Before I read Wrestling the Angel by Terryl L. Givens I was confused. I could not make sense of what I heard of Mormonism. I knew a few concepts, such as spirit baptism, a theology that was a hybrid of polytheism and atheism, and an ecclesiastic hierarchy that seemed like an imitation of Rome. But I could not place it within the broader Christian tradition, nor identify even a point of divergence of Mormon thought from another Christian branch.
I expressed my ignorance to my friend Tanner Greer, who recommended that I read this book. I am glad he did so. Wrestling the Angel is a terrific book, generally sympathetic to Mormonism and by an author apparently most comfortable with Calvinist terminology. Like Medieval Christianity: A New History, which provided a context for 1,000 years of Catholic thinking, Wrestling the Angel situations Mormonism without the intellectual currents of American Protestantism (and especially American Calvinism) in the 19th century. The literary context of Mormonism (such as the View of the Hebrews or the literary significance of the King James Version) are completely ignored.
But my most valuable take away was this: cosmologically, Mormonism operates as an extremely old branch of Christianity. Much of the Mormon thought would be much more familiar to the audience of Peter’s Didache than, say, the Confessions of Augustine or the Homilies of Chrysostom. The “Weirdest” parts of Mormon thought are straight forward given the Hebraic outlook of the religion. This is most clear in the Mormon conceptions of creation, God’s literal fatherhood of mankind, theosis, and the nature of heaven. That said, it’s questionable how seriously the Mormon assertion that there is no philosophy or theology of Mormonism can be taken, given it exists within a western context. Mormonism is more Hebraic than even Judaism, because Judaism coherently responded to western philosophy in the 13th century. It is too early to tell how Mormonism will respond to philosophical thought.
All other branches of Christianity assert that God created that universe from nothing. Mormonism denies this, asserting instead that God organized the universe from chaos. A consequence of Mormon denial of creation from nothing is that the Mormon “God” is not even a “God” – he is just a supernatural alien that has better control of technology that than we do.
As a creature, the Mormon “God” is bound by the laws of the universe, and can be forced to do the will of any other creature who understands the laws. Just as Assyrians celebrated making their gods indebted to them, Mormons know that God has no freedom but to act in the way their own holiness dictates
Marduk, the king of gods, is reconciled with the king my lord. He does whatever the king my lord says. Sitting on your throne, you will vanquish your enemies, conquer your foes, and plunder the enemy
Yet the Mormon focus on organization is closer to the meaning of the Hebrew Bible. The very first chapter of Genesis probably is a discussion of the universe’s organization. Likewise, the Book of Joshua tells of Canaan’s organization. Western Christians may respond that for the God of Israel to the God of Philosophy, he would have had have created the universe from nothing as well as organized the universe from chaos. This may be the case. But it makes God contingent on the western laws of logic, instead of the Canaanite laws of order.
God’s Literal Fatherhood of Man
Given its continuity with the Canaanite worldview of the Hebrew Bible, Mormons believe that God is our literal father. This is to say, God the Father is a man.
Abraham might not have been surprised by this. God after all ate and drank with him. But also John the Evangelist would not have been surprised. Christ sweats blood, thirsts, eats and drinks — fully like man
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. John 1:1-3
These elements were also present in the stories from ancient Canaan. God’s daughter threatens to cut him open and make him bleed by a lamb. God hosts a drinking party and has a hang-over. He cries tears when Death takes Ba’al, and his male genitalia is as long as the Euphrates.
Indeed, as most Christians follow the Athanasian Creed which asserts all persons of the Trinity share attributes with all others, the extent to which God the Father fully participates in God the Son’s incarnation is interesting. But in any case God’s literal fatherhood of man is most surprising to those who hold a stronger form of spirit-body dualism than any writer of the Scriptures apparently held.
Angels, Heaven, and Hell
Mormonism teaches that humans can become angels. While this is foreign to Christian angelology, it’s not ridiculous. The 2nd Book of Enoch, written during the Second Temple period, describes Enoch fulfilling the role of an Angel. And indeed “angel” means “Messenger,” thus Mormon references to angel’s can be replaced by the ghosts of souls in heaven given tasks by God.
Likewise, Mormonism seems to use Protestant terms but Catholic conceptions of the afterlife. In Catholic terms, virtually all souls spend an extended period of time in purgatory. For those with worse sins it begins as a more painful process, but those with better works it is very pleasant, but in these cases it serves to cleanse and perfect the souls of the dead. Mormonism do have the idea of choices being made in this state that can effect the future, but on the same hand so did the allegory of the afterlife presented by C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce. I’m perfectly happy to see any conflict here as a result of the impoverished way we think of and talk about time.
Yet this view of purgatory — as a place decisions can be made — also helps explain another issue that troubles Christians: the baptism of the dead. The actual acceptance of baptism occurs by the spirit in purgatory (perhaps translated into Catholic terminology as the soul having received grace and the baptism by desire in life). But because Mormonism emerged from mid-19th century Protestantism that recognized only baptism by water, a proxy baptism by water is allowed that, when combined with the spirit’s acceptance of Christ, becomes a canonical baptism.
Theosis and Transcendence
One of the differences between western and eastern Christianity is a difference in focus on how to be faithful. Catholics and Orthodox agree that being faithful to Christ requires imitating him, but Catholics are more likely to emphasize immediate fulfillment of specific commands (feed the hungry, visit the sick, and so on) while Orthodox are more likely to emphasize the use of prayer and meditation to obtain a divine orientation. Mormonism is within these traditions, focusing on a rule-based ladder to spiritual betterment (made possible by grace), combined with a future goal of full participation in the divine.
This becomes problematic to other Christians when the Mormon rejection of divinity as anything other than very well ordered humanity is taken into accounts. Some people say Mormons are Arians but I don’t see how this can be true — it is not that Mormons believe that Jesus was substantially difference from the Father, but it that they do not believe the Father was substantively different from a cat. There is simply some energy state referred to as “organization” that beings we call divine (God, gods, etc) have more of and others have less of. Perhaps it can be scientifically measured one day.
This introduces a crisis in Mormon thought that Wrestling the Angel never addresses: this idea (a hidden quantity of Organization which determines observed divinity) is completely foreign to the Old Testament foundations that so much of Mormon thought is based on. It’s not a Canaanite idea, it’s not a Hebrew idea, it’s not even a New Testament idea. It is basically a western, Greek, philosophical idea of abstract concepts and hidden quantifiable attributes. The Mormon claim of not being philosophical or theological, of not having Creeds or dogma, fall apart here. Perhaps there is some resolution, but if so Terry Givens does not give a hint of one.
The Mormon bias against philosophy and theology may delay this reckoning, but it seems unlikely to stop. The empirical evidence seems that philosophical incoherence is not sustainable over the long term — no other branch of the Abrahamic face that I am aware of has maintained this. And Mormonism has a mechanism to allow to it adapt to the culture it exists in: the open canon.
Like the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Mormonism has no mechanism for identifying when Scripture starts and church teachings begin. Some books, like the Mormon King James Version and the Mormon Doctrine and Covenants, change over time. Other well known Mormon works, such as the King Follett discourse, are not part of the canon at all. A similar mechanism, the Holy Tradition, fulfills a similar role in Catholicism or Orthodoxy. The faith in those churches have unfolded over great expanses of time. Mormonism will as well.
I began Wrestling the Angel knowing little about Mormon theology or cosmology. I feel I have a grasp of it now, and I thank Tanner for the excellent recommendation.
Note: As with my take on The Book of Samuel, this post was originally posted on Facebook. At the time I had just begun to read the Bible — I read Job in Alter’s translation. I have edited the original piece slightly.
The Book of Job is about a wealth, respected, non-Jewish man who worships God and cares for his family. Disaster after disaster falls on him. He blames God, but never doubts in God’s existence.
Most artistic images of Job are of a broken man, a victim and a whiner, moaning the cruelty of the world. Job is more of a man than that. A better image is Matthew McConaughey in “True Detective,” clinically explaining why consciousness is a mistake and life the worst fate that could befall us.
Job, the Horror Writer
The horror writer Thomas Ligotti has condemned giving birth as a violent and evil act. He is ripping off Job
Annul the day that I was born,
and the night that said, “A man is conceived…”
Why did I not die from the womb
from the belly come out, breathe my last?
Why did knees welcome me,
and why breasts, that I should suck?
For now I would lie and be still,
would sleep and know response
with kings and the councilors of earth,
who build ruins for themselves Job 3:3, 3:11-14
In Ligotti’s fiction, he proposes a sort of pan-demonoism, a belief that the core of reality is an oozing malevolence against which man may — meaninglessly – rebel. Job would agree
For SHADDAI’s arrows are in me —
their venom my spirit drinks
the terrors of God beset me…
I would speak, and I will not fear Him
for that is not the way I am Job 9:4, 35
Faced with the churchy bullshit his friends “console” him with, Job does them one better, referencing a Psalm
What is man that You should remember him
and the son of man that You pay him heed.
And you make him little less than the gods
with glory and grandeur You cloak him Psalms 8:5-6
to make a dimmer point:
What is man that You make him great
and that You pay him to geed
You single him out every morning
every moment examine him.
How long till You turn away from me?
You don’t let me go while I swallow my spit Job 7:17-19
An Aside: The LORD in the Flesh
In Job’s speeches, there are two breaks that grab a reader’s attention. The first is quick, and is jarring because Job appears to be a contemporary of Abraham. While both the Book of Genesis and the Book of Job occasionally refer to God as “SHADDAI” and feature men who wrestle with God’s messages, in Genesis the LORD is flesh and blood, and even joins Abraham and Sarah for a meal (Genesis 18), but Job seems unaware of this:
Do you have the eyes of mortal flesh
do You see as a man would see?
Are Your days like a mortal’s days
Your years like the years of a man Job 10:4-5
Of course, the LORD had dinner with other men and women: Peter, Mary, Martha, and others.
What, then, did Job know of that?
Would then, that my words were written
that they were inscribed in a book,
with an iron pen and lead
to be hewed in rock forever.
But I know my redeemer lives,
and in the end he will stand up on earth
and after they flay my skin,
from my flesh I shall behold God
For I myself shall behond
my eyes will see– no stranger’s
my heart is harried within me.
Should you say, “How more can we hound him?
The root of the thing rests in him”
Fear the sword, for wrath is a sword-worthy crime,
so you may know there is judgement.” Job 19:23-29
“Look at the birds of the air, they do not sow or reap or store aware in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” Matthew 6:26
Job considers birds very well indeed
“Yet asks of the beasts, they will teach you,
the fowl of heavens will tell you,
or speak to the earth, it will teach you,
the fish of the sea will inform you.
