Monday, March 31, 2014

Update on my University of Oxford Paper

The official date is set for my paper at the Centre for Reception History at the University of Oxford: June 16, 5:00 pm. I am grateful to Dr. Christine Joynes for the invitation.

The title is: ‘Killing the Fatted Calf: Some Variations on the Reception of the Prodigal Son’. That allows me some flexibility in deciding what to include in the lecture. 

I most likely will include a discussion of the stained glass window of the Prodigal Son in the Chartres Cathedral, Antonia Pulci's play, Albrecht Dürer’s The Prodigal Son among the Pigs, the Blues song by Rev. Robert Wilkins, The Prodigal Son, and perhaps one or two others (if I delete some of the options listed above). More on that as the time approaches. 

I was also invited to give a paper in the Visual Arts and the Bible section at the SBL annual conference in November. The focus is on labor and migration, and I will do a paper on Thomas Hart Benton’s lithograph, The Prodigal Son. I'll do a separate post on that paper soon.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Portraits of Jesus class and Tertullian (part 5): The Rich Man and Lazarus

A brief note before I return to Tertullian's discussion of the Rich Man and Lazarus parable in Against Marcion:

The student presentations in my "Portraits of Jesus" class started this week. In this class, we do both textual and visual exegeses, and after working together to learn how to do visual/textual exegesis for much of the semester, in the latter part of the semester students present their own exegeses to the class. Their papers include (1) an exegesis of the biblical text; (2) a brief introduction to the life, work, and historical context of the artist whose work was chosen to represent the scene; (3) a visual exegesis of the painting that also demonstrates how the artist has actualized the NT Gospel text in the production of the visual image. Some of the students have chosen texts/paintings about parables, and if I get their permission to do so, I may highlight some of their work on this blog over the next four weeks.

Back to Tertullian's Against Marcion, which is another example of one's polemical/theological interests influencing if not dominating one's interpretation:

Tertullian soon turns to Marcion’s interpretation of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Marcion, he writes, “violently turns the passage to another end” by arguing that the “torment” of the rich man in Hades actually is for those “who have obeyed the law and the prophets,” while heaven is reserved for those who “belong to Christ and his own god.” Tertullian responds that Luke’s literary context refutes this interpretation. The parable comes right after a reference to John the Baptist, whom Herod had beheaded (Luke 16:16-17; cf. 9:7-9), and that connects the parable to John and Herod’s situation:

For this passage, so far as its letter goes, comes before us abruptly; but if we regard its sense and purport, it naturally fits in with the mention of John wickedly slain, and of Herod, who had been condemned by him for his impious marriage. It sets forth in bold outline the end of both of them, the “torments” of Herod and the “comfort” of John, that even now Herod might hear that warning: “They have there Moses and the prophets, let them hear them”(Luke 16:29; Against Marcion 4.34).

Tertullian concludes that Abraham’s statement in Luke 16:29 also involves a warning for Marcion and his followers: “Moses and the prophets declare one only God, the Creator, and his only Christ, and how that both awards of everlasting punishment and eternal salvation rest with Him, the one only God, who kills and who makes alive.”

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Tertullian and the Parables (part 4) Against Marcion: the Rich Fool, Great Dinner, Lost Sheep, and Lost Coin

A couple shorter posts today and tomorrow about Tertullian’s use of the parables of the Rich Fool, Great Dinner, Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, and the Rich Man and Lazarus in his work, Against Marcion.

Tertulian interprets several parables in Book 4 of Against Marcion. In this section, he focuses almost exclusively in interpreting passages from the Gospel of Luke, since Marcion accepts Luke’s Gospel (most of it) as scripture. The mode and purpose of Jesus teaching in parables for example, were both promised and used by the Creator, so there is continuity between the God of the Hebrew Bible and Jesus despite Marcion’s claims otherwise (4.19; 4.25; 4.26; see also 4.28, which cites the parable of the Rich Fool as demonstrating the continuity of Jesus and the God of the Hebrew Bible in their like condemnations of the “glory of riches”).

