Skip to comments.Moheb A. Ghali–"To Set Our Hope On Christ": A Response
Posted on 07/17/2005 7:34:27 AM PDT by sionnsar
I read carefully the document To Set Our Hope on Christ: A Response to the Invitation of Windsor Report Paragraph 135 and I was troubled not as much by the position the authors take regarding same sex relationship, for I am an academician trained to entertain objectively positions different from my own. Rather, I was troubled by the theology, philosophy and biblical scholarship underlying that position. I am troubled by a theology that is expressed in three propositions: that Scripture gives contradicting answers; that we can interpret any break with Church teachings as a response to Gods initiative similar to Peters action in including Gentiles; and that the applicability of biblical commandments or proscriptions is culturally dependent. These propositions rest on a number of untenable or illogical assertions. The philosophical underpinnings of that theology, viewing the Bible as the work of writers giving advice and inviting debate, rather than recording the inspired word of God, is disturbing to a Christian, particularly to an Anglican who is familiar with the Articles of Religion. I am also distressed by the shallow analyses of biblical texts presented as the authors look at the surface but not the meaning of the text, and by the lack of intellectual rigor, insulting to a layman and certainly more so to the audience for whom the document was prepared and presented.
I offer the following remarks in true humility, for the documents authors credentials in this area are far superior to any I can aspire to have. I am only a lay student of the Bible. I offer the comments with the hope that, should a serious dialog occur, the offices that commissioned this document may produce an argument better founded, more intellectually rigorous and consistent with what their Articles of Religion proclaim.
Because my concern is with the underlying theology, philosophy and biblical analyses, I limit my remarks to sections 2.2 2.21 of Part II of the document.
II. Theology Underlying the Document and Biblical Scholarship:
Part II of the document presents the theological and biblical core of the argument. Three propositions are advanced:
(a) From the beginning Scripture was seen as complex and contested, thus differing answers can be drawn from Scripture. One could not just look up the answer in Scripture. This proposition is expounded in the introductory paragraphs to the section Searching the Scriptures;
(b) We can interpret our experience in light of Peters action to break with the Jewish tradition by admitting Gentiles to the Church This proposition is presented under the section Searching the Scriptures; and
© Because we live in different cultural situations, not all biblical commandments or proscriptions apply simply or in the same way to any one person or situation. This proposition is introduced under the section: New Reflections on Biblical Texts
(a) From the beginning Scripture was seen as complex and contested.[Section 2.4]
To support this proposition the authors cite examples of the two creation stories; the two accounts of how Israel got its first king; the contradiction between Deuteronomys position that the good are always rewarded and the bad always punished and Job; the contradiction regarding foreign wives between Ezra and Nehemiah countered by Ruth; and the argument for exclusivism countered by traditions of inclusion in Second Isaiah and Jonah.
We should recall that whenever the Pharisees attempted to trap Jesus by putting to him apparent contradictions in Scripture, He responded by giving the deeper and true meaning, not the surface reading, of the Scripture and that established the consistency of biblical texts. Consider some of the examples of contradictions cited by the authors. Is the meaning of the two stories of creation to be found in reading them as a how to manual (which would be preposterous, for to whom would the manual be of use?) or as a story of Gods power to bring things out of void and of His love? Was the story of Job about a contradiction to the Deuteronomy principle that the righteous are rewarded and the bad are punished- which is the view that Job expressed through out much of the book- or was it about the disparity between Gods wisdom and mans limited understanding, as God expressed in Job 40-41? Was not the righteous Job rewarded in the end? Is the story of Ruth about foreign wives, or is it about faithfulness and fidelity that even a foreigner can display and is pleasing to God, and that God does not show favoritism? Was the story of Jonah about inclusiveness, or was it about Gods desire that the sinners be brought to repentance, and, above all, about Gods mercy on those who repent- a mercy that surpassed the understanding of Jonah?
If one believes that the Scripture is the inspired word of God, it follows that one must believe that any apparent contradictions arise out of our limited understanding of Scripture, not because of the nature of Scripture. When Jesus explained Scripture to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, or to the thirteen disciples in Jerusalem, what they thought was contradictions (or a major scandal, as the authors write) disappeared. We are told that Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. [Luke 24:45]
The proposition that differing answers can be drawn from Scripture is not valid if one believes that God is unchanging, and that the Scripture is the inspired word of God. That one could not just look up the answer in Scripture is a testimony to our limited understanding and does not in anyway imply that the answer is not there. Jesus opened the disciples minds so that they could understand the Scriptures. As for us, He sent the Spirit of Truth who opens our minds so we could understand the Scripture.