Who has not known in all these
that the LORD’s hands has done this
In Whose hand is the breath of each living thing,
and the spirit of all human flesh.
Does not the ear make out the words,
the palate taste food: Job 12:7-11
Eventually God puts an end to the back-and-forths between Job and his friends (and even more thankfully, the rambling punk kid of one of Job’s friends), states that his friends’ churchy bullshit makes Him look bad and them look stupid, and even picks up the bird metaphor
“Does the hawk soar by your wisdom,
spread his wings to fly away South?
By your word does the eagle mount
and set his nest on high?
On the crag he dwells and beds down
on the crest of the crag his stronghold.
From there he seeks out food,
from afar his eyes look down.
His chicks lap up blood,
where the slain are, there he is.” Job 39:27-30
Throughout the book, Job remembers his suffering and injustice, and returns again and again to the random brutality of the world.
Job’s churchy friends try to tell him that justice always wins out in our lives.
God tells those friends to stfu, tells Job that he’s at least half right (unlike his friends, who are simply wrong), but that there’s awe-inspiring and exciting parts of the universe too.
The heart of the Book of Job is in these dialogues, and there’s a fairy-tale-like story surrounding it. That story is wrapped up too. Job gets really rich, and Job’s wife (who was acting bitchy during the disasters) presumably becomes jealous of their has three hot daughters, named (in Hebrew) Dove, Cinnamon, and Eyeshadow.
But like in Ezekiel something is wrong with the narrative. Job doesn’t end where it begins, there’s no follow-up to the bet between God and Satan. What was the point of it all? Who won? Why did any of this happen?
The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest is an examination of the Israelite conquest of Canaan as described primarily in the Book of Joshua. John H. and J. Harvey Walton argue the war was fought to properly order Canaan under God’s sovereign rule, and not as punishment for the Canaanites. The term herem, normally translated as “place under the ban” or “utterly destroy,” should be translated as “remove from human use” or even “purify.” The process of establishing sovereignty in an area — called “Making a Name” or “Placing a Name,” — is completed by God through the Temple (though Saul, the builders of the Tower of Babel, and many other kings previously tried to make a name for themselves, as recorded both within and outside the Bible). The authors introduce the idea of The Ban as a type, or foreshadowing, of Living in Christ, but do not convincingly argue this. Likewise, the propose an explanation for the apparent presence of inhuman monsters in Canaan. during the Conquest
Seven Days that Shook the World
And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.
This is the history of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, before any plant of the field was in the earth and before any herb of the field had grown. For the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the earth, and there was no man to till the ground; 6 but a mist went up from the earth and watered the whole face of the ground.
And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. Genesis 2:2-7
The Book of Joshua is a war story, the third book the Exodus–Numbers–Joshua narrative that chronicles the life of the savior of Israel, Joshua, who follows (and then apparently deposes) Moses and leads an army against the Canaanite cities. Men, families, and entire cities are placed “under the ban” and “doomed to destruction” (herem). It is as exciting as a tale of the rise of ISIS told from the perspective of a military commander would be. Angels, stars, prostitutes, and spies are all characters in a book that makes church ladies uncomfortable all over the world.
But it came to pass on the seventh day that they rose early, about the dawning of the day, and marched around the city seven times in the same manner. On that day only they marched around the city seven times.
And the seventh time it happened, when the priests blew the trumpets, that Joshua said to the people:
“Shout, for the LORD has given you the city!
Now the city shall be doomed by the LORD to destruction, it and all who are in it.
Only Rahab the harlot shall live, she and all who are with her in the house, because she hid the messengers that we sent.” Joshua 6:16-17
This pattern will be created later, when the Temple is opened in seven days. The Creation, the Conquest, and the Indwelling of the LORD in the Temple are are three stages in the proper ordering of the universe. God creates the universe, God is granted title to the land, God is invested in the Temple. A force completely outside the cosmos orders the cosmos and lives in the cosmos. Christians of course will see parallels — antitypes — in this process to the Creation by the Word, the Victory at the Cross, and the Indwelling of the Spirit at Pentecost.
At that time Solomon kept the feast seven days,
and all Israel with him, a very great assembly from the entrance of Hamath to the Brook of Egypt. And on the eighth day they held a sacred assembly,
for they observed the dedication of the altar seven days,
and the feast seven days.
On the twenty-third day of the seventh month he sent the people away to their tents, joyful and glad of heart for the good that the Lord had done for David, for Solomon, and for His people Israel. 2 Chronicles 7:8-10
Under the Ban
The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest could have been written as an extended examination of two verses:
So all the cities of those kings, and all their kings, Joshua took and struck with the edge of the sword. He utterly destroyed them, as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded. But as for the cities that stood on their mounds, Israel burned none of them, except Hazor only, which Joshua burned. Joshua 11:12-13
For the land is defiled; therefore I visit the punishment of its iniquity upon it, and the land vomits out its inhabitants. Leviticus 18:25
Examining the three words in bold, the authors argue
utterly destroy, or herem, means remove from human (as opposed to Divine) use
defiled, or tm’, means ritually unclean or unfit for use, as in Judges 13:4
punishment, or pqd, means determine the density, and
iniquity, or ‘awon, means purify as with fire, as in Numbers 31:23
vomit is accepted as such, but can proceed the proper use of a thing, such as the whale’s vomiting of Jonah
The authors argue that Joshua “utterly destroyed” the kings by killing them,t the city of Hazor by burning it to the ground, and the other cities by transferring their sovereignty from the Israelite army (which had it by right of conquest) to God. The authors also argue that that Leviticus 18:25 really should read
For the land is unfit for use; therefore I will determine the density of its cleansing on it, and the land vomits out its inhabitants
The proposed translations are similar to Robert Alter‘s translation of the verse in Joshua:
And all the towns of these kings and all their kings Joshua took and struck them down with the edge of the sword, he put them under the ban as Moses servant of the LORD had charged. Only all the towns standing on their mounds Israel did not burn, except for Hazor alone that Joshua burned.
as well as Leviticus:
And the land was defiled, and I made a reckoning with it for its iniquity, and the land spewed out its inhabitants
This is persuasive. The Land of Canaan is to be put through an earthly purgatory, but the goal is to make it properly ordered, not to vindicatively punish it. As Rabbi Stuart Federow argues, many Christians ignore the Biblical emphasis on proper ordering by trying to reduce all forms of disorder to sin, just as some Christians ignore the Biblical emphasis on faithfulness by trying to reduce all forms of faithlessness to doubt. The lesson here, that God desires proper ordering of things and our allegiance to Him, means giving up some of pop Christianity.
This pattern (to a smaller extent) already existed in the Near East. The Babylonians, for instance, would grant specific cities or fields to their Gods similar to how modern companies will grant sovereign rights to consular compounds:
As long as heaven and earth and mankind will be, in future no son of man may inhabit [this land. I have offered] it to Tesub my lord, together with fields, farmyards, vineyards… [Let] your bulls Seri and Hurri [make it] their own grazing land
Yet because the other Near Eastern peoples treated Gods as a very powerful external partner, but not their ultimate Sovereign, they could congratulate themselves on entering into alliances with gods who were then bound by law to defend them. As one Assyrian memorial records:
Marduk, the king of gods, is reconciled with the king my lord. He does whatever the king my lord says. SItting on your throne, you will vanquish your enemies, conquer your foes, and plunder the enemy
Thus, what is happening in Joshua is that the Israelites are conquering a country and then transferring the title to The LORD in keeping with the Instrument of Surrender (“Covenant”) negotiated by Moses. By removing Canaan from Israelite use — making it herem — it is God, not Israel, that places his name in the Holy Land as recorded in the Chronicles
Yet I have chosen Jerusalem, that My name may be there, and I have chosen David to be over My people Israel. 2 Chronicles 6:6
This contrasts with King Saul’s attempt in The Book of Samuel to indicate that he, and not God, is sovereign
So when Samuel rose early in the morning to meet Saul, it was told Samuel, saying,
“Saul went to Carmel, and indeed, he set up a monument for himself; and he has gone on around, passed by, and gone down to Gilgal.”
Then Samuel went to Saul, and Saul said to him, “Blessed are you of the LORD! I have performed the commandment of the LORD.”
But Samuel said, “”hat then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?” 1 Samuel 15:12-14
As well as against the Babylonian’s attempt to do likewise with their Tower
And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” Genesis 11:4
Living in Christ
If the theme is the rule of God — His creation of the universe, His sovereignty over Canaan, His indwelling at Zion — what does the King of the Universe want from us? Simple this: the full use of us.
The Waltons connect Herem from the Hebrew Bible with the Christian idea of being in Christ, or putting off the “old man” in the Letter to the Ephesians
But you have not so learned Christ, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus: that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness. Ephesians 4:20-24
The old man is “put off” (or “crucified” in Romans 6:6), not as a punishment, but as a necessary preparation for something greater. As the Waltons write:
We don’t destroy our former selves because they committed crimes and deserve to be destroyed; we destroy them because they are in the way of God using us for his purposes.
The logic of this is that just as God placed Canaan as herem or “under the ban,” God also placed us under the ban as well
Herem of identity in the new covenant means removing from use all identities (which recapitulate the Canaanite nations) other than Christian from the self (which recapitulates the land)
This is fascinating, but not as convincing. For one, the Septuagint Bible used by Bible translates Herem as Anathema, a term he never uses for living in Christ. Further, the Waltons extend the claim to viewing our individual identities not as things for God to use, but as things for us to reject. This seems to lead to a reductio ad absurdum of placing one’s identity as male or female under the ban, but the Waltons seem to accept this
On the other hand, and privilege or status that accompanies the identity markers is not to be asserted. Paul has the identity of apostle, but he repeatedly refuses to assert the rights that accompany that identity.
The obvious scriptural counter-argument to this is never addressed:
He created them male and female, and blessed them and called them Mankind in the day they were created. Genesis 5:2
There hands are destructive and their features are those of monkeys; he is one who eats what [a goddess] forbids and does not show reverence. They never stop roaming about…
they are an abomination to the gods’ dwellings. Their ideas are confused; they cause only disturbance.
I was fascinated by this. The apparent presence of these supernatural creatures in both Genesis and Exodus is striking, and whether these are thinking creatures or Augustinian symbols, the Divine Author meant something by them. But the Waltons’ interpretation does not square with the description in Numbers and Joshua as the Canaanites as having strong, established cities. The Waltons’ later claim that Gog represents another form of barbarians, instead of something more bizarre or post-modern, is also questionable.
