6 Things for the Last Day of Women’s History Month

Rosie the Riveter

For those who are unaware, March is Women’s History Month. From a theological standpoint, women are created in the image of God (as Genesis says “in the image of God he made them, Male and Female he created them”). The creation accounts end with women, the crown jewel of creation. In light of the fact that yesterday was the UK’s “Mothering Day” (aka Mother’s Day) and that this is the last day of Women’s History Month, here are six things you can do to show women (and other women) you care.

1. Appreciate women you know

Only, don’t appreciate them in some awkward “you’re a woman, so, er, um, I guess I appreciate you for being born without a Y chromosome” way. Instead appreciate the women you know for the things they do as people because, you know, they are people. Kinda a prerequisite there. So really look at what they excel at as a human being and take the time to say thanks for that.

2. Read a little about women’s history

It’s fascinating stuff. Try to get past Amelia Earhart too. I mean there are tons more fascinating women. Since this is a Christian theology blog, I’ll point out Hildegard von Bingen, or Julian of Norwich, both amazing women who impacted through their Julian of Norwich Picturewritings, and in many ways continue to impact, the church, theology and, in Hildegard’s place, music, yet lived during a time when most people, not to mention women, were illiterate. Of course there are many more (really these are just two of so many more within Christianity and outside of Christendom), so go do some research and get reading.

3. Acknowledge the fact that women get less credit, (and less pay) than men

This is not the product of a bygone era. Women still are regularly paid substantially less than men for performing the exact same task. They are also less likely to be promoted and generally have a steeper climb than men do. This is despite laws designed to prevent this sort of thing from happening. You may disagree about whether a woman should work out of the home or not, but if she is working, it is hard to make a case that her work is somehow less valuable for any reason other than the fact that companies can get away with it.

4. Realize that there is a negative double standard for women

This is related to the work issue, but goes beyond it. Women who spend lots of time in the office are considered neglectful of their families, while those who spend more time with their families are seen as less committed. In contrast, men who do these same activities are viewed as either driven or “family men.” Beyond the workplace, though, there is a different standard for sexuality. Men who are sexually promiscuous or who look at pornographic images are seen as subject to biology beyond their control or somehow just being manly. Women, however, are viewed as…well I try not to use that sort of language on this blog.

5. Understand that modern slavery disproportionately affects women

More people are kidnapped or born, bought and sold, or currently held captives as slaves today that at any point in history previously. Exact numbers are difficult to pin down, but roughly 80% of those in slavery are little girls and young women put into prostitution or other forms of sexual slavery. This is the disgusting and cold hard fact of our world. I currently live in Houston, the American Capital for human trafficking/slave trading/sex trafficking (with an international port, airport, and interstate highways close to an international border it makes it terribly suited for this sort of thing).

6. Work to end numbers 3-5

We should work to remove these disparities and end modern slavery. Not because these primarily affect women, but because they universally affect people. We are all created in God’s image and are all in need of God’s rescue. We should work to live out that equality in our lives.

For more on what you can do to end modern slavery see these organizations or find other reputable ones: Free the Captives, Free our City, and Houston Rescue and Restore.


French Doctor responds to Dutch Optometrist (Church History Minute)

This Church History minute is about Jean Astruc

Who was he? A French doctor, specifically specializing in the field of dermatology, which was still in its infancy, in the early and mid 1700s. He read quite widely and was familiar with most biological breakthroughs of the time. His family, although likely originally Jewish, had been Protestants, but he converted to Catholicism, likely due to the intense persecution and counter-reformation activities in France. Aside from medicine, Astruc took issue with the suggestion by Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza that, due to certain supposed inconsistencies, Moses did not actually write the Torah (the first five books of the bible). Thus he published an anonymous work, eventually traced back to him, entitled Conjectures sur les mémoires originauz don’t il paroit que Moyse s’est servi pour composer le livre de la Génèse. Avec des remarques qui appuient ou qui éclaircissent ces conjectures (“Conjectures on the original documents that Moses appears to have used in composing the Book of Genesis. With remarks that support or throw light upon these conjectures”). In it he suggested that there were, in fact, four different voices in the Torah that had different styles and vocabularies, but that Moses had actually written each of them. His argument was that Moses had written the four accounts in parallel form, which matched the four Gospels, and that a later editor had smashed them together, though he allowed for the possibility that the later editor was Moses himself.

