Sunday, September 13, 2009

Eastern Errancy...from a Western Mind (A Retraction of Sorts)

The past few weeks have been momentous, to be sure; we've sold a house, driven cross-country, and begun life as a seminarian family, all in less than a month. During that time, however, I have been thinking intermittently about a post on biblical innerancy which generated quite a bit of (sometimes snarky) commentary, as well as a spinoff of sorts between two of the commentators in the form of a formal debate which I greatly look forward to reading (opening statements HERE and HERE).

This post, however, is concerning the former link to my own writing and is a retraction, to a degree, of what is written there. This retraction will, no doubt, not be to a sufficient degree for some, but will serve, hopefully, as a means of expressing my own hastiness in formulating my initial thoughts.

One of the most common ways in which people tend to highlight Scriptural difficulties is through chronological inconsistencies. My initial take was to assign said differences to the realm of theological emphasis -- for example, I would have said (and have) that John's placing of Christ's cleansing of the temple at the beginning of His ministry is more to make a theological point, while the synoptic gospels' report of the cleansing directly before the Passion was meant to reflect the more chronological view. The idea, presented by conservative Evangelicals mostly, that there were two Temple Cleansings -- one at the beginning of Christ's ministry and one at the end -- was, in my opinion, laughable, for of course there was only one. This presupposition led to my viewing the harmonization accounts as stretching reports of an event to absurd degrees.

Likewise, the chronology of Christ's being called "The Lamb of God" in John and His baptism in the synoptics are followed by very different events; my initial response was to conclude that such a discrepancy was chronologically incompatible but theologically justifiable (which is still the more important factor, in my opinion).

I was quite surprised, then, to find that men such as St. John Chrysostom and the Bl. Theophylact both insisted that our Lord did, in fact, cleanse the Jewish Temple twice, and thought such a position was in no way unreasonable. This gave me pause, for my initial question would be how the Jewish leaders would have ever stood for such an outrage twice, for, indeed, they killed Him after one instance. Yet, as one of my professors is known to point out quite frequently, our liturgy has a sort of pedagogical correction which serves as a key to our confession of Who Christ is: Christ was not "given up" on the night of His Passion; "rather [He] gave Himself up for the life of the world." No man takes His life from Him; His is the ability to pass through the midst of those who would throw Him headlong off a cliff for a claim to have come before their father Abraham. Likewise, if He had been directed by the Father to cleanse the Temple daily, it would not have been in the least bit difficult for Him. Likewise, a closer reading of the gospels cleared up the baptism chronology with a possible harmonization.

These two giants, then, confirmed what I had neglected to do: give the Scripture the benefit of the doubt and seek to find a harmonization when such was possible (as in the above cases).

I do not contend that one need to go to the degree of Tatian's Diatessaron, a second-Century work in which all four gospels were harmonized into one volume, wherein differently-worded parts of the gospels were distilled into one, dogmatic "version" of what happened. One might cement into Holy Writ (as was the case with the Diatessaron in some syriac-speaking sections of Christendom) the idea that the sign on Christ's Cross said, "This is Jesus the Nazarene, the King of the Jews" when what we can have, at the most, is an educated guess, based on incomplete information from the authors' selective reporting. Likewise, undue harmonization of the accounts will lead to a twisting of St. John's gospel at the time of Christ's death, wherein Tatian states that
"when Jesus had taken that vinegar, he said, Everything is finished. 5 But the rest said, Let be, that we may see whether Elijah comes to save him. 6, 7 (Luke 23:46a) And Jesus said, My Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. And Jesus cried again with a loud voice, and said, My Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. (John 19:30b) He said that [i.e., the quote from Luke], and bowed his head, and gave up his spirit" (emph and ed. mine)
while St. John stated that Christ simply "said, 'It is finished!' And bowing His head, He gave up His spirit." While I am not opposed to the use of the biblical texts to form plausible harmonizations (even if such harmonizations might seem at first unlikely), the forcing of one "final" phrase into the midst of a second "final" phrase is uncalled for and violence against the Scripture. While I would maintain, in the spirit of my former post, that this information is insufficent to state definitively what was the final word of Christ from the Cross (as Matthew and Mark themselves confess only to having heard "a loud cry," while John and Luke only report one statement each, and a different one at that), I would not call this a contradiction, but neither can it be said to be clear. I would still say that this needs to be admitted for one to hold to a reasonable view of the Scriptures, and an admittance of this nature does not diminish the divinity of the Scriptures; it merely highlights the limited knowledge inherent in their authors' humanity. Those hearing the Voice at Christ's baptism weren't sure what they heard; we may never know, then, if the Voice was speaking to His Son or merely about Him to others. Again, the lack of clarity is there, but immaterial to inspiration.

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