And as before, the obvious Scriptural complication to a purely human view of inhuman monsters is not mentioned
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Ephesians 6:12
The turning point for me was the Book of Samuel. I don’t know the words to say the importance of this book to me. The reason the Scripture contains different genres of books is to reach different genres of hearts — Samuel reached mine! Samuel was the first time my short facebook notes on my Biblical reading expanded into something more. Indeed, I wrote four different posts on the Book.
So, in order to combine my thoughts, I present those four takes here, a sort of redacted post from earlier documents. I’ve kept later editing to a minimum… only what was needed.
1 Samuel and 2 Samuel
The Book of Samuel is hard reading. Not hard to read — Atler’s translation is wonderful. But hard in its implications. The spiraling damage — to Saul himself, to the lives of his ‘enemies’ and even the moral character of David — only gets worse. But Saul did not seek the Kingship — his request to Samuel was only for the location of some lost donkeys, and he physically hid from his own coronation.
As Samuel makes his grand statement he believes he has discovered a great rhyme in history: LORD, Tomb, Donkeys, Father, Son. Israel is a stubborn people, perhaps the tribes are donkeys. But perhaps something else is being described
Then Samuel took a flask of oil and poured it on his head, and kissed him and said:
“Is it not because the Lord has anointed you commander over His inheritance?
When you have departed from me today, you will find two men by Rachel’s tomb in the territory of Benjamin at Zelzah; and they will say to you,
‘The donkeys which you went to look for have been found.
And now your father has ceased caring about the donkeys and is worrying about you, saying, “What shall I do about my son?”’ 1 Samuel 10:1-3
It very much feels like someone had the idea to make the young woman from Roman Polanski’s Repulsion as monarch. Indeed, the horror of the paired “Is Saul, too, among the Prophets?” episodes — the first time Sunday-schooly and humorous,
Then the Spirit of the Lord will come upon you, and you will prophesy with them and be turned into another man. And let it be, when these signs come to you, that you do as the occasion demands; for God is with you. You shall go down before me to Gilgal; and surely I will come down to you to offer burnt offerings and make sacrifices of peace offerings. Seven days you shall wait, till I come to you and show you what you should do.”
So it was, when he had turned his back to go from Samuel, that God gave him another heart; and all those signs came to pass that day. When they came there to the hill, there was a group of prophets to meet him; then the Spirit of God came upon him, and he prophesied among them. And it happened, when all who knew him formerly saw that he indeed prophesied among the prophets, that the people said to one another, “What is this that has come upon the son of Kish? Is Saul also among the prophets?” 1 Samuel 10:6-11
The second time is sad and terrifying — is the horror of “Repulsion”: Saul’s suffered from psychosis the entire time he’s been in the story.
So [Saul] went there to Naioth in Ramah. Then the Spirit of God was upon him also, and he went on and prophesied until he came to Naioth in Ramah.
And he also stripped off his clothes and prophesied before Samuel in like manner, and lay down naked all that day and all that night.
Therefore they say, “Is Saul also among the prophets? 1 Samuel 19:24
I have a ways to go before the Book of Job, but that seems like small potatoes compared of the Book of Samuel.
If the Book of Numbers was war as an adventure, and The Book of Judges was war as a Western, the Book of Samuel is war as a tragedy. A few mistakes by a few people build and build, leading to a complete moral collapse that our heroes are drowning in.
Shakespeare’s got nothing on this.
Including the Beginning of 1 Kings
There’s a director’s cut!
The Book of Samuel, which mostly felt like a cross between House of Cards and Game of Thrones, ends in the dark. King David is an aging prisoner of Generalissimo Joab, who climbed the ladder of power and murdered the General of the Army of Israel, the General of the Army of Judah, and the pretender King Absalom (David’s son).
But Joab has another fate.
The last four chapters 2 Samuel are like the sepia-toned conclusion of The Godfather: four scenes that lose the psychological realism of the main work, and instead twist the knife. These stories are kind of fairy tales — they don’t have the bitter realism of most of the Book of Samuel, but they feel… wrong. Like the that sepia-toned ending of the Godfather, which ends with Michael all alone, the wrongness of the story is just below the service.
There’s a story of David condemning the sons of Saul, and regretting it. As he pardoned Joab, the murderer of Saul’s general, and surely regretted it.
There’s a poem from David’s youth, celebrating the Lord of Armies and how God granted him military victory. But from old age, surely King David knew who commanded the military — Joab.
There’s David’s last poem, praising the importance of a King and saying that “worthless men” must be dragged out. But Joab was originally of David’s “worthless men,” a man with nothing to lose who would follow him.
There’s a story of David conducting a census, against the recommendation of Joab, and regretting it. Because like Michael Corleone, like Frank Underwood, Joab, was many things, but never stupid.
So the Book of Samuel ends, David a prisoner, Joab the Generalissimo, and the reader’s head spins.
Although my house is not so with God,
Yet He has made with me an everlasting covenant,
Ordered in all things and secure.
For this is all my salvation and all my desire;
Will He not make it increase? 2 Kings 23:5
But there’s a director’s cut.
That’s not the original ending.
The Book of Kings, which immediately follows, is a compilation of 400 years of dynastic history. Like any such history, the writing style swings dramatically, because it is a compilation of chronicles, of wiki updates over the centuries.
And the first two chapters are the conclusion of Samuel. The same psychological realism. The same sadness. But a real ending.
David isn’t Michael Corleone. He’s Vito.
In his dying words, David praises God and theen asks Solomon to get him his revenge, to kill Joab so he cannot die peacefully. And Robert Alter said, David’s faith is so complete it borders on the subversive
Now the days of David drew near that he should die, and he charged Solomon his son, saying: “I go the way of all the earth; be strong, therefore, and prove yourself a man.
And keep the charge of the Lord your God:
to walk in His ways,
to keep His statutes,
and His testimonies, as it is written in the Law of Moses, that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn;
that the Lord may fulfill His word which He spoke concerning me, saying, ‘If your sons take heed to their way, to walk before Me in truth with all their heart and with all their soul,’ He said, ‘you shall not lack a man on the throne of Israel.’
“Moreover you know also what Joab the son of Zeruiah did to me,
and what he did to the two commanders of the armies of Israel,
to Abner the son of Ner
and Amasa the son of Jether, whom he killed.
And he shed the blood of war in peacetime,
and put the blood of war on his belt that was around his waist,
and on his sandals that were on his feet.
Therefore do according to your wisdom, and do not let his gray hair go down to the grave in peace. 1 Kings 2:1-6
One by one, Solomon isolates Joab, using the law to his ends, finding judicial reasons to kill one supporter after another. Until Joab, old and feeble and no longer able to fight, flees to the Arc of the Covenant and holds on, crying for safety.
Who could kill someone in the House of the Lord? Who could deny sanctuary to a fugitive in the Tent of Meeting?
But unlike David (whose grasp of the Law of Moses was sentimentally and shaky), Solomon remembered the Law
But if anyone schemes and kills someone deliberately, that person is to be taken from my altar and put to death. Exodus 21:14
So Benaiah went to the tabernacle of the Lord, and said to him, “Thus says the king, ‘Come out!’”
And he said, “No, but I will die here.” And Benaiah brought back word to the king, saying, “Thus said Joab, and thus he answered me.”
Then the king said to him, “Do as he has said, and strike him down and bury him, that you may take away from me and from the house of my father the innocent blood which Joab shed. 1 Kings 2:30-31
The Witch of Endor
I vaguely remembered “The Witch of Endor,” the woman who summoned the Prophet Samuel to King Saul. The story includes with some comic relief — the witch screams and flees, not having expected her spell to actually work.
Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up for you?”
And he said, “Bring up Samuel for me.”
When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice.
And the woman spoke to Saul, saying, “Why have you deceived me? For you are Saul!” 1 Samuel 28:11-12
Saul has been beaten into frailty by the evil spirit, his psychosis. Samuel — the the prophet, seer & priest – berates him for being a horrible king, tells him that Saul and his sons will die tomorrow, and leaves.
Then Samuel said: “So why do you ask me, seeing the LORD has departed from you and has become your enemy?
And the LORD has done for Himself as He spoke by me.
For the LORD has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, David. Because you did not obey the voice of the LORD nor execute His fierce wrath upon Amalek, therefore the LORD has done this thing to you this day.
Moreover the LORD will also deliver Israel with you into the hand of the Philistines.
And tomorrow you and your sons will be with me.
The LORD will also deliver the army of Israel into the hand of the Philistines. 1 Samuel 28:16-19
The witch, after the episode, slaughters a calf, giving Saul some food to eat and a place to sleep on the last night of his life.
Now therefore, please, heed also the voice of your maidservant, and let me set a piece of bread before you; and eat, that you may have strength when you go on your way.”
But he refused and said, “I will not eat.”
So his servants, together with the woman, urged him; and he heeded their voice.
Then he arose from the ground and sat on the bed.
Now the woman had a fatted calf in the house, and she hastened to kill it.
And she took flour and kneaded it, and baked unleavened bread from it.
So she brought it before Saul and his servants, and they ate.
Then they rose and went away that night. 1 Samuel 28:22-25
Before starting Alter’s translation of the Old Testament, I had only read Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan as a gentile. But they are even more meaningful in light of Jewish traditions. Who is the priest? Who is the good Samaritan?
Years after finishing it, I have never read anything like the Book of Samuel. I thought about this or that part of it daily for more than a year. The two ‘cuts’ of it in the Hebrew Bible (one ending at 2 Samuel 24, the other continuing through 1 Kings 2) are like a great theatrical cut and great directors cut: both brilliant but in different ways.
Reading Samuel under Alter’s translation has impacted my other readings. The Art of Biblical Narrative helped shape my view of how to understand the parts of the Bible I read on my own, while Saul, Doeg, Nabal, and the Son of Jesse helped me focus on “minor” characters in the text. I don’t think its possible to understand the Transfiguration without the context of the nightmare Israel experienced trying to reconcile the Kings and the Prophets.
I read the Book of Samuel in Robert Alter’s translation and commentary, Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, in the Kindle edition.
John Chrysostom was a Doctor of the Church, Ecumenical Father, and Archbishop of Constantinople during the Roman Empire. His sermons were before the Catholic-Orthodox split, and our revered in most mainline Christian traditions. He addresses multiple simultaneously and clearly is concerned for his flock. His writing affirms core Christian beliefs on salvation, and can help Protestants and Catholics understand each other. But he also has falls. His attempt at a disputation against “Judaizers” is only partially coherent on Judaism, and unlike Augustine he appears not to have spoken to Jews about the meaning of the Old Testament.
