John Elliott Lein

Writer, Artist, Designer and Theology Nerd

The Bible

(Mis)Translations that Matter - Part 1

The BibleJ. Elliott LeinComment

The Christian faith is founded on the Hebrew Bible and additional Christian books that make up our Holy Scriptures, yet too often our doctrines have arisen from mis-translations of the original languages these texts were written in. Here are a few examples:

El Shaddai (אֵ֣ל שַׁדַּ֔י)

One of the labels for God in the Hebrew Bible, El Shaddai has been (mis)translated as "God Almighty" since the pre-Christian translators of the first Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint) mistakenly thought that "Shaddai" came from the root shaddad that meant "overpower" or "destroy." This pattern was followed in Jerome's first translation into Latin with the Vulgate as Omnipotens which is our root for "omnipotence."

Today Jewish rabbis point to Jacob's blessing in Genesis 49:25 to show how El Shaddai is paired with a different root word, that for the breast of a woman (שַׁד). Rather than the connotation being of an omnipotent deity, here we would understand El Shaddai as "God of Sufficiency and Nourishment" as in the one who promises to multiply Abraham's offspring (Genesis 17:2).

El Shaddai means God Nurturer.

Basileia Theou

This phrase is traditionally translated "Kingdom of God" (Matthew uses the alternative "Kingdom of Heaven"). However, the Greek basileia simply indicates any politically defined region. This could be a kingdom, but is not required by the word. Since Jesus spoke of God in intimate familiar terms as "Abba" (linguistically similar to our "Dada", "Mama", or "Papa"), we could understand this phrase as intimately as "Home of Papa." And given Jesus's aggressive reinterpreting of leadership as servanthood and equality, "Divine Commonwealth" would be another good translation.

Rather than Kingdom of God, the Gospel is that the Home of Papa or Divine Commonwealth has come near to us (Mark 1)!

Anionos Zoe

Many Christians have understood the Gospel as offering "eternal life," and often assumed this to be speaking of a post-death experience. However, the phrase translated "everlasting" or "eternal life" is anionos zoe which has nothing to do with unending life. It's speaking literally of an "age" or "eon" (from the Greek "aon"!) which is defined as having both beginning and end.

If the authors of the New Testament wanted to talk about unending eternity they could have used αἰδιος (as Paul does in Romans 1:20), but when talking about the life offered in God they spoke of αἰωνιος — a subtle but vital difference.

Many scholars say this phrase is intended to denote quality more than quantity of life: this is "life of the age of God". Jesus came to offer us "life that overflows", life in all its fullness, abundant life (John 10:10).

It's not eternal life, it's Life of the [Commonwealth] Age or Life Divinely Saturated.

(Related: Matthew 25's "everlasting punishment" is more literally "age of pruning/correction.")


* Thanks to John Cobb's "Jesus' Abba" for pointing some specifications around the first two of these mistranslations.

True Wisdom of God — 1 Corinthians 2:1-16 Exegesis Paper

The BibleJ. Elliott LeinComment

The following is an exegesis paper I wrote for New Testament class last December. The assigned text was 1 Corinthians 2:1-16 which is a classic text for radical theologians so I was eager to explore it.

“True Wisdom of God”
1 Corinthians 2:1-16 Exegesis (NT Interpretation)
John Lein — December 7, 2016

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church addresses specific pastoral concerns undergirded by his conviction that the believers there have not understood the subversive and radical wisdom of God made known specifically through the crucifixion of the Messiah. In this exegesis of the second chapter, we will focus on what Paul might have intended to be understood in the context of his time and place as he contrasted the wisdom and power of the God revealed through Christ with the world’s understanding of these attributes.

The first-century church in Corinth was located within “the heart of Roman imperial culture in Greece.” (1)  Based on textual references and content, it’s likely that most of the congregants here were both Gentile as well as familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures. Both Greek philosophy and Roman training in and enjoyment of rhetoric would have been part of their cultural experience. It’s clear from the text of the letter that there is a mixture of social groups in the church made up of upper class and lower class populations. These cultural backgrounds come into play in our passage.

