Did Mary Really Give Birth to Jesus? (Or, Do Women’s Bodies Matter to God?)

Even though I’ve been looking for years, I can’t seem to find a Reformed theologian who makes a clear choice between the virgin birth of Jesus and the virginal conception of Jesus. When most Christians talk about “the virgin birth,” they are actually talking about the virginal conception –– the idea that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, without a human father. The virgin birth, on the other hand, if I understand it correctly, is the idea that Jesus was not born in the “normal” way, but that he somehow teleported out of Mary, leaving her birth canal untouched. Besides being extremely difficult to believe, I don’t think this has any basis in scripture. But while the virginal conception is extremely important for our whole theology of the Incarnation, our Christology, and even our understanding of divine/human agency, I don’t see anything important gained by insisting on a virgin birth. In fact, I think some things are lost. First, many women experience giving birth as an intensely spiritual experience. By denying that Mary really gave birth to Jesus, we cut off a vital connection between Mary, the paradigmatic new creation woman in scripture, and the ordinary experience of any woman who has given birth. Worse, by insisting that Mary somehow avoided the pain and earthiness of birthing, we disparage a central function of the female body, a body which Jesus came to redeem and one day resurrect. There are even scriptural reasons, I think, to affirm that Mary gave birth the “normal” way. Just as Jesus’ first coming points to his second coming, so Mary’s groaning and pain of delivery is a figure of how “the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” Mary’s act of birthing is a sign of how every part of our bodies –– not just our minds or “souls” –– is a part of God’s salvation story.

I heartily affirm with the creeds that Jesus was “born of the virgin Mary,” that is, that Mary was sexually chaste before she underwent the female experience of giving birth. But I also want to believe that Mary really gave birth, and that this is a sign of how our whole embodied selves –– indeed, “the whole creation” –– will be brought through our present pain into a greater glory.

… But, like I said, I can’t find any Reformed theologians writing on this. (I’m probably just looking in the wrong places.) What do you think? Or have you read anyone on this?

PS Speaking of “embodied earthiness,” I apologize if this mini-essay feels a bit rushed: I wrote it in the middle of wiping my toddler’s poopy butt.

a review of Adele Berlin’s Zephaniah commentary

An excellent commentary about a stunningly beautiful prophetic book. Zephaniah is a poet of wondrous complexity and emotive power, and Adele Berlin brings just the right literary sensibilities to draw out the poetic dimensions of this prophet.

Four good things about the commentary:

1. Berlin does a great job showing Zephaniah’s dizzying, multidimensional wordplay. Zephaniah messes with words with the same reckless abandon as Shakespeare or MF Doom, and Berlin delights with her catches. Best of all, Berlin shows the aural power of the words, how the sounds themselves convey multiple layers of meaning. This is a prophecy meant to be heard to be believed.

2. Zephaniah, like all Hebrew poetry, is a dense forest of intertextual vines, connecting the poem to the rest of the Biblical canon. Berlin helpfully traces the ways that Zephaniah links to creation, the flood, Babel, Deutero-Isaiah, and the Psalms, just to name a few. Having learned from Berlin, I am now “hearing” Zephaniah in surprising places in the New Testament, too.

3. As a Christian, it is really good for me to read commentaries from a Jewish perspective. Berlin cites a wide range of historical Jewish sources, which wonderfully broadened my understanding.

4. Most importantly, again and again Berlin opts to preserve the strangeness of the text over against emendation and harmonization. She does this because of her commitment to literary interests over text-critical interests, and I am grateful for it, because it keeps Zephaniah’s poetry vivid, bizarre, and unfinalizable.

And, three not-so-good things about the commentary:

1. Berlin follows modern historical-critical consensus in ascribing a late date to the work, so that all of the prophecies are after-the-fact. This robs the book of a certain level of revelatory power, and at certain points even seems to militate against the meaning of the text itself. Can God, the LORD “in your midst,” speak in history?