But First, there’s no getting around this: John Chrysostom’s Against the Jews — a Doctor of the Church and Patriarch of Constantinople — directly and repeatedly blames the Jews for the murder of Christ
Against the Jews
Jesus died for our sins. We are at fault. And Christians more at fault than others, for we know the cost of sin and do it anyway.
In this context, Chrysostom’s words are both ironic and terrifying:
Is it not foolish, then, to show such readiness to flee from those who have sinned against a man, but to enter into fellowship with those who have committed outrages against God himself? Is it not strange that those who worship the Crucified keep common festivals with those who crucified him? Is it not a sign of folly and the worst madness?
Even if this was a truly held theological point, it is no longer a permissible one. The Council of Trent clarified that all sinners share the guilt for the death of Jesus. He died for John Chrysostom’s sins as much as for those of the Jews.
Should anyone inquire why the Son of God underwent His most bitter Passion, he will find that besides the guilt inherited from our first parents the principal causes were the vices and crimes which have been perpetrated from the beginning of the world to the present day and those which will be committed to the end of time. In His Passion and death the Son of God, our Savior, intended to atone for and blot out the sins of all ages, to offer for them to his Father a full and abundant satisfaction. Catechism of the Council of Trent Article IV, Part 2, ‘Reasons why Christ Suffered’
In the same sub-part, it is clear that Christian sinners suffer more guilt for the death of Christ than the Jews:
This guilt seems more enormous in us than in the Jews, since according to the testimony of the same Apostle: If they had known it, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory; while we, on the contrary, professing to know Him, yet denying Him by our actions, seem in some sort to lay violent hands on him.
But even if Chrysostom was gravely wrong about the guilt of the Jews, his target was not actually people who we would call Jews!
Against the Judaizers
There seems to have been a Messianic movement in Christianity that called itself Jews, but kept up animal sacrifices and many of the Jewish festivals in the Bible. When Chrysostom attacks the so-called “Jews” for these sacrifices he’s entirely right! Using only the Old Testament, he successfully disputes the claim of these “Jews” that they are following Jewish law
And that is the reason why God commanded sacrifice [in Jerusalem] only: you have heard the Law that has now been read among us — it runs as follows: “For they shall bring their sacrifice to the doors of the Tent of Witness” — and it goes on to add the reason: “So that they will not sacrifice their idols and to the vain things which which they themselves engage in prostitution.”
That said, much of Chrysostom’s attacks on Jewish-style ritual seems hyperbolic. This passage is emblematic: in two sentences Chrysostom incorrectly states that all Jewish festivals are forbidden outside Jerusalem, and that Jews would never control Jerusalem again:
I did enough to complete my task when I proved from all the prophets that any such observance of ritual outside Jerusalem is a transgression of the Law and sacrilege. But they never stop whispering in everybody’s ear and bragging that they will get their city back again.
Against Salvation by the Law
Chrysostom is on much stronger ground on another area: a firm rejection of both “works of the law” and “faith as a mental state only.” Certain passages read like they could be directly lifted from Reformation-era writers.
That he has justified our race not by right actions, nor by toils, nor by barter and exchange, but by grace alone. Paul, too, made this clear when he aid: “But now the justice of God has been made manifest independently of the Law.” But the justice of God comes through faith in Jesus Christ and not through any labor and suffering.”
as well as:
All, then, who run to Christ are saved by his grace and profit from his gift. But those who wish to find justification from the Law will also fall from grace. They will not be able to enjoy the King’s loving-kindness because they are striving to gain salvation by their won efforts; they will draw down on themselves the curse of the Law because from the works of the Law no flesh will find justification,
While others appear to be as “Catholic” as one would expect from this Catholic bishop, 600 years before the schism between east and west:
For their is one defense left to sinners after they have sinned: to confess their sins.
Your good deeds will not only bring praise to you but also rapid release from your sickness. The nobility of your choice will win God to even greater good will; all the saints will rejoice at what you have done; they will pray for you from the bottom of their hearts.
The solution of course is that faith and faithfulness were not distinguished in Greek. Indeed, Chrysostom specifically preaches on the parable of the three servants to make that point. In this parable, a rich man gave us servants money to spend or invest. A foolish servant, who did not try to make any profit, was condemned by the rich man.
Like Paul in The Letter to the Romans, Chrysostom believes that laboring for Christ is categorically distinct from “works of the Law,” a legalistic interpretation of the Torah aimed at maintaining a distinctive Jewish ethnic identity as a matter of religion. The Greek word translated as “faith” or “believe” in English, ” pistis, also means “faithfulness” or “allegiance.” For instance, a venture capitalist who provides start-up capital to a new company would call that company’s director “faithful” if he can turn a profit on the money.
Then each of us will be able to hear those happy words: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; because you have been faithful over a few things I will set you over many; enjoy into the joy of your Master’
Both the Apostle Paul and Archbishop Chrysostom assumed what Reformation-era debaters on both side did not realize: the emotionally charged argument over “faith” from the beginning of the modern era was not a question of belief or works, but of whether a divine Rule of Law would save one from a Divine Judge. As in Samuel or Solomon, the answer was obviously not. John Chrysostom, who also wrote in Greek, displayed the same unity of understanding about faith.
And I say to you what Paul said to the Galatians: “Become like me, because I also have become like you.” What does this mean? He was urging them to renounce circumcision, to scorn the Sabbath, the feast days, and all the other observances of the Law.
It is this focus on splittism, dividing up one faith along sectarian lines, that drove both Paul’s and Chrysostom’s attacks on reforming Judaizers of their day. I suspect Chrysostom shares my view of both the Catholic-Orthodox split, and the Protestant Reformation:
Moreover, the first thing I have to say to the Judaizers is that nothing is worse than contentiousness and fighting, than tearing the Church asunder and rending into many parts the robe which the robbers did not dare to rip.
Fasting at tiffs or that time is not a matter for blame. But to rend asunder the Church, to be ready for rivalry, to create dissension, to rob oneself continuously of the benefits of religious meetings — these are unpardonable, these do demand an account, these do deserve serious punishment.
So let me finish my discourse at this point, and let us all pray together that our brothers come back to us. Let us pray that they cling fondly to peace and stand apart from untimely rivalry.
Like the money in that parable, good works can produce interest beyond their initial investment.
If somebody else does what you did, you will carry off the reward because it was you who gave him his start, it is you whom he emulated.
The goal of allegiance of Christ is not the ritual celebration of festivals or yearly fasting. These may be tools, but they are not the goal. The goal is to imitate Christ
Why are you a Christian? Is it not that you may imitate Christ and obey his Laws? What did Christ do? He did not sit in Jerusalem and call the sick to come ot him. he went around to cities and towns and cured sickness of both body and soul.
No fasting, no sleeping on the ground, no watching and praying all night, nor anything else can do as much for you as saving your brother can accomplish.
Writing before the debates over the Reformation, and being able to span them through his fluent Greek, he also cuts through another debate: does justification occur organically (by a change in our soul — implying the need for a state or place or cleansing if our soul is not sufficiently clean upon death) or mechanistically (where sins are simply not counted, due to Christ’s saving blood.)
The answer is both, and much more:
To show that David made this whole prophetic prediction in behalf of Christ when he said ‘Sacrifice and oblation you id not desire,’ David went on to say: ‘But a body you have fitted for me.’ By this he meant the Lord’s body which became our common sacrifice for the whole world, the sacrifice which cleansed our soul, canceled our sin, put down death, opened heaven, gave us great many hopes, and made ready all other things which Paul knew well and spoke of when he explained: ‘Oh, the depth of the riches and of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God! How incomprehensible are his judgments and how unsearchable are his ways!’
Against Sin, but for the Sinner
Augustine and Chrysostom go by different ways to build empathy. Augustine’s methods are self-centered — you learn about his childhood, his parents, his job, his friends. Reading Confessions feels like meeting a new friend. The Catholic Church’s strong history of protecting Jews as an intellectual community doubtless owes a lot to Augustine’s personal struggle. It’s one thing ot say that serious interpretation of the Old Testament is necessary to understand Christianity — its another to see a Doctor of the Church reject Christianity as incoherent until Jewish hermenutics are introduced to him!
Chrysostom is completely different. After reading Eight Homilies I don’t know how old he is, how he became Christian, what his friends like to do, or how he came to his opinions. From Chrysostom you can hear the same Christian humanist voice that Pope Francis uses so well in our own day
A human being is worth more than the whole world. Heaven and earth and sea and sun and stars were made for his sake.
John also provides the best homily over the story of Cain and Abel that I ever encountered. Though he uses the Septuagint Bible, which translates some context different, it is so moving:
“Even so, Cain did not listen, he did not stop, he did commit that murder, he did bathe his hands in blood from his brother’s throat. But then what happened? God did not say: ‘Let him go now. What further use in there of in helping him. He did commit the murder, he did slay his brother….’
God neither said nor did anything like that. Instead, he came again to him, corrected him, and said: ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ When Cain said he did not know, God still did not desert him but he brought him, in spite of himself, to admit what he had done…
‘I have committed a sin too great for pardon, defense, or forgiveness; if it is your will to punish my crime, I shall lie exposed to every harm because your helping hand has abandoned me.’ And what did God do then? He said ‘Not so! Whoever kills Cain shall be punished sevenfold!… For the number seven in the Scriptures means an indefinitely large number..
And Cain himself became a better man again. His trembling, his fear, the mental torment which never left him, his physical paralysis kept him, as it were, shackled. They kept him from leaping again to any other dead of boldness; they constantly reminded him of his former crime; through them he achieved greater self-control in his soul.”
This focus on pastoral service to individual sinners would largely be lost in the west until it was revived by the Friars. I wonder if this remained in the East and, if so, if its loss in the west was a result of Augustine’s autobiographical (and thus, self-centric) style).
Chrysostom also is aware he is speaking to multiple audiences simultaneously. For instance, as Patriarch of Constantinople he has priests reporting to him. But as the foremost pastor of Constantinople he is also responsible for the souls of the common people. And as a literary figure his words would be read for centuries.
So he is careful to provide a hermeneutic key, or statement that is literally true, true in context, and true in how the document as a whole should be interpreted. Thus, threats of damnation or Hell must be read as a way to help people act better, and not a sign that God forgets about them
Mothers who love their children also do this: when their children cry, they often threaten to throw them to the jaws of wolves. Of course, they would not throw them to the wolves but they say they will to stop the children from bothering them. Everything Christ did was done to keep us bound together and living at peace with one another.
