Monday, July 16, 2012

Ross Douthat’s column “Can Liberal Christianity be saved?” has provoked something of a firestorm, with generally positive responses from “conservatives,” if my social media are to be trusted, and some thoughtful responses from  “liberals,” such as Diana Butler Bass and Craig Uffman. I want to make a different sort of argument: first, that it is time to stop using “conservative” and “liberal” to distinguish Christians (even if it fits a Western political paradigm quite nicely); and second, that the Bible gives us ways of distinguishing when change is authentic to the Christian message and life and when it is not, but the notion that Christianity as manifested in its human dimension has not, does not and will not change cannot be maintained.

Change, development, and growth all happen. What differs amongst Christians going back to the earliest Church is what constitutes authentic and organic change, development and growth and what is false and scandalous. When I look at the earliest growth of Christianity, if the language of “conservative” and “liberal” were in use back then, I would argue that the “conservatives” had all of the best arguments, plus tradition, authority and Scripture on their side. Who would these “conservatives” be? The ones who said the early Christians, including Gentiles, must be circumcised and made to follow the Law of Moses if they wanted to be disciples of Jesus. We see these Christians in the background in Paul’s letter to the Galatians and in the foreground in Acts 15 making precisely the argument I mentioned above: “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved"(15:1); "It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses"(15:5). The fact that the Church hears and debates their arguments indicates clearly that no definitive statement had been made by Jesus suggesting that the Law of Moses ought not be kept by his disciples, whether Jews or Gentiles. The weight of tradition, practice and Scripture rests with these conservative factions in the earliest Church.  

Indeed, if I were one of these early Christian “conservatives,” here is how I would make the argument:

Brothers and Sisters, why are we even discussing this issue? The Scripture is clear how we should behave and what we must do. God spoke to Abraham directly and said, in Genesis 17:10-14,

“This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring. Both the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money must be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant."

How much clearer can God speak to his people? It is a sign of the covenant for all who want to belong to the covenant! Yes, the Messiah has come and yes, the Messiah has called all people to follow him, but where does it say that those who follow in the latter days shall not follow the Law of Moses? Show me the verse! The Law will be written in our hearts, as Jeremiah 31:33 says, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people,” but the Law will not come to an end! This applies to all – listen to God speak to Abraham: even the slave and foreigner of our houses should be circumcised, why not then the Gentile who wants to become part of the covenant? Will you disobey God’s clear commandment in order to attract more people to follow Jesus? Will you take the Law, with which God blessed us, and treat it like nothing? We have no right, we have no authority! What does “everlasting covenant” mean to you? How do you understand “any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant”? We agree: let the Gentiles follow Jesus, but they must also follow the Law of Moses and that includes circumcision amongst everything else!

But the Church, as seen in Galatians (and elsewhere in Paul’s letters) and in Acts 15, decided that there were a number of factors which necessitated a change of interpretation and understanding in the clear application and practice of the Scripture as seen in Genesis 17:10-14.

One was the experience of the Holy Spirit: Peter said that “God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us {i.e., Jewish believers}” (Acts 15:8). Two was Peter’s argument that the Law was “a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear” (15:10) and “on the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will” (15:11). Three is James’ claim that the experience of the Gentiles coming into the covenant as disciples of Jesus the Messiah is in keeping with other Scripture from the prophets, Amos 9:11-12 and Isaiah 45:21, which indicates to James that “we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God” (15:19), but only ask them to follow certain laws regarding idolatry, sexual practice and food (which some scholars, such as the late Alan Segal, believed were what were later called the Noachide laws, though this is not universally held). Four is the decision of the whole Church Council to support James’ decision for “then the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided to choose men from among their members and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas” (15:22) to pass on the Church’s decision.

Now, if you were to ask me as a neutral observer, which I am not,  who had the best of the scriptural argument, the best of the argument from tradition and, finally, the best argument from common practice, I would have to say the “conservative” faction of the early Church. Where is there any direct statement from Scripture or from Jesus that this is the proper “change” or “development” in the life and practice of the Church? Does that mean that the early Church’s decision to change radically its way of life was “liberal”? And make no mistake, this is a radical and earth shattering change, and if that is lost on Christians today it is because we no longer recognize how drastic it was to accept Gentiles into the covenant as Gentiles or to suggest that members of the covenant need not follow the Law of Moses in its entirety (Galatians 5:14: “The entire law is fulfilled in a single command: "Love your neighbor as yourself").

