneliness of the original man and his need for a helper/companion/partner; taken from the man’s rib, this partner is woman. The final two verses function etiologically to explain the origins of marriage, as the first man and woman are called “man” and “wife.”
– David Gushee, God made them male and female

In the first chapters of Genesis, we have the first scriptural installment of a doctrine of humanity set before is “in the form of a story” (Gregory of Nyssa).

In two earlier posts in this series, I offered some thoughts on maleness and femaleness and marriage in relation to same-sex unions. I’ll just refer back to them here:
1. Maleness and femaleness are essential aspects of humanity. Marriage between male and female with the resulting potential for biological procreation is a blessing of our creation. It is a fundamental good. But, is it the only good? I have argued that one can embrace the distinctive goodness of that estate, while also embracing the possibility that monogamous, covenanted same-sex unions can be a distinct, parallel, and similarly blessed state.
(See, Why I Am Disinclined to Vote for Revising the Marriage Canon)

2. Maleness and femaleness are essential aspects of humanity. But, maleness and femaleness are not primarily about marriage and marriage is not the essential location of their coinherence. 

Jesus emphasized the new community that became the Church over other forms of community. He identifies himself the Bridegroom of that community. For Christians the basic social unit is not the married man and woman. It is not the individual. It is not the biological family. It is not the country/nation. For Christians, the basic social unit is the Church.

In the Church, as the body of Christ made up of married couples, children, singles, monastics, etc.; humans, male and female, live in communion with one another reflecting the image of God.

Besides referring back to those two posts, I refer you to David Gushee’s post from which I quoted above: God made them male and female

And this one in which he offers three proposals for responding to the very important claim that God’s design in creation rules out any same-sex relationships, a claim derived from Genesis 1-2:

Next: Conclusion

Previous: Abomination (ii)

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

How I Came to Change My Mind on SSU: Part 17. Abomination (ii)

In the last post, I listed most of the passages in the Old Testament where something is is declared to’evah  an abomination.Various sexual behaviors were listed:
·         cross-dressing (Deuteronomy 22:5)
·         remarrying a woman you divorced who has subsequently remarried and been divorced (Deuteronomy 24:1-4)
·         adultery (Leviticus 18:20; Ezekiel 22:11, Ezekiel 33:26)
·         incest (Leviticus 18:6-18)
·         sex with a woman during her period (Leviticus 18:19)
·         bestiality (Leviticus 18:23)
·         male temple prostitution (1 Kings 14:24)
·         male homosexual behavior (Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13)

It is safe to say that we do not consider all of these behaviors equally abominable. Is sex between a husband and wife during the woman's menstrual cycle equal to incest? Bestiality? If we do not consider all of the behaviors listed above as equally abominable, why not? Personal taste? Cultural conditioning? Our understanding of how to interpret scripture responsibly and faithfully? 

The abomination of cross-dressing
A woman shall not wear a man’s apparel, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for whoever does such things is abhorrent [to’evah] to the Lord your God. (Deuteronomy 22:5)

Is it an abomination when a woman dresses in jeans and a sweatshirt or a button-down flannel shirt? Why not? Nowhere in the New Testament is Deuteronomy 22:5 revised. If anything, in 1 Corinthians 11:3-15 Paul reinforces the idea and he appeals to nature to do so. Paul’s concern is about the length of women’s hair and that of men, but the concern to distinguish male from female is similar to that of Deuteronomy. Is it a sin for women to have short hair? Paul thinks so. and he thinks it is unnatural.

Should the Church insist that women wear skirts and dresses? When women first began to wear slacks, it was a scandal partly because it contravened Deuteronomy 22:5. Some Christians still argue that faithfulness to the Bible requires that women wear skirts (see here).  Women cutting"bobbing"their hair short was not that long ago similarly a scandal and the topic of sermons and religious tracts (see here and here). Is our willingness to ignore these injunctions evidence that we have simply accommodated secular culture? What is the “rule” for interpreting scripture that allows us to understand this as no longer an abomination? Is it just the fact that it does not offend us any more? That it is inconvenient? There is nothing to indicate that this falls under the traditional distinction between ritual and ethical laws in the Old Testament. If we do not now take the plain meaning of Deuteronomy 22:5 (and, for that matter, 1 Corinthians 11:3–15) as being as applicable today as it was when it was written, it will be because we interpret that verse in light of cultural and historical analysis and in light of other parts of scripture that we consider more important.