Our sixteen verses are located near the beginning of Paul’s letter but are difficult to treat separately from the previous section found in chapter 1 starting in verse 10. Here we see Paul address divisions in the church attached to specific teachers. In 1 Corinthians 1:17 Paul sets up the thread he will argue throughout our passage: “For Christ did not send me to baptize [individuals in his own name] but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.” Paul is concerned that the gospel for the Corinthians has become an abstract set of ideas which is debated intellectually on the level of Greek or Jewish philosophy rather than the deeply subversive and radically transformative event Paul has experienced. For Paul, the gospel embedded in the cross cannot be understood through the wisdom of Gentiles or the theology of the Jews—it is a destructive force breaking apart these approaches of meaning-making in the world.

Any attempt to understand the impact this letter would have had on Paul’s original audience requires further background for a modern audience. Christian readers in particular have been so over-exposed to the theological memory of the cross after 2,000 years of preaching that it fails to generate the reaction it would have had at the time.

Crucifixion developed as a “barbarian” execution, and was even recorded as such by Greek and Roman historians to distance themselves from its formulation. It was a punishment reserved primarily for crimes seen as a threat to the empire. It was reserved largely for lower class non-citizens, especially slaves, to the point that it was widely known as “slaves’ punishment”. The practice varied somewhat, but typically began with torturing the victim and then placing them high on a “stake” for an extended often days-long death by exhaustion and thirst in full exposure to mockery and the elements. Beyond the physical aspects of torture and an excruciating death, it was explicitly a means also of shaming and dehumanizing the victims.

Pagan writers in the immediately following centuries show their distaste for this specific element when reflecting on the Christian religion. They accuse Christians of worshiping “a criminal and his cross” in a “perverse and extravagant superstition.” They think them insane, counseling one husband that it was best to leave his Christian wife alone “...persisting in her vain delusions, and lamenting in song a god who died in delusions...”. (2) Not only is the god of the Christians dead, but executed as a criminal in the most shameful way. 20th-century German scholar Walter Bauer wrote: “The enemies of Christianity always referred to the disgracefulness of the death of Jesus with great emphasis and malicious pleasure. A god or son of god dying on a cross! That was enough to put paid to the new religion.” (3) Beyond the struggles of Gentile believers to understand a savior crucified would be the insistence of Jewish scripture that one way to be sure if a messenger was from God or not was in their death. If they were “hung on a tree” in public execution, then you would know God had cursed them rather than endorsed.

The message of the cross is one that early Christian communities truly struggled with. Early theologians came up with theories like docetism to soften the offense. It seems that the Corinthian community’s focus had also moved from the scandal of the cross to more philosophical debates and community rituals. Yet Paul insists on beginning his letter with an emphasis on this shameful and embarrassing element of the new religion. For him, the gospel itself can be summed up in one offensive and cringe-worthy phrase: “Christ and him crucified”.

Paul sets up a contrast in between what he calls the “wisdom of the world” (Greek: sophia) and the “folly of God”. It is important to recognize that this is not a simple description of how God is so wise he makes our wisdom look foolish. No, there is a reversal going on here. Paul contrasts the ideas of wisdom, civilization, power, nobility, and honor contained within the “current age” of Greek thought and Jewish theology with the folly, barbaric, weak, ignoble and shameful event found in the event of the cross. Later in the letter he emphasizes how we must become fools according to the age in order to be truly wise according to God (3:18).