Why was he important? Well, somewhat unwittingly, Astruc made “higher criticism” of the bible, and specifically source criticism a thing. This would continue, in a decidedly more liberal direction, until it reached its climax with the Wellhausen or Wellhausen-Graf Documentary hypothesis, before beginning to decline, though certainly not fade away. In short, he set the tone for critical biblical study that had been started by Erasmus, brought in liberal directions by Spinoza, and would continue on well after him.

Fun Fact: Astruc thought of himself as a defender of orthodoxy, even though his theories set the groundwork for a move away from that same orthodox position.

Where might I have heard of him? Only if you’ve taken a course or read books on the history of biblical interpretation. His actual work, while interesting in its methodology, does not really have staying power. Alternatively, if you have an interest in the history of medicine, his name may have come up as something of a footnote.

Basil is not a spice (Church History Minute)

This is the first of three Church history Minutes on the Cappadocian Fathers, this week “Basil the Great” (aka Basil of Caesarea)

Russian Icon of Basil of unknown date.

Who was he? An early Christian bishop who, together with Gregory of Nyssa (his little brother) and Gregory Nazianzus, made up the Cappadocian fathers, a set of early defenders of Nicene Christianity. Nicene Christianity predominantly defended the full deity of Christ (as God, not just a creation of God) against the Arians. Eventually it would also come to represent Trinitarian Faith. While it remained in part due to Athanasius, it developed and lasted, largely, due to the efforts of the Cappadocian fathers. Since they existed prior to the East/West split, almost all Christians can consider them as part of their heritage.

Why was he important? The Trinitarian faith you have now was systematized by the Cappadocians. This is not to say that it is not biblical, but the arguments for it from the bible (and elsewhere) were first made by these men. Basil was known more for his political savvy, but he did write an important defense of the Holy Spirit as the third member of the Trinity (that is equally God). Many of the debates directly with Arians were done by Basil.

Fun Fact: When a rival defender of Arianism was sent to Basil to debate the issue by the, then Arian, emperor, Basil was so firmly against Arianism that the emissary from the emporer remarked on how he had never been spoken to in such a manner. Basil replied “then you must not have spoken to a Bishop before.” The emissary was enraged and suggested war, but the emperor declined.

Where might I have heard of him? Outside of being a Cappadocian Father, he is also one of the key figures in establishing communal monasticism (as opposed to the then dominate dessert monasticism that was done in isolation).

Wait Lenscrafters is Heretical? (Church History Minute)

Today I’m talking about Baruch (sometimes Benedict) Spinoza, not the glasses-in-under-an-hour chain.

Engraving labeling Spinoza (correctly) a Jew and (incorrectly, sort of) an atheist

Who was he?

Spinoza was a 17th century Jewish person raised in the Portuguese Jewish community living in Amsterdam (having been expelled from the Iberian peninsula). At the age of 23 he was expelled from the Jewish community through cherim (similar to excommunication) and lived out his days as a  lens and optic maker, turning down offers to work as a scholar or other honors. The majority of his writings were not known until after his death. At which time they were swiftly put on the Roman Catholic Church’s banned books list. It’s unclear whether he was a pantheist (God and nature are just two terms for the same thing) or a classical panentheist (all of nature is an expression of God, but God is more than nature), but this is the primary (though not only) reason for his cherem and having his books blacklisted.

Why was he important?

Spinoza was an incredibly important predecessor to 18th century Enlightenment, particularly in Germany. He also inaugurated, in a way, modern biblical criticism (and challenges conservatives must answer) by questioning the legitimacy of books in the Hebrew TaNaKh (Old Testament). In particular he questioned whether Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible. Further he presented the first major modern challenge to Cartesian dualism, while nevertheless retaining an idea of God as fundamentally impersonal. Also he denied, to an extent, the notion of libertarian free will (also known as the only valuable notion of free will). He is important because he set the tone for so much that followed him in biblical studies, theology, and philosophy. Eventually he would be challenged by theologians in the form of Schleiermacher, hardly a “conservative,” and then later other challenges would be offered against him up until present day.

Interesting Fact

His work crafting lenses likely contributed to his (relatively) early death as the glass dust may have scarred his lungs. Hegel said of him, during his time, “You are either a Spinozist or not a philosopher” (but I don’t like Hegel).

Where might I have heard of him

He has been mentioned or alluded to in a variety of settings and famously influenced Einstein’s spirituality. Also, if you ever go to the Netherlands, there is a lot of admiration for him (he was on the 1000-Guilder note until the Euro came along, some would call that the best reason for the Euro). He is generally either loved or loathed, very little middle ground.