(b) We can interpret our experience in light of the early Churchs experience:
The authors use Peters experience with Cornelius in Acts 10 to argue that the inclusion of the Gentiles into the Church has allowed us to interpret our experience in the light of the early Churchs experience. [Section 2.2 and Section 2.10]
In using this part of the book of Acts, one must put this story in context:
1. It is important to note that at the beginning of the story we are told that Cornelius had heard from an angel of God [Acts 10:1-6]. Cornelius was obedient to the command he received.
2. We should note that immediately before this account, Peter had healed a paralytic [Acts 9:33-34] and brought Tabitha back from the dead [Acts 9: 36-39]. Clearly Peter was walking and acting in the power of the Spirit. Thus, when he tells us what the Spirit commanded him, we can trust his witness.
3. Peter did not initiate the action of including Gentiles out of any sense of social justice as a matter of fact, there is no indication that he had given the issue any thought. Peter had a vision and in obedience to that vision, and to what the Spirit told him directly and explicitly, he did what was against all the Jewish teachings.
4. To validate Peters understanding of the command he received the Holy Spirit gave a visible sign. While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. ..For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. [Acts 10: 44, 46].
From this account it is clear that the inclusion of Gentiles was an act initiated by God, not by Peter. It was in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy [Joel 2:29] and of promises made by Jesus [John 10:16]. Peter did not take the initiative, nor was it the result of Peter studying the issue. The authors of the document agree with this view as they write; God took the initiative
It is also very important to emphasize that Peters understanding of the vision and his obedience to the command of the Spirit were confirmed by the Holy Spirit through a visible sign. When a new understanding of Scripture is advanced, it needs to be validated by the Spirit, not by clever and convincing arguments. If we are to interpret our experience in light of the early Church experience, we must ask the following questions:
1. Prior to deciding to break with the Churchs understanding and advancing a reinterpretation, is there evidence that those advocating the break have been walking in obedience sufficient to heal a paralytic or raise a dead person? This is not a frivolous question; nor are these acts impossible (by the power of the Holy Spirit). It may be argued that God acted in the Apostolic Age with miracles to establish the Church, but that in our age He no longer does. If it is true that our age is so different, events in the Apostolic Age, such as the Peter-Cornelius experience, cannot serve as models for us who live in the post-Apostolic age. But we do know that God does still act with miracles in our age, otherwise we would not have rites for healing of the sick nor would we have listed unction as a sacrament. One can trust the reinterpretation of Scripture from only those who are in the Kingdom of God. We are told that For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power. [1 Cor. 4:20].
2. Did those advocating the change clearly hear an angel of God, see a vision or were directly told by the Spirit- (and I do not mean discerned but told as Peter was told, for discernment can be misleading) - how to interpret their experience? For, if the initiative is Gods, not mans, He must have given a direct command to communicate His initiative as He did with Cornelius and Peter. It would not do to argue that God no longer communicates directly with man. The authors did ask God to show us, and believe that He can help.
3. Did the Holy Spirit come upon the advocates of the break, or upon those who have heard the report, to validate the authors interpretation of their experience? Put differently, what visible manifestations of the Spirit can be cited to validate the new understanding? When Jesus broke with the fundamental understanding that only God can forgive sin, He confirmed His interpretation with a visible manifestation of the Spirit [Matthew 6:5-7]. As always, when the Spirit validates, there is no room for disagreement- only for praising God. [Matthew 6:8]
4. We do know that the will of God is that there be no divisions or dissension, but that we may all be one as Jesus prayed [John 17:11, 21,22]. When the Church is united it can carry out its Great Commission to the world [John 17:21]. It follows that any act that results in breaking up the body of Christ, that results in dissension, anger or bitterness, cannot be from God. The question then is, does the proposed break with tradition promote the unity of the body of Christ (I do not mean just within the Episcopal Church, or just within the Anglican Communion, but also within the Church Universal)?
It may appear that in posing these questions we set too rigorous a standard, and too high a bar for accepting new understandings. Yet, utmost rigor is required if we are to guard the faith received and not be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. [Eph. 4:14] Could a lower bar be acceptable?
The authors further assert that a particular part of the Church (Peter and friends) had an experience of the Spirit that prompts them to question and reinterpret what they previously would have seen as a clear commandment of Scripture, [Section 2.11]. This is neither accurate nor correct. It was Peter - no friends were involved - who had an experience of the Spirit. And Peter did not question or reinterpret- he was told by the Spirit what to do [Acts 10:19]. Peter simply obeyed the Spirit. Accurate reading of the account leaves no room for questioning or reinterpreting- rather it emphasizes the importance of being open to the guidance of the Spirit and obedience to His commands.
