THE MYSTICAL APPROACH TO THEOLOGY (#6)

This is the sixth post in a series. Click here for part 1.

Doctrine … depending on where you stand spiritually, the word could be either good or evil. To the spiritual but not religious crowd, it probably invokes images of some spiritual leader poking a bony finger in our face and telling us that we are on our way to hell if we do not affirm that his favorite brand of mayonnaise is the very brand that God loves. (It strikes me as odd how often God agrees with fundamentalists… but I digress). In all seriousness however we find that the term doctrine, or its companion dogma, inspires indigestion in those who hunger for spirituality yet at the same time have come to see teaching/doctrine/dogma as something counterproductive to that.

Honestly, I can totally identify. In a sea of relativism where the spiritual seeker seeks something to cling to, some point on the horizon to swim towards, it seems that the religious have often majored in minors. Rather than offering something substantive to nourish our growing spirituality, it seems that at times religion has encumbered us with weights that hinder rather than help. I must admit that I am among those who are spiritual, at the same time however I love religion. As author John M Sweeney says in his book Almost Catholic:

I know plenty of people who are “spiritual and not religious” and many more who have discarded organized religion altogether because they have been hurt or have felt misled. I sympathize with all of them – I’ve been there myself. Spirituality is full of promise as we ourselves are, and that usually feels good. Religion, meanwhile, will probably always be a mess, a lure for the power hungry, and hierarchical beyond all that seems reasonable. Nevertheless, I am spiritual and I also love religion. I love what Thomas Howard calls “the ancient Church and all that she holds for us in liturgy, her teaching, her disciplines, her devotions, and her spiritual writings.”

Religion does not have to be an ugly term. In fact religion can be a beautiful thing. The traditions and pageantry that often accompany religion can be a combination of poetry, art and the best things about humanity. The cultural traditions that religions embody are often priceless. Very often in our spiritual but not religious world, there is a lack of depth that these traditions offer. The “wisdom of ages” as Clark Strand puts it in an article for the Huffington Post:

The spiritual-but-not-religious are often out of their depth when it comes to the weightier moments of life. There’s no time-tested ritual, no ceremony everybody knows that allows their spiritual charges to just sink down into the experience and let the wisdom of the ages carry them body-and-soul to the other side of bliss or loss or whatever. Your average mindfulness instructor might figure it out with enough practice (after all, they’re usually smart people with one or two advanced degrees). But what about in the meantime? Well, let’s be charitable and say they’re most likely making it up as they go along.

Very often hidden within the symbolism and mystery of traditional religion is the very wisdom that we are looking for on our spiritual journeys. Things that cannot be described in a thesis or theological position paper. Things that are deep and spiritual and speak to us without words. They say things to us that we may not even be able to fully share with others in words. Which leads us to another beauty of religion – sharing that knowing with others who know as well. Religion can offer us community, a place to belong and fellows to journey with us. Companions who can affirm our moments of enlightenment and that help us to communicate these experiences with one another.

Of course there is the other side of this – the ugly side; or perhaps we should call it another approach. The fundamentalist side that makes religion into a weapon to hurt or a wall to divide rather than a language to communicate and a structure to share. To stress the point however, the difference is the approach. The mystical approach to Theology is, after all, the mystical approach to religion as well. What we believe about God will affect how we practice our faith, and how we practice our faith will affect what we believe about God. The mystical approach to religion then admits the same fundamental principle as does the mystical approach to Theology – that God is infinite mystery. Our practice (religion) then is participating in that Mystery. If what we derive from our religion is how wrong others are and how right we are, then we have no doubt missed the point all together. We should rather be as the Holy Prophet Isaiah when he sees the glory of the Lord: “‘Woe to me!’ I cried. ‘I am silenced! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.'”  Awe, humility and profound joy – these are the fruits of true religion.

 

Promises of Preterism …

 

Preterism came on the scene as an eschatological synthesis that took seriously the so-called “time texts” of the New Testament and applied them to prophecy. The preliminary results of these endeavors proved to be successful. There were certainly substantive portions of New Testament prophecy that could be applied to historical events of the first century, and this seemed to set the stage for a general hermeneutical approach to prophecy. The general hermeneutical assumption  was that all New Testament prophecy could be attributed to a historical event (chronological fulfillment) and that the time texts were not just applicable to some of these events, but all of them. Thus we have what has emerged as Full, Consistent or Hyper Preterism. In this article we will make a distinction between general preterism (acknowledging the implications of time texts on New Testament prophecy) and Full Preterism (The hermenutic mentioned above.)