It’s like history “Inception”: Martin Kähler

Today’s Church history minute is about Martin Kähler, someone who was wildly influential, yet who is not very well known outside of Academia. I say it’s like history inception, because Kähler talked about history, in terms of history and this is a “Church history minute” so…wait I’m confused.

Who was he?

Kähler was a 19th century (and very early 20th century) German theologian. His primary claim to fame was the publication of his book The So-Called Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Historic, Biblical Christ. In essence, as can be surmised from the title, the work was a critique of the Quest for the Historical Jesus, specifically the first one (I talked about the Quest for the Historical Jesus last week). Although it’s not translatable in the title, he actually uses two different (German) words for “history.” The first, related to the Quest for the Historical Jesus, was a cognate of the German Historie. The second, in the Historic, Biblical Christ, is a cognate of the German Geschichte. [To the readers out there with a basis of New Testament Greek, it may be similar to the distinction between (transliterated) Kairos and Chronos, though the two are not similar enough to call them parallel]. Kähler’s point was that the “Quest” had become so focused on the historical study of the figure of Jesus that they had neglected the genuine historical impact of Jesus, which is Jesus in the bible and Jesus as he is preached. For Kähler, the historical facts about Jesus’ life outside the bible were secondary (if even that). Famously he noted that the genuine Christ was the “Christ preached.” This, while initially positive, led to some, what I would consider, negative consequences that we’ll have to get to in a later piece.

Why was he important?

He influenced a variety of theologians and philosophers, though mostly German ones. He may also be credited with starting something called “kerygmatic theology.” One of those he influence, Rudolf Bultmann, became the poster-child for “kerygmatic theology” which emphasized the kerygma or message about Jesus over the actual historical figure Jesus. Other people he influenced include Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as well as (possibly) Wilhelm Dilthey (a German Philosopher).

Fun Fact

Martin Heidegger (20th century German Existentialist Philosopher), is often credited with the distinction between two types of history, even though he notes that his distinction is based in Wilhelm Dilthey. However, as has been recently been noted by people who study this thing, Kähler published the work with this distinction before Dilthey. As such, he is the first to talk about history in different senses in the modern world, something that, in a way, may have been a precursor to Einstein’s discussion of relative time.

Where might I have heard of him?

You probably haven’t unless you are a serious academic or just really interested in 19th century German theology (in which case, kudos to you), but he was really influential. Trust me.

Worst. Quest. Ever.

Church History Minute: The Quest for the Historical Jesus
What was/is it? The quest for the historical Jesus is something of a misnomer. There were actually three different “quests” for the historical Jesus (one of the going on today), and even they are somewhat loosely defined. However, the “first” quest for the historical Jesus began in the eighteenth century and dominated much biblical study in the nineteenth century. The goal in it, as in all the quests, was to find out who the actual person Jesus was. The assumption, however, was that the Jesus seen in the bible could not be the historic Jesus. Motivated out of deism (which believed there was a God, but did not believe he intervened in the world today, much less became a person), it’s advocates eventually decided to focus on Jesus as a moral and ethical teacher. From this a number of “biographies” of Jesus came about. Although many figures featured into it, the most well known was D. F. Strauss (pictured). After it fell apart, in the early twentieth century, there was a brief attempt at revival (a rather uninteresting “second quest”) and then nothing until the third quest. The third quest can be divided, roughly, into 2 camps. Those who are decidedly more liberal, such as those who favored the now ridiculed “Jesus Seminar”, and those who are more conservative, but think it helpful to think of Jesus as a historical person in addition to the witness in Scripture. It is marked by an emphasis on the “Jewishness” of Jesus. On the left it would include those like John Dominic Crossan, and on the (mostly) right N. T. Wright. Really it’s more of a scholarship endeavor than an actual quest, though, so don’t expect any King Arthur type things going on here.
Why was/is it important? It spawned a number of reactions (positive and negative) and led to some interesting interpretive insights. For instance: the idea of “The Markan Secret” (where Jesus tells everyone not to spread the word about him in Mark) wasn’t really noticed in detail until the quest. Also spawned reactions to it in neo-orthodoxy, kerygmatic theology, and others.Fun Fact: Not only didn’t the quest go anywhere, they rarely involved any actual historians. Actually that’s not very fun at all.Where might I have heard of it? Around Christmas or Easter, usually one of the major networks runs some kind of special about “Who was Jesus?” If they don’t, try Discovery, History or National Geographic. Usually they tend to be slightly weighted to the more liberal side (and sometimes more than “slightly”).