In Section 2.12 the authors assert that The story of Acts 10-15 reminds us of the hard work of sorting out a complicated issue I fail to see the hard work on the part of Peter trying to sort out a complicated issue. I see simple fishermans obedience. A fisherman simple enough to have dropped everything he was doing in response to Jesus calling:Come, follow me, and to step out of a boat into the water in response to Jesus invitation Come. Nor did the Church in Jerusalem gathered to hear Peter work hard to sort out a complicated issue. Peter simply reported what had happened and When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life. [Acts 11:18] One may even posit that working hard to sort out a complicated issue is a sure sign that we are depending on our intellectual power rather than on the guidance of the Spirit. And that is a dangerous endeavor [1 Cor 1:19-20].
The authors also state that God took the initiative and it took the Church a while to catch up with what God was doing. The Holy Spirits meaning is not immediately self-evident; it took both Peter and Cornelius a while to figure out what this new thing was [Section 2.10]. I find no evidence in the Acts story that either Peter or Cornelius spent much time figuring out anything [see Acts 10: 44-47]. We are also told that as soon as Peter finished telling the Church leaders what had happened, When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life [Acts 11:18]. It does not appear that it took the Church a while to catch up with what God was doing.
The story of Acts 15 concerns the argument that arose in Antioch regarding circumcision and that lead Barnabas, Paul and some other believers to go to Jerusalem to seek guidance from the elders of the Church there. Peter spoke in support of Barnabas and Paul, recalling his own experience with Cornelius. Then Barnabas and Paul spoke. The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them [Acts 15:12]. When they finished, James spoke up and the issue was settled. It is important to note that Barnabas and Paul did not convince the assembly through questioning or reinterpreting Scripture- they simply told the assembly about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. The signs and wonders God did were the validation of what Barnabas and Paul did. In both of these stories of breaking with tradition cited by the authors, it was Gods initiative and Peter and Paul were simply obedient to the commands [for Paul, see Acts 9:6, 1 Timothy 2:7, or Ephesians 3:8]. In both stories Gods initiatives and the apostles understanding of those initiatives were confirmed by visible acts of the Spirit. And, significantly, both stories end with unity in the Church.
© Because we live in different cultural situations, not all biblical commandments or proscriptions apply
Section 2.17 asserts that Because we live in different cultural situations, not all biblical commandments or proscriptions apply simply or in the same way to any one person or situation. This is a fundamental proposition that has far-reaching consequences. It contains two assertions. The first assertion is that Because we live in different cultural situations, not all biblical commandments or proscriptions apply simply. The second is that Because we live in different cultural situations, not all biblical commandments or proscriptions apply in the same way to any one person or situation.
To see the implications of the first assertion of this proposition, one can remove the vagueness injected by the phrase not all and replace it by none of the. This replacement is consistent with the authors intent because none of the books of the Bible was written in a cultural situation remotely resembling ours. The proposition would then read: Because we live in different cultural situations, none of the biblical commandments or proscriptions applies simply. If the applicability of the Bibles commandments or proscriptions is culture-dependent, one must conclude that none of them is applicable to 21st century Western culture. If one is not willing to accept my substitution of the words none of the for the words not all, then one needs to ask if not all, then which ones, and who gets to choose?
The authors repeat the same point at the end of 2.17: Part of our discernment process, as we engage with any text of Holy Scripture, involves thoughtful consideration of the contexts of the biblical writers and of ourselves. Is our situation like the situation of the biblical writers? Does a given biblical commandment or prohibition speak clearly to our own context? (emphases added). It is clear that the answer to each of these two questions is NO, our situations are quite different from those of the biblical writers, and our contexts significantly differ from theirs. One must conclude, therefore, that the discernment process (that) involves thoughtful consideration of the contexts must invariably lead us to reject any and all biblical commandments and prohibitions.
The authors revisit the issue in 2.19 by asserting that: Because the contextual situation of Leviticus, for example, is so different from our own, it would be inaccurate to assume that some of its texts are more binding on us today than all the other of its proscriptions that we, in fact, do not any longer follow. To see the weakness of this logic one can ask: which of the books of the Bible has a contextual situation not so different from ours? Clearly the answer is NONE. The next logical question would be Are all of the texts in the Scripture equally binding on us, or are they all irrelevant because the contextual situations of these books are so different from our own? One may also inquire: if we do not any longer follow some of Leviticus proscriptions, should we abandon the rest as well? If we do not any longer follow some of Leviticus proscriptions, are they less binding on us and the ones we choose to follow are more binding?