The fool (μωρός) of the ancient world was a figure of popular ridicule. The local audience would have pictured someone of disfigured and ugly appearance as played by mimes, subject to spitting and abuse by the play-actors. He would be considered slow and confused of speech and thought, a simpleton, with a lack of self-control and civility in public. And he would be a penniless vagabond, on the level of prostitutes and thieves, a mockable parasite on the streets of the town. The fool would be considered the very opposite of the aspiration of beauty, intelligence, self-control and wealth sought as the pinnacle of humanity in the ancient Greco-Roman world. John Barclay writes: “We can now appreciate why Paul would associate crucifixion not only with weakness but also with folly. The crucified victim is the degraded human, the subhuman, an object of ridicule and contempt at the moment when he is ejected from the company of humans. Physically tortured and deformed, he is stripped of every last remnant of human dignity, debased to a condition in which all rational speech and thought are rendered impossible, and all emotions and bodily functions out of control.” (4)

This, then, forms the foundation of both Paul’s gospel and our passage in the letter to the Corinthians. His audience listening to it being read out loud would be appalled and disgusted by the dichotomy set up by this preacher of the “good news” in such deliberate contrast to the eloquent rhetoric and discourse of the other teachers they each appealed to. For Paul, the gospel hinged not on the philosophical tradition of the Gentiles nor on the system of signs and wonders of the Jews nor even on moral teachings, mystical encounters or the resurrection of classic Christianity, but in a concrete this-worldly event of monstrous physicality, torment and shame.

For radical theologians this text functions as a deconstruction of the systems of meaning that we religious humans seek to find in the world. Barclay writes: “The crucifixion is not just a temporary aberration in an otherwise well-functioning system: it is the clearest possible proof that the norms which pass for ‘wisdom’ are completely unable to grasp what God is doing in the world. To read the crucifixion with the eyes of Paul is like reading the systems of justice in the old American South with the eyes of Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird): it is to expose a whole system of evaluation, a matrix of norms and judgments that prides itself on its advanced state of civilization, as blind, corrupt, and barbaric, utterly worthless in its judgment of worth.” (5)

For Paul the scandal of the cross puts into question all our assumptions about how the world is constructed and understood. Through this event, he has come to see the world with new eyes, revealed directly by the Spirit of God rather than human wisdom or religious texts. When we return to the stories of Jesus in the written Gospels with this lens in place we can see this system of reversal and subversion also in place. In Matthew chapter 25 he says you will find him, the savior of the world, in the body of the impoverished, homeless, and imprisoned. He insists that traitors of the people (tax collectors) and prostitutes will precede the righteous and the worldly-blessed into the kingdom. John Caputo writes: “A theology of the cross, pursued without compromise, requires a deconstruction of the metaphysics, the mythology, and the politics of power. Its watchword is the revolutionary texts of 1 Corinthians 1, where God systematically takes his stand with everyone on the lower end of these binary systems—with foolishness instead of wisdom...with weakness instead of power.” (6)

For us today in the United States, we might apply this lens by looking first at our prisons, our military operations, our homeless populations, our bankrupt sick and uneducated, and those outcast from our churches as mirrors that show the truth of our system of civilization. As the Brazilian archbishop Dom Helder Camara once said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist.” Paul points us to understand the true depth of the gospel as found in the very midst of what we pride ourselves on as “civilization”, and calls us to see the subversive, radical wisdom of God that shows the wise of the world to be fools engaged in foolishness by the standards of the self-giving love of Christ. Instead, we are called to be fools for Christ, the “refuse and scum” of the world in 1 Cor 4. 

Notes and Bibliography

  1. Lander, Shira. The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 287
  2. Felix and Porphyry quoted in Hengel, 3-4
  3. Quoted in Hengel, 19.
  4. Barclay, Kindle Locations 336-339.
  5. Barclay, Kindle Locations 364-369
  6. Caputo 2015, Kindle Locations 719-722

Barclay, John M. G., “Crucifixion as Wisdom: Exploring the Ideology of a Disreputable Social Movement.” In The Wisdom and Foolishness of God: First Corinthians 1-2 in Theological Exploration, edited by Christophe Chalamet. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015. Kindle Edition.