The parable of the Great Dinner (Luke 14:15-24) also illustrates the continuity between Jesus’ parables and the teaching of the Hebrew Bible prophets (4.29), because Jesus’ advice to invite the poor mirrors that of Isaiah (58:7). Yet the parable is also symbolic of God’s “dispensations of mercy and grace” in salvation history: The preparation for the dinner is “no doubt a figure of the abundant provision of eternal life,” and the Jewish people were the first ones invited to the dinner. Despite God’s invitations in the Hebrew Scriptures, Tertullian states, the Jewish people refuse to respond (e.g., Jer. 7:23-24). So God invites people from the “highways and the hedges,” who denote the “Gentile strangers,” an invitation to God’s dinner that, Tertullian argues, is also reflected in the Hebrew Scriptures (e.g., Deut. 32:21-22).

Likewise, the next chapter (4.32) cites the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin (Luke 15:1-10) to argue that Marcion’s view of Jesus (i.e., not being the Jewish messiah sent by the same God as in the Hebrew Bible) is untenable (the three “Lost” parables of Luke 15—sheep, coin, and son—are among Tertullian’s favorites; more on the Lost/Prodigal Son in a later post). Human beings cannot be the ones searching for what is lost, contra Marcion, because, in reality, the lost sheep and the lost coin both symbolize human beings who are “the property of none other than the Creator” (the God of the Hebrew Bible). God is the creator (“owner”) of human beings, so God looks for the lost, finds them, and rejoices over their recovery. Tertullian’s figurative interpretation of these two parables clearly follows and does not really go beyond their meanings in the context of Luke’s Gospel.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Tertullian and the Parables (part 3)

I found this pic here
Tertullian often blames Greek philosophy for the errors of the Gnostics, as indicated by his famous words about Athens and Jerusalem in The Prescription against Heretics (Chapter 7). The extended excerpt below helps explain more fully what the "what indeed does Athens have to do with Jerusalem" quote means (it's always good to place such pithy short quotes into their larger contexts, especially in light of renditions such as the amusing one in the image above):

Whence spring those “fables and endless genealogies,”and “unprofitable questions,” and “words which spread like a cancer?” From all these, when the apostle [i.e. Paul] would restrain us, he expressly names philosophy as that which he would have us be on our guard against . . . He had been at Athens, and had in his interviews (with its philosophers) become acquainted with that human wisdom which pretends to know the truth, whilst it only corrupts it, and is itself divided into its own manifold heresies, by the variety of its mutually repugnant sects. What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? what between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from “the porch of Solomon,” who had himself taught that “the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart.” Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief.

In the same vein, Tertullian also demonstrates his disdain for the allegorical interpretations of the Gnostics in his interpretation of the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. He blames Plato for the Gnostics’ error of separating the corporeal aspects of existence from the spiritual in their erroneous interpretation of the parable:

It is from this philosophy that [the Gnostics and Valentinians] eagerly adopt the difference between the bodily senses and the intellectual faculties,—a distinction which they actually apply to the parable of the ten virgins: making the five foolish virgins to symbolize the five bodily senses, seeing that these are so silly and so easy to be deceived; and the wise virgin to express the meaning of the intellectual faculties, which are so wise as to attain to that mysterious and supernal truth, which is placed in the pleroma.

Tertullian concludes that both the interpretation of this parable and the philosophy behind it are faulty and asks, “Why adopt such excruciating means of torturing simple knowledge and crucifying the truth” (A Treatise on the Soul, Chapter 18)?

The next few posts will discuss in more detail Tertullian's interpretations of specific parables.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Tertullian and the Parables (part 2)

A bit more context is needed before discussing Tertullian’s utilizations of the parables. Some comparison with Irenaeus is helpful as well.

In a way similar to Irenaeus, Tertullian argues from the “rule of faith” found in scripture (i.e. the essential doctrines of authentic apostolic tradition). Against Marcion, he, like Irenaeus, declares that the God of the Hebrew Bible and Christian Scriptures was one and the same. The rightful use of scripture is determined and practiced by the church with the focal point being the authority of the bishops and, through apostolic succession, receiving that authority from Christ through the apostles and the (legitimate) succession of bishops. Tertullian also, like Irenaeus, believes in the coherence of Scripture, so any apparently relevant passage in Scripture may be used to interpret another passage; obscure passages are interpreted by the clear ones; and when interpreting a text, one must take the whole of Scripture into account. 

