Christianity 201

August 4, 2016

The Bible’s Vice Lists

This article deals with a particular form we see in New Testament writings. This may interest some of you more than others, but I hope you’ll gain some understanding of the type of things academics and Bible historians wrestle with. This was posted at The Christian Century. Click the link below to read at source.

What’s a vice list for?

Colossians 3:1–11

by Daniel Schultz

For more commentary on this week’s readings, see the Reflections on the Lectionary page, which includes Schultz’s current Living by the Word column as well as past magazine and online-only content. For full-text access to all articles, subscribe to the Century.

Fun fact: when Paul tells his readers in Colossae to

put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)

it’s an example of a common ancient rhetorical device called a “vice list.” (This is not actually fun, but bear with me.) There’s another one later in the same passage, where Paul talks about “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language.” And there are several other examples in the New Testament, sometimes with corresponding virtue lists. The idea is straightforward: don’t do these things. Do these other things instead.

Further fun fact: a couple hundred years after Paul, vice lists gave rise to the seven deadly sins. In the monastic guide the Praktikos, Evagrius Ponticus writes about what he calls “evil thoughts”: gluttony, impurity or lust, avarice, sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory, and pride. Through translation and adaptation, eight evil thoughts became seven deadly sins: pride, envy, anger, lust, gluttony, sloth and greed. The emphasis shifted as well–while Evagrius spends as much time on anger as anything, in the medieval world, pride became much more important.

Like Paul’s lists, Evagrius’s evil thoughts somehow managed to get codified into law, or the next thing unto it. Taking part in one of the deadly sins put one’s immortal soul in danger; it was cause for confession before a priest and a mending of ways. This moral pattern came along with no end of discussion over who exactly was guilty of what, and why, and how much they ought to be shamed for it. (In some cases, it became a how-to manual.)

Likewise, Paul’s list of sexual transgressions has always been better remembered than the other failures he mentions. For nearly 2,000 years, it’s been used to shame sexual expression and keep women in their place. I know many who reject Christianity because of Paul, or dump the apostle and keep the rest of the New Testament.

Evagrius seems to name barriers to progress in spiritual discipline, the thoughts and attitudes and attachments that would prevent desert monks from truly emptying themselves so that they could be filled entirely with the Holy Spirit. I wonder if something similar wasn’t also true for Paul. By the time he wrote to the Colossians, he was an experienced church planter and pastor. He knew how little heed congregants pay to moralizing from the pulpit.

Neither Paul nor Evagrius appears to want his readers to think they will roast in hell for offenses named in these lists. Instead, the goal seems to be a fulfilled life. In Evagrius’s case this means a life united with God and freed from petty sorrows and regrets. For Paul, the goal is never the straight and narrow path. It’s to take part in the new creation, clothed in “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience,” as we were before the fall.

Yes, that’s a virtue list, and it forces upon us a question. Not what are the rules?–that’s too simple. It’s the great question of ethics: who are you? Are you the kind of person who behaves like this, or the kind of person who behaves like that?

Our society might be moving past telling people who they can and can’t sleep with. But this larger question–who are you?–remains to be wrestled with eternally.

 

December 30, 2012

Christianity as the Early Church Defined It

David Rudel is a theoretic mathematician, writer, editor, mathematical modeler, and theologian working on church and science education reform. He is the author of four chess books, two science books, and one book on Christian Theology.  This appeared several years ago at his blog, Fire In The Bones under the title, What is a Christian?


A lot of energy is spent by Christians trying to tell one another what a real Christian is. This is not a new phenomenon. It’s eerily similar to political mouthpieces trying to say who really represents the beliefs of one party or another.

Were you to ask people What does it mean to be a Christian? or What are the minimal requirements for someone to qualify as a Christian? You could get any number of responses. Some common essential properties of being a Christian you might hear are:

A. Believes the Bible (Or some variation on in what way someone “believes the Bible.”)
B. Goes to Church (For Catholics, I would enlarge this to include certain practices like eating fish on Fridays, etc.)
C. Believes “Jesus died for my sins.”
D. Believes Jesus was/is God
E. Believes only Christians go to Heaven
F. Believes “You cannot make it to Heaven on your own.”
G. Believes in the Resurrection
H. Is a member of my denomination
I. Believes God created the world in 6 days

(What answer would people you know give?)

It seems to me that most, if not all, the above have serious problems. For example, “E is self-referential…saying that a Christian is someone who believes that only Christians go to Heaven does nothing to define who a Christian is. If I believed I was a Christian and believed I was the only one going to Heaven, then “E” would apply to me…but yet I have done nothing to explain by that belief what it means to be a Christian.

Many of the above make no sense historically. We have to assume that the early apostles and their churches should count as “Christians,” yet they did not have “The Bible,” (indeed, the Church disagreed among itself for centuries as to which books belonged in the Bible and which did not) so one could hardly say that a requirement for Christianity is that you believe the Bible [though one could draw the conclusion that the Old Testament, at least, was accurate, as we see no account of Jesus suggesting otherwise.]

Similarly, the doctrine of atonement in its current state didn’t even exist until the 11th century, and early believers did not have the trinitarian formulas the modern church holds so dear. Indeed, Origen, the most important Christian theologian of the 2nd century, would not even be allowed in the church today by that standard.

In addition to historical problems, significant biblical problems stand out from the above list as well. Where do we see early evangelists stressing to non-believers any of these things? If you want to see what makes a Christian a Christian, I think you should look at what the early apostles preached to non-Christians in an effort to have them join the Faith.

A study of acts can be rather revealing here. I’ve put together the following chart to illustrate what teachings you find in Acts regarding Christianity. I’m focusing on Acts because that is the only book where the focus is on Evangelism to non-believers and new believers.

Passage
in Acts
Jesus is
Messiah
Jesus
Arose
Jesus 
is King
Jesus will
Judge All
Repent! Believers go
to Heaven
Heathens
go to Hell
2: 14-41 x x x   x    
3: 12-26 x x x   x    
4: 8-12 x x          
5: 30-32 x x x        
5: 42 x            
7: 1-53 x            
9: 22 x            
10: 34-43 x x x x      
13: 16-41 x x x   x    
14: 14-17         x    
17: 2-4, 6-7 x x x        
17: 18-31   x   x x    
18: 5 x            
18: 28 x            
20: 20-22     x   x    
22: 1-21 x x          
26: 1-29 x x          

Based on the above, I’d say that other than emphasizing the Resurrection, the church has rather struck out when it comes to defining who or what a Christian is.

It seems, at least if Paul, James, Peter, and Stephen are good sources, that a Christian is someone who has chosen to follow Christ’s practices, repenting of unloving acts that God hates, and believes Jesus is the Christ (as shown by his Resurrection) who has been given power over Heaven and Earth, including the office of Judge.

While none of the above are things that most Christians would disagree with, they are also unlikely to be the first thing out of their mouths when asked What does it mean to be a Christian?

I think Christians in general do not like the idea that repentance is an absolute requirement as opposed to a goal. I would further say that merely believing Jesus is the Christ who sits in power over Heaven and Earth would strike many as “too easy,” allowing too many fringe groups in. And in particular, the idea that “Christians, and only Christians, go to Heaven” is such a basic tenet to many that seeing it as not a required one just seems odd. The truth is that the word for Hell does not even show up in all of Acts. One wonders what that says about modern day evangelists and missionaries who start off their message with “Do you know where you are going when you die?”

But what do you think? What does it mean to be a Christian? Are there any passages you believe suggest there is some aspect fundamental to being a Christian that is missing from the message given by the apostles in Acts?