Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Rule on Rule

What do the Jewish Talmud, the teachings of the Catholic and Orthodox churches, the teachings of Bill Gothard, and many of the teachings that come out of the Charismatic movement have in common? My take is that much of all of these are based on stuff that is based on other stuff that is based on some original information or saying from the Bible.

The story of the Talmud is well known. It's a commentary on a commentary on commentary. And the rabbinical culture which produced it, produced much of the legalism that Christ had such a dislike for. I hope I am not wrong in the understanding that much of the that legalism is contained in the Talmud.

I'll skip over to Bill Gothard, since so much of my childhood Christianity was framed by his teaching. A clever man, that Bill. Could keep you listening to him for hours. Lots of helpful material, too. But when it came to overarching theory, it got a little sketchy. Bill liked to derive principles from the Bible and then derive principles from other principles and that's where he falls into the same camp as the Pharisees. My favourite was the reasoning behind his idea that rock music is evil. The whole idea comes from the mention in Paul's letters of spirit, soul, and body. Now Paul doesn't say that much about those three; in fact he was probably expressing the totality of human existence. But Bill had lots to say. For Bill, they represented not a totality but a hierarchy. Spirit on top, soul in subjection to spirit, body in subjection to spirit and soul. Based on this Bill constructed a theory of music. As follows: the spirit corresponds to the melody, the harmony to the soul (think "mind"), and the beat to the body. So rock music is obviously wrong because the body component of the music is emphasized. I'm guessing he probably didn't have much time for vocal jazz either, because the soul (think "mind") component is too prevalent in all those harmonies.

Two months or so ago, I had an extended discussion on Facebook about Mary as theotokos, or Mother of God. I questioned the use of the title, because it has always seemed to me to make Mary the originator of God. One response I got was, was I setting myself up against the third ecumenical council that declared her to be that? Well I finally looked up the council that declared her to be theotokos, (on Wikipedia -- hardly a primary source, but...) and the sense I got was not that it was focused on elevating Mary to a permanent exalted position in the Kingdom, but on proclaiming Jesus as God instead of merely Christ. The council was choosing between God-bearer and Christ-bearer. (And yes, the use of "bearer" instead of "originator," deals with my scruples about "Mother of God," but that's still an aside.) Assigning that title, though, to Mary has had its consequences. For centuries after, Christian worship has, to my mind, counter-intuitively included her in regular liturgy.


The point I am trying to make is that teachings that are second or third generation (based on stuff that is based on other stuff) is suspect. A small amount of bias in a primary teaching is forgivable -- we are all human after all. But error compounds upon error and soon you have something that is not recognizable as stemming from the original.

Take the Trinity for example. The Trinity is, to my mind, a best-guess label for the mysterious relationship and identity Father Son and Holy Spirit have together. From the Bible, it's easily defensible as a good working concept. But it's never explicitly taught. We've derived it from what we read, honestly and humbly enough. But then someone the other day was telling me that he was meditating on the perichoresis, a deeper concept which describes of the intricacies of that mysterious relationship (read up in it yourself.) But how, I ask, can there even be a perichoresis, when we don't even really know if there is a Trinity? Our humble best-guess has exalted itself into being the basis for a whole other teaching. We've strayed into what we can't actually know.

How quickly this process occurs in the Church is evident in the some of the practises that have arisen among Charismatics. "Binding Satan" in prayers is surely based on stuff that is based on other stuff. (You never hear Jesus or the early church praying that way.) Catchphrases abound. "Come into alignment," "plead the blood," etc. All had some traction at one time in context of someone's inspiring teaching. But they are hardly central and should really be discarded before someone bases anything more on them.

I have an Orthodox co-worker, who justly accuses me of minimalism. Guilty as charged, I say. The enormous jurisprudence of canon law terrifies me. I read the intricate distinctions of who can have communion, what kind of marriages are legitimate, (divorce is unlawful, but you can get an annulment) etc. and wonder how any of that is foreshadowed by Jesus and his ministry here on earth. It's not. It's rule on rule, rule on rule, a little here, a little there. (And for those who think that that's a good thing, reread the Isaiah passage where that phrase occurs.)

So I propose a sort of hierarchy of teaching. The original sources are more authoritative. First generation teachings based on those sources are less so. Second generation teachings based on the first are suspect. Third generation teachings should probably be discarded. I'm probably wrong, but it's where I'm at right now.