Caputo, John D., “The Weakness of God: A Radical Theology of the Cross.” In The Wisdom and Foolishness of God: First Corinthians 1-2 in Theological Exploration, edited by Christophe Chalamet. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015. Kindle Edition.

Caputo, John D. The Folly of God: A Theology of the Unconditional. Salem, OR: Polebridge Press, 2016.

Hengel, Martin. Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1977.

Lander, Shira. Introduction to 1 Corinthians in The Jewish Annotated New Testament. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Rollins, Peter. Insurrection: To Believe is Human; To Doubt, Divine. New York, NY: Howard Books, 2011. 

The Political Message of Jesus

The BibleJ. Elliott LeinComment

This post comes out of a Facebook discussion about whether Jesus's message had anything to do with political reality and if we as followers should be involved in political matters.

What had been covered so far is:

  1. Jesus, as a Jew, was the inheritor of an earthly promise (Abraham), was formed by stories of deliverance from political oppression (Passover, the Pharaoh and Moses) and was of the legacy of earthly reformers (the Prophets, like Amos).
  2. He announced his mission as about the Kingdom of God, from beginning to end. He regularly resisted earthly abuse by the religious and political (though the references in writing are more subtle due to danger). He taught his disciples to pray for the kingdom to come to earth.
  3. He was killed by Rome as a non-violent but very real political threat.
  4. His followers wrote about him with titles stolen deliberately from Caesar: "Prince of Peace", "Savior", "the beginning of the Good News (Evangelion)", "Son of God", "Lord", "High Priest". See more here and here.
  5. The book of Revelation is from beginning to end an intentionally cryptic and encoded allegory (of the odd literary genre known as "Jewish apocalypse" or "unveiling", like part of the book of Daniel) of the Roman Empire being defeated by Jesus's kingdom. The overall pattern of the story is based on a Roman foundation myth, but with characters reversed! 666 is a standard 1st century letter replacement code for Nero, the Mark of the Beast (Nero's nickname) refers to a requirement to mark your forehead with ash from sacrifices before entering the market (signifying your acceptance of the Caesar as both political and religious leader), and in the final chapters we see heaven coming down to earth and establishing a city from which the faithful go out to provide healing for those who are suffering. Not a picture of a post-Earth Earth in the future, but a picture of the purpose of the community of Christ established on Earth 2,000 years ago.

See, right now we're inheritors of a Western Enlightenment tradition of "spiritualizing" religion. Yet in Jesus's time, and for much of the world, religion cannot be separated from the rest of our lives. Religion speaks of the shared life, which means it is inherently political (Greek "polis": of the city or society). Maybe it's time to change how we approach this complex issue.

I don't believe Jesus's message for us is about establishing a political entity in his name with physical borders and an army ala David. His message goes much deeper and broader.

We are called to fight against the "powers and principalities": that means the systems of domination and oppression that earth-born empires use against their citizens. We are to be advocates of heaven-born systems of justice, mercy, peace, and well-being for all, especially the poorest and weakest among us.

We are to be the leaven in the dough (not replacing all molecules of the dough!) which makes life more flavorful and better for all.

Jesus spent his life ministry showing us what "the life of the polis" is supposed to look like, under any national regime: feeding the hungry, healing the sick, advocating for those oppressed by the military and the religious.

We must be careful not to confuse this by taking on the banner of being a "Christian nation" in the sense that we use Jesus's name as a weapon against others (which has been our entire history right up to 9/11 and going to war in the Middle East). But I believe we followers of Jesus are called to work toward all nations being "Christ-ian" (like Christ) in the sense that our society looks like Jesus did: healing the sick, feeding the poor, making peace and refusing war, etc.

And I believe that with every action we take toward this end, Jesus returns and his Kingdom becomes more established (Matthew 25). This is what we might call "participatory eschatology".

