An early twentieth century Danish author, Sigrid Undset, wrote three books about the life of a medieval woman, Kristin Lavransdatter. The stories cover her often unhappy marriage and her later life as a nun; they end as the Black Death invades Denmark. The author, a winner of the Nobel Peace prize for literature and a Catholic convert, intertwined her story around the old pagan forces of Denmark and the new religion, Christianity, which came late to that country. In one crucial moment in the second book The Wreath, Kristin’s priest tells her:"But I hold on to the cross with all my strength--one must cling to it like a kitten hanging on to a plank when it falls into the sea."
Now paganism, sometimes noble sometimes not, has reentered the contemporary western world while forces aligned with radical pagan narcissism and egotism, not at all noble, are invading the church. One is encouraged to look to one’s own experience and post-modern culture to find any meaning in the word of God. And rather than clinging to the cross with complete submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ one hears the echo of individual and community desires portrayed as God’s word to the Church.
Such is the new, 2014-2015, Horizons Bible study, Reconciling Paul, written by Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty, with suggestions for leaders by Irene Pak. The reader will find, not the words of Paul or the words of Jesus, to place light into their lives, but the themes that so often resonate with such Presbyterian groups as the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns. The lessons in this study use extra-biblical material, begin with women’s experience, use radical feminists perspectives and even deny that salvation comes by Jesus alone. To choose to use this study is to wade into some very dark and murky water.
I will look at each lesson separately over the coming weeks. The first lesson is, “The promise and the problem of Paul.”
Paul, according to Hinson-Hasty, has two views of inclusiveness, which includes women, slavery and sexuality, all coming from his time and cultural ethics and his own sense of being a Jewish minority in a Hellenistic culture. Supposedly Paul lives in tension between his need for exclusiveness and his desire to be inclusive.The author, in the first lesson, offers four possible perspectives one might use to study Paul and 2 Corinthians. The first two are, as she puts it, polar extremes.
The first, “Applying moral advice and teachings found in Paul’s letters directly to the circumstance to our contemporary lives.” Hinson-Hasty description is a caricature and portrays a certain amount of arrogance. She writes:
“The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it!” Some Christians will appeal to their belief in the divine inspiration of the Bible to avoid critical engagement with the biblical passages. These readers believe that faithful people do not need to know much, if anything, about the historical context or original languages in which the Bible was written. Biblical passages can be applied directly to the circumstances of our contemporary daily life and, therefore, Paul’s letters offer relevant moral advice regardless of the differences in historical settings.
Hinson-Hasty elaborates on this using 2 Corinthians 11:3 as her proof text that this methodology will always mean the subordination of women to men. Her second methodology is “Dismissing the moral authority of Pauline letters because they were written for a world so vastly different from our own.” Hinson-Hasty rejects this also as too extreme. But, before I go on to the next two, the last one being the author’s methodology, I want to examine the first.As I stated Hinson-Hasty has set up a caricature and really it is a double edged one. There are, of course, very conservative scholars who do not believe that women can be ordained and believe that men in Christian households are to be the heads of their families. And yet they know and care deeply about the ancient languages and they certainly study and understand the historical context of the text.
On the other hand, there are those who are also conservative and believe women should be in ministry and they also hold to the inspiration of Scripture. The truth is, they, unlike Hinson-Hasty, properly use Scripture to interpret Scripture. Their views are different than those whose understanding involve the submission of women, but their faithfulness to the inspiration of Scripture is intact.Where there is a seeming contradiction the biblical scholar studies Scripture in its historical context and in its ancient languages to find the solution. But contemporary culture and experience are not the arbitrator of the problem, only the word can speak to the issue. Hinson-Hasty belittles those who view Scripture as the word of God.
The third methodology can be conservative although Hinson-Hasty does not say so. It is, “Examining the historical context in which Paul wrote his letters will reveal the meaning and message of even troublesome texts.”Those conservative scholars who believe that women may be ordained and lead, fall into this category. The difference between the conservative and the liberal in this group is that the conservative notes if there is a seeming contradiction within the text itself, while the liberal will too often use the contradictions between culture and Scripture as the starting point.
The fourth methodology, which is the one Hinson-Hasty uses in this study is, “Reading Paul’s letters afresh.” The author explains:
Our interest in Paul’s writing cannot be only historical. The past has a vote in our overall understanding of Christian faith and practice, but the past should not have the full authority or veto. Our study of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians must attend to our own lived experience because we read and hear his writing in the midst of our contemporary struggle to remain faithful. We are then pressed to live a dynamic relationship with the God who is witnessed to in the biblical text and a God who is still creating and imagining new realities within and for our world.
Hinson-Hasty goes on to list five aspects of her study. But we should look carefully at her methodology; within it one can see her view of God and Scripture. And undoubtedly her view of morality as well as redemptive theology will follow although that will be included in other lessons.When speaking of the Scriptures and their historical context, to say that the two together do not have full authority or veto in our Christian faith and practice is to deny the authority of Scripture, it is to deny their inspiration. To believe instead that we are forced to live in a dynamic relationship with a god who is still creating and imagining new realities within and for our world is to believe in a process god. A god who is as influenced by humanity as humanity is influenced by god.
And this goes further, Hinson-Hasty, because she is speaking of God’s word to the Church, is denying the final revelation of God, who is Jesus Christ the Lord of the Church. Surely God continues to uphold his creation and though the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, moves in the life of the Church, guiding her to do God’s will. But there are not new realities, nor new truths beyond that one who is Truth. As John in his third letter states, “Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son.” (3 John 9)“He is the image of the invisible God the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created both in heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the church; and he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he himself will come to have first place in everything. For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in him, and through him to reconcile all things to the himself, having made peace through the blood of his cross; though him I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.” (Colossians 1:15-20 NASB)
Picture- Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt, from Wikipedia