Remarrying the wife you’ve divorced

Tom and Meg fell in love and married. Meg developed an alcohol problem. Tom tried for several years to help Meg get sober but she would not. Though he still loved her, Tom felt he had no choice but to divorce Meg. She subsequently married Jack – another alcoholic. Meg eventually got sober. But, her new husband would not. Unhappy with Meg’s new sobriety, Jack divorced her. Some time passed. Meg encountered Tom at a party and their love was rekindled. Tom and Meg decided to remarry. It would be a wonderful story. But, according to Deuteronomy 24:1-4, it would be an abomination:

Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house and goes off to become another man’s wife. Then suppose the second man dislikes her, writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house (or the second man who married her dies); her first husband, who sent her away, is not permitted to take her again to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that would be abhorrent [to’evah] to the Lord, and you shall not bring guilt on the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession.

It is not clear why God would forbid this in such strong terms. Why is it an abomination? Is it still today? Granted that most churches are prepared to allow divorced people to remarry ( (but, see Jesus on Marriage, Divorce, & Remarriage), should we allow a couple such as Tom and Meg to remarry, given that such a remarriage is declared to’evah – an abomination (or abhorrent or a detestable thing depending on the translation)? If we no longer find the idea abhorrent or an abomination is it just because it does not offend our own sensibilities? Is it because we have surrendered to the prevailing culture? Or is it because we interpret this passage differently in light of other scriptures and our understanding of the historical and cultural context?

Male homosexual behavior

You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. (Leviticus 18:22)

If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them. (Leviticus 20:13)

These two verses make it clear that male homosexual behavior was forbidden under the Old Testament law. Here are some things to note, though:
1.      There is nothing in the Old Testament prohibiting female homosexual behavior. Why is that? Would lesbian sexual encounters have been OK in ancient Israel?
2.      Is the abomination in these two verses worse than other behaviors declared an abomination in the rest of the Old Testament which were listed in the last post? Given how much more of the Old Testament focuses on the sins of idolatry, economic injustice, cheating in business, arrogance, dishonesty, and violence; why is it that the abomination that is only listed in these two verses the one that seems to matter most to some Christians?
3.      Given that food that was once an abomination is so no longer and we do not object to the abomination of women wearing men’s clothing or keeping their hair short, might there be room to reconsider whether male same-sex relationships are inherently and always an abomination?
4.      All of this raises the question of how the law of the Old Covenant applies under the New Covenant.

There is one other place in the Old Testament where same-sex behavior is declared an abomination:

there were also male temple prostitutes in the land. They committed all the abominations of the nations that the Lord drove out before the people of Israel. (1 Kings 14:24)

It seems plausible to conclude from this that a main reason for forbidding male homosexual behavior was its association with idolatry and pagan temple worship (as we saw in Romans 1). If it is no longer associated with idolatry, it becomes possible to engage the testimony of faithful gay and lesbian Christians differently and entertain the possibility that not all homosexual behavior is inherently and always to’evah. In the context of what we have seen in the rest of this series, I am suggesting that there is room to do just that. Doing so does not necessarily mean that everything else that is declared an abomination in the Old Testament is up for grabs. 

While it is a main reason male homosexual sexual relations are forbidden in the Old Testament, idolatry is not likely the only reason. We will consider another in the next post.

Previous: Abomination (i)

Monday, May 9, 2016

How I Came to Change My Mind on SSU: Part 16. Abomination (i)

Abomination in the New Testament

Toward the end of John’s vision of the New Jerusalem, we read that “nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (Revelation 21:27)

In the immediate context there is no indication what the practice of abomination refers to. But a few chapters earlier in chapter 17 there is another reference to abomination in reference to “Babylon, the prostitute” (Rome) in league with the Beast (Satan). Again, it is not entirely clear what the abominations refer to. Prostitution and adultery are common biblical metaphors for idolatry – of which Rome was guilty in spades.  Rome’s persecution of “those who bore testimony to Jesus” would also qualify as an abomination.

The Greek word βδέλυγμα (bdelugma), translated “abomination,” occurs only a couple of other times in the New Testament. In both instances, idolatry is clearly the issue. In Mark 13:14/Matthew 24:15, Jesus warns of “'the abomination that causes desolation' standing where it does not belong.” This is an apparent reference to an idolatrous desecration of the Temple.

Idolatry is also the point in the only other place something is called an βδέλυγμα/abomination in the New Testament. In Luke 16:13, Jesus warns, “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon [wealth]. He goes on to tell those who love money, “God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.