You see, back in Jesus's day, there were many groups trying to establish the Kingdom. Jews had been under division and exile and empire oppression for centuries with little break. They were wondering how the promise of God that they would be a kingdom that blessed all other nations (Abraham) was to be fulfilled. And they had different solutions toward that end:

  1. The Pharisees were a lay reform movement: if we just start doing right as a people, God will deliver us.
  2. The Sadducees trusted in temple ritual: if we get sacrifices right, God will deliver us.
  3. The Essenes focused on purity: if we separate ourselves from the world and become pure, God will deliver us.
  4. The Judaizers looked to power: get in good with the ruling authorities and we'll be saved.
  5. The Zealots wanted violence: start the fight in full confidence and God will end it for us (didn't go so well in 70 and 132 AD).

I see Jesus walking into this conversation and having a different answer to the same question. His answer was to look at the vision of the prophets for what the kingdom would be like, and then having faith that if we all started living as if it was already real it would come to life around us. Again, feeding, healing, protecting, comforting. And teaching his disciples to do the same (not converting people to a new ritual system, but to a new way of living).

Toward this end he called on people to "repent, and believe this good news". This is the same phrase the 1st century historian Josephus used when trying to convince his band of rebels to follow his plan rather than their plan. It simply means "turn" (the word often translated "repent" literally means turn, change) and follow this new path instead of the one you've been on. Be a follower of Jesus's Way (as the early church called themselves) rather than the way of others.

He also confronted Rome's message that violence brings peace. Walter Wink calls this the "myth of redemptive violence". Rome had coins with the motto: "peace through victory", yet Jesus refused that model. In direct opposition to Rome, his "Evangelion" or "Good News" was that peace was obtained from the bottom up, not the top down. Paul played a lot with this motif, the reversal of human wisdom and how Christ made fools of earthly models of power in ways that are still counter-intuitive today.

On Inerrancy and Interpretation in Scripture on Sexuality

The BibleJ. Elliott LeinComment

I've been having some conversations on Facebook in which the topic of inerrancy* has come up. Some conservative Christians have expressed an opinion that you must reject the inerrancy of Scripture to be able to affirm gay Christians. Here is what I have given in reply, which I hope is helpful to others.

* Before we start, you may want to look up the definition(s) and historical background of the term inerrancy as applied to Scripture. Personally I no longer find this word useful for my study of the Bible, but it's important for many.

When we read and study the Bible, we must go beyond a simple claim of inerrancy to understand the text. I look at the layers of study like this:

1) The Original Text ("the received word/original text"): we no longer have access to this layer which is what the Chicago statement on inerrancy claims as the inerrant Scripture.

2) Transcription: the Scriptures were then passed down through the generations by scribes. Some say that at least certain of the texts were likely exchanged orally for a long time before being written down at all.

3) Canonization: Somewhere during the periods of passing down the texts through transcription, religious communities decided which texts qualify as Scripture. The Hebrew Bible (Ta-na-kh) went through 3 rounds over the centuries, in descending levels of sacredness (the Law "Ta-", the Prophets "-na-", and the Writings "-kh"). It's possible that books such as Ruth, Esther, Psalms and Proverbs (some of the "Writings") weren't yet officially considered fully Scripture at the time of Christ, though they were highly valued writings. The Christian Bible was formally agreed on a few centuries after Christ (though debate continued still for centuries), and then re-formed by first Martin Luther (who wanted to get rid of James and Revelation and moved the deuterocanonical books to a separate section) and the Scottish Bible Society in the 1800s (removing those inter-testamental period books for most Protestants for publishing cost reasons).

4) Manuscripts: the most original writings we have, which we base our modern Bibles on, are collections of ancient manuscripts from various sites and periods of time. These show a variety of variations from the transcription process, from minor word changes to missing sections like the ending of Mark's Gospel and John's story of the woman caught in adultery. The inerrantist view in the past has often dismissed these claims, I believe, while the infallible view says God has guided the process to ensure we have the truth. I don't think any of these variations diminish the Scriptures, myself. (Dallas Theological Seminary professor Daniel Wallace writes that he counts around 400,000 variations in manuscripts, and that there are more variations amongst the manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament. Most are minor and easily understood though).

