When the Fullness of Time had Come

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law,  in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.”    (Galatians 4:4-5)

One of the beauties of Orthodox hymnography and theological reflection is the sense of time or perhaps better one might say sense of timelessness.  Beginning with the Feast of Christmas, the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, Orthodox greet each other with the words “Christ IS born!”  The greeting is not past tense, but represents an eternal truth into which we enter.  For the birth of Christ, or more theologically said – the nativity according to the flesh of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ – is the time of the incarnation.  God has entered into time and transforms it into something capable of bearing divinity.

The truth we proclaim at Christmas is not merely a past historical event (Christ WAS born) but rather is the union of God with humanity, God becoming what we are, which was His plan from all eternity.  Christ is born is a truth that does not change with time – the Word of God has become flesh and dwells among us.  The incarnation is not a truth of the past, but a theological truth  which is still vibrant and active in the world.  Salvation like creation is an on-going process, not a one time past event.   Time cannot change what God has done and is doing to unite His creation to Himself.   [Note:  this is also why reading Genesis 1-3 merely as history or science, theologically undervalues the richness of the Scriptures.   As Jesus noted in John 5:17, the Father is working and so the Son is still working too.  Creation is an act  to be celebrated like the birth of Christ:  “Christ IS born” is theologically correct.  Genesis 1-3 introduces us to the dynamic of God’s creation – not a one time event but an on-going reality through which we experience our Creator daily.]

Consider one of the Pre-Feast Hymns of the Nativity (taken from Vespers of December 20):

LET US CELEBRATE, O PEOPLE,

THE PREFEAST OF CHRIST’S NATIVITY!

LET US RAISE OUR MINDS ON HIGH,

IN SPIRIT GOING UP TO BETHLEHEM.

WITH THE EYES OF OUR SOUL, LET US BEHOLD THE VIRGIN

AS SHE HASTENS TO THE CAVE TO GIVE BIRTH TO THE LORD

AND GOD OF ALL.

WHEN JOSEPH FIRST SAW THE MIGHTY WONDER,

HE THOUGHT THAT HE SAW ONLY A HUMAN CHILD WRAPPED IN SWADDLING CLOTHES,

BUT FROM ALL THAT CAME TO PASS HE DISCOVERED THE CHILD

TO BE THE TRUE GOD//

WHO GRANTS THE WORLD GREAT MERCY.

The hymn invites us to the event of Christ’s birth.  We are not asked to remember something that happened 2000 years ago, but rather to enter into the event itself and see the details of the even unfold.  While we will see some human events as they happened historically, we will be lifted up to realize the eternal truth contained in these historical events.  We are to be like Joseph in the hymn who at first sees only the human birth of a child, but then who comes to realize that this child is the incarnate God.   Our celebration of Christmas is not supposed to be just remembering the human events – or having nice warm fuzzies over something we’ve made into nostalgia.   Rather the events are to lift us up to heaven, to the eternal realities they represent, and to the divine dynamics at continuous work in God’s creation.  This is one way that iconography is far superior to a crèche in representing the birth in the flesh of the Son of God.

These same ideas are repeated and reinforced in the next hymn taken from the same Vesper verses:

LET US CELEBRATE, O PEOPLE,

THE PREFEAST OF CHRIST’S NATIVITY;

LET US RAISE OUR MINDS ON HIGH

IN SPIRIT GOING UP TO BETHLEHEM.

LET US BEHOLD THE GREAT MYSTERY IN THE CAVERN,

FOR EDEN IS OPENED ONCE AGAIN,

WHEN GOD COMES FORTH FROM A PURE VIRGIN,

REMAINING THE SAME PERFECT GOD, AND PERFECT MAN.

THEREFORE, LET US CRY ALOUD TO HIM,

HOLY GOD, FATHER WITHOUT BEGINNING,

HOLY MIGHTY, INCARNATE SON,

HOLY IMMORTAL, THE SPIRIT AND COMFORTER,//

HOLY TRINITY, GLORY TO YOU!