Abomination in the Old Testament

Abomination shows up more frequently in the Old Testament. More than one Hebrew word gets translated as “abomination”, e.g., sheqets in Levitcus 11 and pigguwl in Leviticus 7. The Hebrew word most commonly translated “abomination” is to’evah (but also sometimes translated “detestable” or “abhorrent”). In Genesis 43:32 (Egyptians eating with Hebrews) and 46:34 (Egyptians’ attitude toward shepherds) to’evah refers to something a particular culture finds offensive. Most well-known, of course, “if a man lies with a male as with a woman” is declared to’evah. Before we look at that, here is a list of things the Old Testament declares to’evah:

1. As with abomination in the New Testament, to’evah most commonly refers to idolatry and behavior related to idolatry
·         idolatry or idols (Deuteronomy 7:25-26;  13:14; 20:18; 27:15; 32:16; 1 Kings 11:5; 14:24; 2 Kings 21:1-11; 23:13; 2 Chronicles 28:3; 36:14; Isaiah 41:24; 44:19; Jeremiah 32:35; Ezekiel 6:9; 7:20; 11:18; 14:6; 16:36; Malachi 2:11)
·         child sacrifice is wrong for lots of reasons, but is related to idolatry (Deuteronomy 12:31; 18:10; 2 Kings 16:3; 2 Chronicles 28:3;  Jeremiah 32:35)

2. Idolatry is false worship. To’vah also refers to wrong worship
·         sacrificing an animal with a blemish (Deuteronomy 17:1)
·         sacrificing and worshiping with a wrong relationship with God (Proverbs 15:8; Proverbs 21:27; Isaiah 1:13; Ezekiel 5:11; cf. Proverbs 28:9)
·         payment at the Temple for a vow using money related to prostitution or Gentiles (Deuteronomy 23:18)

3. Magic and witchcraft are related to idolatry and wrong worship and are to’evah
·         magic and witchcraft (Deuteronomy 18:10-12)

4. To’evah also sometimes refers to actions and attitudes we would more readily recognize as matters of morality
·         arrogance (Proverbs 16:5)
·         dishonesty (Proverbs 12:22)
·         dishonesty and cheating in business (Deuteronomy 25:13-19; 20:10-23)
·         usury, violent robbery, murder, oppressing the poor and needy, etc. (Ezekiel 18:10-13)
·         violence (Proverbs 3:31-32; Ezekiel 8:17; 18:12)
·         stealing, murder, and adultery, breaking covenants (Jeremiah 7:9-10)
·         Proverbs 6:16-19 lists seven things which are also abominations: "haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are swift in running to mischief, a false witness who utters lies, and one who spreads strife among brothers."

5. Animals declared unclean are also to’evah
·         don’t eat unclean animals (Deuteronomy 14:3-21) Leviticus 11 refers to eating unclean animals as sheqets, usually translated as an abomination synonymous with to’evah

6. Various sexual behaviors are also declared to’evah
·         cross-dressing (Deuteronomy 22:5)
·         remarrying a woman you divorced who has subsequently remarried and been divorced (Deuteronomy 24:2-4)
·         adultery (Leviticus 18:20; Ezekiel 22:11, 33:26)
·         incest (Leviticus 18:6-18)
·         sex with a woman during her period (Leviticus 18:19)
·         bestiality (Leviticus 18:23)
·         male temple prostitution (1 Kings 14:24)
·         male homosexual behavior (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13)

General observations
To’evah most frequently refers to idolatry and wrong worship which is a betrayal of God reflecting and leading to a breach in our communion with God. That leads to betrayal, abuse, and injustice – a breach in our communion with one another as represented in the fourth list of verses above. Communion with God and the communion with other humans (indeed, with the rest of creation) are integrally related. This is demonstrated in the Hebrew word, tzedakah, which is usually translated “righteousness” or “justice” and refers to both.

Abomination is not always forever – “unclean” food

The Old Testament food regulations primarily serve as markers setting the people of Israel apart from their neighbors. Eating “unclean” animals is declared to’evah – an abomination. Abomination is a strong word. One might expect that it refers to something that God finds inherently and eternally repulsive. But, in the New Testament, Jesus is understood to have declared all food clean (Mark 7:19) and Peter has a vision (Acts 10:9-16) in which he is commanded to kill and eat all sorts of animals and to “not call anything impure that God has made clean.” So, what was once declared an abomination is no longer an abomination and apparently not inherently and eternally repulsive to God.

There is an exception, though. The Council of Jerusalem asserted that while other laws about food did not apply to Gentile Christians, they were still to abstain from consuming blood (see Genesis 9:2-4, Leviticus 17:14, Ezekiel 33:25-26) and from eating meat from what is strangled (Acts 15:29). How many Christians worry about obeying the plain meaning of that rule? Not many. Why not?

It is also significant that the main point of Peter’s vision is not about food. It is about recognizing that Gentiles were no longer to be considered impure. This vision allowed Peter to recognize the faithfulness of those he had considered incapable of faithfulness, even though doing so called into question many of his assumptions of what faithfulness meant. When he made this case for Gentile inclusion, Peter appealed to the evidence that they had received the Holy Spirit – do not call anything impure that God has made clean. What are we to do if people we have considered incapable of faithfulness demonstrate faithfulness even though doing so calls into question many of our assumptions of what faithfulness means?

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