Now we move beyond the original words of the text itself:

5) Translation: every translation is an interpretive act, especially when moving from a millennia-old "dead" language of 6,000 words with no vowels or punctuation (Hebrew) to a modern language of 1.2 million words (English). Even the Bibles in use by the early church were translations, from Jesus's Targum (Aramaic) to Paul's Septuagint (Koine Greek).

6) Interpretation: Once a text is translated there is an additional layer of interpretation as we try to figure out what the text is intending to say for us today. For both layers of interpretation, we must account for the ancient contexts that the Bible was originally spoken into, and then the modern context that it is being received into. Scientific discoveries also inform this layer, as we see clearly in the geocentrism vs heliocentrism debate of the 1500's (both Luther and Calvin saw heliocentricism as a direct threat to the authority of Scripture).

7) Application: It is only after all these steps are taken (by ourselves directly, or through the acceptance of our community's work) that we take the final step of direct application in our society or individual lives.

So when it comes to discussions of Bible teachings like on human sexuality we have a lot of layers to consider.

Inerrancy or infallibility only cover the first four steps. Those conservative Christians who have not read the affirming scholarship are often unaware that none of these layers are critiqued in many affirming interpretations of Scripture. Inerrancy is fully compatible with much of what is called "revisionist" scholarship.

Briefly, here is what we argue (no evidence, just the premises):

1. Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19) is a clear mis-application (#7), since the story has nothing to do with condemning sexuality (violence and inhospitality to the stranger, not caring for the poor in Ezekiel 16:48-50, etc).

2. Leviticus 18 is a mis-interpretation (#6) and mis-application (#7), since it's likely specific to sexual pagan worship practices. "Abomination" does not designate all lasting prohibitions anyway, in its 118 uses throughout the Bible.

3. Leviticus 20 is also a mis-interpretation (#6) and mis-application (#7). The command to execute all those condemned is a tip-off that we're most likely talking about sacred cult prostitutes involved in idol worship practices. Also, do we really want to stone all gay people to death?

4. 1 Timothy 1:9-10 is a mis-translation (#5) as well, since no one knows exactly what Paul's word invention arsenokoites means. A good case can be made for it to be describing men who purchase services of male prostitutes.

5. 1 Corinthians 6:9 is another mis-translation (#5) of both arsenokoites and malakos which mistakenly assumes that ancient pederasty or male prostitution can be equated with modern same-sex relationships.

6. Romans 1 mis-interprets (#6) Paul's rhetorical speech as if it's his own argument, and mis-applies (#7) it as a prohibition all gay people rather than against those (as he explicitly describes) who start by worshiping physical idols, then abandon themselves to lusts which are too great to be satisfied by heterosexual relations, and end by becoming people who are "full of all wickedness" (this description does not depict the gay Christians I know).

7. Using Jesus's explicit and clear condemnation of divorce (which actually appears in 3 distinctly different versions in the gospels and yet one more in Paul's writings) to be authoritative over same-sex marriage is a mis-application (#7).

Therefore, the affirming argument cannot be dismissed simply by claiming inerrancy is on your side, since inerrancy only talks about layers 1-4 and cannot address the admittedly human layers of translation, interpretation, and application.

Photo credit Adriel Ifland, 2007

On The Role of Scripture in the Church

The BibleJ. Elliott LeinComment

For nearly two thousand years, Christians have believed that the Old and New Testaments are in some form foundational to our faith. In this we share some identification with the other Peoples of the Book, Jews and Muslims, yet in addition to our distinct differences with these other faiths we have large divides on how to approach the Holy Scriptures within our own faith.