Note how we are to raise our minds on high – we are to be heavenly directed not historically directed to the past in contemplating the Christmas story.  This is not an archeological quest in search of the historical Jesus, but a journey of faith we are to make with open eyes to understand the fullness of the event as revealed to us in the Scriptures and through the witness of the disciples.  Historically, yes a human baby was born, but that historical fact shrouds an eternal truth which is also revealed in the Nativity story and in the life of Christ.

Christmas leads us not to an ornament laden tree with colorfully wrapped gifts underneath nor even to historical Bethlehem in the time of Herod the King.   Rather Christmas is a spiritual sojourn in which we “go up” to the heavenly or spiritual reality that is present on earth.  Christmas opens to us the gates leading to the Paradise of Eden.  The fullness of time becomes transfigured into an experience of the timelessness of God.   So if Christmas leads you no further than your Christmas tree, or even to events of 2000 years ago, you’ve got a much more exciting spiritual sojourn ahead.   Look up to God to see where He is leading you.

Reading the Bible: The Treasury of Allegory

This is the 3rd blog in this series, the 1st blog being Reading the Bible Means Opening a Treasury; the 2nd is Reading the Bible: The Treasury of the Parables.

Allegory is an interpretive way to read a biblical text in which things in the text stand for or mean something other than what they literally are.  The New Testament uses allegory as one means to interpret the Old Testament.  For example St. Paul writes in Galatians 4:22-31,   “For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, the son of the free woman through promise. Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar.  Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. Now we, brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise.  But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now.  So, brethren, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.”  In the text Paul interprets the real women Hagar and Sarah to stand for two types of covenants; he interprets the real persons, Hagar and Sarah, to mean something other than just being two women.  This method of interpretation does not deny the literal meaning of the text, but says there is a deeper meaning if you read the text with the right understanding.  If you take the time to study Paul’s allegory, you realize it is quite complex, and far beyond that to which the plain reading of the passage leads.  Because the New Testament does use allegory in interpreting the Old, it has been considered by Christians an acceptable interpretive method for other texts as well.  It was abuses of allegory in interpreting scriptures which caused many Reformers to reject it as a legitimate method of reading the Bible.  Some feel the Reformers reaction is an example of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

 “…whatever language the Fathers use to describe their exegetical practice (and there is no great consistency here), they all interpret Scripture in a way we would call allegorical, and allegoria is the usual word the Latin Fathers use from the fourth century onwards to characterize the deeper meaning they are seeking in the Scriptures.  Some of the Fathers, it is true, attack what they call allegory and its use; but what they are attacking are the results (particularly the results that Origen came up with) and not the method.  …  Even the Antiochene Fathers admit of a deeper spiritual meaning (which they call not allegoria but the ‘contemplative’ meaning—kata theorian).   …   the idea that the text means what the author meant it to mean—the idea, almost, that the meaning of a text is a past historical event—give us a sense that the meaning of a text is something objective, something unproblematic. …  (Augustine) takes it for granted that the meaning of a text is what the author intended   (Andrew Louth, DISCERNING THE MYSTERY: AN ESSAY ON THE NATURE OF THEOLOGY, pp 96-98)

For example, St. Gregory of Nyssa in looking at a passage from Genesis, writes:

“But let us, if we may, interpret the meaning of the sacred history (Gen 12:1-4) according to the profound insight of the Apostle (Hebr 11:8-10) by transposing the story to an allegorical level, even though we allow the validity of the literal meaning.”     (FROM GLORY TO GLORY, p 119)

St. Gregory claims in allegorizing to simply be following the pattern of interpretation already established in the Scriptures themselves.  That texts within the Scriptures are reread and re-interpreted and given new meaning can be seen in how St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:1-5 makes use of Exodus 17:1-7

St. John Chrysostom

St. John Chrysostom, who like many in the Antiochian school of biblical interpretation, downplays allegory in interpreting Scriptures acknowledges:

 “We ourselves are not the lords over the rules of interpretation, but must pursue scripture’s understanding of itself, and in that may make use of the allegorical method.”              “This is everywhere a rule in Scripture: when it wants to allegorize, it tells the interpreters of the allegory, so that the passage will not be interpreted superficially”   (Brevard Childs, THE STRUGGLE TO UNDERSTAND ISAIAH AS CHRISTIAN SCRIPTURE, p 106)

Chrysostom’s claim that the Scriptures are clear about when allegory is needed to interpret the text is not so obvious in St. Paul interpreting Exodus mentioned above, nor in 1 Corinthians 9:7-11 or 1 Timothy 5:17-18 where St. Paul takes Deuteronomy 25:4 (a completely straight forward passage which seems certain to be read literally) and gives it an entirely new meaning.

Next:  Reading the Bible Literally

Christmas Greetings 2009

Christ is born!

In St. Paul’s day Christmas was neither a Holy Day for Christians nor a winter holiday for consumers and businesses.  Nevertheless, that Jesus Christ was born was a historical fact and reason for Christians to reflect upon His Nativity.   St. Paul, who does not write a lot about the facts of Jesus’ own life,  wrote about Christ’s Nativity almost 2000 years ago:

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.  And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba!   Father!”  So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.  (Galatians 4:4-7  NRSV)

Pauline theology tells us that we are not children of God by birth – not even Jews are that – but rather by His adopting us through   baptism.  Christmas is the Feast not just of the birth of Christ but of our adoption by God.  We all have reason to celebrate today for we are reborn as God’s children!  God adopts us so that we might   inherit His Kingdom, and so that we can love one another as He loved us.   We can pray to God as “Our Father…” because Christ‘s birth opened the adoption process to us  and so we fully share in Christ’s eternal and divine life.   That is God’s Christmas gift to you this year and always.   Your life is your Christmas gift to God!

This Christmas season we have been saddened by the sudden death of our Archbishop Job.  We should not avoid thinking about his death during the feast, for the very reason the Son of God came into the world was to triumph over death.  Christmas is meant to be good news not just to those who are prospering, vacationing, and celebrating, or who are holy but also to the poor, to those who are heavy laden with burdens,  to those who are mourning and to those lost in sin.   Christmas is good news for the entire world and for all people.

I’m blessed at Christmas because the birth of the Son of God has made you not only brothers and sisters of Christ, but in Christ, mine as well.  May you be blessed by God as I have been by you.   Peace on earth and goodwill to all.

Fr. Ted

Christianity and Islam: Of Prophecy and the Prophet (2)

This is the third blog in my series which began with  One Christian Looks at Islam Looking at Christianity.   The 2nd blog in the series is  Christianity and Islam: Of Prophecy and the Prophet.

The Qur’an claims to be the “final arbiter and only criterion” for interpreting or correcting previous scriptures – the messages which God gave to His prophets in ancient times.   Muslims do accept and respect these other messages – such as the Scriptures of Jews and Christians but only in the form which the Qur’an determines is original.   Because Islam claims all other Scriptures besides the Qur’an have been tampered with or corrupted, and passages or messages in the Bible with which the Qur’an doesn’t agree are therefore declared to be corrupted.   An issue though is whether the Qur’an must specifically validate or negate each and every passage of the Bible since the Qur’an and not Muslims has the sole authority to interpret and correct these other messages from God.  If the Qur’an does not specifically cite or reference a message, how can one know whether to read and accept them?  And if one is not reading them, how can Islam say that they respect the Bible as God’s message?   These questions I have to put forth to Muslim missionaries.