You think you’ve got it bad, don’t talk to Athanasius

Today’s church history minute is about Athanasius

Who was he? Athanasius was a fourth century bishop in Alexandria. He is famous for his opposition to the Arians. Arianism revolved around a controversy with respect to who Christ was. It amounts to a denial of the full Trinity. While Arius said Jesus was divine, he claimed Jesus had been created (not eternal) and was not of equal status with God the Father. Athanasius, a fairly young bishop, was a leaders (or possibly the leader) at the First Council of Nicaea, an ecumenical (all the churches) council to decide the issue. The Nicene creed became the standard of orthodoxy, affirming the Trinity, including the full divinity and humanity of Christ, and still the final document accepted by East and West

There’s Athanasius, clearly having been able to escape earlier attempts on his life. Fear the Beard. (image public domain, obtained via Wikicommons)

(although the introduction of “Filioque” (and the Son) was the last straw in the divide between the two). After the council, though, Athanasius returned to his home in Alexandria to find a less-than-welcoming welcome. He spent the majority of the next few years on the run from supporters of Arius and political opponents, often fearing for his life. More than once he made daring “Hollywood-type” escapes. On one occasion, he came to preach at a church and, knowing his enemies were waiting for him, he held the prayer a bit longer and turned the service over to a fellow priest while he slipped out the back and hopped on a boat in the nick of time.

Why was he important? Eventually Nicene Christianity (that is, the Christianity you know) prevailed. This is in thanks, in no small part, to Athanasius. In case you are wondering whether your orthodox belief was just an accident of history, it certainly was not. Athanasius, who was instrumental but not final in the formation of canon as well, was able to provide something of an objective criteria for the biblical books. While the core of the New Testament (the 4 gospels) was never genuinely challenged, the other books were frequently debated about (see my series on where our bible came from). Athanasius was able to provide criteria that included books which made sense with the gospels and the Old Testament (unlike competing criteria). It is doubtful Christianity would have survived had it taken another form (one that contradicted itself openly), and personally I think it struck the truth of the matter.

Fun Fact: Because he was so frequently on the run, he was given the nickname “Athanasius contra mundum” or “Athanasius against the world.” Doesn’t he sound fun?

Where might I have heard of him? Aside from the Athanasian Creed (which he didn’t write), he is known for writing many important works. The most well known and frequently read probably being On the Incarnation, which was a personal favorite of C. S. Lewis (who wrote the introduction for most English translations).

The Bible used in the Bible

Today’s Church history minute is all about The Septuagint (or LXX).

A portion from a copy of the Septuagint

What is it? The Septuagint was the first comprehensively translated AND widely used translations of a religious text from a source language into a cultural language. It was a translation of what we know as the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible) into Koine (or Hellenistic) Greek, and included additional works that likely only ever existed in Greek, much of which makes of the deutero-canon or apocrypha of the Roman Catholic Church and various Eastern Orthodox churches. It was not the first translation from Hebrew to Greek, but may have been the most comprehensive and was certainly the most pervasive of the pre-Christian translations. The legend is that it took seventy scribes seventy days to translate the Torah (the first five books), and that they each worked independently producing identical translations, demonstrating that the translation was divinely inspired. In truth, this is very unlikely, and the only evidence for it is a letter written centuries after the appearance of the work. (Considering that there is variation within copies of the Septuagint, it only compounds the unlikely-ness of the story). Nevertheless, from that story the version takes its name.

Why is it important? Well, for starters, it was the bible that was primarily read during the time of Jesus. Most Jewish people (and gentiles, realistically) did not read or speak Hebrew. Instead the common language was Greek (not Latin, despite their Roman rule). When the New Testament was being written down, it is now clear that when they decided to quote the Old Testament, they usually used the Septuagint, similar to how we would quote an English translation rather than providing our own. Now on occasion Paul would not do this, but provide his own translation or, somewhat less likely, use a competing translation that is now lost. Yet its significance is also in aiding us getting to a more original Hebrew Manuscript. While the Masoretic Text (the primary Hebrew text used) is excellent, it does, on occasion, differ decidedly and strangely from the Septuagint. After the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in particular, scholars have been able to approximate what the original text likely was.

Fun Fact: Most Eastern Orthodox churches prefer to use the Septuagint (or translations from it) rather than the Hebrew Bible, which is more common in Western churches. While this rarely makes a difference, it may on occasion color the interpretation offered of a passage.

Where might I have heard of it? Unless you know someone who is either a) a member of an Eastern Orthodox church or b) a bible nerd, you have probably only heard about it in passing. If you are not a seminarian, pastor or scholar and heard about it in more depth before today, congratulations, you’re probably a bible nerd (it’s ok, really. Nerds are cool now).