More relevant to the parables, Tertullian explains his principles of interpretation and his views about literal and allegorical interpretations in his work, Against Marcion. He argues that Christ is the Son of God who created the world, was predicted by the prophets, and was made incarnate (3.5). Tertullian then observes that some types of scripture, like aspects of prophetic writings, do not permit a literal reading. The “prophetic style” means that “very many events are figuratively predicted by means of enigmas and allegories and parables, and that they must be understood in a sense different from the literal description.” Joel 3:18, for example (“the mountains shall drip sweet wine, the hills shall flow with milk”), does not mean that the mountains actually will drip wine and that milk will flow down from the hills. And, in an apparent paraphrase of Isaiah 41:18-19, Tertullian points out that God does not literally “offer his services as a water-bailiff or a farmer when he says, ‘I will open rivers in a land; I will plant in the wilderness the cedar and the box-tree.’” Such passages are allegorical and should be interpreted as such. Even when metaphorical elements occur, though, the literal aspects can still be critical, as in the case of the connection between the corporeal and the spiritual in the resurrection:

Now, although there is a sketch of the true thing in its image, the image itself still possesses a truth of its own: it must needs be, therefore, that must have a prior existence for itself, which is used figuratively to express some other thing. Vacuity is not a consistent basis for a similitude, nor does nonentity form a suitable foundation for a parable (On the Resurrection of the Flesh 30).

An example of Tertullian’s use of the parables to demonstrate the oneness of God, the continuity between the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, and the authority of the apostolic tradition may be found in his brief discussion of the Wheat and the Weeds parable. The parable becomes an important instrument in his rhetorical toolbox to argue against Marcion’s view that the “just” God of the Hebrew Bible was different from the “good” God of Christians. Thus in his The Prescription Against Heretics (Chapter 31, “Truth First, Falsehood Afterwards, as Its Perversion”) Tertullian interprets the wheat and weeds in a relatively simple figurative sense: the apostolic “truth” has priority over the heretical “falseness” as evidenced by the Lord sowing “the good seed of the wheat” first. Only later is the crop “adulterated” by the “useless weed of the wild oats” that is sown later by the “enemy the devil.” Tertullian also connects the seed of the parable of the Sower with the seeds in this parable to note that the word of God is the wheat seed in this parable:

For herein is figuratively described the difference of doctrines, since in other passages also the word of God is likened unto seed. From the actual order, therefore, it becomes clear, that that which was first delivered is of the Lord and is true, whilst that is strange and false which was afterwards introduced. This sentence will keep its ground in opposition to all later heresies, which have no consistent quality of kindred knowledge inherent in them—to claim the truth as on their side.

The next post will place Tertullian's views on the parables and allegory in the context of his view of Greek philosophy and the gnostics (i.e., the what has Athens to do with Jerusalem quote) and his interpretation of the Wise and Foolish Virgins parable.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Tertullian and the Parables (part 1)


Tertullian (ca. 155 – ca. 225) is responsible for some of the best-known quotations from the early Church. For example (all quotes but one are from CCEL):

But it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. See, they say, how they love one another, for themselves are animated by mutual hatred; how they are ready even to die for one another, for they themselves will sooner put to death (Apology 39; CCEL notes that this apparent praise may be made in the context of mockery of Christians by others).

. . . men are made, not born, Christians (Apology 16).

This victory of ours gives us the glory of pleasing God, and the spoil of life eternal. But we are overcome. Yes, when we have obtained our wishes. Therefore we conquer in dying; we go forth victorious at the very time we are subdued.
. . .
But go zealously on, good presidents, you will stand higher with the people if you sacrifice the Christians at their wish, kill us, torture us, condemn us, grind us to dust; your injustice is the proof that we are innocent. Therefore God suffers that we thus suffer . . . .
Nor does your cruelty, however exquisite, avail you; it is rather a temptation to us. The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed (Apology 50).