MosesThe Islamic literature gives prominence to the prophecy of Deuteronomy 18:17-18 in which Moses speaks about God raising up “a prophet from among their brethren” like Moses. The literature claims that it is obvious that Jesus is not like Moses for several several reasons (Jesus birth was miraculous, Moses and Muhammad’s were not. Moses and Muhammad both married, Jesus did not. Moses and Muhammad were statesmen not just prophets like Jesus. Moses and Muhammad were concerned with legal teachings, Jesus with spiritual things). However, since the entire Old Testament is also Christian Scripture the Christians do accept the notion from the Jewish scriptures that Joshua (a name quite similar to Jesus) fulfills Moses prophecy. Joshua succeeds Moses according to God’s plan (Deuteronomy 1:38), is called a prophet ( Sirach 46:1), is a judge (1 Maccabees 2:55) and intercedes for God’s people (2 Esdras 7:107). To apply the prophecy to Muhammad (is this passage quoted in the Qur’an?) is to ignore the Scriptures Islam claims to honor.   In the New Testament only in the Acts of the Apostles do we find this Deuteronomic prophecy applied to Christ.    The argument from Islam that it more properly applies to Muhammad does not alter the way in which it does apply to Christ.   And certainly in the New Testament it is very clear that the claims that Jesus is the Messiah rests clearly on fulfillment of Jewish prophecies, whereas Muhammad’s claim to being a prophet of God in the Qur’an does not appear to rest on any prophecies but only on Muhammad’s claim that God called him.   However the Muslim missionary literature is eager to make the claim that the Jewish Scriptures predicted Muhammad’s coming, and that Muhammad is the clear fulfillment of prophecies of the coming of The Prophet.  This seems to be more an effort to compete with Christian claims that the Old Testament prophesied the coming of Christ than it does to be a claim of the Qur’an.

Additionally the Muslims claim that the reference to a prophet from among the “brethren” in Deuteronomy 18 refers to Ishmaelites not to the Jewish tribes and thus refers to Muhammad. This seems to me a pretty strained and unnatural reading of the text as well as removing the text from its context in the Jewish Scriptures. One can do many things with Scripture texts, but the Muslim reading of Deuteronomy 18 seems to be mostly a case of eisegeses (reading a pre-conceived idea into a text) rather than exegeses (drawing the meaning out of the text) – they are reading into the text that which they need to be there rather than getting out of the text that which it naturally says.  The text itself appears to be talking about someone from among the Jewish tribes, not outside the Jewish tribes who will become the prophet like Moses.  Muhammad would not qualify in fulfilling this prophecy.

OTPatriarchsIslam like Christianity believes that God fulfills all His promises. Muslims find it puzzling therefore that that the Bible contains elaborate details about Israel fulfilling God’s plan but then ignores the promises to and fulfillment of promises to Ishmael. Muslims see Ishmael’s descendents (i.e., Muhammad) as fulfilling the promise to be a “great nation.” They derive this not only from the claims of the Qur’an but point out that the 1st born son in the Torah is entitled to special honors, and for Abraham that would be Ishmael not Isaac/Israel. The Muslims thus accuse the Jews themselves of having wrongfully inserted into the “real” biblical text comments that God would fulfill His promises to Isaac (such as Genesis 17:2, 21:12). Islam claims that is why the Bible is unreliable, but I would again ask does the Qur’an make this specific charge against these passages? For only the Qur’an is the final arbiter about what is valid in the Scriptures of the Jews. So unless there is a specific charge in the Qur’an about these exact passages, I don’t see how the Muslims can uphold their argument. I do not know what the Qur’an lists as the specific promises that God makes to Ishmael.

I think the Islamic literature does ask some fair interpretive questions of the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Specifically they question why only one child should be the heir of God’s promises – why only Isaac, why is such a promise limited to one and why can’t it apply to many? They also are troubled by the story of Abraham expelling his son of the slave woman Ishmael and exposing him to great harm. They question the morality of this story and ask what kind of God punishes innocent children just to satisfy Sarah’s ego? The Muslims say even in Genesis 21:13 God promises to make a great nation of Ishmael. They feel this is fulfilled finally in Muhammad.  I would say their questions are valid.  There are numerous passages in the Old Testament in which the morality of the situation is hard to understand.  But the fact that God’s plan is not limited to or by human logic, does not justify eliminating the difficult passages of the Bible.  In this sense, the Jewish and Christian adherence to the received text despite its difficulties speaks to me of a faithfulness to the text, contrary to the Islamic claim that the Jews or Christians altered the text.