Moving beyond a conflict model

Hey it’s science and religion Friday! NPR ain’t got nuthin’ on me (and if I continue to write like that, they never will, nor care to)

Anyway, most of my posts in this category thus far have been discussing the relationship between science and religion, though really science and Christianity, from the perspective of conflict. That is, I have been attempted to demonstrate that, despite the claims of many, primarily the so-called “new atheists”, there is no genuine conflict between honest scientific inquiry and Christian faith.

Since at least the time of Origen, there has been an idea that there are two ways of understanding God, from the natural world and from the revelation found in Scripture (arguably this has roots in Paul’s opening of Romans, or even earlier with some of the psalms). However Augustine was the first to use the term “The book of nature” to refer to knowledge that comes about through observing the natural world, which is often set alongside the “book of Scripture.” This is, at least in Augustine, affirming of the validity of such knowledge, even in a fallen world.

The terminology (of two books of knowledge) has been used by Christians for centuries since then, including Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin (though most in the Dortian Calvinist tradition seem to find the metaphor too strained to be of use), and others. One of the primary arguments is that both books have the same author, God, who has not changed his mind or opinion since writing them. Therefore, if there is an apparent conflict between the two, it is not the case that one is right and the other wrong, rather it is our interpretation of one or the other that is right or wrong. There is no conflict between the book of nature and the book of scripture, thus we should attempt to adjust our interpretation of one or the other (or both) in an effort to arrive at true meaning.

One of the more well-known examples of this was by the German (pre-reformation) theologian, Konrad von Megenberg, who spent considerable time detailing what he considered to be the book of nature in an important precursor to scientific literature. His book, entitled The Book of Nature, was profoundly influential, having been reprinted multiple times before the arrival of the Guttenberg printing press. My point, though, with all of this is that theologians have never seen a conflict between the two. Perhaps its time we move beyond models of conflict and start talking about something else entirely. What do you think? Can we move past a conflict between the two?

Megenberg’s work, in reprinted form (via Wikicommons)

Menno Simmons: The “Stupid Priest”

It’s back! The church history minute! I can hear the groans and crickets now.

Menno Simons, 1610. Christoffel van Sichem. University Library, Amsterdam (via Wikicommons)

Who was he? Menno Simmons (Minne Simens) was an Anabaptist Reformer after having left the Roman Catholic Priesthood about twenty years after the beginning of the Reformation. Previously the Melchoirites and Münsterites were anabaptist groups, though they tended to readily accept that sometimes violence was needed to change the social order. Simmons joined sometime shortly after his brother, Pietr, was killed for being Anabaptist. The Anabaptists are now known as “radicial reformers”  who went past the reforms of Luther and Calvin. Particularly, they outright rejected infant baptism in favor of adult baptism (or baptism of repentance, or believer’s baptism), something other reformed groups (and most Protestant denominations, even today) did not give up. Since in the early centuries most of the followers were converts who had previously been baptized as infants, they gained the name Anabaptist (Re-baptist).

Why was he important? The early Anabaptists tended to be somewhat violent, often taking over cities and “ruling” them through military means. While this was not a requirement, it was also not expressly forbidden. Simmons radically changed that. He insisted on non-violence, or at least non-aggression. It was not right, he thought, to be killing other people for the supposed cause of Christ, and thus the Anabaptists changed their ways. This led to less fear of Anabaptists generally (which stopped them from being killed outright) and led to other Christian groups not being killed by the Anabaptists. Oddly, he and some other earlier Anabaptists, in an effort to affirm both the divinity and humanity of Christ suggested something often called the “celestial flesh” of Christ. Humanity was so corrupted, they reasoned, that the flesh of Jesus needed to be of a different sort. This was so controversial (and borderline heretical) that it was omitted from all official church documents that were written just 70 years after Simmons death onward.

Fun Fact: During the early years of serving as a Roman Catholic priest, Menno Simmons admits he never read the bible. Eventually he read the bible (after having doubts about transubstantiation) and found himself in agreement with Anabaptists, though found them too radical. Looking back at this time he said he didn’t read the bible because “I was such a stupid priest.” (source)

Where might I have heard of him? The Amish and Mennonite groups famous for their beards, barns, and horse drawn buggies are followers of Menno Simmons. However, many of the groups that look back to Simmons as their founder in some sense live completely modern lives, some also called Mennonites. Today most Anabaptists look to Simmons for some of their doctrines.