The promise of Full Preterism was and is appealing. It promises a systematic understanding of texts that have generally been ignored by serious theologians. Orthodox theologian Fr Sergius Bulgakov states:

“the Church has not established a single universally obligatory dogmatic definition in the domain of eschatology” (The Bride of the Lamb, p. 379)

The creed of the historical Church only attests that “He shall come again with glory and judge the living and the dead. His kingdom shall have no end.” Beyond that very vague and open ended affirmation, one which Full Preterists would mostly come to reject, there is little in historical eschatology to compare with the promise of Preterism; and nothing close to what Full Preterism has hoped to achieve.

The problem with the Full Preterist synthesis is that it leapt from the successful interpretation of a few chronological fulfillments, to broad unsubstantiated assumptions as to its hermeneutical approach. One such assumption being that chronological fulfillment is the primary purpose of prophetic fulfillment. In other words that all prophecy has a historical event that it predicts. Further that when prophecies do have chronological fulfillments, that there is no other sort of fulfillment to be expected. Further still, that all aspects of fulfillment must chronologically coincide with a historical event; mostly ignoring any mystical aspects to prophecy. These are hermenutical contentions that most Preteristic schemas never attempt to substantiate, and are taken as matter of fact. This lack of self-criticism is perhaps because Preterists tend to be small in number and very often dialogue amongst themselves. These assumptions however should be substantiated and not taken as matter of fact. Quite frankly I do not think they are warranted, and they create more issues than they resolve in the end.

Another unsubstantiated assumption is that the term fulfillment equates to some degree of cessationism. This leads to an insistence that time texts limit all action of God to the first century. This is untenable on its face seeing that time and space themselves are sustained by the force of God’s will. God cannot vacate creation without creation ceasing to exist. This definition of fulfillment is simply irrational considering the present condition of the cosmos and human existence. Further it is based on a narrow view of ontology. A view, once again, that is taken as a hermenutical principal without qualification. What we have then is Preterism that begins by making great strides toward a consistent prophetic hermeneutic, but then dies by choking on its own assumptions.

In my opinion Preterism has spiked the ball too early. Rather than maintaining an open mind, and a healthy level of self-criticism, Preterism has crystallized into to tribes that are too busy defending their turf to actually engage in any sort of constructive criticism; criticism that is desperately needed to develop this view. In some cases Preterists have devolved into little better than conspiracy theorists; denying history and any other pertinent sources of information. As though for two thousand years Christians have been oblivious to any sort of truth, and that within about fifty years a small group of thinkers have synthesized the perfect eschatology. Am I the only one who thinks that is a bit arrogant? We see further that in Preterists discussion boards that terms like futurists are thrown around as pejoratives, as though acknowledging the future in itself is an error. Preterists have become reactionary and attack anything that suggests an ongoing action of God. Particularly any such action that would suggest a degree of fulfillment or sustained action either in the future or ongoing. This to the point that it is frequently reported that the “Bible is irrelevant to anyone today” and that the Gospel of Christ has no application for anyone today; theological cessationism. The baby has clearly been tossed out with the bathwater, and this in the name of a so-called consistency. As though Preterism is the denial that the world exists after 70AD rather than an acknowledgement of the significance of the first century chronology in regards to prophecy.

It is my opinion that Preterism still has great potential, it however needs much thought and work. It needs to be seen as a work in progress. There are too many assumptions that are being proposed as authoritative, and without substantiation. There are too many views that are not subject to any sort of peer review. The entire view has separated itself from mainstream theology and at times has outright refused to dialogue with those who hold other views. This is tragic and can only lead to a deformed view.

I remain a Preterist in the general sense mentioned in the opening paragraph. I have hope for a complete synthesis – I am intrigued and hopeful of the promise of Preterism. I am just not convinced that we have arrived. There is still much work to be done.

 

 

Paul vs. James – Schism in the primitive Church?