2. A book as raw and daring as Zephaniah invites (demands?) reflection on the character and doctrine of God, but Berlin leaves this issue out of her comments, focusing only on textual and literary concerns. At times it feels as if the commentary, for all its richness, is avoiding the most critical existential questions posed by the prophet.

3. On a related note: From my particular perspective as a Christian preacher, this commentary is necessarily incomplete, since it leaves the questions of New Testament fulfillment entirely unanswered. Interestingly, the early church fathers did not write much about Zephaniah, either, leaving the book open and in need of more Christological and figural reflection. But that is a book for another person to write…

Church Discipline as Liturgical Act

I’m thinking out loud here, so bear with me…

“When you are assembled, and my spirit is present with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.”
– I Corinthians 5

I Corinthians 5 is wild, disturbing, and radical. It seems like Paul is saying that the church’s judicial actions are to be wholly integrated with the church’s liturgical actions. If this is correct, then the modern tendency to separate the church’s judicial proceedings from its worship life has confused Paul’s categories. It is to compartmentalize something that Paul sees as a unified whole.

Furthermore, the invocation of the Lord’s Supper in verse 7 indicates that the sacrament is at the center of Paul’s liturgical understanding of church discipline. Where we might see the Lord’s Supper as an opportunity to “boast” in radical inclusion, Paul is not afraid to see it as the very site where God’s judgement is enacted. (This is entirely consistent with what Paul says later in I Corinthians 10, where baptism and the Lord’s Supper are explicitly ruled out as free passes for sexual immorality.)

This is something I have witnessed more than once in our denominational gatherings within the Reformed Church in America. We fight and duke it out in historically contingent, modern forms of discourse (two minute speeches in front of a microphone), and then we come together around the Lord’s Supper, the place where the judgement and grace of God is actually being enacted. If we were following Paul and his radical presuppositions, the Lord’s Supper would be the place at which the drama of church discipline would be enacted, not just through some curious cultural artifact governed by Robert’s Rules of Order.

But there’s more. In I Corinthians 5, the man is handed over to Satan “for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” There is a word here for both conservatives and progressives. For conservatives, it is important to remember that the disciplined man “may” be saved on the last day. And Paul says this without explicitly stating what will happen to the disciplined man after the liturgy of handing him over to Satan. In other words, following what Paul has said earlier in I Corinthians 4:5, the jury is out, and will not reconvene until the eschaton. This should give our church discipline a humble, provisional, and willing-to-be-surprised disposition. The parable of the weeds and the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30) makes this point even stronger. The overarching hope for the man is for healing, restoration, and reconciliation. The reference to “Satan,” so jarring to our modern ears, is actually a helpful and important distinction. Satan is the recipient of the expelled person, not the expelled person himself. Never demonize those subject to church discipline.

But there is a word here for progressives, too: Paul is working with a radically different theological anthropology than the LGBTQ inclusion movement. He has absolutely no problem separating the fate of the man’s “flesh” from the fate of the man’s “spirit.” So many arguments for full inclusion of LGBTQ people who are sexually active assume that the horizon of salvation can be collapsed onto the body. Calls for traditional sexual morality are blasted as violent and oppressive because they hurt the bodily existence of LGBTQ people. There is no consideration of the possibility that our bodies are not the self-contained, self-referential boundary of God’s saving action. In contrast, Paul is perfectly willing to say that the judgement of God may entail the destruction of the flesh for the salvation of the spirit. For us modern physicalists, this is anathema. But to Paul, it makes perfect pastoral sense. We have collapsed our eschatology into something obsessively physical, making it little more than a projection of our modern ideas of economic equality and bodily fulfillment into a hereafter of our own making. (I believe this charge can apply equally to quietist bourgeois eschatologies on the right and redistributive activist eschatologies on the left.) Paul is not afraid to pit present bodily suffering against future spiritual salvation and expect us to sit with him in the eschatological tension between the two. This is not to denigrate, oppress, or abuse the body. It is to adhere to the offensive-to-us claim that the body is not the self-contained, self-referential boundary of God’s salvific action.