And just as God came down and was closest to Cain, the emotional meaning of the text is closest to the common believer. While Chrysostom was a pivotal father of not just Christianity in general, but of Orthodox branch in particular, he is careful to praise the common believer, and even flatter him, for good works
If you pour out many words and do everything in your power and still see that he refuses to heed you, then bring him to the priest. By the help of God’s grace the priests will surely overcome their quary. But it will all be your doing, because it was you who took his hand and led him to us.
For Understanding of the Gospel
Like his contemporary Augustine, John Chrysostom appears heavily influenced by Platonic and neo-Platonic philosophy. Thus he looks forward to heaven, correctly, but his goal appears to the pure spiritual life of heaven rather than a reincarnated life on the New Earth
He knew their obstinancy and shamelessnessm, their willfulness and disobedience; he knew that they would not easily choose to give up their former way of life, conducted with sacrifices and burnt offerings, and go toward the higher, more spiritual life of the Gospels
Indeed, Chrysostom appears to believe the “New Earth” is simply a metaphor for a heaven where our old friends the planets no longer exist
We are citizens of a city above in heaven, where there are no months, no sun, no moon, no circle of seasons.
The city had no need of the sun or of the moon to shine in it, for the glory of God illuminated it. The Lamb is its light. Revelation 21:23
Now, a lot is going on in this question. St. Thomas Aquinas spends considerable time on it in Summa Theologica. But that the sun is simply a lamp, and in bright places there is no need for it, is hard to agree with. Bright artificial lights can even now evenly illuminate indoor rooms more usefully than the sun. It does not mean the sun is not our Brother, or that we are not happy to be with him.
That said, some of Chrysostom’s inferences are thought provoking. When I first began writing these impressions, I thought that Chrysostom’s conlusion
We read: “Seventy weeks are cut short for your people, no longer does God say: “for my people.”
referring to this passage…
“Seventy weeks are determined
For your people and for **your holy city,
To finish the transgression,
To make an end of sins,
To make reconciliation for iniquity,
To bring in everlasting righteousness,
To seal up vision and prophecy,
And to anoint the Most Holy. Daniel 9:24*
…seemed arbitrary, until I read the whole chapter, and saw “your people” and “your city” parralleled Daniel’s prayer to God.
“O Lord, according to all Your righteousness, I pray, let Your anger and Your fury be turned away from Your city Jerusalem, Your holy mountain; because for our sins, and for the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and Your people are a reproach to all those around us.
In this context, Gabriel is literally repeating the phrase, but turning its meaning around. I feel like I did the first time I realized cities could be not just holy, but sacred. I don’t agree with Chrysostom’s inteprtation, but he translates correctly and is striking in his explanation.
Wholly absent from Chrysostom’s interpretation are attempts to explain away Bible verses through allegory. This both helps him and hurts him. Famously, Augustine suspected both the “whales” (from the Book of Jonah) and the “fishes” (from the Gospels) were symbols of what actually appeared:
Therefore will I speak before Thee, O Lord, what is true, when ignorant men and infidels (for the initiating and gaining of whom the sacraments of initiation and great works of miracles are necessary, which we believe to be signified under the name of “fishes” and “whales”) undertake that Thy servants should be bodily refreshed, or should be otherwise succoured for this present life, although they may be ignorant wherefore this is to be done, and to what end; neither do the former feed the latter, nor the latter the former; for neither do the one perform these things through a holy and right intent, nor do the other rejoice in the gifts of those who behold not as yet the fruit
As the Scriptures are composed of many genre, this means that sometimes that each hermeneutical approach is acceptable at times. The Book of Jonah reads like a comedy, if not a satire, and an allegorical explanation is only natural. Augustine’s attempts to explain away the miracles of the Gospels, though, perhaps are less admirable.
In Biblical times, a “covenant” was an instrument of surrender” dictated by the triumphant power to the weaker power, demanding allegiance in exchange for grace and justification. Contemporary Jews believe there are two operative Covenants in the Hebrew Bible — the Mosaic Covenant and the older Noahide Covenant through which God justifies the gentiles. Many Christians argue the complement, that the Mosaic Covenant is itself complemented by the new and everlasting covenant. Numerous other covenants, both secular and religious, can be identified.
But Chrysostom and Dumbrell make almost opposite errors. Dumbrell insists there is only one covenant. Chrysostom states that while there were old, they have been abrogated and only the new is operational.
Previously saying, “Sacrifice and offering, burnt offerings, and offerings for sin You did not desire, nor had pleasure in them” (which are offered according to the law), then He said, “Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God.” He takes away the first that He may establish the second. By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. Hebrews 10:8-10
What is “the first.” The clear meaning is “Sacrifice and offering burn offerings, and offerings for sin.” The second is doing God’s will — having lived faith. Chrysostom (incorrectly identifying the author of Letter to the Hebrews as Paul) writes:
In expalnation of this text Paul said: ‘He annuls the first covenant in order to establish the second.’
Dumbrell goes to the other extreme, arguing there is only one covenant in the entire Bible.
“What this means in real terms is that there is only one biblical covenant, with the end to be reached from the beginning always in view.”
William Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation, pg. 8
For Celebration of the Mysteries
In keepng with the Orthodox tradition he would help found, Chrysostom calls Catholic sacraments “mysteries”:
If you approach the altar on the very day of the Sabbath and your conscience be bad, you fail to share in the mysteries and you leave without celebrating the Pasch. But if you wash away your sins and share in the mysteries today, you do celebrate the Pasch in precisely the proper way.
Yet Chrysostom implicitly seems to focus on the need for excitement by the congregation. Though he never explicitly says it, Chrysostom appears to be grant the Judaizers a great compliment: their mass is more accessible to an illiterate or marginal population. He specifically calls out the popularity of Jewish-type rituals for women:
For indeed, I know that most of the crowd that is drawn to go there is composed of women. Now then, the blessed Paul says, “husbands, love your wives”; and again, “The wife should fear her husband.” But I am seeing neither wives’ fear nor husbands’ love.
As well as other marginal populations and social outcasts:
But now that the devil summons your wives to the feast of the Trumpets and the turn a ready ear to this call, you do not restrain the, You let them entangle themselves in accusations of ungodliness, you let them be dragged off into licentious ways. For as a rule, it is the harlots, the effeminates, and the whole chorus from the the theater who rush to that festival.
At least part of the reason is the Jewish-typical festivals are more musical, and more ngaging
But you dsire to hear a trumpet! Then listen to the trumpet of Paul, the spiritual trumpet blaring out from the heavens and saying, “Take up the full armor of God.”
Having once attended a Messianic Synagogue with a friend, these strengths of Judaeo-Christian festivals can still be seen. In the Eastern Churches, John Chrysostom is still credited with having created the contemporary Orthodox Liturgy. The Orthodox Style, with its beauty and ritual, may owe much to Chrysostom’s need to compete with what we would now call a form of Messianic Judaism.
John Chrysostom’s Eight Homilies Against the Jews is a complex book. The repeated claim, that the Jews are to blame for the death of Christ, has been explicitly rejected since the Counter-Reformation by the Catholic Church. Perhaps the greatest Greek-speaking Christian intellectual since Paul, Chrysostom’s focus on face, grace, and imitation of Christ help us under salvation by allegiance to Christ, and not the Law. He humanize the Gospel, focusing on God’s love for the sinner and our need to care for each other. He provides a straight-forward, but not literal, interpretation of the scriptures that is a good complement to Augustine’s methods. And of course, he is the father of the Orthodoxy Liturgy.
Summary: The word most Bibles translate as “fide,” “faith,” or “belief” is better translated as “faithfulness” or “allegiance.” Phrases like “repent and believe in me” are offers of amnesty to defeated enemies, who are given the opportunity to join the winning army. Paul was contrasting loyalty to a King with a legalistic parsing of his rules — ain’t no rule of law on the battlefield. The Reformation-era argument over “Faith alone” was a consequence of arguing in Ecclesiastic Latin over translations in Vulgate Latin of Greek terms.
I then called Jesus to me by himself, and told him, that I was not a stranger to that treacherous design he had against me, nor was I ignorant by whom he was sent for; that, however, I would forgive him what he had done already, if he would repent of it, and be faithful to me hereafter.”
Titus Flavius Josephus, The Life of Josephus, circa AD 99
“When I asked my counselors how this might be accomplished, Haman — who excels among us in sound judgment, and is distinguished for his unchanging goodwill and steadfast fidelity, and has attained the second place in the kingdom— Additions to Esther 13:3
Three phrases summarize much of the Protestant Reformation — Faith Alone! Grace Alone! Scripture Alone! But the translation of these Hebrew Greek concepts — especially pistis as ‘Faith’ or ‘Fide’ and charis as “Grace” or “Gracia” — hide as much of the original meaning as they reveal. For example. the word translated as “fidelity” in describing the evil minister Haman — pistis — is the same word that is translated as “faith” or “belief” when used by Paul in the New Testament.
In Salvation by ALlegiance Alone: rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King, Matthew Bates argues that both sides of the debate around the Protestant Reformation were overly reliant on Latin translations of Paul that did not accurately capture his meaning. That the Catholic faith was proclaimed in Latin, and the Protestant battle cries of Sola Fide and Sola Gracia were in Latin (a language that Paul did not write in, even when writing to Rome) and not in Greek (the language Paul actually used) greatly mislead both sides about the actual meaning of the Paul’s letters on faith and grace.
In short, Bates argues that Jesus and Paul use an extended military-religious analogy of a militant church. Christ is a conquering King. He has gracefully offered us not only terms of surrender, but a position in his military. We must be like Marines seperated from our main force by an enemy counter-attack: wise enough to understand the comamnder’s intent of the orders we received, and faithful to our God and our King. Indeed, “faith” or pistis means loyalty in the practical sense. In the Third Book of Maccabees (which whether or not it is Scripture, shows how Greek was written and understood in the classical Near east) is given by Jews to a foreign royal house!
