Thursday, May 18, 2017

Nazarene Catechism, Part 3

Based on the drop off in page hits from part 1 to part 2, I want to thank the 13 of you reading this third part of my response to the Nazarene catechism document that's come out recently. Part 1 dealt with the overall format and perspective of the piece and Part 2 addressed the false sense of unity into which it plays.

In Part 3, I'm hoping to just address some specific problems, questions, and disagreements I have with what was expressed. This is essentially a catch-all and very personal. I would expect anyone reading the document to have similar, if not the same, issues with any number of answers. I am not attempting to make argument, but simply express my opinions as a member of the Nazarene clergy in response to what was presented. I think this goes chronologically through the piece, but I apologize if I got something out of order.

In the answer to Question 11, the catechism states that God creates "motivated by holy love." This is problematic because it separates God from love; I'd argue the witness of scripture says God is love. There is nothing else that can motivate God, using the verb in that way implies otherwise. This answer specifically separates love from both God's perfection and creative activity.

I'm pretty uncomfortable with how Question 15 is answered. It's awfully, uncomfortably presumptuous for us to claim that "human authors of sacred scripture... wrote down what God wants to teach us." It might be an attempt to skirt verbal inspiration, but it does an equally adequate job of removing the human element from the process. "What God wants to teach us" implies interpretation and doesn't directly address the text itself. I'd argue God continues to teach us new things through this living and active text - things that previous generations of Christians may never have or been able to know. Similarly, future Christians will undoubtedly discover and learn more than our accumulated knowledge - and thus, what we know from scripture, cannot be all God wants to teach us. We need to keep our answer to these kids of questions to statements about the text itself - "it is sufficient" being the primary descriptor - instead of making claims about the interpretation of such.

Not to be entirely critical, I think this project does a pretty good job of addressing original sin (Question 35 and some around it). These days, I prefer talking about sin as lack and I don't think our traditional conceptions of "Fall" adequately reflect scripture or reality, but an emphasis on self-centeredness and alienation are both strong and consistent starting points.

That being said, the answer to Question 45 talks about "restoring the image of God in humankind." I don't believe that image is or can be lost. I know at some point I heard theological arguments about a strong reformed position (wherein the image of God in humanity is completely lost) versus a moderated position in which it's partially lost, but I don't find either of those options particularly compelling or very Wesleyan (let alone scriptural). It's much more appropriate to speak of humanity, and creation in general, as moving towards something - that creation begins perfect (in the Hebrew sense of the word: fit for a purpose) and continues to grow in perfection as it moves towards completeness or fulfillment. I think this "lost image" business plays into a notion of "Fall" that's not very reflective of scripture or reality. This comes up again in the answer to Question 71.

The Ephesians passage used in the answer to Question 56 is a quotation of Psalms to talk about the ascension of Christ, but that passage makes no mention at all of other people (or "souls") also ascending (which the answer includes with Christ's ascension). This is irresponsible exegesis and irresponsible theology - no matter how popular and common the idea might be.

The answer to Question 64 talks about an eternal separation from God, which is certainly possible given our Articles of Faith, but is not a required belief.

In the answer to Question 72, it speaks of individual Christians as "temples of the Holy Spirit," when the scripture itself clearly speaks collectively of the Church as THE temple of the Holy Spirit. I get that we, in the Western world, are perilously stuck in our individualism, but this is basic Biblical scholarship. It's fairly frequent mistakes like this (or, worse, playing fast and loose with scripture to preserve commonly held beliefs) that make it difficult to trust this document as a reliable source of theological instruction. It causes me to doubt the vigorousness (vigorosity?) of its theological review process.

I mentioned it in Part 2, but I want to reaffirm my approval of the answer to Question 91 and its strong implication that no one should be "re-baptized." I happen to believe no one CAN be re-baptized, but this is as clear a statement on the matter as we've ever had. It's still probably inappropriate for the piece to do so, give our polity and practice, but at least its a mistake I agree with this time.

The answer to Questions 111 and 141 imply that love of God and love of neighbor are somehow different. Why would we do this? Jesus holds them together and scripture routinely connects them. The very fact that we affirm a relational God of self-giving love should precipitate the affirmation of our role as relational, self-giving creatures. We cannot be individual Christians any more than we can be individual humans. Perhaps there's some nod to the old hierarchy of God, Family, Church, World, etc - but there are far more scripturally aware and creatively constructive ways (check this book out for one of them) to talk about priorities without sacrificing this pretty important theological concept.

In the answer to Question 120 we use a Torah reference to describe the new covenant in Christ. Why? If that reality was already revealed to God's people at or around the same time as the original covenant, why is there a need for a second? Obviously we do need a new covenant or we wouldn't have one, but this answer doesn't really address the question (and sort of creates a new one); it's more an issue of confusing wording than real theological problems.

We should not make the fifth commandment (Questions 133 and 134) about the nuclear family, but remember the tribal culture in which it was given. This enforces a faulty priority system (mentioned above) that doesn't properly reflect scripture or theology very well.

The sixth commandment (Question 135) says "thou shalt not kill." Translating it as murder is a terribly irresponsible theological interpretation that allows many to justify evil in the name of God (which is, itself, a violation of the third commandment).

The answer to Question 136 compares homosexual acts to rape. I recognize I'm in the distinct minority in the Church of the Nazarene in advocating for treating each person as a unique individual, ignoring categories of gender and sexuality as means of categorization, however, this is still a pretty uncharitable means of dealing with an issue that is far from definitive and probably worth more than a throwaway question towards the end of a giant document like this.

The legalistic weaseling in the answer to Question 137 is staggering. We've somehow made this broad, complex commandment into a defense of modern, western notions of private property (including an overt reference to 'intellectual property,' which doesn't actually mean anything outside a contemporary legal context). I believe a scriptural position might define stealing as a child of God claiming ownership of anything.

The answer to Question 140 restricts coveting to thoughts and desires that lead to stealing or adultery - which unnecessarily limits the notion of discontent inherent in the commandment. Coveting is anytime we're unhappy with our situation or find ourselves deserving of something better - it's a lack of humility and an abundance of self-centeredness.

As mentioned before, the answer to Question 141 says, "Our most ardent desire should be a longing for God alone." I disagree - our most ardent desire should be fully giving ourselves to the other in love. Which might be solved if we didn't separate love of God from love of neighbor. They've made this sentence a full-page graphic in the catechism; I think this is full of good intentions, but theologically and practically problematic. A document of this nature needs to be beyond good intentions.

The spiritualizing of "give us this day our daily bread" (Question 159) is offensive to Christ. It drives our attention from the realities of our physical world and distracts us from genuine trust in God. It lets us off the hook for trusting ourselves for everyday needs. Yes, a balance of idealism and realism is required for Christian ethics in this time between Kingdom's institution and fulfillment, but we must continually challenge ourselves to live into that Kingdom, not make excuses for those injustices in which we have almost no choice but to participate.

I'm really not sure what to make of this document over all. At the beginning of Part 1 I talked about how I don't feel like we should be content with efforts like this, which are well-intentioned, but almost completely useless. Yes, you might be able to use some of these questions as starting points for discussion on various theological themes, but this is no better a document than dozens of others out there which could be used for the same purpose. Furthermore, it just so infrequently feels like genuine care is put into the theology behind these attempts, at least less care is put into theology than packaging or simply the internal drive to create them.

Then again, maybe I'm just screaming into the void. If so, well, that's really all I ever intended this blog to be anyway. Sorry to have wasted your time.

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