It is this same careful distinction between body and spirit that empowers Paul to make the crazy claim that his apostolic authority can be exerted upon the Corinthian church in absentia. (I Corinthians 5:3) All of this suggests that our historically contingent models of polity that we construct on top of the New Testament are not the deepest electrical currents of the Spirit’s activity in church discipline. Legislative and judicial proceedings in the church, including those modeled on liberal democratic governing institutions, can be used by the Spirit in God’s freedom for the furtherance of God’s purposes. But it is in the proclamation of the word and the administration of the sacraments that the “most real” church discipline is enacted. This discipline is not limited by the horizons of space, time, and embodiment. In fact, if, as we say in our communion prayer, the church is united with creation and all the company of heaven, then I believe that Paul’s judgement pronounced in I Corinthians 5 is still working out its apostolic effectiveness today. When we gather around the Lord’s Table today, Paul’s judgement is present in our churches “in Spirit.”

Of course, this is not to claim that church polity is possible in a cultural vacuum. Our churches will assume the cultural norms of our surroundings. (So early Reformed polity reflects developments in early modern political thought, just as the rise of “network Christianity” today reflects disturbing changes in authority structures for the digital age.) But it does require us to maintain a vigorously skeptical posture toward any polity which assumes more than a highly provisional quality. Power structures come and go. The marriage supper of the Lamb will be forever.

There’s a lot I’m wrestling with here, but the core of what I’m saying is that our arbitrary modern bifurcation of judicial and liturgical proceedings might not reflect Paul’s original intention in I Corinthians 5. But that does not make the way forward any easier to discern or less scary.

Shakespeare, Psalm 88, and the Erosion of Meaning

Reading Shakespeare makes me a better reader of scripture. There are places in Shakespeare’s plays, especially throughout The Winter’s Tale, and in key places in Hamlet, where the language breaks down and meaning is obscured. Editors have tried to emend the text, trying to make it make sense. But I think that Shakespeare was intentional in letting the language decay and break down. The same is true in Hebrew poetry. There are places where the language breaks down, and biblical scholars have tried to emend the text to make it make sense. I think this is a mistake. One of the powers of poetry is the power to break language for the sake of truth. Example: in the final line of Psalm 88, the Hebrew breaks down. As best as I can tell, the literal Hebrew is “My companions––darkness.” Scholars and translators try to “fix” the Hebrew by inserting verbs and prepositions: “My companions *are in* darkness.” But I think the original Hebrew is intentional. The psalmist is so consumed by grief that her language itself breaks down, bordering meaninglessness and the void. Language doesn’t have to work properly in order to work effectively. And this itself is something that Psalm 88 teaches us about a life of prayer: God doesn’t want our perfect polished prayers. God hears our broken, grammatically incorrect, incoherent prayers.

Three Kinds of Suffering

The ideas in this essay are very much works-in-progress. I welcome your thoughts and corrections as I wrestle with suffering. Because it is a work in progress, the essay will change over time to reflect the input of others and my own conversions.

There are three kinds of suffering: suffering for bad choices, redemptive suffering, and suffering that is beyond our understanding.

The first kind of suffering happens when we make bad choices. If you stick your hand in the fire, you get burned. If you steal a car, you go to jail. In the Bible, this kind of suffering shows up in places like Deuteronomy and Proverbs. It is rigid, orderly, tit-for-tat. Of the three kinds of suffering, this kind makes the most sense to us.

The second kind of suffering is redemptive suffering, or suffering for a higher purpose. People sacrifice themselves for higher purposes all the time. They might suffer so that their families can have a better life, or they might die for a country in military service.

For Christians, the ultimate example of redemptive suffering is displayed on the cross. Jesus Christ willingly suffers so that we might be saved. Christ’s suffering is the reason why I Peter can call his readers to suffer for their faith. This kind of suffering is part of a bigger story. Peter (and also Paul) call us to suffer for Christ, because of “an eternal weight of glory” that is coming. Because in the end all shall be well, we can endure a little suffering now. This suffering still kind of makes sense, because this kind of suffering now is leading to glory later. It is not pointless.

