Posted on: May 22nd, 2023 Either/Or: Levinson vs. Machen

For better and for worse, my theological mind is the product (to some extent) of Westminster Theological Seminary, founded in reaction to the “liberalization” of Princeton Seminary, by J. Gresham Machen (and others) in the 1920’s.

Machen most famous book, perhaps, bears the title Christianity and Liberalism. In it he lays down a stark “either/or”: you can be a Christian, or a liberal, but not both. In this stark, antithetical opposition, you must choose sides: are you a Christian, or are you a liberal?

In the introduction to his 1985 Sinai & Zion: an Entry into the Jewish Bible, Jon Levenson displays a completely different attitude. Describing a situation in which premodern Jewish exegetes of the Hebrew Bible were faced with problems (even contradictions) in the text, Levinson writes:

In the great work of post biblical Judaism, the Talmud, for example, one rabbi doubts that Moses wrote the last eight verses of the Torah on the grounds that he could not have written about his own death and burial. The retort is immediately offered that it was not Moses but God who composed these verses. Moses wrote them down in tears. The revealing point is that the … position [that] assumes that a commitment to tradition does not require the Jew to ignore empirical evidence in the name of an increasingly blind faith. One wonders where the Talmudic sage who voiced the doubt would have stood in the modern dispute, when so much more evidence against mosaic authorship has been developed. In any event doubts or ambivalence about Mosaic authorship of the Torah and a host of other traditional beliefs appear on occasion in medieval commentaries which the tradition accepts. Even the possibility of scribal error in the text of the Torah as it reaches us seems to have occurred to some of the great rabbinic exegetes. It is surely the case that a few of them were willing to entertain the notion that the plain sense of a verse can contradict the normative law (halakhah) which the Talmudic rabbis derived from it. In instances of this sort, what is interesting and possibly enlightening for the modern situation is that awareness of the contradiction does not seem to have dampened the exegetes commitment either to the observance of halakhah or to the exposition of the plain sense of scripture. This would imply that Jewish tradition includes a form of biblical scholarship which is more than mere repetition, rearrangement, or extension of data known through the tradition itself. Tradition, so understood, will include novelty, even contradiction. It will not be fossilized, but vital, growing, and to a certain extent, changing.

John Levinson, Sinai & Zion, 6–7.

Now, this posture of Levinson’s—which resonates quite well with the recent emphasis of David Bentley Hart in his Tradition and Apocalypse—stands in stark contrast to that of J. Gresham Machen. It is, quite simply, vastly superior, not least in its admission that tradition (which here would include the Bible which is always already interpreted) is manifold and diverse, riddled with inconsistencies. (Here we remember that our faith is not in the Bible or in any tradition, but rather in the Lord Jesus Christ.)

To put it simply, you can have Levinson and Hart, or you can have Machen. For me, the choice is clear.

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Filed under: Bible, Book Notes (& articles, too), philosophy, the Christian Life / Prayer | Comments Off on Either/Or: Levinson vs. Machen

Posted on: August 1st, 2022 Hosea, Gomer, & “Sex Workers”

Sometime over the last few months, I have discovered a kindred spirit in the person of Mark Vernon. I have never met Mark (I’ve only interacted with him very briefly online), but through his youtube videos & his books (one book, rather, for I’ve not yet gotten to the others), I can tell that he is channeling something that resonates with my own views/interests/posture. (Sidenote: it was our shared interest in the work of David Bentley Hart that allowed Mark to emerge on my “radar screen.”)

The book in question, The Secret History of Christianity: Jesus, the Last Inkling, and the Evolution of Consciousness (a bit of an unfortunate title, I admit, as it evokes Dan-Brown type images of conspiracy and underground, possibly new-agey plots), is a gem not simply because of the way it applies the thought of Owen Barfield (dear friend of Lewis & Tolkien, whom they both regarded as the most intelligent of the three), but also because of one particular focus it has by way of a “shift” in (what Vernon thinks of as) spiritual consciousness: that of the eighth-century prophets of Israel, Amos and Hosea in particular.

For it just so happens that in my Episcopal parish we have been reading “the Bible in one year” (thanks, Nicky Gumbel!) and discussing it in our Sunday morning Christian Formation Class, that last couple of weeks focusing on the minor prophets of Jonah, Amos, and Hosea.

Allow me to quote the upshot of Vernon’s point about these prophetic shifts in posture:

Looking back, we can say that the genius of the eighth-century prophets was to intuit that, amidst the anxieties of the age, a new consciousness of themselves and God was unfolding. What Amos and Hosea, in particular, were beginning to realize was that, as the monarchy failed, the nature of the covenant must change. It would no longer be held in the pooled identity of the kingly theocratic order. People would need to come to know Yahweh’s presence in a different way. Only, at this stage, it was entirely unclear in what way.

Vernon, Secret History, 23.

Now, in our Formation Class yesterday morning, we had an interesting discussion about Gomer, the prostitute whom God commanded Hosea to marry. One good friend (extremely thoughtful) in the discussion suggested that I should refer to Gomer as a “sex worker,” I suggestion which I received with open appreciation. However, reading the Vernon book is causing me to reconsider, for he rightly points out that “Gomer … was a sacred prostitute in the cult of Baal.” Unlike a “sex worker” that we might find the twenty-first century West, this woman is not working for a wage. Rather, she is enmeshed in a system of religious power. While a sex worker has (or ought to have, according to some, myself probably included) the same kind of autonomy, the same rights, as any other worker in a secular, capitalist society, Gomer is, quite plainly, a religious slave.

This slave also turns out to be a symbol that the Hebrew Bible uses to make a point about the new thing that God is doing in his history with his people: the deepening of a relationship starkly different from those having to do with the traditional deities of that age. This relationship is one of the heart, one of love. It is a relationship with God uncountenanced within the context of what Barfield calls “original participation.”

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Filed under: Bible, Chesterton & Lewis, Gender & Sexuality, History / Genealogy, philosophy, theology / ecclesiology | Comments Off on Hosea, Gomer, & “Sex Workers”