Did God Command Genocide? (Part I)

Fall of JerichoThe Rock Church of Saint Louis–our church home–is in the midst of reading through the entire Bible narrative as a church community. The past two weeks we have been reading the book of Joshua, which is all about Israel’s conquest of the promised land of Canaan. One feature of this conquest that contemporary Christians are often hesitant to discuss (or that they are curious about) is whether or not Yahweh commanded the people of Israel to commit genocide as they entered the land. This question often rears its head after reading passages like Exodus 23:23, Deuteronomy 20:16-18, and Joshua 6:17-18. Over the next couple of weeks, I will be running a series reflecting on whether or not God commanded Israel to commit genocide as they took possession of the Promised Land. But before considering whether or not Yahweh commanded genocide, we must first begin to answer two important questions: How was the Bible written? And how do we read the Bible? Continue reading

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Reflections on Imago Dei

Imago-DeiWhat does it mean to be made in the image of God? This topic has a long and varied history of discussion, spanning at least the four thousand-or-so-year history of Judeo-Christian religion. For Christians, our reflections on this topic must begin with the words of Genesis: Continue reading

On the Incarnation

incarnation_1600C. S. Lewis once said that if the incarnation happened, “it was the central event in the history of the earth.” What is the incarnation? And why has it been such an important area of theological consideration since the earliest days of Christianity? The term ‘incarnation’ may be defined as “a person who embodies in the flesh a deity, spirit, or quality.”[1] For the Christian tradition, the man who has been understood as deified has been Jesus of Nazareth; but the Christian claim of Jesus as God, not merely as one who embodied God, historically presented a plethora of questions to the early Christian theologians. Continue reading

Reflections on Ephrem’s Commentaries

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Ephrem the Syrian and early Syriac Christianity.
Saint Ephrem the Syrian

Saint Ephrem the Syrian

Though said to have written a commentary on every book of the Bible, the only authentic and extant prose commentaries of Ephrem the Syrian are those on Genesis and (part of) Exodus. These commentaries, following the more traditional “text and gloss” approach, represent a distinct departure from Ephrem’s approach in his Hymns to commentary and theology. This essay offers several reflections on these commentaries, concluding that they represent an important part of any attempted reconstruction of Ephrem’s conception of scripture and theology. Continue reading

Book Review: Restoring All Things (Smith and Stonestreet)

“Christians are called to live for the good of the world. This requires understanding and action. We must think clearly about the world and engage deeply when and where we can.”

Restoring All ThingsIn his essay “On the Reading of Old Books”, C.S. Lewis once admonished his readers to engage numerous old books for every new book that they read. The prevailing attitude of Lewis’s day (and, indeed, that of our own) often emphasizes the new. In opposition to this “cult of innovation” we are often encouraged to return to the foundational classics of civilization and culture, and rightly so. Yet along with the wealth of the past, we must also read new books—this very website contains my reflections on a new book almost every week. Many of these new books I fully expect to make only limited lasting contributions to the shape of our world (if they make any substantial contribution at all). There are exceptions of course—though I shall not delve into a catalogue of what I perceive to be the most influential contemporary books in this particular review—and these writings are to be engaged with great eagerness. Certain other books are highly descriptive in nature, accurately taking the pulse of our world from a particular moment and perspective. The best of these are works which not only offer a catalog of contemporary culture but also connect that description with principled analysis. Though I have read many a writing claiming this dual role of description and analysis, none in recent years hold a candle to the work which is the topic of today’s review. Continue reading

Ephrem’s Boundaries of Investigation: Scriptural and Natural

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Ephrem the Syrian and early Syriac theology.
Saint Ephrem the Syrian

Saint Ephrem the Syrian

Throughout his Hymns on Faith, Ephrem remains especially concerned with recasting the terms of the Arian-Orthodox debate concerning the relationship of the Son to the Father. Instead of simply affirming a Nicene, Homoean, or Subordinationist perspective, Ephrem focuses on what he believes to be the root cause of the Christological controversy of his day: investigation. In Ephrem’s view, improper investigation has lead to the current turmoil and improper debate. While subordinationist theologies are in the wrong Christologically and methodologically, Ephrem does not hesitate to also problematize the methods of those with whom his Christology agree. In this essay, I briefly reflect on Ephrem’s two chief boundary markers for proper investigation: nature and scripture. Continue reading

Would Christ Have Come If Humanity Had Not Fallen?