While these plans were being put into action, some people plotted to injure the Jewish nation by circulating a hostile report against them on the pretext that the Jews were hindering others from practicing their own customs. But the Jews were maintaining goodwill and unswerving loyalty toward the royal house. 3 Maccabees 3:2-3
Of course, orders can be interpreted in bad “faith” (where the commander’s intent is malicious ignored), in order to provide a corrupted allegiance. Orders might also be followed without understanding (where the literally execution without reference to commander’s intent can lead to a disastrous outcome). In this, Paul (a former rabbi and a student of famous rabbis) would strongly agree with Rabbi Federow’s defense of rabbinical law: the point is not that a dead body, or bacon, or what-have-you is intrinsically evil, but it is ladder that one can climb actual virtue. Which is to say, we go to boot camp before we can follow the King on the battlefield. Or, as Paul said
But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. Galatians 3:23-24
So Esther was taken to King Ahasuerus, into his royal palace, in the tenth month, which is the month of Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign. The king loved Esther more than all the other women, and she obtained grace and favor in his sight more than all the virgins; so he set the royal crown upon her head and made her queen instead of Vashti. Then the king made a great feast, the Feast of Esther, for all his officials and servants; and he proclaimed a holiday in the provinces and gave gifts according to the generosity of a king. Esther 2:16-18
Just as the word we read as “Faith” in Greek is pistis, or “Allegiance,” the word we read as “Grace is charis, or gift. But Bates argues that the nature of this “gift” is misunderstood on both a personal and a corporate level. Personally, “faith” is from “grace” precisely because we are offered the opportunity to join a conquering army.
When General Josephus said to the rebel commander, “Repent, and have allegiance in me” he was offering the rebel commander the gift, or grace, of joining his army. This did not mean the rebel had to do nothing. Rather, it mean the alternative to doing the right thing was death. Accept the gift of the opportunity of demonstrating allegiance, or be put to the sword.
Recognizing that Christians are members (distinct specialized units) in the Body of Christ further resolves another Reformation-era controversy. Who is the “us” that is predestined?
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved.
In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace 8 which He made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence, having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him.
In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, that we who first trusted in Christ should be to the praise of His glory. Ephesians 1:3-12
The answer: The Body of Christ, the Church: those that work for him
And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified. Romans 8:28-30
Bates argues that every New Testament verse that speaks of pre-election is corporate, not individual, and is identifying the Conquering Army which the Conquering King leads. Given either bravery or cowardice, any individual can enter or leave an army as he wishes. But the Army has been chosen. The Body of Christ cannot possibly turn away, the military will not ever be dissuaded. But any individual soldier may come and go.
But now indeed there are many members, yet one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary. And those members of the body which we think to be less honorable, on these we bestow greater honor; and our unpresentable parts have greater modesty, but our presentable parts have no need. But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it, that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.
Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually. 1 Corinthians 12:20-27
But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command brought by his eunuchs; therefore the king was furious, and his anger burned within him.
Then the king said to the wise men who understood the times, for this was the king’s manner toward all who knew law and justice Esther 1:12-13
While Allegiance Alone is a fascinating defense and reinterpretation of “Faith Alone” and “Grace Alone,” the equally Protestant demand of “Scripture Alone” is not present. In one way this is because the theology of Matthew Blake is Christ-centered. The entire book is outlined with the key that the Apostles Creed is the key to understanding the entire Gospel. He considers the Creed, it the equivalence of the Pledge of Allegiance, emphasizing that “believe” in contemporary English is best understood as pistis — allegiance. As the Son is the enthroned King of the Universe, our pledge of allegiance to Him is particularly important:
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
If Sola Fide means we are saved only by our Allegiance, and Sola Gracia reminds us we only have the opportunity to be allegiant because the new King invited us to His Army, what might be the resolution to Sola Scriptura, Scripture Alone?
Perhaps, that it contains the entirety of our general orders, which kept us under guard until the Transfiguration. The presense of Moses, Elijah, Peter, James, and John for the declaration of the Rule of the Son is the most monumental event in the history of the Kingdom of Israel…
Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; and He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid. But Jesus came and touched them and said, “Arise, and do not be afraid.” Matthew 17:1-7
… since the similar announcement about David’s son, Solomon:
Then King David answered and said, “Call Bathsheba to me.” So she came into the king’s presence and stood before the king. And the king took an oath and said, “As the Lord lives, who has redeemed my life from every distress, just as I swore to you by the Lord God of Israel, saying, ‘Assuredly Solomon your son shall be king after me, and he shall sit on my throne in my place,’ so I certainly will do this day.”
Then Bathsheba bowed with her face to the earth, and paid homage to the king, and said, “Let my lord King David live forever!”
And King David said, “Call to me Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet, and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada.” So they came before the king. The king also said to them, “Take with you the servants of your lord, and have Solomon my son ride on my own mule, and take him down to Gihon. 1 Kings 1:28-33
Christianity did not produce a new religion, but revealed historical changes in the history of the unfolding and divinely ordained Kingdom of Israel. The requirements are the same as they have always been. Allegiance to God. What has changed is the historical circumstances. As the true King announced Solomon was the true King, God Himself commanded the disciples to hear Christ.
For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.” But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for “the just shall live by faith.” Yet the law is not of faith, but “the man who does them shall live by them.” Galatians 3:10-11
‘Cursed is the one who does not confirm all the words of this law by observing them.’
“And all the people shall say, ‘Amen!’ Deuteronomy 27:26
Bates says what Paul calls “works of the law” are dangerous, because they attempt a legalistic minimal effort to obey the maximum number of orders, ignoring the Commander’s Intent. The problem with a Law-based approach is that perfectly acceptable clarifying questions, such as how we are to determine who is in active collaboration with the Enemy, given the order to deescalate conflicts with both restless locals and irregulars
But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away. Matthew 5:39-42
Yet, any sailor or marine who asked follow-up questions about general orders such as:
Regarding ‘fraternizing with the enemy,’ in what circumstance smight I be allowed to regularly communicate with officers on the general staff of the enemy?
What, specifically, is the definition of treason? Does it depend on being paid for working against our army? If so, how much?
Such a sailor may not actuall ybe afithful at all!
Earlier I emphasized the same point by a World War II analogy — A “Covenant” is literally an Instrument of Surrender, a “Law” is a “General Order,” and the Conqueror is both the judge and jury over any questions of whether or not you were properly steadfast and followed commander’s intent in executing those orders.
Allegiance Alone is a fascinating book. It fits in with a cluster of books which seek a military/political interpretation of the life of Christ without reducing Jesus to a politician. Rather, all argue the certain types seen in the Old Testament — such as the Kingdom, the King, the Prime Minister, the Queen Mother. We are soldiers in a militant church. And our retirement benefits sound pretty good: we may even good cushy jobs managing angels.
We just passed the 500th anniversary of the protestant reformation, specifically the rupturing of communion between a largely Germanic northern Europe and a largely Romance southern Europe. In some areas, like the nature of the miraculous appearance of the body and blood of Christ in Holy Communion, it seems there was no real disagreement at all, but differently ways of describing the same mystery. In other areas, of course, there were and are disagreements. The New Perspective on Paul, a largely Protestant movement to better understand Paul by paying attention to the meaning of Greek words and phrases Paul used (instead of relying on later Latin commentaries) may have opened up another area of agreement.
In modern terms, a Dominican monk named Paul Christiani sued for the right to preach in Jewish synagogues. This lead to a public trial, with Paul as the plaintiff, Nachmanides, a respected local rabbi as defendant, and King James I as judge. But part of the legal argument was this: Jews already accepted Jesus a Christ, synagogues were crypto-Jewish churches, and this could be proven using only Jewish religious texts! This con-texts used are fascinating, as not only excludes New Testament letters to the Jews (such as Matthew andHebrews) and pre-Hebraic sources (Stories from Ancient Canaan, Assembly of the Gods) were excluded, the trial intentionally added texts not typically part of Christian hermeneutics — the Babylonian Talmud.
And thus, the first wrinkle: for Paul Christiani was an adult Jewish convert to Catholocism. He had a literate, adult understanding of Judaism as it was actually practiced and believed, not simply an academics understanding of the Hebrew parts of the bible. The Jewish tradition Peter and Paul learned including not only the Hebrew Bible (which makes up the bulk of the Catholic Old Testament), but also the Talmud, including oral laws not written down in the written Torah, explanations and rulings on those laws, as analysis and commentaries.
In these impressions I will describe the most fascinating part for me, wonder about the Friar’s and the Rabbi’s actual views of the Talmud, and note some arguments that I had expected to read from both Paul and Nahmanides, but which were not included in the disputation.
Possible the most fascinating paragraph is one in Nahmanides’ account, describing Paul’s use of the Talmud during the disputation. Paul seeks Talmudic support for the notion that the Messiah was born in the first century:
Friar Paul then claimed that in the Talmud it is said that the messiah has already come.
He adduced the story in Midrash Lamentations concerning a man who was plowing and whose ox lowed. An Arab passed and said to him:
“Jew, Jew, unhitch your ox, unhitch your ploughshare, unhitch your plough for the Temple has been destroyed.”
He unhitched his ox, unhitched his ploughshare, and unhitched his plough. The ox lowed a second time. The Arab said to him:
“Hitch up your ox, hitch up your ploughshare, hitch up your plough, for your messiah has been born.”
I responded: “I do not believe in this story at all, but it is a proof for my view.”
He then cried out: “Behold he denies their books.”
I learned a lot from this simple exchange. First, that the end of the Second Temple period was not only traumatic for Judaism, but also (for at least some Jews) led to a sustained belief that the Messiah was born… and that belief was in someone other than Jesus. I had never heard this, and it emphasizes the point that Judaism is not “just” the Judaism of Jesus’s day — it was not static.
I wonder what was Frair Paul’s view of the Talmud. Was he using it simply as a rhetorical device? Or as a Jewish convert to Christianity, did he believe that it was an authentic if culturally distinct part of the Christian religion — analogous to the view of some Christians toward Messianic Judaism. Likewise, from what I can read online, Nachmanides is famous not just for his role in the disputation, but also for his in-depth criticism of the famed Jewish scholar Maimonides, as well as his work on the Kabbalah. He also seems to have had a complicated relationship with the Talmud — one I barely am aware of. I am reminded of my experience reading The Syrio-Aramaic Reading of the Interpretation of the Koran, which page after page reminded me of the the deep linguistic/historical/cultural/religious foundations I do not have.
Both Friar Paul and Rabbi Nachmanides fail to make claims that I to me seem obvious for their positions. For example, take the part of the disputation where Friar Paul is arguing for Talmudic support to the idea that the LORD would be incarnate among men:
Again he returned [to his previous line of argument] and brought evidence from the Midrash where they said: “It is written, ‘And I will walk among you (Leviticus 26:12). They likened this [example] to one it resembles, [about] a king who went out for a walk with his laborer in his orchard, but the laborer hid himself. The king asked, ‘Why do you hide, for behold, I am like you.’ In the same manner, in the future, the Holy One, blessed is He, will walk in the Garden of Eden among the righteous, who will be afraid of Him, in the future to come. The Holy One, blessed is He, will say: ‘Why do you tremble before me? I am like you. I will be your God, and you shall be My people (Leviticus 26:12).’ Since God said, ‘I am like you,’ it shows he turned into a man, like them.”