The story of Ishmael and Isaac in the Bible comes to us in two stories that intermingled in the Torah. Modern scholars point out that more than one editorial hand is obvious in certain sections of the Torah, and the Ishmael-Isaac saga shows these same signs of having two stories merged together. This causes the Muslims to accuse the Jews of tampering with the stories to better reflect Jewish interests. That is hardly what I see in the text. What seems more clear to me is that in fact the Jews didn’t tamper with the text – they didn’t try to harmonize the two stories of Ishmael and Isaac but rather accepted both stories and laid them side by side in their own text. The Jews were not changing the text but rather accepting the fact that diversity in tradition was part of their own Scriptures. This prevents a narrow reading of the story as both stories must be accounted for. While the Muslims claim the Qur’anic version corrects the story of Ishmael by eliminating inconsistencies, that strikes me as being much more self serving for the Muslims and more like story tampering than anything the Jews did. Christianity resolves the issue in its own way by ignoring the inconsistencies in the literal detail but seeing the story as an allegory about and which is fulfilled in the difference between Christians and Jews (Galatians 4).

For all their insistence on literal and historical accuracy regarding the Ishmael-Isaac saga, the Qur’an goes on to say Abraham was not a Jew but a Muslim. While in the sense that Abraham obeys God the name Muslim might be applied to him, it would be factually inaccurate to say Abraham is not part of the Jewish family. Clearly the Muslims accuse the Jews of narrowly tracing the Biblical story through Abraham’s descendent Isaac, but then to literally deny that Abraham is a Jew is not literally faithful to the text.

IsaiahAnother claim of the Islamic literature is regarding Isaiah 11:1-2 which refers to the “rod out of the stem of Jesse” which Christians have interpreted to be a reference to Jesus who is said to be a descendent of King David, whose father was Jesse. The Muslim booklets say that “Jesse” does not refer to David’s father, but rather is another way of referring to Ishmael. My usual question would be, does the Qur’an itself make that specific interpretation of the Isaiah passage, or again is this a later polemical claim of Islam? If it isn’t specifically stated in the Qur’an, by the Muslim reading of the Qur’an, one would have to admit Isaiah 11:1-2 cannot be claimed to be a prophecy of Muhammad. Whereas for the Christians, it is clear that our reading of the Old Testament is such that the promised Messiah is going to be a descendant of David, and so this prophecy is important to establishing the legitimacy of the claim that Jesus is Christ.

christlifegiverLastly, according to the Islamic missionary materials, Isaiah 42 (the servant whom God delights in) is a clear prophecy of Muhammad not Jesus. By the Islamic reading of the passage, Muhammad does fulfill the prophecies of what the servant of the Lord is like and what he does. While there is no doubt in my mind that one can extrapolate from the Isaiah chapter ideas that can be appplied to Muhammad, that doesn’t prove that they should be applied to him (and there again is the issue does the Qur’an specifically make the claim that Isaiah 42 applies to Muhammad or is this a later Muslim idea and thus not supported by the Qur’an?).  Additionally the Isaiah prophecies regarding the servant of God include the passages about the suffering servant of God (for example Isaiah 53), something the Christians clearly feel Jesus did fulfill. For the servant of the Lord in Christian thinking is not merely a prophet but the Messiah, and it has often been felt that Isaiah’s long description of the servant of the suffering servant reads like a veritable 5th Gospel which can be put alongside those of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. If one takes the Isaiah sections on God’s servant in their entirety as Christians do, then Jesus certainly far better fulfills the prophecy.

Next:  Christianity and Islam:  Conflict over True Christianity