What is also fascinating is that change is embedded in this passage yet again in the very directives that James and the whole Church give to the Gentile Christians instead of the whole Law of Moses:

For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell. (Acts 15:28-29)

The Church continues to insist to this day on the illicit nature of fornication (porneia in Greek) and abstention from what is sacrificed to idols (though see 1Corinthians 8-10 for an early modification or “change” of sorts in this respect), though you do not hear a lot on “strangled” animals – whether it relates to idolatrous sacrifices or improper methods of killing animals – or on eating or drinking blood nowadays. In fact, when I taught my Survey of the New Testament course a few years back to a class with a number of seminarians, now priests, from Ghana, this passage lead to uproarious laughing. Why? For some Ghanaian tribes, including their own, blood was a part of their diet. Why is this no longer an issue? Was there some sort of “liberal” agenda driving the Church’s shift from this requirement established by the earliest Church Council?

Things do change in Christianity and it seems difficult to me to cast change in religion in terms of “conservative” and “liberal” factions. It also seems incorrect to focus on “numbers” – falling or rising memberships – as the key to whether change is authentic and organic or whether it is false and unnatural. You can argue that change leads to falling numbers because a group does not follow the traditions of old – maybe the early Christians who were at odds with the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 made this argument – or you can use the same falling numbers to claim that it is now a religious movement becoming more pristine and faithful, so why should numbers even matter.

The real issues are who has the authority to certify authentic change and what is the rationale for that change, because change, development and growth do come. Acts 15 tells us a few things about this:

1) There was a gathering of the apostles, elders and other members of the Church who disputed and discussed the questions regarding Gentiles and the Law of Moses;
2) There was a claim made on the Church by the actual experience of the Gentiles, who had also shown evidence of the Holy Spirit;
3) There were scriptural warrants which were gathered to provide support for the experience of the people who desired change;
4) There was an authoritative decision rendered by the Church and accepted by the whole Church.

For Catholics, the issue of authority, that of the Magisterium, is primary, and Catholics are beholden to it, but to think that change does not come is not to know one’s own Church’s history, at its earliest stages. It is also important to keep in mind that the “the whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles” (Acts 15:12). The Church needs to listen to what is taking place in the lives of ordinary believers and recognize that the Holy Spirit speaks through the whole Church. It is also important to search the Scripture and recognize that Scripture speaks in different ways and at different times to people: it was only in light of the experience of the Gentiles that James and then the whole Church heard the prophets Amos and Isaiah in a new way.

Change in Christianity is not about “liberal” and “conservative” factions, it is about becoming the followers of Jesus that we are supposed to be. We need to listen to each other, to hear of the lives of others, to examine Scripture, and, yes, to accept authoritative decisions, but we also need to be ready to hear change, not as a threat, or as schismatic, or as rebellion, but as the nature of the body of Christ:  

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. (Ephesians 13-22)

Let’s say this letter was written to us today shall we and that it did not concern “Gentiles” and “Jews” but so-called “Conservatives” and “Liberals”? Christ came to proclaim not “conservatism” or “liberalism,” but “one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.” What a change.

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @Biblejunkies


  1. Very nice post John !

    Hope the surgery went well.

    “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you

    The "and your offspring" seems to refer to Abraham's biological descendants, (although I guess one could read it spiritually), so it seems to me that the argument is really one about whether gentile converts ought to be required to practice the full range of traditions required of ethnic Jews.

    This would probably need to be read in the light of the talmudic tradition of the "oral Torah" where the Jewish rabbis insisted on their right to modify tradition as necessary for changing social conditions.

    Reflecting on the early Church's experience of the working of the Holy Spirit, one wonders whether a possible experience of the Holy Spirit working thru ordained women might lead to a development of Catholic understanding on that ? Certainly with more and more women being ordained, the opportunities for people to experience that are becoming ever more numerous.