It seems to have become in vogue in our modern religious and scholarly climate to surmise that there existed in the most primitive days of the Church a rivalry between the Church in Jerusalem (Led by James) and Paul. The suggested theory is that the Church in Jerusalem remained very much “Jewish” and preached a different message of salvation from that we see preached by Paul. In fact some have gone so far as to suggest that there were polemics being launched from one camp to the other. There are several reasons why this conclusion is reached:

1.) In the Paul’s letter to the Galatian Church he mentions a conflict between himself and Peter.

2.) The epistle of James is perceived to contradict the teachings of Paul.

3.) Some pseudo-literature of the late first to second century seems to place a rift between Paul and and the leaders of the Church in Jerusalem.

I would like to address each of these points listed. There could of course be more than these, but these tend to reflect the major points.

1.) In the Paul’s letter to the Galatian Church he mentions a conflict between himself and Peter.

This is perhaps the most substantial of the points made, mainly because it addresses the most solid source of information concerning primitive Christianity – the writings of Paul. Not only are the writings of Paul considered as the most reliable sources in the New Testament by critical scholars, they are also some of the most important sources in Christian history. From the standpoint of the historical method these writings are particularly important, even more important than the accounts in Acts and the writings of Peter and James. The latter being questioned in authenticity by certain scholars, while the Pauline corpus is considered authentic by 90-95% of scholars. While we are not personally inclined to believe that the epistles of Peter and James are pseudography, it should be noted that from a purely historical standpoint what Paul says in his letters should be given serious attention. Of course the historian must take Paul’s account as it is, his own interpretation of events, they still will no doubt shed a great deal of light on what Paul saw as the events of the earliest times in Christian history. Certainly if Paul and James were rivals, as some suggest, we would read it in Paul’s account of things.

Those who feel that there was indeed a rivalry believe that the events described in Galatians are addressing just that. It is in Paul’s epistle to the Galatians that we read of an incident that took place when Peter visited Antioch. According to Paul’s account, Peter had been for some time in Antioch and had been “eating with the Gentiles”, but after a delegation sent by James from Jerusalem visited Antioch, Peter would no longer eat with the Gentiles. According to Paul even his own associate Barnabas became “carried away” with this scenario. Paul says that he confronted Peter publicly about these hypocritical actions.

Now it is important here to set the context of Paul’s relating this story. Paul is concerned that this Church that he has founded has abandoned his teachings and had began to try to adopt elements of the Mosaic Law. (It seems that some individuals in that congregation or perhaps that had come to them from elsewhere had begun to teach Mosaic tradition – especially concerning salvation through circumcision). In fact he opens by stating that even if “we or an Angel from heaven” come preaching another Gospel, let them be considered accursed. This story in Galatians 2 is Paul’s way of showing that he is willing to “put his money where his mouth is.” This account was intended to demonstrate the gravity of the revealed message – it was important enough that Paul would even confront Peter over it. However if Peter, and consequently James, are enemies or rivals of Paul, then what weight does this story carry? Paul says essentially “I even confronted Peter on this when he got out of line.” Which shows that both Paul, and the Galatian Church that he founded, considered Peter an individual of notoriety and respect.

The language that Paul uses concerning Peter, James, John and the Jerusalem Church is not one of disrespect and contempt, rather it is one of respect. Paul says in fact “Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up in response to a revelation. Then I laid before them (though only in a private meeting with the acknowledged leaders) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain.” Now why would Paul meet privately with the leaders in Jerusalem to confirm his ministry if he considered them enemies? In fact Paul says that the “esteemed leaders” in Jerusalem had no need to add anything to his message, but rather acknowledge in him an apostleship to the Gentiles. He says the only thing they asked of him was to remember the poor, which Paul says that he was already doing. We might speculate that those teachers in Galatia who were trying to influence that congregation were appealing to the customs of James and the Elders in Jerusalem. (And there is no doubt that the Jerusalem Church continued to be very “Jewish” in their culture and customs). However Paul stresses that when he went to Jerusalem his message was vindicated, and that when Peter came to Antioch, Paul’s authority was acknowledged – further that the common message carried precedence over all. 