But there is a third kind of suffering, the suffering that defies reason and explanation. It’s possible to suffer for doing something stupid, it’s possible to suffer for following Jesus, but it’s also possible to suffer for no reason at all. There is some suffering that will never make sense in this life. This is the suffering of Job, and some of the lament Psalms. As Job finds out at the end of the book of Job, the reason for this kind of suffering is a mystery. It lies beyond us, in the dark, majestic, beautiful and terrifying holiness of God. As Job’s friends discovered, if we try to explain this kind of suffering, we make things much, much worse.

Did you notice that all three kinds of suffering are in scripture? That’s because all three kinds of suffering are valid human experiences before God. If you are suffering, God may be calling you to discern, in conversation with pastors, friends, and family, what kind of suffering you are experiencing. But there is always a chance that the reason for your suffering will elude you. If you are a pastor, or in a position of spiritual authority, it is worth remembering that there is more than one kind of suffering. This should increase our compassion, and cause us to pause and listen before we diagnose other people’s problems.

Also, people are complicated. It’s possible that someone is experiencing more than one kind of suffering at the same time. We should never be too quick to tell someone why they are suffering. As sufferers and spiritual caregivers, a posture of humility, patience, and discretion goes a long way toward Christian love.

Nonetheless, as a pastor, if someone explicitly comes to me for counsel about their suffering, I do have to make choices about how best to counsel them, and those choices are heavily dependent on which kind of suffering they are experiencing. So, in a real way, wrestling with this typology has concrete and important consequences for offering spiritual wisdom to people who are suffering.

I think that these three kinds of suffering form a helpful typology for helping people to walk through their suffering with God. But, like any typology, it is reductionistic and overly simplifies the complexity of people.

There is a deep paradox to the cross that cannot be simply explained by human models of redemptive suffering. The suffering of Jesus on the cross is not exactly like someone jumping on a grenade for someone else. It doesn’t have the same simple formula of “I suffer so that you don’t.” If God truly took his own wrath upon himself on the cross, and if God invites us to take up our own crosses and enter into suffering with Christ, then the redemptive suffering of the Christian life is much more mysterious than simply suffering for a higher cause. It is nothing less than an entryway into the dark, majestic, beautiful and terrifying holiness of God. So the typology breaks down at the foot of the cross. As the earliest readers of the Bible knew, the suffering of Job and the suffering of Jesus are mysteriously, figurally linked. There is a kind of suffering that is beyond our understanding, but it is not beyond God.

And this is why the Psalms of lament are the place for us to go in our suffering. The Psalms remind us that all of our suffering –– whether from stupidity or the cross or for no reason at all –– happens in the presence of a Holy God. Suffering is beyond us, but it is not beyond God. Suffering finds its end in the heart of the Trinity, as the Lamb stands slaughtered before the throne.

By the Holy Spirit we are joined to Christ and enter into the life of God. In this age, our life includes suffering. Even though that suffering sometimes makes no sense, we still follow Christ into the mystery of the holiness of God.

What Do We Do With I Peter’s Ethics?

The ethics of I Peter in its household code is driven by a desire to remove offense within its cultural context, for the sake of witness. But today, I Peter’s ethical code would be considered offensive in a contemporary American context. What do we do with this? If Peter’s intention was to establish absolute ethical norms, then we are bound to follow him, even if it is noxiously countercultural. But if his intention was to remove offenses that would obscure the message of the gospel within a particular cultural context, then we might react to his list of ethical injunctions very differently. We might approach the same things (class, gender, suffering, and inequality) with an eye toward removing cultural offense. Peter writes: “Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds.” What would “honorable deeds” look like, not in patriarchal Rome, but in egalitarian America? Peter writes, “For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution.” If we are called to truly accept the authority of *every* human institution, then does that include not only the authoritarianism of an emperor, but also the egalitarianism of a consumer capitalist democracy? And how do we reconcile this stance of cultural accommodation with Peter’s other impulse to be spiritual migrants and refugees, staying different, called out, holy?