    God Bless

  2. Thanks so much Chris! The surgery went well, but the recovery is proceeding slowly, at least in terms of what I am capable of doing. On the other hand, that is to be expected, and I am on schedule. My next big appointment is August 2 when I get an x-ray to see how the fusion has gone and then start with physical therapy.

    You make some excellent points and, as you well know, Paul made precisely that point with respect to "offspring" in Galatians, that "sperma" refers to Christ not the physical descendants of Abraham. I think the issue is, as Paul argues, is Jesus sufficient for salvation or is the law of Moses essential? I am not certain that this question initially arose in Jesus' ministry, but once gentiles became a part of the Church it had to be answered: are they full members of the covenant and if so what does that require?

    As you say, who knows where the Spirit blows?

  3. I'd be more inclined to argue that the Law of Moses is essential; the question is how to apply it correctly to the gentiles.

    I don't think Christ superseded the Torah, but showed how to interpret and apply it authentically. Certainly Christ is sufficient, but I think we have to take seriously the claim that he came not to change a single jot or title in the Law.

    The same principle applies in all religions: how to authentically apply the Tradition in today's circumstances, how to distinguish between what is essential and what is historically conditioned, and to what extent to apply particular cultural traditions to everyone (eg the Catholic Church has a multiplicity of liturgical rites for her various cultural traditions, and two codes of Canon Law, one for the Latin rite and another for the Eastern rites; similarly in Judaism one could distinguish between what is required of ethnic Jews and what is required of converts who are not ethnic Jews eg circumsion, kosher).

    Even leaving aside the early Church, I think there's a valid Jewish argument that circumcision ought not be imposed on Jewish converts.

    God Bless

  4. Two kinds of proselyte in Judaism

    There are two kinds of proselyte:

    Ger tzedek (righteous proselytes, proselytes of righteousness, religious proselyte, devout proselyte)
    Ger toshav (resident proselyte, proselytes of the gate, limited proselyte, half-proselyte)

    A righteous proselyte[5] was a Gentile who had converted to Judaism, was bound to all the doctrines and precepts of the Jewish economy, and was considered a full member of the Jewish people. They were to be circumcised and immersed in a mikvah should they wish to eat of the Passover sacrifice. A gate proselyte[6] was a "resident alien" who lived in the Land of Israel and followed some of the customs. They were not required to be circumcised nor to comply with the whole of the Torah. They were bound only to conform to the seven precepts of Noah, the Noahide Laws: do not worship idols, do not blaspheme God's name, do not murder, do not commit immoral sexual acts, do not steal, do not tear the limb from a living animal, and do not fail to establish courts of justice to be assured of a place in the world to come.

    God Bless

  5. "I'd be more inclined to argue that the Law of Moses is essential; the question is how to apply it correctly to the gentiles.

    I don't think Christ superseded the Torah, but showed how to interpret and apply it authentically. Certainly Christ is sufficient, but I think we have to take seriously the claim that he came not to change a single jot or title in the Law."

    This is well said, the law is essential - but is it for Paul with respect to salvation? - and it is not superseded, which is why it was such a contentious issue as to how to apply it to gentiles; but if we "take seriously the claim that he (Jesus) came not to change a single jot or tittle in the Law," the reality is, the Church definitively changed the way in which Christians followed the law: they did not follow all of it, but Paul claims they "fulfilled" it through Christ.

    I am not certain if this distinction between sorts of proselytes existed at the time of Jesus' ministry; do you know. or does it reflect later rabbinic thought? Certainly there were "Godfearers" attached to Synagogues, but were these considered proselytes?

    The big issue seems to me to be that in light of Christ, the disciples of Jesus understood that something fundamental had changed regarding the nature and purpose of the law, though it was up to them, within the trajectory left to them by Jesus, and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to determine what the law meant for the Church, both Jew and Gentile I would say.

  6. For the variety of early Jewish views, see:

    Scroll down to
    Arguments for and Against.
    Circumcision Necessary or Not?

    Different Jewish views remain today on the necessity of circumcising converts (Reform Judaism not requiring circumcision).

    God Bless