Another story that is associated with this is the conference held by the Church in Acts 15. According to some this shows a supposed debate between James and Paul. In fact some superimpose these two accounts as being one event. However the council meeting in Acts 15 and the conflict at Antioch are clearly two separate occasions. Now it is possible that the event that prompted the council is being described in Galatians, however Paul’s confronting Peter and the council in Jerusalem are not the same event. We then do not have Paul going to Jerusalem to debate the Elders, but rather we have Paul being sent from Antioch as a delegate. Further the Acts account has Peter testifying on Paul’s behalf. So whatever may have prompted Peter to act as he did in Galatians, he has had a change of heart when he returns to Jerusalem. Further it is clear that all those present give credence to the prescription of James. Further the Jerusalem church sent delegates with the delegates from Antioch – this to show the solidarity of the decision. Much more could be said here, but the point here is established that there is no schism and rivalry being pictured in Acts and Galatians. And if the Petrine epistles are taken into account we have the vindication of Paul’s writing as coming from Divine wisdom. The conclusion being that there is nothing substantial that indicates a rift in what we have in the New Testament writing. In fact in all of Paul’s writing he places himself among the Apostles and appeals to their collegiate authority; declaring himself the “least among the Apostles.” If we are going then to find this supposed schism, then we will need to look elsewhere, we do not find it in Paul’s writings.

2.) The epistle of James is perceived to contradict the teachings of Paul.

The second tier of the supposed Schismatic theory is to show that the teachings of James and Paul are contradictory to one another. The major point of the supposed contention is the two passages:

Rom. 3:28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.

James 2:24 You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.

These two statements in fact do seem to be at odds with one another. However it should be noted that if this is the case, then Paul is also at odds with himself.

Rom 1:For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.

In fact when we look at what James wrote we see that James never denies justification by faith, but essentially asks “what kind of faith?” In fact both Paul and James use the same passage. Further James is not suggesting that keeping the Mosaic Law justifies a person, but rather that a person who claims faith but will not feed the hungry really has no faith at all. This is an important distinction. Paul himself claims that:

1 Timothy 1:8 And whoever does not provide for relatives, and especially for family members, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

So how far away really are James and Paul in how they define faith? This matter has been discussed for many years by many bright individuals, and we do not have the time to exhaust it here. The point is however, that we are not seeing in the teachings of James and Paul rival messages. Therefore we still have no evidence of their supposed schism.

3.) Some pseudo-literature of the late first to second century seems to place a rift between Paul and and the leaders of the Church in Jerusalem.

The parts of the claim that we address here are in fact where most of the propositions arrive at their conclusions. However it should be noted that most of these sources, the Clementine homilies for instance, reflect more the thought of the second and third centuries than they do the situation of the apostolic era Church. And of course by this time there are indeed many rival schools of thought. The practice of the day then was to take a venerated individual, such as Peter or Paul, and make them the voice of your interpretation of theology. It is however a mistake to presume that these pseudo-writing have any real substance as to rivalries among the individuals whose name they seek to borrow. We certainly can use them to see how some in the second and third century were attempting to interpret Christianity, we should not however rely on them to project a subplot into the primary sources we have in the New Testament.

There seems to be little substantial evidence to support any rift between Paul and the Church in Jerusalem. From all of the historical data that we have it seems rather that Paul, while an innovator and perhaps even a radical, worked in conjunction with the headquarters Church and was acknowledged by them as a confirmed leader and missionary to the Gentiles. Whatever changes may, or may not, have taken place in the Christian religion, they cannot be attributed to one individual. They should rather be viewed as a more organic process. What we do see in the New Testament is two different cultures and this dividing line was not just between Jews and Gentiles. It was between traditional Jews in Jerusalem and the Hellenized Jews, and eventually Gentiles, that existed in the Roman provinces. This division was not one caused by Paul, but one we see already developing in the Jerusalem Church. For instance we see a dispute among the “Hellenists” and the “Hebrews” because of the distribution of food in Acts 6. This was essentially a cultural division. We can almost perceive a relief among the Apostles in Jerusalem when they see that Paul is motivated to reach the Gentile world – a mission he was very much qualified for. What we see in the New Testament is growing pains as a small messianic group expands rapidly and becomes a world religion. These are tensions that James and Paul work to resolve from both sides of the spectrum. We see two different styles which come from preaching to two different cultures, rather than two competing Apostles. There was no James vs. Paul.