Dante. The Trinity should not be boring.

It’s true. Paradiso is not as interesting as the rest of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Compared to Inferno (and even Purgatorio), Paradiso is a slow, dreary slog. Like Milton’s Satan, Dante’s Inferno is yet another embarrassing example of the curious literary axiom that the wicked make better stories than the pious. For some reason, damnation will always be a hot seller. And yet, I couldn’t help but notice the sizable entrance of the Trinity into Paradiso. While it is almost nonexistent in Inferno and Purgatorio, the Trinity is a key “character” in Paradiso. I wonder how differently the three parts of the Divine Comedy would be if the Trinity was allowed a little more economic wiggle room across the three-tiered universe? The vision of the Trinity in Paradiso is so geometric. It is a celestial mobile with everything in its right place, a little too much like the forced symmetry of the Athanasian Creed for my taste. (I know, the creeds aren’t really cooked to taste. I will gulp down the Athanasian Creed, even though it burns a little. But it does seem like Dante poured too many Euclidian axioms into his pot.) I wonder if Paradiso would have a better reputation if we saw something in heaven of the mystery of the cross and the unpredictability of the Spirit?

Speaking of the Spirit, throughout the Divine Comedy the Holy Spirit is almost non-existent. The Spirit’s work is supplanted, replaced largely by the benevolent influence of the stars, the angels, and the saints. And the Holy Spirit is not the only person who is obscured. Throughout the entire work, Jesus Christ’s humanity is downplayed to the point of near invisibility. The Son fills out the Trinity, but the incarnation of that Son occupies a woefully small place in Dante’s cosmology. As a result (and following much late Medieval theology), Mary comes to completely occupy the place of human mediator. When Christ is rarified to a cosmic principle, someone else has to step in to fill the mediating void. Or, as Athanasius put it: “What has not been assumed has not been redeemed.” If Jesus didn’t really become human, he didn’t really save humanity.

This elimination of Christ’s human nature shows up in Dante’s religious epistemology, too. If the Word was not fully incarnated, then there is a curious gap between our natural and our supernatural knowledge. For Dante, Virgil comes before Beatrice; reason comes before revelation. Then, at the end of the poem, Bernard comes after Beatrice, so that contemplation comes last after revelation. There is a fairly strict order to knowledge: first reason, then revelation, then contemplation. To borrow Hans Boersma’s striking image, in the late scholastic period, the beautiful tapestry of heaven and earth, revelation and reason began to come apart at the seams. The universe was already rivening into Kant’s chasmic bifurcation. Reason happens first, then revelation, and never the two shall meet.

Here, Augustine and Anselm are a good corrective, with their definition of “faith seeking understanding.” Reason doesn’t precede revelation. Revelation precedes reason, and indeed continually sanctifies it. On this, contemporary theologian Sarah Coakley is especially helpful. For Coakley, contemplation is not the end of theology. It punctuates our theological work as the beginning, the middle, and the end. As such, it is an essential practice of theology. Contemplative prayer continually sanctifies our reasoning about the revelation that we have received. I wonder if Coakley’s non-hierarchical model of knowledge is a more integrated and faithful way of receiving the grace of God daily in our acts of knowing.

// // //

At the very end of the Divine Comedy, at the highest heights of heaven, St. Bernard prays to the Virgin Mary that she would “keep [Dante’s] affections pure after so great a vision.” Dante does have room for life after contemplation, but that life is one of precarious purity, not one of emboldened action. Compare St. Bernard’s prayer for pristine preservation with the actions of Jesus coming down from the mountain of the Transfiguration. Where Dante tries to keep his elevated contemplative superiority over against his Florentine rivals, Jesus re-enters the active life with vigor, by healing, casting out demons, and hanging out with dirty sinners. And he does all this in the power of the Spirit, a power which, as I mentioned earlier, is ominously lacking in Dante’s work.