Or, On the Value of Speculative Theology

Medieval UniversityA common criticism of medieval Christianity theology centers on the practice of speculative theology, the asking of seemingly obscure questions which have little bearing (or none at all) upon the vicissitudes of human life or Christian faith. Perhaps the most common example of this are stories about medieval theologians sitting around and discussing how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.[1] What possible value could the answer to such a question have, we wonder? Of course, there exists no evidence suggesting that this particular topic was ever discussed in the medieval world—in fact, the claim seems to be a modern fabrication intended to dismiss the medieval worldview.[2] But the basic criticism persists: why were medieval Christians so enraptured with fine details and endless clarifications on seemingly speculative questions? Continue reading

Scriptural Poetics and Ephrem’s Theology of Names

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Ephrem the Syrian and early Syrian Christianity.
Saint Ephrem the Syrian

Saint Ephrem the Syrian

Those familiar with the contents of the Jewish and Christian scriptures cannot help but notice how the imagery and language of these writings pervades the writings of Ephrem. The problem with Ephrem’s extensive use of the metaphors and terminology of scripture throughout the fabric of his madrâŝe is that of genre; that is, while Ephrem very clearly employs and interprets scripture, discerning the framework of his interpretation remains far more difficult to parse. In response to this question, Jeff Wickes has suggested categorizing Ephrem’s madrâŝe as a “doxological genre”, more specifically that of “scriptural poetics.” This paradigm functions as a transition from traditional commentary, where readers examine scripture to understand and uncover its meaning, to the engagement of scripture as a means for understanding or uncovering some other thing (God, an event) in the presence of an audience. Through the lens of “scriptural poetics” the scriptures become the building materials for an applicable theology, the raw conceptual tools at the intersection between “Scripture, world, God, and audience.” This essay reflects upon the nature of “scriptural poetics”, especially in light of Ephrem’s theology of names. Continue reading

Second Treatise of Great Seth

Nag Hammadi CodicesThe Second Treatise of the Great Seth is one of the “G/gnostic” texts found at the Nag Hammadi Library in Egypt.[1] Generally dated in the third century by scholars, the name and origin of this text remain a mystery,[2] though it has been speculated that the name Seth originated from the son of Adam and Eve from Genesis 4.[3] In this treatise, the gnostic Christ is speaking to the “perfect and incorruptible” ones and describing a true understanding of his life story, crucifixion, relationship to the Father, and his teaching. This document contains both elements of both a pro-Gnostic message and an anti-Christian message, as Christians are said to proclaim the teachings of a dead man while persecuting the true gnostic church. While gnosticism is an oft discussed phenomena of late antiquity and the early Christian age, there remains a certain amount of ambiguity and uncertainty as to what gnosticism actually was, perhaps mostly because the Christian apologists and writers of the gnostic age did not discuss the actual theology of their opponents aside from what was wrong with it.[4] In this text, Christ seems to be advocating a form of mind-body dualism that seems to be fairly pervasive among certain branches of gnosticism in the early Christian era. It is important to note that most scholars have failed to place this specific gnostic text within any specific genre of gnostic literature, further evidence of the uncertainty of its origin and writing.[5] Continue reading

Christologies in Conflict: Cyril and Nestorius

Rendition of the Council of Ephesus

Rendition of the Council of Ephesus

The Christological controversies of the early Church are some of the most interesting and historically confusing events within the Christian tradition. The four great Councils of the fourth and fifth centuries and the writings of Early Christian leaders, both orthodox and heterodox, provide scholars with a wealth of information concerning the controversies concerning early belief concerning the person of Jesus Christ. At the Council of Ephesus (of which there were actually two) in 431 AD, the theologies of Cyril of Alexandria and Nestorius of Constantinople squared off concerning the person of Christ, whether there were two distinct persons of Logos and man within the incarnate Christ, or if the persons were somehow joined in a union.[1] Continue reading