We turn to the second part of the proposition, the assertion that the commandments and proscriptions of the Scriptures apply differently to different individuals and also apply differently to each individual in different situations. If this assertion is accepted, all meaning would be sucked out of the words commandment and proscription; for any commandment that may apply to one individual at a given time but not to others and not to the same individual at a different point in time, or at different situations is no commandment at best it may be an advice. We will discuss this view below as the authors bring the concept of advice into the discussion.
III. Philosophical underpinnings
The underlying philosophical position of the authors becomes clear in Section 2.21.b, where they discuss Pauls letter to the Romans: While Pauls letters had the status of advice from a trusted apostle, the members of his churches who received them probably felt free to argue with him about what was natural and what was unnatural. But now, as a result of the canonization of his letters, the have become Scripture for us and we honor them appropriately (emphasis added). Of course, if it is true that the letters had the status of advice from a trusted apostle, the members of his churches who received them probably felt free to argue with him, the same characterization is applicable to the other letters: the letters of Peter, of James and of John. It is also applicable to Lukes two letters to Theophilus, and to Johns letter to the seven churches in the province of Asia. Most of the New Testament books, under this position, would have the status of advice from trusted Apostles; we should honor them appropriately, but feel free to disagree with the advice.
The fundamental issue here is whether biblical writers were expressing their own views and opinions or were they inspired by the Holy Spirit? Should one believe that the Scripture is the inspired word of God? Or is the Bible a collection of literature reflecting the cultural context, the limited sociological, psychological and scientific understanding of the times that ought to be respected but not obeyed? Except in cases where the writer explicitly states that some portions are his own opinion and are not from the Lord (see the contrast in 1 Cor 7:10 and 7:12), is the position that some portions of the Scriptures are the inspired word of God and others are arguments presented only for discussion, a tenable position? Can each person formulate his/her own views on which parts are inspired and which parts are for discussion only?
The authors next seek the support of Pauls authority. I would not deny the authors the right to speculate about where Paul might be on these issues today, given his unusual and brave commitments to Gentiles, women and slaves in his own day. I would, however, question their understanding in implying that Paul would have changed his mind and championed their cause. Had Paul been willing to change his mind after he had been called by Jesus, he would have had an easier life. To my understanding, Paul (Saul) changed his mind only once: on the way to Damascus. And the reason I believe that Paul was firm and unyielding is that he firmly believed that what he proclaimed was given him directly by the Lord and was thus unchangeable. Paul writes: I want you to know, brothers that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. [Galatians 1:11-12]. The authors do not give any rationale for their view that Paul would have agreed with them other than that he took positions at variance with those socially acceptable. One must recall, however, that every position Paul took, he did so in obedience to the messages he received from the Lord, not because he was convinced by any arguments or in response to questioning and reaching new understandings. He would not take a position simply because it is at variance with tradition. I also believe that Paul would not support the authors in the particular case which is at the root of the controversy: the qualifications of an overseer, for he wrote to Timothy concerning the issue [1 Timothy 3:1-7].
The authors of the report end the section on New Reflections on Biblical Texts by pointing out Pauls warning on judging others. Following the example of the authors by speculating on what Paul would do, let me join by speculating on If Paul were alive and very present in the current debates of the Church would he refrain from passing judgment? Or would he be the same person who issued the judgment of 1 Corinthians 5:5?
Finally, since the authors invoke Pauls authority, one should recall what Paul wrote to the church in Colossae: See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. [Col. 2.8]. This warning is particularly relevant against the temptation to follow cultural leads in defining our understanding.
I am writing this, though I am not trained as a theologian, nor am I a trained writer. I am compelled to write because I am afraid. I am afraid that skilled theologians and clever writers may lead us astray. Paul expresses my fear better than I could possibly do when he writes: But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpents cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough. But I do not think I am in the least inferior to those super-apostles. I may not be a trained speaker, but I do have knowledge. We have made this perfectly clear to you in every way. [2 Cor 11:3-6]
Dr. Moheb Ghali has been a member of the Episcopal Church for over 40 years. He served as Senior Warden for 15 years, was delegate to conventions and served on Diocesan Councils under three Bishops in Hawaii. He taught Sunday School Bible classes, adult Bible classes, and lead home fellowships. For the past two years Ghali has been worshiping with a non-sacramental congregation that believes in the authority of the Bible.
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