While one of the unique attributes of the Anglican tradition is that we value unity and diversity over uniformity on many topics which results in a broad range of understandings of topics like "the Word of God", there are some core perspectives we share as distinct from many other Christian denominations. To explore this I will contrast my upbringing within the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA) with my new home in the Episcopal Church.

Equality and Spectrum in Creation

The Bible, InclusionJ. Elliott LeinComment

Here's another excerpt from the book I'm writing. It's a shortened version of a previous post, with additional coverage added. It's going in the new "Marriage" Appendix.

There are two creation accounts in the book of Genesis, and they are often used to as proof that God meant every marriage to look exactly like a heterosexual marriage.

The First Creation Account

Then God said, “Let us make adam in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

So God created adam in his image,
     in the image of God he created them;
     ish and ishshah he created them.
    — Genesis 1:26-27

In the first creation narrative (Genesis 1:1-2:4), both man (ish) and woman (ishshah) are created in God’s image equally as humankind (adam).  We could consider “man and woman” to be a form of speech called a merism which uses two ends of a spectrum to include the entire range, similar to God creating the “heavens and the earth” or calling God the “alpha and omega”. This could allow for room to say that intersex, transgender, and other non-traditional gender forms from birth are also included in God’s good creation. Certainly the emphasis is on the image of God implanted equally in all humanity regardless of gender.

The Second Creation Account

then the Lord God formed the adam [human] from the dust of the adamah [ground/humus], and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the adam became a living being.

Then the Lord God said,
     “It is not good that the adam should be alone;
     I will make him a helper as his partner.”
    — Genesis 2:7, 18

In the second creation narrative starting at Genesis 2:5, at first only one human is created: the adam (human) from adamah (ground/humus). Then the Lord God remarks that it is not good for the human to be alone, and a corresponding companion is sought for him among the animals. When this is not found, a suitable partner is formed by forming another human out of the side of the first. While the traditional rib is likely better translated side, regardless it’s important to note how the origin was from a place of equality. 

The KJV’s “helpmeet” has been misunderstood to imply “assistant/lower partner” instead of “appropriate partner.” In fact, the Hebrew phrase is used for one who comes in support of, as God or an army coming to reinforce in battle. Equality and equivalency are the primary emphasis in this account.

“This at last is bone of my bones
     and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called ishshah [woman],
     for out of ish [man] this one was taken.”
    — Genesis 2:23

The passage concludes with the man and woman coming together to make one flesh. The particular is subsumed in union.

In neither narrative is marriage mentioned, nor are any other models of relationship described in negative or positive terms. To use these stories as prescriptive for every relationship seems to take the meaning beyond what is written. Since procreation was important to the story at the time, and marriage understood in the context of inheritance and multiplying, heterosexual relationships seem to be the assumed model. If anything, it seems to me that there is a de-emphasis on the importance of being either male or female, and a focus on our shared humanity.

Three Lens of Christian Authority

The BibleJ. Elliott LeinComment

The Anglican understanding of authority in faith, church and life is traditionally described as a “three-legged” stool made up of Scripture, Tradition and Reason/Experience. We say that we recognize the benefits of each element, with some members in our diversity leaning toward particular legs more than others, yet we all affirm Scripture as the final and base source of authority.

We say that those members of our community who emphasize Tradition are known as Anglo-Catholics. Those who focus on Reason and Experience are Progressives. And the Evangelical branch emphasizes Scripture first.

For a time, this explanation was satisfactory for me. It was refreshing to see these different influences named and acknowledged for the first time in my faith. Yet, something bothered me, and this discomfort continued to grow as I studied and reflected through the discernment process I am now in.

Finally, I realized that this analogy does not adequately describe what I saw in the real-life church experiences around me, nor did it make sense from a carpentry perspective. Stools do not function as three-legged devices if only one leg is considered the primary support, and neither do the members of each emphasis group treat Scripture with equal weight – at least not as the other groups would recognize it.