An omission made by Friar Paul is puzzling to me. It seems significant, but neither the Latin nor Hebrew accounts of the disputation include any reference to the “Angel of the LORD,” which would appear to be an obvious place to make such a claim in the Hebrew Bible. The “Angel of the LORD” appears both anthropomorphic but also speaks as if it was the LORD Himself. But neither party makes an appeal to these references, such as
Then the Angel of the Lord came up from Gilgal to Bochim, and said: “I led you up from Egypt and brought you to the land of which I swore to your fathers; and I said, ‘I will never break My covenant with you. And you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall tear down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed My voice. Why have you done this? Judges 2:1-2
And thus it would seem neither of them found these passages meaningful to this question.
Likewise, I was surprised that Nachmanides never used what is now a common argument within evangelical circles to buttress his case: that the Hebrew Bible intentionally makes it impossible to identify the Christian Messiah — in the contemporary words of the Catholic Church, that “God, the inspirer and author of both Testaments, wisely arranged that the New Testament be hidden in the Old ” (Dei Verbum). The best elucidation of this argument is from Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm, where he argues the secrecy was to prevent those who would harm the Messiah from knowing his identifying too soon. By this logic the Transfiguration (when Moses and Elijah joined a council of Peter, James, and John) around the Messiah was a climactic revelation that could not have been predicted from Hebrew texts alone.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead. Matthew 17:9
The obvious implication of the New Testament being “hidden” and the identity of the Messiah being kept secret is that these cannot be proven from the old revelation alone.
Nevertheless, Friar Paul never takes what seems like an obvious swing in his direction, Rabbi Nachmanides does not take the same swing the other way.
Debating Truth is written an four sections: a comic book style close paraphrase of the disputation, a number of legal documents (including chronologies of the disputation from both sides), a historical section providing context for the disputation, and finally a historiographic analysis of how reliable the different texts actually are. This organization is brilliant. It is easy and fun to read the comic-book close translation of the debate. The original documents provide a post-modern breakdown of the event as seen from Friar Paul, Rabbi Nachmanides, King James, and the Pope, the “context” provides some background primarily on Catalonia and the Jewish community, and histiography raises serious questions about what we actually know about the original documents.
I come to this book having recently read biographies of two famous friars, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis, as well as a Madigan’s history of medieval Christianity. Both focus on the role of the friars in turning to the personal and intellectual experiences, as opposed to the sacraments-alone (at best) or simply corrupt corrupt (at worst) nature of many parishes and monasteries. I would have liked the connection between the revolt of the friars and the disputation to be more clear. Likewise, much more biographical information on Nachmanides and King James is provided than for Friar Paul, and to me this makes for an unbalanced presentation.
Yet the book was striking, incredibly informative, rich in detail and background, and opened my eyes to much I did not know before. What else could I ask! I’m so glad I read this in the paperback edition.
Before last month, I was almost completely ignorant of the Coming of the Friars. After reading about it, I read two more books on the subjects.
The coming of the Friars is the term used in Kevin Madigan’s Medieval Christianity: A New History. It refers to the Catholic revolution in religious life against what had been left of the Monks and the Priests in the Dark Ages. Priests re-presented the Sacrifice of the Lord, monks said prayers and copied books, and there were some monks who were also priests. These were lawful and legitimate, but what was left off was the people, and, sometimes, reverence. Normal people of could would not hear the masses said in monasteries, and in the parishes priests often did not bother with homilies. Often this extended to both monks and priests either being illicitly married or at least openly keeping mistresses. Both positions became, to some extent, heritable.
Ironically, G.K. Chesterton sees one cause of this problem as an otherworldly philosophy adopted by many in the church, and based on the writings of St. Augustine. Augustine’s Confessions was so vivid as to his personality this seems odd, but I’m aware of his Neo-Platonist sympathies. Anyway, near the end of Confessions is what I had taken for a garbled pre-psychological attempt to understand the cognitive process Chesterton makes a tremendous deal out of this, and sees it as evidence of a focus on the ideal (what Lewis would call the “hygienic”) over the Creation that God called “good.”
Francis and Thomas were very different men, Chesterton says they are as unique as saints. Chesterton always describes Francis as leaping or in a hurry, and Thomas as plodding — the “dumb ox” his old school nickname. Something of the difference between these two saints can be seen in excerpts from their writings. Both are certainly Christian writings, and indeed they were both revolutionary affirmations of the actual created world ( in contrast to an excessive, disembodied spirtuality), but who could confuse Francis:
Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon
and the stars, in heaven you formed them
clear and precious and beautiful.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene,
and every kind of weather through which
You give sustenance to Your creatures. The Canticle of the Sun
Article 1. Whether Christ should have been circumcised?
Objection 1. It would seem that Christ should not have been circumcised. For on the advent of the reality, the figure ceases. But circumcision was prescribed to Abraham as a sign of the covenant concerning his posterity, as may be seen from Genesis 17. Now this covenant was fulfilled in Christ’s birth. Therefore circumcision should have ceased at once.
Objection 2. Further, “every action of Christ is a lesson to us” [Innoc. III, Serm. xxii de Temp.; wherefore it is written (John 3:15): “I have given you an example, that as I have done to you, so you do also.” But we ought not to be circumcised; according to Galatians 5:2: “If you be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing.” Therefore it seems that neither should Christ have been circumcised.
Objection 3. Further, circumcision was prescribed as a remedy of original sin. But Christ did not contract original sin, as stated above (III:14:3; III:15:1). Therefore Christ should not have been circumcised.
On the contrary, It is written (Luke 2:21): “After eight days were accomplished, that the child should be circumcised.”
Their individuality extends to the least-probable events in their respect lives. Thomas was the cousin of a Holy Roman Emperor, who when he announced his desire to be an abbot, his well-off family effectively bought him a monastery and installed him as abbot. When he became a friar and was on his first mission his brothers, so outraged at the idea of a non-corrupt monk, they kidnapped him and paid to have a harlot seduce him! Leading to perhaps the worst performance evaluation of all time, as the young saint chased the young woman out of his room with a fire poker!
Francis’s actions were on a larger scale, though perhaps to less effect. During the military campaign of the Fifth Crusade (1213-1221) Sultan traveled to Crusader-occupied Egypt, crossed enemy lines, requested and received an audience from the Sultan, and tried (though failed) to convert him to Christianity. The Fifth Crusade was odd for a number of reasons, such as including the (Muslim!) Sultanate of Rum among the Crusader-alliance, but perhaps an analogy would have been a Taoist monk from China travelling to Tokyo during World War II and personally attempting to convert the Emperor from Shintoism — and surviving.
It’s odd both, near the end of their life, had a vivid and disturbing vision. Francis saw a vision of a crucified Seraph — my immediate reaction, and apparently Chesterton’s, was surprise that an Angel could be crucified. (That is, presuming the God-who-became-Man is not also a God-who-became-Angel… the Angel of the LORD. And while Francis’s version is most disturbing only in the context of angelology, Thomas (who knew angelology forwards and backwards) never shared what caused him to remark:
all that I have written seems like straw to me”
It’s somewhat distrubing that both episodes can be specifically dated. Francis saw a six-winged angel on a cross on September 12, 1224. Whatever Thomas saw, he saw on December 6, 1273.
It’s striking how many reformers lived in this period. Francis (1181-1226) and Thomas (1225-1274) were, barely, contemporaries. The Pope who Francis begged to recognize his order, Pope Innocent III (1198-126), who transformed the Papacy into a weak plaything of stronger powers and brought two empires to heel, was too. Saint Dominic (1170-1221), who founded the Dominicans and who was vital in the Albigensian Crusade, met Francis before Francis traveled to the Arab world to attempt to personally convert the Sultan. Later all of these men would lead to a degeneration in another age of reform. But the reform of these men was continuous, it did not break Christian unity, even under the dangerous shoals of human corruption and weakness.
These two volumes are probably the best works by G.K. Chesterton I have read. They are far better than Heretics(1905) and Orthodoxy (1908). The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) was very good, but it is a short spy thriller/satire — a very different genre. The closest book in terms of subject and quality is his reflection on the importance of Jesus Christ — The Everlasting Man (1925) — but Chesterton does a better job explaining the historical significance of Saint Francis (1923) and Saint Thomas (1933) than he does of the Lord.
The Dragons of Tiananmen was the most meaningful and emotional book in the last year. I can’t guarantee anyone else will have the experience. My visits to Beijing, including one where I attempted to visit all the Imperial Altars (not all are open to the public), and my recent attempt to understand the Hebrew Bible and the Gospel, play a role here.
In short, The Dragons of Tiananman describe the life of the now-dead Chinese Imperial Religion, how the Emperors created Beijing as a Sacred City, and how the Lord of Heaven and his creatures were worshiped there.
The organization of the book is straight forward. Meyer first describes Holy Cities (cities which are religiously important because of historical events that happened in them) and Sacred Cites (those which are religiously important because they are designed to reflect heaven). He then outlines the Chinese Imperial Religion, centered on the Most-High (??), the Lord of Heaven(??). The Chinese word for Emperor (?) itself derives from characters meaning “Pole,” which is fitting because God was associated with the Pole Star, around whom all other stars revolved. In later days some Christians would find this idolatrous — future Chinese President Sun Yat-Sen famously smashed an idol of the Pole Star in his youth. Other Christians theorized a partial discovery or revelation to the Chinese in ancient days, as attested by Matteo Ricci’s The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven (AD 1603) and C.H. Kang’s The Discovery of Genesis (AD 1979).
As I read The Dragons of Tiananmen I thought back to the Chronicles, that sad record of the degeneration of the Temple in the Kingdom of Israel. There are parallels, both in how the capital (whether Jerusalem or Beijing) became a “sacred city,” in the nature and style of the sacrifices, and even in some ritualistic debates. But Temple Judaism was saved through the Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the like) and their insistence that the law be written in the heart. The Imperial Religion was not written in the heart — at least, not in the end. Just as other gods than the LORD were worshiped in Jerusalem, other Gods than the Lord of Heaven were worshiped by Emperors. There were Buddhist Emperors and Taoist Emperors, and mayn more indifferent Emperors. When the Babylonians dragged the Jews into exile, the religion of the LORD survived in spite of the corruption of the temple in Jerusalem. When the revolutionaries dragged down the Great Qing, no one was left to mourn the end of the sacrifice.
