May 6, 2012

Paul's Oddball Ideas!

Read/Post Comments (1)

How Christians live out their faith today differs greatly from the earliest communal gatherings to which the modern church traces its roots. The earliest sources providing a clear window into the faith and behavior of the forerunners of the modern church abound with strange ideas—at least they are odd to those whose view of the world has been shaped by the “Enlightenment,” an 18th century current of thought that developed the critical method, rejected the hegemony of Christian belief, and relied on human reason for explaining humanity’s place in the universe. Western public education owes its character to the Enlightenment.

     The primary sources for these early religious societies are the letters of the Apostle Paul. The letter most revealing of the differences is Paul’s first letter to the “gathering of saints” at Corinth, which dates around 50 AD. Paul’s arguments, trying to influence their behavior and thought, may suit the mythical worldview of the first century, but sound odd in the post-enlightenment 21st century.

     One strange argument is found in 1 Corinthians 6:1-8. In this passage Paul is scandalized that members of the fellowship are suing one another in civil courts. They ask that their cases be judged by the “unrighteous,” rather than placing the matter before the “holy ones” (i.e., the saints.) His rationale is that the holy ones (i.e., members of the fellowship) will judge the world, and hence they are surely competent to try trivial matters, such as personal disputes. Furthermore, they will also judge angels! And if members of the fellowship are capable of judging supernatural entities like angels, surely they can resolve disputes over ordinary matters of human life. He thinks that members of the fellowship should not engage in lawsuits with one another at all, and failing to resolve their disagreements, they should simply let themselves be defrauded.

     The scene he describes in which the world and angels are judged by the Corinthian saints is clearly not an event of normal time and space; it is part of the final drama of the end of time. So Paul’s rationale for shaping the behavior of the Corinthians is based on his own idiosyncratic views of what happens when the world ends. His argument may be persuasive, but only if one thinks he has some unique insight. The impracticality of avoiding civil courts in the 21st century for some sort of “church” tribunal is obvious, as are the personal hazards of subjecting oneself to a religious court. Paul has a higher degree of confidence in the members of the Corinthian fellowship than I have!

     Angels are supernatural entities that apparently make up a middle category of sentient beings falling between humans and Gods. We humans have always believed in such creatures—although with the advent of critical thinking their numbers are being steadily reduced. In the modern world many are now recognized as mythical or legendary—meaning they never really existed except in the dark recesses of our minds. There have been hundreds of such creatures endemic to every culture through time. Here are a few familiar examples: elves, fairies, angels, demons, trolls, gnomes, ogres, water sprites, witches, vampires, satyrs, sileni, unicorns, goblins, pixies, leprechauns, sirens, centaurs, nymphs, vampires, etc. Basically we invented them to explain what we did not understand. A great number of these supernatural beings are still considered “real,” but the truth is angels, like demons, can influence your life only if you believe in them.

     But if angels do exist how exactly would one go about judging them? What behavioral criteria apply to supernatural creatures? What constitutes proper and improper behavior for angels? What judicial procedures govern the court hearing: who prosecutes, who defends, who regulates the course of the trial? I know very little about angels, but I know they are earlier and later than the Jewish and early Christian period. In the 13th century, for example, angels permeated Christian Medieval society and angelology was part of the required curriculum at the University of Paris. Today, however, angels thrive only among “true believers.”

     I am not persuaded by Paul’s argument for “church tribunals.” For one reason my world is not populated by angels, satyrs, and unicorns—even though they are in the Bible. For another reason church tribunals do not offer the same protections that are enjoyed in the “pagan” courts.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 1:18pm

Hello Charles,

I was an attender at the Goshen JSOR. Your blog entry is intriguing. As a grafted-in Mennonite rather than a cradle Menno, I had accepted many of the values as a package deal, including the denial of oath-taking, so traditional in our civil courts. Swearing an oath on the Bible has never bothered me one way or the other except as I have contemplated the need for doing so in a court of law. I find your views on courts of law, angels, demons and the like most intriguing. I remember my drawing instructor in art school (a hundred years ago) chafing under the idea of angels, boldly claiming that there was no skeletal possibility for wings! Remembering this as I read your entry makes me smile, in addition to rethinking the benefits of civil courts over the possibly biased opinions of denominational leadership.

Thank you for a wonderfully expansive experience this past weekend. Naomi Pridjian
Posted by Naomi Pridjian on 5/15/2012 at 10:10am

Thanks for your kind comments, Naomi. Every time I present at a JSOR weekend I am continually impressed with the high level of competence, professional training, and brain power of those who attend. Your comments are always on target and your questions probing, and pushes the presenters to consider new aspects of the subject. So Thank you!
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 5/17/2012 at 11:44am