I have come to think that maybe the three “legs” are better expressed as “lenses”. As each group approaches sources of authority, they do so through a worldview that uniquely aligns every element of their source material. Let’s look briefly at each group to see how that might play out.

The Traditionalist Lens

The community within our communion who most emphasize tradition are known as “Anglo-Catholics”. They share a love for tradition with our Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic friends. We might consider it the oldest leg on the stool.

For a Traditionalist, Scripture is the foundation of authority, but it is so *as* the core of Tradition. From whence does Tradition come? From Scripture of course! The Holy Bible is the foundation upon which all of Tradition is built. The Church has added to that foundation through the centuries in our writings, practices and decisions.

Therefore the Traditionalist has no need to say that Scripture stands above Tradition, because Scripture is innately integrated into Tradition. Likewise, both Reason and Experience are seen through Tradition as we read the Fathers of the faith wrestling with logic and life to understand and apply Scripture.

For the Traditionalist, Tradition is not a favorite Leg of authority subservient to Scripture, but the Lens through which both Scripture and Reason are delivered to us.

 The Scriptural Lens

The Evangelical emphasis inspired by “Sola Scriptura” descends to us from the Protestant Reformation. Our range of understanding in the Episcopal Church stops short of a Fundamentalist’s attempt to deny any other sources of authority, yet there is a strong emphasis on the centrality of the Bible in church and personal practice. 

A balanced Scripturalist recognizes both the value of and the inability to avoid the elements of Tradition and Reason in how we read, learn and apply the Bible. Yet in the more Biblicist community I was raised in, too often what should have been seen as a particular interpretation which came primarily from Tradition or Reason and Experience was seen as simple Scripture.

When a Scripturalist encounters arguments that they recognize are from Tradition or Reason, they are quick to compare these insights back to the source text in the Bible. They may also conflate the three sources in such an integrated whole that they have difficulty in recognizing that a particular teaching more Traditionalist or Experience-sourced than a simple reading of the Bible itself.

For the Scripturalist, the Bible is not the primary leg of authority supplemented by Tradition and Reason, but the Lens through which we view both Tradition and Reason.

The Experientialist Lens

Those who emphasize Experience are often in the Progressive or Emergent group, which is where I find myself these days. This Lens most resonates with a postmodern world, and we may consider the strongest forms of this leg the most recent broadly-recognized form of understanding authority in the church today.

An Experientialist understands the Bible to be the recording of people who encountered God in the past, and whose experiences continue to guide us today (in both positive and negative ways). Our understandings of inspiration and authority of Scripture are often as strong and deep as the other groups, but we see these through a very different lens.

Wikipedia has this to say about the idea of Experience as authority:

The interrogation of experience has a long tradition in continental philosophy. Experience plays an important role in the philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard. The German term Erfahrung, often translated into English as "experience", has a slightly different implication, connoting the coherency of life's experiences.

Certain religious traditions (such as types of Buddhism, Surat Shabd Yoga, mysticism and Pentecostalism) and educational paradigms with, for example, the conditioning of military recruit-training (also known as "boot camps"), stress the experiential nature of human epistemology. This stands in contrast to alternatives: traditions of dogma, logic or reasoning.
     – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Experience

Since we see the Bible as a recording of Experience, it should be obvious that it's easy for us to see Tradition in very much the same light. The written part of Tradition is an extension of recorded experience continuing through the millennia, and the rituals and practices are ways that we can join into those ancient experiences.

For the Experientialist, Reason/Experience is not the favored leg under Scripture, but the lens through which we understand all of Scripture, Tradition and current Experience.

Lenses, not Legs

So that's the general idea. This has helped me understand my perspective on Christian authority better, to reconcile some tensions within myself, and also to relate more empathetically with those using other lenses.

I'm still playing around with the idea, but so far I like it.