The Son of God was born: shameful, and therefore there is no shame. The Son of God died: absurd, and therefore utterly credible. He was buried and rose again: impossible, and therefore a fact (De Carne Christi 5; Bettenson 126).

What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? what between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from “the porch of Solomon,” [referring to Acts 3:5] who had himself taught that “the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart” [Wisdom of Solomon 1:1]. The Prescription Against Heretics 7)

If I should offer you a rose, you will not disdain its Maker (Against Marcion 15)

Tertullian’s writings offer little information about himself (e.g., he does not even give his full name, although he famously refers to himself as “Tertullian, a sinner”; De Carne Christi 59.3), but the 53rd chapter of Jerome’s Lives of Illustrious Men, “Tertullian the Presbyter,” contains a brief account of some details of Tertullian’s life. Not all the details in Jerome’s treatment seem accurate, but it seems clear that Tertullian was raised as a non-Christian in Carthage in Africa. He appears to have been converted to Christianity after witnessing the courage of Christian martyrs (see Repentance 1.1; see also the above quote about the “blood of Christians”). Less likely, however, are Jerome’s claims that Tertullian was a presbyter and that Tertullian’s father was proconsul or centurion (see Wilhite 19). Some other details are found in the Eusebius’s Church History (2.2.4), who says that Tertullian was a “well versed in the laws of the Romans.” Some scholars like Adolph Harnack interpreted that statement to mean that Tertullian was a lawyer, even equating him with another Tertullianus, a lawyer who lived in Rome and wrote a legal reference book, but that identification most certainly is incorrect. Although Tertullian’s writings contain some legal terminology, those may simply derive from his brilliance as a rhetorician. In addition, scholars also debate whether Tertullian actually became a Montanist as Jerome claimed (Montanism stressed asceticism, eschatology, the immediacy of the Holy Spirit [the Paraclete] including ecstatic prophecy). It is clear, however, that this puritanical movement, which called itself “New Prophecy,” attracted him, with the prophetic immediacy of the outpouring of the Paraclete and its rigorously ascetic lifestyle. For Tertullian, doctrine and ethics were inherently intertwined, and his goal was to obey the demanding law of Christ.  

Tertullian was a vehement apologist for Christianity, polemicist against those he perceived to be heretics, and interpreter of Scripture. He advocated a rigorous, uncompromising Christianity, and his writings advise Christians to separate themselves from pagans to avoid contaminating themselves with their idolatry and immorality. He also defends Christians as good citizens within the Roman Empire, refutes pagan attacks against Christianity, and assails paganism (see his Apology).

Tertullian authored at least thirty-one writings over a span of approximately twenty-five years—the earliest extant Christian writings in Latin (although he also wrote a few in Greek). As a rhetorician who was in vigorous debates with his opponents, Tertullian’s interpretation of Scripture was sometimes contingent on the necessities of the debates in which he found himself. (Dunn, in Bingham 2010: 155). Since Tertullian wrote in in the heat of battle, his use of Scripture is not consistent, but he preferred unadorned simplicity to speculative allegory. Since Tertullian used Scripture as testimony against the speculative doctrines of those like the Gnostics, he wanted to demonstrate certitude with a style of brevity, conciseness, and simplicity. As a rhetorician, he started with what was clear and obvious—often using logic or customary practice as the basis for his arguments—and built his case from there (On the Resurrection of the Flesh 19). Although he recognized the presence of allegory in Scripture, he was restrained in his use of it; the allegorical was used only after the literal is demonstrated to be inadequate (Against Marcion 3.5.3, 4; McKim 2007: 965). He preferred a literal understanding of Scripture when possible, a restraint also partly due to the Gnostics’ extensive use of allegory (see On the Resurrection of the Flesh 63). 

The next post will continue discussing Tertullian’s interpretation of Scripture in general before focusing on Tertullian's interpretations of selected parables.

"The Work of Christmas," by Howard Thurman

"The Work of Christmas," by Howard Thurman   Howard Thurman’s poem, “The Work of Christmas” is my favorite Christmas poem, and I p...