Both Jerusalem and Beijing were “sacred cities,” in the sense the were intended to be house of a Temple and the site of an Altar. The primary worship site in Jerusalem was the Temple built by Solomon. The primary worship site was the Altar of Heaven, built by the Yongle Emperor. Both religions held that God was surrounded and assisted by a heavenly communion, comprised of both a military Host of Heaven as well as a civilian counterpart. While Judaism in general rejected worship of the Host of Heaven, the repeated condemnations of this practice in the Scriptures imply the Host was still often worshiped. The Chinese Imperial religion, by contrast, formalized the worship of lessor spirits, through such subsidiary alters as the Alter of the Moon and the Alter of the Goddess of Silkworms.
Both Temple Judaism and Chinese Imperial religion faced the same dilemma: should God be worshipped in doors? God himself presents both sides of the argument in the Hebrew bible, rejecting the House built of cedar
Now it came to pass when the king was dwelling in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies all around, that the king said to Nathan the prophet, “See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells inside tent curtains.”
Then Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that is in your heart, for the Lord is with you.”
But it happened that night that the word of the LORD came to Nathan, saying, “Go and tell My servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD: “Would you build a house for Me to dwell in? 6 For I have not dwelt in a house since the time that I brought the children of Israel up from Egypt, even to this day, but have moved about in a tent and in a tabernacle. 2 Samuel 7:1-6
but later, walls of cedar were not so bad:
Then the word of the LORD came to Solomon, saying: “Concerning this temple which you are building, if you walk in My statutes, execute My judgments, keep all My commandments, and walk in them, then I will perform My word with you, which I spoke to your father David. And I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will not forsake My people Israel.”
So Solomon built the temple and finished it. And he built the inside walls of the temple with cedar boards; from the floor of the temple to the ceiling he paneled the inside with wood; and he covered the floor of the temple with planks of cypress. 1 Kings 6:11-15
; likewise the Chinese held both that “when one sacrifices on an open altar, it is considered the worship of heaven, while sacrifice under a roof is considered the worship of imperial ancestors,” while later holding than an “outdoor” Altar could nonetheless be surrounded by building. To this day the Altar of Prayers for Good Harvest is made of Oregon fir. The Christian religion also finds a middle ground here, for while the Sacrifice on Cavalry was of course out-side, its re-presentation (and even pre-presentation) in Lord’s Supper is of course indoors
But being celestial and purely “priestly,” the Chinese Imperial Religion did not have a moral core. The sons of the current dynasty may be elected, as surely as Saul or David or Cyrus were, but there were no Imperial prophets who called for the law to be written on the hearts, or warned that Heaven would scourge Chinese with foreigners in the way Israel was punished. Puyi, the Xuantong Emperor, may have been on worse than King Jeconiah. But the Book of Kings hopefully notes a King of Israel still lives, even if far away. Who looked to the Manchus to return?
The Chinese Imperial Religion, like Judaism, had Kings and Priests. But no prophets.
This strikes me as really important. The Gospel of Matthew is the story of what the Imperial Religion would call the “Mandate of Heaven” passing to Jesus. The relationship of the Son of Heaven and Most High is likewise a feature of the Imperial Religion. But Christianity provided other dimensions to that story, the salvation of souls and bodies, concern for the weak, and spiritual introspection. While Imperial China had similar writings, the Imperial Religion did not. And that four-fold gospel itself depended on the four-fold destruction of the Temple in books like Lamentations and Ezekiel — in the Imperial Religion the overthrow of a dynasty was always the cause of the end of the dynasty, not the stern but love care of God.
Chesterton is a Catholic author, but his argument here is effectively secular: before Christianity there were mythologies in the sense of epic stories about the gods, and there were philosophies that provided an outline of the universe and a moral framework, but no mythic philosophy. Plato may have talked about Forms, in other words, while the priests sacrificed to Zeus, but no serious attempt was to combine these concepts. Thus, the New Testament is truly new, the “good news” really is news, because while dictatorship, democracy, art, puns, cosmology, and all the rest reach beyond history, the combinations of the roles of the Priest and the Philosopher have a definite beginning, in first century Palestine
While Judaism approaches this with The Wisdom Books and early rabinnical commentaries, it was not a religion with any Holy Cities, but only Sacred Cities. Meyer makes a distinction between a “Sacred City” intended to house an Altar for sacrifice, and a “Holy City” upon which divine figures trod. Beijing was only a Sacred City, but in Christianity it became a Holy City. Indeed, the life, death, and resurrection of Christ occurred in and around Jerusalem, just as the Imperial Religion sacrifices were made in and around Beijing. But there is even more to it than that.
The Dragons of Tiananmen helped framing my thinking about Beijing. Being both a sacred and planned city it had an architecture unity which was damaged over time. The Temple of the Moon is marked “NOW GONE” in a mark from before the Communist Revolution, and part of the old City Wall was knocked down for a railway line during the last days of the Emperor. In more recent days the widening of Changan Boulevard re-oriented the city along a definite east-west axis, while only recently have the old temples been respected at all. The Beijing that I first fell in love with was itself a Beijing in transition. Most of the hutongs I suspect are now gone. Jerusalem survived the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Arabs. Will the city of the Alter of Heaven and quiet neighborhoods survive this long?
The Weight of Glory (AD 1942) and Letters to Malcolm (AD 1964) are both Christian non-fiction works by CS Lewis, probably the best Christian writer of the 20th century. They are both written in his easy style — though more like one believer exchanging notes with another rather than tools for conversion — and both are relatively short. But more than a generation separate their publications, and in that time Lewis honed his craft. Yet they are the work of the same man. They are reflections — transpositions or projections — of the same mind.
The cover for Letters to Malcolm shown above contains part of the Flower of Life, one of the many shadows a hypercube onto a 2 dimensional surface. A hypercube, when unfolded onto 3 dimensions, makes the shape of a cross. Our human brains are not evolved to understand 4-Dimensional entities, so all the graphics in this post are different ways of translating what a cube of cubes means onto a computer page. In both of these books, C.S. Lewis tries to project man’s relationship with God, or at least the hyperdimensional nature of God’s presence, onto paper.
The Weight of Glory is a collection of nine lectures, but the central core is #4, “Transposition,” an accessible guide to an abstract theological issue. Letters to Malcolm may be the finest writing Lewis ever produced — it only appears to be straight-forward, but is as strong and subversive a defense of Christianity as St Augustine’s Confessions (AD 400).
The most striking line of St Augustine’s writings, to Christians who nowadays bother to read it, is probably this:
Therefore will I speak before Thee, O Lord, what is true, when ignorant men and infidels (for the initiating and gaining of whom the sacraments of initiation and great works of miracles are necessary, which we believe to be signified under the name of “fishes” and “whales”) undertake that Thy servants should be bodily refreshed, or should be otherwise succoured for this present life, although they may be ignorant wherefore this is to be done, and to what end; neither do the former feed the latter, nor the latter the former; for neither do the one perform these things through a holy and right intent, nor do the other rejoice in the gifts of those who behold not as yet the fruit
The context for the bolded section is the chief difficulty that St Augustine had in converting to Christianity: how could an educated, modern world accept the literal truth of the Bible, with its bizarre miracles (Jonah being swallowed by a whale; Christ feeding the multitude with a few fishes and loaves). Augustine’s solution was that these “names” in fact “signify” sacramental truths. While Augustine’s writing is latinate and complex, it appears he does not believe in the literal truth of either miracle.
Without getting into specific historical claims (the general pattern of Biblical literature implies to me the The Book of Jonah is written as a comedy, or at least a satire), Lewis introduces the concept of “transposition.” Lewis means by transposition what geometers mean by “projection” — the translation of an object from a higher dimension to a lower one. For instance, if you had a cube, you could project (or in Lewis’s term, “transpose”) is into a square — that is one correct way of viewing a cube on flat paper. Or you could use perspective, and show that cube as a sequence of angled rectangles. Lewis gives an example of projecting/transposing a beach onto paper by drawing it with pencils.
Thus, lines like “thrones and dominions,” or “on the right hand of the Father,” or (perhaps) “fishes” and “whales” are projects into a lower-dimensional space of higher-dimensional reality. Lewis elides the dimensionality at which this stops. For instance, is it the case that fishes and whales are 3D dimensional projections of higher-dimensionality reality, or (to follow Augustine) are the names fishes and whales themselves the lower-dimensional projection.
“Transposition” is the hermeneutic key of The Weight of Glory. But it’s also the key I think, to Letters to Malcolm, an extremely readable book on the importance of prayer. Transposition matters in thinking about the nature of time. And it matters in thinking about the nature of Scripture.
Christians are told to pray for their “daily bread.” While “thy will be done” might be translated as “… if it’s actually a good idea,” most of us have our own ideas that we are encouraged to pray for. Peace or victory, justice or forgiveness, a raise or a successful relationship. But in many cases a “successful” prayer would require not simply changing the future, but also the past. For instance, if you receive a letter from a lawyer, and you pray it is good news, the only way that pray could “work” is if the prayer succeeded in changing the the past event of composing that letter.
Atheists accuse Christians of thinking they have a a “friend in the sky.” But it is more accurate to say the sky is in Him. In the same way, urgent prayers do not hope for a friendly response in time — they hope for a response for He whom Time is within. Time is not absolute reality, God is.
Let’s put it another way. We are used to logical thinking, such that if something is a square it cannot be a triangle, or a point. But a pyramid is a square on its bottom, a triangle on its side, and a point on its top. These lower-dimensional shapes are projected (or Lewis would say, transposed) from the higher-dimensional object of a pyramid. The drawing of a pyramid on the dollar bill is just one of many projections of a pyramid, including just one of the possibly projections or transpositions of its shapes. Likewise, the hypercube when further unrolled (transposed) onto 3 dimensional space is a cross, and when projected (transposed) head-on, it appears to be composed of five squares. Or any of the other shapes in this blog post.
So when we pray for a miracle, in the past, present or future, we are praying for the projection of time that we see to be in conformance with our request. We are praying for time to be rotated in a specific way, in the way we might rotate a model pyramid to see the triangle, or the square, or the point. And (given the trickiness in rotating all of space-time to change the plane of reality), the phrase “Thy Will be Done” might be understood as “If that’s actually a good idea.”