I’ve always been struck by the introduction to Isaiah’s famous “Holy, Holy, Holy” vision of God in Isaiah 6. It begins with the words, “In the year that King Uzziah died.” These opening words anchor the vision in history, so we remember that Isaiah sees this vision of God’s glory in a time of great upheaval and political uncertainty. But teaching high school great books for our homeschool co-op this year has helped me see something else in this passage. Actually, it’s helped me see something that *isn’t* in this passage. For great books this year we are reading the Odyssey, the Aeneid, and selections from Dante’s Divine Comedy. In each of these pagan works [sorry, Dante!], the main characters –– Odysseus, Aeneas, Dante –– go into the afterlife, and encounter many mighty men and heroes of old. This is what a pantheon really is: a projection of the best and greatest of human potential. And this is what is so strikingly different about heavenly visions in the Bible. They are not parades and triumphs of mighty men and heroes. They are revelatory visions of God, which eclipse all human potential and pride. “In the year that King Uzziah died…” If Isaiah were Odysseus or Aeneas, he would have seen Uzziah, freshly divinized, in his vision, but nope, he sees God’s glory. For biblical writers, kings and emperors and presidents are transient, they die and fade from the story. But the glory of God endures. John the Revelator picks up this theme of Isaiah in Revelation. In contrast with the emperors of Rome, who boast of their accomplishments and immortality and divine status, John sees a vision of the throne of God, where the best and brightest of creation cast their crowns before God. King Uzziah died. Aeneas died. Empires come and go. The glory of God is everlasting.
Reading the Aeneid this morning, I can’t help but contrast Aeneas and Abraham. Aeneas is the founder of Rome, Abraham the founder of Israel, except in a deeper way Abraham is not the founder of Israel at all, the LORD is. Whereas Aeneas claims divine ancestry (he is the son of Venus), Abraham has no such claim. Instead, he himself is claimed by God, elected and called by the LORD. The first claim is ontological –– Aeneas is “nate dea,” “Goddess’ son” (Aeneid I.582). The second claim is relational –– Abraham was “called a friend of God.” (James 2.23). Whereas the gods in the Aeneid are essentially props to support Aeneas’ national and cultural identity, the LORD makes a much more radical claim on Abraham, a claim that calls him out from his nation and culture and opens the boundaries of who exactly his descendants will one day be. It is prophesied that through Aeneas’ descendants “all destined wars will one day cease,” (Aeneid 9.643) and it is prophesied that through Abraham “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12.3)
Whether or not Luke was directly familiar with the Aeneid, it seems that he was familiar with the popular imperial Roman propaganda derived from sources like the Aeneid, because his birth narrative in Luke 1-2 appears to be deliberately crafted as both a fulfillment of the Abrahamic prophecy and a subversive critique of Virgil’s prophecies about Roman imperial power. Let the reader understand: We must reject the Virgil option and cling to the Abraham option.
“When you singin’, you forgit, you see, and the time just pass on ‘way; but if you just get your mind devoted on one something, it look like it will be hard for you to make it, see, make a day. The day be longer, look like. So to keep his mind from being devoted on just one thing, why he’ll practically take up singin’, see.”
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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?