Yes, it is also true that the vision of the Trinity at the end of the poem is intensely moving and aesthetically powerful. And it is true that at the end of the poem, all of the saints are gathered around the throne, forming a recap of the history of salvation. But it’s not enough. Where is the economic Trinity? Where is the action of God, known as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the world of embodiment and history?

I am reminded of Wendell Berry’s sly mashup of the Divine Comedy in Jayber Crow. Berry, ever the modern, refuses to grant Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory their borders, preferring instead to blend them up inside one man’s soul. What if, cautiously following Berry, we let the Trinitarian cat out of the celestial bag and let it play in the theater of the world a little more, even into the depths of our condition? As Sarah Coakley would put it, the Holy Spirit dismantles our vision of God and puts it back together, in a daily process of being joined to Christ and so growing closer and closer to God. This practice of contemplation does not simply withdraw us into interiority. It also thrusts us out anew into passionate engagement with the world. This is the way the Trinity truly crafts our lives, not in a geometric model of the universe, not just within the caverns of our souls, but within the drama of the Triune God.

‘soul-map’ readings of scripture

For years, I’ve wished for a better word than ‘psychological’ to describe a certain way of reading scripture. You know the reading I’m talking about. It’s not dogmatic, historical, social, or grammatical. (Yes, those are all great ways to read the Bible.) I’m talking about the way of reading where the text is mapped onto the contours of the soul. In this way of reading the text, the Bible tells us something about our deepest selves, so that we come to know ourselves better.
I don’t like the word ‘psychological,’ because it is so strongly linked to James, Freud, Jung, Pavlov, Erikson, Skinner, Rogers, etc. All of those thinkers were important, and we need to grapple with their systems. But when I think of a ‘psychological’ reading of scripture, I’d like to include views that predate Freud, listening to premodern monastic and contemplative voices. When I do a ‘psychological’ reading of a scripture text, I’m more interested in how Teresa of Avila or Evagrius Ponticus or Bernard of Clairvaux would read the passage than how Freud or Jung would read it.
Soul-mapping has been going on for a long time, long before it turned into a modern ‘science.’ I think that reading a scripture passage as a window into the soul is a rich and faithful way to read the Bible, especially when it is paired with Trinitarian theological readings.
So what’s a better word to use to describe this way of reading scripture? We could call it a ‘contemplative’ reading, but even that is not specific enough. A contemplative reading of a Bible passage could be a contemplation of our inner selves, but it could also be a contemplation of the divine life. In some way, these two tasks do interweave, but I’d like to be even more specific.
What if we called it the ‘interior’ reading? That’s still too fuzzy. What about the ‘soul-map’ reading?
I need help here. Anyone have a better name for what I’m after?

Pensées on the mechanics and magic of poetry

The study of poetry is a study of both the mechanics and the “magic” of words.

What do words do when they make meaning? We can map and analyze some of it (the mechanics), and some of it will remain a mystery (the “magic”).

To read a text well, you have to attend to both how the words work, and how the words refer to things beyond themselves.

The liminal space between a word and its meaning(s) is one key place where the “magic” happens.

The transformation of a word when it is severed from its original context and placed in an alien environment is a second key place where the “magic” of poetry happens.

To read the Bible well, you have to attend to both the mechanics and the “magic” of the words.

Therefore, studying poetry should make you a better reader of scripture. The skills learned in reading the former will spill over into your reading of the latter.

This is, of course, not all there is to reading the Bible. In mysterious cooperation with (and sometimes contradicting) our labor, the Holy Spirit acts in freedom and speaks to us through scripture.

It is a mistake to conflate the “magic” of words with the revelation of the Holy Spirit. This was Coleridge’s mistake in the Romantic period.

All the same, I still strongly suspect that there is something super-rational about words and the way that they mean meaning.

Calvin’s Sources of Authority

“Do you think my view lacks authority? It was Augustine who first opened the way for me to understand this commandment.” –– Calvin, Inst. II.VIII.50, 414.
What is interesting about this quote is that Calvin is explicitly using Augustine as a stated source of authority. Clearly sola scriptura was a more subtle concept during the Reformation than we are led to believe.